(From The Way-Back Files: Eternal Moments. Guideposts, 2004.)
I picked up the wooden robin. Perched on a piece of driftwood, it was simply and beautifully carved with a friendly, inquisitive face. “Where’d you get this?” I asked admiringly.
Fitz chuckled. “Oh, Fran Snow, an old friend of mine, and I have this contest about who sees the first robin. So she sent this to me.”
Fitz – her real name was Dorothy, but she loathed it, preferring the abbreviated form of her maiden name – wasn’t a blood relative. She was my late husband Tim’s maternal grandmother. But from the beginning, I’d felt a kinship with her. A private, reserved soul, she shared my love of books and gardening…though she had her reservations about cats, having given her heart over just once to a feline named Brutus, who’d broken it when he died. Still, she admitted that my cats were “pretty” and that she enjoyed looking at pictures of them.
We had some similar tastes in literature. Supernatural stories, for instance. “You know, I’ve always been fascinated by vampires,” she told me once with something between a lilt and a chuckle in her voice after reading a vampire yarn I’d just written. And she listened attentively to the otherworldly experiences that I was weaving into my novel Souleiado. “No foolin’,” she’d say. Her blue-green eyes – Tim’s color exactly – larger and more luminous than ever. Whether or not she believed them, she, like I, had an ear for a good story.
After Tim and his mother, Bobbie, died within a year-and-a-half of each other, I began visiting Fitz at her condo on a weekly basis, often bringing my son, Zeke, with me. Mostly, however, I came by myself while Zeke was in school. Fitz, knowing that I was stopping by, would leave the door ajar for me. Sometimes I’d find her asleep in her big chair. So I’d sit down from her and, pulling out my quilting, work on it till she woke up. Then we’d visit with each other for an hour, our silence as comfy as the scraps of old fabric in my quilt and interwoven with reminiscences and the latest Zeke bulletins.
I’d share my writing news with her, too, of course. She followed my novel Souleiado’s progress along with great enthusiasm, telling me that she thought the prologue was “truly inspired.” I wrote my acknowledgements page out ahead of time, with a special mention of her and sat there quietly while she read it. She looked up at me, wide-eyed. “You do me too much honor,” she said.
She was always incredibly generous with what she laughingly called her “interesting clutter” – the hodgepodge of knickknacks and curios she’d brought with her when she’d closed up her old house in Springfield, Massachusetts. “If you see anything you want,” she’d say, “please ask me. I may say, ‘No, you can’t have it,’ but ask me.”
So, on one of my visits, I finally asked her for the robin whose upturned face had intrigued me from the beginning. And Fitz, with the graciousness that was as much a part of her as those large expressive eyes, gave it to me. Now, despite my fondness for bird-watching, I never had any luck when it came to spotting the first robin. Everybody else always saw it before I did. But I put Fitz’s robin on the table across from my bed so that I could see it first thing every morning.
About a month after her ninety-first birthday, Fitz finally gave up the fight. On my last visit, I stayed barely ten minutes: she was in terrible pain and had precious little energy left. “I’m so glad to have been part of your writing,” she told me, reaching up to stroke my hair, her blue-green eyes shimmering.
I smiled at her through my tears. “I’m only sorry I couldn’t finish my book for you,” I replied, referring to Souleiado.
She gave me messages for Zeke and my mother, whom she’d been very fond of. Then she smiled at me, and I could see something of the vibrant young woman she’d been. “I think you’re wonderful.”
I gave her smile for smile. “I think it’s always been a mutual admiration society.” I rose from her bedside and forced the next words out, knowing that she would understand. “I won’t be back unless you need me.” I bent down and cupping her pointed face in my hands, kissed her good-bye.
A little over a week later, she was dead. At the simple memorial service, her daughter, Caroline, read the opening lines from the 121st Psalm, which had, she said, been Fitz’s favorite:
“I will life up mine eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
I was surprised and moved. Fitz had been something of an agnostic, and we had never really discussed religion. It had certainly never occurred to me that there might be a psalm that had held special meaning for her.
And when Zeke and I arrived home, the funniest most perfect thing happened. Two or three robins were strutting about our yard against the backdrop of Avon Mountain. No foolin’.