In my sophomore year of high school, an English assignment I received instructed me to write a short story based off O. Henry’s ‘Gift of the Magi.’ The resulting story was based off two women who greatly influenced my life – my great-grandmother Opal, and my sweet neighbor. The two ladies came from a very different time, and were so grandmotherly, each in her own way. My great grandmother has passed away since then, but I adopted her name – Opal Schroeder – as my pen name in my freshman English class, and I still think of her every time I celebrate my birthday: we were both born on April 26. As for my neighbor, I hope to continue visiting her, as she encouraged me in my piano playing and hired me to water her beloved flowers in the hot Texas summer. This is for the lady who made amazing homemade fried chicken, and the woman who welcomed my family to her neighbor with open arms.
Almost Ninety Years
By Shannon Morris 12/5/13
When Norma Oaks called Room 2103 at the Paradise Valley Retirement Center, she was not answered. She waited, listening to an empty, buzzing ring, and then hung up in frustration. Leaning back in her cushioned chair, she shifted her hearing aid to a more comfortable position. “Well, that’s that,” she announced to a tabby cat who was blinking disdainfully on the kitchen rug. “Esther didn’t answer – I don’t believe it wouldn’t do any good to call again.” The cat snorted. “I really can’t remember what she told me to be sure to bring, but I’ll just come anyhow.” She sighed, and then smiled to herself as she took off her eyeglasses and set them on the table. Her cozy, sunlit kitchen had never been more peaceful. Meticulously stacked dishes were all in their proper cupboards, the steady hum of the refrigerator was lulling her to sleep, and the cows roaming around the flat, grassy pasture outside were blearily, blissfully basking in the morning sunshine. For a long time, Norma simply dozed in her chair, and the cat, complacent and bored, dozed with her.
Glad to have caught a wink or two, eventually Norma opened her eyes and nodded to herself. Rising slowly and leaving the kitchen, she limped to her room and there before the mirror removed all fifteen of her pink curlers, and neatly brushed and pinned up her hair. She pulled off her bathrobe to smooth the dress beneath, like a lady should. Now she was ready. “I mustn’t forget the birthday present,” she reminded herself, returning to the kitchen and picking up a pink gift bag overflowing with foamy white tissue paper. Taking up her purse, she trotted to the front door, turning the large bolt on the inside to lock it. She left through the house through the deserted kitchen, and the dim garage.
Norma enjoyed the drive to town, because even though she had driven this road hundreds of times, the view had not yet grown old or tiring. As usual, she watched the wide, expansive sky for birds, her ‘little friends,’ who dipped and soared over the rolling empty land beneath them. Usually she also kept one eye on the dirt road for shy, scared rabbits, or wary deer, but in the daytime they practically never appeared, and she arrived in town after an uneventful drive. Norma left the car at Paradise Valley’s parking lot and strolled leisurely up the sidewalk to the door of room 2103. Before she even knocked, Esther Green had opened the door, and leaning on her cane with one arm and embracing Norma with the other she exclaimed, “Happy Ninetieth Birthday!” Both still felt spry as young girls.
Chatting with her guest enthusiastically Esther ushered her friend in, and together they sat in gently creaking, complaining rockers, enjoying the breeze blowing in through an open window. The little apartment room was tidy, and shaded from the brilliant sun outside by a row of oak trees growing beside the assisted living center. In the room were two very comfortable rockers, a cuckoo clock, a low side table that was covered with birthday cards for Esther, and a large lamp and tiny electric fan. Other than a small bookcase in the corner filled with pictures frames and books, that was all Esther’s living room contained. A kitchen and bedroom branched off it.
Retrieving a shiny package from her basket of magazines, Esther half hid it in her lap as she informed Norma , “you know, my great granddaughter is coming with her Mama to visit today. I’ll have to have you stay for lunch to meet her. Such a dear! But, goodness, didn’t you bring your glasses?” Surprised, Norma put a hand to her face. “Why, that’s what you told me to remember to bring!” Esther chuckled as she handed a present wrapped in green wrapping paper to her birthday twin. “My goodness, a book! But I can’t tell what the cover says,” laughed Norma, peering hard at it. “It’s another hymnal for you,” Esther informed her, rocking rhythmically in her chair with a grin on her face. “ Not that you need another one, but even though you don’t play the piano anymore I know you love the words. I hope you enjoy it honey – when you have your glasses! My goodness Norma, perhaps we’re finally growing old! How in the world did you drive all the way over here without your glasses!” For the next few minutes the two friends giggled over the incident. Norma, who admired what she could see of the book, eventually put it aside and offered to set out teacups and tea bags for them if Esther would tell her where she kept them. Esther hesitated, and looked sheepish. “When I was at the store, I completely forgot to buy tea bags. I’m afraid our tea party will be rather tea – less.” Norma, silent a moment, didn’t quite know what to say. Eventually, trying not to laugh, she handed Esther her birthday present. “Oh, Esther, we don’t really need tea. Let’s snack on cookies or something. And don’t worry about opening the gift – I just bought you a new teakettle!” For the rest of their morning together, the two friends sat on the little porch outside, joking about the book they couldn’t read, and the tea kettle they couldn’t use, and giving each other a hard time. After all, they had been friends almost ninety years.