It was early April, in the first days of Covid, when I came upon the small stone on top of an outdoor cable box near the driveway of a neighbor’s house. Painted on its face was a burst of yellow sun and a hand-lettered message: Happy Spring.

I looked at the house and wondered who lived there. How were they able to still be optimistic during this time of coronavirus? Did they panic just thinking about grocery shopping, as I did? Or were they able to keep their calm, as the stone suggested? Back when we were locked down and the days of the week blurred, coming across that pretty little stone seemed almost miraculous to me. The sheer normalcy of it—a welcome sign of spring—was almost hard to believe.

I’d been working from home since mid-March, and every morning before I logged onto my computer, my husband and I went for a walk. Our path was simple: down Gladstone Ave. and around Ember Way. The area was as familiar as the back of my hand, as well it should be; we’d lived in the neighborhood for eighteen years. And yet, discovering the small stone made me take notice in a way I hadn’t before. Had the blue-green door two houses down from us always been that color? Did the people in the white colonial fly the U.S. flag every day? Had that patch of crocuses on the corner, their petals like baby-bird mouths, been there as long as we had?

I considered those questions and others as our walks pressed into April and May. By then people had started to emerge from their Covid hibernation, happy to be able to do something—anything—other than stare at the TV in horror as doctors Fauci and Birx warned us of the virus, as Andrew Cuomo detailed the number of deaths in New York.

As summer approached, we waved to the other “outdoor” people, and they waved back. We talked, six feet apart, to neighbors we’d never met. We learned that Terry liked to walk his dog, Lu, around the same time in the morning as we did; that Rob and Dea had moved onto Gladstone only two years ago; that Susan, the retired lawyer down the street, had the same full name as my first cousin.

One day in June I picked up a rock from the street. It was misshapen and dirty, but it was big enough for my purpose. As soon as we got home, I washed the rock and dug through my desk in search of the old painting pens my stepdaughter used as a kid. I scratched first with the pink painting pen, then the neon green one, and finally a scruffy and badly drawn watermelon emerged on the stone. With a black pen I added, Happy Summer.

The next day on our walk I set that stone on the green cable box next to the one that said Happy Spring. It made me ridiculously happy.

When we returned to the house, I immediately went online and ordered a kid’s stone painting kit. I didn’t stop to think that I’d never been trained as an artist, that the last thing I had painted was a bedroom wall. All I knew was that I had a new purpose: I was supposed to paint stones for the neighborhood.

So I did.

I painted birds and peace signs and faces and fairy houses, but mostly I painted flowers. Happy, hopeful flowers. And each morning on our walks I’d take the painted stones from the previous night and place them on all the green cable boxes I could find.

Soon there was talk of a mysterious “Rock Fairy” in the neighborhood. A few people told me how happy it made them to see the stones, how fun it was to find new ones. I listened and agreed and didn’t tell them it was me who painted those rocks. That wasn’t the point.

And it really wasn’t me, anyway. It was that one, hopeful, courageous family on Ember Way with their first Happy Spring stone who’d given me back a bit of joy. I was just passing it on.

It’s almost winter, now, and the painted rocks will soon be buried under snow. Already the autumn rains have taken their toll, but that’s okay.

There’ll be plenty of new painted stones ready for next spring.