Ann Hutton

Author, essayist, journalist, poet

Walking with Jonah

walking with Jonah

I walk up South Manor with Jonah in my arms, intending to distract him from his realization that Mommy is not around, hoping to assuage his minor upset, his tiredness, his overriding desire to bury his face into the pillow of her breast and be drunk with the milk of all that it means. The neighborhood has shifted its persona from the closed doors and noisy traffic of daytime to that interval of human presence, as people water their flowers and unload groceries from the trunks of cars and knock on doors. A man sitting at the curb in the opened passenger side of a van, watching his child scoot around the sidewalk, smiles at Jonah and says something about his sweetness. Babies are irresistible when they stare out in wonder at other faces. The child scoots up close and said, “Hi baby!” I pause long enough for them to get a dose of this wide-open baby-ness.

The uneven bluestone slabs that extend around each city block infer movement and connection. It’s been years since I had a sidewalk to tread, or a reason to tread one. This is my third walk with Jonah. The first was on the day that he was born, before he emerged in fact. Teal’s labor was stalled, so we headed out the door and around the perimeter of ten blocks. She trudged steadily, pausing only when a contraction overwhelmed her body. On that day, too, people greeted us casually, noticing her huge shape and commenting on the weather. An older woman with her daughter and grandchild passed us by and told Teal to go swallow caster oil, three large spoonfuls—that would get this baby to come out, she assured us.

A couple weeks ago, I came over to take Jonah off her hands for an hour so that she could finish a writing assignment. It was warm and sunny, and we used Jonah’s new stroller. I walked all the way up South Manor and across Albany Avenue, into an entirely different sort of neighborhood, one with broader lawns and more space between each well-tended home. Here, the houses on one side of the street back up to the woods and creek. On the other side they are closer to each other, a little more densely situated. The creek side homes seem somehow showier, less neighborly. No one was out in the yards on this side. The other side was busier with people trimming their bushes, mowing, or building new additions to their already-nice domiciles. Fewer cars zoom down these streets. Less noise and ruckus in stark contrast to the poorer conditions south of Albany. Teal has lived there for a half dozen years, and has just discovered this middle-class, manicured neighborhood only a quarter mile from her house.

Walking will do that. It slows you down and lets you observe the details, like the vegetable garden tucked close to a driveway next to a small cottage, itself jammed up against a multiple-tenant dwelling with no grass at all. Like the colorful arrangement of perennials hugging a fence that leads to a charming studio garage out back, or the placement of a post box on the corner where the scruffy grass is strewn with rubber bands—signs of a thoughtless postal worker who evidently considers one side of Albany Avenue to be less worthy of care. Walking has you noticing the faces of people, some too busy with their own lives to notice you back. Others willing to stop between the car and the house to nod and give their unprejudiced attention to Jonah.

Poorer folks walk more than wealthier folks who are lucky enough to own a car or two. Are we assumed to be amongst the poor, strolling out of one neighborhood into another? I’ve seen mothers pushing a stroller with two babies of different ages, holding the hand of yet another child on foot, and loaded down with grocery bags. Obviously doing so by necessity. But there I was with only one baby on board, progressing slowly and looking around as I went, eating a candy bar, aimless except to keep Jonah happy and occupied in the fresh air and sunshine—not to be mistaken for someone who got lost on the way from the store and stumbled into a more fortunate part of town in error.

But all this occurs to me differently on different days it seems. Today I’d driven to Teal’s to baby sit for the first time in Jonah’s privileged life. This evening, distraught as he is, causing me to set out on foot, the neighbors show themselves with a friendliness, a commonality that gives assurance. I walk along O’Neil carrying him instead of letting him ride. It’s a matter of holding him close with my quiet, steady voice in his ear. “Look at these purple irises, Jonah. Wow. Smell this bush. That’s a loud car, huh? Can you hear the train?” He flips his body around to look at everything. He zeroes in on the faces we encounter, temporarily forgetting his woes. The faces are comforting, or at least, non-threatening.

Ahead of us an elderly woman holds a hose and showers her roses. I stop to let Jonah see the broad display of flowers that pack the bed along an asphalt driveway. A short chain link fence surrounds her modest, two-story house. An oversized flagpole stands in the middle of the narrow bed, and at its base lies a stone plaque. She suddenly notices us on the sidewalk and releases the nozzle, stopping the flow of water. Her eyes smile at Jonah as she shuffles towards us.

We chat the way strangers do on the occasion to encounter each other up close. She talks directly to the baby in my arms, cooing at him with instant adoration. She tells me how dry the ground is even though we’ve had rain, and waves around at her flowers like they are thirsty children. Her roses are wild, she says, grown from a mere sprig she found in the country—probably long ago. I ask if they are the fragrant kind, and she exclaims: yes, they are.

I point down South Manor to show her where Teal lives on the corner. She doesn’t know Teal, but knew the people who lived there before. Her name is Susan, she tells me. S-t-u-d-t, she spells, and then explains that she is Italian but her husband was German. I learn that they bought this house after the War—I assume WWII—filling it piece by piece with the very furniture she still owns. He died just a few years ago. I glance down at the stone plaque and wonder where he is buried. Susan’s face shows the slightest signs of having endured a mini-stroke. One eye sort of squinches more than the other, and her smile is tentative on that side of her face.

She comes closer and goes on to tell me that all her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren live in Oklahoma, unfortunately far away from her. She goes to stay with them for a couple months each winter, but says it’s colder there and she’s always glad to come home. She has live in this house for more than sixty years. I hear a brief account of how it used to be and how it has changed—the privately owned domiciles now rented out to who knows who, the garage down the street that first became an outlet for newspapers and then a funky deli.

Even though she reports closing her door at dusk and turning on her alarm system until morning, I get the sense that she is still comfortable in this place—one that must hold memories, strong and dear enough to allay any fears an eighty-nine-year-old, still living alone, might naturally be subjected to. She says she owns a car, parked permanently in the garage, because with her bad knee—she can no longer drive.

I could listen to her story for a while longer, but Jonah wiggles and starts to object to standing there. We part, and she grips the nozzle tight with strong hands that once held babies and patted backs. Her short, sturdy body turns to face the flowers. I imagine her here in 1946, quick and lively, just starting her own family.

When I reach the house only a hundred feet away, I see a little kid bicycling up the street in the twilight, arriving at his front door. It’s almost nine o’clock. Is he so grounded and familiar with the territory that he cruises around after dark, independent and unafraid? I try to imagine Jonah living in this neighborhood for the next ten years as it continues to run itself down like an old record. As I pace back and forth on the front porch in the cool nighttime, he falls asleep on my shoulder.