"You know, Heather, I showed up to my (ninetieth birthday) party LONG after it began. And when I arrived, everyone clapped. See, I knew exactly what I was doing. At my age, you have to live by your own schedule.” She loved to say that, especially in the midst of a mid-morning glass of wine.
Once upon a time, I was a floundering college student with black hair long enough to tuck into my jeans. I worked at a place that developed photos, long before the digital era began its reign. A colleague told me about a friend who had an elderly mother who needed company. And thus began a cherished and many-year relationship with Opal.
The Original Opal, that is.
Opal was in her late eighties when we began meeting weekly, four-hours on Sunday mornings. She died in the year 2000, at the age of ninety. Her daughter, Hellen, introduced me to Shambhala Buddhism. Because of her, I moved cross-country in 2002 to live at the Shambhala Mountain Center for the summer, and my life in Colorado began. The sequence of events that led me to Original Opal also led me to a community where I would meet my dear husband and, eventually give birth to my first daughter. (And this is how the thread of fate works, sometimes. You can almost follow it with the tip of your finger from thing to thing to thing.)
So, in honor of the fruition of this particular line of destiny, we, of course, had to name our baby, Opal.
I have no personal photos of Original Opal. I wrote a short story about her for her ninetieth, but that computer and all its files are long gone.
Flash forward two decades to find me rifling through bins in the garage. A random search for a thing was instantly derailed when I found a tub of loose copies of decades-old writing. And in the stacks—the piece about Original Opal! I gobbled it up without chewing.
Selected chunks are included here in italics.
Opal preserves her antiques with conviction. It’s as if she can retain their individual stories more accurately if they, as unageing objects, are kept young. Paintings hang from the wall like organized mirrors reflecting situations and faces of a world that had long been given up to memory. Shelves hold valuable trinkets and jaundice-paged books in such a manner as to give the viewer the feeling of being transported backwards on a timeline into the common living space of some one or two hundred years ago.
Something must've aligned because, days later, I got a text from my longest-time friend, Steph, that said Oh my god dear.... isn’t this Opal?!?! Am i remembering correctly?
Attached was a photographed contact sheet of a gorgeous-yet-unrecognizable old woman sitting next to an also-unrecognizable young version of myself. (Steph was a fine arts photography major, and she occasionally shadowed me with her camera.)
I had to let my eyes soften a bit and do math about the timing and the year (my long hair threw me off). I scoured the photos for familiar details to rebuild my own memory.
It was her.
Opal belongs in a different era, an ancient time in which the elderly were revered for their wisdom, and in which young women sought knowledge through them as opposed to internet-links and best sellers.
I recall my late-teens, early-twenties to have been a tumultuous and utterly confusing time. I was in the throws of bulimia, making masochistic choices with men and often feeling as though I were teetering on the brink of a mental health breakdown, with no real dependable hand to help steady me. When I read these words describing my time with Original Opal, I am startled by the peace they convey. It’s comforting to remember that life is not ever only one thing, only one feeling.
I had forgotten that, of course, I still had sanctuaries.
I adjust my position on the carpet, stretch my legs comfortably in front of me, cross one over the other, and prop my arms behind me like tent poles, fingers sinking to the knuckles into the plush green carpet. In this circle of space, my world is quite clear. There are no distractions, no phone calls, no preoccupation with a tangled mess of thoughts pertaining to how I should be chomping up my day with accomplishments the ways a crocodile chomps up the ongoing grass he travels through, then collapses face-first into the mud.
During my precious moments with Opal, my role is certain: I am a Listener. I teach through innocence, she through wisdom.
(Author's note: The thread of this lifeline pushes me into a different role with my own eleven-year-old Opal. I stretch out on this Opal's floor, too, with fingers in the rug and loving ears at the ready. I have more laugh-lines and two decades of being under my belt. In this version, it is not nearly as clear who is teaching who, nor does it matter. I can only hope for life to provide plenty of pull-off sanctuaries as she travels forward on her own, winding and unmarked road.)