Visiting the Graves

 


prayers at the graveWhen we were kids, my sister and I went to the cemetery with our mother and aunt every Memorial Day, though it didn’t mean much to us, young as we were. We mostly danced among the graves, and dashed happily off to fill the dented metal watering can at the leaky old faucet. And anyway our dead had been dead for so long, the mother of our mom only 31 when she was buried there in 1910, her unborn baby in her arms.

 

Then time passed as time will do and I guess I was almost grown when I noticed that we weren’t going to the cemetery so much anymore, even though our mother and aunt’s own dad now also lay beside his dead young wife.  “Is it because we moved an hour north of Boston and Holyhood is too hard to get to?” I asked Aunt Grace one day as we stood in the dining room of our childhood home.

“That’s not it,” she replied. “It’s because they aren’t there,” she said, and then repeated the declaration with a strange passion I had never before seen in her: “They aren’t THERE!” she said again, as if to suggest that any fool knows the dead travel to a place infinitely farther than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.

Was that why we weren’t going to the graves so much anymore? Because nothing was really down there but clay? Or dust? Or whatever remains behind aside from the metal hasps of the coffin? And if that is the case, then why, all these years later, do I still stand again at that grave and picture them all just a few feet below me? 

I see my mother and aunt in their favorite Sunday outfits. I see my grandfather with his dark eyebrows. I see the young woman whom I should have known as my grandmother lying in the high-necked Gibson-Girl-style dress they would have chosen for her back at the start of the last century. But what good comes of these vigils? I wondered at the time.

And then one day I saw a young woman sitting on the grass of a soldier’s fresh and flag-decked grave. She was there when I came by at noon and she was there when I came again at 6:00. This was one month after we buried our last remaining elder who over the last six years of his life became in many ways my closest friend. In the long quiet days since that passing I studied countless snapshots of him – as a schoolboy in the 1920s, as a young man starting out in life and then suddenly in the South Pacific during the worst of the fighting there in World War II. I hadn’t even understood his part in that war until the day, almost 70 years later when he shyly handed me a notebook of poems and sketches he wrote from the front.

Then another day, which was a day just last week, I visited the place here pictured overlooking Omaha Beach where lie 9,387 of the fallen, almost all of whom died on June 6, 1944 and in the 100 days after as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy:

amercian cemetery normandy

I was with a group of about 80 people. In the impromptu ceremony  held for us, an offcial of the park asked any veterans among us to come up front and join her. About 15 people did and when she then read the poem written by a young man in combat just before his own death in Lebanon, one of our veterans wept openly.

That might have been the moment I first really understood what Memorial Day is and why we mark it.

Here then to “the lost” as they were called in that first awful World War, and to the man with the tears running down his  face and to  my own family’s veteran, gone now too under the earth young as he once was and full of life.

ed in the jungle heat  

 

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Musings at the Museum

the-david1Seeing France by cruising alone the Seine is amazing enough but then when you disembark and wander on your own, the wonders just multiply. The Museé d’Orsay in Paris which I spent three hours in was by far the most instructive and inviting museum I have ever visited, shocking as it was to see how laid-back the staff is. Dozens of people snap away with their cameras and camera apps with nary a word of admonishment from the guards. In fact, in the many small galleries, they don’t even have guards. It’s true that a thin wire at about shin level walls each pictures off from the public but I felt sure that if I’d really wanted to I could have leaned in and licked the very paint on any number of them.

I loved the sculptures too. The young David who slew Goliath is there. Not Michelangelo’s David in his famous beefcake iteration,which you see above, nor Donatello’s David either who looks like a sweet fey youth in his mother’s Easter bonnet.donatello

These are both in Florence.

Here at the Museé  D’Orsay, you see the Antonin Mercié David who looks like this: 

david by Antonin Mercié

But really the  place is most known for its 19th century stuff, works by artists who looked not toward Biblical or Classical themes but more toward landscapes and still lifes and intimate ‘candid’ portraits, of ladies, say, undressing for the bath.

Here inside these walls is Van Gogh, not dead by his own hand at 36, but alive, his spirit shimmering away in the lines of this cathedral he captured in paint.

Van Gogh church Auvers-sur-Oise

Manet lives at this museum too as I said here the other day and Gauguin with his island Edens,and  Cezanne, and of course that long-lived patriarch Claude Monet who could make the same haystack, the same cathedral front at Rouen look a hundred different ways by painting them at different times of the day in a variety of different lights.   

The visit was just thrilling to me. I sat looking at the works as much as I walked those halls and chambers, all oblivious to the fact that inches away on the other side of the wall Time was also ticking away my own life as this video I took will show. I suspect it was a stiff wind and the limber shafts of the clock’s two hands that did it but still, that minute hand is really moving. Signs and reminders all around us, folks, signs and reminders.

 

 

 

Another Fun Couple Takes a Trip

Here now: A man who looks to be straight out of a Van Gogh watercolor standing in the water and fishing! Here now: A windmill that goes back to the time of Marie Antoinette and her Marge Simpson hairdo!

happy airplaneYou get to the airport and find that your flight has been cancelled.

It’s a flight to Iceland. And it’s cancelled.

So much for the strange beauty of wide skies, and treeless plains!

You wait an eternity to be told that now you will instead be flying to Frankfurt. Bring out the ketchup and mustard!

Still, you know you can’t be TOO mad since your final destination is Paris and sure enough you do get to Paris eventually where, you are interested to see, the old sidewalk pissoirs have long since been replaced by wondrous new unisex sidewalks booths called Sanisettes, in which, when you touch a final button, cascades of water swirl in, washing everything in sight clean, clean, clean and disinfecting it all too. And the pissoir, in case you don’t know was for over 350 years the standard Parisian accommodation for any man who felt the need to make water. It featured a panel from knees to shoulders that blocked out the key parts of his anatomy while still allowing him to stand and chat companionably with his pals.

classic Paris pissoir

Hard to believe, right?

Anyway, now here you are wearin’ out your Nikes and seein’ the sights, and then at night inhaling the great food and tossing back the complimentary mealtime beers and wines on a riverboat that will take you, via the Seine, from Paris the City of Lights to Normandy and back with several bracing stops along the way.

The ship’s windows are wide and the sights are lovely. (Here now: A man who looks to be straight out of a Van Gogh watercolor standing in the water and fishing! Here now: A windmill that goes back to the time of Marie Antoinette and her Marge Simpson hairdo!) And the rolling waters! The waters alone!

You feel like a baby, and a fat happy baby at that. You turn to your travel buddies while dunking your face into your second glass of the good red wine.

“What could go wrong from here?” you burble, “unless we break a tooth and see a giant jagged crater open up in our mouth.”

You laugh hilariously at your own joke, and then, not 12 hours later, while eating the good French bread, exactly that happens, and it happens to you.

But hey, it’s your all-too-short visit to this place. Your dentist will be there when you get back, and for now you’re just another stylish couple having fun in France. 🙂 

Fun couple goes to France

 

Let’s Go Get Shocked

I’m busy trying to retrieve the exact right phrases from my 4 years of teenage French so I can say to the waiter what I would like to eat without having him think I’m saying that I desire him,

risque ad Maison St. GermainI’m going soon on a trip to France, via a Viking Riverboat Longship, secure in the knowledge that my house is safe with several family members staying there.

I’ll see Notre Dame, and the many monuments to that rampaging thief Napoleon. I will go the Musée D’Orsay and stun myself with the beauty of all that gorgeous art by Monet and Manet, Cézanne and Seurat and Gauguin and the others.

I’ll drink the red wine at lunch and at breakfast eat the croissant, a word which when pronounced right sounds like you’re trying to clear out some serious post-nasal drip.

I’ve also been busy trying to retrieve the exact right phrases from my four years of teenage French so I can tell the waiter what I would like to eat without having him think I’m saying that I desire him, because who knows what construction might be put on things in the land of oo-la-la?

I really can’t wait to go that Musée D’Orsay where the paintings by so many 19th century artists shocked! – just shocked the bourgeoisie in La Belle France – and none more than this guy Manet in his Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, or ‘lunch on the grass,’ with two fully dressed guys enjoying the picnic together with one entirely UNDRESSED lady who has the guts to stare right back at us even as we stand staring at her.

“Oo-la-la!”  is the last thing I think studying this very large painting.  For me “You go, girl!” is a lot more like it. 

dejeuner sur l'herbe.jpeg

 

 

Sick Tyke Expert?

20minutes later, I tiptoed back to the bedroom and found it… empty. I looked in the bathroom: empty. Ditto the whole second floor and the floors both above and below it. Had I lost the child entirely?

Callie en route homeNeed some last-minute childcare for your under-the-weather preschoolers? Send ‘em to my house for a safe and quiet day. Anyway that’s what my little granddaughter’s parents did recently, nursery school being out of the question what with the fever they’d seen the night before.

The child arrived pale but cool. “What about some lovely toast with peanut butter?” I sang, – only the Jif had somehow been put in the fridge. “Watch THIS,” I cried, popping the jar into the microwave and pushing “start” – only to see a tall column of fire arise from a tiny arc of foil still clinging to its rim.

Snack at last in hand, we climbed to the small third floor room that these many years later still holds toys and children’s books and a crib, all from the late 1970s. There under the eaves we worked on several jigsaw puzzles, none of whose pieces matched the pictures on their boxes.

But the child was growing  paler now, so I suggested we drop down to the second floor and get into bed. This we did and I read to her for almost two hours, only then realizing that the lovely toast had fossilized for lack of attention.

“I know! Chicken noodle soup!” I hollered and hurried down to the kitchen, where I found that we actually HAD no such item. So I quick cut up some leftover spaghetti, mixed powdered chicken bouillon with water, nuked it all in a large Pyrex cup, and proudly mounted the stairs with it, only to find that in my four-minute absence, the previous night’s fever had come roaring back to life. Down the stairs again I dashed for the Children’s Tylenol. Back up I then ran – this time to find my charge sound asleep.

“I’ll just tiptoe into the study get a little work done,” I thought and what peace I found writing away in there, with a little child napping under my roof! It was just like the old days!

T on the window seat 1986

Twenty minutes later, I tiptoed back to the bedroom and found it… empty.

I looked in the bathroom: empty. Ditto the whole second floor and the floors both above and below it. Had I lost the child entirely?

I rocketed up and down the stairs, caroming off the walls and calling the child’s name –  until, on a second frantic pass, I spied her curled up like a kitten in one corner of the crib.

“No Tylenol!” she squeaked, but with many tries I did finally manage to get some into her down in the kitchen, where, in one corner we have a TV and a little sofa. On this sofa we both slumped, pulling on our sippy cups and letting a cascade of kiddie shows wash over us.

That’s when it hit me that I had not eaten a morsel in almost eight hours. 

I walked to the counter and picked up the Pyrex cup that held that nice noodly broth. Thinking “Who needs a mug?” I tipped it up and was a half an inch from my first gulp when I saw it: a tail. 

A tail right in the broth. And then the whole toes-up corpse of a wee drowned mouse who, somewhere in the quiet hours, must have also liked the look of that brew and toppled in.I uttered not a syllable but returned quietly to our joint slump, and the day ended peacefully.

So I’ll say it again: You need some pinch-hit childcare for your sick tyke, just send up a shout. Because truly I have got it all, from the rodents, to the missing-person alerts to the towering pillars of fire. 🙂

IMG_1581

My Grudge Against House of Cards

oval office house of cardsHouse of Cards is all well and good with the sleek lines of Claire’s wardrobe and the sharp jut of her cheekbones – and  who doesn’t love to hate old Frank Underwood with his gold cufflinks reading “FU”?

But I have a beef:

I hate the way the set designers did up the Oval Office in those vague neutral tones , so grey and unimaginative. 

That’s my beef about cars too: Why does everybody want a grey car?

My car is midnight blue and before that it was bright red.

And why is it all that upscale togs at Eileen Fisher grey or black or cream? What happened to Cobalt Blue, I want to know. What happened to Plum

I tell you what I miss. I miss the Oval Office Jeb Bartlet had in the West Wing. Feast your eyes on THIS!

oval office the west wing

What  a backdrop this set was for all the high-minded talk that cast engaged in. (Thank you Aaron Sorkin!) 

And thanks to those set designers too, not only for all these warm tones, but for reminding me that there’s no decorating element nicer than the potted palm.

used to have palms all over my house and then what happened? Did I go all Claire Underwood/Eileen Fisher on myself? I have no clue but I tell you what: I’m going out today and buy a few floucy old palm myself and some nice lacy ferns too, because really why be alive at all if you’re not going to swag it up a little?

 

 

 

 

For Cal

It was when I was 8 and my mother was 50 that my slightly older sister Nan and I gathered courage for the big question. “Where is OUR father?” we asked her. “I don’t know,” she told us truthfully.

mom 6 mos pregnant

I was 8 when my mother was 50, and sometimes, standing among the young moms in the schoolyard, she said she felt like our grandmother. For Cal, as everyone called her, had married late.

Because there was a Depression, she said, and no one had money. Because there was a war, she said, and all the men were gone. We had heard both reasons as she described her young life as one of five children of a widower.

They may not have had much money, but they sure had fun, to hear the tales: of evening dress at the Ritz and raccoon coats at the Harvard games. And yes, there were men on these occasions: young singles and the brothers of friends. “But to be honest,” she said of them all, “there was no yeast in the bread” – by which she meant they didn’t attract her.

Then she met our father, stationed during the war in Boston. They called him Hap, for his mild and cheery way. This time there was plenty of yeast in the bread so she married him. He had wavy hair and red cheeks and bright blue eyes. I know because I’ve seen snapshots; he left before I was born.

It was when I was 8 and my mother was 50. By then my slightly older sister Nan and  understood how different was family ws from the norm.

“Where is our father?” we asked our mom.

 “I don’t know,” she told us truthfully.

“Our dad’s dead,” I told the neighborhood kids. “He kicked the bucket,” an old friend tells me I said, though Nan and I plotted in secret to write “Queen For a Day, “the TV show that identified women with difficulties, measured their hardship by audience applause, then put the ‘winner’ in robes and a tiara and offered to make her Dream Come True.

Our Dream would be finding our dad – little realizing he preferred to stay lost.

So Mom raised us without him, in her childhood home that was our grandfather’s home that he shared with his older sisters. Each night she fed and bathed and tucked us in alone, the old folks being past all that. She crouched between our beds to stroke both our childish brows at once, and sang us to sleep.

Often, we were naughty. But often we sensed her sadness too: we turned down her bed for her and wrote notes raw with love and apology. She told jokes and drove fast and made great faces. She also had a temper, and was late for everything all her life.

I was 18 when she was 60. She sent me to college and listened on school breaks as I told her everything I was doing in those wide-open late ’60s years. It never occurred to me to lie to her.

But I did lie once: I said I was going south for spring break to see a friend. I saw the friend, all right. But I looked for the man with the blue eyes too. When I got back, I told her how I had found him. She listened, the tears running down her face.

One day toward the end of that week, the phone rang at home. I picked it up and said hello. It was my mother, calling from work. “Tell me again what he looks like,” was all she said.

I was 28 when she was 70. Nan had a baby and I had two, just when she was beginning to think we never would. Shortly before my third child came, she moved to a retirement home in my town, where she hosted sherry fests and ignored the fire drills and nearly drowned, in her sunny little room, in subscriptions to every magazine from Prevention to Mother Jones.

I was 38 when she died at 80, all unexpected. I felt wholly a kid at the time of her passing and no more equipped to do without her than in the days of the early bedtimes.

But I am better now. 

And I hear from her in odd ways: Our daughter Carrie has her very smile; our boy Michael has her sense of humor. And our middle girl Annie, as wise practically from the cradle as any adult, heard this story at age 10 and said, in dead earnest and with shining eyes, “I will call my first boy Hap.”

Some cold thing in me melted then. And it causes me to say, as this fresh Mother’s Day approaches, “Here’s to you, Cal, who held out for love, and got it, however briefly, and two kids too, who loved you fiercely. And here’s to you too, our lost father Hap, redeemed from blame at last, as we all would wish to be redeemed, deserving it or not.

hap loved her

Francis John Sheehy left before I was born, when Nan was 16 months old, but according to all our mother said, he did love his little daughter during their short time together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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