A Pause for Celebration

“Sorrow comes in great waves…but rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us. And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.” – Henry James

 

After the events of the past weeks: the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, rioting and looting in many of our major cities, it is difficult to think of celebration.  There is so much I worry about, so much anger that needs to be healed, so many problems that need to be rectified.  It seems insurmountable.  This country I love is deeply troubled. But today, I find myself having to pause for celebration.

Today, June 4th, is Henry’s birthday.  It is Henry’s 40th birthday.   Recently, Henry and I reconnected after 36 years.  In 1984, Henry was three-years-old and one of my nursery school students.  His mother, Catherine and I became friends that year, and I also took care of Henry three days a week while Catherine worked on her dissertation on Henry James.

Then something unbelievably senseless happened.  One February night, Catherine was killed by a drunk driver.  I did not know how to process this loss.  The only thing I did know to do was to take care of Henry, and that’s what I did.  I became Henry’s full-time caretaker for the next two years.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and the most rewarding.

Henry and I had many adventures together.  We shed many tears, and we also experienced everyday joys.  Then Henry, as boys have a habit of doing, grew up.  Gradually, we lost touch with each other.  However, I never forgot about him and every June 4th I would say, “Happy Birthday, Henry – wherever you are!”  I hoped that he knew that I was thinking of him and wishing him well.

Henry graduated high school, went to college, created several restaurants, and became a creative adult. I continued teaching and writing.  I hoped that one day, Henry and I would be able to reunite so that I could tell him about those years.  And then it happened, out of the blue. He reached out to me and said that he wanted to know more about his mother.  I was so overjoyed.  We talked over the phone, and the 36 years melted away.  Even though we were actually strangers now, we talked together as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

I realized that I had been waiting for 36 years to tell his story.  I sat down for 5 days in a row and wrote and wrote and wrote.  I created a 33-page book of memories for Henry. It was such an interesting process because the more I wrote, the more I remembered.  I felt a calm and ease come over me. When I sent the book to Henry, he said that many people had promised to write down memories for him, but no one ever did until now.  That made me sad for him, but also happy.  I am so amazingly happy that I could finally give him this gift, which he will read today on his 40th birthday, June 4th.

This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago about the day Henry and I came home from school to his house the week after Catherine died.  I hope my memories of that time will bring him closer to his mother.

Remember Me

Three days after Catherine died,

I took her young son home from school.

I put her key into her door

As her son pushed ahead,

Running through the house, calling,

“Mommy, Mommy, where are you?

I made a picture for you!”

He was three and didn’t understand

The permanence of death.

I ran after him,

Took him by the hand,

“You remember, Henry, don’t you?

Mommy’s not here.”

He leaned into me,

His face hidden between

The folds of my skirt,

“I remember,” he whispered.

 

We went into Catherine’s kitchen,

Made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches,

Sat on the floor of her sunny living room,

Built castles out of wooden blocks,

“When’s my mommy coming?”

Henry asked again.

I looked into his eyes,

“Henry, I’m sorry –

Mommy’s not coming home.”

“But I didn’t say good-bye to her,

She’ll be lonely without me.”

I turned my tears away,

Looked out the back door

Trying to find the words

To make him understand.

 

I caught a glimpse –

Something bright from Catherine’s closet,

One of her dresses, the Marimekko

With the bright flowers,

The one she wore the first time I met her.

I took Henry’s hand,

Opened her closet, gathered all her dresses

And laid them on her bed.

I picked up each dress, one by one,

Held them in front of Henry.

He looked up at me and knew what to do:

He hugged each dress,

Nestled his face into the familiar fabric,

“Good-bye Mommy,

Have fun in heaven,

Remember me,” he whispered.

 

 

 

Ascent: Sharing Our Stories

This week’s Sharing Our Stories prompt from Ruth Ayres was “spreading your wings wider.”  I thought about her words for a little while.  Lately, I’ve been spreading my wings a little wider each day even though we remain in quarantine.  It’s funny how being physically inside has made me become more open and wandering within my mind and heart.

I usually like keeping my writing to myself. I am very protective of it.  Too protective.  I know where that comes from so I try to encourage myself to take risks and reach out.  Today, I invited three friends to join SOS.  They are talented writers and need a helpful nudge, like Ruth nudged me on my 64th birthday.  I wouldn’t normally reach out to people – even friends.  But this online writing group is teaching me to read others’ words and connect.  I’m learning that my thinking is stretched and strengthened by others.  I know that intellectually, but now I’m coming to know it emotionally.

When I come to think about stretching my wings, taking chances, being wild – I think of all the abundance I have in my life and how that abundance has been revealing itself to me  these past months.  I have a 94-year-old father who lives by himself in a high risk COVID area – he remains healthy and safe.  This is good news because my relationship with him continue to heal and grow in beneficial ways. I have a mother-in-law who is very needy and lives far from me.  She has no other relatives nearby.  I am her lifeline and though sometimes, it is stressful, I think about all the lovely talks we’ve had about books (she was a research librarian and has a home library of 4,000 books).  Over the years, she has reminded me just how important books/knowledge is to personal development.

Thought it’s been a tumultuous year so far, I recognize all the things in my life that I am grateful for: my husband – who always encourages me to stretch my thinking, my family (sister, cousins, aunts, and nieces) who are there for support, my friends – and especially my friend, Molly, who is one of the most creative, positive, and courageous people I know, and the children I’ve taught for the past 42 years, who have come back to share their grown-up lives with me.  I am ever so grateful and blessed.

I use my poetry as snapshots.  They help me remember moments in my life.  This poem below fits so beautifully with how I’m feeling right now and how Ruth helped me spread my wings.

 

Ascent

This morning, if I hadn’t decided 

To hike around Lake Minnewaska,

If I didn’t choose the yellow trail

Up the mountain, past Gertrude’s Nose,

If I didn’t stop along the ridge

To watch the hawks circle above the pines,

If I hadn’t bent to tie my boot on the rocky path,

I would not have seen that single moth 

With wings folded upright, carefully clasped

Almost the color of birch bark or sunlit limestone

She would not have startled me 

With her out-spread, periwinkle wings –

I would not have witnessed 

Her ascent into the April air.

 

Magic in the Middle

 

I am in love with words.  I don’t know when it happened.  It might have started with “Mama.” Words held meaning, and I was eager from the beginning to express myself. Writing is like breathing to me – I cannot differentiate one from the other.  When I go long period without writing, it’s like I’m holding my breath and turning blue.  And I am.  I am literally turning blue.  I am suffocating.  A little piece of my spirit dies when I don’t write.

Here are fifteen of my favorite words right now:

  1. Aquamarine
  2. Acrobat
  3. Always
  4. Breath
  5. Curious
  6. Journey
  7. Lopsided
  8. Magical
  9. Mud-luscious
  10. Perpendicular
  11. Puddle-wonderful
  12. Puzzlement
  13. Serendipitous
  14. Tangential
  15. Whisper

Number 9 and 11 are words invented by the poet E.E. Cummings in his poem “in just,”which is one of my favorite poems because it is clear that words are Cummings’ playground, and he loved swinging and sliding from one to the other. I’m intrigued when poets/writers create new words to show unique images.  As I grow older, I sometimes forget a word I need for a moment.  I start thinking and thinking and thinking. And I come up with a word, but it isn’t the word I intended.  Then all of a sudden, the right word pops into my head and I realize that both the right word and the wrong word rhyme.  I chuckle instead of becoming upset, because I take it as a sign that I am a true poet and words matter, even – especially the wrong words.

Ruth Ayres wrote recently, “Finding magic in the middle of living.”  When I read her words, I said aloud, “YES, YES, YES!  That is what POETRY is to me!” It is pure magic and it begins with stringing words together: working and playing and putting them together like an intricate puzzle. You set that last piece in place, sit back, smile, and see the whole wonderful image before you.

Number 14 – TANGENTIAL. I have so many thoughts in my head at the same time that sometimes I think I may explode.  Nothing is tangential in my mind, but to others it may not appear so.  Everything, for me, is connected to something else.  This is a wondrous world, and we are connected in ways that are both mysterious and serendipitous.  When we least expect it, someone reaches out – a stranger, a poet, a friend, someone you knew long ago – and steps into your story. Words are the placeholder, the keeper of memories.  They allow you to make sense of your surroundings and uncover the magic.