She wore it with a paisley dress and faded green scarf. She put it on each morning, along with dentures and talcum powder. She wore it with pride for it was all she had to show for seventy long years.
To those she passed on the streets, she was just another weathered woman hobbling through the twilight of her life. All they saw were the skeletal hands and the tired eyes. They never stopped to talk to her, these impatient residents of Greenmire Town.
They didn’t know her mother knit the scarf she wore when she was six. They didn’t know that her frizzy curls were once longer, softer and not so grey. Papa always called her his strawberry blonde shortcake. They spent summer mornings browsing the Farmer’s Market for the freshest strawberries to bake into strawberry shortcakes. It was Papa’s little joke. Strawberry shortcakes for his little strawberry blonde.
They didn’t know she was on her way to start her shift early at the public library because Amy called in sick last minute. She’d heard Amy screech into the driveway next door at three in the morning blasting music that shook her entire house. But Emma didn’t mind. Before she was old, she had been young. At that age she was immune to the comings of life.
They didn’t know her son Charlie was an accountant in Chicago. Nor did they know about her loving husband who wore square red glasses from when she met him in 1954 until the day he died in 2014. The glasses were the same deep shade as her favorite strawberry jam when it was spread thick on a piece of whole-wheat toast. She loved that color nearly as much as she loved him.
They didn’t know her name, Emma, and that it meant “whole” in German. Nor did they know about her passion for jazz and ballet. They certainly didn’t know she trained intensively at a ballet school in New York for thirteen years. Mama never wanted her to pursue it. She was probably secretly relieved when Emma finally left the troupe for a desk job.
Emma enjoyed sorting through books. In a way she had very much in common with the books she took care of. Weathered and old with a beautiful story waiting to be told. Not many people picked up books anymore. So Emma took it upon herself to take down her favorite novels and read them aloud – but not too loudly because the library had a “speak softly” rule.
Someone decided to use the encyclopedias but forgot to put them back on the shelf, leaving them scattered across one of the large desks in the study lounge. Emma didn’t mind. She appreciated the fact that someone had chosen to take the time to look through the mustard yellow books for research instead of using the Internet. Books were meant to be opened after all, not collect dust on shelves. Often she too felt like a book collecting dust on a shelf.
The first time she ever felt old was on a Monday. She was only 23.
She remembered gliding along a stage. A swan amongst ducklings. She dipped back and forth, her arms and legs ebbing and flowing with the torrential current resonating from the orchestra pit. Beautiful. Graceful. Untouchable. She floated arms outstretched like wings. Her eyes remained closed. Focused on her movements.
Arabesque. Avant. Grand jete.
She leapt at the last internal command, but she realized in the air that something was not right. As she landed, she squirmed, clutched her leg, and plunged to the ground as if shot. Sprawled on the stage, her wings tucked in, she felt . . . heavy. Something cracked. She didn’t know what. Her hipbone? Her femur? The pain made it difficult to think clearly.
The doctors later told her the injury wasn’t bad. They told her it could have been a lot worse and the more she worried about it the worse it would be on her. After that day, she never danced the same way. The doctors were right of course. The injury healed quickly. But Emma lost her easy grace. It was as if someone had clipped her feathers and replaced them with lead. She never felt as buoyant, as light as she had before.
She was not untouchable.
Maybe you should take up a job as a secretary, Emma’s mama had suggested, practical as ever. She wondered how she ever convinced her mama to let her start ballet in the first place. It didn’t take much to convince Emma to quit ballet. After falling twice in one practice, she hung up her wings for good.
Emma’s shift ended at three. She took her usual path down Bay Street. People hurried past her without so much as a greeting. Most were hunched over staring at their cellular devices. Emma hummed, content on taking in the cherry blossoms that lined the street.
She paused at the intersection where she normally turned right. There were no cherry blossoms that way. On an impulse she kept walking straight, following the blooming trees to Greenmire Park.
Young mothers pushed their babies around in large mechanical strollers. Teenagers kissed under trees. Children threw dirt at each other. The park teemed with people but no one’s gaze lingered on her.
No one wanted to look at her. Her limp and her permanently etched wrinkles were just a reminder of their own mortality. She knew this and expected it, but still she wanted to be seen.
To them, she was an abnormality. A husk of what she had been. No one wanted to spend too much time on the elderly. Age was a concept they knew existed but still didn’t fully understand.
They didn’t know the feeling of infinity was a façade, masking how truly finite time truly was. They didn’t know that life hit at the least expected and least wanted moments. At the crux of youth and power, that’s when life hit the hardest. And suddenly worldly attachments were no longer appealing. A different mindset festers. An ache for events long passed creeps in every waking moment until it is painful to be awake. Some let the claws of nostalgia scrape their souls hollow. Memories become blurry vignettes of what once was and would never be again. Details become lost with the years. Feelings fade. And those half formed vignettes are all that remain.
Emma would never forget the day Charlie was born. She had looked over to Al and he gave her a look shared only by those joined at the soul.
We created this little pink ball of flesh and bones. This tiny and fragile creature was the product of us. The feeling of happiness was unmatched. In that brief moment she had cheated life. She and Al had created more time. A million moments had passed since that moment, yet the memory never grew dim.
Emma walked toward the fountain at the Center of Greenmire Park. Adults laughed and chattered. Children splashed and screamed. Her eyes, however, were fixated on the marble Lady bathing in the fountain. The Lady’s features were immortalized in stone. Over the years she had collected a mass of treasure from coins to flowers. Among those was a single red flower delicately placed on the Lady’s outstretched palm. A flower the color of strawberry jam.
Emma climbed onto edge of the structure, using both her hands to steady herself. She lingered there for just a moment. People stared now. A few hurried toward her, calling for her to climb back down before she fell.
“Get down from there, ma’am!” Came a particularly demanding man.
Al always called her Emma. Not Emmie or Baby. He was always proper and polite. He loved her enough to respect that she loathed nicknames. And whenever her name trickled out of his mouth like a slow building song, she felt the full weight of its meaning. She was his Emma and she felt complete with him. She wished he were here now to say her name just one more time.
Emma took another step forward. The water nipped her ankles and soaked the hem of her paisley dress. Wading to the center she grabbed the strawberry colored rose. She wanted to hold it, see it up close. Beautiful. Graceful. Untouchable.
Suddenly she was floating. She held the rose to her chest and floated on her back. She could hear children giggle, and adults whisper. But she didn’t mind. Emma hadn’t felt this weightless in a long, long time.