Sometimes the words come unbidden

img_0032We got a dusting of snow yesterday–a gift from Mother Nature that warmed my heart.

I know, two posts in two days, crazy.  But this poem arrived in my inbox this morning, reminding me that in the end, we can only ever know what we know so far, and that sometimes, more knowing just reveals more unknown.  There’s a whole lot of not knowing how much I don’t really understand these days, how much the whole world seems to not entirely comprehend the power of words and actions.  This is the kind of vague notion that keeps me awake at 3AM.

Then, this showed up.  Doesn’t fix the world or my view of it, but somehow it helps, just a little.  Thank you, The Writer’s Almanac, for this gift, this morning:

What I Know
by Lee Robinson

What I know for sure is less and less:
that a hot bath won’t cure loneliness.

That bacon is the best bad thing to chew
and what you love may kill you.

The odd connection between perfection
and foolishness, like the pelican
diving for his fish.

How silly sex is.
How, having it, we glimpse
our holiness.

What I know is less and less.
What I want is more and more:

you against me—
your ferocious tenderness—

love like a star,
once small and far,
now huge, now near.
“What I Know” by Lee Robinson from Hearsay. © Fordham University Press, 2004.

I’m back, sort of. And I have a good read for you.

Well now, let’s see… I got a new knee joint last September, which is when I last wrote in this, my little cyber-venue.  Then there was physical therapy for weeks on end, and somewhere along the way was an election, which coincided with the dark, dreary time of the year when there’s just not anywhere near enough daylight–which all felt like connected elements of my life.  Truth is, I’ve been at a loss for words these days. And at a lost for what to do to make the world a better place.  And I’d rather not be noisy just for the sake of making noise.

That’s my The Dog Ate My Homework equivalent for why I’ve gone radio silent here.  Please know I’ll try to catch you up with whatever it is I know, so far, when I figure out what that may be.

In the meantime, here’s a review I recently wrote for the Washington Independent Review of Books, about a story that was just what I needed, between November and December.  Melanie Wallace’s new work of fiction, The Girl in the Garden, gave me hope in how human beings can bond and make the world a better place–and in doing so, make their own lives better in the process.

The Girl in the Garden: A Novel

  • By Melanie Wallace
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 240 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
  • January 30, 2017

“…And they lived happily ever after.” It’s a familiar ending to many a classic bedtime story, a cheerful coda after lost souls have found joy, cruel stepmothers have gotten their due, and a little sprinkling of fairy dust puts everything right.

Alas, the older we get, the more likely we are to discredit a storyteller whose tales seem too good to be true. Consider, for instance, a novel that begins by introducing a shifty man who presents a driver’s license photo that doesn’t match his face, followed by his wisp of a girlfriend who appears to be both frightened of her traveling companion and fearful that he means to abandon her, along with the infant in her arms. When, in real life, might a helpless stranger’s luck turn from bad to good exactly at her moment of most desperate need?

I’ll venture to say most of us are wary of endings that require a childlike suspension of our world-weary disbelief, in fiction as well as beyond the page.

But what if such a plot twist could be made believable, even to those of us who have aged out on magical thinking? What if that mother and child — abandoned, frightened, not knowing where next to turn — become a vessel for unexpected generosity?

What if a group of downtrodden individuals, one after another, willingly open their homes and their hearts, banding together in odd and unexpected ways? And what if, in caring for the girl and her son, these helpful souls find a new grace in their own broken lives? Could this, in fact, be a believable story of the world tilting toward a happily ever after, after all?

Well, call me a cockeyed optimist, but I say yes.

Therein lies the premise that buoys Melanie Wallace’s new novel, The Girl in the Garden. Rest assured there’s nothing saccharine about Wallace’s tale; the heartaches and losses she starkly describes are not the stuff of the Hallmark Channel, not by a long shot.

Wallace’s fictional village is populated with survivors of foreign wars and personal strife, whose scars are both painfully visible and deeply hidden. They are men and women who’ve lost their chance for happy outcomes by accident, misfortune, or society’s laws of propriety. And still, as these individuals give of themselves to an unexpected cause, what happens to each of them involves the kind of magic that is the product of that rarest of ingredients: the milk of human kindness.

The Girl in the Garden takes place not so long ago, in an imaginary town somewhere on the New England coast. There we meet Mabel, an elderly widow who runs an old-fashioned seasonal motel. She has been at her business long enough to recognize trouble when she sees it coming, which is why she knows in her bones that the man with the false ID will disappear, and that the girl — for she really is just a child, baby on her hip or not — will soon be left penniless and alone, far removed from whatever place she might ever have called home.

When her prediction comes to fruition, Mabel sets out to find a home for the girl and her infant son. Mabel convinces her friend Iris to open up an empty cottage on her curiously barricaded property, and suggests that Iris let the girl help her out with whatever assistance she might need.

Instinctively, Mabel knows that this needs to work, even though Iris is obsessively self-reliant and has had no visitors, let alone tenants, since her husband died and her teenaged daughter left for parts unknown. Mabel also trusts that Duncan, Iris’ loyal attorney and property manager, will help out by assisting the mother and child on Iris’ behalf, and that Oldman, a bachelor friend to all, will be called upon to help out with driving and shopping. In due time, a wary dance emerges between the helpers and the helped, and between those in need and those who learn, by complete happenstance, that being of use is its own reward.

This collective’s “It takes a village” efforts unravel when Iris’ now very much adult daughter, Claire, descends on her mother’s new and improved world. Claire says she’s come back to assist her ailing mother, but it becomes clear that she is most intent on dredging up anything that might explain her family’s mysterious past. Alas, the daughter wants answers that her mother refuses to divulge.

This, essentially, is Iris’ greatest desire — to live out her years, stubbornly holding the misery of her past locked away and never burdening her only child with a story too horrific to tell. When an exasperated Claire asks her mother if she’s happy, Iris replies, “I will be when I die.”

In that statement, Iris describes her own downsized version of a happy ever after. By the end, Iris’ fervent hope will be reflected in a series of down-sized dreams come true for most (but not all) of the individuals whose trajectories were unexpectedly shifted when a young mother and child mysteriously became an integral part of their lives.

Art imitates life, after all, and life is messy. Which is why The Girl in the Garden’s diminished expectations are so believably described. There’s a gritty mosaic made of the fractures we all experience in life, fractures that become something new and unexpected in the mending.

In this reveal, Melanie Wallace’s tale is a gift to cynical grownups everywhere. Have hope, do the right thing, the kind thing, and all will end well. Or, at least, better than you might ever have dared hope — even without any pixie dust.

A fallen hero, and a new perspective (Beech Trees Part II)

img_7302Giants in our midst.  Alas, the foliage of that red-leaf beech is  getting a little thin on top…

So, the spring of 2016 turned into the summer, and a hot one at that. Humid, quite often, but simultaneously parched and dry and dusty. Which, so far as the elder beech trees of my fair city were concerned, put my Nervous Nellie radar in high gear.  Whatever the blight was that was eating away at them, the drought couldn’t be helping.

Whenever I saw the Mount Auburn arborists at work, I peppered them with worried questions. How are the beech trees doing? Had they come up with anything that might stabilize the large swaths of bark that were being eaten away? Were there trees that they had on their docket due for more than spraying and limb trimming? The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to ask if any of the Mt. Auburn beeches were scheduled for removal.

img_9300Honestly, this doesn’t really show what’s going on.  I know I’ve taken photos of the effects of the blight close up, but apparently I couldn’t bear to even have them sitting in my iCloud stash.  For better or worse, I kicked all those visuals into the great cyber-trash can.

* * * * *

If  any of the Mt. Auburn giant beeches were on the arborists’ chopping block, I knew which one would be #1 on their list: a massive European beech with a thick double trunk, molded together like co-joined twin saplings that decided to join forces a century ago. It was the tree that seemed like it should be the most impervious–double the strength and girth!–but clearly, it was suffering. It started with a branch here and there just a few years back, then whole swaths of one side were naked as wintertime when spring arrived and new foliage should be sprouting.  I knew this was the one that would soon disappear on me, like the long-declining companion to my kids’ library beech tree.

img_1696My beloved double beech tree, in better days.

Here’s the thing: when you become a regular visitor to a place like the Mt. Auburn, and you talk to the people who visit and work there on a regular basis–well, it turns out that people remember who you are and what you care most about. Between my chats with great horned owl lovers and groundskeepers and fundraisers,  I’ve turned into a bit of an MtAC Friend of the Big Trees insider. Which is why I got a frequent flier heads up—an advanced warning from the front office. Come visit this Sunday if you can, the message gently urged me. Our old friend, that heroic double-wide giant of a European Beech, was scheduled for removal, come Monday.

I was up north when the message came through, so there would be no final goodbyes before the chainsaws and chippers went to work.  Nevertheless, I was grateful for the message, grateful to know that when next I visited, I’d be visiting a big empty space.

Or so I thought.  I had a sneaking suspicion it might take more than one day to fell the behemoth beech, so I didn’t venture out to Mt. Auburn until late on Tuesday.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to see the carnage in action.  I would be okay with an empty visage, after the fact.

What I got was this:

 img_6545A quitting time caravan of arborists, at the end of a long day.

Now this had me wondering what I’d find.  That big truck up front is hauling some sizeable limbs.  I didn’t know what I was hoping for, but I sped up to see what might be left.

Which was this:

img_6567

My old friend was a shadow of its former self.  A sad work in progress.

As I approached, I couldn’t help but notice what a complicated job was being undertaken here.   A massive living thing, on the side of a hill, surrounded by stone memorials and consecrated grounds–trying to remove this creature from that environment took A-list experts.  As it turns out, the guys from Maltby and Company are top notch arborists, the folks you want to call in when you need the kind of workers who are as careful as archeologists and as strong as a team of Paul Bunyans.  No wonder they were taking their sweet time.  This was a big job that required a slow and steady approach.

Here’s the road they paved up the hill to put their enormous crane truck into place:

img_6592It was all about the protection.  They were as gentle as a giant slayer could be.

img_6555I suspect it took the better part of the first day to get this monstrous crane truck positioned.  Note the wooden lifters, the size of the tires, the proximity to Winslow Homer.  Yikes!

 img_6551-1The tag was still there, that day.  These tags are why I know any trees by their bark at all.

img_6584Two trunks, still standing tall.

* * * * *

I went back a few days later, to find just a stump remaining. It was a whole new experience, to put my feet exactly where that noble tree had lived out its life, seeing what it had seen.

img_7250Not the least of the arborists’ challenges was getting the roots out from around the stone markers this tree had grown up out of.

* * * * *

One month later, I attended a memorial service in Mt. Auburn’s Bigelow Chapel–remarkably, the very first such event I’d ever be to there.  It was a useful reminder as to why, exactly, this sacred place was consecrated in 1831.  It is, after all, a place to honor and remember those no longer with us, those we loved, those we celebrated in life and beyond.  After the service (side note: best recessional ever: Benny and the Jets!) and the spreading of ashes, my sweetheart and I split off from the family and friends and headed out on our own path.  One memorial event deserved another.  We went to see where the great double beech once was, but is no more.

img_9617And there, on a sunny knoll, a new patch of grass was being tended, where a new spot to view the world had emerged.  There was no more stump, no more evidence of the creature that was gone.

img_9624Unless you count rainbows from sprinklers as nature communicating with us.

img_9627And if you count new swaths of blue sky as a message from planet earth.

Which I most definitely count.

* * * * *

The passing of the giants in my midst (Beech Trees Part I)

IMG_6551Bless the people who have put the name tags on the trees of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  This is how I’ve become an above-average species identifier of these glorious creatures.

* * * * *

I’m not a stoic person, not by a long shot. But curiously, I’ve reached a point in my life where the things that would in my younger years have definitely triggered tears—deaths in the family, heartbreaking news from all corners of the globe, health scares at home and away, actual physical pain—those things may keep me awake at night, but they don’t make me weep these days. I can bluster my way through bad diagnoses, sad tidings, bee stings and root canals. How I evolved from the kindergartener who cried over a broken purple crayon to the stiff upper lip grownup in the face of adversity is inexplicable, to my mind anyhow.

Curiously, however, the things that do make me reach for the Kleenex are as predictable as ever—they’re just not the previous or obvious suspects. I’m pretty sure that nothing about school concerts made me cry when I was young, but these days? Put some singing children in my midst and watch me leak. I cry at parades, at carnivals, at veterans saluting flags, at touching stories in the newspaper about people I don’t even know, stories I try to read aloud to my sweetie, but can’t make it through without blubbering. I cry at movies, even ones that aren’t particularly sad. And I was moved to tears dozens of times this summer during the Olympics, watching athletes old and young as they encountered dreams realized and hopes dashed. Needless to say, I cry when long distance racers get tangled up and then help each other across the finish line.

IMG_6231Do grocery store parades make you weepy?  Well, it turns out, they do me…

But lately, there’s a new item in my quiver of teary triggers. They’re big, and gorgeous. They’ve been around for over a hundred years, some of them. They are their own ecosystems, they are so vast. And they are dying, all over town, right here in my fair city.

They are the beech trees of Cambridge. And some of them, too many of them, are suffering from a blight that renders these titans helpless over time.

IMG_6685The first beech I fell in love with, right here.  The one that owns its front yard.

I can’t remember exactly when I started noticing the specimen beeches of Cambridge, but I do know which one first took my breath away.   It’s in a fancy part of town, on a hill above Brattle Street. It completely possesses the space that it occupies, and blessedly, the owners of this property (and, in my mind, the designated caretakers of this gorgeous tree) let it have its way. I love that it gets to bow down with its low branches, almost brushing  the ground, and soar up so high it deserves a new zip code. I love coming upon this tree as I meander around a corner, watching it unfold before me as I make the turn. I love standing directly below this tree and looking up, through the pale green undersides of its dark crimson leaves.

* * * * *

IMG_4187Our library beech tree in springtime–the climbable creature upon which years were measured.

Also among the beech trees that first won my heart were a pair at the public library, just a couple blocks from our house. We were frequent fliers when my boys were young, trundling back and forth from our house to the children’s room, lugging canvas bags full of picture books, cartoon books, chapter books.   One day, when my older son was on the verge of outgrowing a stop at the playground, he saw some kids, just slightly older and bigger than he was then, perched on the lowest branch of the beech tree nestled closest to the library. That became his objective: to make it up to that branch, unassisted. And once he could clamber up, it became a vital part of the journey–walk to the library, climb the tree, go inside, check out books, go outside, climb the tree, walk back home.

That sacred beech, thankfully, survived the construction of an addition to our library that more than doubled the original square footage. Much as I was looking forward to the new space, I worried about our tree during the whole of the construction phase, which lasted nearly two years.

But while the climbing beech survived, its nearby relative did not. Sadly, the library’s second beech was already blighted, and the rattling of trucks and earth-movers just sped up its inevitable demise. I stopped in my tracks the day I passed by, not sure what had changed but immediately sensing something significant was missing, finally realizing that the once glorious half of a pair was–unfathomably–gone.  Just gone, an empty blotch where it had long stood, the nearby willow tree seemingly weeping for its missing neighbor.

IMG_3206I apparently deleted this photo from my stash.  It was too too sad, to come upon that naked stump.

* * * * *

Since that day, I’ve turned into a bit of a beech tree worrier.

Which, once you know that they’re suffering, is a hard state of mind to escape.  It’s also a particular burden if you happen to love the Mount Auburn Cemetery, that glorious arboretum of a graveyard, the first in America that was designed specifically to be beautiful–a treasure of a place that I walk to, and through, pretty much every week of the year.  It’s gorgeous in every season, it’s a perfect destination if you like birding or geology or architecture or landscapes or mature flowering plantings or the history that can be read from gravestones dating back to the Civil War and beyond.  And more than anything, it really is a museum of trees, from the familiar New England sugar maples and red oaks, to exotic umbrella pines from Japan, to drop-dead miracle trees, like the once-thought extinct Dawn Redwoods.  Don’t even get me going about how much I love those.  But most of all, what I have loved most for many years is the beech trees–European Beech, Purple Beech, Weeping Beech, you name it, they’re here in bunches.

Alas, even on the Mt. Auburn’s hallowed ground, the beeches are not exempt from the ravages of whatever it is that’s eating them alive.  I don’t pretend to be a botanist who could adequately explain this, I only know that the folks who take care of the trees at the Mt. Auburn are doing all they can do, and it’s just not enough.  Add to whatever mess of bacteria is infesting these solid trunks, there’s been an epic drought which is not helping, not at all.  I’ve been watching nervously when I see the arborists cutting the dead limbs, spraying the trunks, hoping for the best.  It’s hard to stand by when you know a beloved has taken a turn for the worse.  And those trees are most definitely my beloveds.

 

IMG_5163I keep taking beech tree portraits. I hate knowing that this gorgeous specimen will be gone in a matter of years.  It just feels so unfair.

* * * * *

Next up, the story of one beloved beech, really two in one.  I promise you won’t have to wait six months to see how this story turns out.  Also, just so you know, there will be a little good news coda.

 

I know, I know, I know…and while you’re waiting, read this book!

IMG_4599“After the creation of parcel post, there were enough incidents of  “child mailing” that the Post office had to outlaw the practice.”  Trust me, there’s more USPS history stories like this one!

* * * * *

April, last time I wrote; now officially summer.  I spent yesterday flying home from the high Sierras by way of Reno and Denver, which means I missed the Strawberry Full Moon that coincided with the summer solstice.  Yes, I seem to have taken a spring break, without intending to do so.  But please know I have a strong desire to get back on track in my little piece of the cybersphere.

So stick with me, I’ll be back soon.  And in the meantime, here’s a review I recently wrote for The Washington Independent Review of Books, which I should have told you all about before Father’s Day–it would’ve been a good gift for dear old dad, but honestly, it’s a good read any time of year by anyone who cares even the tiniest amount about how our mail can possibly get to us, across three, maybe even four time zones, for under a half a buck, when the only way the rate can be raised is with a vote on Capitol Hill.  Makes you wonder how anyone ever gets a birthday card to arrive on the right day, doesn’t it?

IMG_4598

Neither Snow nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service

  • By Devin Leonard
  • Grove Press
  • 288 pp.

“It is one of the biggest businesses in the country,” President Harry Truman said in 1951. “And without it, the rest of the country wouldn’t [be] able to do business at all.” Sixty-five years later, many younger readers might be hard-pressed to figure out that Truman was speaking about the U.S. Postal Service — that curious remnant of a bygone era, which today mostly delivers stuff we didn’t ask for and fliers we don’t care about.

Oh, there’s still the occasional birthday card or Amazon delivery or check in the mail that miraculously makes it to its intended destination. But with so many other communication and delivery options, it’s hard to understand how important the USPS once was. If anything, the long and complicated history of our nation’s mail system has been largely oversimplified and often misremembered, when it’s remembered at all.

Thankfully, author Devin Leonard has written Neither Snow nor Rain, a lively examination of America’s most ubiquitous public institution. Leonard’s venture into the history of the USPS began in 2011, with his Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story entitled “The End of Mail,” an article that garnered more reader responses than any piece Leonard had previously published–mostly email responses, I assume, but I fervently hope he received some actual letters.

Love it or hate it, people care about what happens when small rural post offices close down, or when letter carriers’ appointed routes are cut short. It didn’t take Leonard long to realize that his article had only begun to scratch the surface of the USPS’ remarkable backstory.

The history of how messages and packages were conveyed is vast. Whether measured by the ebb and flow of delivery volumes, the number of post offices built, or the magnitude of political intrigues, Leonard presents his material in a way that is both captivating and thoughtful about how the USPS contributed to American culture, and does a yeoman’s job of weaving together both the worldwide traditions of mail delivery, from the Assyrians and ancient Romans to Marco Polo and beyond, with the tales of the USPS’ unique dramas and outsized actors. Along with his profiles of the postmasters general and competing delivery-company CEOs, Leonard reveals a well-trained eye for the descriptive and memorable stories that anchor each chapter’s significant themes.

Who knew, for instance, that until the practice was specifically outlawed, children could be sent through the mail, parcel post? Or that multiple postmasters became de facto federal censors, outlawing the delivery of whatever they personally considered obscene?

We’ve all heard of the Pony Express, but how many of us realize that it was a failed PR blitz, unprofitable and short-lived, despite the public’s fascination? Or that the battleground postal districts during the Civil War alternately delivered and absconded with mail, depending on which way the war was going?

Leonard, a business journalist for many years, has found a comfortable niche in historic nonfiction. Using a few tools from Gen-X historian Sarah Vowell’s playbook, he augments his lively narrative by occasionally placing his readers in the here and now, inserting compelling stories about people like Evan Kalish, who made it his goal to visit every post office in the U.S. (as of publication, he’d gotten to 6,557 of them, with a mere 29,084 to go), and Anna Dyer, postmaster on Maine’s Cliff Island, who lives in fear that her small post office will be shut down and a community center will forever be lost.

Confession: I did not know much beyond the schoolbook history of America’s postal service until I started reading Neither Snow nor Rain. What I soon gleaned from Leonard’s first book-length effort is the fact that there is something consistent and elemental in the story of the USPS that reflects what we as a people have historically valued, beginning with Ben Franklin’s efforts to ensure a connected and informed citizenry.

Despite over two centuries of ups and downs, advances and misfires, it turns out that, when you learn just a little about how the USPS began, and how it has survived despite the odds, you just can’t help but root for this All-American institution.

It’s been over five years since Leonard wrote the article that became his impetus for this book. And in that time, we haven’t gotten to the end of mail — not yet, anyway.

Kristin H. Macomber is a writer and obsessed collector of special-issue stamps who lives in Cambridge, MA.

* * * * *

April, now and then.

IMG_1009April snow, April blooms, simultaneously.

Ah, April.  Somehow we’ve made it beyond the middle of the month, past the winter that came late but then wouldn’t leave, past the part where buds bloomed, then got covered with snow, then gave it another go.  Hurrah for the second half of April when it feels like spring has arrived, finally, for good.

April was a month that had been looming on the calendar for my beloved’s family ever since December, when we gathered together and said a collective fond farewell to my father-in-law. We stood on the edge of Jackson Falls, back on Christmas day, for a lovely private moment that gave us a chance to connect and remember together.  It was a moment that offered some sense of having said our piece before his ashes were scattered from atop a mountain he, and all of us, love so well.  We all knew that we’d need to prepare for a big public memorial in April, after the ski season was done, before it was time to hike up to Tuckerman Ravine or put  the boat in the lake.  Georgie would have liked that, scheduling-wise.

Winter came, winter left, April dawned snowy and stayed chilly.  One week in, on a lovely daffodil-bright Saturday, hundreds of people gathered in Concord, the town where my beloved and his family grew up.  And there we spoke, we remembered, we shared stories and sang.  We wiped away tears and gave and received hugs.  It was a lovely day.  A whole lovely weekend.

IMG_1146The First Parish Church Unitarian of Concord Mass.  Where Emerson and Thoreau worshiped. As lovely a place, and as full of history, as a person could ask for.

* * * * *

Then came Opening Day of the Red Sox 2016 season, and then OneBoston day, and then the Boston Marathon, and then Patriots’ Day proper–events which come with memories of chilly Red Sox outings, and Concord battle reenactments and parade parties,  and time spent standing on the side of the road, cheering friends and strangers alike on their runs from Hopkinton to Back Bay.  The marathon, all by itself, is a stockpile of memories happy and sad–the one when my friend Joan set a world record, the one that ended in tragedy.  So many memories, so many emotions.

IMG_1205A tree blooms on Yawkey Way.  A City says Play Ball!

Along with the April memories I share with the whole of Red Sox Nation and Boston Strong, I found myself  revisiting my personal collection of Aprils-past recollections, this time around.  There was the April  I came home from the hospital, anxious to greet a new season with a new baby boy.  There was the April that the great horned owls of Mt. Auburn gave birth to two fluffy owlets, and let us stand by in awe. There was the April I was walking to my radiation treatments, every morning, five days a week, and the April (just last year!) when I found myself wandering around my neighborhood on crutches, noticing things with a renewed vision for the smallest of details, the kind you only see when you slow down.

IMG_1417These guys were not slowing down.  26.2 miles, and all but a photo finish. Just Amazing.

* * * * *

I don’t know if I happen to have a particular knack for remembering things from Aprils in particular, or if April is just one of those months that I see with more clarity, while I’m living it.  I’m guessing it’s probably the latter.  The light is brighter and lasts longer, the trees are still bare, the world seems ready to burst forth.  It certainly feels that way, this April, this day.

IMG_0035This was April 5th.  Come back soon, I’ll post a photo of what this stretch looks like in full bloom!

* * * * *

Also: for those of you who remember and loved him, as well as for those of you who never met him, here’s my little offering from that Concord memorial:

Back when John and I were in courtship mode, I counted myself lucky to be folded into multiple Macomber family Concord traditions: Thanksgiving Day soccer games, wine tastings when GBHMCo employees gifted The Boss with their homemade vintages, and the annual April Bloody Mary mixing extravaganza, on the eve of the famous Macomber Pre-Marathon Patriots’ Day Parade Party. George played a major role in all these events–rating the wine, carving the turkey, mixing and pouring those zingy concoctions.  One might presume that, as a man with many jobs to attend to, his role on the home front might have been limited to such celebratory occasions.

But George was so much more than a figurehead at home.  Some of my favorite memories are of him in one of his less exalted roles: that is, as his own laborer.  George’s idea of a perfect weekend day always included multiple competitive sports events and a vodka and tonic at sunset, but it also included time spent with a wheelbarrow or a chainsaw, wandering around his various realms, doing what needed to be done.  In Concord, as in Jackson and at Bald Peak, he was the clear-cutter of the puckerbrush, the dead-header of lilies gone by, the defender of the view.  There must have been something particularly grounding for him in the tasks that brought him close to the earth, to let the light in and clear his mind.

One Concord weekend morning, as I was returning from a Great Meadows run, I spotted George in the front yard with pruning shears in hand, wiping his brow and pointing my way as he chatted with the passengers in a car that had pulled over.  The out-of-towners were gone by the time I caught up with George, who was already back at his project du jour, whacking back the overgrown lilac bushes.

“Wow,” I remember saying,”How many times do you think you’ve had to stop and give directions to tourists over the years?”

“Oh, lots of times,” George replied. Then he added, “I like to give directions.  I like that people care enough to come see where the Old North Bridge is, where it all began.” And with that he went back to his lilacs, happy to have been of service to the strangers who were passing through.

George was a man of service.  He helped so many people, so many organizations, so many institutions. He was a giant on multiple fronts.  He was a person who cleared the paths, literal and figurative, for generations to come.  He showed us all the way–how to be helpful, how to be generous, how to make the world a better place–at every stage of our lives, in every endeavor.

Thank you, Georgie.

Kristin H. Macomber

Macomber family member since 1983

 

Book review alert: Willful Disregard

Once again, I’m my own worst publicist.  Here’s a book review of mine that was cyber-published while I was out looking for great horned owls, or something.
And again, for anyone looking for concise reviews,  book group suggestions and features on all things writing, head on over to http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/  It’s a little book lovers’ and voracious readers’ gem of a website.
Willful Disregard: A Novel About Love
by Lena Andersson, translated from the Danish by Sarah Death

Swedish journalist and five-time novelist Lena Andersson’s most recent work of fiction, Willful Disregard, is subtitled A Novel About Love. A better description might be “a story about the power of hope.” Which sounds like a good thing, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers — until it isn’t. And it definitely isn’t a good thing when hopefulness morphs into baseless fantasy in the face of unrequited love.

Andersson’s novel follows this old familiar path. Her story is a riff on Marianne Dashwood’s behavior in Sense and Sensibility as she shoots off missives to Mr. Willoughby at all hours and wonders why she hears nothing back. It’s three-quarters of the “Modern Love” columns in the Sunday New York Times (particularly the ones where wooing takes place in shorthand social media comments and text messages left unanswered). And it’s the entire plot of the book and film begat by one brief scene of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” in which a beau of Carrie Bradshaw’s offers a stark truth about why a date hasn’t called back: He’s just not that into you.

End of story — except that it hardly ever is.

Therein lies the unfortunate framework for Willful Disregard’s narrative arc. It begins with the introduction of writer and minor academic Ester Nilsson. Described by Andersson’s highly observant narrator, we are provided a quick sketch of Ester and her ascetic world, wherein she eschews a life of frivolous expenses and spends all her mental energy crafting acutely precise prose and poetry.

From the very first page, Andersson’s omniscient voice casts a sharp eye and wields a biting wit on Ester’s behavior — which, at every turn, undercuts our heroine’s seemingly rational actions and thoughts, along with her imagination run amok.

In essence, the clear-eyed narration in Willful Disregard makes a mockery of Ester’s flawed logic. If Ester thinks it, it must be so, is our narrator’s conceit. This provides the reader with both a seemingly rational version of Ester’s thoughts and actions, alongside a sizzling satire on her hopelessly hope-driven perceptions.

“The dreadful gulf between thought and words, will and expression, reality and unreality, and the things that flourish in that gulf, are what this story is about,” the narrator advises us. And so, gentle reader, consider yourself forewarned: twisted logic is about to be skewered. Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride!

The would-be love story begins when Ester receives a request to give a lecture on Hugo Rask, a famous contemporary artist and philosopher. Ester accepts the assignment for the cash and the academic cache, and sets off on her research as a purely professional undertaking.

That said, she wants to be particularly erudite, since Hugo Rask himself will be in attendance when she delivers her talk. As Ester digs into the breadth of Rask’s work, her affinity for her subject grows. She has no knowledge of the man himself (Aha! Except in her imagination, our narrator reminds us!), but that’s neither here nor there. Intellectually, there is so much to admire, so many truths to behold. By the day of the lecture, it would seem that Ester can think of little else but the man she has come to know so well, in books and on her computer screen.

The day arrives, the lecture is given, and Rask, the man himself, is enchanted by his new muse. “No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely,” he gushes to Ester after her talk. His words could not possibly be more pleasing to her intellectual ears — or her schoolgirl crush.

Clearly, she concludes, she has become one half of a match made in heaven. Her observations have been based on his thoughts, his mind, his truths, and she has unlocked the door to his heart. Ergo, there could be no mistake — his enthusiasm for her understanding is surely a first step towards a love affair for the ages.

What follows are the inevitable missteps. One after another, starting with Ester’s confusion of gratitude for love, and of research for true knowledge. That, and mistaking a man who wants to please, and who exists to be admired, for a person who might be available to her for anything approaching actual love.

“Bitingly funny and darkly fascinating” are descriptors that have been used to describe Andersson’s writing in Willful Disregard. Well, yes, if you stick to the narrator’s Austen-esque commentary and skim over the plot on the ground. Because the plot is the sad stuff of a lonely heart waiting by the phone, trying to make sense of things that don’t add up.

Ester’s complete incapacity to disengage, to even concede that her relationship to Hugo is no more than her own personal fantasy, is painful to observe. Even with Ester’s Greek chorus of girlfriends chiming in with dire warnings, our heroine is hell bent on seeing this relationship through to the end. Her greatest mistake is in assuming that a relationship exists at all.

Would that Carrie Bradshaw’s beau had shown up in chapter one and saved Ester a whole book full of heartache. Or would that Ester had read to the end of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

“I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”

Perhaps the lesson of hope, for Ester and from Dickinson, is that anything that is so infinitely and boundlessly available must be considered a potential parasite. Best to pay attention to our Greek chorus. And would that we all had such an inscrutable narrator inside our heads as the one Andersson gives us in Willful Disregard, a novel about a lesson that needs learning.

KH Macomber lives in Cambridge, MA with the love of her life, who always answers her text messages pronto.

A time for memorials, Part 3

 

imageA first draft of my father-in-law’s gravestone, as rendered on a Starbucks napkin by my beloved.

*  * * * *

A plan was made, and an appointment was set. I would head to Newport RI on a chilly January morning to meet the world-renowned Nick Benson, and to discuss a fitting memorial for my dearly departed father-in-law.

As I drove south in dark, my thoughts were simple: I couldn’t wait to see where this genius of lettering on stone made his magic happen, in a place where generations before him had performed the same magic for more than three centuries. I was anxious to stand on the spot where John Stevens plied his trade as a colonial subject of the British crown, and where the historic words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been transformed into breathtaking memorials. I’d even get to see where the Zofnass gravestone had been created, the one in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery that had serendipitously sent me down this very road.  I arrived just before 8AM. It was easy to tell that I was in the right place.

imageFounded in 1705. Yep, here we are.

imageAnd in case there was any question in my mind, this reminder that Nick had written to himself and set out on his desk made me feel like my presence could be no more delightfully anticipated, had I been royalty.  No doubt about it, this was where the magic happens!

Nick was busy in the back of the shop when I arrived, but was quick to answer my knock and happy to show me around. He must have a standard ten minute tour, because who walks in and doesn’t immediately want to poke around?  Since we’d discussed his recent work on the renovations at Yale to the art and architecture buildings that my father-in-law had originally built, Nick took me straight to the project he was currently working on–a quote from Ulysses on two gorgeous slabs of granite, to be set over the entry to a new Yale undergraduate dormitory. The fact that this quote would be installed directly next door to Ingalls Rink, the Eero Saarinen modernist marvel that happens to also be a Macomber project highlight from back in the day, was a happy coincidence.

 image

Behind that curtain, magic happens.

After a quick walk about, Nick and I settled in at his shopfront desk and discussed the particulars for my father-in-law’s memorial. We’d need to determine if we were doing one gravestone for both my father-in-law and mother-in-law, or if they would have matching markers, side by side. It helped that we could begin our conversation with a work we were both familiar with–since I loved the Zofnass headstone, and since Nick remembered it well, it provided us with a useful shared template. As for what might be incorporated beyond words and dates, I offered some possible graphic elements that my father-in-law himself had designed, which were etched on the wedding silverware he and his bride received back in 1953.

image

Ever since my first Thanksgiving with my beloved’s family, I’ve adored this design.  I love that each symbol had a special meaning to my in-laws: the snowflake to commemorate the bride and groom’s love of skiing, the apple blossom in honor of their springtime wedding day in New Hampshire, and a fanciful ocean wave, to remind them of their honeymoon in exotic Hawaii.

imageNick immediately sketched the wave, once as depicted, and once again in its mirror image–once for the bride, and once for the groom. The speed with which he produced this idea was stunning.

image

And in a trice, we had a working document. Just like that. Three hundred years of history, multiple generations guiding the way, one gifted artist at the ready, a little bit of backstory to work with, and voila!  All that was left unfinished were a few details to iron out and options to be considered.

To spend an hour in the presence of a true artistic genius, to work out a plan to memorialize the father of my beloved, and the man who’d been a second father to me–well, simply put, this was a joyful hour in my life, and one that I will remember forever.

imageOh, and just in case I need a little reminder?

Nick let me keep his note. Which warms my heart, every time I pass the fridge.

A time for memorials, Part 2

IMG_7430This is the gravestone that led me to Nick Benson.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

* * * * *

Previously on Here’s What I Know So Far…

Knowing my beloved and I would be in charge of procuring a gravestone for my father-in-law, and knowing my beloved was about to get on a plane for a three week adventure in Addis Ababa and Dar es Saalam, and knowing that it would be most useful for him if I were to get this project on track while he was away, I suggested we make a very short visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery before he hopped on the plane for Africa.  Since the Mt. Auburn is a frequent walking and birding destination of mine which has, over the years, become a most beloved and well-trod place for me, I wanted my husband to partake in a quick field trip so that we could gain some consensus around examples of what I thought were really good grave markers, along with some that didn’t work so well.  The Zofnass gravestone, long a favorite of mine, was our first stop.  As it turned out, my hubby knew the next generation of Zofnasses!  He emailed them that day, and we heard back within 24 hours.

* * * * *

Paul Zofnass responded in a trice, amazed that we’d located his family plot, delighted that we’d liked what we’d seen.  He told us that one of his favorite undergraduate courses was titled “New England Graveyards,” and that, like me, he was and continues to be fascinated by the history and artistry that can be found in our local cemeteries, and at the Mt. Auburn most especially.  He also provided a fuller backstory for his grandfather, Emil.  Paul wrote:

I wanted a Colonial style gravestone that told a bit of a story of my family heritage, starting with my grandfather, who made the tough decision at age 16 to escape from Lithuania and travel steerage to New York, without a penny to his name, and without knowing a word of English. He arrived ill with tuberculosis, was quarantined for 6 months, then migrated to Alaska to be a lumberjack while recuperated. He later moved to Texas, where he worked as a cowhand on a Rio Grande ranch. The ranch was frequently raided by Mexican rustlers, and he was severely shot during his time there.  When he recovered, he returned to New York and took a job as a seamstress for a small mattress manufacturer.  There he learned the business, and eventually started out on his own. He founded the New York Mattress Company, later known as Red Cross Mattresses.

This is the sort of personal detail I pine for when I wander around the Mt. Auburn.  I’m always on the lookout for remarkable backstories.  Alas, space tends to be limited, epitaph-wise.   And in our case, for my father-in-law (and down the road, for my mother-in-law), the words we chose would need to fit on a small flat stone.  As with the Zofnasses’ gravestone, our memorial descriptions would need to be concise.

Paul also told us about the men who had produced this remarkable work of art:

Our gravestone was carved by a father/son team in Newport RI, strongly recommended to us as the best for classic work. They were well known at the time, but have subsequently become famous. The son did a wonderful job for us.  The father is a famous sculpture, now retired.  Their office in Newport is fascinating. I would highly recommend them, they were wonderful to work with.

I bet you can guess, gentle readers, how many minutes passed, between when I read that paragraph, and when I went on line to see what I could discover.  Yep: zero minutes.  I was on it like a flash!

Here’s what I learned:

Nick Benson is the grandson of the man who bought John Stevens’  little letter carving on stone operation.

John Stevens opened his original shop in 1705.  He moved his operation across the street just a few years later. It stands there still.

How long ago is that?  Well, let’s see.  Benjamin Franklin hadn’t been born yet, and Queen Anne was in charge in Newport, back when John Stevens started carving letters on stone.  More than three hundred years under one roof, just across the street from where it all began. Which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the country.

What else did I learn?  I learned that Nick Benson is a certifiable wizard at what he does.  He was awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation.  He’s also been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with a national heritage fellowship.  The NEA described his work thusly:

Mr. Benson learned his craft through a journeyman and apprentice system.  In addition, he traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to study type design and calligraphy with European masters.  Renowned for its flowing sculptural qualities and precise design, the work of Nick Benson and his father can be seen on the Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the Poet’s Corner in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York; and the National Gallery of Art, the Kennedy Center, and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  Recently, Nick Benson completed the work on the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. 

Okay, yeah, but what’s he done lately?  Well, let me see:

IMG_8100The World War II Memorial in Washington DC.  I’m pretty sure this is Nick Benson on the right, with Tom Hanks on the left.

IMG_8101The MLK Jr. Memorial, also in Washington DC.

IMG_8104The New Yorker had a nice piece in the Talk of the Town about Nick’s work on the FDR Four Freedoms Memorial, on Roosevelt Island.  It was a labor of love, decades in the making.

He’s also undertaken a myriad of work for multiple renown museums, for the Mellon Foundation, and for Yale University, including their recently renovated art and architecture complex.  In other words, Nick has done some of the most magnificent and significant lettering on stone on the face of the earth.  A remarkable man that we’d discovered by complete serendipity.

So, I wondered, how long would it take for this modern-day Michelangelo of typeface and stone carving to get back to me?  Do calligraphy gods answer their emails?

It turns out they do.  And, okay, I had used my writer-ly wiles, to entice Nick Benson with the notion of producing a marker for a man whom I’d guessed he’d have been happy to meet–the man who built the Yale art and architecture buildings back in the 1960s that Nick had produced the gorgeous new lettering-on-stone signage for.  Bless his heart, Nick wrote me back the very next day:

When I read that your father-in-law had worked on the Yale Center for British Art, well, there we are! Also, my uncle Richard was the Dean of the Art School for quite some time.

We have much in common. Please do come and see us. It would be a joy to meet you and work on a fitting memorial. We do have a year of work ahead of us as it is now. That isn’t as bad as you had thought, thankfully.  (I’d guessed he might have a backlog of work that would extend out a decade or more.)

Feel free to give me a ring at your convenience. My numbers are below. If you don’t reach me on my land line please try my cell.

Very best,
Nick

And then, this fabulous PS:

By the way– I have been making forays into fine art, and when I read that your father-in-law went to MIT and “was for all things theoretical, things mechanical,”  I thought he may have liked the explorations I am taking into the juxtaposition between our ancient craft, calligraphic form and theoretical mathematics. Attached is an image of a calligraphic interpretation of Peter Higgs’s Standard Model of the Universe according to particle physics, hand carved into slate. I hope you enjoy it.

IMG_8102I don’t get it, but I love it!

 

I mean, seriously.  This master, who had me at Zofnass, was marketing his amazing skills to me.

So, we made a date.  And I knew I was in for something special, to see a genius at work, to get to step back into history.

That’s the final piece of this story, which deserves its own post, coming soon.

 

 

A time for memorials, Part 1

IMG_7779This is Jackson Falls: a beloved spot in my life, and a place of remembrance for my family.

* * * * *

It’s been awhile since New Year’s Eve, but still, I find myself in the land of Auld Lang Syne—that year-end post-it note to stop and think of the people in our lives. Three weeks into 2016, and I’m still here, despite the fact that such prompting once seem silly to me. What does that song mean, anyway? Who forgets old acquaintances?

When you’re young, you haven’t had time to forget the people you know: your family, for starters, then neighbors and schoolmates, college classmates and teammates, housemates and workmates. Old acquaintances aren’t old enough to disappear on you, when you’re busy growing up.  And even as the years go by, with social media at the ready to update us on our grade school classmates’ doings, the oldest of old friends are never more than a click away. So why the required reminder, as the old year passes to the new, to stop and remember?

IMG_6805I really wish I could have known this man during this era of his remarkable life.

Well, now I know. You get older, and people start disappearing from your life. First to go are the ones from your grandparents’ generation, and then your parents’.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is headed.  Which is why it starts to make sense, to make a point of thinking about old acquaintances, and to ponder, every now and again, how you yourself might want to be recalled. Auld Lang Syne is a little bit of memorial practice, along the way.

* * * * *

IMG_6502

Memorials, it turns out, have been very much on my mind.

Just over a month ago, my father-in-law passed away. For most of his eighties, this ambitious and vibrant and generous man had been on a slow but steady decline.  Since autumn, his lack of energy and his inability to rally for much of anything clearly signaled that the end was near. Remarkably, even as his body became a frail vessel for what remained of  the stalwart individual we had known and loved, his mind was still in there, still processing.  He recognized his loved ones, and knew what we were up to. He was delighted to hear about the things that mattered to his adult children and his beloved grandkids. His life ended the way most of us hope ours will end—at home, with no beeping machines or medical interventions, with his wits about him and his lifelong sweetheart at his side. He got to slip away with the knowledge that all would be well for the people he loved the most.

Even though we knew it was coming, the memorial process was daunting. Our to-do lists were full of people who needed to be contacted, details that needed attending to.  By the time we got to Christmas Day, when the whole family gathered together at the edge of a beautiful river to share Georgie stories, to laugh and shed a few tears, there was a relief, that we’d gotten this far, that we’d done what needed to be done, that the only project remaining would be the planning of a public memorial service, scheduled for springtime.

Well, not quite the very last project. The final and most permanent reminder of the man we knew and loved, the last memorial act of all, would be the placing of a stone marker in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in the town where my in-laws raised their kids and lived most of their adult lives. My father-in-law would be joining the Alcotts and the Emersons in a great Concordian forever after.  Whatever we placed there would be a final memorial to the man we all adored.

* * * * *

With remarkable camaraderie, my husband’s family rallied to handle all the tasks at hand. Each of us pitched in to return calls and follow up on arrangements, and to coordinate my mother-in-law’s holiday travel and meals and lodging, once we all determined that New Hampshire would be the place for us to gather together. We also got good at delegating tasks to the person most capable, or most interested, or most available. Which is how I ended up on gravestone duty. Clearly, I care.  Perhaps more accurately, I was the most opinionated.

IMG_7505When you live in Cambridge and you love the Mt. Auburn, your standards get set a tad high.

So, since I needed a little bit of direction (or consensus, at least) before I got started as the gravestone project manager, I asked my husband to accompany me to one of my favorite places–the historic and remarkable Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  I wanted to show him some gravestones that I thought were particularly wonderful, as well as some that I thought didn’t work so well.  I wanted to give him a sense of options that might be worth taking, choices worth making.

Here is a photo of the very first gravestone I shared with my beloved.  It’s one I particularly adore for  the beauty of the stone itself, the artistry of the hand-carved lettering, and the delightful combination of typefaces:

IMG_7447Ah, Emil.  Immigrant, Hunter, Mattress maker!

There’s something about both the style of this memorial, and the selection of descriptive adjectives that simply delights me. Plus it’s just a work of art, this stone.  It also is one of the few in the Mt. Auburn that includes lower case lettering, which to my mind is much more friendly, and much less headline-y than all capital letters.

My husband’s first comment?  “Hey, I know these people!”  Well, not the ones already buried there, but Jesse’s children and Emil’s grandchildren. Which led to a series of emails between us and the Zofnasses, which led to emails and phone calls and, not more than a week after that walk through the Mt. Auburn, a trip to the John Stevens Shop in Newport RI–where, it turns out, artisans have been carving beautiful lettering into stone markers and tablets and memorials for over three hundred years. Three hundred years!  John Stevens opened his shop in 1705!

Which is its own amazing story, deserving of its own blog post.  I promise I won’t make you wait too long for the next installment.

IMG_7739Our memorial picnic table, at the edge of Jackson Falls.

Stay tuned!