31 August 2007
Well now that the house is being renovated, I wanted to check for them before it got to be impossible. I did, but to no avail. Those things were not there. And I was, am still, rather sad.
Some years ago a member of a previous church, a man of retirement age lost his older brother. I told him I was sorry, and he shrugged about such things being inevitable but then said something in passing that was utterly heartbreaking. “You know, when your sibling dies you lose the last person who knew you when you were a child.”
Sigmund Freud was not perfect, but he was right to realize how our early years cast a lifelong shadow. Yes, the child is father to the man. What we think and feel in childhood is like the foundation under a house. Everything that comes after is built on it.
So when I realize the memory of those days is slipping away, if only because of distance and competition with more recent years, I feel an occasional desperate desire to preserve some tokens. They somehow catch and hold what was, serving as talismans.
In my mind I can see the early report cards with their careful teacherly handwriting. I can still feel the boy scout medal for walking the Lincoln Trail in Washington DC, which I wore with some pride on ‘state’ occasions with my Order Of The Arrow sash (brotherhood level).
That soft sinking feeling comes into my chest when I think of them, the kind that is a titrated form of grief. We are young such a little while. but how it stays with us, yea, all our days. It is hard to bury the boy I still am.
28 August 2007
And along this street where Andy Hardy or Tom Sawyer or Nancy Drew could easily stroll, are trees. Good large trees that were once small but are now destroying the asphalt sidewalks as their roots swell and burst the ground. In summer they cast a deep dappled shade from midday through late afternoon. In autumn they will burst into flame and through themselves onto the street in a wind and rain storm that always reduces their beauty to debris in a day. In winter they will scratch the hard blue sky. Come spring they will wait as long as possible before hurling their flowers as confetti for the arriving majesty of leaves.
I am being poetic because two of these trees have captured me. In front of a weathered and needy house that presents its modest gable end to the street, they tower over it and make this house look like a place for bourgeois gnomes.
Each stands at least 70 feet high, and their trunks are massive deeply fissured grey pillars on top of which are hard knuckled arthritic fingers scattered with leaves.
One is barely alive, its two tallest arms smooth and bare with death. Only one survives, and it is overdeveloped like a one armed weightlifter. The trunk at eye level is all but hollow, a carapace wrapped around a rotting hole.
The other is taller, healthier, but only by comparison. I suspect is it younger, but not by much. They have been here sine the house was built. I think they are North American lindens, or basswoods, which are quite often planted in allees in Europe. These two got way out of hand along the way.
They are not beautiful at all. I think of the Elephant Man when I see them, so bent and bulbous and writhing they are. But they have a majesty I revere, which is why i walk this street every year. Something of their perseverance is visible in their convoluted trunks, their worn bark, their wounded arms which soldier on.
The thing we call beauty is about proportion and perfection of form. It needs youth to exist. Time inevitably erodes and corrodes that arithmetic excellence by leaving remainders and irrational numbers such as warts and wrinkles and hairs that go askew or simply away.
In the case of these trees, they lost their beauty to get an identity. Time carved a face out of the uniformity of nature. They are great things now, ugly and worn and weary.
I have heard told that when you present yourself to St. Peter you are judged by your scars not your medals. If so, these trees are surely to become pillars for some celestial temple.
27 August 2007
I have two marvelous sons, 23 and 16. Yet even in their marvelousness there is an impenetrable quality to them, which reason tells me is innate and inescapable. They have minds of their own that I cannot read or write.
True, when they were very young the wheels were easy to watch. Their needs and designs were as transparent as a dog or a cat. But being people, they gradually got hold of thoughts and ideas we did not put there and which parents cannot guess much less fathom. I am, in many ways, more connected to my wife than my children, as we chose to be intimate. Children do not. They cannot find their individuality except by withholding intimacy. A friend noted that even if we should try to transcend our egos, we must first have an ego to transcend.
That ego, the sense of self as separate from others, is what we parents truly want for our children. But the price is losing the thrilling intimacy we had when they were very young. For them to be people they have to be able not to be children, our children, my children.
That abstract observation comes from watching our sons and how they react to us. They are different not only from each other but in how the relate to each of us.
Sometimes that makes me sad, as they can speak to their mother in ways they cannot speak to me. I get to feeling mopey and inadequate that I am not a perfect father, a state that is but another iteration of my general sense of inadequacy.
But then it occurs to me that why should one of us be adequate to all needs? They are smart enough to have figured out who is better at certain things, and that we are both prone to moods and attitudes. They choose the better one of us at a given moment.
The single parent family is harder, I think. There is no one else to go to, no alternative. And if there is more than one child, the parent is out numbered as well. I can see how multigenerational households come into being, with grandparents and parents and children. Sometimes it involves aunts and uncles. Or even older and younger cousins.
I think children need more than one dependable caring adult to do really well. I know I am a better parent because I am not the only one. I also know that my brother is better in some ways than I, and my uncle. No doubt I am better than they in some ways. Add in my two sisters, my brother-in-law, and my wife’s kin and we have a village of our own, scattered as it may be across the country.
As much as I know any of them would rescue me in time of need, they all would save my kids if it came to that. That feels good when I worry my parenting is still less than optimal.
26 August 2007
It started in March, actually, when a church member died and her family postponed the memorial until early summer. But the week before that service another member died and his service was scheduled for that same week. This was in July. At the same time my colleague in clergy life was attending to his father-in-law who was approaching the end of his journey with ALS. This is the 3rd person in my wider circle to have to deal with this wasting disease. The other two are still alive, and mostly able.
The week before we left another member died rather suddenly, and just as sudden we had to figure out when to hold the service, which because of my travels was rather complicated. We settled on this past Friday, which meant coming home a day early, but this is hardly the first time death has exacted a pound of flesh from my personal life. I visited with the widow and surviving son the week before we left and realized I would have to take the laptop along so I could compile the service somewhere along the way.
I was glad of that decision later, as toward the end of the month I got word of another member’s death, also someone I knew if only slightly though I knew her widower much better. We spoke on the phone at length and I pieced together a service from that conversation and other notes gathered along the way.
The day after that death my colleague’s father-in-law died. It brought back memories of my own father-in-law who likewise died rather young (sixty four I think) after a wasting illness, and like my colleague when I was still young (twenty seven in fact). He is actually ten years older but that’s still rather young to be burying parents.
The last death was also sudden, and though remote from me someone I knew a bit. Over twenty years ago my brother became part of a traveling folk trio/quartet that since became his primary work. One of the founders of that group, just two years older than me and famously fit, dropped dead of a sudden heart attack two days two days before we were arriving for a visit with my brother.
The result was that amid the exquisite weather of northern New England and the refreshing reconnection with relatives, I was planning three memorial services at once, all from a distance.
I was a trifle reluctant to come home, knowing that I would be thrust immediately back into the whirlwind of duty. And yet few things are more satisfying to a clergyman than leading memorial services. Week after week you preach and pray and shuffle the papers of management and meetings around and only occasionally does it seem to make any difference. But when you can help a family take the first steps in grief, simply by being with them and assuring them by your familiarity with the rituals, you really do sense you do some good in the world.
Christenings are fun, and always a bit adventurous when it comes to how a baby will respond. Weddings are pleasant but intense and oddly prickly as so many people are invested in the outcome. But those are optional rituals. One need not christen a baby any more. People live together all the time without “benefit of clergy.” But death demands something.
I told one widow that we clergy are “God’s Butler” when death comes. It’s like going somewhere important you’ve never been before and so you are not sure what to do. We open the door, show the way, and walk alongside to the end of the hall.
It is more than that, of course, but it is at least that, as this is precisely what people need at this time. To be able to be a guide here is to make a real difference, however small. And that made the loss of a day or two of vacation a very small price to pay.
BTW, another member died just as I got home, and another colleague did the good deed. But I wanted to attend the service, and it was fortunate I did as the singer needed someone who could sight read her song and the substitute organist was not able to do that. So I got the job with somewhat less than 30 minutes advance notice. Glad it was an easy song, I’ll say that.
Now I’m going to weed my overgrown garden and maybe hang some pictures in the kitchen. The Polish festival resumes today and some genuine pierogies and glumkes would be great for lunch after that.
25 August 2007
They never really meant to stay there so long, I think. They, we, all grew up in Maryland and all our family was there at the time. But stay they did, by accident and eventual decision. Mom hated hot summers, which Vermont does not have. She suffered the very long, very dark, very cold winters for the three months when sublime cool/warm days bathed the Champlain Valley. From their front porch they could look down across the town, the lake and into the Adirondacks. Sunrises and sunsets were a daily splendor. They still are.
They went there when I was at the end of college. It was never quite my home, and yet where else could I go when college was over and my next step unsure. My brother, though, shared the house with his young family when they moved from Kalamazoo after finishing his BA.
That was over 25 years ago. Since then his kids grew up, one even got married and had a son. He moved out, eventually just down the street. He divorced. He moved back in. My folks aged and died. He was the one close by while the rest of the four kids moved on and out. One sister went to the southwest, another to the DC area, and I to various places in pursuit of my calling. So it was only natural that when mom died he should want and get the house.
We arrived for our annual visit from collecting our younger son from camp in the Adirondacks. I planned to cut through the park, a vast area created by the state of New York over a century ago, which I had never done in all the years I was a New Yorker. Isn’t that often the outcome, that you cannot be a tourist of your own home?
We have seen more of upstate New York than ever before, this year. It is a magnificent piece of real estate. The region between Albany and Utica is almost heartbreaking in its postcard hills. Now and then fragments of the Erie Canal come into view and with it a sense of how long Europeans have trod here and transformed the land. In the regions north and south of the river and canal I think of Cooper’s Last Mohican, and it is not hard to imagine the vastness he conjured, the eternal roll of hills and mountains which no civilization can overcome. Only at the edges, along the Hudson and by the Great Lakes do humans seem to have won a lasting foothold.
That last day was a great drive, starting with the adventure of fifteen miles of gravel back roads until we connected to the asphalt at Eagle Lake. Then it was one vista after another around Tupper Lake, Saranac and Lake Placid before finding the interstate and roaring north. We paused to see the leftover ski jump site at Placid from its last Olympic stint, now twenty seven years ago. It’s impressive, all right. Moreso the bowl formed by the lake, surrounded by considerable mountains. Not alps or Rockies, but skiing is not from those precipices anyway. These were substantial older mounts with goodly trails now green with grass.
I looked back in my mind at the lake Ontario coast two weeks before, the southern tier from Chatauqua to Binghampton, the inland plateau north of Syracuse with its staggering snowfalls, the Mohawk Valley, the chain of lakes that connect the Hudson to Champlain, and now the serpentine roads through the Adirondacks. And I have yet to see the Catskills in their ancient glory, nor the tip of Long Island. But it is a hell of a place.
At the end, I gazed out from Vermont and took a breath. The air was stunning and clear, the light long and bright. And in my next post I’ll tell you about what I did. But it seemed right first to leave New York in style.
17 August 2007
We completed our visit to NYC with dinner hosted by two friends who live in Tribeca. They moved there before it was cool, or expensive. Now both it and they are prosperous. They are my urbane friends, with the most New York City home and life. That she is a southerner who came as an adult to make her fortune (which she did by the way) pleases my wife and me as we arrived as adults too. He is a native who was smart enough to see the advantage of a mixed marriage – native New Yorker and non native New Yorker in this case.
Like those movies and TV shows we all see, their front door is a worn metal door to the warehouse it was once. The foyer could be, probably was, part of the shop floor. Only the elevator and mailboxes give the new use away. The elevator is the front door for some places, including my friends, and we enter their loft with its great half moon windows to their eager voices. Like our long island friends, these folks are as real as they are fortunate. We never feel outclassed or patronized, as cinema and books love to tell us the privileged love to do.
Dinner was simple, but well formed. Olives and Vermont chevre were our starters. Dinner was homemade caprese salad with honest tomatoes, a linguine with pesto, some fresh baguette, wine, and a small lemon tart shared. Their collegiate daughter, whom I have met several times, joined us midway and our conversation ranged from the trials of young adulthood to the criminal justice system where he works to the fashion industry where she works. As I am so often asked to talk about my work it is refreshing to hear about others.
Driving days are less precise, the miles rolling smoothly by. Even when the scenery is lovely, it is a whole lot of the same lovely stuff. We were headed to Massachusetts, where we lived between 1980 and 1990. Among the many important events in those first years of my work and our marriage were two of our children, infant boys, who did not survive. Their ashes are buried in the cemetery on a hill about 100 yards from the place I was ordained. We visit them once a year, leave a flower, tug at some weeds, and feel the odd calm of knowing this is where our few remains will come in due time.
Our route there was circuitous. We passed places that were unremarkable but steady presences in our years here – the school where my wife got her master’s degree, the other college town where we went to get a taste of spring when winter lingered in the hills. But what really warmed us were the small things like a shop we once visited, a bridge where she once protested, a church or two where I preached to tiny congregations, a bend and bump in a road, an oddly placed window in a decrepit house, rocks in a river, a pizza parlor.
I marvel at my pleasure in these things, in the unchanged that lull into thinking we have not changed. Because, after all, change ultimately means death. In our tender hearts we want things around us to stay the same so that we can stay the same.
This was underscored when we got together with member of the first search committee of my first congregation. Still very much alive and alert, they came with a cane, a cannula, a tremor, a frailty that was not so visible last time. Or was it there and universally ignored? This landscape was changing, too. And like the place where a new house appeared where an old one vanished, some day someone else will hold their place in the world.
Counting blessings in the afternoon as we drove back from visiting our hosts who retreat to Long Island in the summer and thus gave us the run of their city apartment while we are visiting.
These friends, members of my former church, have that rare and thus highly prized quality of innate grace. Among those who have been given much, they return it with interest, not only to us but to other friends, extended family, and the community at large. Their wonderful flat in the city it dotted with mementos of past and present, from the abundant photos of children and grandchildren, to the awards they earned from schools and hospitals and committees and more. They are the model of generosity, and every bit of it genuine and without ulteriority. It is who they are. And to be numbered among those who know them is a real blessing.
We told them that if an opening appeared in their family we wish to be considered for the position.
The weather has freshened again, and I arose quite early, just before dawn.
An old and drying pastrami sandwich, purchased our first night, was in the fridge. It would be a shame to waste it. So it became breakfast before I headed out to traverse the great bridge again.
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is almost a ritual for some. While tourists see the statue of liberty and the empire state building as the symbols of the city, citizens regard the bridge as their icon. If you do not know David McCullough’s book, The Great Bridge, I commend it. Ken Burns cut his documentary teeth on a version of it, with McCullough’s elegant voice. Hart Crane spent his poetic life on it.
When we lived here our living room window had a partial view, obscured only a bit by a neighbor to the north, itself a grand building in which part of Prizzi’s Honor was filmed. Could not resist the name drop. But every evening we could enjoy watching the bridge as it slowly emerged from the darkness with its cascade of lights along the cables and revealing the gothic towers. These were and are enhanced by the flicker of vehicles as they moved back and forth. In the distance we had a view of midtown, and the fabled Empire State, lit in various combinations depending on the season or occasion.
I walked the bridge the morning after we arrived, and again today, grabbing again the feeling of the wooden walkway and the gaps that allowed me to see down to the waves of the East River. The sound of cars and trucks, deafening and yet consoling, did not overcome the thump of runners and the patter of bicycles. Midway across the span there is a pure view south and north, the one to the harbor and its chatter of boats, the other to the city and its thicket of spires. Early light is good, but late light is even better sometimes.
The whole thing, landing to landing, is a mile and a third, but a shortcut in Brooklyn shaves that third. Overall, I did three miles and some change. Half my usual, but ten times richer in what goes by.
It is a 9/11 sort of day – perfect in weather. I thought that as I was heading back home, and saw an airplane circling toward LaGuardia. They have to come in low and I remember how the weather when it was low and foggy would require them to come over the apartment house now and then. But on really beautiful days, that this one and that one, that was not true. Still, when I see an airplane around here now, on a really pretty day like this. it is impossible not to think about 2001. Everyone who lives around here will think that thought, many of them right now, as it is was about 845 a.m. that the whole horror began. That it was a beautiful day is now part of the memory.
...Brooke Astor died yesterday. I mentioned her in a previous post when she came to visit my church before giving it some money to help restore it. She was in her nineties then and took my arm to go up the steep steps. Somehow it is consoling to have a connection. Strange.
We move on today, after a final excellent day. We visited with my successor in our former home. We felt a little odd as we came in to the familiar foyer of the building and spoke with our door man of many years, but within moments of seeing the place, with his furniture in place, we were at ease. Maybe it is because all that we had there has a new place in our minds, the sofa by the corner window, the arm chairs in the parlor, and so on. I realized at once that we had become the dearly departed, whose presence was all past tense.
This is not bad, when you’re still alive. One of the perks of clergy life is that you can go to your own funeral, as it were, and take a look at your legacy. We entertained my predecessor to the parsonage when I was new there. The same is happening now, as he entertains us. I am an ancestor now, with visitation privileges. Good duty.
The middle of the day we spent in The City, first going to a café that proved closed. It’s housed in a gallery that is closed Tuesday, but the listing for the café, a Viennese style café which I came to love when we visited Vienna for a month back in 2001, did not indicate it was also closed. I took a chance and struck out.
But the day was magnificent in terms of weather, so we crossed Central Park on foot and went to a Provencal themed bistro on the west side that I like very much as well. Close to the Natural History Museum, we actually went to the adjacent Historical Society afterwards.
Lunch, though, is worth noting however briefly. The menu is southern French, with soupe pistou, tapenade, and salades composee. My spouse had an omelette with ratatouille and chevre, I a vegetarian frittata with mushrooms and asparagus. In indulged a glass of blonde, a Belgian beer that is perfect for a warm bright day. In the large, but yet snugly arranged dining room we could not help but overhear a pair beside us who seemed to be a very young movie producer interviewing a scientist about Neanderthals and how to assure accuracy for his project. An older couple near by, well into their meal when we arrived were still at it when we left. Several courses came and went as we nursed our small meals down to the coffee and tea.
We lingered, enjoying the show which included one male waiter in a suit and open shirt doing his best George Clooney imitation. The hotel in which the bistro sat I remembered was a site for a college recruitment meeting my elder son and I attended now five years ago. The blessings of a town you stay in for a while is the criss crossing of memories. I, subsequently to that college visit, had a lunch with a colleague at the bistro, and then used it as a meeting place for friends as well. Now that restaurant has many connections that make each visit a wee bit more pleasant for the remembering.
Having time to spare, and tired feet from the long walk across the park, we did not leave until nearly 2. Then headed the three long blocks to the NY Historical Society where they had a large exhibit (second of two) on slavery in New York City. Very much worth it, as we learn little about the struggle of African Americans in northern states. It was only slightly better than those in the south. I came away from the ample if slightly disjointed display with a much fuller sense of African-American culture in the antebellum north, including a scholarly disquisition on minstrelsy which, hard as it to believe, is an ancestor of American popular culture today. It is chilling, and telling, to realize how entangled we still are with our past. Faulkner was more right than he realized.
I'll save our last visit with friends for the next post.
16 August 2007
Visited ancient friends yesterday, meaning Sunday. Two women, a mother and daughter whom we have known for eleven years. The daughter is disabled, the mother is failing. But she is 102 after all.
You read that right, 102. And they have lived in their enormous apartment since Dec 7, 1941.
You read that right, too. They moved in on Pearl Harbor Day. Real life does have its moments of Dickensian reality. Decency forbids telling you more, as we cherish these ladies, but I assure you they are equally picaresque in other ways.
I mention them because each is dealing with the inevitable declination of age, something I have noted in my own frame. For example, I was fortunate not to need reading glasses until close to fifty, and even then only at times. But in recent weeks I notice that these are no longer optional nearly as often. I find myself cursing the lack of light and the odd angle. But what really annoys me is a growing neuropathy in my right foot.
Right next to the ball of the foot I feel a regular tingling. It began this past week as I drove for some hours at a time. The sensation is located precisely where the foot touches the pedal, so I figured it was due to poising the foot there at that awkward angle for long stretches.
But even with cruise control and a chance to flex the leg, it did not go away. Now I am noticing it when I walk. The only time it subsides is when I am without shoes altogether.
Now, I have a fine doctor, a DO in fact, and he will doubtless be able to help me find its source. I suspect it is far up the leg near the hamstring insertion as this area has been sore for some time. as someone who exercises a lot, soreness is just an expected thing. I count my blessings that so far I have not had the back pains and problems others of my age have endured. No question that my physical activity has helped me. But now I wonder if there is not some cost to all that effort in my leg, and that my foot is the sign and seal of that.
What I suspect is that this is the first chronic thing I will face, a condition that may abate but will never go away.
Youth may be defined as the condition in which you can recover from almost anything. I once never felt sore after working out, and back in college could challenge my liver and intestines without severe repercussions. Colds would come and go in a few days. The restorative powers of the body were enormous and reliable.
If that is true of youth, then age would then be the time when we see a ‘diminishing return.’ Colds take a little longer to leave, muscles complain sooner and longer. And the whole suit begins to show its shiny spots and frayed cuffs.
I have a pair of oxford loafers I use a lot. Walking as much as I can, I have had the heels and soles replaced more than once. Just before we left, however, I saw the stitching on the uppers giving way. I had them restitched, but now I can see the creases and wear in the leather and realize the cost of keeping them will soon exceed the cost of replacing them. New shoes are on my horizon.
Resurrection begins to make sense these days. Not that I believe in it, but I can see how others do. I have too many miles to go and not enough leather to get me there.
15 August 2007
Travel vivifies, as I said before. And my body reminds me by arising early. First light is 530 a.m. now and that’s when I wake up.
The hour before full light is luscious, with its quiet and its solitude. I can recall arising in the darkness in El Paso, where the tiny lights of Juarez twinkled up from the plain to the hillside where we slept. There was a velvet dark morning in Tulsa, when the humidity was a blanket, but nothing compared to the suffocating stillness of St. Louis in August. The sun sliced onto the skin like a cruel knife as it crested the horizon. By contrast, the sky was crystal blue in Worthington Minnesota one morning, and the Snake River was a mere stream in Wyoming.
I have had personal audiences with God in Hoquiam Washington, Santa Barbara California, Grand Junction Colorado, Flagstaff Arizona, Cambridge Ohio, St. Albans Vermont, Fitchburg Massachusetts, Richmond Virginia, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Rehoboth Delaware, Little Rock, Baltimore, Springfield, Ottawa, Quebec, Guelph, and places I cannot recall without strenuous effort.
Whitman writes of letters from God that fall in every street. I know this is true, having read dozens over the years. Every day of consciousness is a conversation with the exquisite - in the angle of light on still water, the surprise of animals found out by a human, the smell of flowers along a highway, the thrill of coffee on the tongue, the selfish delight of a world quiet enough to think. But we are forced to ignore that by the wrestling match of obligations and appointments and tasks. Only when I am sequestered from the chugging sound of responsibility do I recall my utmost task which is to be alive. And it is in the hour when day is new that I acquit this noble duty.
Yes, it can happen any time. Dawn is not its only moment. And it does. Dawn is my holy office, though, when I practice the scales of praise so that when other moments come in the holy hubbub of daylight I can trill confidently.
Saturday – August 11
New York. Thanks to friends with summer houses, we are enjoying a few days in New York City house sitting. We did the same last year for friends of friends. To be precise and correct we are in Brooklyn not New York City. While Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island and the Bronx are part of Greater New York, The City means Manhattan, and is what non Manhattanites call Manhattan, as in “I had to go to the city today.” But such a distinction is like that between first and second cousins, useful only within the family. To outsiders cousins are cousins and New York is New York.
I do in fact have cousins here, fourth cousins. Technically fifth cousins, but four generations back cousins married cousins and that makes us ‘double cousins’ meaning biologically as close as fourth cousins but genealogically fifth cousins.
Come on, I hear you say, who knows their fifth cousins? Well, we share a small, pot bound clan of folks who lived on a few square miles in northern Maryland for several generations. Instead of moving about they stayed in one place. To be precise, Woodensburg.
Yes, there’s a town by that name. Open up a map of Baltimore, veer north northwest to Reisterstown which is about 15 miles north of that city, then keep going another four miles and you will see a dot on the Hanover Road. That’s it.
We were there on Wednesday, or more accurately, went through. Having gotten lost in the backroads we were late and could not pause. But even if we could have the tow consists of a half dozen houses, a church and a store that favors live bait. In short, it’s not much of a place. The nearest town is Boring, yes that’s the name. And it’s bigger.
My cousins come from Woodensburg, named for our common ancestor William, son of Benjamin, born early in the 19th century. His farm became a postal drop and thus required a name. Hence the town.
My family hove off to make their fortunes elsewhere, Hampstead MD, all of 10 miles north. Between the is Fowblesburg, also named for a family, into which Woodens married a few times.
In honor of this deep genetic loyalty I shall be having a backyard barbeque with my fifth cousins on Sunday, in Astoria Queens. And here’s the best part, we did not know of each other at all before meeting in Brooklyn. That’s a story. But not this time.
10 August 2007
The last two days have been marvels of simplicity. Travel by its nature simplifies and narrows – the car, the miles, the visits, the meals. In a world where complexity grows exponentially, to simplify is delicious.
My wife and I have but three elder relatives left – an uncle and aunt on my side, an aunt on hers. Fortunately they are healthy and witty and wise. Time spent with them is rejuvenating as it comes with much laughter and insight. Add in a few cousins along the way and it became a laboratory of family – what it is and isn’t and how fluid this basic institution is.
That came into high relief as we paused at a local cemetery. My in laws lie there, I saw them both interred. What we did not realize right away was that my family’s plot is there too, barely 200 yards away. None of my family lives in Baltimore any more so my wife and I are the only ones to pay any calls on these dead.
It was brutally hot and the sun was harsh on our heads, but we inspected the first plot and found it well. Shared with the extended family of my mother-in-law, there are actually five people in the area, including the first young wife of the cousin with whom we are staying. Her mother is still alive and leaves flowers and other testimonials for her and the others when she comes.
Why is she here, though? Yes, she was married to the cousin, and bore his family name. But the bond that unites these people is the two now deceased sisters. Webster was their family name, but they both married and so the large stone is engraved on each side with their husband’s family’s names. Over at my family plot the family stone has but one name, but the denizens are my grandfather, his first son, and his three wives. The first wife was mother of the son there interred. The second wife was mother of my father, whose ashes are in my house. The third bore him no children.
I know the story, or at least part of it. They lie together more bound in death than they were in life. The first wife never knew the second or third, the third married my grandfather more out of her love of the second than the man she married or the son he fathered. Nothing of their loves and devotions are present here. Their story is as buried as they are, defined by a word carved in granite which may have no meaning to who they were.
09 August 2007
Well, the wretched weather continues, meaning it is immensely hot and humid. The birds and trees and plants are probably in their glory. A youthful memory of picking tomatoes and lima beans tells me this is exactly the sort of weather they love and thrive on. If we humans were able to strut about mostly naked and could loll in the shade when the sun shone, it would be less awful, but we now have jobs and chores and obligations.
Being away from my exercise routine, which is as sacred to me as matins and lauds, I walk each morning. Here along a peninsula that is part of the western Chesapeake Bay, my walks are suffused with moisture. It closes in on me like a sauna as I go out the door, and I am grateful that the sun has not yet burned away the low clouds.
On the softly rippled water I can see gulls sitting or flying low against the water. The far shore, not a quarter mile away, is gauzy to the view, only its outline of treetops and water edge clear. Dew clings to the flora, and cars going by sound wet on the pavement.
Wildlife here is dainty, there being so much development now – squirrels and bunnies on land, birds in the trees and on the water. The air does not whine with locusts. I notice the rampant weeds, crab grasses and other assertive things that have snarly and aggressive leaves and stalks. This morning a cloudburst forced me under cover briefly, before which I smelled the rain when the first drops awakened the dust and dirt on the sidewalk. It was an aroma of childhood and with it came the memory of days in back lots and alleys where we played baseball and football and evaded the laws of grownups.
Yesterday, visiting my sister in DC, we drove in and walked the National Gallery, an art museum of excellent quality, especially in its Flemish and Dutch collections which has a dozen Rembrandts, three Vermeers, and a clutch of Van Eyks and Memlings. A display of Settignano sculpture was as wonderful as the guide promised, small but exquisite. The DaVinci Ginerva brought back memories of when it arrived when I was a boy and the excitement of seeing something from someone so famous – like a fragment of the true cross for art lovers.
One need only pass by these and others to see again the evidence of prodigious powers, a sort of bravura quality that photo reproduction cannot convey. I marveled at the portraits most of all because they seemed quite literally to capture a person at a moment. In the early Florentine portraits are hints of Picasso in the boldness of color. In the Holbeins and Cranachs, the Copleys and Peales, there was an immediacy that forced itself out of the frame and the time it was made. Artistic greatness gives life. Unlike a photo which captures life at a moment, or even a good rendering by an accomplished technician, a truly great painting or sculpture adds life to its subject. It was thrilling to see all the faces looking out at me with an intensity I could never muster. They were in a sense more real than me.
We walked back into the heat and on to our dinner date tired. I thought it was my feet and hips mostly, which did hurt, but I think it was also having been looked at as much as looking. Should not art make us ask if we are as alive as it is?
08 August 2007
My late mother-in-law, so my wife has told me, when a little girl in the 1920s sat on her porch in the summer and cry because it was so hot. She grew up in Maryland, where I grew up as well and where I am this evening. I am in an air conditioned house, but outside it is quite uncomfortable and I can easily imagine her misery – especially as ishe lived even further south along the fecund and fetid Chesapeake Bay, and it was eighty years ago when not only was there no AC, and little girls had to wear more clothing than now.
How different from yesterday when we flung our younger son at his upstate NY camp on a day that was warm but dry and clear. He was overjoyed to return, having made many friends last year and reunited with two childhood chums from our previous days in Brooklyn. We were overjoyed at having two weeks without either child with us.
Let me qualify that. We were delighted to have this chance to see what it was like being a couple again. For eight years we were just that until our eldest came along. And only once since then were we without a child at our side. We are test driving the empty nest. I’ll give you a report on that later.
Right now, I am enjoying the memory of our drive back which we indulged by evading the interstate. On our way up we found ourselves in a wind farm, a crowd of giant windmills scattered almost randomly over the high ground southeast of Watertown NY. So naturally we wanted to go back that way.
It was oddly exciting, even faintly ominous, to drive between the 120 foot metal creatures with their arms flailing. I could see how a Don Quixote could imagine a fierce giant waving hostile arms. To see scores of them whipping about was striking. Between fields, amid farms, standing in copses and along edges, they could seem to be walking like H. G. Well’s predatory martians. Yes, I know they are benign, but their massive aspect was undeniable. If I did not realize their wholesome purpose I could easily construct something sinister.
Leaving them behind to flog the air, we headed toward the shore of Lake Ontario. I got it in my head to lay eyes on each of the great lakes we would pass. Due west was Sackett’s Harbor, site of a naval battle of 1812. Why not?
No surprise, the land and the town reminded me of the towns along the east shore of Lake Michigan, the geography and the history being quite close. Grass and tree and crop filled every corner of the land, making a sight that could have been an advertisement for the state tourism board.
The strong sun lit every shade of green to particularity – deep, dusky, light, bluish, grayish – and the breeze rippled blade and leaf so that the land undulated happily. How can anyone think of life as rare or unusual when it is hard to find a corner that is not alive? We were in a sea of life, and the number of plants before us as we barreled down the road must have equaled if not exceeded the number of people on the earth. It was a happily humbling passage.
The town of Sacketts’s Harbor was bustling with some celebration. We did not join, but coasted down a few streets to sample the mood. An historic town, it radiates the charm and pretention of a self conscious place, like a society matron whose days of youth are gone but who has worked to keep her figure. It is undeniably attractive, from the scrubbed main street of federalist style shops and houses, to the harbor chock full of sailing boats whose masts bristle like a convention of porcupines. It is the sort of little town that has 3 star restaurants, making it fundamentally false. No ordinary town of this size would have so rich an assortment of creature comforts, any more than a great city would have fields of growing corn. The incongruity of this place is evident everywhere and unnoticed by anyone.
Instead of returning to the highway, we wobbled south on a state road, catching occasional vistas of the lake, which was intensely blue and flinty in the afternoon sun. The wind made land and water both a carpet of confetti to the eye.
A stand out moment was in stark contrast to all this prettiness. Moving along the two lane highway at a decent clip, I saw in my rear view mirror a large pickup truck pulling an equally large motor boat. He (I believe it was a man driving at least) was passing cars behind me at a very daring speed. Soon enough he was behind me, breathing hard on my rear bumper, and barely able wait to pass me. As soon as the stripe went from solid to broken he tore out to my left.
Unfortunately, someone was coming the other way. I should not say unfortunate as he was undeterred. Boat boy simply decided to make us give way, the result being that both the oncoming car and I were forced to scoot onto the shoulders to avoid a collision as he roared past us. The sheer gall of his action was startling to the both the stranger coming and me alike. We both shook our heads as we passed.
In boldness is genius, Goethe once said, but sometimes it is colossally stupid.
The rest of our drive was without adventure.
05 August 2007
I am not brisk. I ruminate, from the same word that in Latin means chew your cud. Reading my writing is like watching a cow. Who does that?
Anyway, I wanted to share a piece of stuff from yesterday. We are driving from Pittsburgh to Syracuse (long story with dull answer) and instead of taking the quicker but longer and familiar route, I drag the wife and son through inland PA along the Allegheny River along route 62. Never did that before, while I have covered the interstate several times over the years.
This is the western edge of the Appalachians. We travel up the river valley, glimpsing the river which is quite wide through bushes and trees. The landscape instantly recalls summer vacations to Western Maryland, also in the Appalachians, with the roads banked by trees and the lush growth of vines and shrubs, and the sound of water and the smell of rust and coal mixed with dirt and green.
At regular intervals we spy a house of indeterminate age, sagging beneath its years and poverty, bleached and leaning. But now, two generations after I was young, the world is well pocked with commerce and modern things like video stores and fast foods.
That sounds like a lament, but honestly, it was always a sad world. The people had a wan and weary look about them long ago, poster faces for Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road. The landscape was beautiful and the people were wretched. Now the land it scarred and the people contented. Hard to say if that’s worse.
The river shimmers in the angled light of late morning, islands are frequent. The fisher in hip waders tells me it is not deep. Canoes pop up. These are not denizens. Nor the many cabins they inhabit that line the shore.
Deep between steep hills, we follow the river north. I see ancient sediments of a fossil sea, now serving as the table for a riot if deciduous and evergreen trees. A falcon sweeps low across the road. Shadows strobe the windshield, the annoying result of mixing speed with Hopkins "dappled things."
How is it nature can be so busy and yet so still? So sprawling and so singular?
04 August 2007
Nothing like travel to make life vivid. While one Tuesday or another vanishes in my memory, the days I am on the road remain strong. Even when nothing in particular happens, it is something in particular to me.
And sometimes, something does happen. We were in Pittsburgh last night to visit an old friend. I prefer staying downtown to roadside hotels, and when I saw a good rate at a Marriott I snapped it up. Our journey there was easy, if long. The miles rolled along easily, from GR to Toledo and east to Pittsburgh. I giggled at paying ONLY $2.69 a gallon in Ohio, and remembered with regret how the PA Turnpike was perpetually under construction.
Those who have been in Pittsburgh know it is a vexing town to get around. No street stays straight for more than 100 yards, and there are barely two right angles in a row. And like so many old eastern cities, the signs are made for slower traffic. So when suddenly, crossing Veteran’s Bridge, we had to choose between 5th and 6th avenues and not, I hesitated and chose the latter. Any Pittsburgher reading this know what happened next. I ended up on highway whose next choice was between crossing another bridge and heading out of town, or heading east along the river. Obviously, I took the second. I had time to choose now because the evening traffic was at a stand still. Up above we could see our hotel, but there was not way to get there.
Tearing along an old highway I looked for an exit, which did not come until we were headed into the east end where Pitt U is. Surrounded by orange cones, surprise surprise, I churned as one corner after another said ‘no left turn.’ Finally, after going around one block entirely, I found my way onto a street I could see on my map. We trundled back toward downtown and after circling another block made it finally under the port cochere of our Marriott across from the Mellon Arena (a circular place designed to open to the air but being really hot a hazy it wasn’t) and with a view down to the highway upon which we sat looking up in Aesop like envy an hour before.
I have long since learned to tip early and often at hotels. The desk clerk, bellman and valet parking attendant all smiled. I reminded the desk clerk we needed a rollaway to go with the single king bed, our 16 year old being a mite too large to join us. They promised to send it up straightaway,
We came down to meet our friend. I reminded them of the rollaway (being an hour later now) and said we would be back by 930 and wanted to turn in soon thereafter. We had a grand dinner, traveled out to the Monongahela Incline, road the funicular and came home. We waited some time for the subway, but were in fact back by 930.
No rollaway. I came down and the clerk was surprised. My tone went from important to impatient. I waited another 45 minutes and still no bed. My son was falling asleep and asked when the bed was coming. Now I was angry and went downstairs one more time, becoming intemperate but never rude. Still, I was loud and I felt bad about it. But the rollaway did arrive around 1030 p.m. By now I was fuming, frustrated, and thus unable to get to sleep easily. I did, around midnight, and woke two or three times during the night as often happens when I travel.
Come morning, there was a bill under the door showing no charge. I felt lousy. After a 2.5 hard walk on the hotel treadmill I cleaned up and went down to apologize for being loud. I asked them to restore the charges. They refused.
No one was mean, rude or indifferent, but their ability to provide a simple service was inadequate. And then I remembered when I couple I married was unhappy with how I did the service and wrote a long frustrated letter. I was not mean, or rude, or indifferent but they expected something I did not provide. It does not happen often, but it does happen. I refunded the honorarium.
It was not about them, really, but about me. How could I accept payment from someone whom I could not serve?
I accepted the management’s token of apology, remembering that to each us this chastening moment will come from time to time, and those who are offended will be the offender now and then. If it is incumbent on the offender to make amends honestly, it is equally incumbent on the offended to accept it as honest.
Sometimes, it is easier on the heart to be the culprit than the victim.
(btw, I tipped the bellman, valet attendant, and chamber maid on the way out.)
02 August 2007
I've wasted too much time reading trash books - more of Patrick O'Brian and the last two tomes of the Potter saga - instead of writing one. Did manage to clear some debris from my basement and lay out a work bench of a sort. Cleaned the dehumidifier which was on the verge of sprouting legionella. My desk at work is clean - mirabile dictu! - and I didn't just shove it all into a drawer either. The little army or repair folk have abated, after two trips each from the plumber and the refrigerator repair people, the electrician, and a local handyman who repaired my garage doors and siding.
Meanwhile my lawn is brown and the weeds have gotten several laps on me. Thanks to the long dry spell they are not worse. Our one tomato has wilted with some blight everyone seems to recognize but me. But our new asiatic lilies did a fine job.
How do people with summer houses do it? There is far more than I can handle with the one. Juts changing the light bulbs is a major project.
Of course it will all be much worse for my travels, but worth it. A fine old colleague, now deceased, told me years ago that 'a clergyman is only duty while out of town.' His wife added, sotto voce, 'preferably out of the country.'
We shall step north of the border briefly, but I do hope to resume my travels further afield before too long. For now, old haunts and a few long absent faces are all we are facing.