Friday, December 09, 2005

YELLOW HOUSE: A short true story

2005-11-28_ 001
Originally uploaded by JJSchad.

The priest refused to marry them, saying that at sixteen, they were too young. He could not sacralize a marriage that would never work. The wondrous swell of her belly beneath a white dress littered with tiny blue flowers could not sway him.

But it didn't matter. Another priest was found, thin rings slipped on, the words spoken. She said she would show that first priest a thing or two about making things last. What did he know anyway?

But wait: this is not about the teenage couple who moved into her grandmother's boxy yellow house, who fell asleep every night, holding hands like children who'd fallen asleep in the woods. Hansel and Gretel, maybe.

This is about the woman next door. The good woman who invited her to coffee and listened as she told told the story about the priest who refused to marry her. The priest who had tried to curse them with his words.

This is about the good woman next door who helped out when she could. Who brought casseroles when the baby was born and offered to watch him for an hour or two so the young wife could get some rest.

She was still helping when the fifth child was born, though reluctantly. The yellow house was overcrowded by then, and the couple, though only thirty, no longer seemed very young.

It was an imposition, really, always being asked to watch a baby, and she was busy, this neighbor. Still, she never said no. And the fifth one, in particular, she grew to love.

He had a serene temperament and the clearest eyes she'd ever seen. She set the playpen in the sunny window, and he played quietly there. Whenever she looked over to check on him, he smiled.

It was snowing on the morning when the husband next door called her, disrupting her sleep.

Her first thought: didn't he know she worked nights?

Her second thought: His voice, though utterly familiar, was a voice she'd never heard before.

Something had happened, he said. Something terrible. He had to go to the hospital with the baby. Would she come over and stay with his wife?

She looked out and saw the ambulance parked outside the yellow house, and dressed quickly, not even turning on the light.

She only hesitated once. She was standing in the kitchen, looking into the broom closet where she hung her blue parka. She reached out and touched the slippery skin of the jacket, memorized its color, took in the white fur trim around the hood.

It was probably only a few seconds that she stood there, but it was long enough that she would never lose the vision. Never forget how that jacket looked, or how she felt when she thought about what would happen when she put it on.

The ambulance was pulling away as she arrived at the house, but there were no lights flashing, no siren blaring.

"The baby's dead," the mother said flatly when the good neighbor entered her house. Then, while they waited for the husband to return, she railed at God, and at the priest who had cursed them. She hated them both, she said. She would never forgive them.

The good neighbor listened. Unbelieving, she walked in and looked at the empty crib, the half drunk bottle of milk. When she leaned close to the sheets and smelled his baby scent, she could remember holding him.

He was almost two by then, but they called it a crib death. Some less charitable neighbors would question what had "really happened" in the yellow house, what they had "gotten away with."

But the good neighbor always walked away from such conversations in horror.

Within months, everything had fallen apart. The husband fell into an affair with his wife's closest friend, and left the house. The wife took a job at a local donut shop, and began bringing men home at night.

The four remaining children, played alone in the street outside the yellow house; their laughter grew increasingly feverish. They were never dressed for the weather.

Things got worse on the quiet street. Cars pulled in and out at all hours of the night. People said the woman in the yellow house was dealing drugs.

Her parents took the oldest child to live with them. The other three went with their father and his new wife. The yellow paint peeled and no one mowed the grass.

Eventually, the young mother who had stopped being young long ago, moved to Florida. No one heard from her again, not her parents, not the children. It was said she was an addict.

But this is not her story. This is the story of the good neighbor. She grew old; she forgot things. But she never forgot to mourn the baby who had sat in her house in a playpen by the window.

Over and over, she would tell the story of the morning she got the call, how she saw the yellow house through a screen of snow when she looked out.

But mostly, she would remember opening the broom closet in the kitchen and looking at the blue parka with the fur trimmed hood, knowing that once she put it on, nothing would be the same

And then putting it on. Slowly. Deliberately.


Meanwhile, I'm still seeking answers to the question of why you blog. Please scroll down!


Tom.... said...

very sad and poignant....but a story of love nonetheless.
nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Arresting and beautifully told.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

Patry, I love this! We hang our memories on small details until the detail becomes the memory, and you show that beautifully here.

MB said...

The sad blue sleeve. Everything reduced to a sleeve and a moment. That's poignant indeed.

Mary said...

The parka with the shiny fabric and the baby with the clearest eyes.

This will stay in my memory. Beautifully told.

rdl said...

Wow what a story!

Susan said...

Heartbreaking, and beautifully written. I'll remember it for a long time.

Anonymous said...

What a hauntingly beautiful story. I'm so glad you commented so I could find you and read this.

Quillhill said...

Patry, I also am seeking answers. Were you silent for fifteen years?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how you found me-- but now that I have found you-- I'm never letting you go!!!

Love your writing.


Vickie said...


I think you offer us a unique perspective in otherwise "normal" stories. You've got a gift. Keep on giving.

Anonymous said...


robin andrea said...

Such a sad story, Patry. The small details are beautiful, and often they all that's left after such a heartbreaking moment. That moment when you know everything will change forever. Lovely and very sad.

Patry Francis said...

tom: I'm glad you read it as a story of love.

peter: thank you.

sharon: That's what intrigues me most about the story and about life: how some moments and the details they contain are more real than others. I suppose that's what we writers do--try to find those moments.

moose: this isn't my story, but I see that sleeve so clearly. THank you.

mary: I see those clear eyes very vividly, too, and the placid, easily amused baby. Always happy to see your blue feather here!

Hi R: Thanks for commenting.

susan: thank you for your visit and your kind words.

stephanie: I'm glad I found your blog, too. Wandering through the blogosphere is so much fun--and every now and then you land some place where you know you were meant to be.

Elizabeth: I don't know how I found you either, but I've bookmarked your beautiful site, and hope that others will visit as well. So happy you don't plan to let me go!

quillhill: Now that's an interesting question. I wonder how you came to ask it...The truth is I was never totally silent, but during my most intense years of childrearing, I didn't write much. I am in awe of mothers with small children who still have the creativity (and the discipline!) to continue writing.

scot: Thanks for seeing that. The "good neighbor" in the story was my mother. What I've admired most about her in this story of hers is her refusal to judge the couple or to allow anyone to speculate on "what might have happened" in her presence. "It's a sin to say that!" she would say in horror if anyone tried. "Do you have any idea how much that family has suffered?" It's one notion of sin that makes a lot of sense to me.

Vickie: What a wonderful thing to say--though it doesn't surprise me, coming from you. Thanks for being such a consistent supporter of my writing.

jose luis: nice to see you here again!

r.d.: yes, that moment. I wonder why it has remained so strong in memory. Stronger than the moment when she heard the truth about the baby, or when she went in to look at the empty crib. Reading your comment and thinking about it, I wonder if her heart didn't know what had happened as she reached for the blue parka...

Anonymous said...

Patry, what a beautifully told story. You always take someone else's point of view, never the natural protagonist or main character. So interesting how you do that.

Very, very nice!

Anonymous said...

This is very moving, Patry, as others have said. The refusal to judge, the conrete detail--profound and specific at once.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I really like this. I like it very much. As far as your question, I wrote about it here ( under the "What it is" post.

Anonymous said...

Very moving. It's so true that when death visits details such as the feel and color of a jacket can become sharply vivid. It's as if time slows down and a few moments in time are carved in stone.

sonia a. mascaro said...

Hi Patry Francis,thanks so much for the nice comment on my blog. I've followed you back to yours and what a interesting and intelligent place it is! I bookmark you and I will return soon! Regards, Sonia.

Quillhill said...

Patry, I wanted to comment on your story, as well as respond to your wonder. I came to ask my question in an attempt of B.) communication and friendship with another in the blogosphere. As to the story, I came away with a feeling not yet commented on. "This is about the woman next door."--that is the key that unlocks the whole story. She begins as a good woman, and through her goodness is slowly dragged into being taken advantage of. She doesn't like it, but she is good, so she lets it go on. Then something happens, and somehow she senses it is a life-altering event: "she thought about what would happen when she put it on." And what does she remember most: "knowing that once she put it on, nothing would be the same." She knew in this tiny action--"And then putting it on"--she would take back control of her life. With this action at this moment, she would be true to herself once again. The lives of the neighbors would not change whether she put on the coat or not, yet her conscience might fight and say "Be good, don't think so much about yourself." But her life would change, and she needed to regain her self. And so, with this momentous decision, she puts on her coat--how? "Slowly. Deliberately."

Matthew said...

"But this is not her story. This is the story of the good neighbor."

not sure how much you enjoy a little criticism on your blog, but personally, these are the two weakest sentences in what is, on the whole, a beautiful and moving story. those two sentences, plus one or two others, for me, took away from the rhythm a bit. otherwise, i liked it a lot, patry. you are a story-teller, there's no doubt about it. :)

Patry Francis said...

melly: interesting comment. It's probably the writer's role as observer, outsider even in one's own story.

kurt: Thank you. Knowing the deep thread of compassion that runs through everything you write, I'm not surprised that the refusal to judge would stand out for you.

popeye: thanks for the comment. I will visit your blog tonight to learn your answer to my blogging question.

Colleen: It's true. IN the most intense, revelatory moments in our lives, ordinary items take on a new life.

Thank you, Sonia--for your visit and your kind words. I have many Brazilian friends, and hope to visit your beautiful country someday.

Quillhill: Thank you for your effort to get to know the people you're communicating with in the blogosphere better. And also for your extraordinary insight into my little story. You made me understand it better myself. The fact that all the help the neighbor gives over the years is an imposition and yet she does it anyway says something about her character which I hadn't thought much about. And you are so right: In the end, standing before her coat, she knows that something far greater than the small kindnesses of the past is being asked of her, and she hesitates. This time when she puts the coat on it is a choice. I think you've nailed it. Thank you!

liz elayne lamoreux said...

Haunting, beautiful, real...these three words came to mind as I read this story. Moments that seem simple, putting on a coat, that stay with us forever.
I am so delighted to have found you...thanks for leaving a comment on my blog so I would.

Mike Da Hat said...

A good story well written. Quite moving too and unfortunately all too believeable especially the last bit where everything falls apart. Sad really.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful communicated story. The underpining fact here is that intending couples should be matured endowed with wisdom nevertheless, life itself is risk.