I love walking during the magical hour when afternoon turns to evening. Here in southern California, the streets carry so many sounds that I don’t hear living in the mountains of upstate New York. A couple argues, hurling their anger through the open window, music throbs from a parked car, a dog barks, a mother calls her children for dinner. In the distance, a siren wails and a few blocks away, the low rumble of traffic and honking horns hangs in the air.
On the surrounding hillsides, houses perch atop scenic cliffs guarded by giant pines and palms. These are the beautiful houses. Majestic structures that look like the homes of gods with windows spun of gold as the last rays of sun reflect across the valley.
Here where I am walking, no one would call the homes beautiful. I pass an assortment of low slung stucco apartment complexes and simple, square and responsible houses – like children’s wooden blocks lined up in neat rows. The yards are a hard scrabble of dirt and rock scattered with discarded Starbucks cups, stray soccer balls and plastic folding chairs. The trees are short and stubby.
This is a Chaldean neighborhood and as I walk, I realize that I don’t have a clue what that means. I make a mental note to look up Chaldea when I get home.
This is what I know without Googling: Chaldeans have beautiful children. The children are everywhere tonight – running and squealing as they dart between apartment buildings and parked cars. Babies wiggle in strollers while their mothers visit. It seems that every Chaldean child has huge brown eyes with stunning lashes. Loose black curls cover their heads. The mothers are lovely and the grandmothers look kind. The old men wear suitcoats every day of the week. The young men smoke cigars in their cars while listening to music. A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror of every car I pass.
Just now, I am startled by a small girl, maybe seven years old, hiding between two bushes. Her flowered dress hangs off of thin shoulders. Black hair swings below her waist and her eyes glint with mischief. Without words, she begs me not to reveal her hiding place to the friends who are searching for her. I return her shy smile and keep walking. Her secret is safe with me. I wonder about the woman she will become.
A young boy of twelve or thirteen approaches – striding along the sidewalk with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder. He looks serious and a little stressed, making no eye contact as he passes me. I think he will be the sort who is serious and striding his whole life. Always intent on his next destination.
The smells of dinner waft from many open doors. I do not know what Chaldeans eat, but I can tell you that it smells wonderful. The market on the corner is a colorful mosaic of the most decadent fruits and vegetables I have ever seen. Wooden barrels hold unfamiliar wares like grape leaves and bulgur. The meat department sells no pork. Not even turkey bacon. A woman pushes through the doorway, her short arms wrapped around a bulging shopping bag. She sets off rapidly toward her home. Has she forgotten something she needed for dinner?
Around the next corner, a man sits beside the one tree in his front yard. I say beside the tree because it is really too small to sit under. The bench he sits on also looks too small for his bulky frame. He does not move as he stares down the street, hands cupped over his enormous kneecaps. He sits here every evening and I wonder about his family, his life, his work. I wonder if he is contented or lonely.
I am almost home, trailing my hand along a scarlet explosion of bougainvillea bursting through a chain link fence, when I see them.
Two old women shuffle slowly toward me, their heads bent companionably toward one other. Both are short and round, wearing long black dresses and walking with their hands clasped in front of them. At first, I think they are nuns in prayer.
The traffic light changes and we pause on the curb. I stand on one side while they wait on the other. In those few moments, I read over a hundred years of shared history in the deep lines on their faces. I imagine them as children, their wispy grey buns unraveled and flowing long and black as they chase friends in a game of tag, giggling and whispering secrets, noticing boys for the first time. I see them as young mothers, balancing babies on their hips while they choose the ripest fruit from the market in a faraway village. I hear the pride in their voices as they brag about their grown children and tenderly scold the new grand babies toddling over the tattered carpet in their small homes.
I wonder how many bodies these two grandmothers have bathed, cuddled, dressed, fed, swatted, guided and released. I wonder how many loved ones they have wept over and laughed with. How many they have buried and mourned. I wonder what books they have read, what prayers they have prayed and what ancient stories they have told. I wonder what sights they have seen and how many homes they have created.
They are laughing now as they cross the street with steps so measured that they seem to be walking in another time and space far from this busy intersection. I know that the cars will wait for them because they appear almost sacred … these two.
We pass in the street. I know I am staring, but I want to soak up every second of their presence. I slow my pace and smile at them, not sure if they even notice me. Both of them bobble their heads in my direction and share a friendly “Hello,” in thick English before returning to their familiar tongue.
The murmur of their voices fades behind me as I turn the last corner.
For a foolish moment, I think of running back and asking if I can walk with them a bit. I want to know their names. I want to hear their stories. I want to know what delights them on this autumn evening.
But I continue walking toward my “home-away-from-home” where my own beautiful brown-eyed daughter and her sweet baby are waiting. The sky has turned orange-rose now, dotted with the silhouettes of dark palm trees. My hand is on the doorknob and already I hear the babble of the baby and the soothing murmur of his mother’s voice.
On the other side of this door, in a thousand simple moments, I am creating my own sacred stories. I pause to pray that I am writing them well.
When I am old and grey and slow of step, on a golden evening far from here, I will tell the stories of these days. And I think, as I press the baby to my cheek, that there must be no better way to end a beautiful day … or a long and good life … than laughing with an old friend while the sun sets.
May we all be so blessed.
(This essay was written in November 2015 during a visit with my daughter in California. I wanted to share it again because I’m remembering that precious time and how moved I was by the beautiful people around me)