The light and air of Meschel

MESCHEL and I would ride our bicycles through the streets of Ghent, stopping to admire stone turrets, ornate gates that led to tangled Victorian gardens, and sprawling houses with central elevators, which had long ago fallen into disuse. Ghent is one of Norfolk's oldest neighborhoods, established during the opulent Victorian era, when neighborhoods were designed and named after fashionable European cities. Sometimes we liked to imagine we were in the real Ghent, and we would make up stories about the families who lived in our favorite places, a contest Meschel always excelled in. On Sundays, when the corner confectionery was transformed into a fashionable sidewalk caf'e, we would wander down to the waterside to hear the harp player. I can still see the woman now, back straight, eyes unfocused, dreaming as her fingers swept the strings.

Meschel's narrative about her was wonderfully complicated. She had been a harpist with the Belgian Symphony and escaped from Ghent during World War II with the help of a German officer whose heart was broken as he watched her ship sail away. She had fled with only her harp, and someday, Meschel said with a whisper, her soldier was going to appear on the sidewalk.

Our apartment was the first floor of an unpretentious stucco house, but to us it was a treasure, and a gathering place for Meschel's artist friends. Always a recorder, she kept a sketch pad under our sofa and brought it out on these occasions. I can still see Ann's head bent over the pages, sketching away, recording the images of the people in the room. Sometimes Larry would take it up and scribble a few lines of poetry, or Blair would take it upon himself to make fun of us all with his caricatures.

Meschel was a gentle person with a fondness for discarded animals and furniture. Almost every week I would find a haggard-looking reject placed lovingly in the house. With the exception of Amanda the skunk and Pudlow the Dal-matian, the animals went on to other homes after she nursed them back to health, but the furniture became permanent. There was an old chair missing an arm, which Meschel decorated with an old linen she found at the Salvation Army store; a cracked mirror with faded gilt someone had left on the curb; a lopsided bureau rescued from the basement.

In the face of Meschel's simplicity, my taste began to change. I found myself closing the door on my Mediterranean bedroom suite and looking with longing at Meschel's room, which began to seem magical, musical. It was light and airy, its tall windows covered with lace curtains she had lovingly mended. When the windows were open, they billowed into the room, giving it an ethereal, peaceful feeling.

When I think about it now, I call that period my apprenticeship in eccentricity. The changes in my life style were subtle, almost unconscious, just like my feeble attempts with the sketch pad. One day, as I was driving out, I noticed a wicker laundry basket on the side of the road. Ordinarily I would not have given it a second thought, but it caught my eye. It was dark brown and missing a handle, and was very lopsided, but otherwise intact. I vowed to pick it up on my way home, but it was gone. I shrugged and forgot about it, but that night I opened the closet door in the hall and there it was, with Meschel's laundry in it.

I don't know what became of Meschel. The last I heard she had gone to Athens. When we parted, I gave her a glass wind chime she had always admired, and she gave me the sketch pad. Whenever I take it out of my treasure box, I think back these many years and smile at the memory of us, two women, so different, sharing something of each other, something beyond the material items we exchanged.

Meschel inspired my creativity and imagination. Someday I hope to see her again, to put into her hands the sketch pad, which I have saved all these years, along with my fondest memory of her. There was an abandoned train station at the far end of Ghent, and in the summers someone kept a garden in the field. One year they planted sunflowers, and one of them became too heavy and bent in the middle of the stem. Meschel propped it up with a stake and lovingly stroked its petals. From then on I always imagined that the sunflowers waved happily whenever they saw her coming.

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