Dear Cindy

Liz Abeling

Image of Liz Abeling

Liz Abeling

Dear Cindy was selected for MSUL’s themed call for work about Water, in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum’s fall 2023 exhibition, Flint is Family in Three Acts, featuring the photography of Latoya Ruby Frazier.

Did you know what you took, when you moved her gardens?
Today, I was at a friend's house. At the edge of his property is a little gurgle of water, babbling and racing over smooth stones, and if you're quiet enough and you ignore the cars on the through-way below you can hear the same sounds that our river used to make. I hadn't realized how much I missed it.
You didn't know it was a river; you couldn't see it with my eyes, and that isn't your fault, either. You weren't four years old asking Grandma if there were fish that lived there, and you weren't seven and weeping when Grandpa pulled a particularly beautiful weed out from the cracks in the stone patio you'd later tear from the soil. You didn't spend hours imagining fairies dancing around the trees, turning mushroom caps into circus tents, weaving crowns of clover.
But that speaks to the point, I think: that place was never yours to take.
To you, I'm sure it was just a small trickle in a drainpipe, an eyesore if it was anything. And to be fair, I think that part's still there. I doubt you'd reroute tributaries just to remove a part of my childhood, even if you had those powers. Honestly, I doubt that much of what you did was malicious at all.
That doesn't mean I'm not angry, and it doesn't mean I forgive you, or that I think I ever can. It's just that I know we're all the heroes in our own stories, and while I can't see your reasons, I'm sure you had them, and I'm sure they felt very righteous and justified.
I hear you moved out of my grandparents' house, that you're living in a condo in Greenwich. I thought I'd feel relieved when you left that place, like it would let their ghosts rest somehow, but I finally visited their graves and I think they've been sleeping for a long time. I don't think either of them really hated you the way I did. I think it was me that was restless.
It's just that I tried driving by after my accident. So much got knocked around in me when I fell, reshuffled and buried and broken, but there were some memories I could tell were so very important and I wanted, so badly, to hold on to those. I thought maybe if I could just see their yard then something in me would wake up, and instead of the patio and the trees and the rhododendrons there was this rolling expanse of suburban green, and it looked just like the other lawns on the road, and if I didn't know it was the one on the corner, I'd have missed it.
You threw it away, just like the wrapping paper you teased her for keeping, like her boxes full of old letters and the perfume bottles she promised me. I wonder how quickly you did it, whether the landscape rocks and sixty-year rosebush shared a dumpster with the photo albums. I'm sure you thought their lawn looked beautiful, like that—mowed and uniform and tidy and quiet. I'm sure you meant to improve the place, clear the clutter, raise the property value.
I think it's the letters that bother me most. The rest is background noise, scenery. You can't throw away my memories, not really.
We only saved one box of Grandma's letters. It was a fluke, really, that we managed to get the ones we did. Grandma and Grandpa got separated for a while, you see, while she ran back to Kentucky to care for her mother and he stayed in New York to build their home. It's when he realized he wanted to marry her, and those letters carry the story of their engagement, the story of her mother's death, of their first plans for my uncle. The rest is lost: the letters from the exchange student they hosted for a year, from the World War II vets who, she'd admit coyly in later years, had sent my grandmother more than one proposal from the trenches.
I don't remember her digging them out often, but if she ever needed to, her whole history could be traced through those boxes, like prayers to another life.
I called the patio Secret Place, you know. It wasn't inventive, sure, but I was young. I've been looking at pictures, lately. I thought it was hidden from the road but that doesn't seem to be true. I thought the stones were blue and pink and moss-covered, but the camera tells me they were gray.
Maybe it wouldn't be the same, even if you let it be. Maybe I couldn't really go back anyway. Maybe you didn't destroy anything that wouldn't naturally erode with time, and maybe growing up really does the changing for us. Maybe water is just water, and the river that birthed that little drainpipe trickle came from the same place as every river. Maybe I can visit them all here in Pittsburgh, when I walk under the bridges that span the Allegheny and watch the current twist.
The sound of that babble will be a little bigger, and a little louder—but it will be the same.

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