Same Story, Different Eyes to See It

Fire+Lookout+from+Flickr

Susanna didn’t have any employees at the store that day to hold down the fort, otherwise, she told me, she’d go home and get her copy of the book for me. While she mused, she rummaged around for a piece of scratch paper, presumably, to write the title down for me so I could find it elsewhere.

Instead, she grabbed a pen and started drawing a map; a map to her house. This was 2002, before smartphones, and, at least for mere mortals, before GPS, so a hand drawn map was the only thing to do. I am sure, however, she would do the same today. 

Susanna drew a detailed map, right down to the potted geraniums on the southeast corner of the porch under which her spare key to the back door was. She knew which bookcase Milking the Moon was in, on which wall, and had the book’s exact location narrowed down to, “…about a third of the way down from the top shelf, and about a third of the way in from the left.” 

When I was back to Missoula in September of 2002, after a stunning summer on the fire lookout, Susanna’s yarn shop was one of my first stops. 

I was glad she didn’t ask about my knitting projects since they were amateurish and ill fitting. I’d lost track of time, space, and apparently reality with one of the scarves I made, which grew to nearly ten feet long before I finally stopped. 

She only wanted to know about my experience with the book, and how it felt to read it on a mountaintop without interruptions of ordinary life. She wanted me to describe my view from where I read, the feeling of my dog at my feet, and what the breeze felt like in the evening. 

How she knew not only that I would love this book, but that it would become one of my all-time favorites, is beyond me.

I sank into a chair and answered her questions, then I told her about the violet-green swallows that I had discovered using my discarded yarn ends and pieces to weave into their nests, lining it with tufts of my dog, Bandit’s, coppery red hair. I told her how sometimes the forest fire smoke gave the air a metallic sheen, and set the sunsets ablaze.

When finally, I handed her back the book, along with a thank-you note, she slid it back across the table. “Pass it along,” she winked, eyes shining. We writers have to be careful with superlatives, and cliches, but to describe Susanna’s eyes as shining is simply telling the truth of what I saw, the same way you’d describe the color of an apple, or the leaves on a tree.

Susanna has been gone since 2009. June 5 will mark thirteen years since the entryway to her store was filled with candles, bouquets of flowers, cards, and notes; poems, thank-yous, and farewell messages written in chalk on the sidewalk 

Though the store is under new ownership, it remains largely unchanged.  Patrons still huddle around the glow of Susanna’s spirit, warming their hands on the stories that outlived the person who once contained them.

This summer, twenty years after the first I spent on a fire lookout tower, I’m returning for another crack at the experience. This time, I will be on a different mountain top, with a different dog at my feet. I may actually finish knitting a pair of socks instead of abandoning the project when it’s time for the hard part; turning out the heel.  But even more likely, I might come to terms with the fact that my knitting skills may be forever relegated to the scarf that goes on for miles.  

I will take Milking the Moon up the mountain with me again, though it too will be different. I will take a different copy of the book from the original one that Susanna gave me twenty years ago, since I did as she said, and passed it along. It will be a different story though, read through different eyes. But I will be sure to pay attention to how it feels this time around, and I will find some way to let Susanna know.

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