Not So Spooky

IMG_2422It’s not just that Halloween comes around now. You’re drawn to the spooky anyway at this season, with the bones of the world emerging through the trees; the branches scratching like dead man’s fingers at window panes icy to the touch.

When I was little, we went once with our cousins to a tall old ruin of a house, abandoned and alone on a hill. We stole inside and crept around. We looked down the parched throat of a long-gone toilet. “See that rusty stuff in there?” the eldest among us said. “That’s blood!” We shrieked, and bolted, and ran all the way home.

Funny: I live in a house like that now, though it teems with life still. I sit by the hour in the little window seat of its second-floor study.  Just outside the glass, when there’s a wind, the ivy outside waves like the Queen at the parade passing before it.  In summer, the ten-thousand hands of its leaves are shiny-green. Now they are red-tipped, or vermilion throughout.

 “Ivy rots the shingles!,” the experts shout when the talk turns to house-painting.  “Ivy is ruinous!”

 “Tell it to the birds,” I think, the birds who shelter and practice their scales there, all safe and hidden in its rustling depths.

 Once a decade, the painters come and strip the ivy to the ground. But almost before the year is out, it has grown back, clear to the roof, nearly – and we secretly cheer it on.

When David and I were in our twenties and babies still in every way, we bought a little apple orchard way up in Maine that belonged to a dead man named Luce.  This land was inexpensive because it had no electricity and no water on it.  The old man, who had been born on the land, sold it for not much money to some city-slicker who immediately doubled the price and sold it to us. Shortly after this, Luce died. Some said it was the humiliation that killed him.

 A neighbor that first year asked us if he could graze his cows on our land; it would keep the grass down, he said. Sure, we told him, and went back to building a cabin that looked like the Three Little Pigs’ House of Sticks.

 We used to go there for weekends, and cows as big as oil burners watched us as we set fire to our steaks, to our marshmallows,  to our very selves, on some nights. After eating, they watched us walk the orchard’s 20 acres.

We often stopped to wonder at the clump of vegetation growing together by the road –  birch and aspen, and a riot of blackberry – a strange sight on this land, cleared but for the tidy rows of apple.  Finally, one day we looked closer: The growth sprang from a cellar-hole, the foundation of the house where Old Man Luce was born.

Structures crumble, the message seems to be, but loveliness grows up from the ruins. And though Winter seems like death to us now,  it is only Winter. Would the noble geese leave us had they not made reservations for next year’s visit?

The part of our house covered in ivy is a small turret capped at the top by a pointy princess-hat of a roof. Under it, on the second floor, is my curve-ended study with its window seat. Under that is the equally arc-shaped end of the living room where we put the Christmas tree each year.

“When I die, lay me out here inside the curve of this turret,” I used to tell our kids. Never mind rented men in a set of rented parlors, I say. “Invite the world, give ’em lots of food and drink, and laugh as much as you like. “

“OK!” they answer in chipper fashion. They don’t find it strange or macabre, because they were kids, and kids understand this truth best of all: the Old Growth dies to make way for the New.  

Scary? Nah, it’s not scary.That little cat at the top is mostly just …curious!

When Your Friend’s Parent Dies

My heart leaped when I heard her voice on my answering machine. It was Judy, who we teased so in college for her youth: she was just 16 for most of our freshman year. Judy my roommate and bridesmaid from the days when young women had hair down to their elbows and dressed in gowns as flowing in gossamer as you’d see on a host of angels.

But glad as I was to hear her voice, I was that sad to learn why she called: Her mother was hospitalized near here and she had dropped everything back in Manhattan to come sit by her for her final weeks.

I don’t know how many times I saw Judy during this period.

Once was for perhaps the saddest New Year’s Eve dinner she will ever spend, with her mother going and her dad having gone just last June.  Once it was to meet at my dry cleaners, where she left off the clothes in which her mother would be buried.  Once I brought her straight from the hospital to the movies, where the two of us sat in the theater’s garage, downing the chicken cassoulet I had thrown together so she could eat before the show.

Naturally, I saw her at the funeral, where she rose and spoke so movingly  of her mom’s life, beginning in 1920s Brooklyn and going on through the marriage and parenthood, right up to her final years when, even with growing dementia, she could still beat the pants off her husband in Scrabble. This is the lady above.

And this is Judy on the piano bench at 12.

She spoke of her childhood and family life in Brooklyn, then Cincinnati, then Dayton. She told what her mother had loved: Her children. Music on the stereo.  Things of beauty, like the high-end jewelry she sold for years in her career.

I took in every word.

And afterward, as I stood studying the gorgeous photo of her mom as a young woman, Judy came and stood beside me.

“YOU love pictures!” she said. “I have literally hundreds of them back in my hotel room. Would you like to come see them the tomorrow night as I pack everything up, maybe even keep some for yourself?”

I said I would relish having one last visit with her and this time I brought chili and a Waldorf salad. “Why are you always feeding me?!” she laughed when she opened her door.

As we ate, she told me the story of her family, who had come here in the early 1900s from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. She spoke too of the ones who did not come, on her dad’s side; whose letters had abruptly and heartbreakingly stopped – just stopped – as Hitler’s dark shadow stretched over Europe.

I heard about Brooklyn grandmothers in funny old grandmother shoes.

I heard about her family’s migration to suburban Cincinnati where grandmothers drove actual cars and wore sleek Jackie-style pumps.

We spoke of all this and then turned to the hundreds of photos, from jocular candids to formal studio groupings and beyond.

“Take some!” she urged.

She also gave me a brooch, a single gold ‘S’ for her mother’s name.

“Your LAST name begins with ‘S’” she said. “At least it did when I met you. And I have no family member with this initial.”

“But you might someday,” I said. “I will keep it for you until then.” And so I will.

I took a lot of photos too and in the days following scanned them and saved them on my computer, where I go and look at them often.

I look at them very often, in fact, struck as I am by my good fortune in being near her during this passage; struck as I remain by the generosity of spirit that takes a mere friend from the old days and turns her into family.

And this is the Judy I met at 16, here seen at 20 the day before our Smith graduation:

No friends like the old friends

The Day Before the Thanking Day

Yesterday here in the precincts north of Boston we had classic Day Before Thanksgiving weather, with air like apple cider and a sun so strong the shadows lay black on the bright-green grass.

If I were still little, I’d have looked out at that bright green grass and seen pheasants doing their strut-walk in our yard, funny as it seems to say that since we lived in a city.

Lowell was the nation’s first planned city, a factory town filled with mills and rowhouses and churches for every wave of immigration… And yet here we had pheasants out back.

Why? Because the city sits on the confluence of two rivers, muscular and sudsy, and they are the real main characters in Lowell’s story.

Even now, you drive through Lowell and Lawrence and Haverhill and all you have to do is squint your eyes to see the old fields lying just beyond the downtown, just under the suburban-style homes with their driveways and their swing sets.

Our old house in Lowell sits on what had been, since Revolutionary times, an apple orchard. The house to our right was the farmhouse and the one to our left was its barn. We were the dooryard between the two, with this row of little apple trees marching out back, crooked and stooped like the oldest soldiers in the parades of your childhood.

The oldest soldiers at the school assemblies of my youth were from the Great War mostly. I even remember one from the Spanish American War, that fraudulent 1890’s conflict cooked up by a nation bent on empire. When my mom was little they saw veterans from the Civil War at their school assemblies, imagine it! There’s footage on YouTube of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg that would break your heart.  It makes me think of how seldom we ever think on the blood that was shed over time. After Memorial Day, after Veterans Day, who thinks of all that sacrifice, besides the families whose sons and daughters who have most recently shed it?

I feel ashamed for all we take for granted in this country; I mean for the peace, both and political that allows someone like me to dream back and paint pictures of times gone by.

We wake today to rain in New England. Rain with all its own charms. Rain that send us hurrying back indoors, grateful for the hot tea and the dry towel…

I opened my eyes at 6am to the rain. Then I closed them again and saw those pheasants, and our neighbor’s great old dog Tramp coming over to greet us as we jumped in the swirling leaves, the brown oak leaves that are falling this week, the last to go always, like me the most reluctant to acknowledge an end to the gaudy party. 

the next door neighbors’ glider, with the old apple trees that dotted both our yards

Drownin’ Here

I spent two whole days cleaning out the hall closet, and what did it do for me really but make me see how ridiculously thin I was back when that green leather coat was new? (How did we survive the fashions of the 70s with the super-tight waists? How did we breathe even ?

But what I really want to say here is you’re right, you are so right, all you wise souls who posted comments yesterday noting that the less you have, the lighter your burden. Because I also worked all weekend in the dining room which you see as it looked on Friday. Just try having Thanksgiving around six lamps and a world of wicker! The outside of the house is being painted – the screened in porch too – and everything has been in chaos for the last five weeks. If my camera had a wide-angle lens you could also see the box of human bones, a story for another time.

BUT! Less than 12 hours after the painters were done with the screened-in porch I had carried every last lamp, footstool and table back out there.

Single-handedly ’cause Dave was away.

Then I dug out my grandmother’s pale frail china from 1903 and her brittle little goblets. I found the pickle forks and the celery dish, unearthed and re-washed the tablecloth, and the tablecloth that goes over the tablecloth and ironed all 80 yards of both of them.

Now I’m turning to my mom’s wedding silver, which of course has gone goldenrod yellow with the passage of time and needed to be polished the old fashioned way (with the stuff that turns your hands black that means), then thoroughly washed, then dried with a linen towel and polished some more etc etc.

And the whole time all I could think was how appalled a guy like Henry Thoreau would be, who said Simplify! simplify!

How appalled Khalil Gibran would be who said Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.

This place isn’t even an anchor; it’s the Titanic and maybe it’s going down!

“Jaaaaack! Jaaaack! That’s me as Kate Winslet.

Or maybe we’re that old couple who stayed in their stateroom, hugging in their bed ‘til the last.

Anyway I’m not really complaining; I love the old things, the Limoges given to poor Grandmother Carrie, who died in her 32nd year.

I practically put her soup bowls to my ear and listen to them, just as if they were sea shells.

And you know what? Sometimes, sometimes, I think I actually hear things.


Why We Clean

Now is the time you find all the little hammocks the spiders laid out on your windowsills, when the days were long and the bees danced their tipsy jigs.

But the spiders are gone now.

Roll up their bedding and wish them the best, wherever they might be. Think of Charlotte and her pig-friend Wilbur and send up a prayer of thanks that you too have had such a nice long time in the sun.

Now is the time to pull out those winter clothes, and how many coats or jackets are there that I haven’t worn for a good 15 years? Give them away I tell myself.

In my hall closet I have just found a pair of pink rubber boots with flouncy fake-fur trim and I can tell you it has been many a moon since the people drawn to such footwear lived here. 

I found Old Dave’s high school football jacket too, its white leather sleeves slightly darkened with age and “Dave, Co-Captain” stitched on the front.

I put it in the attic. 

In one corner, I found two family tablecloths wrapped in protective brown paper, rolled on fat cardboard dowels and left to stand in the odd corner of four different houses over a 50-year period. Will anyone ever use them again, artfully patched as they are and speckled with faint brown speckles? And from what old gravy boat, I wonder? From what brimming glass of claret?

I put them back in their corner.

There are consolations in cleaning, letting go of what needs letting go of and holding tight to what we can’t yet part with.

I found old gloves, my favorite kind, in black, my favorite color. Five identical gloves for the right hand and none at all for the left so what to do here? Save them in case their wandering partners ever return, or throw them away? Such quandaries lie at the heart of all cleaning projects.

Finally, way in the back, I found the fur coat our male cat fiercely peed on when he was sick and on his way to the vet. He hissed and arched too, mistaking it for a living foe. I put in a whole new lining but still, I seldom wear the thing. Keep it or pass on?

I fished in its pockets and pulled out a slip from the dry cleaners. I studied the items listed there and hey, hadn’t I just been looking for that mauve-colored gypsy-looking dress just the other day?

I closed the closet door and drove right to the cleaners.

I gave the slip to the man at the counter, who, five minutes later, smilingly brought forth a whole armful of clothes I had put in storage there…in May  of 2007, fully four and a half years ago.

So now I have three good wool skirts, a tweed suit, three wool jackets, the missing gypsy number and four warm sweaters I did not have before. A whole winter wardrobe almost. I just have to throw on the coat and be willing to wear right-handed gloves on my left hand and I will be SET. (And tell you what, those cute pink boots with the fur trim are looking better to me all the time.)

Here Lie…



This isn’t my house thank God but I’ll tell you what it’s really like living here in the growing season. I know I said it was like living inside the Keebler Elf tree and proved it with these actual pictures but an even better analogy is coming to mind now: It’s more like what that nutty little genius Emily Dickinson wrote.

See if you remember this poem, where she pictures herself and the mystery person she addresses lying side by side in their graves, dressed just in the clean white bones maybe, or maybe still in their starched Sunday best with the undertaker’s makeup pale upon their cheeks. You know it I betcha :

I died for Beauty–but was scarce 
Adjusted in the Tomb 
When One who died for Truth, was lain 
In an adjoining Room-

He questioned softly Why I failed? 
“For Beauty,” I replied 
“And for Truth, Themself are One 
We Brethren are,” He said–

And so, as Kinsmen, met at Night 
We talked between the Rooms
Until the Moss had reached our lips 
And covered up our names

Emily didn’t do punctuation, aside from these crazy dashes every few words, but doesn’t that ring a bell somehow? The image of us carrying right on with the talk while slowly – slowly and wonderfully in a way – Nature knits the green blanket that will cover us all in the end.

You saw the picture of the ivy outside my study window . Now here’s the mother dove who sat on my window sill all last summer hatching babies; whose descendants may sit here still when I and that boy I fell in love with lie all quiet in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, beneath the grand old trees and under the wide cold sky.