Grief That is Coming of Age

SONY DSCI found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.

This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:

It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.

It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.

“How could you possibly know?” he asked.

“I just do.”

My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.

It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.

Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.

Photo Essay: A Stop at Walden Pond on Thoreau’s Birthday

Henry David Thoreau would have been 196 today. We were in Concord, MA, anyway so we thought we’d stop by Walden. It’s a lovely spot, though there are a few features that might give the old naturalist pause…

Within a stones throw of this, a replica of the cabin where Thoreau lived and wrote for two years,you can see ...
Within a stone’s throw of this, a replica of the cabin where Thoreau lived and wrote for two years, you can see …
...this.
…this.
And you can look at this...
And you can look at this…
... from here ...
… from here …
... or here
… or here.
There really aren't that many places anywhere that you can expect to watch ducks feed and also see someone teach themselves to juggle.
There really aren’t that many places anywhere that you can expect to see ducks feed while you watch somebody teach themselves to juggle.
But if you want the real Walden you can walk the perimeter of the pond here ...
But if you want the real Walden you can walk the perimeter of the pond here …
... or stalk a kayaker here ...
… or stalk a kayaker here …
... or contemplate here.
… or contemplate here.
But this might be the best view of all.
But this might be the best view of all.

Photo Essay: Election 2012

Obama Campaign Office, Main Street, Nashua, NH.

The New Hampshire Obama campaign staff hand-cut letters out of foam core that spelled out “NH 4 OBAMA” and convinced people to hold them up throughout the rally. It’s not as easy as it looks.

The President gave a rousing version of his stump speech on a spectacular October afternoon. He was probably saving his new material for the Al Smith Dinner in New York that night and his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

We all want a moment that we think belongs just to us. My friend and I were the only spectators on this stretch of street as the motorcade passed. We like to think that he saw us.

Hurricane Sandy was comparatively kind to New England but no discussion of Election 2012 is complete without her.

Sunrise, Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

On the way to the polls, a juxtaposition of the 20th and 21st century economies.

These signs were everywhere; we had an 85% turnout.

There were numerous Brown signs posted in town, many of them ten times this size. See also: previous post.

Even though Brown won the local vote, Elizabeth Warren ran away with the election for Senate.

And amidst the election hoopla, signs of thing to come. Turkeys party and then get raffled off.

Civic pride on both sides of the street.


Remnants of a successful Halloween remain.

An unattended sign at a polling place caused a little controversy, but not enough for it to come down.

Although it was cold, it was sunny, making it easier to get out the vote.

As the sun went down, the sign holders were steadfast in the cold.

True believer.

Darkness settled over the Groton School, with football practice under the lights in the distance. It seemed fitting to end the day in this place where Presidents and statesmen first made their marks.

We rushed to buy the morning papers with the results, not realizing that they went to press before 11pm.

2012 was indeed the social media election – this was the only copy of this edition available.

The election produced another winner: Nate Silver, who had the numbers right all along. Goodbye, Gallup.

But old habits die hard, and it was good to sit down on the first snowy day of the season and read the news the old fashioned way, with soup and coffee.

Edith Wharton Windows

Yesterday was a spectacular day in Lenox, MA, and we made an unscheduled stop at Edith Wharton’s home there, The Mount. A thunderhead had popped up out of nowhere and we were looking for a vista from which we could view the storm. While the storm passed south of us it provided some wonderful light for garden and interior photos, and I came away with so many beautiful windows. Wharton’s first book was about interior and garden design, and her love of light and appreciation for a good cross breeze is evident in the design of this house, which she built in 1902.

The window above is from the recently restored bedroom suite that included a sitting room. According to the literature, even though the sitting room has a writing desk, Wharton wrote in bed and let the finished pages fall to the floor, where her secretary would retrieve them and type them up. I find this detail enviable and impractical – oh, to be able to write as beautifully as she did and from the comfort of bed, but it makes my back hurt to imagine it. But it makes perfect sense to be writing while looking out a window with a view like the one below.

Visiting historic sites always seems to involve, at some point, a note that areas have been restored to reflect their original beauty based on photographs or narrative descriptions because the authentic buildings, furnishings, paintings, fixtures, frescoes and floors have been sold, lost or destroyed. I get annoyed that people didn’t think to preserve these details all along, particularly when they achieved fame in their own time. Then I think about modern times (our place in history somewhat less secure than Edith Wharton’s in 1912), and I imagine the docent saying, “The original Home Depot oak and laminate cabinets and linoleum floors are recreated here to the best of our ability using photographs and written descriptions of the home from that period.” Never mind.

Long walk.

It has been a raucous month. Graduation, orientation, parties, beach walks, visits from family, packing for camp, berry picking and even a Supreme Court decision that will go down in history. Now we venture into a July that will bring new things we can’t even begin to imagine and so I offer something comfortingly familiar – June 2012’s edition of a photo I have taken dozens of times in in every season. Few spots are more lovely than Steep Hill Beach at low tide.

On that day a few weeks ago when things were particularly crazy, we were walking up the wooded hill from the beach and as usual I was bringing up the rear, the rest of the family out of sight. Lost in thoughts of all that is to come, I rounded the corner and encountered an older gentleman making his way down the path. Long-sleeved open-collared white shirt with cuffs rolled up, khaki pants, glasses, panama hat. He smiled at me and said in a voice all too familiar,

“Long walk, isn’t it?” His voice had a bit of a midwestern accent, so “isn’t” came out like “idn’t.”

My voice caught a little as I replied,

“Yes, but a good one.”

He nodded.

I wasn’t sure if I was making it up by the time I reached my husband at the top of the path. He raised his eyebrows and said,

“Did you see him? It was your Dad.”

Yes, I think it was.

When your birthday and Mother’s Day are always in the same week, it messes with your head a little

Yesterday one of my sisters sent me an early birthday e-mail that said “enjoy your last year of being the only sibling under 50.” Let’s just let that one sink in for a minute on this Mother’s Day. I have a lot of siblings (think Stephen Colbert) and my life has been punctuated by the rewards and trials of being the youngest in a large family (mostly rewards). Because I am the end of the line and my mother worried a  lot about being an older parent with a young child (every time she left town she would say, “Now, if I die…”), I do measure annually  how old I was when my mother was the age I am turning this year. If I were my mother, I would have an 8 year old right now. How lovely to have a sweet little second grader right now. How exhausting. I have three children and this is the first year I do not have to attend a spring concert and I am overcome with joy.  Mom, thank you for the science fairs and Christmas concerts and Girl Scout flying up ceremonies. And I want you to know that I totally forgive you for not coming to my junior high volleyball and softball games.  Most of the time I didn’t even want to be there myself so I didn’t exactly stew about this for 30 years but really, thank you for all of the stuff you actually made it to because no parent could possibly be prepared for the purgatory that is some school events – and then multiply the times you have to sit through it it by 10. You never know when one is going to count and give you that incredible moment, though, so I will be there for every one that I can get to that’s left for me. So thanks to my siblings for breaking Mom in on some fronts and making her paranoid on others and for reminding me that being the youngest is just as much of a mixed bag as it ever was. I love you all.

Look! Here is the hill I am almost over!

Cranwell Window

Like the rest of the world, I fell in love with Downton Abbey.  And after 30 years in Massachusetts I finally had a chance to drive through and make an overnight stay in the Berkshires.  Now is see what all of the fuss is about.  I expected the spring beauty of the rolling hills but I was not prepared for the diverse and breathtaking architecture of Western Massachusetts and Eastern New York.  This window is the Downton Abbey moment of my first – but not last – journey to Western Massachusetts.  It was taken at Cranwell, a gilded age property with a provenance that includes Harriet Beecher Stowe.  The pastoral and architectural beauty of the property was matched only by the graciousness of the people who worked there.  A real gem.

Roots & Bulbs

Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain.  Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order.  This year the change is more dramatic:  the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom.  The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.

I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted.  I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001.  Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely.  But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.

So I did.  And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs).  When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved:  sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating.  The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever.  The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically.  The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.

Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange.  The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks.  My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty.  My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where.  So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.

This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are.  It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips.  Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.

It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.

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