Afew days ago I encountered an old friend, someone I thought had disappeared from my life forever. She slipped up from behind while I was busy concentrating on other things and it took me a few minutes to recognize her. I had gone to the movies and as the credits for ``Places in the Heart'' rolled onto the opening scenes and landscape, she silently began to merge with them and make her presence known. She took me by the hand and we ventured into yesterday, opening hidden places in my heart that I hardly knew were there. It was an emotionally wrenching trip that stirred up mixed feelings of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain.
My old friend and I recognized with delight the push-button light switch by the front door and the wood-burning range where we warmed our feet on cold days. The kitchen sink with the curtain strung across the front was a welcome sight. So were the porch swing and the kitchen table with its wooden top warped from numerous scrubbings -- and the well-worn doll that would have to survive until at least another Christmas.
But the most moving thing about our trip was seeing all of the people we used to know, the friends and neighbors we always took for granted. Although her face wasn't visible, we caught a glimpse of our mother almost at once. She was in a brief shot from a distance, with the credits printed over it. But we knew immediately who she was.
The scene was a familiar one. We had seen it almost every day when we lived a few short blocks from Highway 66. She opened the door and handed a plate of food from our own scant larder to a man, waiting with head bowed and hat in hand, on the doorstep. It hurt to watch, and my throat tightened as my friend and I again experienced our unadorned childhood awareness of the deep need, the overwhelming emotional hunger and shame of those people on our doorstep.
As we were drawn into the compelling story we became involved with the three disparate characters thrown together through adversity. We knew that, even in the face of the uneven odds, they would make it and that in spite of her fears Sally Field would hold her own. In those sturdy oxfords her feet were as reassuring as our mother's had been. They were firmly planted on very shaky ground and when she stumbled or faltered we knew she wouldn't fall. We knew because mothers were like that. So were fathers. They had to be.
When we went into the church the men and women looked the way everyone's parents looked in 1935. Their clothes were simple, clean, and efficient. The women with their hair combed smoothly, their faces free of makeup, were magnificent in their plainness.
By the time the movie ended I had almost melded with the screen. I had taken communion with the people I knew and with those times, and realized that we are all still very much a part of one another. As the lights came on, I had to remain seated for a few minutes so that I could get my bearings before returning to today's reality.
When the theater was almost empty and I stood up to go, my old friend was still by my side. I knew that she would come home with me and I wasn't sure that I wanted her to. Meeting her in the darkness was one thing, dealing with her out in the open was another. The emotions she brought with her were too overwhelming.
But unsettling as her presence was, there was no leaving her behind. When I stopped by the market to pick up the makings for a quick microwave dinner, she insisted on making the selections. Instead of heading for the frozen food section she went straight to the produce department and chose green beans and new potatoes. Then, as if she had planned it all along, she moved on to the meat counter and found a package of smoked ham; not a whole ham, not even the expensive center slices. She chose a no-nonsense package of ends and pieces, certainly not company fare. On the way to the checkout stand we picked up a box of cornmeal, something I rarely if ever buy.
But I didn't protest. Bringing her home with me for a visit was turning out to be rather nice, after all. She helped me prepare the beans, new potatoes, and ham pieces, and, ignoring the microwave, put them in a pot together to simmer, the way our mother used to. Then we made the corn bread, and when it was in the oven we savored the fragrance that warmed our hearts as much it did the kitchen. The familiar meal was delicious, and I went back for seconds. Not because I was still hungry but because it was so deeply satisfying.
My friend remained with me for a few days before she gradually withdrew, back into those hidden places in my heart. This time she left the door ajar.