ATWELL: She Would Have Loved That Smile


She Would Have

Loved That Smile

Editor’s Note: Jim Atwell penned this column on Aug. 30, 2001, when he and Anne were still living in Fly Creek.

By JIM ATWELL • Special to

I can’t do justice in words to an incident last Saturday. It was too rich with meaning. But the moment was so wondrous that I’ll still try to tell you.  Read the words, please; then make up for their shortfall from your own life’s experience.

The Olde English Musical Cottage lives on.

      Last Saturday was a great day for our hamlet; our annual community yard sale brought hundreds to Fly Creek.  Many started the morning with our Fire Department Auxiliary’s breakfast (the best such meal around, I think.) Afterward, the big crowds moved among some three dozen family yard sales, and then they gathered back at the Grange for the Historical Society’s lunch of barbecue, salads, and homemade desserts.

       Like many Fly Creekers, Anne and I had rummaged through attic and basement, barn and garage, thinning out our stuff.  Before moving to Fly Creek, each of us had closed down a house in Annapolis, and so there was plenty of stuff to cull.

A widower, I had moved up here alone almost 10  years ago. Before the move, I had had to empty the house my late wife and I had shared for 18 years.  Gwen had made it a beautiful home; and, to a grieving husband, dismantling her decorating felt like treason. But what else could be done? I held a half-dozen sales down there, selling off elements of share shared life.

A lot of stuff, however, ended up traveling north with me – either because I ran out of time or just couldn’t part with it. And in Fly Creek, much of it stayed in boxes stowed in attic or basement.

Then, after I’d been alone in Fly Creek for five years, Anne and I married; and that poor girl had to wedge her own extra goods into those already stuffed spaces.  But she did it, as you’d expect, with good grace and humor.  And now, four years later, we were plunging into the combined piles, sort for the yard sale.  To use the great local expression, we’d taken on “hoeing out.”

As we hoed, I came across items I hadn’t seen since I’d packed them, down south.  Many were decorative items that Gwen had once chosen with great care, or items so closely associated with her that, back then, I just couldn’t let them go.

If you know my Anne, you won’t wonder for a moment how she reacted to those relics of my life before our shared life.  As I turned them up, I explained each to her; and that fine woman listened and understood.  And she comforted me with something she’d said many times before: She’s glad for my past happy marriage; it bodes well for ours.

I don’t know how I lucked out, getting a second wonderful woman in my life.  But I’m very grateful.

Anyway, a lot of items rich in personal history went into the yard sale. I was now ready to let them go.

We set up the sale on the shady lawn outside Anne’s office. While I spent most of the morning down at the Grange, helping with sales there, Anne handled the customers who tramped up our driveway to appraise the wares.

Around lunchtime I dropped home to find that Anne, predictably, had been doing a great job. Lots of stuff, hers and mind, had been sold and was gone.

As I sat down with her behind the tables, though, one remaining item caught my eye.  Still there was a simple oblong jewel case made to look like a thatched cottage.  When one raised the hinged roof, a mechanism played, “An English Country Garden.”

A dear friend had given Gwen the box on her last birthday, her 47th, three months before her death.  Gwen loved it, kept it at her bedside. And as I sat by her through the last desolate days and nights after coma seemed to have smothered all consciousness, I’d sometimes open the box, hoping that somehow she’d heard that delicate refrain. . .

Well, last Saturday, a family came up our driveway – young parents, a happy baby boy, and his big sister. The little girl, about 5, was beautiful: perfect features, honey-blonde curls, eyes of purest blue.

I looked at her and then at the music box and knew at once what must happen. I beckoned the little girl over to the thatched cottage and raised its lid. When the lilting melody began, her eyes widened. Her face glowed with wonder.

I caught Anne’s eye. She understood (of course) and nodded slightly. Then I spoke to the little girl.

“Would you like to have this special box?”

“Oh, yes,” she whispered.

“Then it’s yours, as a gift.  Keep your treasures in it, won’t you?”

“I will,” she said. And cupping the little cottage in both hands, she held it to her ear, the better to the melody.  Her distant, luminous smile just then – well, you’ll have to imagine it, friends. I don’t have words for it.

That box, as my dearest Anne understood, could not be sold. It had to be given.

And that girl’s smile – how Gwen would have loved it!

Jim Atwell, retired college administrator and Quaker minister, lives in Cooperstown.

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