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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

* * * * *

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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!

 

 

Thankfulness and gratefulness

IMG_6058Here’s a little Hallelujah for you. Dawn Redwoods and a setting moon, at dawn.

Every year, when the weeks between Thanksgiving and the whole rest of December bear down on me like a speeding Polar Express, an item pops up on my calendar–a little reminder to be thankful and grateful for all the good things in my life, for the people who matter to me, and the places I love, and the little spots where I can make a difference now and then.

The official calendar notification to reset my thankful and grateful monitor is never on the exact same day; due to health insurance regulations, it’s usually day later than it was the year before. Because what tips me out of any holiday angst over gifts not sent or cookies not baked or family photos not captured when everyone was in one place, along with greeting cards not printed and breezy year in reviews not yet penned, never mind family members who need help that I can’t provide, or general depression about the state of a world where Isis exists and people actually listen to what Donald Trump has to say—well, forgive me, but the thing that kicks in a renewed sense of sanity, every year without fail, is my annual mammogram appointment.

I know, I know.  It’s just a little bit nutty, that I consider this my signal for attitudinal adjustment. But there it is. It takes that Red-Letter Day in the early part of my December calendar to jolt me to a better place, a more Linus outlook on both the holiday season, and life in general. It makes me remember what matters.

Yesterday was my mammogram day. It’s the third since my game-changer checkup in 2012, when they invited me back for an ultrasound and shifted my to-do list around, to make room for surgery and chemo and radiation. I’m what they call a frequent flyer at the Hoffman Breast Center these days, which comes with certain perks, if you can call them that. When I check in, I like to peek at my paperwork, which is always awash in day-glo highlighted notations. I suspect there’s a standing order, somewhere in those pages, to make sure I stay put until a radiologist has seen my 3D images and written his or her report–no going home and waiting by the phone for me.  I’m guessing that my films will always get reviewed by multiple sets of experienced eyes, if the first viewer were to find anything vaguely amiss. It comes with the territory.

When I’m called in to the changing room, I’m grateful that my annual checkup comes in a place with the nicest hospital johnnies I’ve ever encountered.  They’re mammogram-specifically designed—just long enough to cover the top half, side ties, with a v-neck that renders them darn close to stylish, and, bless the person who thought this up: they have sleeves. Not long, but long enough that you don’t sit around feeling stupidly bare-armed in December. Confession: I stashed one in my bag a few years back, and I wear it sometimes when I get into bed with a book, and need just a little extra layer in my chilly wintertime bedroom.

The technicians are always cheerful, and never in need of my standard preamble about how, no matter what some people say, I’d rather get a mammogram than have my teeth cleaned any day. Which is the truth: twenty seconds of mildly discomforting smoosh is a lot less trouble in my book than having a hygienist scrape my teeth right at the gumline for minutes on end, sure to expose my sensitivity to sharp objects, if nothing else. Mammograms might signal scarier possible outcomes than receding gums, but as a check-up tool, they’re not so horrid. I always like being helpful, getting myself aligned for ease of smoosh, finding chatty subjects to keep me from remembering why I’m actually here. My visits are quick and efficient, and always end with a hang on while we get you your results, okay?  Okay, of course.  I appreciate getting the All Clear signal sooner rather than later.

While I’m waiting, I have a scheduled visit with Kelly, a gifted nurse practitioner who works with my surgeon. Three years out, I don’t feel like I need to see the surgeon who got my lumps out and left me with nearly invisible scars—her days are packed, and the people she’s seeing are in greater need of her time and attention than I am, since they’re at the front end of the lousy mammogram roller coaster. I’m at that part where the scary part is over, where you just putt-putt along, waiting for the seat restraints to be popped open so you can get on with your day at the park.  I’m more than fine with having Kelly run through my current medical events (mostly orthopedic, which interests her athletic bent) and having her give me the once-over exam. Again, we chat about things that are tangential to why I’m there—what constitutes the various designations of breast density levels, and how noting specific dense areas with a hands-on exam can be helpful for reading the mammogram results. It’s like we’re talking about someone else, not me, on the exam table, with her fingers  up in my armpit. Somehow, we make it generic, and reassuring.

Moments later, we get a knock on the door, and Kelly receives my report, which she shares with me. Normal. Negative. No Evidence of Cancer. A little Hallelujah, and I’m on my way.

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And there it begins. The sunlight streaming through the windows seems brighter, the people I encounter on my way out are all friendlier, the stuff in the gift shop (always part of my Mammogram Reset Day, which also kicks off my Christmas shopping in earnest) is always cheerier. The day going on out there in the world is crisper, the bird songs are sweeter.  I notice things like no one’s business, once I’ve got that Normal/Negative piece of paper in my bag.

Oh, there are things that still keep me awake at night, things I wish I could fix, or help fix, or make go away.  Fortunately for me, the clarity that comes with a good news mammogram is enough to get me back on track, back to solid footing in a world that’s an amazing place, and where I’m lucky to be, soaking it all in.

IMG_6182Things I notice: this is the reflection of One Western Avenue, where we lived the summer before last while our house was under construction.  I swear, I see things like this with far greater clarity, just after my mammogram appointment.

 * * * * *

Also, for those of you who live nearby: I’m not kidding about that gift shop.  If you have even the vaguest excuse to be anywhere near the Mt. Auburn Hospital, check it out.  Excellent funky travel-friendly (meaning, can be wadded into your carry-on) women’s fashions, fantastic kitchenware items and stocking stuffers, fun things for everyone on your list. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s definitely worth a visit.

An Ode to Autumn

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“Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.” Albert Camus

The more I think about that quote, the more I realize that I don’t agree with Camus. Because the difference between autumn and spring, in my book anyhow, is that spring literally bounces us forward to months of more, more, more, a rolling admissions invitation to an endless blossom party. Autumn, by contrast, is a fireworks finale,  just as the world is bedding itself down for a long winter’s nap. Where spring is just the beginning, autumn is the final gasp, leaving us with bare branches and darkness at 4:30PM .

For my entire New England-centric life, fall weather reports have included maps that show which zones are approaching their foliage peak, and which are past their foliage prime.  Once a zone hits that last high note, it’s a long slow fade to Thanksgiving–that’s the assumption, anyhow.  You go north over Columbus Day to hit the peak color in the White and Green Mountains, then you drive back home and wait for Jack Frost’s paintbrush to have had the same effect a couple of hours to the south, a week or two later on.

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When last I posted, September was just winding down, and the days were still shifting between an occasional chilly dose of weather to come and inevitable returns to those hazy hot and humid reminders of the season past.  What constituted foliage back then was really more a case of leaves withering and falling for lack of moisture, our summer having been exceedingly short on rainfall. I had low hopes for a colorful autumn, given the way things were going.

Since then?  Well, let’s just say that autumn 2015 has been about as glorious a foliage show as I can remember, ever.  As I thumb through the photos I’ve taken since October 1st, I realize that most of them have been exclamations of delight over the state of the colors outside my windows, down here or up north.  It’s been amazing, coming and going, home and away.

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Curiously, all my trips north the past month or so have been, according to the weather folks,  too early for peak foliage, or too late.  I went up the week before Columbus Day, and then a fortnight after that three day foliage-fest, and once again over the Veterans Day holiday.  Each time, I found myself wanting to argue with the foliage authorities.  Okay, the first of October may not have been the peak, but it sure was pretty.  Same thing three weeks later: perhaps the peak had passed, but wow, would you look around and see what there still is to see?  And even into November, when there was frost clinging to the tops of the Presidential range and the woods had gone all pewter and rust–there was beauty in the landscape, at every turn–in my book, anyhow.

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Gorgeous, even as autumn slips away.

* * * * *

I can’t help but wonder if my appreciation for the denouement of this foliage season has to do with where I am in my own life: definitely past the mid-point, definitely at a juncture where the expectation going forward is that what remains will be ongoing exercises in extending, as best I can, my capacities on all fronts.  There are no more big fireworks to be had when you’ve long ago turned 18 and 21 and 30 and 40 and…well, you see where this is going.  I’ve been to the prom, I’ve got my driver’s license, I graduated from college, I fell in love. I got my first paycheck and went on a round-the-world honeymoon. I gave birth, twice. And since then, I’ve witnessed my babies’ first lost teeth and first bike rides and home runs and art displays.  I’ve been there for their graduation days, their  wisdom teeth extractions and driver’s license tests, each time reliving the joy, the trauma, the relief.  I still wonder what the world holds for them, and I worry about their futures, but that’s me being a mom who will never not worry, who will always wish I could do something useful on their behalves beyond making applesauce and offering to pay for  snow tires.

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It’s deep-seeded in me these days, this urge to see beauty in the things that are past their prime, to not skip the parts that come after the big reveal.  I’ve been catching myself looking deep into the woods as we drive north and the landscape speeds by, feasting on the view you can only get when the ferns and brambles have succumbed to frost.  I spent my youth staring out station wagon windows on road trips in Maine, always hoping to spot deer, moose, foxes or bears, back when I wanted to be the boy in My Side of the Mountain. There’s something about this time of year, this year in particular, that’s pulling me back to those days, reminding me how much I once ached to find pink quartz rocks off the side of a hiking trail, or catch a glimpse of a bobcat or a jack-in-the-pulpit near our bend on the Carrabassett River. There are so many things I do now that echo those days and those desires–walks around the reservoir to see which migrating waterfowl are stopping over on their way south, trips to my favorite cemetery where more than anything, I want to find myself in the presence of wildlife, always wishing for encounters with coyotes or great horned owls.  I’m a city person now, but I grew up scanning the night sky for falling stars, and pulling Queen Anne’s lace up by the roots, just to smell their earthy, carroty scent.  Something about autumn, deep into its last leaves, its killing frost, holds my renewed attention, and jolts me to times in my life, looking both backward and forward.

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A post-foliage-peak view.  Seemed glorious to me…

* * * * *

So, here we are, with Thanksgiving nearly upon us.  In just the past few days, the wind and the rain have pulled down the hanger-on leaves, and the chill in the air seems inclined to stick around.  The world is dark too soon each evening, while the sun these days, so low in the sky, unfiltered by foliage, is stark and unrelenting, just until it disappears.  Winter is coming, no doubt about it.  Time to button up, batten down the hatches, sweep out the gutters and check that the furnace is ready to hum.

In these sepia-tinted days, I’ll still be looking for the beauty in the denouement, hoping to catch all the lovely little codas that are all too easy to miss, if you stop paying attention when things start to go dim.  From here on out, in my book, it’s all about paying attention–especially this time of year, especially this time in my life.

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Book Review Alert: Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites

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Once again, I am my own worst publicist.  This review of Alice Hoffman’s latest work of historical fiction, The Marriage of Opposites, was published on line a few days ago by the Washington Independent Review of Books (http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/)  I just remembered to check today to see if it was up.  Et voila! Another little miracle of the cyberworld.

It was my particular pleasure to write this review, since I am (unbeknownst to her) beholden to Alice Hoffman for her work on behalf of The Mount Auburn Hospital’s Hoffman Breast Center.  Her efforts to help my local hospital create a state-of-the-art center for women to monitor their breast health meant that I was able to get extraordinary care by gifted doctors and technicians, from my mammograms to my now bi-annual followup appointments.  Best of all, I got the same diagnosis and treatment plan that I would have gotten if I’d signed on to cross the river and enter into the Boston medical realm–which I know for a fact, since my Mount Auburn team insisted that I go to Dana Farber for a second opinion.  How lucky am I, that I got the best possible care, and got it close enough to home that I could walk back and forth to my appointments, and stop and smell the roses along the way?  All of which made me very much happier than I would have been, had I been getting stuck in traffic on a regular basis, between Longwood Ave. and Storrow Drive, for the better part of a year.

So, on the off chance that Alice Hoffman ever googles herself and finds this review, bless you for all you do, beyond your extraordinary writing.

 

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman

When asked where she finds the sparks that beget her novels, author Alice Hoffman points to the overlooked details in history’s margins, as well as the stories that rarely make it into the history books. It’s these tales, more often than not family legends or tribal lore passed down by mothers to children, that shape her work.

In the writing of her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, Hoffman discovered the sparks as a curious string of factoid pearls, one after another. First, while attending a Williams College art exhibit, she noticed that the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro was born not in France, as she’d assumed, but on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. From there, she learned that St. Thomas had been part of the Danish West Indies, and was renowned in the 1800s as a refuge for freed slaves, religious-freedom seekers, and members of the Jewish diaspora who had been fleeing Europe since the Inquisition.

Hoffman subsequently discovered that Pissarro’s widowed mother had shocked the European-Jewish elders of St. Thomas when she and the nephew of her deceased husband — a young man who’d come to the island from France to settle his uncle’s affairs — fell in love and married, an act explicitly against the rules of their faith. With this rich cache of largely forgotten drama, Hoffman knew she had the threads with which to weave an extraordinary work of fiction.

And what a gift of a tale she has written. Using facts as her foundation, Hoffman has painted a mesmerizing scenery and imagined a collection of supporting characters to describe protagonist Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro’s rich and remarkable life. The Marriage of Opposites begins in Rachel’s voice; she is a young girl, headstrong and mature beyond her years, who sees all and understands far more than the grownups around her suspect.

This 12-year-old narrator provides a primer on her island’s past and describes the education she has gleaned both from her father’s library and at his side (an unusual act of generosity by an early-19th-century businessman toward his daughter). This education gave her an appreciation for subjects as varied as the inner details of the family business, the stories of Perrault and Mother Goose, and the streetscapes of faraway Paris.

In addition, Hoffman portrays young Rachel as the self-appointed collector of the island women’s stories: tales of animal magic, mysteries solved, and grudges held, along with rumors of spells concocted and ghosts who haunt the people. Rachel writes down everything she learns from the matriarchs but hides her notebooks from her disapproving mother, a woman impossible to please and leery of any behaviors that stray from the social mores of the day.

Years later, after Rachel has regaled her own children with her collected lore, she finds herself similarly fearful that they might stray from the rules she once found so stifling. Alas, the generations seem destined to inflict the same constraints on their children that were once inflicted on them, and the children inevitably suffer from these misguided, if well-intentioned, protections. That is, until they turn their backs on their elders’ expectations, pave their own way, and become their own storytellers.

Hoffman’s stellar imagination, along with the mixture of history and magic that is a primary signature of her writing, is prevalent throughout this novel. Where historians list names and dates and births and deaths, she expands her period tales with infusions of sights and scents, flora and fauna, and, often, magical messages. The pages of The Marriage of Opposites nearly ooze with the heat and humidity of island life, particularly life in the Caribbean borne within the constraints of whalebone corsets and starched collars.

The tropical conditions are a powerful element here; superstitions and witchcraft hang in the moisture, dripping from the rafters. There are also flashbacks that provide continuity throughout the novel: long-lost memories of water, of turtles, of unidentifiable sounds, and of visions of symbolic birds that appear at auspicious junctures. These sensory memories ebb and flow like the tide, returning when the moon is full and their power is most potent.  

To invest in both a fictionalized history and an imagined magical backstory takes a suspension of disbelief that might be beyond some readers’ comfort zones. But Hoffman’s capacity to blend stories based on real events with those of otherworldly powers is seemingly infinite. In fact, what might make this novel a bit hard to navigate is not its fantastical elements, but rather the multiple voices in which it’s told. The magic may be expected, but the changes in point of view are harder to adjust one’s ear to.

And yet, in the end, the stories within The Marriage of Opposites grow familiar, their tellings and retellings handed down from generation to generation. And with their retelling, Hoffman’s original threads — of a forgotten past, her discovery and reclamation of a world that once existed, and her portrayal of characters loving one another, rebelling, and reconnecting — are woven together into an unforgettable tale. It’s a story well told, and well worth passing along.

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A different sort of equinox

IMG_2042Here it comes…

September is when the New Year has always begun, in my book. Things commence with the click of a preset switch from summer to fall, whisking in new opportunities like a breath of fresh air. The world is all shiny shoes and sharpened pencils and clean slates, come September.

And while I have no particular need these days for either updated footwear or another box of Ticonderoga #2s, the sense of new beginnings is part of my DNA, ingrained beyond my own school days, beyond even my kids’ school days. Say goodbye to August, say hello to a brand new start.

I confess, it’s taken me a few weeks to switch gears this September, to feel energized by that shift from one season to the next. First off, there was the combination of heat and humidity that didn’t let up when August departed. I spent the summer sweltering, from my younger son’s steamy college graduation, back in May, until, well, very recently. My memories of that commencement day mostly have to do with seeking shade and sucking on ice cubes and trying to un-adhere myself from whatever I was sitting on or leaning against, all day long. It feels like I’ve been asking, “Is it hot, or is it just me?” nearly endlessly, ever since. Actually, I don’t bother with the second half of that query. Because I know.  These days, it’s always me.

So, between the heat and the haze and the hip surgery recovery and the extra hot flashes brought on by my post chemo and radiation medication, it’s been a sweltery slog of a summer. While others around me traveled to weddings and went rafting and water skiing and took in everything that makes summertime grand, I stayed close to home, trying to get some solid ZZZs in whatever sleeping positions have worked, paying regular visits to my PT gurus, and attending to my strength and stretching routine on the cool tile kitchen floor, under the ceiling fan. It hasn’t been my idea of perfect, but it’s definitely been what the doctor ordered.

What I could have lived without, during this stay-at-home summer, was the extra time I spent (or more accurately, wasted) in my self-imposed designated worrywart role. The sleepless hours lost to orthopedic discomfort provided a fertile playground for my imagination—a simple case of me having too much time lying awake, pondering the plights of loved ones whose paths are currently unclear.

The individual on that list who is least worthy of any of my 2AM concerns has been my younger son. Since that sticky cap-and-gown event back in May, he worked to get one more issue of a beloved undergrad publication to print, while also making time to practice for his better-late-than-never driver’s license road test.  I know he longs to be gainfully employed and living elsewhere–who wouldn’t, at his age?  But honestly, I like having him at home, and the hours devoted to parallel parking outings were a cheerful gift, considering the circumstances. He’s had his license for a month now, and (predictably) has discovered the wonders of the open road.  I’m happy for him, even as I miss our practice drives to a favorite diner that has fabulous egg dishes and plentiful side street practice venues. But still, I worry.  I know he wants to push off to the next thing, and I wish I could help him get there, wherever there may be. But I’m pretty much clueless as to what I could possibly be doing to help him, which is a hard reality to live with—mother as fossil, that’s me. And yet, and yet…he’s my baby, and I want him to be happy. That piece never goes away.

Then there are my dear in-laws, who are facing the whole panoply of growing old concerns, together and individually. Bottom line, no matter how much you anticipate your needs and ready yourself for your “golden years,” there’s simply no fool-proof primer for how your old age will play itself out. Moreover, there’s no road map for what to do when one member of a lifelong couple is considerably healthier than the other–which, unfortunately, is where my mother- and father-in-law find themselves. My heart aches for them both, while the list of entertaining and useful things I can do for them seems to be shrinking, my capacity to bring joy to their days, somehow diminished.

I’ve reached a curious point with both my octogenarian and my twentysomething loved ones, where the arcs of my roles in their lives have intersected.  It comes down to this: I can’t fix any of my family members’ most significant problems anymore.  These days, there’s just no kissing anyone’s boo-boos to make everything better. For the generation ahead of me and the one coming up behind me, it feels like the best I can do is to simply be present, and listen, and not try to jolly them out of the very real feelings they’re having about their lives these days—both the feelings that are part of being launched into adulthood, and the feelings that come when one’s health and one’s competencies, so long taken for granted, start slipping away.

I guess I’ve arrived at like some form of parenting in reverse. There is no helicopter mothering-mode for the stages my sons have entered, and there’s no way to turn the clock back for my in-laws. There’s only the acknowledgement that my family role is tilting to someplace on the other side of a generational equinox.  And all I can do, from this side, is to be present, and thoughtful.  It may seem useless, but it really does count, to just let another person know that you care.  Even when there’s no fix to offer with the caring.  I’ll always be a mom, and I’m still a dutiful daughter-in-law, but I no longer can pretend to be the source of perfect solutions to the perils of growing up, or growing old.

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This past week, the autumnal equinox officially turned the page from summer to fall.  And with this leap towards the darker side of the calendar, the humidity finally left town.  So now I’m enjoying the sleep that comes with a chill in the air, a breeze through the open windows, and an extra blanket pulled up over my shoulders.  The days are growing shorter, air is crisper, and that sense of fresh starts has finally arrived. I’m grateful for the seasonal sense of new possibilities, even as I realize I’m looking at the world from a new vantage point, around a new corner on the road of my own life story.

 

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Hey, extra credit if you think you’ve already seen this post’s photos.  They are indeed reruns, seen here in years past.  I won’t bore you with my tech trials and tribulations; let’s just say, getting my phone and my laptop to play nicely with one another has been an ongoing project.  I’ll let you know when I can get the photos on my phone to jump to iPhoto.  Until then, arghhhh…