Death, The New Normal. 20 years after dad.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Les Green.tree sweaterWading through old email earlier this year, I found this piece that Parker J. Palmer called Death, The New Normal. It’s fairly short.

“If emotional honesty is part of living well — which surely it is — then shaking my fist at death is just as important as accepting it. If that’s unenlightened, so be it! At least I have the good company of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“I discovered her ‘Dirge Without Music’ when my father died nearly twenty years ago. I found a curious peace in the poet’s refusal to accept the inevitable, and I find it again today.”

As it turns out, it’s been twenty years since my father died. And I remember it all, astonishingly well. Hearing, in Albany, that my father was in the hospital. The news on a Thursday that my father had a stroke. My wife and I staying in his hospital room in Charlotte the following Monday night. The levity between my father and my baby sister on Tuesday morning.

The rapid decline he had undergone between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening, when the doctor said he would die within the week. Starting to write the obituary on Thursday morning, only to get the news that he was dying. And my sisters had both vehicles. Me waking the next-door neighbor who worked nights, and who I did not know, to get him to drive my mother and me to the hospital. My wife staying back to watch niece Alex. Mom and I arriving after he had died.

The lengthy funeral negotiations on Friday. The funeral on Sunday. The burial at a military cemetery 40 miles away on Monday, and deciding that taking the limo made sense. A bunch of aftermath stuff.

Poem

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

(Excerpted from Collected Poems. Read the full poem here.)

My wife: suddenly working from home

untenable

working from homeMy wife is a teacher of English as a New Language. The word came down on Friday, March 13 that schools in New York State would not meet the following week. But a previously scheduled teacher conference would take place the following Monday. Then they spent Tuesday making packets for the students.

Thus it wasn’t until that Wednesday that she actually began working from home. Any thoughts that she would have a lesser workload were quickly dashed. Between the online meetings and the one-on-one phone calls to her students, she was giving even more effort than she was in person.

Initially, her “office” was at the end of our dining room table. That was only because that’s where a laptop happened to reside. Soon, however, this became untenable, at least to me. The dining room is connected to both the kitchen and the living room. So, pretty much every time I’d come downstairs, I felt as though I were invading her space. If I wanted to wash the dishes or get something to eat, I was in her “office.” Ditto, vacuuming the living room or watching television.

A new venue

I suggested that she set up a station in the spare bedroom, which she did. In my mind, she too immediately saw the wisdom of the move. Later, I was surprised to discover that it was only after a week or so in the new enclosed space she recognized the value of it for all of us.

Among other considerations, she was always complaining about the messiness of the house, which certainly included the dining room table/her workstation. Now she can leave her papers as needed. She could have private conversations without my daughter and me avoiding the entire first floor.

And she now appreciates looking out on the backyard, seeing the trees and grass. The view from the office, where I tend to blog from, is to the street. I can see a few branches among the utility lines.

I mention this for two reasons. One was that a friend of mine was telling me about a prominent local couple who are really getting on each other’s nerves. They have a house large enough to have their own working from home spaces. Yet they have not, to the detriment of their relationship.

The other is that today is the 21st anniversary of our wedding. A little bit of territorial boundary-setting is a good thing in a marriage, especially during a pandemic.

The parents’ balance of power

Married 1950; dad died in 2000, mom in 2011

March 12, 1950: Bride Trudy between Les (left, behind her) and Gert (to the right, dark hat)

My parents were married seventy years ago today. I think about them, individually and collectively, a lot. I’m sure that I’ve mentioned that, when I was growing up in Binghamton, I felt bad for my mom. She was often left out of the balance of power, as far as I could tell.

Mom was squeezed between her mother, who owned the house we lived in and resided a half a mile away, and her husband, who had an outsized personality. As I noted eight years ago, my mother telling secrets to her kids was the great equalizer. They were stories about my dad that he had presumably told her in confidence.

At the time, I was thrilled to get the insights. He was born out of wedlock? The guy I knew as my grandfather wasn’t his biological grandfather? Dad hated Christmas because a drunk relative toppled the Christmas tree when he was seven? That explained a lot.

It was only after he died in 2000 that I fully recognized my discomfort with the setup. My sisters and I couldn’t ACT on the information. We couldn’t ask him about so much because we knew things that he didn’t know we knew.

How would we be able to explain knowing what knew without ratting out our mother? And what would have been the repercussions on her?

There were two times when I saw her with the upper hand in the relationship. One was when my father moved to Charlotte, NC and she took her sweet time following him down. My mom’s aunt Charlotte, for one, was not a fan of my father and actively campaigned for her to stay in upstate New York. Eventually, though, she, and my baby sister, and eventually my maternal grandmother all moved down to North Carolina.

The belated 1996 Christmas

The other time she had the balance of power was so out of the blue. In January 1997, my sisters, their daughters and I were all down in Charlotte. My father was brooding all day, doing what my sisters and I called the “black cloud,” a sulking so intense that it almost felt that he literally sucked the air out of the room.

Finally, that evening, Dad explained that he thought the daughters of my sisters were being disrespectful and not too big to spank. Leslie, ever the diplomat, expressed her appreciation for his sharing, but kindly disagreed. I followed her lead.

Then my mother launched into a tirade – or as much of one as she could muster. It was about how he had taken out a lot of money, five figures, from their joint bank account without her knowledge. Money that he spent for items for his various businesses.

I should note that he was notoriously bad at record keeping. He probably could have written off some losses if he could be disciplined enough to submit receipts to their beleaguered bookkeeper, Cecil.

In any case, mom’s complaint about the money was valid. Those losses affected her for years after he died in August 2000. Yet, in that moment, I felt badly for dad, who had been expressing his feelings but totally shut down after that. Perhaps that was why he was so secretive about the evolution of the prostate cancer that killed him. That was HIS power.

And yet it was obvious that, after all of that, they still loved each other. He worked hard to arrange a surprise party for her on their 50th, and last anniversary in 2000. And by arrange, that included doing the bulk of the decorations. Presumably, he was in some physical discomfort.

Long-standing relationships can be complicated, I suppose.

It doesn’t matter much to me

Let me take you down

It doesn't matter much to meNearly four decades after his death, there’s an inordinate interest of What If? when it comes to John Lennon. Quite often it comes from people who were born after the Beatles broke up, or even after John died.

If he had lived, would he have left Yoko? One can find theorists suggesting that he would, that their marriage was a sham. The thought was that once he started writing music again, he was regaining his inner strength. Eventually, after Double Fantasy, or maybe the followup, he’d leave her.

Of course, the Beatles reunion is always at the heart of this sort of speculation. John was fond of some songs on McCartney II in 1980, Paul’s first album sans Wings in a decade.

George had a modicum of commercial success. His first album after the murder, Somewhere in England, contained a tribute to John. His album after that, 1982’s Gone Troppo, was not a big hit. Ringo had had all three on his various albums, although not simultaneously. So I suppose a reunion might have been possible.

Now you know I remain a massive Beatles fan. When my sisters and I lipsynched to the songs of Beatles VI in 1965 for the neighbor kids, I was always John. Lennon was always my favorite Beatle. I was devastated by his death.

Let me take you down

Yet I find all the speculation is not at all interesting. As he wrote, “It doesn’t matter much to me.” So I don’t have much of an opinion on which songs would be on a 1981 Beatles album if there had been such a thing.

For one thing, the interaction among them would have been far different than it was in 1969. Would they even get along in the studio again? Does George get more songs? Who knows? NOBODY and no one ever will.

Enough grumpiness. Some songs:

BEATLES
Ticket to Ride
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Norwegian Wood
Rain
Tomorrow Never Knows
Strawberry Fields Forever; “It doesn’t matter much to me”
I Am the Walrus, from LOVE
Come Together

SOLO
I’m Losing You
Nobody Told Me

Robert Freeman, the longtime photographer for the Beatles, died. He had an exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art. “The complementary exhibition, THE BEATLES: Community Stories, from December 21, 2002 through March 2, 2003, is an… exhibition that celebrates the Fab Four with a selection of memorabilia on loan from Capital Region residents.

“From toys to tea towels, from posters to photographs, from autographs to collectibles…you’ll see it all at the Albany Institute.” I had but one magazine, but I also brought in some bootleg LPs and The Beatles in Italy.

Married one score: the first year was the hardest

Carol and Roger
Carol and Roger, June 2018
Carol and I got married 20 years ago. Maybe a decade ago, I told her I thought the first year was the hardest, and I’ll stand by that.

After we got married, we moved into the first floor of the two-apartment house she owned. One of the very few things our then-pastor said that turned out to be sage is that we should move into another place that was ours.

Carol didn’t understand. She was making room for my stuff. But that was just it; she was making room in HER place for MY stuff. And not all of it; a love seat I had purchased only a couple years before, one of the first pieces of real, new furniture I ever bought I gave away.

Squeezing my stuff in was tedious. I had a dresser on top of a dresser, after some cable station guy – maybe on HGTV – said that to fit everything in, you must build “up, up, UP!”

In July 1999, she went on a trip to Scotland with her college friend, an excursion she had planned before we were engaged. I encouraged her to go. But being alone in that space, with its specific creaks and noises was rather unsettling.

We had gotten married at our United Methodist Church. But by February, after “the troubles” had taken hold, we spent two weeks at Emmaus Methodist with the Hispanic gathering that had booted out of Trinity, against the specific wishes of the congregation.

Then, since the Trinity choir was still banned from singing, I started sitting in at the choir at First Pres. But Carol went back to attending Trinity, keeping up with the gossip.

Meanwhile, we were house shopping. We found a house we REALLY liked in the fall, but the hidden water damage in a wall caught in the inspection made that a no go. Finally, the house we now live in went down in price and we bought it.

i went to the closing, without Carol, but with a cashier’s check. Our lawyer had miscalculated the amount due and I was $1800 short; talk about angina. I borrowed money from somewhere, maybe a credit card, to close on May 8, 2000, a week shy of our first anniversary.

After surviving that first anxiety-prone year, I figure we can get through anything. Happy anniversary, my dear.