Happen In Darkness

I woke to a dusting of snow and the chatter of birds. A robin has made the old maple tree outside my study window his morning hang out, caroling notes that rise and fall — cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily.

Cheer-up is a needed but sometimes hard to heed message these days. But it does remind me of an old poem, written so long ago the room that is now my study wasn’t built yet and the body in the poem has been gone for 14 years. Still, the message is the same. Life moves in cycles. No matter where we are right now, we won’t always be here.

Happen In Darkness

There’s this sense of diving in
as blackbirds flock back to my feeders
and poppies break old ground
as my body comes in line
to reach for yours
with a single urgency that rises
as the sun does earlier
and earlier in what feels
like a long rush back
to the long hot hum
of a summer afternoon
already past the zenith
we’re traveling to now
aware all along
of what can and will
happen in darkness.

Helen’s Crocuses


I’ve posted this poem before on this blog, but not for many years. This year I need signs of renewal and hope more than ever, so I walked down to the yard where Helen lived. Her house and barn are gone. The family dairy herd was sold in the 90’s. The greenhouse fell into disrepair and was finally taken down many years ago. But the crocuses are shooting up all over her former yard, like very year.

Helen’s Crocuses

Earlier than we dare to hope
for any native color beyond
the hard buds of maples sheening
the hills with faint rose, the cupped
crocuses shoot up yellow,
purple, white — orange hearts
studding Helen’s front yard.

Helen was a loose farmer — what bloomed
bloomed wherever; greenhouse customers
left notes and payment
clothespin-clipped to a board
by the broken door; eggs were sold
from an old refrigerator propped outside,
cartons stacked next to the change box.

So when the blood blossomed
in her brain as she drove to pick up
pig scraps from a restaurant,
she just pulled to the shoulder, planted
her foot on the brake and waited.
Twenty seasons later, hardy and startlingly
new, here again, her crocuses.

Home for 65 Years

My parents, my sisters, and me (left front) on the steps of the house.

This morning my parents left the house they’ve lived in since 1954, the house they moved into when I was a year old, the place I’ve thought of as my original home for 65 years.

How many people get to be my age and have their parents both alive at 95, still living independently in the house they grew up in? Not many. In fact no one I know.

My parents’ move to an apartment in an assisted living facility is the right move on every level. Their increasing frailty and medical issues make living on their own more and more difficult, and winters over the last several years have been particularly hard. They don’t drive in bad weather or after dark — the cold days that seem to be over in a blink mean they don’t get out of the house.  Then they feel restless and isolated. Who wouldn’t? I get cabin fever myself and I go out regularly regardless of the weather.

So my sisters and all our spouses are happy about this move. We’ll worry less, and we know my parents will be comfortable, and I think happier. They won’t be weighted down by the responsibilities of keeping up a big house. Living among others in their age range will make it easy to be with other people, to make new friends, and to find other card players. Both my parents have a whip-smart bridge player past.

But when I visited my parents earlier this week it sunk in that this is it. I won’t be “going home” any more. That place in all our lives — those bedrooms where I slept (my sisters and I shifted rooms often), the kitchen where so many family meals were prepared, the living room that held so many groupings of family and friends, the den where my sisters and I watched “Rifleman” on the old black and white TV with my father, where we played our teenage rock and roll records on a turntable set on the built-in knotty pine shelves — will no longer be ours. 

My younger sister and her husband are with my parents today and will take them over to their new home once the movers finish getting their apartment set up for them. My brother-in-law just texted to say they had left 429 Country Way at 9:30 this morning. Before leaving they took a moment to say good-bye to the house.

“Thank you for helping us raise a beautiful family and keeping us all safe and warm for 65 years.”

Thank you indeed.

Yom Kippur Visitation

Photograph by Todd Henson https://toddhensonphotography.com

Tuesday I looked out my study window as I talked on the phone. In the dim light I could make out a blue heron standing on the top of a tall white pine tree. It seemed a strange place for a bird I normally see flapping wide wings across the sky or standing in shallow water, waiting to snatch a fish.

But it was almost dark, almost the beginning of Yom Kippur, so it made sense. Here was Eric, in his usual guise of one of the birds he loved most, planted in my view, helping me usher in the solemn day.

Yesterday morning at Temple I was talking to a friend, catching up on news while we waited for services to start, when a young woman approached. She circled around to stand where I could see her face.

“Excuse me,” she said, stepping forward, and told me her name. I greeted her, then was honest and asked how I knew her because I couldn’t remember. “Did you used to be married?” she asked, clearly not sure she had me right after I told her my name.

“Yes, I was married to Eric Schain,” I said, knowing that was the connection she was looking for. She smiled. She’d had Eric as a Temple School teacher and loved him. She’d thought she recognized me from all those years ago and wanted me to know how important he’d been to her as a Jewish child. Her mother had taught with Eric. They were big fans of each other, sharing a love of Judaism and a commitment to passing along their traditions.

The young woman and I chatted for a few more minutes — she wanted how Adrienne and Sam were doing and told me her mother died two years ago. Another parent gone too young. As we parted she again told me how much Eric had meant to her and held her hands in prayer beneath her chin, made a small bow with her head, then lifted her face and put a hand over her heart.

Sometimes I wonder why I still make a point to get to High Holiday Day services. I consider myself a secular Jew — attached to the holiday and festival celebrations I shared with Eric, traditions at the center of the family life we built together. But I’m not observant or religious and often squirm during services at the frequent mentions of God, as if there’s an embodied being behind life.

But once again I was reminded why I was there, why I keep this observance in my life. It’s where I find Eric.

That’s It For the Zinnias

Saturday night was the second hard frost, two nights in a row. The wilted zinnias I left when I pulled out the brown basil in the morning, thinking they might revive if the temperature pulled back up into the 40s or 50s for a few nights, were hopelessly deflated when I went out to the garden yesterday.

So the bouquet on my desk, and the one on the kitchen table, are it for this year. No more fresh blossoms every couple of days, one of my favorite summer treats. Not surprisingly, I wrote a poem about this 25 years ago, published in my chapbook Fever of Unknown Origin. And here I am writing ,about it still.

FIRST FROST

That day my hands smell of wheat,
by evening yellow-green
from tomato vines.

All night zinnias age on the table,
blackening their water
as ducks blacken the dawn.

Four Years and Infinity

I had a short visit with Ava this past weekend, meeting up with family at a disc golf course, on our way home from a vacation on Cape Cod. Ava and I hung out by the road, on a picnic table in the shade of tall maple trees. We played with a princess sticker book and played school and of course she was the teacher. At one point a loud motorcycle went by and Ava covered her ears.

“Smart move,” I said. Which led to a story from Ava about a time she was in a field and had to cover her ears because she heard “100 motorcycles or infinity, or actually both numbers at once.”

Yesterday was the four year deathaversary of my sister Chris. Four years! It feels like ten and it feels like four and it feels like infinity. Maybe so many people I love have died that one grief bleeds into the next and each loss feels like forever.

My sister Meg called me yesterday to let me know she was going to visit Chris’s memorial bench. She planned to paint some rocks to put on the bench and wanted to know if I had a message I wanted her to put on a rock.

“I do,” I said. “But I feel like it’s selfish.” When she asked me what it was I told her I wanted to say, “I miss you.”

“That’s not selfish,” Meg said. She’d called our sister Jeanne earlier in the day and Jeanne had the exact same message. “And I planned to write ‘We all miss you,'” Meg said.

The memorial bench isn’t always there when family goes to visit it. Perched on top of a sea wall, looking out over Minot Beach to the ocean in Scituate, MA where my sisters and I grew up, the bench gets knocked over and tossed around by storms.

But the bench was in place yesterday, and Meg was able to bring painted rocks. Peace, Love, Thinking of You, and We Are All One, which is the message Chris chose to have on her bench.

We all miss you.

 

Clean Windows

Today I finished washing the windows in my house. All of them. Big double sash windows, 2 over 2 in the old part of the house, 1 over 1 in the rest, wide open panes with no mulleins. I washed the glass in the doors and the skylight too. The oldest windows are in the living room, and the old aluminum frame storms need to be up to seal the screen, so I also washed those. In all, I washed 29 windows.

This is a big deal, to me anyway. I hadn’t washed windows in decades. In fact, I don’t know when I last did it. David washed a few downstairs when he first moved in 10 years ago, and some of the windows are newer than 10 years old. But I know some of them haven’t been washed in over 20 years because the window in Adrienne’s old room still had space stickers and a Pearl Jam decal on it and she last lived here in 1998.

Last night I talked to a friend who also recently washed her windows for the first time in decades. Like me she needed to do something concrete and visible. The state of the world is distracting enough, and adding on this winter of getting pulled off track by family illnesses left me more adrift than I can remember feeling for a long time. Focusing on my writing projects, or any creative expression, has felt impossible. My usual slip-into-flow attention when I have days in a row with no major obligations has been blocked off. I just can’t get to that headspace where hours go by as I fiddle with poems, or revise an essay, write a column, or cut and paste a collage.

But I still have all this energy to do something. Earlier this spring I scrubbed the old grout on the tiled bathroom floor. The grime of 30 years didn’t go with the new soaking tub and paint job. Then it got warm enough to garden and I turned soil, fertilized, planted and thinned and weeded. My garden has never been in better shape.

Several weeks ago, just as it was getting hot enough to call for putting the screens in the windows, I walked into our bedroom and looked at the windows back-lit by late sun. They were filthy, smudged and spotted with dirt in a way I hadn’t noticed before. That’s when I decided I would wash every window in the house as I put in screens this year.

Cleaning my windows was more satisfying than I could have imagined. Not only did I do something useful, I can see what I did and the effect of my work brings me great pleasure. The outdoors has come into the rooms of the house in a newly refreshed way. I don’t have to look through dusty crud to look out at the pastures and cows, to see the maroon and green barberry bush out the front windows, the garden when I stand at the sink. Is the sky bluer, the leafed out trees more green?

The state of the world is still distracting and there’s always something to be reckoned with in a family as big as ours, but maybe I’m getting a bit of focus back. I wrote this. And as I wrote it I looked up now and then to admire my clean windows.

How the World Works With A 4-Year-Old

Ava: Do pirates suck your blood?

Me: No, vampires do, but there aren’t really any vampires.

Ava: What are vampires?

Me: Vampires are in stories but they’re not real.

Ava: Are pirates real?

Me: Yes, pirates are real. They’re people who rob other people on ships. But not people like you, like big ships and pirates have their own boats and they go up to other boats and steal stuff. There are real pirates and there are stories about pirates that aren’t all real.

Ava: If you had a treasure chest of gems on a boat, pirates would steal that.

Me: Yes, that what stories about pirates are like.

Ava: Let’s go play on the playground.

Me: Okay, but remember my back is really sore today. I won’t be able to pick you up. I can’t pick up anything right now.

Ava: But if you saw a gem you could pick that up.

Me: You’re right. I could.

New Category

As Eric’s 13th deathaversary creeps closer (Sunday by the day of the week, Tuesday by the date), I think about how much everything has changed, and how much is the same.

One big same is I still live in the house Eric and I bought together almost 40 years ago. I look out on the same pastures and farmyard. The stone wall of the cemetery up the hill, with a burst of flaming forsythia among the gravestones, still draws the closest horizon. I run the same routes in the morning and hear the same birds. Today a loon called as I ran along Northwood Lake, its eerie tremolo announcing its arrival as it landed in the water.

Eric loved loons and their regular presence around me is a way he stays with me. A loon shows up in this poem from The Truth About Death, the book I wrote the year after Eric died. As always, loons cry as they fly overhead at dawn most mornings in the spring and summer, moving between the lake and the ponds to the north.

But there are some big changes that ride along with what has stayed the same. I’m older, I’ve lost more people, I have grandchildren, I have more time for my own creative work, I run slower but still fast for my age, I know a lot more widows, I’m no longer a widow myself.

But I don’t think of myself as being in a new category anymore. I’m just here, and mostly it works.

Milk

I’m finally home reliably enough to get milk from my neighbors. I’m a lucky woman that I live next door to Jersey cows that produce more milk and cream than the dairy family can use. The fact that such a rich and delicious food is produced 100 yards from my house feels miraculous to me.

Life has been full of left turns this winter. David and I were unexpectedly away from home for much of the last few months, away too much to drop off my empty milk bottles at the farmhouse across the brook so they could reappear the next day, the pale yellow cream at the tops of the bottles already half way to butter. I’ve missed that sweet milk and the rhythm of it.

There was more I missed. I planned to spend much of the winter pulling together a manuscript for a Vermont College of Fine Arts Conference workshop this summer. But family illnesses overrode those plans and I just cancelled my enrollment in a week-long workshop with Matthew Dickman. That would have been a terrific week, with a wonderful poet and teacher and the feedback of the other workshop members. The VCFA Conference is magical — a week with kind and interesting people who are also devoted  to writing.

But I don’t have a manuscript. The time I’d planned to use to sort, revise and write poems into a book shape  was spent in cars and hospitals. And by now I’m sure I won’t have a manuscript ready to send in by the deadline of July 1. Well into my second week of being home without any major interruptions, I still have no creative focus. I can weed perennial beds and make granola and do a spring clean-up and purge in the basement of the barn. But I can’t focus on anything that requires sustained  creative thinking. I haven’t regained the drive that makes my own work the most important thing I can be doing. I got used to there always being something that really was more important.

But I’m home. David is home too. And we’ve been here long enough to trade our empty bottles for milk.  I’ll skim the thick cream off the top and start a batch of yogurt. The cream I’ll churn into butter.

Back to my delicious routine. May it spread.