I’d been meaning to visit ever since she’d called early last fall with the news. A neighbor’s pear tree was ripe with unpicked fruit. Since she could no longer drive, did I want to pick the pears? If so, she’d give me directions. Also, she’d soon be moving from our former city of Bath to an assisted living facility in Manhattan.
My heart sank. I knew she was in her early 80s, but I’d never once thought of her as elderly. Maybe it was because she sometimes led my two youngest sons down her basement stairs to play hockey on the smooth concrete floor or taught them to duel with wooden swords, saved from her days of running a Waldorf preschool.
We’d met one summer, about seven years before, while I was pushing the older of the two boys in a pram for a walk. She was weeding her abundant garden – a profusion of blooms that surrounded her snug little house and reached toward the eves like a jungle. Behind a picket fence bloomed a Secret Garden with great metal chimes that hung for the boughs of a fir tree and a ladder she’d placed just for climbing. A playground slide rocketed from her front porch to the grass below, and so did my children.
I’d never met anyone like her, and she invited us back to visit, which we did often. She always had something to share – a taste of fresh-made jam, a basket of musical instruments, trinkets that she let the children “buy” from a doll-house store at the top of her stairs. She was like a character from a folk tale, fascinating and full of surprises.
And the tales she told! Of growing up in Germany during World War II. Of a convalescing uncle or brother who was thrown out a hospital window to his death (along with all the other German soldiers) by the Russians when they took the building for themselves. Of a kitten she’d been sent to drown in a river but instead placed in a basket and floated away like baby Moses. Of climbing out the ledge of an upper-story window as a young child and how her terrified mother coaxed her back inside with a treat so she wouldn’t plummet to her death.
But my favorite story involved the hand-carved nativity that she set below her Christmas tree each December – an entire village of people and animals that she placed on a mossy hillside with pebble paths and pinecone trees. It was pure magic, particularly when she lit the tree’s candles on fire – something I’d never seen done before or since. I held my breath, sure the branches would catch. But she laughed, delighted at my children’s wide eyes, and shared how her father had carved a matching nativity for each of his children. Such treasure!
That fall when she called, she thought she’d be here through the holidays. I promised to visit. But there never seemed to be enough time. Finally, this past weekend, I carried a Christmas card up her front steps through the new-fallen snow, but something seemed wrong. The sea stars and wooden snowshoes hanging inside her front porch were still there, but the sheepskin rugs were missing. When I looked through the front door, I saw that so was she. The furniture was stacked against walls, the wooden toys were all gone.
After leaving my card by the door, I sat in my van and cried. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we have more time to visit those we love, that we will stop by as soon as life slows down. But don’t make the same mistake I did. This Christmas, if you love someone, let them know by showing up. The real treasure isn’t under the tree, but the people around it.
For Hildegard, wishing you a Merry Christmas. Thank you for your friendship and for sharing your life and stories with us. You are loved. You will not be forgotten. And may you always find a pear tree, wherever you may be.
Meadow Rue Merrill, the author of Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine.