Spring 2014



Elegy in December

Alison Townsend

            First day of December and I wake to snow, little bits of it flicking down, so light it’s blown every which way, swirling in from every direction.  Then it gets heavier and more deliberate, each of the thousands of leaves we haven’t had time to rake dusted with it, the way my mother used to sift confectioner’s sugar through a doily over a pan of brownies, delighting us with the lacey pattern.  It’s just a flurry, I tell myself, as I make tea, worrying about my long commute to work over country roads in Wisconsin.  I am never ready for winter, never ready for this time of year when my mother leaves again, getting into my father’s little red car before Thanksgiving for the long drive from New York state to the Cleveland Clinic, where she will begin an experimental immunotherapy program (a primitive precursor to chemo) that will not save her.  “Did it ever occur to you that maybe she hoped it would work, too?” my father said once, when I asked in anger how he could have taken her so far away from us when she was dying.
            But now I wonder mostly how it must have felt to her to leave us.  “I’ll be home for Thanksgiving,” she said as she hugged us kids to her, ran her hands down the length of my braids she’d woven that morning.  And when she wasn’t, they promised Christmas, the napkins I was embroidering for her present – an “M” for “Mommy” stitched on each one in blue floss – stabbed with fear and hope.  She died December 16, 1962.  Which is why I can’t ever enter this month without feeling as if I walk down chill halls, alone with my brother and sister, haunted by the way she looked back at us as she got into the car with my father, our family so soon to be broken by her death.  Every death since echoes hers, loss sculpted into my being, ice that will never melt.
            December, December, and the snow comes down.  Two friends have lost their fathers in one week and, driving to work, my mind skittering like a trapped bird over what to do in class, I’m suddenly in tears over Beethoven’s First Symphony in C on NPR, remembering how much my own father loved it.  He’d sit in the wing chair by the fireplace in the colonial house where I grew up, a wall of books behind him, listening to Beethoven and “conducting.”  My generous, colorful, improvident father, with his books and his pipe smoke, his shiny black hair and beautiful story-telling voice.  Everyone adored my father, a man my stepbrother once told me he thought the kindest person he’d ever met.  A man who seemed larger than life, always the center of every party.  No one saw his sadness – the impoverished Depression-era childhood, his family so poor they had to live in a tent; the blood and smoke of Omaha Beach; his inability to save my golden mother and how he never really recovered from her loss.  My beloved, unreliable father, inadequately mourned because his death summoned hers.  My father, dust on the New Mexico mountain where he asked that we scatter his ashes.  We all have wounds that shape us, I tell my students.  It’s the lives we make despite those wounds and the stories we tell about them that matter.  And I quote again to them Isak Dinesen’s beautiful words:  “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.” You must believe this, I tell them.  You must tell your stories. 
            December, December, and the snow comes down, a little more lightly now, as if it can’t make up its mind, as if even seasons struggle to be born.  I go to the coat closet, pull out my father’s old Harris Tweed jacket and drape it around my shoulders.  It smells of my house now, but I press my face into its weave, imagining his pipe smoke and Old Spice, slip my hands into the pockets as if there will be some message there for me, though I know they are empty.  The jacket was the one thing I wanted after he died, the one thing that was quintessentially him, with its scratchy brown wool (“woven in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland!” he used to exclaim with pride), its leather elbow patches and worn buttons – what I think of when I see him in my mind. 
            “I talk to you all the time in my mind,” my friend and former mother-in-law and second mother, Helen, said to me the summer before last, when I hugged her good-bye, my eyes filling with tears, knowing I would not see her alive again.  “It’s such an amazing journey I’m on,” she said about aging toward her own death.  “I’m learning something new every day.”  May we each live with as much grace as she did, even at the end, and as much courage as my mother, whom my father once described as “the bravest person I ever knew,” a woman who picked out a special gift for each of her children from the Sears catalogue even as she lay on her deathbed.  My father, who must have known something of courage himself – the boy without enough food in the Depression, the twenty four year-old Army lieutenant leading his men up that bloody beach in France, the bereaved father taking his kids to a bookstore every weekend after my mother died and buying us each a book, as if words on a page could anchor us to the world.  Sometimes they did.  Even now, when I look at the titles of childhood books from that time, they speak of more than their own story, my emotional history preserved there, too, invisible between their pages.  Cricket on the Hearth.  Swiss Family Robinson.  Miss Bianca.  Nobody’s Girl.  Each one with a book plate inside the front cover, featuring a girl by a tree, her long hair blowing in the wind, and the words, “A present from Daddy” in his precise scientist’s hand.  Turning the pages, I am gifted again, remembering when I held them for the first time, lost in wonder, no scent sweeter than a new book.  My father taught me this.
            December, December, and the snow comes down.  Season of darkness.  Season of loss that becomes presence in absence that is a gift, too, because it reminds us that we love.  And love is all, isn’t it, the only thing that matters?  As Thornton Wilder says, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”  I’ve carried those words in my head for years, pierced and comforted by their color.  Only love gets to live forever, immaculate and transcendent, so brilliant a light we seek to embody it in human form and call it holy.  And who wouldn’t want to give it form?  Poems, essays, stories – these are the purest divinities I know, though I loved the plain Quaker meeting houses and spare New England churches of my childhood, loved the sound of my father’s voice, reading to us from the King James Bible at Christmas, loved the idea of the divine as a light within us each.  “The Creative,” my friend Holly calls it – with a capital C, as befits the sacred.  If we tell our stories about our loved one does it mean those lights burn forever?  Is our end really only another beginning? 
            December, December, and the snow, everything concentrated into a kind of fierce gathering-in.  Is it any wonder we light candles in this season, set them in wide-silled windows to guide the traveler home?  But how hard it is to see a beginning in a human end.  “Grief has its own timeline,” I write my friend Joanne in Portland.  Joanne, who must rush back into teaching, still raw from her father’s death in Vermont.  Joanne, who writes that she is living in a kind of dream-time, a place between worlds where the boundaries are blurred.  “Stay there as long as you need to, darling,” I write back to her.  “That is holy country.”  And then I pray for her, and for my friend Susan, who has lost her father too.  I kneel at my makeshift muse’s altar and pray, both their fathers’ spirits in the wind, like the hawk Susan once described her father watching with such pleasure.  
            “We’ll weather the blast and land at last on Canaan’s happy shore,” my father used to say, only half joking, quoting an old hymn when something got me down as girl.  Is that shore where all our fathers are now?  “He’s pure spirit,” my husband said to me when my father died.  “He’s soaring.  He’s everywhere.”  Many years before, I’d said almost the same thing to my father.  He was visiting me where I lived in California.  We were walking in the drenched, winter green of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, the San Gabriel Mountains like jagged gray paper cutouts at our backs, when he turned to me and said, “I really loved your mother, you know.”  As if there was ever any doubt.  He was wearing the Harris Tweed jacket, and when I put my arm around him I felt its weave, scratchy and familiar as childhood, against my cheek. “But don’t you see,” I said, gesturing to the shimmering gardens, “she’s everywhere.  She’s here.”  In that moment she was.  And still is, though it is not the same as seeing her, watching her push back her blond curls, hearing the voice I cannot now remember ring out from somewhere down the path, its nasal Philadelphia accent forever the sound of home. 
            December and December, and the snow comes down.  I believe in the benevolent and beneficent power of the creative, I tell my students.  I don’t think it gives us things to write about that we aren’t prepared to handle, even if they seem frightening and sad.  But life does, doesn’t it, over and over?  Two days before Thanksgiving, my favorite student this semester, a woman close to my own age, returned to school to become a social worker after losing a job in corporate America, comes to my office and breaks down.  She tells me she has cancer, a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, the lump there practically overnight.  We keep in touch by email over the holiday weekend, and I marvel at her courage as she deals with oncologists and surgeons, the installation of a port for chemo.  I am struck by the synchronicity of this event, remembering my mother, wondering what I am meant to learn from this beyond the mysteries of compassion.  I don’t tell my student, of course; this is her story, not mine.  My job is to listen and support, to tell her she has an A in the class so far and that’s what I intend to give her.  “Skip the last paper,” I tell her.  She argues at first, then agrees.  “You saw the writer in me,” she says in an email.  Reading it at work, I weep at my desk. 
            December, December.  The snow comes down, and I ponder the difficult and radiant lives of women, my student’s courage a shining example.  As is my college friend, Marilyn’s, her surgery for uterine cancer scheduled to take place a few days before Christmas.  In the middle of our lives, fate has brought us to the same part of the country, where we are renewing our friendship, so many decades after we were scared freshman, meeting in line in the dining hall at college in Vermont.  I marvel that I have known her since we were eighteen, her masses of golden, pre-Raphaelite hair no less beautiful for being threaded with grey.  When we walked in the woods together last month, after going for apples, the light illuminated her hair so that it floated around her in a kind of halo I wanted to touch, each strand shining.  “You’re a lifeline for me,” she writes, “even when we are not together.”  “Let her be okay,” I pray at my muse’s altar, imagining how she would laugh if she saw me.  How she might say, “I’m a secular Jew from Long Island, for heaven’s sake.  But okay, I’ll take your prayers.”  Marilyn, with whom I stayed up night after night in the college library, writing papers, smoking Winstons, crying over the boys we imagined had broken our hearts, laughing at the absurdity of it all.  No one but us remembers the details of those days, the Green Mountains holding us in their piney embrace, everything urgent and aching, but all the time in the world to figure out our lives. 
            December, December.  The snow comes down, and the year runs out.  But there is no end to the story of family and friends, to all those candles in all those windows.  Even when our own lives end something goes on shining, doesn’t it?  A breath.  An essence.  A murmur under everything.  A leaf like a cup filled with perfect crystals of snow, which I see everywhere when I step outside with the dogs, my father’s Harris Tweed jacket wrapped, large and warm as life, around me.

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