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Short Story #1

It’s been a while, but this will force me to do at least one post every month. Yes, it’s a challenge but it is also about the discipline. If there ain’t goals or deadlines then there ain’t achievements…thank you to Mia from WritersWrite.co.za (#12/12)

So, here is the first.

Prompt : The List.                                                                                                Word Count: 1500

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An Empty Page

She looked up from the task at hand. Swirling mist outside prevented her mental escape over stark skyscrapers; instead, her focus was forced inside the window.

Out there, life bustled away.     In here was the empty.

The grey disconnectedness from that world was in stark contrast to the painful chaos surrounding her in their bedroom. She hardly recognised the tired face reflecting from the weather-beaten pane. Weary eyes stared back, past the reflection, into a pool of memory.

“My brown eyed girl,” soothed his familiar voice from afar. It was his way of shushing her whenever she wished for glossy looks. With a pained smile she reflexively wiped over the back pockets of her jeans. “You have the perfect butt,” he would thwart her regular diet threats. She sighed.

Cleaning out their apartment was an act of purging and she allowed her emotions to roam within limits. Thoughts and memories ebbed and flowed. She allowed her touchy senses to recall him one last time; smell him and caress him with her eyes; then relied on her common sense to finally let go, to throw out the last bits binding his presence to this earth.

Recent conversations swirled as she bent to continue sorting. “There is no perfect”, he often repeated, “it’s the imperfections that make us human.” “Why remember now?” she scolded the thrown-out parcels.

She was scientific enough to accept the medical facts, yet spiritually she was inclined to deny there could be nothing after death. So, here she was. Old fashioned and sufficiently romantic to search and sort through his possessions in the hope of finding a talisman, a tangible, everlasting memory of his essence. “Just one little thing, something small to find and keep … and remind me of you,” her heart begged when she reached the last drawer.

And then she found it.

It was an unsealed envelope addressed to her; part of the bigger pile meant to conclude post-life administrations.  She swallowed. Her fingers retrieved the folded pages from their cover. She froze.

An empty page stared back at her.

Its blankness snapped the thin thread of control, giving her permission to let go. Sobs arose from bruised depths. A place within her she was able to hide until now. The last bit of lifeless blood squeezed from her heart. And slowly, as the pain eased and a mute ache replaced the depths of it, she felt the pulse of life again.

It was a long four months; in a very short time.

Four months ago they were very young, very much in love and very happy.

She was contemplating a new hairstyle for their trip to the Amazon. He was more interested in her back – would she cope with the weight of the necessities for the intended hike? She showed off her stealth by challenging him to a race up the stairs with fully loaded backpack. He cunningly found his way out. Naively, she claimed victory while he hid his growing concern with busyness around the camping stuff. Now she recalled the signs, although youth denied such possibilities then.

She remembered the preparation hikes on the city outskirts. “Not too far”, was the agreement. Neither the drive nor the walk, she realised now. Did he know? Or was it a subconscious protection mechanism?

Always returning home exhilarated, or was it only her? And in the midst of this preparation they would crumble in mutual sense of fun, mock wrestle and seal the outcome with passion – refusing to take note of his increasing tiredness.

Within days he could not manage the stairs to their front door. He phoned her from the pavement one day. Despair mixed with fear made his voice unrecognisable. She had to shout his name to get herself out of the confusion. She rushed downstairs; found him crumpled.

Instead of taking him up the stairs, she helped him into the back of a taxi. His head cradled in her lap, his face pale and transparent. His eyes asking. She had no reply.

Instead of handing over when professionals barked orders, she held his hand while they wheel-chaired past the emergency counter. Answering his clammy grip with a determined double handed clasp.

Instead of panicking when they surrounded him with machines and beepers, she repeated the cold details required on numerous forms by heartless voices.

Instead of rushing home to comfort and safety, she watched helplessly as they probed, poked and withdrew blood.

Instead of a quick emergency visit, she was asked to wait outside intensive care. There she remained. When the specialists finally allowed her into his cubicle, she had lost touch with time and reality.

She listened to the hushed voices guiding rushed steps outside the disinfected room while she waited for results, diagnosis’s, prognosis’s all blanketed by an eerie expectancy. During this time his eyes were closed, dark circled and tired. And all this time hers were wide open, searching for reasons and demanding answers.

The wait ended in finality. They had to call off all plans. Except the ones that involved hospitals and tests. They had to cancel all meetings and travels, except to be with each other as much as possible. There was no treatment and no cure.

Their reality was the now. Only now.

Every day for four months she was next to his bed.

Some days were light with fun-filled chatting, other days were serious and heavy. Most days consisted of making lists to ensure a hassle free admin for her after he was gone. Lists of numbers, people and places.  To do lists.

And almost every day he would tell her about all the things he was planning to change in life. Changes he would like to see in the world. And with a glint in his eyes he would add; “And all the things I want to change about you.”“What?” she would sulkily ask. “I want to know now, so I can start working on it immediately, so when we are old together one day, I can be perfect for you,” she said and hoped he couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.

There was minimal paperwork in the end. The last few days they focused on the wishes he had for his final journey. No sermon or ceremony – who was to impress? No songs. No tears. “A simple farewell, because only love lasts,” he urged with bony fingers.

His bedside drawer contained the few lists they considered essential, and as he opened it for her to remove the pile of envelopes two days ago, they both knew all was done. And they both understood it was not long.“Put this away and work through it when you are ready,” he whispered. “And remember to look for your list too.”

She smiled at his last brave attempt to tease her. No tears, she willed herself. He kissed her hand, “I love you for real.” His voice barely audible. “And straight back at you,” she said.  She bent over him, kissed his forehead and whispered, “Wait until I find that list, when you next see me, I will be SO perfect.” He grinned and winked. “The list is there, waiting for you when I’m gone.” The smile was still on his face when his hand relaxed and his eyes closed peacefully. Forever.

She sat knowing. But also not. She didn’t want to move. But also wanted to run as fast as she could. She didn’t want to let go. And she didn’t, for a long time. That is how the night nurse found her and gently nudged her out the room.  “It’s over.”

She didn’t know how she arrived home.

She recalled feeling overwhelmingly empty. Except for the bundle of envelopes from his bedside drawer. It was, they agreed, to be put in the desk drawer till needed. And that was where she found it now. That single unsealed envelope that bore her name, a smiley face and in brackets, “The List”. Her heart jumped in apprehension and excitement. He wasn’t joking.

She wondered what irritated him the most about her? Her giggle? Her dress-sense? Her big nose? Her neediness?  Unsealed because he knew she would be the one to find it. “Bugger” she thought with a smile, “you DID leave a list.”

Two pages neatly folded.  Unfolding them, she now stared at the first blank page.

She blew her nose noisily.

She paged over, on the second page the writing was muddled with a weak hand, but clear. “I love you for real,” said the scribble. “You have seen that first page, filled with nothing? … those are ALL the things I want you to change about you, forever. Xx”.

The nothingness suddenly filled her heart with a happiness beyond words. She could burst with love.  Then she remembered him often saying, “To have what we do makes any life worth it. Imagine how many people die and never experience this?” And then she smiled.

A list that needed no change – ever.

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Reverence of the Canyon

Fishriver Canyon – Revered

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In the end, there is nothing that can prepare you for this experience.

“Make sure you have proper maps…”

“Ah, don’t worry about maps, just follow the river.”

“Better take a tent, you are so exposed…”

“Never. I would never take a tent, just imagine, the whole expanse as your ceiling.”

“Nyaa, don’t worry. It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

“Don’t bother with thermals – 40 plus degrees, promise.”

Well meaning friends and experienced relatives echoed the advice from blogs, Google and Parks Board experts.

So, we decided to play it safe and prepare. Properly.

We anticipated the difficulties and we expected the survivals. We planned for the unforeseen and we shut out the fear.

We were ready, but the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

Descent

The descent lived up to its reputation. Chains to hang onto while adjusting balance with loaded backpacks.

Slow, step-by-step to protect toes. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs. Breathers to inhale scenery.

Three and a half hours and we conquered a mere 2 km. That’s fine, we told ourselves.

A good rest, a swim and only a few more kms before camping. Then bliss under the stars.

But it took another three very long hours to the night-stop which was only 2 km away.

From the exhaustion perspective it was perfect…

By a tamarisk tree and on a soft patch of beach – which we would soon learn to dread –we settled with snacks, water and a shy moon.

We were too tired to cook. Clouds that we had hardly noticed quickly combined into a noisy storm.

So we spent our first night easing into the routine under a sky consumed by thunder and lightning, flimsily covered with a shiny space blanket protecting our sleeping bags; now filled with aching limbs and throbbing feet.

The next morning we awoke to a world washed and clean.

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Elaborating on each day would fill a book with tales of disaster, and a hospital quota of aches and indescribable pains.

Suffice to say we lost the trail, we lost the canyon, we lost spirit, I lost my phone and my camera, we lost track of distances and we found tiredness beyond words. Saturated in a depressing sense of hopelessness.

By the fifth day, which was meant to be our last, we finally made peace with the way we smelt.

We developed a disinterest in the sand in our ears, our beds and our coffee. Dirt and survival were now our companions.

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We did, however, appreciate the crystal clear skies at night – with a view of stars and satellites untainted, which was humbly breathtaking.

We treasured the clean wash of a swig of whiskey through a sandy mouth and a dusty throat.

We slept in awe under a never ending expanse of sky too majestic to grasp.

And we learned to simply turn our backs to the wind when it took us by surprise in the middle of the night.

We danced (albeit with measured limping) with joy when we encountered a flat, hard piece of track.

And we eventually stopped moaning about the miles of sand interspersed with light-years of boulders and rocks.

We made good use of the puddles to splash saltpeter off our toning bodies and eventually stopped purifying the drinking water.

We licked our fingers after we polished the bowls of dehydrated meals. And we finally just slept with our shoes on.

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Then we arrived. A day later than planned.

The emotions of finally reaching the end wiped clean the memory bank of pain and suffering.

Pretty much like birth pains – you forget.

The uncertainty of the next step, the agonizing survival of pain, the desperation of a never-ending cycle all disappeared in the relief, the release and the reward of finishing.

Merely a week later and the suffering is already a distant memory. Awe is what remains.

“Unforgettable,” is what I say when asked…

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Beasts and Bidders

The Auction

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HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

The understandable introduction of “Do I have thirty, thirty, thirty? Start me off with twenty, fifteen, ten?” disappears in the crescendo of his hypnotic alien talk.

I try and focus on the task at hand.

“You take pictures of the bidders in action”, the cheeky (but cute) Argentinian consultant tells me.

In an auction-induced-trans I stalk around the pavilion of seats and aim my lens at unsuspecting visitors, searching for elusive buyers. The packed audience all stare solemnly ahead. I follow the stare. The prancing prize is NOT the team behind the loud pedestal, but a beast. I read somewhere that the slightest eye contact can cost you a few. The bull is the focus until he becomes the object of desire. Only then, dare you look at the auctioneer. Weird sport.

Camera ready; finger hovering; I wait. I listen, but can’t decipher, and I wait more. Taking photos of interesting shapes and sizes of noses and ears, as I wait. The secret of any spy documentary –THAT moment.

HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

“YES” and an assistant’s arm shoots up to point somewhere above and behind me. I swirl around. Nothing, but dead pan faces and mannequin poses. Not a stir. I squint.

I wait. The droning continues with more zest. I wait. HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

Now alert, I scan the faces either side of the pavilion. Caps and glasses hide the eyes, pens hang between lips and fingers tap a picture of the beast, waiting to write up the number and the price of the (missed?) opportunity.

Not a single movement.

The hammer hovers.

“Going for the first…. the second….the third time”. Bang.

Ruffling of papers and murmurs over the loudspeaker. The team looks up – an unfamiliar buyer.

“Can we have your number, please sir?”

This is a numbers game. I love numbers, but this one makes no sense.

Behind me a white square eagerly shoots up.

“Thank you number 47, Sir!”

Finally. A glimpse of the mysterious Gunston guy. Not at all what I expected, but nonetheless, I snap away while the action continues.

Action means a wink, a nose rub, a squiff smile or an unnoticeable nod.

And HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

Now that I know where the main bidder is I keep him under surveillance.

I notice the conspiracy between him and his accomplice; hardly detectable conversations and pointing at the catalogue. Then a chewing of a pen and a tilt of the head that sends the auctioneer into another pitch:

HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

I slip behind the seated sides and try capturing the bidding from another angle. Sneaking my lens between heads and shoulders, I find Gunston. His focus is on another beast of magnificence. His accomplice’s finger tapping on a picture, also avoiding the team behind the loudspeaker.

HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

The babble is reaching a crescendo and still not a movement from Gunston. I look for other signs of communication. Nothing. Hardly breathing. Neither am I, in anticipation.

“Are you all done? Going for the first…. the second…. are you sure, sir? Are you ALL DONE SIR? Going for the third time!”. Bang.

I swing in the direction the auction team is looking. Another satisfied beaming face, but not Gunston. GUNSTON? AREYOUDONESIR? Alien talk suddenly becomes comprehensible. There is no Gunston.

Hundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandareyoudonesir?

I giggle.

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Tick-Tock

When the beep-beep became a tick-tock

I woke up.

Something changed over the past week. My ears strained – there it was. The change. The whoosh of movement next door, captured by sensitive technology, alternated with a gentle tick-tock. I quickly checked the device, making sure it was working. Tick-tock? Comforted that it was fully functional, I tiptoed to her room.

A week ago the same baby monitor left my nerves in tatters.

Every sound from the machine echoed within me. My body responded with jumps and palpitations. The supposedly reassuring beep-beep indicating normal breathing from baby, jarred miniscule synapses between nerve-endings behind my eyes and inside my ears. With abnormal responses in my breathing.

It shattered the silence of the night with it’s rhythmic incantations. The slightest change jolted my eyelids, my own heartbeat drowned the beep-beep, my bare feet found their way to her bedside. Fumbling. A slow exhale normalized my symptoms as the precious parcel wiggled in her dream and expertly closed her mouth around the misplaced pacifier.

Anxious moments followed the dummy-in procedure, waiting for any kind of response and when there was none, the returning to my bed – wide awake. Cold and displaced. From where I then proceeded to watch the beeping monster on the bedside table and let the cycle repeat itself till the break of day.

By the third night I could distinguish between dream-moans and real-wake moans. I could inhale normally between the beep-beep and its unpredicted gaps or speed-ups. My heart did not escape through my throat. My mind did not chase after normal sounds around me. And I could avoid the stare down of the monster when I kicked off my slippers. I managed a few drifty hours of sleep.

By the fifth night I could casually stroll into her room (gowned and slippered), avoid eye contact and persist in establishing a sleeping pattern. I even had a few hours of blissful deafness towards the beep-beep. Although the sound remained invasive when not asleep. And I woke up to a knot-free stomach and un-puffy eyes. Without a glance towards the source of the sound.

Now it was a week later.

I gently surfaced to a sense of change. The mist of worry dissipated. I tiptoed to her side. Dummy in. Patted her on the back. Waited a moment to settle. Tiptoed back to my bed. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Sleeping pattern established. Tick-tock. Lulled back to my own sweet remains of a dream. Tick-tock.

It was with the sounds of sunrise that the reality hit me. Where did the piercing beep-beep go?

The power of adaptation. It re-established my admiration for the man and his theory – Darwin. A subtle change in sensitivity towards circumstances that makes the unbearable bearable. The choice of waiting and the reward of gaining.

The power of allowing beep-beeps to turn into tick-tocks.

I survived. I adapted. I waited. I gained.

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My baby with baby

My baby with baby

“Stairs or lift?” I asked my round-bellied-pregnant little girl, Andy. She glanced at the clock behind the reception desk, looked down at the take-away cappuccinos in our hands and smiled at me.

 

“Stairs. It’s only 11h00 and I’m sure they won’t mind waiting few more minutes for their coffee? I need to exercise this baby into real life.” The coffee sloshed against the sides of the too hot paper cups as we settled into the rhythm of climbing stairs.

Twelve steps, eleven sloshes, and the first landing.

 

We spaced the paper cups on a step – four; one for me, one for Andy, one for my bald-headed friend and one for her chemo roommate – for a quick blow on our scorched hands. I observed with caution as she bent with more than a groan to pick up her two cups, hissing a breath in and whistling one out.

Twelve steps, eleven sloshes, the first floor.

 

“No Mom, they are on the second floor, come on!”

I watched the exaggerated waggle and lift an experienced eyebrow, mumbling to myself,

“Ok.”

Around the corner we waltzed.

Twelve steps, eleven sloshes and the second landing.

 

The few seconds break to rescue our burning hands, blowing, panting and giggling before tackling the last around-the-corner. I could see the door onto the second floor. In a minute we would chat over coffee.

Twelve more steps.

 

“Um, Mom?”

My own seasoned motherly instinct grasped it before the question registered. I looked at her, just knowing.

“Is this normal?”

She pointed at the puddle starting at her feet.

 

My heart jumped for joy – and fear. My firstborn was about to give birth to her firstborn.

“We better phone Luke” I sounded unruffled but my insides conveyed a different message. I looked at my watch.

The moment it all started, and ended – 11h01.

 

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Feeling the movements

 

Petra

Petra

Route 90 runs south from Jerusalem. At 390m below sealevel, it is the world’s lowest road and the main arterial to popular resorts along the arid banks of the Dead Sea. If you take a right somewhere down south, it takes you to Gaza. It is also the gateway to two places I need to tick off my list of places to visit – Masada and Petra.

My careful research and planning – although anathema to my husband – didn’t put him off this time. Eschewing the comforts and familiarity of his conference he decided to join me. As I bent over the car-rental contract, his sense of humour waned almost immediately. “Must we DRIVE? How far is it?” My usual, ‘just over the hill’ would not work, so I assured him it was an easy drive on well-marked roads all along the Dead Sea with a stop at Masada and then onwards to Petra. “Why can’t we go straight to Eilat? THAT is where you want to be, isn’t it?” I decided to revert to Plan A.

I reached over for the pamphlets that had been staring at me for a while. I opened the Masada leaflet at the sitemap where it explained the steep hikes and the suggestion of doing it before dawn. The Petra one featured the famous sandstone passage, explaining the 6km walk into, around and then out of the ancient city. I kept the trump card for last – DAILY TRIPS from Eilat described in detail the border crossing and visa procedures to get to Petra. “We are crossing BORDERS?” My suppressed grin must have reflected in my eyes.

 

We were interrupted by the return of the goodnatured rental agent. He chattily warned about the roads littered with ‘ruddur’ before handing over the keys. “It’s the local traffic control, they have ruddur (radar)”, he explained when husband-dearest rolled his eyes and his expression morphed from boredom into disbelief as we followed our friend’s directional wave.

Parched landscape, surrounding the Jordan River, could be seen between overtaking trucks and watching out for ‘rudder’. Stretches of Dead Sea and industrial tunnel farming on the banks failed to entertain my passenger and fortunately before too long Masada appeared. My excitement cooled at the sight of the queues – of people and busses. The place was overflowing.

We pushed on. Masada and the other Dead Sea resorts were left behind as we rushed to get to Eilat before dark. The R90 shimmered in the Negev Desert. I saw the Red Sea before I realised we were near Eilat. My relieved shift in the sweat drenched seat awoke my passenger. “Are we there yet?” We were close, yes. I distracted him by making him the navigator. Pointing to a spot on the upside-down-rental map, I insisted on a central hotel.

After booking in there was enough daylight left to explore our surroundings. A slow walk along a coastline that bordered three old worlds was strangely humbling. Israel, Jordan and Egypt meet at this sea. Eilat was originally a port for trade with Asia and later as a military outpost. Detritus from a tourist boom in the 70s could be glimpsed in torn cushions and faded umbrellas. These were limited to the area closest to the port. Flea markets hemmed the hotels. The latter effected an unexpected upliftment in my husband’s mood. He happily returned to our two star hotel with a variety of souvenirs proudly hooked over his shoulders.

The following morning, crossing into Jordan was an easy affair. There was the normal protocol, permissions and stamps on both sides of the border. Our trust in the system was reinforced when we found our online, prepaid guide waiting on the other side of the customs buildings. I ignored my partner’s sighs that accompanied every “no problem” comment from our guide/driver, fearing a disintegration of my only intention – to make it to Petra and back in a single day.

Petra is an ancient city cut out of sandstone rock – poetically described as ‘the rose-red city half as old as time.’ The trip halfway up the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, took us to the middle of the day. This was against all advice. “Must we WALK? How far is it?” This time it was through the hill. No pacifying with ‘just over the hill’, no avoiding the sun and no turning around.

My husband looked longingly at the horses and carts dusting the pathway to and fro with overweight tourists. Our guide sensed my determination and strolled purposefully towards a dark narrow gorge – aptly named Al Siq (The Shaft). A barren sandstone channel with streaks of colour, it was only 4 meters wide.

The easy way in and out

The easy way in and out

Absorbed in the geological and archeological treasures, I forgot about heat, exhaustion and my suffering partner. The Al Khazne (The Treasury) facade that has captured the imaginations of so many explorers, poets and moviemakers appeared at the end of this symbolic birth canal. It trembled in the heat, but that did not diminish its magic. Its magnificence was palpable. Brave tourists with tripods at its foundations were dwarfed. I stood still. I let the trail move past me. It was worth it.

As part of the guided tour and as an essential midday escape, we were led into burial caves that occupied the opposite wall. Colourful hollows that housed the dead. The space filled up with hats, sweating tourists and cameras – very alive. My moment of meditation dissolved and, like herd animals we stayed close to our guide. “These were used as burial sites. People lived on the other side, but this was sacred.” Rolling eyes and a sigh from my husband confirmed his total boredom. From one of what was obviously a group of Americans, a hand shot up, “What kind of people did they bury here?”

Houses and Tombs alike

Houses and Tombs alike

 

Only Dead People were buried...

Only Dead People were buried…

 

It would have been one of those passing historically insignificant comments, never to be acknowledged or remembered, if it wasn’t for our guide’s reaction. His brows shot up, which made his eyes huge. He sucked his breath in sharply, shocked. “Only dead ones.”

As I retreated to bury my giggle, I bumped into my husband. Hugging him for support, I felt his body shook with inward laughter. His pinched face did the unleashing. We both burst out laughing.

Husband’s sense of humor was intact.

Petra was breathtaking.

And somewhere on the edge of the Judaea Desert was Masada on ice.

 

Petra Ticked

Petra Ticked

A Rite.
 
Beatrix is a rite.
Her birth was my rite of passage.
Beatrix over three weeks

Beatrix over three weeks

  
It is not the meaning of her name,
it is the meaning of her existence.
 
 
She now belongs to my clan
And I am her Ouma
 
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She is pretty, pink and petite.
She is a good combination of father and mother.
 
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She is clever, aware and present.
She is fierce in her demands for the basics
She is fragile in her perfect innocence
 
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Her toes curl and twinkle when I kiss her feet
and her skin crinkle in tiny goosebumps when my old fingers gently stroke
 
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She makes me smile when she cries and she makes me cry when she smiles…
 
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Winnie the Pooh must have known Beatrix when he wondered about the smallest thing that takes up the most room in one’s heart.
 
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I have moved into that golden phase of life called Grandparenthood
because of Beatrix Anna Mclachlan
 
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