Drying inward from the edge. ~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Ebb”
I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night. — Khaled Hosseini from The Kite Runner
My mother was seven years younger than I am now when my father left her for a younger woman. For months my mother withered, crying until there were no more tears left, drying inward from her edges.
It took ten years, but he came back like an overdue high tide. She was sure her love had died but the tepid pool refilled, the incoming water cool to the touch, finally overflowing beyond imagining.
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes on a pile of broken dishes by the house; a tall man too, says the length of the bed in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man, says the Bible with a broken back on the floor below the window, dusty with sun; but not a man for farming, say the fields cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves covered with oilcloth, and they had a child, says the sandbox made from a tractor tire. Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole. And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames. It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste. And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard like branches after a storm—a rubber cow, a rusty tractor with a broken plow, a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say. ~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems.
In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.
Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.
The tree straddled more than just two rooms. Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.
Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me. I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.
It was gray and drizzly the November 15 you were born thirty one years ago, very much like today’s gray drizzle.
November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again. The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy. The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.
Yet you changed November for us that day. You brought sunshine to our lives once again. You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family. You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.
And you married another bright light and now you shine together with a new little bright light of your own in your lives.
I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.
November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.
We thought we were the perfect family— loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn’t topple with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable as the frozen Minute Maid juice we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank mornings, reconstituted.
We’d come to this place just to be together. October in Ogunquit, record heat, no need for the sweaters we’d packed. Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat pouring green tea, our wicker chairs on the small porch, six sets of knees touching.
She didn’t mean to mention Dad’s first wife.
To our collective what? she sputtered lasted a year, before the war, her name: Phyllis. Remember that chest in the basement? It was hers.
Some moments passed, then mutely we agreed to let it go. Radium glowed green in our brains but didn’t burn. The knowing, a relief: We didn’t have to be perfect.
The August-warm wind felt pleasant and odd. We sat on that porch, orange leaves pinwheeling down the street. ~Karen Paul Holmes “Rental Cottage, Maine” from No Such Thing as Distance
Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls. This particular day is different. As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.
Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed. I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.
The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights. Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.
Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick. I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind. The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week. I smiled, realizing he and Mom, the best parents ever, have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.
I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside. As our cars travel side by side in the downpour, I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows. He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation. It is then I realize something is amiss. When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before. There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.
My mother’s hair is gray.
My initial confusion turns instantly to fury. Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me. I think about honking, I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know. I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.
At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the white line separating us. His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.
I can’t bear to look any longer.
I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake. Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart. I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.
Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears. The phone rings and remains unanswered.
I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray — for a sleep without dreams, without secrets, without lies, without the burden of knowing the truth I alone now knew and wished I didn’t.
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing And the sky is clear and red, When the summer’s ceased its gleaming When the corn is past its prime, When adventure’s lost its meaning – I’ll be homeward bound in time
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
If you find it’s me you’re missing If you’re hoping I’ll return, To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening, And in the road I’ll stop and turn Then the wind will set me racing As my journey nears its end And the path I’ll be retracing When I’m homeward bound again
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing I’ll be homeward bound again. ~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition: “I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”
My father did return home to my mother after almost three years of separation. He was “bound to the pasture and chained to the plow” as he resumed his love of farming the land and teaching others how it is done.
He never forgot those who died, making it possible for him to return home. I won’t forget either.
All day we packed boxes. We read birth and death certificates. The yellowed telegrams that announced our births, the cards of congratulations and condolences, the deeds and debts, love letters, valentines with a heart ripped out, the obituaries.
We opened the divorce decree, a terrible document of division and subtraction. We leafed through scrapbooks: corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet, racetrack, theatre—joy and frivolity parceled in one volume— painstakingly arranged, preserved and pasted with crusted glue.
We sat together side by side on the empty floor and did not speak. There were no words between us other than the essence of the words from the correspondences, our inheritance—plain speak, bereft of poetry. ~Jill Bialosky fromThe Players
The box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades. The time had come.
My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself for the island battles to come.
I’m now half-way through reading them in chronological order. I’m up to March 1943 when my father received orders that he would be shipped out to the South Pacific within days. They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce.
The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. Much of the time they wrote each other daily, though with minimal news to share and military censors at work, but they speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper.
I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.
Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in their future and ultimately mine.
Needing them still, I come when I can, this time to the sea where we share a room: their double bed, my single. Morning fog paints the pale scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing, the chenille spread folded back, my father’s feet white sails furled at the edge of blue pajamas. Every child’s dream, a parent in each hand, though this child is fifty. Their bodies fit easily, with room to spare. When did they grow so small? Grow so small— as if it were possible to swell backwards into an earlier self.
One more year, I ask the silence. Last night to launch myself into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal rise and fall I now put my ear to, the coiled shell of their lives. ~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.
My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.
I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.
After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.
Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.
It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.
Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.
As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.