142 United Street

 Ed and Frances Bahlke holding their adopted son, William P. Bahlke

Ed and Frances Bahlke holding their adopted son, William P. Bahlke

“Was this to be expected? . . . I must say . . . I find it to be rather intriguing.”

His introduction was aimed at an elderly gardener who was kneeling face down with a small shovel in her left hand. Dressed in white from head to toe, she was hard at work behind a decorative white wooden fence abutting the sidewalk on which he was standing.

He cleared his voice twice and watched as she dug deep into the soil to remove a stubborn weed by its roots. She shook off the excess dirt and then deposited her prize into a metal bucket before finally glaring up toward his unwelcomed interruption.

The brim of her straw hat was partially deflecting the sun’s afternoon rays, but the glare, nonetheless, kept her from capturing a full assessment of him. She was squinting, and through the slits he could see them. He could see her piercing hazel eyes.

As she returned to her task, he glanced one more time at the address he had scribbled on his right palm, 142 United Street, he was indeed at the right place.

Not sure what to say next, he said nothing at all, choosing rather to study his surroundings, absorbing the moment. He was really here. This was really happening.

His travels had never taken him to this place, but this place had always been where he traveled. It was not at all what he had expected. It was, however, what he had always hoped it would be. It was perfect. There was only one thing missing.

She was by herself in a house much too big for one to live in alone. She had recently had the structure repainted, selecting a shade of coral for its main body and accenting its doors, windows, and hurricane shutters using glossy white enamel. She had wondered at the time about the next selection, knowing that she would not be the one to choose.

It was a two-story house with a wrap-around porch decorated with rocking chairs, flowering plants, scattered pillows, and colorful artwork perfectly positioned. There were a number of cats. He had already counted at least four. On a table by the front steps sat a pitcher of lemonade of which he was about to inquire when…

“And what precisely do you find so intriguing, young man?”

He wasn’t exactly a young man. He was quickly approaching his sixtieth.

How had time slipped so swiftly by? Who had set his priorities?

All of a sudden, it seemed he was, one by one, dismissing unfulfilled dreams, many of which now, because of his age and dimensioned capacity, would remain unfulfilled, but not this one.

Her sweet voice. He listened to it once again in his head. It reminded him of someone in his past. But, who could that possibly have been? He had heard a lot of voices in his life, but none quite like this one. This one struck a cord deep inside of him. He would never forget her voice. He never wanted to.

He returned his eyes to hers. She was now standing, studying him with an intense curiosity. It was as if she knew. But how could she? He had not called ahead.

“It’s just that it’s raining, sprinkling actually, with the sun out. Don’t you find that unusual?”

Her head cocked sideways like a puzzled puppy, and her eyebrows crinkled together, staring now at him as if he were from another planet.

She quizzed, “Has it always been one way or the other with you: sun or rain, dark or light, hot or cold? Are the answers always so obvious, or should one pursue another’s perspective and insight to truly understand the whys of life?”

He stuttered, “That’s why I’m here . . . I mean . . . That’s why I’ve asked you if this was to be expected. I was interested in your perspective and insight.”

She had moved to her right, out of the glow of the sun, and she was now able to see him clearly. He was taller than she had thought he would be. He was very handsome. She had anticipated that. His voice . . . He had a slight accent. English? Irish? She couldn’t tell. Had he been there, to England or Ireland? Had he gone to those places looking for her before coming here? She had moved from there so long ago.

“So your intrusion today is for the purpose of satisfying your curiosity?” She continued. “Are you here seeking only answers to riddles you’ve not been able to solve yourself? Might your journey prove to be a cruel passing? Surely, if you wanted my perspective and insight, you would have sought them out before now.”

Changing the subject, if only momentarily, he inquired, “I see that there’s lemonade in that pitcher on the porch. Would you mind if I . . . ”

Not happy with his diversion, she interrupted, “There’s plenty of lemonade and plenty of weeds. Help yourself to both.”

They knelt side by side until the metal bucket was nearly full and until he finally broke the silence.

“As you cast away those weeds, will you say a prayer wishing them never to return? Will their unexpected reappearance in your garden cause you disappointment, maybe even sadness?”

She did not look his way with her response, even tilting her head away to hide her emotion.

“Some decisions, young man, are easy and some are hard. Despite one’s good intentions, certain actions can result in unbearable guilt and sorrow. But, these choices are made for a reason of the time and could never be understood by those not confronted with their burden.

“As you have observed, I dig weeds out by their roots and, in doing so, I never expect them to return. I am, however, never saddened when they do. I was not a gardener until later in life. I never thought I would be any good at it or enjoy it. I’ve always felt that my garden would be better served being tended to by others. Possibly, I was wrong.”

He stood, offering his hand, which she accepted. He helped her up the stairs and onto the porch. He poured them each a fresh glass of lemonade. He sat beside her on the swing and then began in a soft voice, “I have traveled many roads before reaching this one. I have always known that I would eventually make the right turn. I did, however, wonder where the road would end and what would be there when I arrived. I never wanted to walk down a path leading to an unwelcoming terminus. I am not a cruel man and do not seek answers only for myself. I hope to give answers where there are also questions. I pray to fill not only my own voids but . . . ”

He saw a tear trickling down her cheek and used his handkerchief to wipe it. She had a distant stare and showed no signs of talking.

A black and white kitten jumped onto his lap and started rubbing itself against his chest. He scratched its head and asked it its name.

“That’s Checkers. She’s my youngest, a stray. Key West is full of them. They all seem to find me, and I can’t possibly turn them away. I’ve probably turned too many things away in my life. But, now, I’ve learned to accept what the good Lord has to offer. I no longer ask the question why. I just welcome these blessings with open arms and an open heart.”

She looked over at his eyes…her eyes. He was looking down at Checkers and petting the purring kitty’s head. He was a gentle man. Of all things, this is what she had hoped for the most. She had harbored guilt and grief for too long. She needed his perspective, his understanding, and, most of all, his forgiveness.

She didn’t know how long he would stay, or if she would ever see or hear from him again after this day. She didn’t know until now that he even knew she existed. She wanted to hold him close to her and explain everything. She wanted to cry. They had missed out on so much, but he was here now. Without thinking, the question escaped her mouth, “Have you got a place to stay . . . while you’re in town, I mean? I have lots of room in this big house. You’re welcome to . . . ”

He continued petting the kitten. Truth was he hadn’t planned on staying here, on this island, and he certainly hadn’t expected her invitation. What he also hadn’t expected was the sudden, overwhelming love and compassion he felt for her.

The past was just that. Lord knows he has made countless, regretful decisions of his own. How he wished he could go back and change so many of them. So, who was he to judge? What has really taken him so long to find her? His hesitancy has only resulted in the loss of treasured moments, stolen memories that can never be replaced.

She put her hand on his and with her touch he felt the years of doubt and sorrow melting away. Locked in a moment like none other, they sat quietly, communicating only with their eyes.

She had a tenderness he hadn’t anticipated. Sure, she was feeble at her age, but she had a spunk that was contagious. He enjoyed being with her. He wanted to share so many things with her. He needed so many answers. He had no place else he needed to be, no place else he wanted to be. He felt at home here. He felt needed.

“I’d love to stay with you if it’s not a bother.”

She stood facing him.

He gently lowered Checkers to the ground and rose to embrace her.

“You can stay with me as long as you’d like. You could never be a bother to me. You may not have always known it, but you are always welcome here and always will be.

“You are my son.”