Hard Choices

My gift to my husband this year was a series of tickets to plays. Our first was this past Saturday, the Milwaukee Rep’s Of Mice and Men. Since this was my husband’s gift, the choice was made to please him, because this is most definitively not my kind of story.

So, embarrassing fact: I was an English major, and I read a lot, as you might imagine (And I should also point out that I am of an age in which English majors actually read literature. No, seriously. It was something that was required.), but somehow, I had managed my whole life never to read Of Mice and Men. I suppose we all have gaps in our educations, but this was an intentional one. I knew instinctively that I would feel bad reading this book, and I hate feeling bad. In fact, I spend a great deal of effort and energy working on feeling good. I knew vaguely that Lennie was mentally challenged, but I was content to leave my information level there.

So (spoiler alert, for those of you whose education gaps are similar) when they shot the dog in the first act, I had a pretty clear idea of where we were headed. Recognizing foreshadowing is an English major thing. My husband, who watched me uneasily out of the corner of his eye pretty much during the entire play, said later that he was fully prepared for me to break out in noisy sobs when they killed the dog. He was holding his breath about what might happen at the end. To me, I mean, not to the characters. He, literate, cultured, and urbane creature that he is, had actually read the book.

Curiously, I was utterly dry-eyed throughout the entire play. This is not typical of me, since, as my family never lets me forget,  I cried at the end of the sailboat race in Stuart Little. But I have been thinking about the story for three days now.

I have been wondering about George; wondering about the choice he made. Could he come to terms later with the relief he must have felt? Could he forgive himself for what he did, even though he did it to spare his friend pain and terror? Did he go on to fulfill the dream he had carried so long in his wanderings? If so, was he able to find joy in it? Or was it poison-filled?

And isn’t living with your choices–without regret–a difficult thing? Or is regret the right thing? Do our souls require it?

If you live nearby and have not seen the Milwaukee Rep’s performance, you should go. The actor who plays Lennie, Scott Greer, is exceptional.

 

Star-crossed Love

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I had to stop at a store yesterday to return something, a task I detest, but which you might think was among my very favorite activities, given how often I find myself doing it.

The clerk and I started chatting, and one thing leading to another, I mentioned my two dogs in the car. “What kind of dogs?” she asked. I gave my standard answer: Pete, an Indiana Spotted Dog (Pete is a rescue from a kill shelter in Indiana, and of indeterminate breed, but with a speckled coat that looks like granite), and Moses, a German Shepherd.

Her attention was instantly riveted by the words “German Shepherd.”

“I had a German Shepherd,” she said. “But I had to put him down.” I felt a wave of sympathy. The shortness of dogs’ lives is a looming loss for those of us who love them, and the thought of it can shatter me if I linger on it.

She knew what I have learned: that there is something different about German Shepherd Dogs, no matter what other kinds of dogs you have had or how much you have loved them. I told her what the vet told me when Moses was a tiny puppy: “Nothing and no one on earth will ever love you as much as a German Shepherd will.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and mine did, too. She told me how true that was, and how smart her dog had been, and what a clever jailbreak artist he was. She told me that even when his hip dysplasia had made it impossible for him to walk she had cared for him until his pain became too much.

She seemed so sad. When I suggested that somewhere in the world there was a dog who desperately needed someone like her to love him she shook her head. No. She could never endure that loss again. It was too much.

The store was busy, and people were waiting for her attention, but I wished I could have taken her out for a cup of coffee, and brought her over to meet Moses and Pete, waiting patiently, if a bit odoriferously, in the car.

I have writing to do, and I have to go to Washington for work tomorrow, and I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done before I leave the house at 5:30 in the morning.

But Moses and Pete and I are going for a ramble. Life is all about priorities.

I see you never

There is a short story by Ray Bradbury–an underrated master of American literature–that I read long ago. In it, Mr. Ramirez, an illegal immigrant, and tenant of Mrs. O’Brian, is being taken away to be deported. He is a good man, and she likes him, but she is unable to help him in the face of the law. At the last moment, desperately, he cries out to her, “Oh, Mrs. O’Brian! I see you never! I see you never!” After he is gone, the woman starts to go on with her interrupted dinner, when she suddenly puts down her knife and fork, painfully struck by the realization that she will never see Mr. Ramirez again.

In winding up the details of my late mother’s estate there are large griefs and small ones. Each time I come back from her house I am spent from the turmoil of emotion. There are so many things to do: the paperwork, the bills, the wrapping, the packing, and the decisions about what remnants of my parents lives to keep and what to abandon. It is heavy work. I never liked the house itself, but the finality of each step of the parting beats on the walls of my heart.

The house will be sold tomorrow, so I was there yesterday to meet the movers. The mailman, whom I have known for decades, was on his way to deliver a package across the street, and he stopped to talk. He is a kind man, always smiling, and he delivered mail to me in my own small house when I lived in that town, as well as to my parents. I haven’t lived on his route for many years, but when we see each other we exchange pleasantries. He is, as a friend of mine likes to say, one of my life’s cast of characters. He doesn’t have a major part, but he has played in many small pleasant scenes, and his cheerful interactions have given me some of the happy little ordinary moments of everyday life.

Our conversation was light, and he enquired about the house. As we parted we shook hands for the first and only time, and I said to him something I don’t think I’ve ever said to anyone before: I will probably never see you again. I had to turn away quickly to hide my feelings.

The finality broke hard, and I cried all the way up to the house.

I don’t even know his name.

Old friends

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My late mother had a good friend whom she admired greatly. Blanche will be 108 years old in February, and she still lives alone in her own house. She gets her hair done weekly, dresses beautifully, and is generally in good health.

A year or so ago I stopped by to deliver my mother’s birthday gift to Blanche while my mother–then 90–waited in the car. I spoke to Blanche and to her daughter, and, accustomed to my mother’s deafness, used my opera singer voice.
“You don’t have to yell at me,” said Blanche, with great dignity. “I am not deaf.”
“I’m sorry. My mother is,” I said apologetically.
“I know,” said Blanche.

I picked up my mother’s mail this week, and in the piles of junk mail and solicitations for donations for every charitable cause imaginable, I found a Christmas card from Blanche, signed in a firm, lovely hand.
Somehow, in my mother’s small town, the news of her death six months ago had not reached Blanche, and it had not occurred to me to call her personally.

I will have to write a note this week. I dread bearing the news that will reduce the small circle of contemporaries for this remarkable old lady. (If contemporary is the right word. At 91, my mother could have been her daughter.) My mother used to say how hard it was when all your friends were gone. How lonely. Blanche is accustomed to death, no doubt, but each loss must surely add up, and one hesitates to add weight to so many years.

I am wondering if I should wait until after Christmas, but perhaps that would be a form of selfishness.

It’s difficult to know. But probably sooner is better.

The intricacies of the casual conversation

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I am on a first name basis with the people at our local hardware store. I am there sporadically but often, and they have patiently–and without one note of patronization–advised me on various topics ranging from the correct size of a wall anchor to replacing an outlet. They greet me like an old friend when I come in, and this minor element of small town life cheers me.
The frequency of my visits has increased recently for various reasons, so our conversations have taken on a serial quality, generally picking up where we left off. I was standing at the register this week piling up my purchases. “Will this be all?” I was asked politely. I struggled perfunctorily with myself and lost.
“And a package of Chuckles.”
Chuckles are a candy I know from my childhood, rarely seen anymore, at least in the midwest. They are an oblong package of five flat squares of gum drop style candy, with little ridges shaped into them, and coated with a crystal layer of sugar. They are always laid out in the same order: red, yellow, black, orange, green. I’m not sure when the hardware store started carrying them. But I first started noticing them this summer, when I was making frequent visits for items to prepare my late mother’s house for sale.
After our business was finished, I stood chatting, and opened up my package of Chuckles as I did so. Watching me, the owner said:
“You know, no one who buys those can ever leave the store without opening the package.”
“Really?”
“There’s something about their connection to childhood, I think. It’s powerful.” She paused for a moment, recollecting. “One guy who comes in stands at the counter to eat them so he can throw away the package here and his wife won’t know.”
“Maybe it’s better as a guilty pleasure.”
“So many things are.”
There was a moment of silence as I ate the first Chuckle.
“Which is your favorite?” the owner wanted to know. She pointed to the clerk. “He never eats the orange ones.”
“Really?” I was aghast. Orange is one of the best flavors.
“I find the orange ones hidden behind the counter.” She looked sideways at her assistant.
The clerk was not in the least abashed. “I start to eat them, and then forget about them.”
“You have to eat them in order,” I said.”It’s a cardinal rule.”
This interested them, and they both looked at me.
“You must be right about the childhood thing. I’ve been eating them this way since I was small. Green first. And then each flavor in order. Because the best one is the red one, and you have to save the best for last.”
As I thought about this piece of childish philosophy, I suddenly realized that it was more complicated, and I hadn’t been aware of it until this moment. I spoke slowly as my awareness of the process unfolded from my subconscious.
“And you can’t bite them right away. You have to let them melt in your mouth until all the sugar is gone, and then you bite into the little ridges very carefully. Then you can chew the pieces. But it’s better if you let them slowly melt in your mouth.”
“It’s a childhood ritual,” commented the clerk.
I nodded, thinking about the oddities of the mind, and how this leftover from my very early life could still be, unconsciously, part of my behavior. Another customer walked in, and we all went on with our day.
Somehow the conversation came up with my friend later on.
She listened, and then she said:
“How long have you been doing this?”
“All my life.”
“No. I mean eating the Chuckles. You don’t eat candy.”
I thought about it.
“I don’t know. All summer, I guess. I’m not used to eating sugar and they make me feel terrible afterward, but I can’t resist. It’s weirdly comforting.”
“So you’re eating a childhood candy, using a childhood ritual, as you work on fixing up your late mother’s house. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand what’s going on here.”
“I guess not.”
Hardware stores are interesting places. I’ve always thought so.

A Thanksgiving for Orphans

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the starkness of late fall, the sense of the beginning of things, filled with the anticipation of the holidays and the beauty of the coming winter. Ever since I have had my own household I have filled my house with guests for Thanksgiving, joking that I was always on the look-out for holiday orphans.

But this year for the first time there will be no guests. I will make a traditional dinner, but it will only be my husband and me. For the first time we are both orphans ourselves, and I don’t have the energy to put up a cheerful front when the absence of so many people we loved will be so fully felt. Last year, on my mother’s last Thanksgiving, I could fill the absence with the special care of her. She was the last man standing. Now she is gone.

Of those who used to annually grace our table, we have lost four.

You would think that in middle age the loss of a parent would not hurt so much, but that is only what you would think until it happens to you. Every memory now is fraught with the poignancy of passing time, and the changing human geography of our lives. My dear friend, who lost her mother recently, said to me the other day: Remember when we were kids and no one ever died?

I see now how age can bring melancholy, with every new occasion or holiday memory colored by the loss of those who once celebrated with you, the loss of your old life, your old self, the family you always had.

But this is not the proper way to live. Each day is meant to be embraced with hope and joy. To do otherwise is a form of sinfulness.

Today will be hard, a deliberate pause to remember and mourn, and then to shed the old skin of grief.

Hope begins again tomorrow.