Little Lost Things
It was a rainy November day. My daughter and I were walking the dogs by the park.
"Mommy, look! It's a piggy!"
We crouched down under our umbrellas and peered into a deep mud puddle that spread out like a miniature lake in the grass. The surface was dotted with the splatter of a cold November rain, but just beneath its broken surface, I could make out a small pink shape. I held my umbrella out over the muddy puddle and as the surface settled we could see, nearly buried in the mud, a small pink pig.
"I bet one of the preschoolers from the school lost it," my daughter said.
"Maybe it was thrown from a stroller," I mused. "You did your fair share of that when you were little."
"Poor piggy. It's so sad." She sounded wistful.
We huddled there for a long time, contemplating the piggy, before trudging home under a churning fall sky.
Later, curled up on the couch together reading, my mind was drawn over and over again to the pig in the puddle. I found it difficult to concentrate on my book.
"When will the rain stop?"
"Later tonight. It’s supposed to snow tomorrow."
She tugged on her lower lip, her whole face a worried frown.
“Will all the puddles freeze?"
I nodded. “I think so.”
She slammed her fist into a pillow. "We have to go get the pig."
"That's what I was just thinking."
"It's ridiculous, Mom. Why am I so worried about a muddy pig?"
I pulled her onto my lap and smoothed her hair. "Because it meant something to someone. And it's not the piggy's fault that it got lost."
"And I can't bear the idea of it being frozen in the mud for the whole winter. He’ll be trapped there forever and ever. By spring, no one will even remember the poor piggy.”
"But we will. We'll know. But you know what? We can fix this.”
The rain stopped a few hours later. She and I announced we were going for a walk and my husband and son said they'd come, too. Before we left, I put a sandwich bag in my pocket.
"What's the bag for, honey?" my husband asked.
"Oh, it’s for the pig."
He's learned not to ask too many questions. These things usually reveal themselves in time.
My daughter and I walked with purpose towards the mud puddle, our steps quickening with each block.
"What if it's gone?" she wailed. We were trotting now.
"What if it sunk further into the mud?" The interim hours between finding the piggy and returning to rescue the piggy had us both on edge.
"We should have brought a shovel," she said, breathless.
"We could use a stick if we have to, to dig it out,” I assured her.
"Dig what out?" my husband called after us.
"The pig!” my daughter and I yelled in tandem.
But despite our worst fears, the pig was right where we'd left him, half buried in the mud, his unblinking eyes staring up from the depths of rainwater like a drowning victim. I turned the sandwich bag inside out, wrapped it around my hand like a glove, and reached into the puddle. The piggy emerged from the cold mud with a bit of effort and she and I examined him together. The little pig was about 3 inches long, just the right size for gripping in a tiny hand or playing in a doll house.
"There. All better, now?” She nodded. “Here, you can put him in your pocket."
"What are you two doing?” The boys had finally caught up with us. “Is that your toy?"
"No,” she explained, tucking the bag and its precious contents into her coat. “But he's lost and Mommy and I couldn't bear it, so we're saving him."
"Saving it for what?" my husband asked me as we headed back home.
"I have no idea," I said, watching my daughter peek into her pocket to check on her small, grimy charge. “We’ll just have to see.”
Once home, we discarded the bag and studied the pig. He was barely pink anymore. The puddle had stewed him to a dismal shade of rot. So we filled a bowl with warm, soapy water and popped him in.
"Now what?" she asked.
"I’m not sure, Poppet. Let's keep soaking him. We'll replace the water every hour and give Piggy a good squeeze. And then we’ll see what happens."
She and I washed that pig for three days. Eventually, he emerged pink and glowing. His black bead eyes shone.
"Now what, Poppet?"
She was pulling on her lip again, this time pleased with herself.
"We'll put him in a jar and set him on the mantle so we remember about lost things."
I don't know why I tell you this story except that my neighbor reminded me of the lost piggy a few weeks ago. Our neighbors are elderly Irish immigrants, and despite living here for most of their lives, have never lost their incomprehensible, lilting accents. Mr. Chambers—and considering he is 50 years older then me, he will never be anything else other than Mr. Chambers—had brought me some things to sell for him at my garage sale. Mostly things he'd used to care for Mrs. Chambers at home before she went into hospice, and a staggering assortment of trinkets. Shower chairs, plastic tables, walkers, a wheelchair, robes, vases, gadgets.
"What should I ask for them, Mr. Chambers?" I asked.
"I don't care, lass.” He set another box down with care. “Just get rid of them. Say a dollar each. I certain don't want them back."
"How is Mrs. Chambers today?"
He tucked his hands in his pockets and looked down for a moment.
"I spent the morning with her."
"Send her my love."
"I certainly will, child."
While cleaning the house for the garage sale, I found a mouse that my baby brother sewed for me when he was 9. I tucked it away in a box and stowed it safely in the attic. I remember my surprise when he gave it to me, as I scrambled backward in time to reconstruct the origins of this unexpected Christmas present: he’d asked our parents for a sewing kit that summer, the rest of us kids teased him about sewing and then promptly moved on to other things. But he spent untold hours sewing this sweet little surprise for me. It's not something I will ever part with, not ever, but I wonder what my children will think when I am gone. When they clean the attic out and find a fuzzy pink mouse with slightly crooked eyes and a long tail. Will they discard it or recognize it for what it is: my brother's gentle heart? I look at the driveway full of things I care for not at all, objects I will sell to strangers for twenty-five cents and wonder why they mean so little.
The garage sale went on for several days, and I spent those days with two friends. We pawed through each other’s items that we'd so carefully displayed, laughing at the sheer amount of junk, trading among each other more than we sold. I found an faded photograph of a mountain and a glacier sealed with brown paper in a weathered frame.
"What is this?" I ask my friend.
"I don't even remember anymore,” she answered. “I’ve had it for ages but I could never get rid of it because it must have meant something to somebody."
Her words caught me and I knew that I needed it. And that picture now hangs in my living room and I have repeated her words many times to visitors.
"Where was this taken?"
"I don't know. But it meant something to someone, once. I like to think about that. It makes me think of stolen salmon and sheep on a mountain. And sometimes I think I can see a man in wing tips in the distance, laughing."
On the second day of the sale, Mr. Chambers stopped by to see how things were going. He invited me to sit down in the shade and visit with him on two of my own chairs that were for sale.
"It's a hot day, child, and you've near worn yourself out. Sit and visit with me, won’t you?"
The garage sale bustled around me but I sat anyway because he has a way about him of slowing things down. He's a gracious man. I wonder if he's always been like that or if that is a lesson of time.
"How goes the sale?" he asked.
"Alright, I guess. Not as good as I'd like. But I sold a lot of your things. Not all, but most."
"That's a good thing and I'm grateful to you. Now tell me about the children." He turned his face up to the sun and waited.
"Oh, they're good. Busy. Growing up on me, I'm afraid. They went back to school this week. I'm glad for the garage sale because I'm lonely for them."
"Oh, I know all about lonely. Six children we had, and no matter what we did, they grew up anyway and left us." He opened his eyes and smiled at me. "That's what they do, child."
"How is Mrs. Chambers today?"
He ran his hands over his knees and was quiet for a moment.
"Well, there's no improving from this sort of thing."
He stood as if to leave.
"Mr. Chambers, wait."
And I wasn't sure why, but I knew I had to tell him something, something that might mean something to him.
"My son is going to a dance tomorrow night. His first dance."
Mr. Chamber’s face lit up and he laughed out loud.
"Six children we had and 5 of them boys. I know that feeling five times over, lass. You'll get through it. It's the girl that will kill you, for certain.” He stared into the distance and I knew he’d wandered off to somewhere far off and long ago. “His first dance, you say? I remember that feeling well."
He walked back home with a wave, a mischievous grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.
I make dozens of trips up and down the stairs every day, past the tall glass spirit door on the landing. Two garden spiders have made their webs near each other, close enough that they overlap. I've been watching them for weeks, an old habit I don't care to break. I like to watch spiders and can't bring myself to kill them, because they do no harm. And as I've said before, their season is so short.
One day, I brought a load of laundry up to my room and found my husband sprawled across our bed.
I dropped the laundry and threw myself down beside him.
"There are two spiders outside the spirit door. Their webs are all tangled up and they seem so content with each other.” I sat up and tugged on him. “Come and look, it's so strange. They've been like this for weeks now."
He smiled but didn't move.
"And the lower one just caught a giant beetle this morning, bigger than her, and wrapped it up. I've been watching them, too."
"It's funny, isn't it?” I stopped tugging on him and settled back into the curve of his arm. “We do the same things even when we're not together. Our orbits are like their webs. Aren't we a pair?"
Later that night, Mr. Chambers saw me in the garden and waved me over to sit with him on his porch. Twilight was falling, making the stones of his porch glow lavender-white in the dying light.
"Did I ever tell you, lass, that I went to school in a one-room school house?"
I shook my head and settled in for a story. "No, never. How many children were in your school?"
"Oh, dozens. The whole village."
"Dozens? How did your teacher keep you all in line?"
"He had a stick and the will to swing it." His eyes twinkled. "My village was on the side of the mountain. My family had a sheep farm. But not sheep like you have here. Ours had wee black faces and great curving horns. I had a bachelor uncle who used to roast us sheep on the cliffs. And let me tell you, you've never eaten until you've eaten roast sheep over a fire on a mountain, lass. I can still taste it."
"What else did you eat back home?"
"Salmon. My brother and I used to steal salmon from the landlord's river and sneak it to Mother in carrier bags, the fish still leaping inside, trying to get out. We made a sight, my brother and I, running through town with bags of stolen fish."
"Tell me this, Mr. Chambers. Did it taste better because it was stolen?"
“It did." He was quiet for a moment. "You know, birthdays and Christmas, my children all ask what to get me. I tell them, don't get me a thing. There's not a thing in the world I want or need. I've had a long life, it's true, and there's nothing I need aside from a bit of company."
"They don't listen, do they?" We were on the far side of twilight now and I could see he’d taken a step back over the threshold from todays and tomorrows to yesterdays.
"No, child, they do not listen. They bring me trinkets and electrics that I do not need and now I've a house full of them. Of course, you've sold some of them at your garage sale,” he said with a chuckle.
"I’ll never tell. Cross my heart and hope to die. But there must be something. Something you'd want if you could have anything in the world. What would it be?"
I expected a long pause, but he answered immediately.
"I'd want to taste that lamb again, to see my uncle's face across the fire. I'd like to run through the streets with my brother again, bags full of stolen fish. I'd like to taste that salmon the way my mother cooked it and hear her voice yelling at us for stealing it. But all that's lost, those moments gone. And it all winds down, doesn’t it?"
Mr. Chambers and I sat quietly in the dark, watching the cars go by. After a while, he began talking again, telling stories about his childhood, about Mrs. Chambers and their travels, his lilting voice filling the summer night air, his sharp humor leaving me giggling uncontrollably. I found myself wishing she was there, to see them laugh together, to see him not so alone. My husband joined us and listened with me as Mr. Chambers wove the stories of his life into ones we, too, would remember.
"I once walked across a glacier in dress pants and wing tips," he said with a wry smile.
"Mr, Chambers, what on Earth were you doing hiking a glacier in wing tips?" I asked, delighted with the absurdity of the image.
"Well you see, child, I wasn't expecting a glacier, was I? And I hadn't any other shoes."
Later, my husband and I walked home hand in hand, picking our way with care through the spots where the Chambers’ garden and our garden had become entwined. High above us, the light shone through our spirit door, illuminating the two spiders and I wondered at lost pigs and stolen salmon, webs that intersect and unexpected glaciers. How things wind down and life goes on, an endless cycle of little lost things.