I made friends with a lady in American Fork.
When people ask who she is, she speaks both her names.
“Mary Ellen,” she says.
“Lyndsi Shae,” I say.
Mary Ellen wanted “someone young with a strong back” to help her do her Spring Cleaning.
So I came to her apartment, #113 -- “my unit,” she calls it.
I had assumed her request just an expression until I moved her couch and she said
“Oh good, you’ve got a strong back.” I laughed a little.
Mary Ellen has 80 family members beneath her, which she will call to wish a Happy Easter throughout the next few hours as she mops and works along side me. There are pictures of them everywhere. She is making a strawberry cake for their Easter dinner tomorrow. There are pastel eggs in the kitchen and I imagine her here just days ago, setting out the Easter decorations for herself. It’s just her in this house, in her unit.
Before he died, Mary Ellen went on a mission to South Africa with her husband. She is thankful for the members in Capetown. “Protective,” she calls them, and “teachable.” Before that, they went on a mission to Kentucky. She doesn’t say much about this one, except that it was “interesting.” I think about Mary Ellen in Kentucky and laugh some more as I stand on the kitchen counter in my un-matching socks, reach to clean the top window, and try not to step in her strawberry cake.
I clean the windows first.
“I just love clean windows,” she says. “They open up the soul of the house.”
And from this one comment, I know we could understand each other.
After that I dust and vacuum and feel the calm of each room and its relics. There is a tribal whale on a tile, jumping out of an ancient ocean. An ivory carving. Mosaic glass lamps and crystal bells. And then, the birds. All over Mary Ellen’s house are birds. Not the creepy fake-feathered plastic ones— but glass ones, wooden ones, sculpted and painted ones. You wouldn’t notice their prevalence if you weren’t dusting under everything. That’s when you see them all. In a way, it is a shame to take away the dust—robbing each small memorial from its layer of time. That’s when I picked up the first picture of him. It was an old man, wise enough to smile like a child. I do not know his name, but I know it was her husband—because I felt the difference when I lifted these frames. I felt their reverence. He is 70, 30, 23 in these pictures—but each of them is undeniably him. It didn’t feel unfair to remove his dust.
She is writing his personal history and I think: How beautiful that he has someone who is trustworthy to do so.
She is bringing deviled eggs to the neighbors, namely Marilyn, an 85-year-old woman who is “well… difficult. Strong willed… but all alone.”
Mary Ellen grows her tomato plants by the windowsill in the blue room. (There are two extra bedrooms. The other is purple. This one is decorated entirely in blue.)
In the center is an old striped recliner where I’m sure he would have sat. I wonder if it is for him.
Her sewing table is in here, and I imagine her working at it, trying to feel his presence.
The wind chime is in this room, though it would have matched the purple curtains better.
Maybe he liked wind chimes.
On the desk hang necklaces and bracelets of seashell jewelry and antique stones.
I think I love Mary Ellen.
I finish dusting under the stack of VHS tapes marked “Family Renuions,” and find a plate of unsalted crackers and 5 chocolate chip granola bars on the table. She put them out for me. Next to them is a carton of Pina Colada juice and I remember her
turquoise-tropically-patterned bathinsuit, which is hanging on the bathroom door. I wonder how similar we are. I wonder about allot of things, but I don’t ask Mary Ellen about them. Because there is something about this house—because I know we should preserve the mystery of what her life has been.
"It is a rare kind of time... the pause, hiatus, when the heart is like a feather... part of my thoughts is always crowding around the invisible umbilical cord that joins this world to something-- to what I shall not say yet."