Rolling stones and gathering moss

2011-01-03 00:00

WHEN I was a child, my father was a bit of a travelling man so we were constantly on the move. I didn't mind the fact that every few months we'd pack up what belongings we had and move into a new house, a new town, a new school. It was exciting to explore new places and so long as my mother and brothers were around, I was happy. When I was 15, my mother bought her own tiny house, the first we'd ever owned. I spent three solid years there before I left for university and beyond. After graduation it took ages for me to settle down. I still felt the need to move every few months. Even when I married we didn't settle down at first. We crossed continents and cities for quite a few years.

When the children started formal schooling it was time to put down roots. We've been in the same house for 14 years now. Daily I marvel at how different life is when you stay in one place for a long time. I notice this especially on my daily walks around the neighbourhood. The passage of time is etched in my surroundings and in the faces of the people I pass.

For example, when we first arrived, an elderly man and his bulldog lived on the corner of our street. The man and his dog looked alike. He had retired and spent all his days making beautiful wooden furniture in his

garage. His veranda was furnished with exquisitely crafted Oregon pine pieces.

He also had two sons, one who'd been disabled mentally and physically during a high school rugby game. This son helped his father as much as he could in his workshop. I passed them every evening when I walked my dogs and we always shared a few words. The bulldog was the first to go, shortly after a sprightly young Labrador joined their ranks. Then the disabled son, in his early 40s, died suddenly. That seemed to depress the old man's spirit. He died shortly afterwards. Now the remaining son works from home. He is often seated alone on the pine bench, the ageing

Labrador at his side, watching the road pensively.

I used to pass another sprightly older couple every day on my walks. They'd be striding the pavements with their loyal fox terrier at their side. From the spring in their steps and their leathery faces I imagined that they'd been farming types in their younger days. Now confined to a face-brick complex in the city they took their constitutional as regularly as clockwork every evening. Soon the fox terrier stopped coming. I asked after his health. He was ailing, I was told, getting too old for his daily walk. Then the man disappeared. The woman soon began to amble around the block with a carer at her side. Then she edged along the pavement with a carer and a Zimmerframe. I stopped asking how she was when she no longer recognised me. She hasn't been out for some time. I can't help feeling sad that her walking days are over at last.

Staying in one place definitely has its downside. No matter how much I try I can't ignore the passage of time. I'm reminded daily by the Fever tree in the garden. Once a young sapling it is now an almighty green giant, standing proud above other trees in the neighbourhood. I've been forced to confront my

mortality more than I'd like. I also know that when I go on my daily walk people look at me and see the signs of ageing too. There have been three different dogs at my side over the years and my daughter, whom I pushed in a pram when we first arrived, now towers over me when we walk together.

Part of me longs for the past, when moving to a new house or a new town makes everything seem different and exciting. Continuity can lead to boredom, but my children have loved the

stability of having one home during their formative years. And although I've grown used to being in one place most of the time, I'm always quick to take on any job which involves travel. I work away from home for some of every month and still love the thrill of a journey. Maybe one day I'll settle down for good. But I do hope that day's not too soon.

• Janet van Eeden is a part-time teacher and writer.

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