Friday, November 13, 2015

A Fine and Friendly Place

                 The grave’s a fine and private place,
                  But none, I think, do there embrace.
                      -- Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

Or maybe they do. In Peter S. Beagle’s novel A Fine and Private Place, two ghosts – Michael Morgan, a possible suicide, and Laura Durand, a shy bookstore clerk – fall in love. They cannot move beyond the confines of the cemetery, and their posthumous romance will only last as long as they can remember life, love, each other...and themselves. Once they forget these things, they will quietly fade away, remembered only by a talking raven and a bankrupt pharmacist who has been living in the cemetery for almost 20 years.

When I was a kid, my dad used to sometimes drop me off at the old library on Saturday afternoons. After a few hours of rummaging through the books, I’d go outside and sit on one of the marble benches, waiting for him. The town cemetery was right next door. I was always tempted to go exploring there – the old gravestones fascinated me – but never did.

Not till many years later, that is. I was working on my novel A Time for Shadows: parts of it were set in Simsbury, and I wanted to use Antoinette Eno Woods, a prominent figure in town, and her nephew, conservationist Gifford Pinchot, as minor characters. So my son Zeke and I drove over to the cemetery and wandered about the older section, where Woods is buried. That section is situated on a gently sloping hill, and her mausoleum is right at the top. As I stood there, gazing down at the main street and the brick and redstone buildings, I was struck by how little it had all changed since my days of hanging out at the library. It was like one of those antique tinted postcards come to life….

Still much later, I walked through both the old and new —well, newer --sections of the cemetery. My husband Tim is in the former; the latter is the final resting place of many familiar souls, people I either knew or heard my parents speak of while I was growing up.

But maybe “resting place” is the wrong term. To me, they speak; and as I wander among the headstones, bits of conversation, funny and colorful, come to me, making me smile or laugh. I hear Betty, my friend Kathy’s mom, roaring when she walked into the bathroom and discovered that their puppy had chewed her dentures: “Who’s the congenital idiot who let the dog in here?” And there’s my mom’s old friend Cora, one of my very best favorite people. Cora had a very distinctive voice: she was also extremely blunt. One day, my mother and I stopped to see her at the local department store where she worked. Coral smiled at us and, as usual, cut directly to the chase. “I made the mistake of saying hello to your brother-in-law this morning,” she informed Mom. “My God, he is the most boring man alive!” Another time, she was telling us about when she broke her ankle years earlier: she turned to my mother and said, “And your husband said, ‘If you were a horse, we’d shoot you --!’ I could’ve killed him.”

(She actually thought very highly of my dad. Just not at that moment.)

I have a few relatives buried here, too. One aunt – “Ol’ Porkpie-Hat,” Tim always called her -- I was not particularly fond of, but she made for great stories. Like the time she turned to Dad’s best friend, Al, and said, “That was when your wife left you. You remember when your wife left you, Al?”

And just as clearly, I hear my late sister-in-law’s voice: “Of course, he’s going to remember it! He might rise above it, but he’s not gonna forget it!”

Along with the voices come a slew of memory-pictures. My father’s grammar-school teacher is buried here. She was over 100 when she died, and I remember Dad bringing me to see her after my Bat Mitzvah: he brought her the flowers from the bimah (the podium where the Torah is read), too, and talked gently with her for awhile. I stop at the graves of Amos and Pearl George. Amos was the caretaker at the McLean Game Refuge, and I remember how he used to poke fun at Mom for the red poncho she always brought with her to work on. (Mom was a whiz with all sorts of needlework, but it took her forever to finish that poncho.) Pearl was a sweet lady, and I visited her  when I was doing an article at her convalescent home. I didn’t do the flowers thing, but I did bring her a cat picture because Mom had told me how much Pearl was missing her cat.

Cora’s son, who predeceased her, is here, too. I remember the funeral, which was a military one and how Cora held the folded flag close to her chest, like a child clutching a teddy bear.

A few summers ago, I went to the cemetery with my friend Cel, who wanted to visit her mother’s grave before she moved down South. I figured I’d go look up Cora, as I’d been to her funeral service but not to the internment. It took me awhile, but I found her, buried next to her husband, Pete. There was an elegant little cat carved on the stone. It was very Cora.

Cel and I paid Tim a visit, too. We talked about a lot of things, including the fact that her father (who remarried long ago) was going to give her the plot next to her mom’s.

“Oh, good,” I said. “Tim and I’ll float over and visit you.”

It’s really quite a little township, the center cemetery. And when I walk here, I think that both Marvell and Beagle got it wrong. This graveyard’s a fine and friendly place, and these ghosts aren’t about to fade away any time soon. For me, they are just as quirky and vivid as they were in this life. It’s The Spoon River Anthology but with a much less mournful twist.

Friday, August 7, 2015


(I had a sister-in-law who was very much the big sister I had always wanted.  She died young, but something of her lingered in her garden. This is for her. 5/19/54 -8/16/83.)

Sweetpeas you planted
          ten years ago --
their petals butterfly-shaped
          rose-pink, almost magenta --
keep their color
long into the fall,
their poetry
dulling the pale-purple chives
          and star-blossomed sage
          to prose.
Their leaves and stalks,
joined like an antique doll’s
reach their twisted fingers
          out of the dark earth.
You -- your eyes, your laugh,
          your lightning-bursts of temper --
have gone to ashes
but your sweetpeas keep
you before me,
          a memory I can touch.
Ground could not hold you,
          a spirit too restless
                    to be stilled.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Unseen Traveler

(From The Way-Back Files:  Until We Meet Again.  Guideposts, 2003.)

The rain that early July Tuesday had been monsoon-like, forcing me to pull over to the side of the road at one point during my travels. By 7:15 p. m., it had stopped, but the roads were still dangerously slick. I’d just gotten off the phone with my husband, Tim, and could tell from his voice that the swing shift he’d worked the night before had finally started catching up with him. “You sound like you need to be off the road,” I’d remarked, telling him to skip the trip to the store he’d been about to make.

“I really want to be home,” he’d said just before signing off.

A funny queasiness took hold of me shortly afterwards. I wandered restlessly about the house, then headed up to our three-year-old son Zeke’s room and began reading to him. I happened to look up at one point and went even sicker inside. The walls of the room began pulsing, the colors in the wallpaper draining away.

A few hours later, my in-laws came to tell me that Tim’s van had crashed into a telephone pole, killing him instantly. The time of death was 7:31. (“I can’t say for sure,” a friend said later when I told her the wallpaper story, “but I’ll bet you that’s when Tim died.”)

Pain set in, followed by an eerie numbness, a winter of the soul like nothing I’d ever known before. I made the funeral arrangements, picked out the monument, gave away many of Tim’s belongings, and probated the will, hoping that once these things were done, I would somehow come back to life. I was a ghost wandering through a lonely dark wood, searching desperately for a clearing, some space between the branches that a ray of light could pierce through.

Two weeks after Tim died, I came back from running some errands and went up to my room to lie down. I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I’d just rest a bit in the cool shadowy room while my mother took care of Zeke downstairs.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a white-gold light appeared to the left of the headboard. It hung in mid-air, glowing like a flame and deepening in intensity as I gazed into the heart of it. The light flickered and danced before my eyes, then slowly…ever so slowly…faded away.

I sat up, amazed. The room, as I’ve said, was a shadowy one, thanks to the huge oak tree shading the window directly across from the bed: in the past, I’d hung crystals in that window in vain attempts to work a little rainbow magic. There was no prism in the window now, only an enormous aloe plant snaking its arms against the pains…and, anyway, a prism would’ve cast its rainbows against the walls, ceiling, and floor. It wouldn’t have conjured up that firefly flame that hung suspended in the air, beckoning and reassuring me….

The June after Tim died, Zeke and I traveled to Prince Edward Island. It was the vacation that Tim and I had planned for the three of us to take for what would have been our tenth anniversary. It was a tough trip on my own with a four-year-old, and Zeke was homesick. So I cut the vacation short and drove the rental car to Charlottetown the day before our re-scheduled flight. We stopped at the airport first to confirm the flight changes. The woman at the counter was genuinely charming and helpful, waiving the change fee. “Now,” she said brightly, looking up at me, “there’s a third person traveling with you?”

I did a double-take – after all, it was 1996, and surely a single parent traveling alone with a child shouldn’t be that much of a novelty – but explained the circumstances. The woman shivered. “That gives me the willies,” she admitted, as she directed us to a motel close to the airport.

I found it easily enough. The woman who ran it was just as friendly, and we chatted lightly as I filled out the necessary paperwork. “There’s a third person traveling with you?” she asked suddenly.

I guessed there was – an unseen traveler who wanted to make sure that we were all right and had landed in a good place.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fitz's Robin

(From The Way-Back Files:  Eternal Moments. Guideposts, 2004.)

I picked up the wooden robin. Perched on a piece of driftwood, it was simply and beautifully carved with a friendly, inquisitive face. “Where’d you get this?” I asked admiringly.

Fitz chuckled. “Oh, Fran Snow, an old friend of mine, and I have this contest about who sees the first robin. So she sent this to me.”

Fitz – her real name was Dorothy, but she loathed it, preferring the abbreviated form of her maiden name – wasn’t a blood relative. She was my late husband Tim’s maternal grandmother. But from the beginning, I’d felt a kinship with her. A private, reserved soul, she shared my love of books and gardening…though she had her reservations about cats, having given her heart over just once to a feline named Brutus, who’d broken it when he died. Still, she admitted that my cats were “pretty” and that she enjoyed looking at pictures of them.

We had some similar tastes in literature. Supernatural stories, for instance. “You know, I’ve always been fascinated by vampires,” she told me once with something between a lilt and a chuckle in her voice after reading a vampire yarn I’d just written. And she listened attentively to the otherworldly experiences that I was weaving into my novel Souleiado. “No foolin’,” she’d say. Her blue-green eyes – Tim’s color exactly – larger and more luminous than ever. Whether or not she believed them, she, like I, had an ear for a good story.

After Tim and his mother, Bobbie, died within a year-and-a-half of each other, I began visiting Fitz at her condo on a weekly basis, often bringing my son, Zeke, with me. Mostly, however, I came by myself while Zeke was in school. Fitz, knowing that I was stopping by, would leave the door ajar for me. Sometimes I’d find her asleep in her big chair. So I’d sit down from her and, pulling out my quilting, work on it till she woke up. Then we’d visit with each other for an hour, our silence as comfy as the scraps of old fabric in my quilt and interwoven with reminiscences and the latest Zeke bulletins.

I’d share my writing news with her, too, of course. She followed my novel Souleiado’s progress along with great enthusiasm, telling me that she thought the prologue was “truly inspired.” I wrote my acknowledgements page out ahead of time, with a special mention of her and sat there quietly while she read it. She looked up at me, wide-eyed. “You do me too much honor,” she said.

She was always incredibly generous with what she laughingly called her “interesting clutter” – the hodgepodge of knickknacks and curios she’d brought with her when she’d closed up her old house in Springfield, Massachusetts. “If you see anything you want,” she’d say, “please ask me. I may say, ‘No, you can’t have it,’ but ask me.”

So, on one of my visits, I finally asked her for the robin whose upturned face had intrigued me from the beginning. And Fitz, with the graciousness that was as much a part of her as those large expressive eyes, gave it to me. Now, despite my fondness for bird-watching, I never had any luck when it came to spotting the first robin. Everybody else always saw it before I did. But I put Fitz’s robin on the table across from my bed so that I could see it first thing every morning.

About a month after her ninety-first birthday, Fitz finally gave up the fight. On my last visit, I stayed barely ten minutes: she was in terrible pain and had precious little energy left. “I’m so glad to have been part of your writing,” she told me, reaching up to stroke my hair, her blue-green eyes shimmering.

I smiled at her through my tears. “I’m only sorry I couldn’t finish my book for you,” I replied, referring to Souleiado.

She gave me messages for Zeke and my mother, whom she’d been very fond of. Then she smiled at me, and I could see something of the vibrant young woman she’d been. “I think you’re wonderful.”

I gave her smile for smile. “I think it’s always been a mutual admiration society.” I rose from her bedside and forced the next words out, knowing that she would understand. “I won’t be back unless you need me.” I bent down and cupping her pointed face in my hands, kissed her good-bye.

A little over a week later, she was dead. At the simple memorial service, her daughter, Caroline, read the opening lines from the 121st Psalm, which had, she said, been Fitz’s favorite:

“I will life up mine eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

I was surprised and moved. Fitz had been something of an agnostic, and we had never really discussed religion. It had certainly never occurred to me that there might be a psalm that had held special meaning for her.

And when Zeke and I arrived home, the funniest most perfect thing happened. Two or three robins were strutting about our yard against the backdrop of Avon Mountain. No foolin’.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Toolsheds & Spiritual Nexuses

Behind the tool shed was a treasure trove of good junk. An old mattress. A large wooden electrical-cable spool. An equally large metal cube-like thing (I never did figure out what it was) that Dad had picked up somewhere. A couple of down-on-their-luck pink plastic flamingos. Assorted boards and some defunct lawnmowers that he probably had plans for – after all, he’d once welded a metal vegetable-bin drawer to the base of another lawnmower, creating a curious but perfectly functional little cart.

It was, to my ten-year-old eyes, heaven. I could make a place of my very own there. And did.

The metal cube was already perched up on the spool. A board across the top bar, another board placed a little lower down on the opposite side – and voila! -- I had a look-out post, a desk, and whatever else I wanted it to be. It didn’t exactly qualify for tree-fort status; but with six people in our family, space was hard to come by, and this was all mine.

Eventually, of course, it all got carted away to the dump. That was O. K. because by then I was a little older. I needed something more in keeping with my 5th- and 6th-grade aspirations.

The toolshed.

My father had built it along with the house back in the late 1940s. It had a brick floor and two big windows on either side. The cats lived out there (Dad had cut a cat-sized doorway right next to the people-sized door), and I saw no reason why I couldn’t as well. I’d go there after school and play with the cats, imagining how I’d fix it up. The wide junk-strewn shelves would hold my books and treasures. There was already some furniture – my grandfather’s old dented milking stool and a disabled pot-bellied stove that Dad had gotten off an antiques-dealer friend – and I figured that I could somehow squeeze my bed, my desk (really an old-fashioned dressing-table that had belonged to Mom when she’d been my age), and bookcase in, too.

In the meantime, it was my place to hang out and dream in. Many years later, I read Mirabel Cecil’s book Lottie’s Cats to my own child. I’d come to the part where Lottie was sitting with her seven cats in their shed, reading stories to them, and I'd sigh happily, remembering my toolshed with the afternoon sun sifting in through its dusty cracked windows…the cats peering down at me from the rafters, the air thick with their purring….

In time, our cats gained indoor status, so I didn’t have to go out to the shed to play with them. There were other out-of-doors places where I went to read and write my stories. But I never outgrew my affection for the little brick-floored building – which, thanks to Dad’s cat door, still provided shelter for various strays, including my much-loved Tikvah (whose story I have already told in my book Catsong.)

Fast-forward about thirty years. Dad was dead, Mom had just gone into a convalescent home with advanced dementia, and I was a widow with a teenager. I knew that I didn’t want to live in my parents’ house again, but I also wasn’t quite ready to let go. So I decided to rent it out.

The old toolshed needed replacing. It, like Mom, had been falling apart for some time. The only part of it still intact was the brick floor that my father had put in. Jaysen, the guy handling the project, built the new shed on top of it. So something of Dad’s work remained, even though nobody could see it. I liked that.

But it wasn’t my toolshed. The magic was gone – from the shed, from the field, and from the house itself. Within the year, I sold the property.

We need our magic places. They heal and renew us. Author Frances Hodgson Burnett knew that all too well: she spent a lot of time writing in an English rose garden following a very messy, very scandalous divorce back in the early 1900s. The Secret Garden, the story of an unhappy child who brings a once-loved garden back to life, was written a few years later; but the idea for it came to her as she was working in that other garden, trying to put her own life back together.

People talk about spiritual nexuses, places that that are inherently powerful. Are there such places? I don’t doubt it. But I also believe that with places, as with rituals and relationships, it’s what we bring to them that makes them magical. At least that’s how it was with those hideaways of mine.

I drive by my mother’s house frequently. And sometimes I get kinda wistful as I glance at it. Paradise lost. But I have new places now, places where insights and stories come to me: my gardens on summer evenings; by the brook and the clearing where I love to walk in the mornings; and the little hillside by my old cat-buddy Zorro’s grave. You see, magic is a fluid thing, and it travels with us.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writing from Grief

(From The Not-So-Way-Back Files -- The Best American Poetry blog, June 2014)

Many years ago, when Tim and I were first dating, I wrote a poem called “Dulcimer.” In it, I tried to capture how the “muted mauve&gray sky” of a winter’s afternoon, the dulcimer music on the radio, and our lovemaking all came together to create a beautiful outside-of-time moment.

Tim always liked that poem and not just because it was sexual. “That’s the way it really was,” he’d say.

We married and had a child, Zeke. We were not a picture-perfect couple by any stretch of the imagination, and we both had pretty good ones. But we got each other. He was my toughest critic and my fiercest supporter. “If I’ve done nothing else in my life,” he told me, “I’ve tried to be supportive of your writing….I believe you have what it takes to be a great writer.”

So, when he was killed in a car accident, I was lost and not just because I suddenly found myself a 34-year-old widow with a three-and-a-half-year-old child. My best friend, my cheering section, was gone. And for what seemed like a long time afterwards, I could not write. Then a poem came to me. It wasn’t a very good one. But it let me know that there was a survivor in the wreckage.

More poems began to appear. One of them was “The Wild Things”: it deals with the weeks after the tragedy and two “small good things” that happened, bringing me out of the fog….

One muggy afternoon, I walked listlessly out into the backyard. There, at the edge of Tim’s vegetable garden, stood a doe. I stopped. Time stopped. In that space, only the deer and I existed. I stared at her, and she returned my gaze without fear. Never had a deer – or any other wild animal, for that matter – looked at me like that. I felt oddly comforted despite my grief.

Not long afterwards, I was going out to the shed when a hummingbird flew by, drawn to the red bee balm alongside it. We’d never had hummingbirds before despite all the fancy feeders I’d hung to lure them into the yard. And, once again, the pain inside me loosened its hold for a bit.

Both deer and hummingbirds have a rep as messengers, symbolically speaking. Tim and I had both loved animals, birds, and just being out in nature. Among the many things he had given me over the years were a river otter sculpture, a book – America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife – and a beaver-chewed stick that he’d picked up by the river, knowing that I’d like it. And once, during the holidays, I’d picked out a wildlife calendar for my mom to give him. He’d thanked her, then said, “I suspect Tammy had something to do with this.”

So, when the deer and the hummingbird appeared so soon after his death, I couldn’t help suspecting that Tim had something to do with it. That it was his way of letting me that he was O. K. Both creatures lifted my spirits – made me feel as though, yes, he was out there somewhere – and then they went into my poem.

Writing that poem – and the Tim poems that followed – gave me a way of processing all that grief that I didn’t know what to do with. But doing so also gave me a life-line. Slowly, I drew myself up out of the sad, dark place his death had sent me to.

I haven’t had a lot of contact with the other contributors to The Widows’ Handbook, but I get the sense that their poems have worked in much the same way for them. Patricia Savage speaks in “How Could I” of “turn[ing] toward the light, the children in the kitchen, bound to the care of the living, choosing alchemy to create cold sense out of the molten lead of your passing.” In “Wonderland,” Gail Braune Cormorat writes about being “shaken, transformed” and then “stepp[ing] through the door once again.”

Because it is a transformation, a going through the looking-glass into a world where nothing makes sense. And we use – we need -- the alchemy of poetry to make something transcendent out of our wanderings there. That is what characterizes the poems in The Widows’ Handbook for me and why it’s ultimately an inspiring and not a depressing book.

The landscape of grief is an ever-shifting one, and no two people experience it quite the same way. Those moments out in the yard – the doe greeting me from the garden, the hummingbird whirring about like a tiny jeweled miracle in a world gone gray – have stayed with me. At a time when I hurt too much to cry, they were a connection with Tim and more. They took me out of myself and brought a kind of healing with them.

When I read “The Wild Things” now, I find that I tend to skip over the opening, which deals with Tim’s death. Instead, I focus on that last section…on the deer, the hummingbird, and the messages they brought me. On the gifts that came to me when my hands felt hopelessly empty. I read those lines, and it all comes back to me in a rush. Because that’s the way it really was.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Touch of Magic: Mette Meyer

                                   “Expression is everything to me.”
                                                                        -- Mette Meyer

Mette Meyer loves all animals. Growing up, she was more of a dog person: her first pet was a Newfoundland, who left her “with a love for gentle giants.” After that, the artist imported some of the first Leonbergers -- Mountain Dogs that are a cross between a Barry Dog, a Landseer Newfoundland, and a Great Pyrenees -- from Germany to her home in Norway. She even had a kennel prefix and bred several litters. 

When the last of her Leonbergers died of old age, Meyer took a break and began traveling around the world. But the animals weren’t done with her. Somewhere a cat was waiting…and in 1998, a simple unpretentious moggy came into her life and made all the difference, opening her up to a love of all things feline. Ten years later, she got her first purebred, a Ragdoll named Brutus; he was followed by Charlie and Bounty, two silver-shaded or black-tipped British Shorthairs. “I do not breed,” she says. “They are pets only, but I love shows. All the boys have done well at shows.”

Somewhere along the way, Meyer’s love of animals merged with her art. Two-and-a-half years ago, she began doing portraits of them, using photos as a basis for her work. “It started as a hobby, as an experiment,” she recalls. The hobby soon became a passion, and she began doing commissioned portraits, “making all the personalized backgrounds and layers.” The resulting portraits are both very life-like and very soft and impressionistic. They look as though they’ve been painted by hand.

“I have not been influenced by anyone, not copied anyone,” Meyer tells me. “Whatever I have made is home-made. However, I need photos and must admit I have done quite a bit of ‘catnapping’ on Facebook….I have an inner need or urge to make them. Not one day will pass that I will not make a picture when seeing a photo of a cute cat.” But she hasn’t forgotten her first love – dogs – and they figure in her work as well.

Meyer also does abstract and scenic pictures, the latter based on “photos taken on holidays. Not tourist attractions – more like a narrow street in an idyllic village in, let’s say, France.”

Still, the cats are what call to her. She always gets “stunned” by their beauty; as she works, she finds herself thinking about the best way to preserve that beauty.

The response to these portraits has been overwhelming: Animal Art, her Facebook page, has garnered close to 400 followers, and quite a few of them have commissioned work from her. Some of them have even become repeat customers.

“I think I have found my niche,” Meyer says happily. “I have a dream to do this for a living. It is what I love to do, and I do not do it lightly. It’s all about making a pretty cat even a little more beautiful, adding a little touch of Magic. I think I can say that I have developed my own style.”

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