“You’ll love it there Aunt Joanie!” her young niece pleaded. “Just give it a chance. It’s truly paradise! It’s beautiful all the time and you can go exploring in the jungles and learn about all sorts of new plants and things. There are all kinds of social things where you can meet new friends. We have a small house all set up for you. And we don’t like being this far away from you. Grant and his wife are willing to move in here and take things over and pay you a nice rent. So, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Joanie looked at the imploring face of her niece Sandy. She had never been able to easily refuse this one anything, from the first moment she first laid eyes on her when she was such a tiny waif, suitcase in hand, smudge of dirt on her face and eyes glistening with tears the day she was brought to her house all those years ago. Her parents had died in a car crash, Sandy the only survivor. She had never had children of her own. In truth, she was never quite sure what she would do with them if she had. But, she hadn’t needed to give it any thought when the call came asking her if she would like to take her sister’s child. She was sure she was never the normal kind of parent to Sandy. Never talked to her like a child. Mostly, she just talked to her much like she talked to herself.
She fell in love with the child from the moment she met her though. So full of life once the grief passed. There was little she denied her young charge. They both flourished in each other’s company. And the years seemed to flash by, the tiny orphan of yesterday now a beautiful young woman, imploring her yet again to do her bidding. She sighed deeply. She knew she would give in. If for no other reason than to not be parted from her by so many miles.
It was beautiful on the island! All green and vibrant colors of exotic flowers, their scent permeating each breath of the air. The temperature never strayed more than a few degrees and the people were so friendly and greeted her with the welcome of a refound family. She spent her days trying to learn the histories, the stories, the landscapes. Languid hours were spent with Sandy wandering the lava encrusted mountains, attending great lavish gatherings on the island and simple quiet evenings under the stars.
More than a year passed in this paradise, days moving into weeks which coursed into months. She began to lose track of the time. She had settled in nicely to this place where time seemed never to change. Then they received the letter one morning that her renters needed to move on. He had found a job in another state and it was too good for him to pass on.
After many hours of discussion, Sandy convinced her aunt that maybe she should sell the old home. Sadness filled Joanie’s heart, but she realized it would be better than it being left abandoned.
“I need to go back though.” She told her niece. “To collect the things I want to keep from the house. To say my goodbyes and put all in order.”
“Do you want me to go back with you?” Sandy inquired.
“No, this is something I think I need to do by myself. I need some time to say goodbye to my home.”
It was early fall when she got off the plane and caught the ride to the old house. Tears filled her eyes when it came into view. “Home” it whispered to her. “Not anymore” she sighed to herself. “But, always in my heart.”
She went to bed early that first night, the jet lag wearing on her, drawing her eyelids down hours before the normal time. She awoke the next morning to the sun streaming in the window, casting a fanfold light across everything in the room. The song of the birds just outside, their song so different from the ones of the island. She smiled at their song and laid back down against the pillow and closed her eyes to hear them in her soul.
She sat out on the porch, sipping her second cup of coffee for the morning gazing at the sun resting on the tips of the trees. She looked back in the door and thought for a moment about the things she needed to do today, then took another swallow of the coffee, grabbed her shawl and headed down the path into the woods.
A cold snap wove in tendrils in the gentle wind, nipping gently at her skin at the same time the sun bathed it in a warm caress. She breathed in the air of the forest, so fresh, so old. The ground was soft with layers of decay and growth, littered with more decay and the end of the year shoots dancing around it. The leaves of many of the trees were already beginning to turn. Their edges forming a delicate lacework of yellows, golds, reds, oranges. Fall was as awash with its vibrant dying colors as Spring was with its birthing colors. It was as if life wanted to ensure that its exit was celebrated as its entrance.
On and on she walked, till she came to her favorite hill in the center of the forest. A stand of great trees stood on its crest, watching over the valleys below. From here, she could look out and see for miles, the waters cascading off the mountains in rocky rifts, the lake, far off in the distance. She sat down under the tree and let the beauty of it lull her into a dreamstate.
The sun was dipping toward the other side of the trees by the time she drew herself back up to head back to the house. There wouldn’t be anything done this day. Save for making a light supper. It was worth it, she thought. There was always tomorrow.
A soft crunch under her foot just before she came to the end of the path drew her attention downward. She reached down and picked up the fallen leaf. The first to come to her that had given up its hold on the life that held it. She pressed it to her chest and walked the rest of the way to the house.
“But, I don’t understand why it is taking so long!” Sandy pleaded on the other end of the phone. “It’s almost winter there, you should have been done weeks ago at the very least.”
“That’s okay, dear. I was thinking it would be nice to spend one last winter here. I miss the snow, the bare branches, sitting in front of a warm fire. I miss the feel of winter. I don’t think I can say goodbye without building at least one last snowman. You’re more than welcome to come out here yourself and spend the holidays. They just seem more festive when there is frost on the windows, don’t you think?” Joanie chimed back.
“Oh, you are just impossible!” Sandy giggled. “I don’t think I can get away, but if I can, I will try and make it out. But, after this, I expect you to finish up and get back out here. I want you here with me.”
As winter made its entrance, Joanie watched the first snowfall from her window with the usual wonder it always gave her. She donned her coat and gloves and ran out the door, tipped her head to the sky to feel the first snow kisses of the year. Oh, how she had missed these days! She lost time on that island. Every day was the same as the next. The only way you could tell what month it was is if you looked at a calendar. Here, you could mark the passing of time by the changes outside your window. You felt the seasons and they became a part of you. Each one held its own beauty and its own dangers. But, she felt she was a part of life here. She sighed deeply as she went back inside and began to heat some milk for a cup of hot cocoa.
She’d been unusually tired these last few weeks. Maybe she should go and see the doctor. She made herself a note to remind her to call him at the beginning of the week. Then she took her cup of cocoa and went into the study to write.
She wrote her niece the letter she had been putting off for far too long. She had changed her mind and wouldn’t be returning to the island. She understood Sandy thought it was best for her in her waning years, but she just couldn’t leave her mountain again. She didn’t want to be warm all the time. She couldn’t take going back to where every day was the same as the last. She wanted to be here, where the cold bit the end of her nose and the thunderstorms could shake the house. She needed to see the colors of changing. She needed the smile in the spring when the first mother deer with her fawn stepped into the clearing of her yard. She needed this old house with all its creaks and moans, her bed with its window full of stars. Maybe most wouldn’t call this place a paradise, but they needn’t live here then. It was to her and for her, here she would remain.
Sandy knew what the letter would say before she had barely begun it. Sadness and understanding filled her at the same time. She knew it was a mistake to let her aunt go back to that house. That she would lose her if she did. She tried to explain to her husband that it was no use. Her aunt was a part of that old house. They would just have to plan more visits there in the near future.
She wept deeply at the service. A part of her was gone now. It was as if she had lost her guide through life. Though she tried, she barely heard a word said at the service and walked the path in a daze through the woods to the hilltop. She had asked to be buried here where she could sit forever under her trees and help them watch over the valleys below. As the first handful of dirt fell on the lid, Sandy looked up and saw the view through her aunt’s eyes and a sad smile crept onto her face.
As they headed back to the car, her husband asked when they were going to put the house on the market. Sandy started at the question, a cold chill running through her entire body. She looked at the house, set deeply into the trees, the memories sweeping over her of her childhood. She took a few deep breaths and looked imploring at her husband. “I think I may just hang on to it for a while.”
She couldn’t help looking back over her shoulder as they drove off, the colors of late fall washing the leaves and catching the light like stained glass. Maybe she would come home again some day as well. Maybe.