Monday, September 08, 2014

Reunion

Life is lived in moments that coalesce, becoming days, years, phases. Sometimes we go through our moments so carelessly that when we look back on them we can't recall the details. Sometimes we pay such close attention to the minutiae that when we recall the past, we only remember the smallest of specifics. My school years combined both kinds of attention. I can recall exact moments - the time in 4th grade that Eddie and I closed a desktop down on Susie's head, for example, and got caught, although only Eddie's hand was on the desk and only he got spanked. I can still recall the look of horror on the teacher's face, the look of interest on Eddie's, and feel again the rise of hot guilt in my own chest. On the other hand, graduation day fifty years ago is still hazy. I don't remember marching up to the stage to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance. I don't remember having my diploma put in my hand. I can't recall the receiving line outside afterwards and have only the vaguest memory of the dress I wore beneath my gown.

This past weekend what remains of the Class of '64 held a 50th reunion at a local park. Already 11 classmates have passed away and of the 57 remaining only 23 of us attended  the event. But we were a jolly bunch as we cracked open lobsters brought down from Maine, gobbled sweet, local corn on the cob, hamburgers and dogs and chicken wings, homemade potato salad and cole slaw, finishing it all with watermelon and blonde brownies and thick, chewy molasses cookies. We wore snapshots of our yearbook photos as name tags and joked at how little (or how much) we had changed. At every table the word remember prefaced a conversation about some aspect of our high school years together, or remembrances of the war in Vietnam where so many of our classmates faced unforgettable horrors. All day, my perceptions kept switching from the detailed - the sound of Holly's laugh, the same intense greenness of Cindy's eyes, the timbre of Seth's voice, how tall Jack still was - to the overall: the concentrated buzz of dozens of simultaneous conversations, the outbursts of laughter, the recognition of old friends mixed with non-recognition - we've all become something we weren't back in 1964. 

Mid-way through the day our organizer-in-chief, JT, stood to make some remarks. "Looking back," he began, "I tried to think of one thing - one characteristic - that would define our years together in high school. I don’t know if it is common at other institutions of higher learning, but I think that our defining attribute has to be “cruising the halls” before class." This brought a great shout of laughter and a flashback memory of sharing tidbits of gossip or confidences with Sue or Katy or Marlene or Patty, our heads close, our voices a murmur as we walked the halls in twos or threes with a hundred other students for ten or fifteen minutes before the first bell.

"And then there were the notes," JT continued. "These presaged texting and were about as useful. Notes were the forbidden fruit of friendship, passed along with the thought that they were never to be shared. But, like the internet today, secret information didn’t always stay secret and some notes went viral." I leaned over and said to Sue, "I still have some of those notes!" and I do, stashed away in a keepsake book, notes from a certain boy and others slipped surreptitiously from hand to hand during class or tucked in a pocket as we filed out the door. I clearly remember when two note passers got caught and one of them had to approach the front of the room and read the note aloud. Viral all right!

I spent some time with a man with whom I'd shared an apartment and a life but hadn't seen or spoken to since we'd parted painfully nearly 14 years ago. We forged a truce, agreeing to start from now with no expectations or promises. We both realized that the time we have left to be happy is limited; there is no room now for futile anger or hurt feelings or recriminations. In fact, there never should be time for those things but when you're young you don't see it that way. Everything is important then; now, I realize, kindness and an open heart and a sense of one's real self are important - details that make sense of the overall haze. JT's summing up quote summed up this discovery: "In the words of an old Scottish toast: Here’s tae us, and wha’s like us. Damn few, and they’re all a’dyin’, Mair’s the pity!

In some ways it was a very strange day. I'd known a good many of these people my whole life, though I hadn't seen some in years and years. We shared a childhood of classrooms and hallways, ate our noon meal together five days a week for years, received the same teachings, followed the same rules - and yet we were all SO different. And they had changed in ways I hadn't imagined (well, some of them) and so have I. A lifetime of memories, distilled into three hours of an afternoon. 




Friday, August 22, 2014

Ending a Season


The hummingbirds are still coming to the feeder but my mornings no longer begin with bird song. The early hours now belong to the raucous crow and the belligerent jay. And the rooster, of course.

The butternut squash plants have taken over the garden. I counted 11 squash nestled among the wandering leaves. The two potato plants I dug up yielded over 25 good-sized potatoes. There are at least 30 plants in the potato bed. I've frozen half a dozen quarts of green beans and eaten almost as many. The spinach did not thrive, nor the beets, but the swiss chard has been delicious. Two of my tomatoes grew to the size of a soup bowl!

Afternoons are bathed in shimmering golden light. Leaves and grass are still green but their vibrancy is dimming; pastel flower blossoms have given way to vivid yellows and purples. Farmer's market counters overflow with corn, with carrots, and baskets of beets and beans. Soon there will be pumpkins for sale and pots of mums.


The sun rises almost half an hour later and sets half an hour earlier than it did a month ago. Crickets chirp late into the evening and summer bugs buzz in the dark. Songbirds are beginning to bunch; noisy flocks of starlings swirl and settle in the treetops, little yellow finches flutter haphazardly from thistle to thistle, swallows swoop and dive in groups over the pond. In a couple of months the geese will again gather on the water, talking amongst themselves of the coming winter and the impending trip to their southern homes.

A number of classmates from my high school graduating class will gather in early September for a reunion picnic. I haven't seen some of them in 50 years. Out of a class of 68, 11 have passed away. Only about half of those remaining will attend. We're scattered across the US, travel and lodging are expensive, some are suffering ill health. I can clearly remember standing outside the school on graduation night, hugging these friends and vowing to keep in touch. So much has changed in 50 years. We've changed, too. I wonder if any of them will seem like strangers or will time melt and warp, allowing us to see each other as we were, to recognize the 18 year old hiding in a 68 year old body?

I have projects unfinished, books unread, plans unfulfilled but life is good, nonetheless. Summer, with its heat and storms, its ups and downs, will segue into autumn as it always does. I think of the saying, "Don't mourn what is not, be grateful for what is," and I am content.


Sunday, August 03, 2014

One Misty, Moisty Morning...


Raindrops string themselves along the garden fence and drip from the leaves of the coneflowers. A thin mist hovers over the tops of the evergreens and tangles itself in the maple leaves. The sky is pale gray and smooth as the inside of a seashell. A slow, quiet rainy day seems to contain less energy than one bright with sunshine. I'm tempted to curl up on the daybed with a book, the comforter over my bare feet and a cup of hot tea at my elbow.

Yesterday I poked among the squash leaves, big as elephant ears, looking for zucchini. What I found instead were winter squash, young and pale but growing into the familiar flared shape of a butternut. I don't remember planting them. My cucumbers have dozens of yellow flowers, the bean plants are strung with miniature beans, and the chard stalks gleamed red in the sun. I picked the few beets that had matured, and a handful of late peas. The pea vines are mostly dried out and hang dejectedly on their fence. Next month I will dig the potatoes and make a feast of them.

July slipped into August without my noticing until I went to write a check and had to look up the date. The summer has been a blur of travel and grandchildren and long, languid weekends spent bicycling or lazing about in my screened tent. There were weeks that blended into one another in a haze of heat and lightning storms. Family obligations kept me away from home for days at a time so that when I did return to the cottage it was like stumbling on an oasis.

The sky is beginning to brighten. Perhaps the sun will make an appearance after all and the energy of the day will change from indolent to industrious. Perhaps I shall surrender to it; perhaps I will reject industry in favor of a nap in a puddle of sunshine.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The World As We Know It



HOW COME 

the same day an airplane was dashed 
to bits in an empty field
and bombs exploded on small children
a gentle rain fell on the garden
pattering on the broad leaves of the squash
and watering the thirsty beets,

and while an earthquake
shook a south sea island in its heavy fist
scattering lives like wooden blocks
the sun came out
hanging rainbows in water droplets
that strung themselves along the fence
like Christmas lights?

Listening to the news
you can’t help but realize the world
is a frightening place to be
except right here where an ordinary lily
opens its vibrant orange throat.



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Respite



Roese blooming under the window.
I have come home to my cottage after a very busy ten days. Thursday last, after three days of babysitting, I left my daughter's house and drove the highway through summer traffic to my son's home north of Boston. I left there on Saturday with my eldest granddaughter in tow. We came to the cottage for two overnights, then left again on Monday for Easthampton. S was collected and I stayed on to watch the younger grands until this morning. Now I've been sitting in the rocker (it's quite warm and muggy outside. All the windows are open, though, and a breeze, augmented by fans, is wafting the scent of roses in through the open windows).

I found myself constantly putting my book down just to look around and sigh contentedly. The cottage is clean and neat, the white walls reflecting the sunlight. At the kitchen window a small vase of roses provides a sprightly bit of color. Sunbeams glance through the colored glass bottles that sit on the sill. The vase of wild flowers and grasses S and I picked on Monday looks lovely in the center of the table.



Outside, the male house wren chitters at the cats who are lounging on the patio stones. Behind the patio fence the cucumbers are growing, and on the other side the phlox and lilies are standing tall, though not in blossom just yet. Great white clouds with blue undersides are piling up over the horizon. Thunderstorms are promised for late tonight. I will water the gardens regardless, in case the storms miss us as they occasionally do.

Neighbor's cat lounging near the wren house.
The garden, for all my spring effort, is doing poorly. First it was too cold, then too wet, and now too dry. The potatoes and peas are happy but only two of the four hills of squash have produced plants. The radishes are all leaf and no bulb, the beans had to be replanted en masse, and not a single carrot poked through the earth. I can count the number of beet plants on one hand and the chard is up but looking anemic. There's still plenty of rhubarb to pick and the blueberry bushes are alive with berries.   As well, there are great sweeps of black raspberries growing wild along the borders of the garden. I must count my blessings.

Black raspberries ripening.
Blueberries galore.
Peas in flower.
Flourishing potato plants.
Tonight after supper I will take a walk. I will watch the sun set over the pond. When it's dark, I will climb into my bed, rest myself on sun-dried sheets and drift off to sleep, knowing that tomorrow and tomorrow after that, the days will be my own.





Monday, June 23, 2014

Company!

S at 3 with her Memere
My eldest granddaughter S is visiting for a few days. She first came to stay with me when she was just past two years of age. She sat happily strapped in her car seat, remarking on everything she saw out the window and holding the little blue stuffed dog that normally sits on my dashboard and helps with navigation. When we got to the cottage she went straight to the black and white toy barn sitting on the lawn and there she stayed, building twig fences and having conversations with the rubber cows. When her parents called that evening to say goodnight, she took the phone, shouted, "Memere's got a barn!" and handed the phone back to me.

Now 13, she's happily ensconced on the daybed, deep in the pages of a book. She likes to cook, bless her, and made chicken parmesan for dinner last night.  This morning we debated having pancakes or an omelette. She chose pancakes with syrup and fruit so I ambled over to the fridge, took out eggs and milk, popped out the door for fresh herbs and stood mixing the omelette before it registered that I should be making pancake batter! In the space of five steps I'd forgotten what she'd asked for. She is making pancakes for lunch.

In our two days together we've pulled the stubborn grass from between the path's paving stones, weeded the flower beds, and picked wildflowers. We've taken evening strolls past the pond, sat companionably on the lawn swing and read books, hung laundry on the line and watched movies after dark. We're going for a swim soon. She is a champion swimmer, long of arm and leg, sleek with muscle.

Later this afternoon we're off to my daughter's to play with the younger granddaughters. S's mom will come tomorrow to fetch her. I will miss having her beautiful self with me but she's promised to come back before summer's end. I can't wait!

Ten years later.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ian, Part II

I met Ian's dad, Peter, when I was still a reporter/columnist for a local newspaper. Sent to cover the story of two Berkshire photographers, one from Pittsfield, MA and one from the UK who'd teamed up to have a show of their photographs, I shook hands with both of them, but looking at Peter was a bit of a shock. I was sure I knew him from somewhere. Subsequent conversation and questioning uncovered not a single connection so we half-jokingly settled on the assumption that we'd known each other on a different plane of existence.

A year or so later, when I traveled to England with a friend for an extended stay with Peter and his partner, Jane (with whom I experienced that same shock of recognition), I met Ian and his sister Jeni. They were delightful teenagers, funny, engaging, intent on learning to speak with an American accent and laughing hysterically at my attempts to speak like a Brit.

We all kept in touch after that visit. Ian and Jeni and I exchanged emails or talked on Skype and a year or so after my visit to them, they all came to spend some time with me. We laughed and ate and traveled about seeing the sights and talked and talked and talked. After they flew back across the pond we renewed our long-distance conversations. Some months before Ian's death, we - he, Jeni, and I - had a delightful Skype session in which they both promised to come back to the States to visit with me.

Then a few weeks ago, came the devastating news. I've spoken at length to Peter and Jane and Jeni. Because I could not attend the funeral they graciously agreed to share their parts in the service with me. Herewith are Peter and Jeni's tributes to their darling son and brother.


A SHOOTING STAR BURNS BRIEFLY BRIGHT
Peter Bryenton

A shooting star burns briefly bright. Although the arc of Ian’s life was cut short, it traced a path full of successes. There were academic achievements in abundance. Plenty of professional accomplishments. Loads of really good fun with friends and family. Thoughtfulness, caring, loving and loyalty in spades. Satisfying, rewarding performances in musical and theatrical companies. Ian constantly entertained all those who knew him with his quick and ready wit. He radiated a ridiculously comical sense of humour. Therefore how very surprising it is that Ian always saw himself as a failure, while we applauded his success.

Structure was crucial to Ian’s happiness. He flourished wherever and whenever he could employ his great attention to detail. He set tough targets for himself, then met them. His built-in perfectionism drove him to become a high achiever, but it was also to become a self-generated source of acute stress.

For all his extrovert appearance, Ian was very secretive. He was a really complicated person. He was often troubled. Somehow, sadly, he never seemed to be able to love himself, in spite of being so very much loved by so very many others. Sometimes his lightning-sharp sarcasm could be devastating. Which was, of course, merely a cover for his deep insecurity.

There is an Ian-shaped hole in my heart as I write this tribute. In his final letter to everyone, which he had, thankfully, most carefully and thoughtfully constructed, Ian explained with crystal clarity that he did not want to die, but that he found living with his fears, depression and OCD too painful. In the end he felt that he had no option left but to give himself a permanent peace.

The challenge which Ian’s death has set us all is deceptively simple. It is that we must all now find our own ways to go on living without him. It is my sincere hope that our wonderful memories of him when he was at the very top of his game will remain sharply focussed, while those memories of his behaviour when he was so chronically mentally ill will eventually become an irrelevant blur.


My darling brother,

No words can even come close to expressing how heavy my heart is as I stand and do this speech.

Being your little sister has been one huge honour, and a consistent joy in my life, which I will always treasure deep inside my heart. I really hit jackpot having you as my brother. I couldn't have asked for a more amazing brother to look up to. You were always so funny, witty, amazingly intelligent, warm and caring. 

You have always been there for me, in my good times, and in times of need, constantly looking over my shoulder from afar, in your own thoughtful, non-aggressive way. You have always supported me in everything I do, and for that I want to thank you.

You have always been present at my birthdays, leaving do's, finding time to visit me when I returned home on holidays from South Africa, and coming early in the morning last year to Heathrow to collect me from the airport for my new life back in England. You even made the effort to venture out on a holiday to Spain whilst I was living out there all those years ago. These are just a few snippets of a long, lasting list of endless memories I have of you.

Ian, I have one last promise I want to tell you. my promise is that a day will not go by that I won't think of you, or speak fondly about you to family and friends. I will miss you endlessly, until the day we meet again.

I hope that being your little sister has made you proud. As my big brother, I am tremendously proud of you, and always will be. You have touched so many peoples lives, even when you have been terribly ill and tormented by those vicious demons, you still found the time, love and strength to help others in their time of need. You were such a lovely, kind, gentle soul, and we are all thankful to have had you in our lives.

Thank you for loving me, and teaching me the ways of the world, but mostly, thank you for being you.

Sleep tight in your new, happy place of rest. I hope that the sun's rays shine onto your beautiful face and soul, each and everyday for an entire eternity.

i love you always and forever,

Your baby sister, Jen