Fall is late this year. It is already mid-October, but for the first time the woods have a tinge of gold, just beginning, and the sunlight’s yellow is intensified when it shines through the trees. These are the kinds of days I count as finite in my life. All our days are finite, of course, but some seem to belong in a category as different as a gemstone to a handsome pebble.
Life hasn’t seemed, really, to have returned to normal for us. The contagion levels are still high where we live, so although we have tentatively dined outdoors a few times—and enjoyed it thoroughly—the cold weather will end that small bit of normality. The world feels smaller.
In pre-COVID times, I would go now to the Island. It is one of the places where the golden light of fall permeates everything. The long, empty roads mean I can walk for miles without seeing a car, and the dogs, who return to me instantly when I call, can run off-leash. We wander through golden lanes, and my brain, usually obsessedly plotting and exhausted by the extraction of writing, is distracted by the resonating vibrancy of the color. I remember these walks repeatedly, and return to them in my dreams, and in my books. They are, I think, how I would spend eternity, if I could.
But we are mistaken if the wet days, the bleak and dreary ones, are not treasured, too. My dogs, who love to swim, but hate the rain, nevertheless run joyfully through wet weeds and brush, shaking themselves with vigor when they come in, smelling of mud. Dogs have a capacity for appreciation that my ideal self would try to emulate, but I am not a dog, and can’t seem to achieve their purity of mind.
My joy ebbs and flows with the seasons. I have never fully understood spring, with its mud, its dirty snowpiles, its cold rains, and its disappointed hopes. For me, joy comes when fall it is at its peak, and even still later, with the stark, purple cold of winter. Once the leaves and crops are stripped away the sculptural shapes of the trees and the shape of the earth is revealed, and the light pours down, undiffused. The world seems a brighter, clearer, purer place. That cold clarity purifies me.
In our mortality, I wonder whether there is, too, a clarity that comes as we can, at last, see the end. There is no need for the extraneous, just the focus of comfort, where we can; of love, if we are blessed with it; and the firm hope that when the seasons pass, the essence of what we are will always be.
Yesterday I took a handful of earth and sprinkled it over Margaret’s grave. It’s a ritual whose insight was born in millennia of human grief, giving hard reality to the shock and disbelief of those first days; forcing confrontation with the black hole of mourning. It was a small outdoor service, with only fourteen of us, and in the midst of wild autumn storms, the rain stopped, and from a deep blue sky the sun shone on the yellow leaves above my home church’s tiny columbarium.
Margaret and I spent time together last week for only the second time since the pandemic. I brought Eli to visit, and we went for a walk. She gave Eli treats. Her daughter texted me that night to say that Margaret was the happiest she had been in a long time; how excited she was about Eli; how beautiful she had found him. I examined my conscience about why I had not gone to see her sooner, but I am still desperately grateful that we had that afternoon.
Margaret Rose was born in Sheffield England in 1930, a contemporary of the princess who shared her name. Sheffield was a manufacturing town, and when the blitz came, it was heavily targeted by the Nazis. She lived with her family in a block of rowhouses, all sharing a wall with the house next door. When the air raids came, the neighbors would crawl through holes in the cellar walls to huddle together, perhaps trying to get the little ones to sleep.
One morning they emerged from their shelter after a night of bombing and found that the other side of the street—identical to their own—had been flattened. Everyone was dead.
Her father packed them up and walked the 3 miles to the bus stop so they could stay with an aunt in the country. As they passed through the devastated city, he hoisted Margaret’s little sister onto his shoulders, and told his children to close their eyes so as not to see the gruesome sights of human carnage along the way. “Close your eyes, and take my hand. Trust me.” Margaret peeked, and to the end of her life she was haunted by the sights of her neighbors arms and legs lying disconnected among the rubble.
She told me she still dreamed of the terror of those nights, the bombs screaming and exploding, the children crying, the adults bravely cheerful in the face of utterly random death. From the safety of her aunt’s house they watched as the night sky above Sheffield—some 30 miles away—lit up with fire. Sheffield was bombed nearly to obliteration, and the casualties were overwhelming.
Life was unimaginably hard. The rubble from the bombings wasn’t cleared away, because there was no one to clear it: all the men were at war. There was a shortage of everything: housing, clothing, fuel, and food. Margaret had a passion for chocolate that may have intensified in the rationing of sugar, butter, flour, milk, eggs, meat, and chocolate. Her mother and father would give her their chocolate ration cards, knowing how much she adored it.
Margaret had a collection of stories, and she told them regularly. She was, in Ray Bradbury’s interesting observation, a living time machine, able to bring to life moments that to me seemed ancient history. As she approached her ninetieth birthday her short-term memory was failing dramatically, but she remembered the past in great detail. Her conversation was sprinkled with her well-worn tales, told anew as to a fresh audience. Each visit, each phone conversation became a ritual of story and repetition, a bit like the comforting ritual of the Anglican Church to which we both belong. At first I was frustrated and inwardly impatient, but she took the same pleasure in telling each time, so I learned to lean back and allow her stories to wash over me, giving her the responses I thought she would like most, even if I’d heard it again only a few moments before.
She married the love of her life, a British airman, and together they emigrated to Canada, and then to the United States. They loved to dance, they participated in theater. They had a family, with children and grandchildren, and many dogs.
Margaret was a dog lover from her earliest days. She worked as a volunteer at the local Humane Society for years, and inevitably brought more than one home. “I couldn’t live without dogs,” she told me. Her mother had forbidden dogs in the house, and one of Margaret’s stories told how her father had brought home a collie puppy one day, and her mother had made him take it back. “I hated her for that!” Margaret would say with delight at her own naughtiness. As soon as she had her own house, she was never without a dog again.
After her husband died, we went to church together now and then, when she could no longer drive. It was good to go home to the church and sit in the pews with old friends. Sometimes it was sad to look around and see the congregation diminishing, favorite faces gone forever.
At the funeral, I sang Jerusalem, that paean to British faith and spirit. It was outside, without the organ, so I stood on the steps leading down into the little brick-pathed columbarium, facing the small cluster of people, my eyes on the trees above them so I didn’t have to see their reactions. It’s difficult to sing at funerals at the best of times, but singing for someone you care about is hard. I made it almost to the end before my voice caught on the last four words. In that split second I saw the priest’s eyes turn to me in alarm, before I gathered myself to finish.
As I drove home I took a wandering back roads route, revisiting the countryside where I grew up, past the farms of old school friends’ families, past the little waysides I remembered. Here was where my friend and I stopped on our bikes one hot day, here’s where my best friend’s grandparents lived, here’s where the school bus stopped when I came home with her. There’s the stone farmhouse I used to dream of owning. The sky was filled with storm clouds and sunshine.
As I rambled around the narrow back roads a flash of white caught my eye. There was a bald eagle perched on a dead tree, huge and proud. Her mate was circling overhead, perhaps enjoying the currents from the storms. I thought of Margaret’s love of nature, and her oft-repeated story of her father’s Sunday lectures on trees, And I remembered the words of the hymn.
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire.
Bring me my spear. O, clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease in mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
‘Til we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.
I thought of Margaret’s stories. The love, the terror, the rebuilding, the long walks. The angers and the joys, the frustrations and the consolations. I knew so many of the high and the low points, because she had built the stories for me, unintentionally ensuring I remembered through their repetition.
She often told me how fortunate she was to still live on her own in a pleasant place surrounded by paths, a lake, trees, and gardens where she walked daily. Her death came suddenly, without lingering, at a healthy old age. It is the best any of us can hope for. And, then I remembered the last line of my favorite Willa Cather story, and a wave of peace washed over me.
Margaret’s life seemed to me complete and beautiful.
It is the time of year when life blooms. The frogs are singing, the geese are still flying overhead to the place where they will spend the night. The robins chirrup the call that means, to me, dawn and dusk. But if I stand in my driveway, with the dogs lying still, I can hear things growing. Literally. There is a rustle in the woods that does not come from an animal’s movement. It is the slow, steady creep of leaves and stems and flowers, finding their place in the light and air.
The time of year is nostalgic with memories of childhood spring concerts, graduations, proms, life events. The soft green nacensce of leaves and flowers, the scent of bloom; the memory of love; of longing. Spring smells of all these things.
My job is ending. I don’t know when I will work again, but my husband has declared it a day of liberation. We drink old champagne, the sound of birds and lawn mowers in the background, the birds singing their old, unchanging songs. I hear the robins, the cardinals, the sparrows, the meadow larks; the woodpeckers, and the phoebes. The bird songs are mixed with the soft insistence of puppy Auggie, whining under his breath that I should pay attention to him, to his green ball.
The lilies of the valley are still coiled in tight rolls, waiting to unfold. The bluebells have begun to bloom, but they have not yet burst into riot. The narcissi spill their scent upon the air. The peonies push their red shoots up, and I look for a careful placement of the metal rings that will keep their blooms from lying on the ground a few weeks hence. I dream of them all winter, of their exuberant, joyous explosion.
The turkeys rise up, no longer visible on the ground in the woods, from green bowers into their now hidden roosts. The deer chuff in the woods as they browse, but the green leaves hide their movement. A big raccoon makes her cumbersome way down a tall tree to begin her nighttime rambles.
It is spring. The world is poised. A great writer died last night, and I feel the world’s aftershocks. We are smaller now, without him.
Nevertheless, this old song sings. The frogs, the geese, the robins, the rustling leaves. It is soft-scented and sweet.
The world goes on, beautiful and ruthless. We watch– worn, enchanted, hopeful, but powerless to change the slow, hard progress of life.
My mother outlived my father by several years, and when she died, my sister and I faced the sysyphean task of cleaning out their house. This included going through my father’s shop in the basement and in the garage, where he did everything from making wooden lamp bases on his lathes, to machining new parts for his car, to carrying out scientific experiments. I’m fairly certain that he never threw anything away. Nothing.
For my sister and me, each decision to keep or discard bore an emotional weight that devastated us both. It took some months, and we were weary in heart and soul both during the task, and for a long while after. Frankly, it would have been much easier for us if my parents had followed the modern art of “tidying-up”. But if they had, so much would have been lost.
The word souvenir comes from the French: a thing that makes you remember. And, perhaps that is what exhausted us so much: every little item we found had a memory attached. My mother’s battered ancient fruitcake tin, where she kept her needles, pins, and thread, and which was always hidden under her chair in the living room. My father’s homemade work aprons that had so often been our gifts to him on father’s day or his birthday.; his navy insignia; his little leather notebooks where he kept lists of books he wanted to read, recordings he wanted to buy, the names, ranks, stations, and bunk numbers of everyone on his ship during World War II, poems he wanted to remember, a recipe for applejack eggnog. Even my grandmother’s things were still enmeshed in the collection: her vanity set; her hair ornaments; her love letters. My sister dissolved into tears one evening when we had finished. “I feel as if I am throwing Mom and Daddy away.”
But the reality is that we couldn’t keep it all. So painstakingly, emotionally, and exasperatedly, we combed through the house as if it were an archeological dig. And, in a way, I suppose, it was.
Among the things I found was a dirty metal file box with little plastic drawers for sorting diodes, resistors, and transistors and other early electronic parts. The box had stood on my father’s workbench for as long as I can remember. At the top was my name, printed out in the same style as the labels on each drawer.
I remember the day my name came to be on that box. I was about three, and my father had received a new gadget in the mail: a label maker that used long flat spools of plastic to impress letters on. It was an exciting thing. I remember my father showing me what it did by painstakingly printing out the letters of my name, and then pasting the result at the top of the box.
Seeing that box on his workbench, years after his death, brought me fully back to that moment. I remembered the smell of cut metal and wood, the difficulty of seeing the top of the bench unless I were given a little stool to stand on. I remember my pride in seeing my name on the top of that box, and mostly, I remember being loved as clearly as if I had been embraced.
There is a–by now–somewhat aging trend in the world of home interiors known as “tidying up”. The process, which is a method of decluttering and living a minimalist life, has an almost spiritual quality, in that it claims it will change your life, and its adherents have the tone and enthusiasms of Nineteenth Century evangelists.
There is a vaguely moralistic and superior tone taken by these doyens of home organization. They are the new Puritans. No one needs stuff. No one needs other people’s stuff. It is clutter. It clutters your home and your life. In this age of materialism, when we all have bulging closets, attics, basements, and enough stuff to create another entirely separate household, people’s interest in the process is perfectly understandable.
But, had my father not kept his old things–radio parts that were no longer needed by any working radio–my memory of the label-making would have been lost to me, for there would have been no material thing in the world to remind me of it. That moment would have been lost to me forever.
This is the value of things, perhaps, even, of clutter. It is memories that make us who we are; which haunt us; which enrich and warm us; which remind us of how to be better. And the things, they are the memory triggers. They bring back the moments we might have forgotten in the depths of time: of my mother in her kitchen, or cutting off a button thread with her teeth; my grandmother combing her hair, of picking her up at the bus station and sitting next to her in the car, touching the softness of her fur coat; my father listening to opera at high volume while he worked on his car. These are moments that form us; that make us ourselves.
I will admit that I have kept too many things. We jokingly refer to our garage as “the home for wayward chairs.” I have much of my parents’ good mahogany furniture, their wing chairs and their china cupboard. I have my grandmother’s vanity. I have all my father’s designs, and the paperwork for his one hundred twenty-something patents. It is a lot, and it can be overwhelming sometimes.
But I’ll take clutter any day. It is the price of remembering how it felt to be a little girl who was loved by her father.