When I remember Betty Colburn, I remember her house. She lived in the same small, cozy ranch-style home for as long as I knew her. I remember the rush of potpourri, the wood spindles lining the entryway. I remember the step that led from the kitchen to the living room, the way I’d sit on it next to my mom. I remember the rough-hewed stone fireplace and running my fingers over its most rugged spots. I remember wood paneling, foiled wallpaper, and a wall-sized mirror in one of the empty bedrooms, gold flecks dotting its surface. I’d stare into it, moving my head so as to avoid the flecks.
Most of all, I remember the dim basement, where, beside the pool table, a bookcase towered over my tiny head. On the second shelf from the bottom were books by Stephen King. The Shining, Christine, The Dead Zone; I’d flit through them as her voice and those of my parents carried down the stairs. I’d find the bloody parts and read them over and again, a rush of fear and rebellion in my belly. The air felt heavier down there, comforting like a cloak. It was here that I learned how much I loved to be surrounded by books, to run my fingers over the coated cover stock and ink, to luxuriate in the feeling of it on my skin long after I’d reshelved them. She gave me those books some years later. I read them until the spines split.
I remember the Blarney Stone, the certificate that hung over the fireplace saying she’d kissed it. I asked her why a dozen times, and every time she told me a story I can’t remember anymore. I didn’t know Ireland existed. I didn’t know there was a world outside of Michigan. Her English accent still arched from her mouth, and it alone did more to open my mind to the breadth of the world than any history book. When I finally went to Ireland four years ago, she told me to visit Cork. We didn’t, but I wish we had. I wish I’d kissed the Blarney Stone and received a certificate that I could show her.
I received my first communion when I was 7 or 8. They were so proud, and I didn’t quite understand. This was just another kind of school. God wasn’t real yet. They bought me a gift, and the package was shaped like a video game. I hoped it was a video game. I was crushed when I opened it to discover a gold cross, a child cast in the light of Christ affixed to its center. I put it in a drawer.
Years later, when I did find God, I fished it out. I hung it above my desk. I prayed to it. When I lost God, I clung to it more. It still hangs above my desk, though the child is lost now, a tiny black hole in his place. It is my reminder that the world is bigger than I realize, even if I don’t always believe that.
She did that for me; the sprawl of her long, fruitful life manifested in objects and essences, ones that taught me at a young age just how much there is to be discovered.