Six years ago, almost to the day, I originally posted this short story on Facebook. A writer friend and I had a tradition of finding a picture and both writing a story to it – and it was always fascinating to see how differently we interpreted the picture.
This one, however, I think was the most profound to me because as I wrote it, I discovered the same thing that Ana did in this story. And upon returning from a trip to New York City, I realized this same truth again – because New York also had a piece of home about it that needed collecting. And I’m so grateful I got that opportunity.
So, once again, here’s to the beauty of what traveling gives to a person.
She loved to capture beauty. It’s what she felt she did best … see the beauty in the common, the ordinary, the unusual or the out-of-the-ordinary, and with a few clicks of her camera shutter, claim the moment forever on film. Most of all, she craved the old stuff … the vintage signs, the rusting gates, the cobblestone streets – which is why she felt so restless at home in boring old Helena, Montana.
“What is there here that could ever capture the artist’s eye?” Ana asked her best friend Caleb one Sunday afternoon over a late lunch. She arched her eyebrow critically at him, taking a sip of her iced mocha and daring him to come up with an answer that would satisfy her.
Caleb only smiled at her and shook his head. He knew this girl and her vagabond, artsy heart all too well. He knew of her ideals which she spoke of often and clung to with vivid tenacity.
“Depends on which artist you ask,” he replied, swirling a French fry in ketchup. “Some artists happen to think Montana is beautiful.”
“Yeah, but I’m not that kind of artist,” Ana scoffed. “Not the cowboy, rugged, wild West type. I swear I was born in the wrong place.”
Caleb paused, studying Ana’s set face, knowing how they disagreed.
“Ana, do you honestly think you’d be completely satisfied if you went somewhere else? Do you think it would take care of the restlessness in your heart?”
Ana hesitated not a moment. “Absolutely. Caleb, there are places calling to my heart that I’ve been longing to go since I was a little girl. I know that I could grow so much more as an artist in places back East or even better, in Europe. I have to go … I can’t stay in Helena for too much longer.”
Though Caleb hadn’t said anything at the time, Ana knew that he couldn’t bring himself to agree with her. He believed that traveling was good for a person – and he had no doubt of the inspiration that those places would bring her artist’s mind. But he simply didn’t believe in the deep intrinsic need to go those places like Ana did. He thought that a visit to Mount Rushmore to sight-see for a day was good enough and then you returned home for good. Ana, on the other hand, felt history calling to her and though she couldn’t explain it, she had to answer the call.
And so she had left. After working long enough to save up money to travel, Ana had ended up in England for a study abroad program. It was here that her camera shutter button was always clicking … it was here amongst the ancient buildings and storied architecture that she felt herself coming alive. She had known it all along, and Caleb had been wrong. She had been destined for this place … and places like it.
One rainy Sunday afternoon, when her friends were out and homework was null and void, Ana found herself roaming her flat with increasing boredom. With nothing better to do, she decided to grab her camera and bag, and take the scooter out for some exploration. Lizzie had been telling her of these back streets filled with photographic inspiration, and she had to see them for herself.
Away she went, loving the wind streaming through her hair, the chilly air from a rain-washed world, and the smell of ancient stories all around her. Everything about this beautiful setting was so far from her Western American hometown, that it was hard to describe the joy that crept into her soul because of it.
Slowly, Ana traversed narrow streets, lined with old storefronts, waiting for the perfect moment to capture her eye. And then suddenly – there it was. On one side of her were somewhat trashy storefronts, with graffiti etched around the doorframes, but on the other stood a moment out of the past. It literally looked like it could have been lifted from an eighteenth-century storybook and dropped into her current life … a little, plump stone cottage with ivy curling cozily into every crack … a wrought-iron fence with a gate that just begged to be creakily opened … a cozy red front door … the quaintest peaked roof with dormer windows peering out like the shaggy eyebrows of her grandfather – this was a place where dreams were born and nurtured into reality.
Ana stopped her scooter in vague abstraction, so anxious to get the right angle of this charming place that she was barely aware of her actions. Settings were adjusted, lenses were clicked into place and in a matter of minutes her eye was searching through the viewfinder to close in on an image of beauty.
So absorbed was she in her task that she almost didn’t hear the voice calling out to her. Pulling her camera away from her face, Ana glanced around to see if the person was actually talking to her, even though there wasn’t another soul in sight on this damp street corner. Yes, in all actuality, a dear little old lady stood on the doorstep of the very cottage in front of her, beckoning her to come close.
Ana slowly advanced, a little embarrassed to have been caught photographing what was probably someone’s private abode. Hopefully the elderly lady would be understanding and let her keep her pictures.
“Hi … I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to be intrusive by taking pictures,” Ana apologized as she came up to the gate.
But the minute woman in front of her, hair a white crown above a face with a thousand wrinkles merely smiled at her with a twinkle in her eye.
“Dearie, you weren’t bothering me a smidge!” she cried out, bemusement coloring her British words. “I just didn’t want you to catch your death of cold out here with no coverin’ on. Won’t you come in and join me for tea?”
“Uhh …” Ana faltered, completely unused to such a random invitation.
“Why, didn’t you know this was a tea-house, lovie?” the old woman asked, gesturing up to the swinging sign that Ana had missed in her earlier examination of the storybook place. “Primrose Tea Cottage” it read, and a smile broke across Ana’s face in discovery of it.
“I would love to,” she replied, and swung open the gate to join the old lady inside.
Empty of customers within, the cottage’s interior matched everything hopeful about the exterior. Old-fashioned décor was lovingly arranged in a homey setting about a wide fireplace where Miss Dahlia (for that’s how she had introduced herself) sat Ana down.
“I feel like I’ve been transported to another land and time,” Ana almost whispered, setting her bag down.
Miss Dahlia cracked another grin, as she cozied up to the fireplace herself.
“That response is all too common here,” she replied, poking the fire a bit.
“It’s like … I don’t know. Like my soul finds a home here,” Ana slowly mused, taking in every bit of furniture and curio around her.
Miss Dahlia nodded. “Even though your body’s from a different place … I know. I feel the same way.”
“I have a friend back home who said that all this traveling wouldn’t satisfy me … that I’d still feel restless even when I came here. But I don’t think I agree with him. I think that there are parts of this world I’ve always known had a bit of ancient home in them for me, and I needed to find them and collect them.”
Surprised, Ana realized that she was finally articulating thoughts that she’d never quite understood but always felt within her heart. Although she still loved Helena for its memories and friends and family, what she said made her understand her lifelong burning desire to travel.
“And you do collect them – with that camera there, don’t you?” Miss Dahlia asked.
Ana gasped. “You’re right! I do … so that no matter where I go in life, I’ll have with me a mosaic of the most beautiful parts of life I’ve experienced – a collection of home that I’m forever adding to. And even when I’ve settled down someday, I’ll have bits and pieces of my home scattered around the globe.”
Miss Dahlia’s eyes were twinkling. “Sounds like you’ve just talked yourself into a profound truth, dearie!”
“Oh, Miss Dahlia … thank you for inviting me in,” Ana replied gratefully. “I don’t think I would have ever realized it had I not come by this charming place today. I think I was meant to be here, sharing tea with you by this delicious fire.”
“And will this be another of your “homes” that you add to your reservoir?” Miss Dahlia asked.
“Absolutely,” Ana answered. “In fact, I think this will be the most favorite of my homes-away-from-home, because it was where I finally discovered the reason for all my travels.”