Box of Crayons by Lois Hibbert

September 8, 2021

Heading out today, my thoughts refuse to settle, draining my mental energy. Escalating issues with a negligent window replacement company; pressure to get quotes to replace a long rotting retaining wall that is housing wasps, at least one chipmunk, and who knows what else; resentment and impatience at my increasing responsibilities and restrictions as my husband’s caregiver; worry about my oldest daughter, widowed with three young children; and grief, as always, hovering.

As I approach the ravine, I remember the quote chalked yesterday on a sidewalk near the entrance: “Life is about using the whole box of crayons.” I resolve to use today’s walk to focus, not on my mental static, but on nature’s colours.

I look up at lazy clouds in a perfect summer sky, then down, to a pair of mourning doves whirring away at my approach, their soft taupe feathers blending into the darker brown of fallen leaves, still wet from last night’s downpour. Tall dandelion look-alikes and clusters of actual dandelions—had those missed their spring wakeup call or did they have enough energy for a second bloom?

We call some plants weeds only when they grow where we don’t want them to but here, they belong although we might not like some of their survival tactics. Even this drab brown-grey burdock lurking at the path’s edge, ready to hitchhike on a pant leg or sock or dog. Beside it, totally lacking in the menace of its bristly neighbour, demure mauve clover reminds me of bigger farm clover blossoms that I would pick as a child to taste their delicate honey. Farther on, brilliant yellow masses of low mounded trefoil command my attention. Even the absence of colour draws my eye, raindrops caught in the vee of a broadleaf plant, diamonds sparkling in today’s sun.

I stop briefly at my daughter’s commemorative bench on its platform under the dappled shade of big trees. She enjoyed this trail and I think she would have liked the place we chose, close enough to a creek to hear the ripple of water over rocks. As always, I touch the plaque as I leave. I will visit longer on my return near the end of my walk.

I give up noting different shades of green on a less travelled section of the path. Pure green grass invigorated by the rain. Poplar leaves fluttering their silver undersides and dark green tops in the breeze. Dusty gray-green birch leaves, blue-green spruce, leaves of lime green, deep emerald, dark green shading to burgundy, and some already painted in vibrant autumn red, yellow, and orange.

I walk more slowly now, not for exercise, but to be open to the beauty of the countless colours in nature’s box of crayons. Blooms that vary from creamy Queen Anne’s Lace, what we called wild carrot on the farm, to the quiet blue of chicory, the delicate pink of a scotch thistle and Look-At-Me! fuchsia in a stand of wild cosmos. Goldenrod waving me closer to notice black and yellow striped honey bees mining its nectar.

On my return, a petite young woman is pushing her bike into the shade behind the bench. I realize she’s arriving, not leaving, when she takes off her helmet, revealing short choppy hair black at the roots with a crown of generous streaks the colour of ripened wild oat grasses I saw earlier. There is room for both of us, I say, this is my daughter’s bench. She reads my daughter’s name on the plaque, tracing it with her finger, then the rest of the words: “April 1983 to July 2013. Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

I explain that the quote was on Alison’s Facebook page when she died and that it was appropriate for her. She doesn’t ask how Alison died or why it was appropriate although I could tell her about the storms of her mental health struggles and how much she loved dance. How visiting this bench is sometimes a comfort that we had the gift of her life for 30 years and sometimes a painful reminder of loss, but more often, a bittersweet mixture of both.

I tell her about my box-of-crayons walk and we talk about the colours I’ve noticed and the colours in front of us. The rich brown earth—we all come from the earth, she says and I reply that we will all return to it. The pale gray stones on the slopes of the creek, the darker gray shades of bark. We sit in comfortable silence for a few minutes and when I say I should head home she asks if I would like a song. Surprised, I agree.

She asks me to tell her more about Alison and I laugh when I recall that we could never out-pun her, and about her quick comebacks. I tell her about an argument that our oldest daughter related at the funeral. She had insisted she should go first at whatever they were arguing about because she was the oldest, and Alison, without missing a beat, said the only reason Megan was born first was because she needed a head start.

I said Alison’s cards were always handmade and that at the time of her death, she already had notes in her planner of ideas for Christmas cards.

She reaches for my hands, hers young and smooth and with chipped indigo nail polish, mine—farm hands I call them—wrinkled and freckled with age spots. I wait, expecting a soft voice from a small person, perhaps a sentimental song about losing someone. She closes her eyes and from somewhere deep within her, her voice emerges, rich and strong, shocking in its power. She sings about me and about what I told her about Alison and the last words are, “Alison, you are remembered, you are loved.”

When we open our eyes I see tears on her cheeks that I know are mirrored on mine. I search for words to express the gift she has given me and finally simply say, Thank you. I hold out my arms inviting a hug and as we hug, I tell her that her song was beautiful, that she is beautiful. As I walk home my problems seem more manageable, my thoughts quiet now and less weighed down by worry and sadness.

I wish I had asked her about herself. Does she live nearby? What brought her to the ravine today? Is she a professional singer? But maybe that would have made our time as meaningless as casual strangers in line somewhere, filling in time, as trivial as talking about the weather. Perhaps I’ll see her again and can ask those questions and tell her how her song comforted and strengthened me.

I began my walk hoping only for distraction and I received so much more. I found beauty in nature’s kaleidoscope but was given an even more valuable gift, the beauty in this young woman, a stranger, who listened and held my hands and touched me with compassion.

Lois Hibbert is a long-time Toronto resident, copy editor and proofreader, who enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction and plans to self-publish her first novel, currently in manuscript review, later this year. This essay is an account of a remarkable encounter in September of 2021 at her daughter’s commemorative bench in a local ravine.