12 Epiphanies

ix. It’s seldom what we expect.

Kate found a Christmas tree propped against her door when she returned from shopping for the feast on Christmas Eve.

“Found this in the alley. Heard you were having a party. Thought you could use it. –A Neighbor”

She hadn’t planned to get a tree–environmental reasons: Trees belong with their roots in the earth and their crowns in the air. But since it had been found abandoned, and since it had been delivered here in a gesture both thoughtful and kind, she hauled it into the apartment and set it up in a corner.

She strung popcorn and cranberry garlands and found lights and decorations in the donated boxes.

The apartment smelt sweet, spicy, and deliciously acrid. It smelt like Christmas.

Near midnight, the tree decorated and a fresh batch of cookies out of the oven, Kate sat to plan the meal for tomorrow. She didn’t know what people’s dietary restrictions and preferences would be, so she planned a vegan feast, with plenty of gluten-free dishes. Vegetables were remarkably accommodating!

Kate had no idea what to expect the next day.

She certainly hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors would come dressed in a full raccoon costume.

Nor that Bertha would wander up in her nightgown and bunny slippers.

“Are you feeling all right, Bertha?” Kate asked, wondering if she should call her son.

“Yes, yes, dear. Quite well. Quite merry. Merry Christmas, dear.”

And Bertha began to dance and hum to Bing Crosby.

She hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors was Ishaan, the artist she’d spoken with at the center earlier that week, nor that he’d be one of her guests, along with a fashionable young woman about her own age.

She hadn’t expected that by the time the meal was ready, the apartment would be filled with happy, dancing people, strangers who were neighbors who were in the process of becoming friends.

She hadn’t expected she’d pull out a tiny bell from the box of decorations and call her guests to dinner, using the same words her father had used to announce the serving of every Christmas feast:

“Supper is on!
Hunger begone!
Let’s feast with friends
Until the year ends!”

Everyone contended that they’d never had such a fine meal, and no one, not once, asked where the meat dish was.

They shared stories and memories. They laughed and joked. They sat in that comfortable silence that comes after a good meal.

She hadn’t expected that the guests would bring presents, but they had, each and every one, so after the meal, they gathered around the tree.

“I hope you like it,” said the raccoon. “Just something I found while out foraging one day!”

But it was a real gift that her neighbor had brought her, not a raccoon’s idea of a joke: an infuser and a bottle of pine essential oil, “to keep the spirit all the year.”

“Now you relax,” said Bertha, after the presents were opened. “The host never does the dishes!”

So Bertha and the fashionable neighbor cleared up, while Kate relaxed on the couch, listening to more stories.

As her neighbors began wondering about coffee, desert, and tea, the doorbell rang.

Kate hadn’t expected, when she answered it, that she would learn the identity of the neighbor who had started this all, the one who’d left the box of decorations beneath the bulletin board.

“I hope I’m not late,” said Geeta, Kate’s next-door neighbor, whom she was meeting for the first time. “I just finished up at my son’s and thought I’d swing by, since I said I would come.”

“You’re just in time for desert,” said Kate.

“Oh, the place looks lovely!” said Geeta. “So much better than all those bangles sitting in a box in my closet, yes?”

She hadn’t guessed that it would seem that her neighbors would never leave.

The meal had been eaten and cleaned up, the presents had been opened and admired, the coffee drank, the tea sipped, the cake eaten, and still, they lingered.

Perhaps no one wanted to end this feeling of community they had crafted together on a Christmas day in the city, when each of them, otherwise, might be feeling very much alone.

She hadn’t guessed that, even after they decided on a late-night walk in the cold Christmas air, and each one went down to their own apartment to put on their winter clothes, and they met up on the stoop outside the building, then strolled and raced along the waterfront, that they would return, breathless, tired, and happy, all of them together, to her apartment, once again, to continue the celebration.

And she certainly hadn’t expected to find their landlord there, dressed as Father Winter, handing out a last batch of presents to his tenants.

He gave a box to each of them.

A coupon for a month’s free rent!

“It’s a Christmas miracle!” chuckled Stefan, and each one shared what they’d do with the godsend.

Kate hadn’t expected any of it, not the strangeness, nor the weird joy, nor the happy feast, nor the sudden friendships, nor the feeling of community they created, which maybe, had always already existed, and they had only to discover it.

When, after all the other guests had finally left, and she discovered Ishaan curled up, peacefully asleep on the loveseat in her study, she realized that, Christmas means “all are welcome,” and she had never expected to discover that.

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Summer House: Ch. 9


The doors between our two homes stay open. On the island, no one locks doors, anyway.

A custom of knocking never even began for us, not since Bernard raced over for pancakes and “white honey coffee” his first morning here.

I’ve discovered it’s just as convenient to make a meal for four as it is for one, and I appreciate not having so many left-overs.

Bernard has taken it upon himself to keep the anachronisms’ supper bowls filled, and Elise has decided that walking Dixie each morning and taking Crystal with her on her evening jog fits into her exercise regime.

“I am going to get so fit this summer,” she said. “When I get back to school, everyone will think we got a new athlete, or something. Track star! That’s me!”

I love becoming immersed in the rhythms of a family. It reminds me of the best parts of the childhood summers here. Voices call from room to room. The sounds of chairs scraping against the floor when someone sits at a table, the gurgles of water running through the pipes, the hiss of the kettle on the stove, the dissonant explorations of small fingers across the piano’s keyboard, the distant strain from a radio–this bustle of family life brings a feeling of belonging, even if this isn’t my family.

My favorite times are when Sonya joins me at the porch while the children splash in the pool, or when she stops by late at night, after they’re tucked into bed.  When I was a little girl, my room was above the kitchen, and on hot nights, we kept all the windows open. I often woke late at night when the moon shone in, and I heard, below me, at the kitchen table, the voices of my mother and aunts, sharing all the secrets that women share. These evenings with Sonya remind me of that.

Only Sonya has not yet begun to share secrets. I can hear them, waiting for expression, behind every full stop and pause. I can see them in the dark semi-circle that rings the brown iris of her eyes, as she glances down or away.

Secrets can wait. There is a time for secrets to be kept, and a time for them to be divulged. We’ve only known each other a week now. We’re just getting the feel for what we each value, for what we share in confidence and at large.

Friendships grow at their own paces, depending, perhaps, on how much is at stake. With Shingo, neither of us had anything to lose, anything to protect, and so our trust of each other happened instantly. It’s a rare friendship, and an easy one, too–easy to gain, easy to keep.

This friendship that’s developing with Sonya, what feels like a sistership to me who’s never had a sister, comes with a great deal to risk for Sonya. What’s keeping her husband away: what’s in store for her and her children–how to keep them safe, healthy, and feeling loved–all of that is at risk. I view the family with tenderness, seeing how fragile they are, how vulnerable during this summer of change and uncertainty.

And so Sonya shields the harsh truths, and I proceed tentatively. But this quiet, gentle time brings a poignant sense of the ripening of love.

“I never knew my grandfather,” Sonya said, after I’d made a casual reference to mine. She poured the tea from the steeping pot into the serving pot. “Mmmm. Darjeeling! Smell. It’s fruity.”

“Spicy,” I said. “You didn’t know either grandfather?”

“Oh!” Sonya laughed. “I forgot there were two! No, I never knew my father’s father, either, not surprising.”

She added the last words under her breath and looked away, the way she does when closing the door to secrets.

“My grandfather was everything to me,” I said. “My mother’s step-father, actually. I never knew her birth-father. But the man I knew as my grandfather, he felt like kin to me more than any of my other family. He got me.”

“Soul family?” Sonya asked.

“Yeah, like that. Like our souls knew each other from lifetimes and lifetimes of connection.”

“Now that’s family,” Sonya said.

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Summer House: Ch. 8


Late in the evening on July 3, the family that had rented the other half of the duplex showed up on the front porch. At least, most of the family did: Sonya Minor and her teen daughter, Elise, and young son, Bernard. Chet Minor, Sonya’s husband and the children’s father, was not with them.

Rain had begun to fall that afternoon–not a gentle drizzle, as was typical during the beach summers of my childhood, but a drenching downpour with lightning and thunder. I’d gone next door to check for leaks when the family arrived.

“Come on in,” I said, after Sonya introduced herself. They looked tired, chilled, and bedraggled. “How was the ferry crossing?”

I suppose this type of summer storm is what we can expect now that the jet stream has fizzled. Clouds linger without a current to drive them.

I helped the family with their luggage, then fetched fresh linens from my place. Sonya and I made the beds while Elise hopped into a bath and Bernard took a hot shower.

“I can put their jammies in the dryer so they’re warm when they get out,” I suggested.

“That would be nice,” Sonya replied. “They’ve had a rough day.”

From the way Sonya’s face drooped, it looked like she’d had a tough time of late, too.

“So rent’s all paid up?” Sonya asked me when I met her in the room that would be Bernard’s. We pulled the quilt tight. “This is a nice pattern,” she added. “Was it made by your kin?”

“My grandma, yes,” I said. It was a log-cabin quilt, with green and blue patches. I called it the forest quilt. “And yes! Rent is all paid up, through Labor Day.”

“Through Labor Day!” sighed Sonya, as if this were a gift from heaven. “And did it clear? The check?”

It had.

“And what about the deposit?” she asked.

“It cleared, too.”

“And it’s refundable?”

“Sure is,” I said, “provided the place is clean and undamaged.”

“And how do you usually pay it?”

“The deposit? By check, usually,” I said. “But you know, I could always give you a cashier’s check for it, if that’s helpful. It’s for quite a lot, you know, $2500.”

Sonya’s lips smiled while a dart of fear dashed through her eyes. “Yes, cashier’s check. That would be useful.”

We walked into Elise’s room.

“So. Until Labor Day,” Sonya said softly, more to herself than to me, “and a check for $2500 then. That’s something, at least.”

I woke early the next morning to take Turtle for a run. At dawn, the sun peeked through a crack in the clouds, and the light strung out in ribbons. As we returned to the duplex, I realized I hadn’t stocked the fridge in the rental, and all the stores would be closed for the 4th of July.

I left a note on their kitchen counter:

Pancakes and scrambled eggs! Hot coffee! Fresh, squeezed orange juice!

Please join me for a holiday breakfast to welcome you to summer.

–Cathy, next door

I didn’t know if they’d accept–it tells a lot about a family and their boundaries how they respond to a neighbor’s invitation. Of course, I was the landlady, too, which complicated the relationship, a bit. But Sonya had been so grateful last night that I felt hopeful as I stirred the pancake batter and ground the coffee.

I’d finished eating when Bernard came in, still wearing his PJs. He’d slipped on an oversized pair of red rubber rainboots that we kept in the guest closet next door.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Sit there,” I pointed at the stool at the counter and poured him a glass of juice.

“I’ll have coffee,” he said.

“Are you allowed?

He nodded. “Lotsa milk. Lotsa sugar.”

“We don’t have sugar,” I replied. “Do you like honey?”

I found a big red mug and filled it a quarter with coffee and three-quarters with milk.

“What’s that?” He pointed at the plate with the honeycomb on it.

“It’s fresh honey. From the farmer’s market. This is how it comes from the hive.”

I showed him how to break off a chunk of comb and chew on it. When his pancakes were done, we spread the honeycomb on them.

“Will you still have this when my dad comes?” he asked. “I hope my dad gets to eat this.”

Elise came in as he said that. “Dad’s not coming,” she said.

“He is,” said Bernard, “when he’s done with work.”

“It’s not work that’s keeping him,” she replied.

“What’s this about work?” Sonya entered, shaking off her umbrella on the doorstep. “This is vacation, children! Nobody’s working! We are resting and rejuvenating and relishing!”

We sat at the kitchen table while the rain poured down and the garden space between the two houses filled with puddles. Tree frogs croaked, and one tiny one, fluorescent green with orange toe pads, climbed up the window.

“There’ll be pollywogs in a few days,” I said, and Bernard’s eyes grew wide.

“Oh, I love tadpoles and pollywogs,” said Sonya. “Did I ever tell you?” She launched into a childhood story, and I realized that we had that in common–long years of childhood roaming through the natural world. Energy filled her as she spoke, and the weariness she wore last night had left her completely. Bernard laughed, and even his sister smiled.

We spent the day together. When the storm broke, we raced outside to check the puddles for frog eggs, to play wild games of tag, to slip and slide on the wet grass in the meadow. My anachronisms raced alongside us, barking and smiling and leaping. When the rain fell again, we ran back inside, trying to dodge the fat raindrops, jumping at the thunder.

I made pots of tea, and Elise and I baked batches of cookies. Bernard told us stories of “The First Fourth of July,” which seemed to be an amalgam of Star Wars, the Lone Ranger, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. “It all happened a really long time ago,” he said.

At nightfall, after a supper of grilled fruit and veggie burgers, we stood under the back porch and watched the lightning over the bay.

“Guess there won’t be any fireworks this summer,” I said, “because of the rain. Usually, they shoot them off from Lighthouse Island, and we can see them real well from here.”

A bolt of lightning cracked and in the split second when it lit up the bay, we could see the fishing boats and the buoys from crab pots tossed on the waves.

“I like this better than fireworks,” said Elise.

Sonya stood between her children, an arm around each, and the rain drew curtains around the porch.

Maybe this summer would do this family good even if–especially if?–their father couldn’t join them.

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Septemus 23


Dear Sept,

You’re sleeping soundly on the divan while I’m writing. We had a big night at your new favorite place, the karaoke bar.

“Please can we go?” you asked during supper. “I’ll sing your favorite song!”

“What song is that?”

“You’ll know it when you hear it,” you said.

“All right.” It’s so hard for me to refuse you anything. “As soon as I do the dishes, we’ll head out and catch the next tram.”

“I’ll do them!” And you popped right up, grabbed my plate before I’d even finished the last bite, and washed it up, along with the pots and pans.


Ten minutes later, we were sitting in the first seat of the tram, watching the city lights coming ever closer, and half an hour later, I was listening to you sing, “Here Comes the Sun.”


All it took was hearing your high fluty echoing voice singing, “Little darling! The smiles returning to their faces,” for me to realize, yes. This is my favorite song.

Thankyouverymuch,” you said as soon as you were done. “I gotta say hi to Molly!” And you dashed out of the room.


I found you talking with the bartender.


“Does this belong to you?” she asked me.

“Well, not exactly,” I replied. “Septemus is very much his own person. But we came here together.”

“That’s OK,” you whispered to me. “It’snotliteral. It’s just a way of saying that I’m your son.”

Molly chuckled.


“You’re a very nice person,” you said to Molly. And you hopped up and grabbed all the dirty glasses and appetizer plates from the bar, and whisked them off to wash them.

“Is he always this helpful?” Molly asked.

“Actually, yes,” I replied. “But I also think he wants to be sure he can come back here anytime he wants. This is his new favorite place.”


It got late quickly, and we had to head out to catch the last tram home.

On our way out, you stopped to talk with a vendor.

“Do you really grill the garlic at the spice festival?” you asked him. He was wearing a spice festival garlic hat and apron.

“Actually, no,” the man replied. “I am, actually, very allergic to garlic. Can’t get near the stuff. This is just, you know, regulation.”


“Say,” said the man. “Do you have a little sister? Or maybe cousin?”

“Oh, I have loads of brothers and sisters!” you replied. “Ninety-nine, to be exact. Why?”

“Do you have, maybe, a little cousin named Pandora?” he asked.

“Pandora?” you replied. “What’s her number?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “Her name is Pandora. She’s my neighbor. She looks a lot like you.”

You got quiet.


“Yes, she’s probably my sister,” you said at last. “Tell her that Ruki says ‘sintu liyu.'”

The vendor walked off to the Forgotten Hollow station, and we got in line with the folks at the Magnolia Park/Willow Creek stop. You looked around at everyone, dressed like they’d just stepped out of a costume party.

“You know what, Pops?” you said. “I love the city.”


Oh, son. I hope this world remains a place of friends and friendliness to you, always.

Your pops,


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