Poem of the Week, by Denise Levertov

At a dinner party the other night some friends asked why my mother, born and raised in Manhattan, had lived her entire adult life in the rural foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I told them she had always wanted to live in the country, that she had spent childhood summers at a camp where her mother had a job. Like my mother, I’m both country and city, but when things get too worrisome I recite poems like this one to myself. Which might mean that at some level, country wins out.

A Reward
–  Denise Levertov

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

For more information on Denise Levertov, please click here.

Andes Mint #6: Phantom ice cream

When you think of Charlie, which you do every day, he appears to you smiling, sitting on a chair wearing dark pants, a white shirt with a faint stripe, dark shoes. The chair is simple, one step up from a folding chair, and it’s set on the linoleum floor of the dark pantry-like space in his old house, the same space that once held the commercial soft-serve ice cream machine he bought at an auction and installed for the use of himself and his family.

The house burned down many years ago. The ice cream machine was uninstalled shortly after Charlie got his triple bypass. The night your parents called to tell you he was in the hospital, you sat down and wrote him a letter that began, “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

Charlie was your father’s best friend. He is inseparable from every moment of your growing up, and from your entire life until he died last year. When you think of him now he’s always in that chair, always smiling, always chuckling.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

You hear his voice perfectly. It’s as if he’s in the room with you whenever you think of him. His voice, followed always by that easy chuckle. The man could get along with anyone in the world, and others counted on him to be the conduit through which they got along with others. This was a role he was born for and he fulfilled it unerringly.

He was a farmer for much of his life, an extension agent for the state for many years, a Walmart greeter for a few. Sitting here typing this, on this buckling white couch in your basement, where you’re trying to escape the heat, you try to think of even one person who didn’t love him. You can’t.

There he sits on that chair, smiling, that easy laugh, that mellow voice that has always sounded to you like a cello turned human.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

In your mind you pull up a chair opposite him, there in that dark pantry where the soft ice cream machine is churning away. This is where you meet, now that he’s gone, in a disappeared pantry in a burned-down house: a place where he used to sit you down with a spoon and a big bowl of melting vanilla ice cream.

He’s talking to someone else at first, someone you can’t see, but after a while he glances over and meets your eye. He nods and smiles and you nod and smile back. There is the same deep, wordless understanding between the two of you that there always was.

What you know –and he knew you knew it– was that Charlie’s easy chuckle was his defense. It was how he got through, how he bought time so that his brain would have a few extra seconds to whisk through a thousand possibilities, figure out how to defuse, how to smooth over, how to make everyone in the conversation –especially those who were angry, quick to judge, quick to injury– feel listened to, seen, known.

If Charlie could have been cloned and installed in embassies around the world, there would be no war.

Now he is gone, but you still need his presence. So every day you draw up a chair opposite him. You smile. You listen to that easy laugh. Charlie steadied the lives of those who knew him. He smoothed things over among people he loved and people he barely knew. An invisible filament strung through his hands held so many things together.

In life, the two of you never spoke openly of what you knew about each other, which is how much effort that takes, not only to do it but to make it look effortless.

"Though your life felt arduous/ new and unmapped and strange. . ."

I’m talking to you, 2012. You were a long and hard year for so many of those I love. You felt helpless and horrifying at times. And you are almost over.

I’m thinking about the smallness of human life. The smallness of my life. Of this year. The smallnesses are what I remember.

Like the sound of my sister’s laugh on the other end of the phone that night when she called me back after I left her that long message.

Like the night I was playing dirty word Bananagrams with my daughter and an old friend and they both called PEEL at the same time for the same dirty word.

There was a morning in February that I ran on a deserted beach while dolphins kept pace with me fifty feet from shore.

There was a night in May that I spent sitting on the couch with someone I adore, drinking limoncello and youtubing classic songs from our youth.

There’s the fact that I can send out a smoke signal to my other sister and she will call within an hour, saying Got your smoke signal. What’s up?

There was the day I found those beautiful, vintage, handmade boots at Experienced Goods in Brattleboro and I tried them on and couldn’t take them off even long enough to fork over the $8 at the cash register.

There was the night last summer when I danced late one night to every single song –yes, even the Hokey Pokey, thanks Stinky– from that crowd-sourced dance mix.

There was that night at the open-air restaurant by a faraway sea with my daughters, candles flickering on the wooden tables. There was that perfect Greek salad and seafood from the sea a few feet away.

And that maitre d’ who kept smiling at the three of us and sending over treats: little glasses of ouzo, stuffed grape leaves, a plate of chocolate cake.

There was a pillar at an airport, a pillar I leaned against while waiting for someone, and there was that familiar and enormous swell of love when the someone I was waiting for got off the plane.

There were nine circuits around the dog park on a 2 degree day because the dog was so happy to be out there, and how could I let him down?

There was the night I stood in line for pie at a community play in my hometown and felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see my high school friend, unglimpsed in over thirty years, and I flashed back to slow-dancing with him late one night when we were 17, and the Denny’s breakfast that followed, and I remembered thinking, that long-ago night, What a great guy he is, and there he was, and I could see right away that he was still a great guy, and we hugged each other and smiled and smiled.

There was the afternoon I sat down and wrote a thank-you note, an actual thank-you note, to my brother because he is so damn funny and he makes me laugh so hard.

There were the tiny blue and yellow Italian pottery cups that came with that bottle of limoncello.

There is the ongoing fact that even though my grandmother has been gone for so many years now, I still talk to her every day. I still feel her presence, like the electricity inside the walls of my house. Invisible, and everywhere.

There is the handleless handmade coffee mug that I have to keep circling in my hands so that my fingers don’t burn but which I use every morning anyway because there’s something about it that feels exactly right.

There was Big Fat Bacon on a Stick at the state fair with my friends Stinky and J.O.

There was the day I sat down to write a blog about my best friend and I didn’t know where to start, because she is threaded throughout my entire life, and where do you begin?

There was the gratitude –what would I do without her?– and the panic –what would I do without her?

There was that day out on a run, stopping at a bridge to look down, far down at the river below, and all those bright kayaks lined up in a row on the dark water, and I couldn’t stop looking at them, remembering my living-with-cancer-for-many-years-now friend’s comment on how she can hardly stand going to the Farmer’s Market anymore, because “the colors knock my socks off,” and I knew exactly how she felt.

There was the afternoon that my quiet student, after reading aloud his strange, unearthly and beautiful-in-an-ugly way piece of writing to the class, looked over and met my eyes while everyone else’s head was still bent, and there was me nodding so that he would feel the Yes that I was trying to send to him, and there was the relief in his eyes when he got my silent Yes.

There was the night I went to see my father pretending to be crazy King George in a community play and I watched him, in his long white ruffled shirt and his rolled-up and safety-pinned black pants and his moth-eaten velvet robe, and I was so glad that sometimes in life, you get to live long enough so that everything gets worked through, gets left behind, gets washed away, so that there’s only one thing left, and that one thing is this: love.

Yup, I’m talking to you, 2012, here on the last day of a long hard year in the still-young years of a century whose end I won’t be here to see. Those moments above are a few of the millions of moments that I remember from you.

I’m marking you, 2012, acknowledging you, so that tonight, at 12:01 a.m., the world will be new again.

And we will all have yet another chance.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Day Eleven: Ugh again.

Despite the fact that I put an X on my right hand before I went to bed last night, as a reminder to myself of today’s challenge –to eat only with my left hand all day– I failed again. At 6:45 a.m. I stood in my kitchen before the giant jar of peanut butter, bike helmet on head, picked up a spoon, dug into the jar and conveyed the spoonful of peanut butter to my mouth all with my right hand. Completely ignored the X.

Tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett would say (again).

As penance for a third day of lefthand-eating-only failure in a row, I decided to tackle a challenge I’ve been dreading, which is to write a letter to my 16 year old self. This is something that a bunch of my writer friends have been doing on some site somewhere; I’ve only read one of them out of fear that I’d be cowed by their fabulousness.

Because I so don’t want to write this letter, I’m giving myself only ten minutes to do it, the way I give my students ten minutes to write in class every time we meet. That takes the pressure off. Sort of.

Ten minutes. No editing. Here goes.

Dear Sixteen-year-old self,

This is the only photo I could find of you, and it’s weirdly similar to a photo taken of herself by my friend Julie S. Like her at the same age, you held an instamatic out in front of you, hoping somehow to capture your own face, and pressed the little black button. The weirder thing is that I remember exactly when you took that photo. You had just gotten out of the shower. You were wearing cut-offs and that blue workshirt you wore every day back then.

You wondered if maybe you could capture something in a photo that would tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.

Now, I look at that photo and I think: You were on the verge. Of so much. If I could go back in time and tell you some things, here are a few things I’d tell you:

You don’t think of yourself as unhappy right now. You go to high school out in the country, you have friends, you belong to a bunch of things.

But in retrospect, you were waiting and you didn’t even know it. You were waiting for the doors of your life to blow open, for the sky to lift high overhead.

What can I tell you now, from this long perspective of time?

You can let up some. You think you have to push yourself every day, that you have to maintain some high rigid standard, be ultra-disciplined, but you don’t. Why are you setting your alarm every morning for 4:45? So sleepy.

Then again, that discipline will come in handy years later, when you have three little kids –yes! you do end up with three kids, just like you wanted!– and you get up at four because it’s the only time you can write in silence.

So many things that you think matter so much right now do not, in the end, matter. That one night you’re thinking about, when they took off and left you there? That doesn’t matter. Then again, it does matter, because they hurt you. Then, you blamed yourself. Now, you just think wow, what jerks they were.

On second thought, maybe things like that night do still matter, but when you get to my age, instead of blaming yourself –too ugly, too boring, all your fault– it’s clear that whatever you were back then, you at least weren’t mean.

All those times on the schoolbus, in school, walking the dirt roads past broken-down trailers, when you feel helpless in the face of others’ pain, will eventually be transformed into art. Even if you feel right now as if you’ll break apart from it, it will be worth it.

Most everything that you are going to live through will, in the end, be worth it.

It’s too late to go back and re-do things, but if I could, I’d tell you a few things that you’re too young to know:

When your grandmother and your father and your mother tell you not to change your plans, that the tickets are nonrefundable, that he knew how much you loved him, don’t listen to them. Go to your grandfather’s funeral, because when you don’t, you will forever regret it.

You don’t need to wash your hair every day.

Don’t listen when people tell you that love fades, that it becomes humdrum, ordinary, that this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not.

You are not ugly the way you fear you are.

Don’t be so afraid, out of self-consciousness, of trying things that it seems as if everyone around you already knows how to do. Skiing, for example. You’re going to go to a college that has its own snow bowl; learn to ski.

Four years from now, when that boy you have the massive crush on comes to your room in Hepburn Hall with a bottle of wine and bunch of roses, invite him in. Do not stand there in dumb shyness, your heart beating like a hummingbird, and thank him politely and watch his face fall and say goodnight and shut the door. Because that’s something else you’re going to regret forever.

When you’re afraid of something, tell someone.

When you need help, ask for it.

When your insides are whirling around and you feel as if you’re drowning, panicking and desperate, don’t put a calm smile on your face and walk around as if you’re fine.

There are lots of people who would love to help you.

There are lots of people who love you. You don’t know that yet, but you will.

You are going to be so much happier when you’re older than you could believe possible, and most of that happiness will come when you let go of trying to come across a certain way, when you just let yourself be.

It’s weird, but you’re going to live your life in reverse of most people your age. Awful things are going to happen to you when you’re young, and you’re going to feel much older than your friends. For many years your interior will not match your exterior.

But guess what? Time will go by, and your friends will catch up to you. Life catches up to everyone. The older you get the happier you get, the more rebellious, the less willing to suffer fools, to put up with shit. You’re going to feel so free when you get older.

So many years from the day you held this camera out and hoped this photo would reveal something you couldn’t explain, something you wanted so badly to know about yourself, you will look at it and feel this big sweep of love for that young girl, her whole life stretching out before her, as if she isn’t you.

But she is.

6 Mile

Some of the things it’s possible to do while walking the six-mile block you walk every day when you’re back in the land where you grew up:

Look north to the foothills of the Adirondacks and think, as you always do, how cool it is that a fifteen-minute drive behind the wheel of a car will bring you into the six million-acre Adirondack Park itself.

Lift your hand in greeting to each and every car that comes toward you, and watch as each and every driver lifts his hand back to you.

Observe all the Amish laundry hanging on Amish clotheslines. Decide, based on your observations over all six miles, that Amish men do not wear underwear and Amish women do not wear bras.

Notice that a few pairs of underwear are colors other than blue, black or white. Wonder if these colored undies are breaking a covert Amish rule. Decide that the answer is no, because otherwise they wouldn’t be hanging on the line for all to see.

Take a left on Crill Road and wait for the flock of wild turkeys to cross. Take your time, wild turkeys. Note a line of them in a distant field, walking single file with their heads bobbing up and down. Recall that your father told you they follow the manure spreader, picking out the corn that the cows didn’t absorb.

Think about all the wild turkeys you’ve seen lately: walking down the sidewalks in northeast Minneapolis, flocking on either side of the road the entire length of the Natchez Trace, and now here in upstate New York. Decide that wild turkeys are taking over the highways and byways of your fair nation, and wonder where it will all end.

Walk past this barn, which is the barn you grew up playing in, and think of all the hours you spent in it. Hayforts. Hay tunnels. Hay rooms underneath haystacks, in which you read by flashlight. Years of trying and not always succeeding to avoid the gaping holes in the floorboards. Think how great it is to be in your unsafe homeland, how great it is that those gaping holes are still there in the barn, along with the wide-open rectangles in the far wall. Decide that your nephew, the one who “fell” twenty feet to the ground out one of them and came up laughing, didn’t fall but leapt.

Count the number of Amish baked goods signs along the six miles and wish that it were Friday. Consider the spelling of “donut” as opposed to “doughnut.” Come down firmly on the side of “doughnut” but recognize wearily that you are out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to doughnuts.

Ask yourself: if this were Friday, which kind of Amish do(ugh)nut would you buy? There is no question: Cream Filled. The minute you decide on Cream Filled, immediately change your mind to Glazed. Decide that if this were Friday, you would buy four of each and take the whole box –wait, do the Amish use boxes?– home to your parents.

Wonder why, in recent years, you crave the wide-open west so much instead of these foothills and mountains you grew up in. Wonder if you’ll someday trade your one-room plumbingless shack on the slope in Vermont for a one-room plumbingless shack in Montana. Realize, as you walk the six miles of this block, that the wide-open west and the land where you grew up have much more in common than you ever thought.

Stop by and say hi to a friend. Wonder why the photo of his grave is so much bigger than your other photos.

Keep walking. Walk to the house where your friend and his wife lived. Walk across the grass and sit on the front steps of their house. Look out over the fields stretching south, the fields and the woods, and talk to him. Charlie, I’m sitting on your front steps. I’m looking out over the valley. Remember how you always told me it was God’s country?

Keep walking. Walk down the road to where your friend’s brother lives. See him coming out of the barn. Start to run so that you can catch up to him before he goes into the house. See him stop walking when he sees you coming. Listen as the first thing he says is, “I like your sneakers, Alison,” with his head down. Listen to yourself say, “I’m so sorry,” as you both start to cry. Sit on the porch with him and his wife for a long time, talking.

Stay up late with your father, sitting across the kitchen table, talking. Get up early and go to the diner with him next morning. Ride shotgun in his car as he drives you down the dirt road to the ten acres they’re having surveyed, because you can’t stand the thought of not having a piece of this land once the Amish have bought their place and they leave it. Stand with your father by the edge of the ten acres and point to a knoll that would be a pretty place to put up a plumbingless one-room shack.

When you leave next morning, have a hard time leaving.

Things of this world

Last week you had a vivid dream in which the lyrics to a beautifully sad Willie Nelson song you’d never heard before went scrolling through your head. When you woke up you went to the computer and googled the first line: I have a thing for the things of this world, but no such Willie Nelson song exists. You took this as a sign that you needed to write a poem that began with that line. But you put it off.

Yesterday, while you were driving in the pre-dawn dark to a tiny airport on the Panhandle, you went through a drive-through to get a cup of coffee. You took the coffee from the nice girl, so sweet and patient there at the drive-thru window at 6 a.m., and said thank you. Before you got back on the road a message ticked into your phone. You checked it. Then you pulled off the road and sat there and read it again. You sat there and thought, no. Not possible. This was a man you have known all your life. He and his wife knew you before you were even born.

You sat there in the car and called your parents.

? you asked your mother, and . . . was her answer, and ? and . . .

I’ll put your father on, she said, he’s right here.

— and then your father was on the line, your father who managed to say He was my oldest and best friend before he burst out into those awful, heartbreaking sobs when he heard your I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, and had to hang up the phone, and you sat there in the car for a while before you started it up again and pulled back onto the road.

Why is this so hard to write? Because it’s not a poem, you can hear your father’s oldest and best friend saying, although he was far too gracious ever to say such a thing. Poems rhyme, you can hear him saying, although that, too, he would never say. You think of that sad song you dreamed last week, the one you put off writing.

On the way to the tiny airport, there in the pre-dawn dark, animal eyes glinting from the ditches the whole way, you could picture them in your head: her, short and stout and devout, and him, smiling. You could hear his voice, hear the sound of his car door thunking shut in the driveway of your parents’ house, hear the songlike melody of his deep voice. You could hear the Swiss relatives yodeling down the valley when you were a child lying awake at night. You could see their Christmas tree, lit and glowing through the window. You could see him in the barn with the baby calves, in the farmhouse before it burned down that awful year. All the way back to the frozen north, from airplane to airplane, he kept appearing in your head.

There he is, walking through the kitchen door. Walking into the diner because he heard you were home. Behind the wheel of a big old car on a dusty rural road, pulling off to the shoulder and waiting for you, the eternal walker, to run up to him so he can roll down the window and find out what you’re up to. Telling you how special you are, how beautiful you are, things you know damn well he says to everyone he loves but which always, somehow, when you hear them from him, make you feel that way.

This is hard to write. It’s not a poem unless it rhymes, you can imagine him saying –he never would say something like that, but he wrote a lot of poetry, and every line of it rhymed.

There is no time of your life that you can remember without him in it. He is threaded into everything that has to do with the place you still call home. There he is dancing the polka with your mother on the dusty second floor of the dusty rural dance hall. There he is standing in the field, telling you about the beaver pond and how gradually, over the years, the beavers have come to trust him, and how he will take you out to see them one of these days. There he is showing you the soft ice cream maker that they kept in their pantry, the magical soft ice cream maker that used to make a half-gallon of vanilla every night until he had the emergency triple bypass. After the triple bypass you wrote him a letter that must have said other things but all you remember is the one line that made you sit down and write it: Do you have any idea how much I love you? You remember how tight he hugged you next time you saw him.

When was the last time you saw him? Last fall, it must have been, when you were sitting in the booth at the diner with the men, all his friends –was anyone not his friend?– while he sat on the red stool opposite you until you got up and sat next to him on another red stool so you could talk just to him. Oh this is hard to write. You have begun and erased this at least ten times since you sat down at this table.

Poems aren’t big blocks of words, Al, you can hear him saying, even though he would never say such a thing. Poems rhyme. This isn’t a poem, Charlie, you imagine saying to him. Make it a poem, Al, you can hear him saying.

Long ago there was a silent rift between you and someone dear to him, and you didn’t know he knew about it, and you would not ever have brought it up, and you retreated, you backed up and away, you thought you might not have anything other than polite conversation with him for the rest of your life, and that should be all right, that should be enough, you were a grown woman for God’s sake, you lived a thousand miles away for God’s sake, but late one night when you were home visiting your parents you saw his car pull into the driveway and you leapt into bed and told your parents I can’t talk, I’m asleep already, tell him I’m asleep, but –so utterly uncharacteristic– he went past them and came into the room where you were hiding and told you how sorry he was, and you could see it in his eyes, on his face, in the way he leaned toward you, huddled stupidly on the bed with the blanket pulled up around you. You hadn’t ever seen a look like that on his face, his always-smiling, always-interested, always-calm, never-judgmental face.

This taught you something, which is that when you see a rift, repair it. Or at least try. So that you know that at least you tried. This is very hard to write because there is too much to say. There is too much to protest. Is there anything good here? you said to one sister last night, anything at all? You could feel her silence over the phone. Um, they were not young? They never saw it coming? They went together? They went instantly? No. None of these are good enough to make anything about this good.

This is going to be the biggest funeral that Steuben has ever seen, you said to her. There will be no place big enough to hold the mourners.

You want to write about him, to honor him, but you can’t do a good enough job. Try some rhyme, Al, you can hear him saying, although he would never say such a thing.

Okay, Charlie, I’ll try some rhyme. Here you go. This one’s for you.

The news came that Charlie had died
his loved wife – his “bride”– by his side
I tried to write a poem in rhyme
but I knew there was not enough time
to say anything that needed to be said.
Too sad. Too many memories in my head.

Portrait of a Friend, Volume IV

Unlike most friends, this friend has been part of your life for as long as you can remember. He figures in your earliest memories, and there hasn’t ever been a stretch of longer than half a year when you haven’t been in his presence.

That hat and shirt in the photo to the right stand as evidence of a rare instance of fashion coordination. The hat: plaid. The shirt: plaid. Two plaids = a well-matched outfit.

He’s a tall man, a big man. He has a big presence and a giant voice. His laugh, when he gets going, will fill a room and make all those around him shake their heads in admiration. This is a man who likes to tell a story.

He’s good at telling them, too. At the diner, where he goes every morning to meet his buddies for coffee, and where you go when you’re visiting, they sometimes egg him on.

“Did you tell Alison about the woman who propositioned you at McDonald’s?” one will say.

“Jesus H Christ!” he’ll say. “No I didn’t!”

“Are you kidding me?” you’ll say. “A woman propositioned you at McDonald’s?”

He will shake his head, that mighty laugh beginning to rumble out of him.

“Tell her,” his friends will say. “Alison needs to know.”

They will wink at you, and grin, while he looks down at the formica diner table, still shaking his head, still laughing. And then he’ll tell it, in that giant voice, so that the whole diner ends up listening. And laughing. And shaking their heads.

He is a man who has never been accused of political correctness. Nor has he, unlike most people in the world, ever tried to be anything other than exactly who he is.

Sometimes he would come to visit you during the four years you spent at that little college in the mountains, where most of the other visiting adults wore pearls and linen dresses and suitcoats and polished shoes.

Over the Adirondacks and into the Green Mountains he would come, cresting the hill in a big old station wagon. The door would open and he would haul himself out. Those were the years of the neon orange polyester shirt and the polyester pants with the grease stain. Those were the years of your friends, unused to big men with giant laughs, unused to hearing “Jesus H Christ!” so frequently and happily roared out in public, looking forward to his visits.


Despite a lifetime of knowing you, and despite the fact that your name is simple to pronounce, that is how he pronounces it.

“Alison,” you sometimes say, even now. “A-li-son. Emphasis on the first syllable. Try it again.”

He looks up and smiles, a gleeful little grin from a big man.

“Jesus H Christ!” he says. “I know how to pronounce your name, Al-oh-sun!”

This easy give and take, this banter, this happiness, wasn’t always there. When you were little, you were often afraid of him.

Was it that big voice, his height and his bigness? He was a man of enormous physical strength. He often spent entire days chopping down trees, chainsawing them into big chunks, then smaller chunks, then splitting them into smaller and smaller chunks that, finally, were small enough to fit inside a woodstove.

So tough and stoic is he in the face of pain that he once had to lie down on the floor of a doctor’s office and refuse to move in order to convince them that something –which turned out to be an appendix that had ruptured more than 24 hours previously– was seriously, terribly wrong.

You remember him once pouring Clorox over his bleeding arm: disinfectant.

Unlike now, he was often angry.

Like most children, you assumed that his anger was directed at you. That you were the cause of it. That you must have done something to bring it on.

Like most of the grownups close to you, he was a familiar mystery. In retrospect, you didn’t know him well. How could you? Each of you kept things hidden from the other.

You remember late nights when you were a girl, him working at the kitchen table, head bent over complicated graphs and charts, filling in tiny boxes with penciled numbers. He worked for a dairy farmers’ cooperative; he was keeping track of milk counts at various farms. Or he was charting milk tank truck routes; milk has to be taken to a processing plant within a certain number of hours, and winter in upstate New York is fearsome and unpredictable.

You remember him figuring out other numbers, bent over a checkbook, writing check after check, paying bills.

“Where does it all go, though?” you remember saying once, when you were in your teens.

You were talking about the money that he made. It was an honest question, an idle question.

“Where does it go!” he roared. That anger again, or what you interpreted as anger, anger at you. “Where does it go!”

Later that night he called you out to that kitchen table. On it was a piece of ruled notebook paper. BUDGET at the top of the page. Underneath, line after line with things like Mortgage and Taxes and Food and Gas and Car Payment, each with a dollar amount jotted next to it. Exact dollar amounts, written from memory, subtracted and subtracted and subtracted from that single figure titled “Income.”

“Now do you see?” he said. “Now do you see where it goes?”

Yes. Now you saw.

You didn’t, not really. But later, many years later, when you yourself were sitting up late at night, your children asleep upstairs, dividing a small number over and over again, trying to make it come out differently, you remembered that night so long ago. That piece of lined paper titled Budget.

He was a young man, back then, which is something else you didn’t know. Grownups, those mysterious beings. To a child, a grownup is born a grownup. Could you have imagined him, back then, as a child himself? No.

When you were a little girl you had no idea how young he was. You do now, though. You look back and you wonder at his youth. What went through his mind? What were his dreams? What had he put aside, for four children and the responsibilities that go with them?

Once, when you were about twelve and he was, what, 36, someone asked the people in the kitchen in which you were both standing this question. “If you could start your life over, would you?”

Almost everyone in the room answered immediately: “No.”

But not him. “Yes,” he said. “I would.”

And not you. “Yes,” you said. “I would.”

Looking back, it seems impossible that you, at that age, could have answered that way. How in the world could you have lived long enough, lived through enough, to want the chance to do it over? But the memory is perfectly clear.

You remember looking at him –that big, tall man, often angry the way he was back then– and recognizing that something in him, something he had never talked about, was in you too. Even if neither of you knew what it was.

If he never talked about the big questions, he was full of small ones. When you would return from a day or overnight at a friend’s house, for example, he would quiz you.

“What did you have for lunch?” he would say, “and what did you have for supper? Where did you sleep? How warm do they keep their house?”

He would lean forward so as not to miss anything, and you would describe it all.

“Jesus H Christ!” he would interject, fascinated and needing more details, which you would supply.

He loves a good story, and so do you. He will happily exaggerate if it will make a good story better, and so will you. His love of a good laugh, his keen interest in the people around him, his frustrated anger at his young children when he was a young man, his deadpan humor, his fierce need to make his own schedule, to be free, to get in his car and drive?

All these are in you too. Early on, you felt yourself so different from him. Not anymore.

You remember him coming out of a gas station on a summer day, somewhere in the middle of the two-week road trips that were your family’s annual vacation, his hands full of candy bars, one for each child.

You remember a dusty wooden-floored building out in the country, where every once in a while a polka band would set up. You remember setting your then-small feet on his enormous ones and holding on while he danced you around the room.

You remember a day in a restaurant with him and his mother, whom you adored, and the rest of the family. You remember his mother losing her balance and falling flat on her back and him, then in his 60’s, silently and swiftly scooping her up in his arms and setting her back upright.

Now, these many years later, you sometimes get eight or nine emails a day from him. Almost all are forwarded posts that he’s gotten from others: astonishing or weird sights, political jokes, cute pictures of animals, unusual historical facts. Jokes, off-color in the extreme, that almost always make you laugh.

Usually, the mere sight of a forwarded email, with those telltale and dreaded endless lines of recipients and senders, means an automatic delete. Not so if he’s the sender. You read them all. You respond to the ones you like best.

He likes late night solitaire. Sometimes, when you’re going to bed, you picture him, far away in that house in the foothills, his still-big body perched on a small chair, gazing at the green screen, seven vertical rows of cards.

The sound of a baseball game turned low on a television in the background of a room, or a baseball game on the radio in a car, any car, brings you back to childhood. When you visit you sit and watch with him, arguing about the Yankees.

You’re lucky people. Lucky to have both lived long enough to live through the storms. Not a day goes by that you don’t get up in the morning and sit and bow your head and thank the world for that. For having come out on the other side. For the loss of fear and the gain of love.

In your 30’s you read a poem, this poem:

* * *

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

* * *

You memorized it.

Long Time Passing

toddler-doug-in-doorwayHere is what you remember from the 60’s:

1. Some of the high schoolers, who were huge and terrifying to the elementary- school you, wore black armbands.
2. At the yearly high school talent show, something you lived for because you idolized those huge and terrifying high schoolers, a girl with long dark hair and a muslin granny dress sat in the center of the stage with a spotlight shining down on her head and played a guitar and sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
3. At night the news had a running count of how many soldiers had died in the Vietnam War. Note: you think you remember this, but it’s possible that you don’t – it’s possible that you read about that somewhere and turned it into a semi-memory, which seems to be the case with much of what you think you remember.
4. Drawing peace signs and writing LOVE and LUV in big squishy letters in your notebooks. Note: This might actually have happened in the 70’s. You just can’t be sure.
5. An organic farm commune a few miles away from your home, named “Earthdance.” You and your family had your own giant, mostly-organic vegetable garden, but you sometimes went to Earthdance to buy homemade bread. This was in the days before Sister #2 set out on her quest to become the New York State Bread Baking Champion and began filling the house with homemade bread.

Here is what you do not remember about the 60’s:
1. The day that JFK was shot.
2. Peace marches.
3. A sense of anger on the part of youth against their elders.
It all went right over your head, pretty much, the entire decade of the 60’s. And then one day the 60’s were over, and it was the 70’s, and you were in middle school. You were growing wildly, so fast that your bones literally hurt. You lay curled in bed at night, holding your thighs and knees, which sparked with pain. You lost weight because you were growing so fast.

Here is what you remember from the 70’s:

The 60’s were just past. It was the bare beginning of the 70’s. But you knew that you had missed out, and you wanted what you had missed. It was your goal to be a hippie. You decoupaged Desiderata and hung it in your room. You tie-dyed some clothes, including a yellow hat which your sisters scoffed at mercilessly. You tried to teach yourself how to play the recorder, the better to sit in a field of daisies playing  “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Hippies sat in fields of daisies, living in the moment and playing the recorder, didn’t they? They did. Surely they did. And they wore tie-dye yellow hats.

Sister #1: Where are you going in that yellow tie-dye hat?
You: For a walk.
Sister #1: In that yellow tie-dye hat?
You: Yes.
Sister #1: What’s that under your arm?
You: Nothing.
Sister #1: Oh my God. Is that your recorder?
You: (no response)
Sister #1: Oh my God. Are you going out in back of the barn to sit in the field and play that thing?
You: (no response)
Sister #1: Oh my God. Sister #2! She’s heading out into the field again to play that recorder!
Sister #2 (from kitchen, where she is kneading bread): Is she wearing the yellow tie-dye hat?
Sister #1: Mais oui!
Sister #2: Oh my God.

So it went, that summer. Something about a recorder, something about a field of daisies, something about a yellow tie-dye hat. Sister #2 went on to become the New York State Bread Baking Champion that year. To the best of your memory she never baked another loaf, once the trophy was hers. Sister #1 made a granny dress out of checked orange and white cotton. And in the face of steadfast opposition, you kept wearing your yellow tie-dye hat.

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

03_slides_043Last weekend she found herself behind the wheel of a medium-sized automobile, driving north an hour and a half from Westchester County Airport to Route 22. She had a sheaf of directions with her, because she had only been to the cemetery, Irondale Cemetery, once.

“It’s a quick left,” she had been told. “Keep a sharp eye out. We usually miss the entrance and have to turn back.”

She kept a sharp eye out. On the way up Route 22 her sharp eye saw a sign on the left that read “McGhee Hill,” so she spun around and took the left. She remembered being a child, and asking her grandfather why that road was  named McGhee Hill.

“Because I live there,” he said.

He was washing up after his chores, at the little sink in that dark back entryway. Lava soap. Coveralls. Washing the manure and hay and dairy farm smells off his hands, splashing water over his balding head. How many times did she see him wash up after chores?

She took the left and she was determined to find the old farm, which was still there. She drove up and down a couple of times, searching for the driveway. But she couldn’t find it.

She did drive all the way to the top of McGhee Hill, and there she found the modern house that her grandparents had built when they sold the farm, long ago, when she was ten years old.

Her grandmother had loved the new house: it had an electric stove, as opposed to a woodburning one. It had wall to wall carpeting, as opposed to linoleum and  hardwood floors. Everything in the old house was old, and everything in the new house was new, and her grandmother loved new.

Someone had built a small white house directly next to her grandparents’ modern white house. It did not look right.  She was annoyed, and she reminded herself that her grandparents had not lived there for many years, and that whoever owned the house now had a perfect right to build a small white house directly next to it.

Maybe it was a son or daughter, living there next to them. She thought about that. What would it be like to live directly next to your parents?

She drove back down McGhee Hill and took a left onto Route 22 and continued north.  She kept a sharp eye out for the cemetery and she did not even have to backtrack.

In she drove, down the dusty dirt road, peering for the markers. So many McGhees in this cemetery, good Lord. Who knew there were this many McGhees anywhere, all spelled correctly, with the “h” that gives pause to so many?

Oh, but there were her grandparents, the both of them together.

She parked down the way a bit and walked back. She was the only person in  the cemetery. She sat down on her grandmother’s grave and brushed the few blades of mown grass and leaves from the sunwarmed  tops of the low markers. This was a well-kept cemetery; there was nothing for her to clean or pluck or tidy.

It had not been that many years since she stood here watching them lower the casket into the ground at her grandmother’s funeral. It had been much longer since her grandfather’s funeral, a funeral that she missed and will always regret missing.

She spent the next hour talking to her grandparents and watching the squirrels running up and down the nearby tree. She thanked her grandparents for loving her exactly as she was and for giving her so many happy memories.

She remembered their dog, Jody, whose clownish black and white face she could conjure so vividly. Every night her grandmother had stirred the leftovers of the evening together in a large clean pan, Jody’s frying pan, and made a rich gravy to cover them, and set it down outside for Jody’s dinner. Her grandmother had been an incredible cook. Jody ate what they ate, and he was a happy dog. Why wouldn’t he be?

It was getting late and she still had a long drive ahead of her, almost four hours further upstate, to where her parents lived and where she had grown up. She went back to her car, but she didn’t want to leave her grandparents yet.

So she took out her Wallace and Gromit stationery and wrote her grandmother a note. Her grandmother would have liked that stationery. She would have liked it better if it were covered with little flower and star and heart stickers, but she herself is not the type to carry around flower and star and heart stickers.

She sealed the Wallace and Gromit envelope and went back to her grandmother’s stone. This was an extremely well-kept cemetery, and whoever kept it so well would not approve of a letter left on top of the stone. He – she was certain it was a he – would remove such a letter immediately.

So she folded it into a slender lozenge and tucked it down into the dirt behind the stone. She arranged a few leaves over it in a haphazard-looking manner. With any luck, the letter would remain where it was until the rain and snow dissolved it.

As she left, she asked her grandmother please to stay with her, and to give her a sign that would let her know she was there.

Back into the car she went, and north she drove. As she is a woman of diners, who has spent her life eating in them whenever possible, she stopped at the  West Taghkanic Diner in Hudson, New York. She partook of the pot roast dinner special, which came with a cup of split pea soup, and she finished it off with a large slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie.

The extremely nice young waiter talked to her for a long time. She revealed to him that she had always dreamed of a) converting a classic diner into a home that she could live in, or b) living on a moored houseboat, or c) living in an Airstream.

He told her about another classic diner, the Diamond Street Diner in the next town up. The Diamond Street Diner was currently for sale, he said, and he sketched out a map so that she could check it out for herself.

What would it be like, she wondered, to sell everything, move to upstate New York, convert a classic diner into her house, and begin a brand-new life?

Since this would require her to leave her children, something which would kill her, she quickly adjusted the dream, as follows: What would it be like to sell everything once her children were all grown up, move to upstate New York, convert a classic diner into her house, and begin a brand-new life?

She drove on,  north and north and north, through the tiny towns, around the winding roads, until she was driving into the driveway of her very own house, where her father was watching the Yankees on a muted television, her mother was next to him playing solitaire on the computer, and their sweet dog was waiting to jump on her.

Over the next few days she went to the diner with her father, planted a food shelf garden with her mother, sat on the porch, watched the Yankees and cheered for the other team, walked around the 5.8 mile block, petted the dog, and talked with her parents.

A hummingbird kept buzzing up to the feeder, alighting, then buzzing away. Her mother encouraged her to get a hummingbird feeder of her own, and told her the recipe for hummingbird feeder water: two cups water, a quarter-cup sugar, bring it to a boil and keep it in the refrigerator.

She agreed that it would be an excellent idea to have one of her own. She pictured it hanging outside her front porch, where she could sit on the swing and watch the hummingbirds buzzing up to it.

On each of her walks around the block, the cows grazing in the pastures came running up to her. Have you ever seen a herd of running cows? Truly, it’s not a common sight, at least in her experience.

“Why are you running to me, cows?” she asked them. “I have nothing for you. I am a peaceful hiker with no ill intentions.”

She told her parents that the cemetery was in good shape. They told her that they would be driving down there themselves, for the funeral of another McGhee, one that she herself remembered from her childhood visits to her grandparents.

“There’s a hell of a lot of McGhees in that cemetery,” she informed them, and they agreed. There certainly were a hell of a lot of McGhees there.

On her way around the 5.8 mile block, she stopped in at the little cemetery down the dirt road. There was her childhood friend’s stone, the first boy she ever kissed, in the barn, during a game of Truth or Dare. Someone had put a teddy bear on top of his gravestone.

There was the grave of her sister’s classmate, buried here in the tiny cemetery next to his family farm. Someone had placed a small red tractor on top of his stone.

She had asked her grandmother for a sign, and she kept looking for one. She didn’t see any, but she didn’t feel alone and sad about it either.

Then she thought of the running cows, and the hummingbirds. She thought about the squirrels at the cemetery, and how her grandmother’s nickname had been Squirrel. None of these were signs, and yet all of these were signs, weren’t they?

Abide with me, grandmother.

And that was her Memorial Day weekend.