17 August 2014
This is one of the articles I wrote for a New York weekly when I was 60, never suspecting that if I lived to be 80, I could give myself the permission I had always wanted.
For years it had been a fantasy: the letter would arrive unsigned, in the mail. “I am giving you a present of one year of time,” it would say. “You will have no duties or obligations, real or imagined, trivial or grand. Happy Birthday.” Time without duty. One year. I looked at the calendar and smiled at the things I wouldn’t have to do. It was sprinkled already with six months of the small obligations of the mechanics of living and the larger ones of family, business and pleasure. I scanned the self-replenishing errand list and put it, with the calendar, in the drawer. Tyranny by time and lists disappeared in a moment. After supper I sat down on the floor next to the long wooden tool box and laid all the tools on the floor. I would need only a new plumb line and a better cross-cut saw.
I laid two 2 x 8s on edge from the steep river bank twelve feet out to the tulip tree, cut planks for the crossing and by dusk had a bridge. It took two weeks to build the tree house: a floor, three sides of a triangle and a sloping roof. I made one side of nylon screen which gave an unobstructed view all the way down river to the ocean. I watched storms roll in from miles upriver, sweep by the tree house and out to the ocean. I built a table and a stool and a box that could hold a pad and pen. When it was finished, I sat on the stool and began to write, deciding to begin by remembering the boys I had liked when I was very young.
There was Joe. He had been cast as Stephen Foster and I as Jeannie with the light brown hair and in the hall on the way to rehearsal; he kissed me in the fourth grade line in front of everyone. When we reached the gym, I refused to wear the bonnet Miss Cook had created for Jeannie because I felt silly in it. I wouldn’t even try it on. So I sat in the picture frame while he sang to me “I dream of Jeannie…”, sat with my light brown hair without the bonnet.
He asked me over before supper and took me walking on the path in the rose garden where he picked a white rose and gave it to me and said “I love you.” Just after he said it, his older brother jumped out from behind a bush and laughed.
After playing tennis one summer Monday I walked through the dark equipment shed, past a shadowed man who touched my shoulder and asked, “Are you going to walk right past me? Do you remember the white rose?” He was heavier now, and his hair had thinned, but his smile was exactly the one he had when he gave me the rose.
And Andy. It was my summer of ’42. I was fourteen in blue jeans and roamed the island on my bicycle. He was seventeen in khakis and a pure white sweater and collected snakes and fished all day. He had the kind of face I would always love – wide forehead, eyes that cornered in crinkles and a smile that started the whole thing in motion…all underneath a bunch of short curls. We went to the movies at the Fort where he put his arm tentatively around me, barely touching my shoulder. We went to Chocomount Beach at night and sat in the sand watching the waves. On the way home we were intercepted by my mother who said “She’s only fourteen, where have you been?” “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know”, he said, and for the rest of the summer I felt like a little kid.
I read articles about him from time to time. He had become a respected and innovative oceanographer, and I wondered if he still looked the same. I came back to the island once to visit a friend and went to his house. I exchanged light talk with him and his good wife and loved looking at his face again. The crinkles were permanent now and when he smiled they just deepened.
Danny. We played together every day before we were old enough for school. We rolled in the leaves and rolled down the hill and sat in the rowboat on the sand. When I went to his house, his mother always played the piano before dinner….”The Blue Danube” always meant the meal was ready. His mother was thin and sharp and funny and his father fat and funny and kind. They laughed a lot, and I loved being at their house.
He began to ask me to dances and football games at Yale, and I didn’t want to go because he loved me and he was still just my buddy. He married a good woman, had four fine sons and one morning when he was 38, he collapsed in a heart attack while shaving. I Knew the troubles that had always come to older generations had now come to mine.
One night my husband and I spent a night in the Schloss Durnstein overlooking the Danube on the way to Vienna and I couldn’t stop thinking of the little boy in the leaves, his laughing father and his mother at the piano….so I wrote his mother a postcard, feeling vulnerable because it seemed melodramatic, and told her that I was looking at the Danube and it reminded me of wonderful times.
I was drawn to this treehouse by weather and light, writing in turn about the memories and anecdotes of a long life, trying to catch the new colors that came with the perspective of age. I went there often to write and to think, watching the October light on red leaves, the water whipped by the sudden black wind of a squall, or the snow piling up on the boards as it fell. Time without duty. Space without clutter.
I sat one day in the tulip tree house looking two clean miles to the ocean over dots of white sails on the river below and wondered who had given me permission for this year. Could I have taken it myself, without the gift from a stranger? Now that I had it, could I have more? Time without duty – was I strong enough to claim it without permission?