I set out on a walk around the block. At dusk. With my camera. On a warm, desert wind evening in October. I am walking around the block with my camera at sunset, soaking up a few photos, making the most of the warm liquid rays lapping over the white picket fences and rock gardens and flowers and palm trees and house eaves. Wisps of remaining shadows make shapes I record. It is a pleasant evening. Pleasantville. Couples heading out for Saturday evening parties, movies, theatre. Food cooking. I shoot photos and stroll, soothing a restless soul.
As I come around the last corner and down the slope leading to my door, she is there. Sitting on the white painted concrete wall that keeps her yard from spilling into the sidewalk is the elderly woman I’d seen at a recent garage sale a few doors down. She is alone, slumped over, her gray, shoulder-length, unkempt hair parted down the middle, long ignored. She turns her head and her eyes light up when they meet mine as if I am someone she knows. I respond in kind and do not hesitate to say hello, assuming she remembers me.
“Hello”, she says, lifting her head. Her eyes look brighter than her countenance. I know she is from France. That fact had registered quickly during our short talk over paperbacks and eight-tracks.
“Are you surviving the heat okay?”
“Am I okay? Yes, I’m okay.” Before I can repeat my question, she sees my camera and asks, “Have you been taking pictures? In this light?” Dusk is at its heaviest.
“Yes, a few.”
“You know, my father was a photographer.”
“In France?” I ask.
“Yes, in Nice, on the Riviera. He took pictures for a newspaper there. Have you been to Europe?”
“No, but I’m dying to go.”
She pats her hand on the wall next to her and motions for me to sit down. I do not hesitate. I am thirsty for stories, and surely stories of Europe from older French women cannot be boring. Then she looks at me like she’s a little surprised I’m sitting next to her.
“Are you going to tell me about Europe?” I ask, almost like a child wanting to hear an adventure story, perhaps a familiar one.
“You obviously know all about it.”
Wondering what continent that comment came from, it takes a moment for me to realize that this interlude may not be what I thought it would. “No, I’ve never been.”
“How old are you?” she asks.
She looks surprised and says I look younger than that. “Well, you know, I’m twice your age.”
“Now I wouldn’t have guessed that,” I say out of some sincerity and some sense of polite flattery. I would have guessed around 80.
“Well, I think I’m 86. Let’s see. What year is it? Oh yes, 99. I was born in 1913. That makes me 86.” Her eyes, which initially seemed bright, have faded a bit. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, cold there.”
“Very cold in the winter.”
“And wet in the summer?”
“Sometimes.” I try to veer overseas. “I remember you are from France. Were you born there?”
“Yes, in Nice.” She pauses for just a moment. “Do you like to move around a lot?”
“Well, I have moved around.”
“My husband was in the Navy, so we moved all over. I’d go live where he went out to sea and, well, wait for him. Been here a long time though. He’s gone now.”
A jogger, sweating and huffing and puffing, flies by us. I am glad to be slowing down to the pace required to chat with this woman.
“How long has he been gone?”
“About five years. He had a dog, but it died too. I’m all alone now. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him.”
After an awkward pause, during which I glance down into the well of loneliness that I hadn’t expected to visit, and she gazes as if her husband might step out of the house across the street, she looks over at my camera. “What did you take pictures of?”
“Oh, some flowers, and trees and views.”
“How old are you?” she asks again, as if she hadn’t yet.
I answer as if I hadn’t yet, and she says, “Oh, you’re a youngster.” And then she tells me a little of her story, growing up in Nice, moving for three months to Italy, then to Spain and Portugal and back to Nice, meeting her husband, and coming to the US to get married. “I’ve always lived where it’s warm. My husband’s ship sailed from Virginia. After that we went to Florida and we stayed with his mother.” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head.
When it seems like she might not continue, I ask, “How did that go?”
“Not good. I had respect for her because she was my husband’s mother, but that’s about it. She had three sons and it was okay if they lived with someone but she didn’t want them to get married. She tried to break us up, but I wouldn’t let her. She was a strange woman.”
“Yes, she was married 8 or 9 times!”
“Really? That’s more than Liz Taylor.” She nods in acknowledgement. “How long did you stay there?”
“A few months. Then we came out here and I never went back. I don’t like Florida, not because of her. It’s too..”
“Hot and humid?”
“I don’t like Florida much either.”
She says, “We have the earthquakes here. They have...”
“Yes.” She looks up and down the block, and then turns to me. “Where are you from?”
Her slightly cracking voice is sprightly conversational, but it’s becoming clear she is retaining very little of what I say. I notice her small, elegant, rectangular watch is set one hour ahead of the actual time. I look closely at her drooping, deeply wrinkled face. This is a face Richard Avedon would love. A face whose veil and crevices hide a lifetime of stories. I consider playing Richard Avedon by asking if I could photograph her, but the light has faded and it seems intrusive. I glance up at the house and imagine her living alone, a little off-kilter, an hour ahead of the rest of us, completely unaware.
“Chicago,” I reply, like a skipped record playing the same lyric over and over.
“Lots of water there.”
“Yes, a big lake. Lake Michigan looks like an ocean.”
“I passed through Chicago once. Only saw the airport. My husband was stationed in Virginia for a while. Then we went to Florida and stayed with his mother. How old are you?”
I pause, and look into her eyes, wondering what my memory might be like at 86. “I’m 41”, I answer again, as fresh as the first time.
“41. My son is 20 years older than you.”
“Oh?” We seem to be going down different paths from the same starting point. “Does he live here?”
“No, he lives up in northern California, up by the border, by Oregon.” She tries to recall the name of the town.
“Yes, that’s it. He lives in Eureka or Yreka, however they pronounce it. He lives by his son and his granddaughter. He just dotes over her.”
I don’t ask if he visits. It seems like maybe a sore subject. She looks at my camera again and asks, “What are you doing?”
“You mean now?”
“No,” she laughs. “What do you do?”
“Oh, I work in a photo studio.”
“Are you a photographer?”
“For a newspaper?”
“No, I do portrait photography.”
“Oh, you photograph people. My father was a photographer for a newspaper in Nice.”
Again, I respond as if this is newly revealed. “Did he take other photos than for the newspaper?”
“What did he like to photograph for himself?”
This question creates the longest pause yet as she thinks hard to recall. “Flowers. And trees. And beautiful views,” she says confidently. “Those were the early days of photography, you know. He was always a photographer.”
“Even when you were a little girl?”
“Well,” she hrumphs with the slightest of smiles, “I wasn’t a little boy.”
Her humor surprises me. I laugh out loud. “Of course.”
Her humor has also brought us to the end of another path. I consider returning to the starting point to explore once again, but three statements of my age and birthplace seem enough.
She sighs, “Well, I guess I’ll go in, and well, I think I’ll go to bed.” She looks at her watch. “Oh, it’s twenty to eight.” Yes, she is an hour ahead. I wonder if she’ll be two hours ahead after the time change in a few weeks. Who am I to correct her? Who am I to disrupt the world she lives in?
She stands slowly, turns, and pauses with one foot on the first step and a hand on the railing. “Where do you live?”
I stand and lift my camera strap over my head. “Down the street.”
“Oh. How long have you lived in California?”
“Well, about nine years all together, but only six months in San Diego.”
“Oh, okay.” She completes her ascent to the first step and turns again. “What’s your name?”
I’m glad she’s asked, but wonder if she’ll remember it. “My name is Patrick.”
“Oh.” She lights up a bit. “Your day is March 19th.”
“Well, yes. March 17th actually.”
“Oh yes, March 17.”
“And when is your day?”
“My day is coming up soon. October 27th. Simon’s day.”
I wait for an explanation. She continues a little impishly, “Well my name is Simone but they had to take the ‘e’ off to make it a man’s name to have a day.”
“I take it there’s no St. Simone.”
“No. Well okay.” She begins to shake my hand. “And what’s your name?”
One more time, I ride her wave. “Patrick. My name’s Patrick.”
“Oh yes. Your day is March 19th.”
“Yes. March 19th. Well, it was nice to meet you.”
“Yes. You take good care of yourself.”
“Yes, I will. You too. See you around the neighborhood.”
“Yes, because you live down the street.”
“Yes. Down the street. Good night.”
We both turn to return to our worlds, perhaps each a little less lonely.