Old Things

glass liquor bottle 1890sI love old things. One of them you see here, a bottle from the 1890s or before, meant as I am guessing, for spirits of some kind. You can’t really tell with the label mostly effaced.

I came upon this and the item below while going through a nasty drawer full of junk under our kitchen’s utility sink. It was in the 1980s that these two items first came to our notice from their sleeping-place deep down in the earth . It happened when we excavated a portion of the yard to expand our antiquated kitchen.

I don’t know what the builder was thinking when he laid out the original room when the house was new in the 1890s. Even by that era’s standards, it seems a truly terrible space to for the preparation of food. I say this because in all the 90 years before we came, this kitchen had remained the same. Sure, the stove had been swapped out and the old stove still reposes, a slumbering whale in our basement. The refrigerators got swapped out too, from the original icebox to electrified coolers, like the 1920s-era version that also slumbers below stairs.

But the basic layout?  Unchanged in all that time by which I mean to say that when we got here, there were no cupboards above sink or stove or fridge. If you wanted a cupboard you had to walk in to the next room, a room grandly called, in those days, ‘the butler’s pantry’. I called it that myself  – I had grown up in a house with room we called the l pantry – until I realized my small children thought I was talking about a pantry without a butt. (It must have been my Boston accent.)

Additionally, there were no surfaces on which to set things in this kitchen we inherited in the 1980s. Not a countertop in the place. If you wanted a surface, you had to walk into another room called the larder, where there were wooden shelves, wooden drawers and a lone square of marble for rolling your pie dough on. If as the cook, you needed to pare the potatoes you stood at the sink. When you needed to whip the potatoes, you sat at the wooden table in the room’s center and worked with the bowl in your lap.

And when our family of four sat at that table, still situated in the room’s center, we were all squeezed in so tight that someone had to vacate his seat and push in his chair in order to open the fridge for a forgotten item, and another person had to do the same so someone could check the oven to see if the brownies were done.

We couldn’t wait for that renovation. It brought us not only a larger more airy space in which to prepare and serve meals to friends and family, but it also delivered to us this last old item: a railroad spike from… who knows when, as Its irregular shape argues for a vintage older still than the 1890s. Today I am thinking hmmmm: the old Massachusetts town of Concord lies only a few hills and laps distant from here.  Maybe this is the kind of spike driven in to the earth when they first laid that Boston-to-Fitchburg run in the 1840s, and the iron monster  so shattered young Henry Thoreaus’s peace of mind over there in his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Anyway, here is ‘our’ spike, seen against one of my cookbooks for scale.

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The past is all around us, no doubt about that! Now if I could just talk to Thoreau, or Emerson, or Walt Whitman, or my girl Emily D. over the road there in Amherst. Where do they go, the dead, the silent dead?

That’s The Way That the World Goes ‘Round

I once read that Japanese businessmen smile all the time, happy or sad. In fact the article said the sadder they are the more they smile and I don’t know if this is true or not but the idea of it struck me like a thunderbolt. I identified. I also happened to read the piece the very same morning I was walking through the sanctuary of my church before the service began. “Why are you always smiling?! “someone said to me and in not all that nice a way either. 

I guess what he meant was “Nobody’s that happy” which is true enough, though teachers also smile no matter what, because they know that whatever pain or disappointment they’re dealing with those kids filing in have a right to see them at their best.

I write here every single day because that’s what I vowed to do when I started this blog . Some days I’m ridiculously happy and some days I’m pretty sad but even I can’t tell, reading back, how I felt on a given day. It’s such a blend in this life, the joy and the sorrow, isn’t it though? 

My old neighborhood came together yesterday to remember the life of a man who was, in his way, a father to all of  us kids. We came from Missouri and Florida and Vermont to be there, first for the visiting hours and then for the  memorial service. For the better part of 24 hours we did our best, together with his three grown children once our closest pals and co-conspirators, to conjure up the past.

He was such a funny man this Charlie Wilson yet he was always helping people too. Being around him was more fun than watching monkeys on a trampoline, yet he cussed like a sailor, which made you laugh even more. His son Alex said during our reminiscences that they wanted to rename his boat The Goddamit Barbara,  for how often he could be heard exclaiming those words around his relaxed and easy-going wife. 

We laughed so much over the last few days, the three bereaved children included, even though they wake again this morning with both parents still gone from them; with both parents in that other land, the  great and inimitable Charlie Wilson and his bride Barbara, who went on ahead last November. 

And that’s how it is for us all We laugh and we mourn. We smile and we are sad. Maybe singer-songwriter John Prine said it best. Below his tragicomic vision of life, here performed by the luminous Norah Jones.

Nine Years Later

I was already working at my desk when our son called to say something terrible had happened in Lower Manhattan. I ran to the TV, then quick called David, also at work by then. He knew only about the towers and not the other catastrophes. “Really?” he kept saying in disbelief. “Really?”

But disbelief had vanished when I called back an hour later to ask how his people were doing.

“Well, we’re chasing our guys still,” he said. “Three flew out of Logan this morning.” Then he hesitated. “So far we’ve heard from everyone but Bobby,” and in his use of this fond nickname I recognized in my spouse of many years that certain lightness of manner he uses to mask extreme worry. “We’re not sure yet about Bob.”

Within the hour we were all sure:  Bob had been on Flight 175 when it suddenly veered and hit its mark.

His wife was shattered, as were their two daughters and their son, who, the press noted in one account, wept unashamedly throughout his interview with them. He wept again when he called and asked David to deliver the eulogy at that funeral-with-no-body, where weeping was general.

David simply stood and told a few stories: about a man everyone loved, who could get up antic games of Frisbee in any old parking lot, pinch-hit at golf, though he didn’t really play golf, and convince five grown guys what a good time it would be to drive 300 miles in February and stay in the world’s tiniest motel to watch his daughter play basketball. “And we all agreed afterward,” said David. “It was a really good time.”

He told about the dozens of people who had called the company to offer condolences, many sobbing as they spoke. He told about the one who said what everyone knew to be true: that he was the nicest person he had ever known.

Most of us say that when our time comes we want to go quick. Bob did that, as we pray most did who died on this date nine years ago. I myself like to think of them of them not as they died but as their families last saw them, when, on that blue cloudless day, they rose from their beds and stepped lightly into the morning.

For Kevin

Kevin Forrest, whose death I talked about yesterday, edited my column for the Vermont Standard and never seemed to mind if I didn’t get it in first thing Monday morning. Plus if he needed copy early before a long weekend like this one he’d call and say  “Just send anything!” which he knew I would never do. I’m serious like that about my writing.

Kevin was serious like that about his music. He started playing in high school and was playing just a few months back, even as the cancer started growing again in his neck. I just found on YouTube and watched all the way through a crazy video in which 20 people run into a room and dance in endearingly clumsy fashion while the lead singer bellows out a tune with an intentional play on the F-word. Kevin is the band member with glasses and the blond hair which went white when he got cancer the first time, just a young guy in his 40s.

He had surgery inside his mouth and had to learn talk all over again. He did though and he healed all up and fell in love and branched out with Local Access TV and the special stories for New Hampshire Public Radio. These picture show how he looked when I first called on the paper trying to sell them my column.

The only song I can find that he wrote is this one and doesn’t its subject haunt me today, sending me again to NHPR’s website so I can once more hear that nice scratchy voice…. He was just my friend that I saw once a year; I can’t imagine the hole his passing has left for his children, and his real pals, and Linda, the love of his life.

Dying Isn’t Easy

aliI miss people’s real teeth now that everyone’s trying to go for the makeover-fakeovers.  People seem to feel so apologetic about their teeth and I I get that: I tried the Teeth Whitening Mouthwash, hoping for the best, like when my mom used to put white shoe polish on my sneakers but what  happened? My tongue turned black; scared the bejesus out of the young tech at my doctor’s office. Seems the stuff kills the algae or whatever all that flora is in there, so then the fungi have themselves a field day, amazing

I wrote about this nostalgia for people’s real teeth in a recent column and mentioned Ali McGraw, who has these two crooked teeth there along the center aisle of her upper jaw. I noticed this watching the last hour of the 1970 film “Love Story” in which nobody even tells poor Ali-as-Jennifer that she has cancer, even though her rich young husband knows it, as does the fancy Fifth Avenue doc they go to because they can’t seem to get a baby going.

The doc uses that favorite Old Hollywood method of delivering bad news, meaning by the slow-drip followed by the sudden fatal dose.  He’s having a secret meeting with Ali’s young groom  Oliver Barrett III, played by Ryan O’Neal.  “I’m afraid children won’t be possible,” he gravely intones.  “So we’ll adopt!” counters cheeky young Oliver. “I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that.” “What do you mean?” “She’s dying.”

Then there’s more schmaltzy music, a feeble walk or two in the park, some exhausted-looking kissing and the next thing you know she’s telling him she wants to bring the troops home by Christmas which means she wants to  die. Now please. And she does it too.

Anyway if you read the column you’ll see that although Jennifer slipped away, Ali McGraw is still going strong at 71 with the same cute teeth God gave her.

Really though I’m thinking now of her co-star today.  The girl Ryan O’Neal has loved for 30 years is now dying in the hard old-fashioned way and was there ever a smile as bright as Farrah’s?  Every man in America loved her and every woman used her hairstyle to pay her tribute.  Here on this matchless spring day I am paying it still.

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All Souls Day

I had a dream last night in which I had just died. I was dashing around – flying actually, over scenes like the one above, recently visited – and so didn’t realize I was dead until I swooped back over my body sitting in my same clothes from that morning, seat belt still on, so to speak.

I didn’t look dead – just kind of deflated is all, like our little cat looked in the gutter after that car killed her, and all I could think was “So wait that anxious get-it-done, get-it-done girl wasn’t even ME?”?

It wasn’t a sad dream though really, not like the one I had about my mother a couple of months after she died. In that one we were at the cemetery, the whole noisy family. I was scooping dirt from the grave to take home with me and my cousin Carolyn was saying “What are you going to do with THAT?” My husband was shivering in his best suit and Cousin George was just wading over to him: “Ever hear of an OVERCOAT?” he wryly remarked, only all that really happened. The dream was that my mother was there with us.

“Gosh isn’t it cold!” she said. “I can’t wait to get back to the house! Do you have somebody there making the coffee and setting out the food?”

“Oh Mom I’m sorry but you… you can’t come. You have to go lie down there,” I said in the dream, pointing to the box, pointing to the open hole, and woke feeling about as desolate as ever I have felt in this life.

The other day I saw my former neighbor in a book store. Her husband was the heart of our town before he died in his sleep in a few summers back. He used to cut his grass in the pitch dark if the sun dared go down, using his headlights so he could see. He’d rive through the downtown in his pickup, yelling jokey hellos to people every 30 feet. He crashed a Halloween party we gave once; appeared in a gorilla suit, joined the dancing briefly, made apelike gestures and, even grabbed a sandwich before leaving without ever opening his mouth to say who he was.

Seeing his widow I suddenly realized something. “You know what I just remembered Joanna? I dreamed about Dave last night!”

“Oh! You did really?” she said with a face of inexpressible longing. “I haven’t dreamed of him in so long! How is he?”

The longer I live the more I think that last remark reveals the larger truth: when we leave here we don’t go lie down in a box. We take off our seatbelts and fly.