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The Year of All Good Things

This was supposed to be a great year. According to me, anyway. It was the year I turned 50, the year my house turned 100…what appeared to be an auspicious, glorious year of celebrations and milestones observed with love and care. Those numbers seemed to mean something, to be a sign, as if I were an ancient parsing the phases of the moon or the turning of the tide. There was some cosmic order, and as far as I could see in January, that solid and reassuring order would stand as bulwark against disorder and pain.

From January through March my father fought cancer. There was surgery, radiation therapy, exhaustion and irreparable alteration. We adjusted as well as we could. In April, our old dog died. It was not a terrible death; she died at home, where she felt safe, in my arms. We were sad, though, and there was a hole where she had been. A month ago my mother died, again, not a terrible or shocking death, but leaving an even greater hole. The night before her memorial service yesterday, we learned that the wife of my parents’ best “couple friends” had a brain tumor. Before, and in between losses there were a million tiny paper cuts of failure, injustice, and unkindness. It was just life, really, it’s just what happens, but it began to feel like we were living in a country song.

“Gloom, despair and agony are me/Deep dark depression, excessive misery/If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all/Gloom, despair and agony are me…”

So the Year of All Good Things has fallen and shattered like a cheap, plaster statue and I’m sitting at my desk listening to the saddest songs I know, worrying about what I need to glue together in the next month and a half. Like Thanksgiving. Because really, I don’t care about Thanksgiving this year, but I feel obligated to carry on. Will my father want to celebrate his birthday at the end of this month? What about my mother’s birthday on December 14th, and Hanukah, and Christmas, and why do I have to be a fucking grownup and keep everything going and be sensitive to everybody’s assorted needs and be polite and good and do laundry and peel potatoes when all I want to do is take Xanax and lie in my bed in a sort of twilight sleep, letting someone else do all the heavy lifting?

What if what I really want is to have my mom back? Because frankly, if you knew her, and especially if she was your mother, you’d want her back, too.

And of course I do, and of course this is all Normal Grieving, in the clinical sense, and of course it happens to everybody and of course no two people grieve the same way, and unfortunately I live in a culture that is uncomfortable with grief. I can get all warped and bitter very quickly projecting this dour assessment onto everyone I see: he thinks I’m milking it. She was back at work three days after her husband died. Everyone else can just Get On With It and I am some kind of immature emotional cripple who fails to process in a timely and acceptable manner, crushed by waves of sadness when I should totally be peeling potatoes.

But then there are these things, call them grace, silver lining or cosmic alignment – they are good things. Because my father was so sick in a hospital 60 miles away, I spent hours in the car with my mother driving back and forth, listening to Pete Seeger, talking about Obama’s chances, people we knew, books we had read. Because Maisy died, we adopted Guinevere who is a magnificent addition to the family. Because my mother died, I have reconnected with my only two first cousins, who I really, really like and would choose to befriend without a single blood tie. Not just in a Facebook way, but with real hugs and laughter and the promise of more. And, because they are her brother’s children, and she adored them, I know that my mother would love that.

So as I sweep up those crumbling bits of plaster, wishing just a little that I had worn waterproof mascara, I can see some gleaming patches of hardwood beneath the mess. It looks solid, and seems more trustworthy than the beautiful illusion that was The Year of All Good Things. It even kind of reflects me as I am right now: a mess, a work in progress, a woman in need of some potato peeling vigor and some twilight Xanax sleep.

A human, just another human, caught up in the irrational maelstrom that makes a mockery of our firmest plans and still offers us much that is wonderful.

Summer Love

Every year at this time, I think of that summer. We were “just friends,” John and I; he had been my First Official Boyfriend more than a year ago, and left me silent and sodden with tears after only six months. He was big and beautiful, his legs were like the trunks of some sturdy tree and his blue eyes framed by fans of lines radiating out after twenty-eight years of smiling. There had been a time, during that sliver of a relationship, when he had liked to lie with his head on my lap and close his eyes. “Play with my face,” he would ask, and I would stroke the smooth, faintly waxy skin, feel the first tiny tips of stubble pushing up around his jaw, and glide a fingertip over those fanned lines.

Things had ended badly, with decreased interest on his end creating increased panic on mine. I entrapped him in pointless and agonizing conversations. He could not say the words necessary to make it all stop, and I could not allow myself to see that he was saying nothing that meant it should continue. I drove past his house at night to see if his car was there, I left notes on his windshield, and eventually he contrived to disappear. He did not answer calls at home or at work, I could never find him anywhere, and eventually I disappeared, too. For a week I stayed in bed sleeping, weeping, and looking out the window at the barren, icy trees. Eventually I had to go back to work or lose my job, and so I did, and I kept getting up every day and crying a little less, laughing a little more, finding small things to anticipate.
More than a year later I ran into him at the grocery store, in the bread aisle. He was still handsome, lightly tan, the embodiment to me of romance and True Love. I remembered that he was an idiot, that he believed himself to be a “writer” and cranked out thousand-page manuscripts which he sent out in paper boxes to be rejected without comment. He talked too much, his voice was kind of high-pitched and whiny, and he had made me a tape of a Brahms concerto with the movements out of order because he knew no better. I didn’t care. I followed him to his new place, a room in a student rental near campus, and we laughed about how we could “just be friends” now that so much time had gone by. After a long conversation, and being in receipt of the latest manuscript to “look over” when I had time, I went home alone. I wanted him back, sticky with summer sweat, saccharine thoughts, and some song about “have you ever really loved a woman” on the car radio.
Almost every night I ended up on the front porch of his dilapidated white four-square house with the green shutters. At the end of the street was a giant hole surrounded by flexible orange fencing and gigantic dinosaurs that moved earth all day long. They were building a hotel, and every so often a drunk undergraduate would manage to breach the fence and make loud and exhilarated noise at having beaten The Man. We sat on the porch with one of his roommates, and I spoke animatedly with the roommate in the hopes of making John jealous. The roommate, Joe, I think, played me Pat Metheny tapes and I went into faux raptures over the vague, watery jazz. He also played the guitar and sang. He was a fairly good foil for an hour or so, and then I became desperate for him to leave us alone so that I could shine. I was leaving soon, moving to Boston to start law school, and I was sure that I would be less terrified about the whole thing if I knew someone loved me, wanted me, missed me. I envisioned tearful phone calls, cross-country drives, and telling new classmates about “my boyfriend, back home.”
He was an idiot. He was still an idiot, his book was terrible, and he was starting another one. He told me, earnestly, that anyone could be a writer, could write a best seller if they figured out what people liked and wrote it. He discovered Rod McKuen. One night, as we sat watching “Brazil” and eating a cheap, cardboard pizza, he reached over and began to play with a ring on my right index finger, turning it around and around. Startled, I asked him what he was doing. Despite my yearning, my focused, palpable desire, he had not touched me once in the three months we had been sitting on the porch in the hot, enclosed swelter of a Michigan summer.
“I’m seducing you,” he said, looking at me with those pale, blue eyes framed by the beloved crinkles. I did not yet understand that if a man has to tell you that he is seducing you, he isn’t.
He’s long gone, my blue-eyed boy, He’s married,  an air-traffic controller somewhere in the Midwest, a convert to orthodox Judaism. The hotel is long since built. He never published anything. He was not The One, not even close, and when I think about the hours of editing his tormented prose, the nights of listening to music that I hated and willing him to want me again, I feel foolish. I feel foolish, and human, and glad that I now have my own white house with a big porch on which I can sit on a summer night and think my own thoughts. It’s the same town, the same heat, the same intimation of rain in the air, but I am in a different universe now, casting about for nothing that is not already mine.

Miss Skeeter Tells a Story

Outside the kitchen, the reception is in full swing. It’s a happy event;  a new Senior Pastor has been asked to take the helm of the church where I work, and his youth and energy seem to be contagious. The June sun shines obligingly in through the ancient lead-paned windows, and a revolving throng of congregants stops in on a busy Saturday to eat fresh strawberries and blanched asparagus, check out Ida Wooten’s famous chocolate chip meringue cookies, and meet the new pastor and his family.

Inside the kitchen, not the big kitchen where I actually cook, but the smaller, beautifully appointed “upstairs kitchen,” I am methodically slicing another round of Brie, and chatting with Skeeter. That really is her name; when I was in elementary school she lived three doors up the street from my best friend Isabel, and after mounting a fierce seven-year-old battle against the possibility that any grown woman was really named “Skeeter,” I met her and had to concede. She is about my mother’s age, Skeeter is, and still speaks with the deceptively folksy drawl of one born and raised in deepest Georgia. Recently widowed, her eyes still fill when she speaks of her beloved Bob. The two of them traveled ambitiously and exotically, and she has been most of the places I would most like to go in this world. She has fierce, articulate political opinions, and after a lifetime of work as a nurse at the university’s health center she is particularly vehement on issues related to reproductive health. Like Andy Griffith playing “Matlock,” Skeeter has all the charm of a country mouse with the wit, intellect and sly humor of Dorothy Parker. I could not love her more if I stayed up nights trying.
As I return to the kitchen after placing the cheese alongside its companions on the kale-lined platter, Skeeter is talking about World War II, lamenting the fact that a nurse who cared for her Bob during his final illness had not known the significance of D-Day, and had, after receiving an explanation, remarked that it “didn’t really affect her life.”
“I’ll tell you a story as true as anything I’ve ever said,” says Skeeter. I am busy, but I have learned some things in my life. One is that people like my history professor father tell long stories, longer than the average contemporary attention span, but that those stories are like elegantly wrapped gifts from the universe. Another is that being too busy for a genuine human connection is penny wise and pound foolish.
“Tell me,” I say, leaning back against the counter.
“When I was a little girl, I didn’t think there would even be a newspaper any more after V-J Day, because that’s all the paper was,” she makes a vertical zigzag with her index finger, “charts and numbers and stories about the war.” I nod, recognizing a good intro when I hear one. “So anyway,” she continues, “the neighbor boy, Archie, was one of the ones who parachuted in on D-Day. We were all so proud of him, he joined up with his best friend right after high school, what was his name?“ She screws her eyes tight, searching for the name, and shakes her head. “Anyway, they were in the same unit, and they were both dropped on D-Day.” I nod, waiting.
“Well, then they found out that Archie was captured and was a prisoner of war. They got a telegram. The other boy was safe, a French family took him in, but Archie was captured. We were all so worried, it was terrible.”  I absently hand a pitcher of iced tea to a volunteer who appears in the doorway. There is no reception any more; I am waiting to find out whether Archie made it home. “Then we found out he was alive, and he was liberated but nobody knew where he was or when he would come home. So one morning that summer, because you know V-E day was in May, Archie’s brother decided to drive uptown because it was such a fine day. And Archie’s mother, we called her ’Miss Linette’ because we called everybody ’Miss’ in the South, anyway, Miss Linette decided to go along for the ride, and she just got in the car in her nightgown and robe because she wasn’t planning to get out of the car, just riding along.” Skeeter’s eyes grow brighter. “And at the first stoplight on their way into town,” she says, her voice becoming treacherously unreliable, “there was Archie. Just standing there, waiting to cross the street.” I find my own eyes filling, imagining such a reunion with my own boy.
“Now how does something like that happen?!” Skeeter says briskly, wiping her eyes. “That can’t just be a coincidence. It just gives me the chill bumps all over.” She turns to find her abandoned platter of Snickerdoodles, and begins once again to arrange them in a tidy pattern.
It gives me the chill bumps, too. Also, a corny, sentimental, wave of love and gratitude for the Archies who parachuted so that I can live in freedom, the Miss Linettes who gave up their sons more graciously than I might, and the Skeeters who keep them alive by telling their stories. That’s as true as anything I’ve ever said.