We were walking in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, my husband and I, a stroll over a bridge, a harbor, the boats bobbing along, and as an elderly man and his wife passed by, the man stopped and pointed over his shoulder. "Frances hit the tree again," he said, and I nodded, as if I knew Frances, as if I knew what tree he was talking about.
"It's a mess," the man said. "All over the road. But if you stay on this side of the street, you'll be okay." I nodded again and smiled. I was thinking What a nice place this is, where strangers issue warnings about fallen trees, where the gossip about Frances, whoever she is, whatever problems she's suffering from (crashing into trees! Oh my God!) is the gentle, informative kind of gossip, and not the mean, disparaging kind.
Who's Frances? my husband said.
I started spinning out theories. Frances the town goofball, the concerned chatter about her increasingly shaky driving abilities. My husband thought maybe Frances had been riding a bike. But would that knock a tree down, we wondered. We'd reached the corner and turned, and there was the tree ahead, a large piece of it lying across the road, and suddenly it occurred to me that what the man had actually said was not "Frances hit the tree again," but,
something more like "Branch fell from the tree up there." (For the record, I like my version of this story better.)
And then there were the women walking on the beach as my husband was angling to take a selfie with me and our son. Our son was the reason we were visiting Woods Hole. Spoiler alert: he and his longtime girlfriend were going to propose to each other that night! Her parents have a house in Woods Hole, and the family, and our son and his girlfriend had invited us to stay nearby, show us the town, be there for the big moment. The women on the beach stopped,
and one of them offered to take a picture of the three of us. "Life is short," she added, and I thought she'd said, "Like your shirt," and I was already spinning out theories about why she might like my husband's shirt, or my shirt, or maybe she was talking about our son's? This miscommunication was cleared up more quickly than the Frances saga
because the woman helpfully repeated herself and we all agreed that life IS short and we let her take our picture and then offered to take hers and her partner's, and after the picture-taking we chatted like old friends, saying Life is short to each other because it really and truly is.
My future daughter-in-law's parents live on the water and at night they served us dinner out on the porch and I couldn't get over the place, the people, the sailboats drifting by, the hoot every forty-five minutes of the nearby ferry going back and forth to Martha's Vineyard, which all of the Woods Hole-ians simply call "The Vineyard," the flowery tablecloth that I decided was not fancy but festive, and why couldn't I have a tablecloth like that if I wanted it?
Answer: I could. I do now. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Every morning my husband and I waded out into the cold water and watched our son and his girlfriend swim laps out to a buoy and my husband kept saying, This water is so cold! And I would say, I know! and then we would dare each other to dunk in, egging each other on by repeating our new favorite mantra: Life is short.
What do you think Frances is up to now, my husband asked me as we shivered together, our son and future daughter-in-law small blips against the horizon.
Only yesterday, it seemed, we were dropping our son off at college, one of the many times we dropped him off at college, and he said, I want you to meet my new girlfriend, and later, on the drive home, my husband said, Do you think she is the one?
And only the yesterday before that, our son was in high school whacking lacrosse balls in the backyard, in middle school building hovercrafts out of leaf-blowers with his best friend, a ten-year-old riding a bike ahead of me on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, the last time we visited this part of the country, and now--
The same night Frances hit the tree and the woman complimented our shirts, we all walked out on the beach as the sun was setting, my husband and me and our son's girlfriend's parents, the four of us hanging back, watching, as our son and their daughter walked ahead, out along a jetty, stopping at the tip, a sparkle of sunlight on the water.
Our son got down on one knee and after a few moments, he stood, and she got down on one knee.
And then it was over.
The sun had set. The ferry hooted as it made its way out of the harbor or into it. We drank champagne and made toasts and I didn't say it but I was thinking it: this place, these people,