When I was ten, I lived across the alley from an old lady named Edith. She looked like most old ladies I knew then, not fat, but soft and a little lumpy, her gray hair thinning on the top so her pink scalp showed through, and hunched over, like she was still carrying a basket of eggs from the chicken house. She lived in a small white house with a tidy lawn that my dad would mow because she was too old to do it herself and her men were too busy farming. She would make us a loaf of homemade bread every time he mowed. Her house smelled like that bread, and sugar cookies, and laundry soap. And it smelled like family secrets, like my Grandma's cedar box, like scrapbooks and newspaper clippings and old letters.
About once a week, especially in the heat of summer, when it was too hot to ride my bike out on the gravel roads to look for meadow larks, red winged blackbirds and wild roses, I went across the brown, parched lawns and the narrow alley to visit Edith. She alway invited me warmly into her cool, dark house. Her shades were always drawn and the doors tightly closed. My house was hot and bright and loud. Edith's house was cool and dark, and so quiet I could hear her Big Ben alarm clock ticking from her bedroom when we sat in the living room drinking lemonade and eating the sugar cookies she had baked that morning. Sometimes we played Parcheesi on an old board with glossy marbles. The set we played on at home had come from the Ben Franklin store and was made of cheap cardboard and plastic poker chips, but this one had been made from a thick piece of wood, the squares painted bright red and black, the holes for the marbles worn smooth.
Edith's husband, Harold, had died a few years ago and she still talked about him every time I visited, usually to tell me that it was his birthday, or that he especially liked sugar cookies, or that on a day like this he would have been out in the barn taking care of their horses, making sure they had enough to drink in the stifling heat. Once when I was there, she asked if I wanted to see pictures of Harold and I said yes, expecting a picture of him with the horses that were so prized, or maybe on the front porch of their farmhouse where they had lived for almost fifty years together. Instead, she put into my hands a small pile of pictures of Harold taken at his funeral, in his polished white coffin with the cover propped up to show the quilted satin pillow and Harold in his new black suit. His gnarled farmer's hands were clasped together on his chest, a thin gold wedding band on the finger of his left hand. Even in the picture I could see the thick callouses on his fingers where they came together to hold the yellow rose that had been laid there. Edith said she'd had beautiful flowers on the farm, especially roses, and this one was from her garden. Harold's face, not familiar to me in life, was startlingly white and almost pale blue in death. The color of skim milk. She tells me the details of his death and the things about the funeral; the songs they sang, the people who sent flowers, and what they had for lunch. I had never been so close to death.