Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Every Heart's Desire

The Crystal Gazer, 1904, Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934)

 The Old Year
  by John Clare

The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Beauty of the Story

Angel, 1887
 Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921)

"We hear the beating of wings over Bethlehem and a light that is not of the sun or of the stars shines in the midnight sky. Let the beauty of the story take away all narrowness, all thought of formal creeds. Let it be remembered as a story that has happened again and again, to men of many different races, that has been expressed through many religions, that has been called by many different names. Time and space and language lay no limitations upon human brotherhood."  
New York Times, December 25, 1937

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Canyon on My Mind

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hook. All others by the author.

For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon – each one makes his own Canyon before he comes, each one brings and carries away his own Canyon.  Carl Sandburg

Route 64 north from Williams was the only boring road we’d driven in Arizona. Instead of the massed saguaros and dry arroyos of the Sonoran desert or the towering red rocks of Sedona, this part of the state stretched flat, scrubby, and featureless on either side for 60 miles. It was as undramatic a landscape as the human mind could imagine. There wasn’t the slightest indication that this flatland would terminate abruptly in the most incredible declivity on earth.  

The Grand Canyon. It’s a visual cliché, an over-used metaphor, one of those too-obvious tourist destinations that everybody means to go to one day but it’s not at the top of their list. I’ll admit I was one of those people too. But afterwards, after you’ve been there yourself, when you’ve stood at the very rim of that mind-blowing drop and looked across at those cliffs and mesas and towering rock formations as far as the eye can see, at the reds, yellows, greys, browns, oranges, and purples, at the shadows passing over the  landscape like a caressing hand, you get it. You get why Teddy Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon “the one great wonder that every American should see.” When you mention the canyon to those who have been there too, there’s a look that passes between you – the look of the initiated. Your eyes have been opened.

No two-dimensional image can possibly do it justice, not just because of its enormity or because it changes all the time but also because no artist or photographer can replicate the feeling of terror and awe when you stand at the edge of a sheer 5,000 ft drop. That’s three Empire State buildings deep. One false step and you’d plunge into the abyss. Imagine falling through all that space. Several people do it every year – some by accident, some by design. It’s a hell of a symbolic way to go.

The canyon is so much more than a geographical marvel. It is a spiritual experience. Like a night sky full of stars, it’s a body blow of a reminder of your insignificance. It cannot help but enforce your faith in whatever you believe in – God, the Universe, Mother Nature – they’re all here. 

I'd hoped for a transcendent experience at the Grand Canyon, and God, the Universe, and Mother Nature worked together to make it happen. After a windy squally morning spent going from lookout point to lookout point along the rim to the west, my husband and I drove east for 25 miles to the Desert View Watchtower. This 70-foot building, designed in 1932 by the architect Mary Colter to resemble an ancient Pueblo watchtower, perches right on the teetering edge of a sheer cliff. The top of the tower is the highest point on the South Rim and affords a hundred mile views west to the San Francisco Peaks and east to the Painted Desert.  

It was late afternoon and the sky was darkening as we pulled into the parking lot. There was a deep rumble of thunder as we stepped out of the car. We ran down the path in the wet wind towards the tower, stark against the stormy sky, climbed the four flights of stairs to the top of the tower and, safe and dry behind Mary Colter’s glass, watched Armageddon descend on the canyon.

Like a theatrical impresario, Nature laid on the works for us. Hail flung itself against the windows, thunder crashed, and torrential rain dragged itself across the panoramic view like a black lace curtain. All the vibrant colors of the canyon’s sedimentary layers – limestone, granite, sandstone, dolomite, shale, quartzite, basalt, and schist – were muted and stifled in the absence of light.

The storm slowly moved away eastwards towards Navajo country. As we watched it go,  one solitary sunbeam pierced the blanket of cloud, shot across that stupendous view and spot lit a single bluff above the Colorado River – and I had my unforgettable Grand Canyon moment to carry away with me. Back home – to death (my mother-in-law’s), life, and everything in between. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Telling Caroline

Picture courtesy of the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, Boston

In honor of this week's 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy, here is my essay about the time I saw him in the flesh a mere four months before he died. The essay was published in American Heritage Magazine in July 2006 under the title "That Smile." 

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, the Kennedys were a vivid presence in our household. My father had “Profiles of Courage” on the bookshelf by his special chair, and Jackie Kennedy’s outfits were featured in all my mother’s fashion magazines. Even I - a first-grader - had a Jackie and Caroline paper doll set that I played with all the time. I was fascinated by Caroline because we were almost exactly the same age - she was born a mere five days before me in late 1957.

In August 1963, my family went on vacation to Cape Cod. On the first Sunday of the vacation, my father took a detour from the route we usually took to the beach and pulled into a little parking lot just off a two-lane rural road. Another family was already parked there, and I couldn’t understand why. It seemed an unlikely place to stop. There was nothing to see but the hedge bordering the road, and nothing to hear but the faint sound of waves in the distance.

I was bored. I didn’t understand why we weren’t hightailing it straight to the beach on that fine summer morning instead of stewing in a hot car. Be patient, my father said, something exciting is going to happen, but that was hard to believe. My mother was sitting sideways in the passenger seat, using the flip-down visor mirror to put on her lipstick. My little brother dozed in his car seat. My dad was chatting with the father of the other family, leaning against the side of their car. I tried counting birds flying overhead but hardly any went by. I got out of the car and drifted around the make-shift parking lot, a mere patch of gravel carved out of a field. I began to run round the lot in ever-decreasing circles to see how dizzy I could make myself, round and round. Suddenly I realized I could hear the gathering growl of what sounded like motorbikes in the distance. Intrigued, I glanced up, still running, and caught the toe of my sneaker on something and pitched forward heavily onto the gravel. 

I can distinctly remember the sharp pain in my knees and my howl of shock and outrage. At that exact second, my father shouted, “He’s coming!” and my mother hooked me under the armpits and swung me like a sack to the verge of the road. Along the narrow country lane came two motorcycle outriders and then a long black limo and to my astonishment I saw at the limo's window the unmistakable face of the President of the United States.

When John F. Kennedy caught sight of me, a tearful five-year-old with bloody knees, he said something to his driver and the long, low car slowed to a crawl. The President turned back to the window and smiled and waved - at me. “Wave, wave,” my mother urged me, her own hands still trapped under my armpits, and I did, mesmerized by the President’s dazzling sympathetic smile. At the same time, I could feel trickles of blood oozing down my legs into the elastic of my knee-socks. As the car passed us, we all piled into the road, still waving. The President turned around to look out of the limo’s back window and kept right on waving and smiling and waving and smiling until a bend in the road took him out of our sight.

Forty years later I call still feel the shock of being caught in the spotlight of that famous gaze. For days afterwards, with crisscrossed Band-Aids like a badge of honor on each knee, I basked in the glory of that moment.

What I did not know till later was that the Kennedys’ newborn son Patrick had died only two days earlier. Kennedy had been to Holy Mass alone that morning as Jackie was still in the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, recovering from her ordeal. Later that day, the President took Caroline to the hospital to visit her mother for the first time since the baby’s birth and death. In the press the next day, Caroline was pictured clutching a bunch of daisies and pressing her lips to the back of her daddy’s hand. 

Three months later, I came home from school one afternoon and found my father sitting in front of the television set in tears. I had seen his car in the garage and come running in, full of joy to have him home from work so early, but he had gotten up from his chair and gone into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He hadn’t even said hello. My mother hastened to reassure me that he wasn’t mad at me, he was just upset because something very bad had happened to President Kennedy. It took a few minutes before I fully understood that the President was dead, but when it did, my first terrible thought was that someone, somehow was going to have to break the news to Caroline.  


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It was a very good year

My mother smoking a cigar, 1959

I’ve just spent two weeks delicately dismantling the artefacts that make up a life. After a rapid deterioration in her physical health earlier this year, my mother moved into a residential care home in southern England in August and her flat must now be sold to pay the fees. So I went home (yes, I guess I still think of Britain as “home”) to help my brother sort through my mum’s possessions and make the difficult decisions about what to keep and what has to go.

My mother has moved several times since she and my father left the home in Scotland where I grew up and they subsequently divorced, but in every place she’s managed to reconfigure her belongings to create a beautiful and harmonious living space. She’d been in this particular flat only eight years and yet in every corner I found objects that held echoes of her life and mine. A bookcase built by my father for their first apartment together, a soapstone seal bought at an Eskimo fair in Canada, chairs from Scottish antique shops that my mother restored, a seahorse wall hanging from the island of Crete...

My particular concern was to make sure I had rescued and preserved all the old photographs and files full of important letters and papers - her archive. There is nowhere for these things to be stored at the care home or in my brother’s house so I am having them shipped across the ocean to join my father’s archive and that of my in-laws in our basement in Maryland.

In going through the files to make sure I hadn’t missed anything that ought to be kept, it was brought home to me that my mother hasn’t just been a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother. She’s also a much-exhibited artist with several prizes to her name. And despite not having been in paid employment since before I was born, she was a professional woman. When we lived in Scotland in the 1970s, she was one of the pioneer members of The Children’s Panel, a non-judgmental tribunal dealing with young people who have broken the law or are in care. At each hearing, three community volunteers, in consultation with social workers and the families themselves, come to a decision that is in the best interests of the child. And after moving south to England, she became closely involved in the work of HACRO, the Hertfordshire Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

These are the parts of her life – the ones I didn’t pay much attention to in my own teenage and young adult years – that I have come to appreciate now, elbow-deep in the dust of box files that haven’t been opened in decades. The dust that accumulates on everybody’s archive in the end.

My mother’s life may be moving into the last act, but it isn’t over yet. Though her body is debilitated and diminished by osteoporosis, she is still as sharp as ever mentally and has a continued curiosity about the many people who now take care of her. They are men and women from all corners of the globe - Nepal, Albania, Fiji, India, Sicily, the Philippines. She knows about their children, their troubles and preoccupations. They sit on the edge of her bed and tell her their stories. So while I am rediscovering the story of her life, she is learning theirs. And so it goes on...

“But now the days grow short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year.”

It was a Very Good Year by Ervin Drake (click here for the lovely version by the Kingston Trio).


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Words that Remain

Rose Macauley (1881-1958)
I am the archivist in my family. Our basement is full of tubs full of letters, documents, photographs, slides, home movies, even old teddy bears, retrieved from my deceased father’s house. Now I’m about to fly to England to sort through the contents of my mother’s flat as she recently moved into a care home, so no doubt I will soon be taking possession of yet more family memorabilia.
If anyone ever doubted the importance of this kind of ephemera for remembering the people we’ve lost, I would recommend that they read Miss Anstruther’s Letters, a short story by Rose Macauley, truly one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. As described by Macauley’s biographer Sarah LeFanu,

“Miss Anstruther's lover is recently dead, and her flat has been bombed [in the Blitz]. So raw is Miss Anstruther's grief that she has been unable to reread her lover's letters, but has been saving them for a time when she would be able to without giving way to despair. Now she will never read them again. Only one scrap of paper has escaped the flames: written on it one hurtful phrase that turns all the years of passion into ‘a drift of grey ashes.’”
The story is written from Macauley’s own experience. During World War I, she had worked as secretary to the head of the Italian section at the newly created Ministry of Information, a man named Gerald O'Donovan, an Irish writer and former Jesuit priest. At 47, he was ten years older than Macauley, who was still in the early stages of her writing career. Although O’Donovan was married, the two fell in love and conducted a clandestine affair for 24 years. The publisher Victor Gollancz called their relationship “the best kept secret in London.” Many years later Macauley wrote in her most famous novel, The Towers of Trebizond:

"Adultery is a meanness and a stealing, a taking away from someone what should be theirs, a great selfishness, and surrounded and guarded by lies lest it should be found out. And out of meanness and selfishness and lying flow love and joy and peace beyond anything that can be imagined."
In 1939, O’Donovan was injured in a car accident when the couple were on holiday in the Lake District and suffered a stroke. His health was never the same afterwards, and he died of cancer in July 1942. There was nothing left for Macauley to remember him by because all his love letters to her had been burnrt to a cinder when her London flat was bombed in the Blitz on May 10th 1941.

Macauley wrote Miss Anstruther’s Letters after her flat was destroyed and as Gerald lay dying. Though she changed the order of the events, the emotional core of the story – the lost last remnants of a human voice – is painfully on target.
“She went on digging till twilight came. What she looked for was not there. She was grimed from head to foot; her only clothes were ruined; she stood knee-deep in drifts of burnt rubbish that had been carpets, beds, curtains, furniture, pictures, and books; the smoke that smouldered up from them made her cry and cough. What she looked for was not there; it was ashes, it was no more. She had not rescued it while she could, she had forgotten it, and now it was ashes. All but one torn, burnt corner of note-paper, which she picked up out of a battered saucepan belonging to the basement tenant. It was niggled over with close small writing, the only words left of the thousands of words in that hand that she looked for. She put it in her note-case and went on looking till dark; then she went back to her bed-sitting-room, which she filled each night with dirt and sorrow and a few blackened cups.”