The afternoon was warming and the elderberries were darkening crimson and I’d gone out to collect some ahead of the birds. If you wait too long, the ripe berries, just the size of peppercorns, cascade to the ground with a stiff breeze. Near half of them feed the birds and I can’t begrudge that. So you have to go out, see, when half the cyme is still green and harvest what you can, when you can.
Sirens were in the distance and the sun beat down and the mulch was damp under my feet from the morning rain. The sirens neared. Police cars came up our street, lights flashing, officers huffing up the street counting down house numbers, looking for a particular place, across the way, a few houses down. A man opened his door and waved them in. More sirens pierced the air from far off.
The man paced in the front yard as the officers brought bags in from their cars, a yard brimming with flowers and bushes. Arms waving hopelessly I heard him tell another neighbor what was going on. I heard snatches of his words. My sister. Unresponsive. Heart attack. Gave her mouth-to-mouth. Just nothing.
I had laid the bowl of elderberries aside and joined a knot of neighbors on the hot sidewalk. I watched a man’s heart being broken on a sunny afternoon.
The fire truck came and after an eternity of minutes, the ambulance. Grim-faced paramedics sped in with more bags and a plastic gurney. When they didn’t rush her out with speed, when the pace of it all slowed way down, when the fire truck pulled away, and the officer escorted the brother to a side yard to write down details, I knew.
I didn’t know the woman; all I know is that she was in her sixties and that they didn’t know how long she’d been in the state her brother found her in. We all walked back to our homes; death is too sacred to be a spectator event.
The grapes are ripening next to the elderberries. They’re a small variety, sweet with an edge of bitter. Tougher skins than grocery store grapes that are bred to uniform perfection. I slip some into my hands and chew them in the hot sun on a day that that man won’t forget.
Life; we don’t all get a hundred years of it and it can end swift and on a sunny day no less. We don’t get uniform lives, predictable ones. They’re full of sweet bits and bitter ones and the whole deal looks nothing like what’s advertised, does it? But it’s good.
So, I can’t farm, I can’t have chickens, I can’t breathe life into our dwindling accounts, and I can’t just run back to South America where life had so much life and color and purpose. But I can make soap. Stay with me now.
What can I do while I can do something?
I have a hundred dreams, so I pulled one out of storage. Making soap. I love good soap, but unless I find a screaming deal on some goat milk or triple-milled french stuff, we can’t buy it. I knew it would cost some money to get some equipment, but not much. So I sold a hutch I’d refinished (that I’d picked up from a curb for free) and an antique ice crusher on craigslist. I had ninety-five dollars to make a dream come true.
Thirty-five went for a good quality digital scale, the only precision instrument needed. I weaseled my husband into agreeing to build me some soap molds out of scrap wood. I plundered my cooking supplies for extra pots and measuring containers that could be dedicated to soap-making. I watched YouTube videos and checked books out of the library. Long gloves from the dollar store. Safety glasses left over from fireworks. And fifty-nine dollars left over to buy fats and lye and essential oils.
It truly is something to be able to do something.
Now it’s just a matter of deciding what kind to do first…lemon-lime-coconut shampoo bar? Honey-oatmeal body bar? Tea Tree-Sweet Almond? Peppermint-Goat Milk for Christmas gifts? Should I open an Etsy shop? Try to sell locally? Just make for ourselves and friends? Or maybe slow down and see how my first batch turns out, crazy self??
But, I CAN DO SOMETHING! That’s the joy and the hope of it. I’m not trapped by our fences, but free to create within them.
And I realize that in the past year’s time I’ve seen many dreams come true…I am now an amateur beekeeper and supplied our household with a year’s worth of honey with extra to give away. I got to take a pottery class and feel all that slippery clay yield to my shaping hands. I taught myself candle dipping and have now both white and deep yellow beeswax tapers aplenty to light our way through winter. I wrote a short story that I love; the first story I’ve ever exposed to public view without cringing. I started this small corner for writing, for spilling words and exercising my writing muscles.
All of this happened as many of my dreams came crashing down about my ears. Oh the irony. Oh the grace.
So I will do what I am able, as long as I am able, and I’ll count it as joy. Because it really doesn’t matter how wide our fences are, but how we live within them.