This past November, my husband and I were deep in conversation when our driver suddenly stopped due to traffic. As we looked out into the rainy streets of New York City, I was stunned to see Paley Park just steps away. She (because she is too beautiful to be anything else) was glossed with rain, just as she had been the first time we met in 2007. Time has a funny way of bending in on itself. So much has happened since then, but I am still the same girl; I still believe in all that is good. And, I know I am blessed.
When we returned home, I pulled out a copy of the book I wrote about my weeklong retreat in New York City ~ WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, A MEMOIR. And, I located the chapter where I mentioned my first introduction to Paley Park. I’ve included a partial entry here.
WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, A MEMOIR
Elizabeth Mozley Partridge
Simplicity – free of complexity, refinement, or pretentiousness
For only a moment, I forget where I am. I have awakened to the sweet sound of rain, its drops playing out a song on the sill and making a tattoo of patterns on the glass, droplets that splat, gather and run. I’ve awakened in the past, on my old couch. How often I slept my lonesome weekends through.
There was that one soaking April I awakened to find the French doors of my living room standing open, thrown wide the night before to let in the breeze. I both loved and hated that white room, with its spacious doors set across the back. On the second story, it sat as if nestled within the limbs of trees. This morning the rain had made heavy the syrupy smell of warming wisteria and its scent had come inside with the wind to blanket the house. I had risen, prepared a pot of coffee, put Madeleine Peyroux and Miles Davis on the Hi-Fi.
I was determined that spring to make myself happy. Often, I’d waste the day away. Surrounding myself with cookbooks pulled from the shelf, I’d browse the stacks for something to cook, something to have waiting for the children when they returned from the weekend with their father.
So, I have claimed today as one of those days. It will be a day without destination, a day wasted away without purpose. But, really, in all things there is purpose.
Darting along the sidewalk, I sidestep a woman scolding her son for being late. These kids are still in school and will not be out for another week. Continuing the school year through June would be unbearable in Alabama. I turn, and cannot help but watch the woman. Having entered the store behind me, she continues with her barrage of corrections. Something in her tone reminds me of my mother. She is not really angry, but the voice holds the tone of determination.
Mother used to grab me by the shoulders, demand that I meet her gaze and then with an intensity that sank into my bones she would declare, “I want you strong and independent. I don’t want you scared to try things like I was.” She and my father loved me and my younger brother. That was obvious. But, we were never smothered with affection, never spoiled. The objective they sought in child rearing was clearly to produce two kids who were sure of themselves and independent.
Growing up in the country as we did, my brother and I became inseparable. The isolation created between us an amazing bond. But, it also fostered a desire to go solo. When sports began to consume Oba’s weekends, I was left alone in what had always been a shared adventure. Strangely, rather than feel this as a loss, it grew into an inexplicable love, an unequivocal joy. Instead of accepting invitations from girlfriends for a day shopping or burgers and a movie, I preferred instead to spend my days hiking to the lake that sat nestled in the woods, gather a pile of pine needles to make a soft place where I could curl up for several hours in the quiet and read. Other days, I’d throw a shovel in the back of our old truck, and spend hours riding the countryside searching old home places for daffodils. I learned early that I am very comfortable setting out on my own.
The sky rips open and rain begins to spill onto the city. The echo of thunder ricochets off the skyscrapers with alarming intensity! It is unlike any sound I’ve ever heard. I sprint to the nearest cover along with every other soul who didn’t have the foresight to bring an umbrella. Just as quickly as it came, the rain slackens, then tapers off to a slow drizzle. Covering my head with a jacket, I tiptoe through the puddling water on the sidewalk and continue skipping between shops, searching for shelter within each, seeking enjoyment that requires no thought, just an aimless filling of the senses with shape, color, sound and scent. There is no hurry, no course to follow, just the pure enjoyment of an overcast gray sky, the creamy glow of traffic lights, the rain itself bouncing between the buildings as it picks up pace again. There is nothing so soothing as the low sound of distant rolling thunder and the muted light of a dreary day.
I turn a corner onto an unknown road and find the fountain. I know instantly that it will be my favorite and so silently claim it as a place of my own. It reminds me of one in downtown Gadsden next door to the old Pitman Theater on Broad Street. I mark it in my mind so I can return later. I have stumbled upon Paley Park, established in May 1967, a month before my birth! The plaque near the entrance reads, “This park is set aside in memory of Samuel Paley, 1875-1963, for the enjoyment of the public.”
Two questions come: Why is no one here? and What day is it? The realization that I’ve begun to let my days blend together brings a sudden smile. I feel that I am making some sort of progress, but toward what I am unsure. Folding my jacket and placing it in a chair, I sit back to appreciate what can only be a temporary moment of seclusion. The backdrop of the park is the waterfall, a twenty-foot sheet of falling water. Cobblestone pavers cover the ground and, all around, ivy buffers the encasement provided by the opposing buildings. The park is filled with the green foliage of trees with which I am unfamiliar, and a profusion of potted yellow and white flowers. The wind having died down with the passing of the storm, now blows gently through the trees and birds reappear to bathe in the puddles that remain. Bending, I collect a white rock that seems so out of place. Pausing before pocketing it, I notice its jagged edges, its surprising heft, and the way its surface glints against the light.
For centuries, man has erected fountains. Originally begun as wells that provided the city with water, fountains later sprang up, creating a place to congregate, a place to relax. The longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person took place at Jacob’s well with the woman of Samaria. The Persians are often credited with creating the first garden fountains and Romans the aqueducts and public baths.
Sitting here alone, reflecting on these things, two memories come to mind. I remember the sense of fulfillment I experienced when Anderson, my daughter, and I drank from the fountain on a hillside in Rome, where the cold water poured out onto the streets from the ancient aqueducts.
Though warned not to drink from it by our guide, we couldn’t resist; ambivalence must surely be an inherited trait! The other memory is of a time when having tired of a lecture on the relationship between Southern food and literature I’d made my way through the streets of Natchez, Mississippi where I stumbled upon St. Mary Basilica and its simple but gracious fountain that sat surrounded by old oaks. Rather than being overcome by the majesty of the sanctuary, I was taken instead with the unassuming oasis.
Neither of these memories are distant enough to have been forgotten or shelved, and yet they are seldom, if ever, recalled. But, they come to me now and the recollection of these happy times, these times I felt fulfilled, seem to ease the anxiety that has kept me in constant company these past months.
I cannot explain the need to revisit certain buildings and places, or why it is that they are of such importance to me, a Southerner. But, I think that the love for this city’s landmarks is a universal thing. Most people understand the importance of place to the human spirit. Just as individuals are unique, the characteristics of a place which appeal to us, those to which we attach some meaning or connection, are just as varied, just as distinctive. A place that holds no appeal to one person may be of inherent importance, almost sacred, to another. Yet, experiencing ties to a place and being drawn to one are very different; while we are drawn to those that supplement our soul, we become tied to the one that breathes of home. When people reside in an area to which they feel no attraction or sentimental connection there is often the recognition that something inherent and fundamental is missing. And so they search.
Elizabeth Mozley Partridge, an excerpt from WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, A MEMOIR
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