My Cousin Beat Me To It

She got what I had wanted—my younger cousin—a little house on a patch of ground at the curve of the creek near the edge of the lawn of my childhood home.

“When we move in, come visit,” she said. “We’re as close as anyone can get to that bit of land you tried to buy when you were a kid.”

My cousin was referring to a story I tell in my memoir Yoder School. Eight years old and about to move from the mountains of Western Maryland to live in Flint, Michigan, I cast about for a way to find some comfort. And walking up the lane one day after school, I found it. The lane, the creek, and a row of trees formed a triangle around a parcel of land maybe twice as big as my bedroom.

I’ll buy this land, I thought. The land would wait for me while I was gone. And later, after I became a teacher, I’d come back and build a small house on this land and teach at Yoder School.

I sat under the maple tree and looked around. Along the creek, shepherd’s purse plants waved in the breeze. Bees flitted in the daisies.

The land belonged to Luella and Meely, two ancient sisters with silver hair who wore ruffled aprons over their plain dresses and bustled around every Wednesday baking cinnamon rolls. They sold these cinnamon rolls for spending money.

If I bought this plot of land, I thought, they’d have even more spending money.

In my bedroom I climbed on my desk to get my piggy bank from the high shelf. The pink pig with a big belly, a red hat, and blue coveralls sat on its hind legs staring out of big black eyes. I’d be willing to give up my entire savings for the land, I decided. My ancestors had lived in these mountains for over a hundred years, and I belonged here, too.

I held the pig in one hand and knocked on Luella’s and Meely’s door with the other. This was Wednesday, and I could smell the cinnamon.

“Come in!” Meely said.

And then I didn’t know how to start. So I stammered around explaining that I needed to own some land and I wanted it to be near my house and the triangle between the creek and the lane and the trees would work fine and I was prepared to give them all the money in my bank for the land.

Meely looked at Luella. Luella set the spatula beside the cinnamon rolls she had been frosting. She squatted down beside me and explained that, no, they didn’t want to sell their land, not even this little part of it, not even for all the money in my piggy bank—not even if I saved for another year.

I swallowed and blinked so I wouldn’t cry and said that, no, I didn’t want a cinnamon roll. And I fled.

This last week, sixty years later, I drove along the curving creek and saw the land I tried to buy. And sure enough, there was my cousin’s small house nestled into the rise of the earth at the outer edge of a retirement village.

I’m looking forward to drinking tea in that little house. And I hope she doesn’t forget to invite me.

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