Family, Poetry

Fishing with Dad

A repost from my previous blog, slightly updated.

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On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of my dad who died over 30 years ago at age 75. He had a heart attack, sitting in his chair, 5:30 in the afternoon, watching 3s Company reruns on TV and probably sipping a Manhattan while my mother made supper.

Dad’s eyesight was failing due to glaucoma that he’d had since he was 40. He had a heart condition; the heart attack was a surprise but in some way also expected. He’d had a pacemaker for a few years and problems regulating his heart medication. He was slowing down and having a hard time accepting this.

He had a group of men friends—the Old Goat’s Club they called themselves. My dad, the ex banker; Hubert, who used to own the drugstore in town; Dick, who was also a banker; and Jack, an insurance agent. They met each Tuesday morning at a coffee shop off the town square. I wonder what they talked about as they navigated retirement and aging.

Dad was an avid photographer—I still have carousels filled with his slides documenting trips and family events, including many silly pictures of me, little ham that I was. My sister and I said we would sort through them, scan some onto the computer and toss the rest but we never did. I kept his camera and used it for many years until it needed a new part and turned out to be too old to fix.

I also kept his yellow cardigan sweater, one of his favorites. I remember its texture under my fingertips and on the inside of my arms where I’d press against him in a hug–he was good with hugs.

I wish I’d known my dad better. That sounds like an odd thing to say about a man I saw every day for more than 18 years but he was a very private man, who was, I think, easily hurt. I remember one blow-out fight we had when I was in my 20s. I don’t remember what the topic was–I just remember yelling at each other–a rarity in our family–and I remember thinking that beneath his anger, dad was deeply hurt that I thought so differently about something.

We were up in Maine, in a cottage that my parents owned for a few years right after dad retired. I was living in the Boston area and came up a lot on the weekends in the summer. I suspect we were arguing about decisions I was making about work.

We yelled. I probably cried. Mom intervened and it was over. At times I wish we’d kept going–gotten to something deep and honest that needed saying–but I also wonder if one of us–probably me–would have said something irretrievable.

That one fight aside, the times I spent with dad in Maine are some of my best memories of adult time with him. The cottage was on a lake. He had a rowboat with an outboard motor and we’d go fishing for long hours, puttering down the lake to find a good spot and then casting our lines and waiting companionably for something to bite, which it rarely did. Here’s a poem I wrote about that time:

Fishing with My Father

Our boat drifts through light and shade.

We sit angled, bow and stern, poles poised

for elusive fish, no sound but the slap

of water on the boat’s hull, the whipping hiss

of a cast line. We are caught there,

drifting the length of the lake.

We pretend knowledge of underwater geography,

the habits of fish; disturb the places hidden by rocks,

push our way through lily pads and weeds,

seek the warm currents.

Family, Nature

Sunsets (for mom)

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m reposting a short piece from my previous blog, At Home on Harlow.

I don’t have a view of full-on sunsets from my house but on summer evenings I can see a faint rosy glow, the edge of the sunset, through the branches of the evergreens at the back of the yard. Sometimes that faint glow draws me out of the house and down the block to the field at the end of the neighborhood where I can watch the full display across the valley.

My mother loved sunsets. She kept a journal, beginning in 1966–she would have been in her late 50s then. She wrote in it sporadically, an entry or two and then a gap of years before another entry. The last entry was dated 1976. She wrote several times about the sunsets she could see from the kitchen window. In the first entry, written on a January afternoon, she describes a sunset that was a delicate rose in color with black tracing of tree branches. She goes on to say how frustrating it is that my father and I didn’t see this beauty: “I say, ‘Look at the sunset–it’s fabulous.’ They say ‘yes very nice’ and they don’t really see. It’s so beautiful it hurts.”

And she’s right. As a teenager I didn’t see the sunsets–or at least I didn’t see what she saw–the painful beauty of them.

I wrote about sunsets in my own journal once a few years ago. I’d had a string of conversations with friends who were dealing with illnesses of various kinds. I wrote about driving home from work along the river one winter afternoon. The sun was setting behind the hills across the river and it took my breath away–the hills, the scarlet sky, the reflection in the river. I wrote that I wanted to give this sunset to my friends as an antidote, a balm, something to hold onto when all else seemed to be giving way. The redemptive power of sunsets.

Maybe that’s what my mother saw in sunsets, those many many years ago. I wish I could come up behind her, circle my arms around her waist where she stands at the sink, rest my chin on her shoulder and see the sunset along with her. Yes, it’s gorgeous I’d say.

Christmas, COVID-19, Family

Christmas trees, pandemic, 2020

As the winter solstice approaches, with its short cold days and long nights, I feel a familiar swirl of feelings—sadness mixes with pleasure, contentment quickly turns into restlessness. These feelings are intensified by the approach of Christmas, a holiday that for most of my adult life I’ve greeted with nostalgia and a vague sense of loss. I wrote about this feeling of being homesick for Christmas in a blog post a few years ago. My sister’s death in December 2018 sharpened the edges of the sadness and pandemic-induced isolation has given the season a new twist of poignancy—it’s been tempting to simply ignore Christmas this year. 

In the end I decided to put up a tree, wanting to bring the green and light of warmer times into my home. The first step was twining the string of lights carefully around the tree, aiming for an evenness in spacing that I never quite achieved. “Beauty is in the imperfections,” I kept telling myself as I tugged a strand up here and down there but never closing the light gap on the left side of the tree. 

I sorted through the box of ornaments, taking the time to remember the stories that accompany them—these are a gift from a friend, these were on my dad’s tree when he was a child, here’s one my mom gave me when I first had my own decorated tree in an apartment far from home, a Norfolk Island pine whose slippery branches I loaded down with ornaments and small white lights. 

I lifted out brightly colored discs and balls; several cat figures; a delicate glass hummingbird; a crystal snowflake; a slightly tattered stuffed elephant that my sister had brought back from India; a small trombone, one of the vintage ornaments from my dad’s childhood tree. I hung the ornaments carefully, pausing often to step back and assess bare spots. 

Decorating a tree was a good thing to do in this strange year and yet I felt slightly let down. I wanted to feel more joy in the doing, to bask in the beauty of the lights glowing in a dark room, to feel the grace of light in a dark time, of continuity, of ties back through time. 

I wanted to feel the delight I’d felt as a teen when my sister and I would decorate the tree on Christmas eve, place the brightly wrapped presents, stuff the stockings. I remember how I’d sit in the darkened room with only the tree for light, everyone else asleep, and feel a wordless wonder. But of course that remembered joy and grace came as much from the shared experience of decorating the tree as it did from the tree itself–the laughter and teasing and loving connection, the anticipation of others’ delight. 

And so my pleasure in the solo tree decorating is muted, tinged with an awareness of loss, accompanied by ghosts of my young self, my sister, our family. I’ll keep the tree up until New Year’s day and I’ll sit for a few minutes late at night, with only the light of the tree, and maybe instead of waiting for—and missing—the remembered reverence, I’ll let the light wash over me, let it be what it is today. 

Crafts, Family, Home

The black ceramic dog

The window ledge above my kitchen sink is home to a collection of artifacts—a glass replica of a Hershey’s kiss given me by a roommate years ago, a miniature watercolor of an iris that I bought in an antique store near my sister’s house in England, a tiny blue vase I made in my wheel thrown pottery phase, and a black ceramic dog that I made in eighth grade art class. 

I have never been much of an artist ; I’ve abandoned attempts at learning to draw or use watercolors. I don’t remember much about that art class—I suspect it wasn’t one of my more successful academic experiences.

But there’s this dog with ears and a nose and legs curled up and a tail tucked in. Never mind the fact it looks like a black lab and I was trying to make a statue of our family’s tiny brown terrier. I made this thing that is pleasing to the eye and fits easily in my hand. The surface is smooth although I can feel lumps in the clay when I glide my finger along its body.

I don’t remember what I did with it after I brought it home from school. Did I keep it in my bedroom? Give it to my mom? Many years later I saw it on her writing desk where it sat between the blotter and the lamp. After she died I packed it into my suitcase and brought it back to Massachusetts with me. 

This doggie has lived on the ledge above the sink for all the years I’ve been in this house–a small lumpy thread back to childhood. I often don’t notice it—it’s just part of the array of small items that have migrated to that spot. But sometimes my eyes linger on it and I stroke its back. It reminds me to create what needs to be created, even if it ends up being a black lab rather than a terrier. 

Family, Garden, Grief, Home, Nature, Poetry

Yes, and…

In our writing group recently one of the prompts was Jane Kenyon’s poem “Heavy Summer Rain” in which she writes about missing someone “…steadily, painfully.” This poem felt particularly poignant as we move into late summer/early fall days when the quality of the light, the feel of the air remind me of my yearly visits with my sister either here in New England or at her home in England. I miss her deeply, especially when I sit in the garden in the late afternoon. The following is what emerged in that writing session, with just a bit of editing to make it readable.

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A pervasive ache of missing weaves through my days. Missing far flung friends, missing places, missing you. Missing Maine and the view of Damariscotta as we drop down the hill from Route 1, then the road out to the coast, the tang of sea air, the porch overlooking the cove, sitting there with you in late afternoon light as birds skim the water. Or missing your little piece of England, the view of the village up on its hill, the church where you and Peter are buried, the village hall and cricket field, the winding lane that curves in front of your house, your garden that slopes up to a fence and field, your house with its multileveled roofline, its stepped and staggered rooms, its worn upholstery and pooled lamplight.

The shape of loss changes with time, the space it occupies waxes and wanes. I go for days without much thought of you and then…I’ve written about this before, how turning from Route 116 onto the road toward home jolts me back to the turnoff to your house or how a particular bird call tugs me back to your garden in the late afternoon. Small seams of grief. 

I recently re-read Unless by Carol Shields. I took the book off your shelf the last time I was in your house, before all the books were packed up to be sold or given away. I remember your admiration for her writing and your small pleasure in having known her. She was a year ahead of you at Hanover College and preceded you on a junior year abroad to study at Exeter University. You told the story of how her safe return from this trip convinced our father that it was OK for you to head off to England, where you met Peter and fell in love with him and his home, how she set you on a course that took you around the world. 

A friend emailed me a recent New York Times article about Carol Shields. As I read I felt your absence tip-toe in. I wanted to call you and tell you about the article, send it on to you. 

A pervasive ache of missing threads through my days but I’m not, on the whole, unhappy. Tired of this viral existence? Of course. Worried about the future, the election, the course of the pandemic? Oh, yes. But day to day small pleasures abound, details I wish I could share with you in a Sunday phone call—a meal with friends at the end of the day, a pot of hot orange zinnias in the garden, an egret wading in the river, a small boy in yellow shorts and orange sneakers running down the path, a rooster that crows at me as I walk by his driveway domain, the white flowers on the chives glowing at dusk, like small stars hovering close to ground. Grief and delight. The “yes, and…” of life.