The back yard of my childhood home in Georgia was large. An open area by the house, then giant Red Pine trees with a Dogwood understory, then an old picnic pavilion with a stone fireplace, then a path to the woods beyond, and the creek beyond that.
I loved poking around back there by myself, walking as quietly as I could in my summer-bare feet or my winter shoes, and seeing what I imagined only I could see. Remembering the place that I had always known. Pretending to be an Indian girl, someone who belonged with them and knew how to belong in those woods. Seeing them there with me, out of the corner of my eye, always vanishing just as I turned their way.
A pinecone, more beautiful than the neighbor ladies’ Garden Club flowers. A box turtle, slowly making his way, but pausing long enough for me to touch his shell. A Blue Jay feather, surely lost from the headdress of a brave who’d been there just before I arrived. An old glass bottle, maybe from colonial times. A rusty piece of jewelry: who was the lady that lost it there, and why? A bright red leaf on the ground, noticed in the moment of its flaming perfect beauty before withering. The soft rustle of pine needles in the breeze above, landing in my hair, and falling at my feet. A black bear, looking at me in a friendly way, then disappearing. These were the things I found to see, or imagine, in that childhood place. Things that let me find them, because it was their home and it was mine too.
And sometimes I found Mr. Marshall. Or he found me.
Mr. Marshall was an old man. A big man. A quiet man, and gentle. I remember him in grey dress trousers with house slippers, in a shirt with no tie, or a baggy sweater when it was cold. He always wore a proper hat, felt in winter, straw in summer. And he smoked a pipe.
He wandered in his back yard as I wandered in mine next door. We both spent a good bit of time looking at the ground, searching for treasures and thinking our thoughts. And, if we eventually happened to wander toward each other (as we always happened to do), Mr. Marshall would speak.
“Good afternoon, little lady,” he would say in his soft baritone, serious but friendly. “Lovely day.”
I don’t know what I said. It could be that I was too shy or awkward to speak. But, he knew.
We would shuffle around together, in silence, looking under leaves, craning our necks to find the bird singing above our heads, picking up rocks to study, and stopping to face the wind when it picked up.
One such afternoon, Mr. Marshall had a different look about him. He seemed to have a secret, a secret that made him happy. He suppressed a smile, but not the twinkle in his eye.
“Well, now. What’s this I see?” he called out, a little louder than usual.
I went over, to look at what was already in his hand; I hadn’t noticed him pick it up. It was the strangest stone I’d ever seen.
“Now, this right here,” he said in answer to his own question, “is a petrified turtle.”*
I gaped at it, I’m sure, with my eyes wide and my mouth open.
“You see the designs, that look like a turtle’s belly? It is a turtle’s belly! An older one than you or I can even imagine.”
“It’s beautiful!” I hope I managed to say that.
“Here,” he said. “You can have it.” He put it in my outstretched hand, and smiled. “Well, it’s time for me to go in now. Good day, little lady.”
“Thank you, Mr. Marshall.” Please, oh please, let me have said that.
I didn’t see Mr. Marshall much after that, and when I did he would be just inside his front door, with a walker, looking out at the street. My mother said he wasn’t well, and before long he was gone.
I still have that petrified turtle, the one Mr. Marshall “found,” and I treasure it. Holding it now, I remember with love and gratitude what I’ve always known: that I was welcome in those woods, and so was he.
Mr. Marshall and me.
© Bette Ojala, March 24, 2015
*I have since learned that the “petrified turtle” is probably a “petoskey stone.”