What a Surprise

27 December 2015

I’ve written before about leaving the land and house I had loved for 56 years.  When the time came, the physical part of the ordeal was far harder than I expected; the dreaded emotional part, far easier.  I wish I could reassure my contemporaries that there might be a good surprise waiting for them when the deed is done.

When I Googled “professional downsizers”, a dozen emails appeared within an hour.  That was the first surprise – the realization that downsizing had become a profession. I chose the woman who sounded confident and tough knowing she might compensate for my reluctance to get rid of nearly six decades of accumulation.  She packed, wrapped, labelled, and planned without ever letting me find excuses to escape.

Toward the end, we had divided my world into “keep” and “garage sale” and it felt ugly.  The barn the Amish had built to house the outdoor equipment, the shed I had built, the garage, cellar, attic and yes – the whole house – all of these spaces containing the remnants of the good lives of five of us who had lived there.

But then and inevitably, with the movers about to arrive, I discovered the things we had missed – wedding present silver and suitcases in a forgotten part of the attic, several four drawer files of our company papers that had to be inspected and shredded, and books.  What to do with my collection of biographies and American history?

At that awful time when everything seemed impossible, my saviors arrived.  My daughter-in-law, my daughter, and my new friend and accountant – all changed their plans when they saw I was in trouble.  Kimberly came down from Vermont and worked without pause for four days, Laurie worked equally hard for two – both cleaning up everything I had forgotten – bathroom cabinets, closets, attic nooks, boxes of college papers.  My new friend, who saw me unravelling, went quietly through all the company papers, stuffing them into green garbage bags and then summoned the shredding truck – the life of our family company in shreds.  Do you want to know the weight of a dozen green garbage bags full of papers and files that had to be carried outside and up a hill?

And then the tide began to turn.  Three men arrived from Teachers Moving Company.  They were not only capable and friendly but funny and patient.  They took the boxes and books I couldn’t abandon along with the china and glass I thought of as indispensable.  .

Recognizing self-punishment when I saw it, I didn’t go to the garage sale, didn’t want to hear disparaging remarks about furniture I had loved and books I had read with such pleasure.  On the night of the move, I slept in my new small apartment on the fifth floor of a new building in Red Bank, New Jersey.

During that first week it took just a day or so before I began to realize I loved the sound of the train whistles, the rain pelting the big windows where my desk would be, sunsets and sunrises seen from the sky instead of the woods.

Dare I call Red Bank a city?  Of course not, but the enveloping silence of the place I had loved for so long had become just a little shot through with a touch of fear; friends were gone; family lived elsewhere; the isolation was complete.  Now, two months later I have new friends in the Danish Café across the street where I go too often to escape turning on my stove.  The Two River Theater is downstairs a few steps across a side street.  When a lecture is scheduled, I go with pleasure.  When I work at my desk I look straight ahead over my monitor at a piece of the river, sunrise to my left, sunset straight ahead.  And three blocks away is the movie theater I go to for my review deadlines.

And then, the best part:  when the panorama of traffic and pedestrians morphs into silence at night, I look down at a still life painting of the railroad station, brick buildings, and empty streets sprinkled with night lights.  It stops me in my tracks every time.  There is an odd feeling of safety that there are no deer or people walking on my deck, no thoughts of taxes owed, deterioration to be repaired, or big old broken trees to be cut at $1000 each.  When morning comes, the stillness below jumps alive.  The isolation we had once loved as a family is over.  Why didn’t I see that sooner?

In fact, what I had never expected was the deep feeling of freedom I now have as I build a new life.  The bones of it are my review deadlines which are pure pleasure for someone who loves movies.  Everything else is freedom.  I have no obligations.  When have I ever been able to say that before?  At 85, many people my age can look back at the teamwork of early marriage, at the fun of raising families, at lives lived well in the homes we created.  But now I feel positively frivolous when I file a story and then say to myself “OK, well done, now, a movie? A lecture?  The Café?  Or shall I watch the news or just read for a while.  Whatever the answer, it is no longer something that needs to be done. Don’t wait too long.

…Under the Clock at the Biltmore

At an age when it’s hard even to remember the name of someone I met ten minutes ago, random memories have a way of jumping into my head for no reason whatsoever.  Today is Thanksgiving morning, 2015, and I’m supposed to be writing a review of the beautiful movie Brooklyn for this week’s deadline.  Instead, a memory popped into my head with all the sights, sounds, and emotions of when it happened in 1947, and I can’t shake it.

As a sixteen-year-old freshman at Vassar, taking the train from Poughkeepsie to New York, with a transfer from Grand Central to Penn Station for a train home to Red Bank for Christmas vacation was still intimidating.  Truth?  It was the first time I had done it.  My classmates – most of them two years older – were old hands at that game.  They dressed confidently in print dresses, high heels, a little veil, and dress gloves and took off for this Christmas to their families just as they did on weekends to go to football games at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.

On my morning stop at my mail slot, a letter from Dickie Hurd, my best friend through all of childhood.  He would be in New York that day.  Would I meet him under the clock at the Biltmore and take the train back to Red Bank with him?  Even now, an involuntary intake of breath came as I wrote that sentence.  In a world without television or air travel or telephone conversations, “under the clock at the Biltmore” had become the apex of post-war glamour.

Girls who met “under the clock” were tall and beautiful, experienced, sophisticated, and in love.  In my young mind, they swept into that lobby to meet their tall, handsome dates.  I was thoroughly scared when I accepted Dickie’s invitation to meet him under the fabled clock.  Neither of us qualified.

As I made my way into the lobby from Grand Central next door, I was literally cold with apprehension.  I met none of the requirements for being in this symbolic place and had a deep fear that someone would expel me because I had no right to be there.  My clothes were not sophisticated but I hoped my pageboy hair that I rolled up every night on cotton socks would get me through.  The biggest disqualifier:  Dickie and I weren’t in love.  We were pals.  He was still a senior at St. Paul’s.  Would someone know all this and expel me with a lecture about this violation of the glamour of the circumstance?

We met, surrounded by young men and women who belonged there, all engaged in the small talk of the era.  They seemed so comfortable.  No one came up to tell us we didn’t belong.  We crossed town to Penn Station in a cab and the ride cost ten cents.  We took the next train home to Red Bank and somehow two childhood friends had survived meeting under the clock at the Biltmore.

And when, in this era of instant communication and informality, you laugh at the shallowness of that ordeal, just imagine what it must have been if sixty-eight years later the very thought of it caused me to turn cold.

A Triggered Memory

Living into old age gives us the gift of a deep memory bank.  For years we have stored memories there without understanding that our brains are advanced computers.  We live in the present and summon memories without ever having to click a button.  Sometimes a memory is triggered by a sight, a sound or a conversation that hits the access button to something long forgotten and that memory jumps alive from the bank.

It happened to me last week during my old age move from country land to an in-town apartment.  The downsizing was a real ordeal.  Along with many things I had loved, I left my baseball glove for the garage sale.  What would I do with it in a 5th floor apartment in the town of Red Bank at the age of 84?

Still, it made me sad about something I hadn’t thought about for years.  When I was about eight, my father said one day, “Joanie, you must never throw a baseball like a girl.”  And so my training began, first with my father, then his father, my grandfather, who spent hours throwing with me, coaching me – “sideways always, Joanie, girls always face forward and look so silly.”  I was the oldest of eight grandchildren by at least six years so I was the one who was chosen to be a baseball player.  I loved it.

Whenever Grandpa came to visit, we spent a lot of time throwing and catching.  He took me to the Polo Grounds to watch the Giants when they were still a New York team.  “Watch Mel Ott, Joanie.”  And whenever Mel Ott came to bat he did that little square movement with his lower leg that everyone loved as they roared their approval.

Whenever Grandpa and I were together on game days, we sat side by side on the couch and listened to the Giants game on the radio while he explained things.  When I turned eleven during the early years of the war, my father and I weeded the vegetable garden, commonly known as a “victory garden,” while the Giants game blared from the portable radio that sat on the dirt and unfolded to my father’s running commentary.

I played hardball whenever I could, softball when I had to. I was lucky enough to play in two schools where girls played hardball.  It was rare then.  At boarding school first baseman Ruth Cummings and I often smiled in the certainty that neither of us would ever drop the ball.  At Vassar, on Founder’s Day I pitched in the game that day.  It was little, but enough.  I knew I didn’t throw like a girl.

One day when I was 70 something, Mayor Charlie Rooney of Seabright called to ask if I would entertain a houseguest of his while he performed some mayoral duties.  The guest was Dolores Dries – MVP pitcher for the AAGPBL – the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – now honored at Cooperstown’s baseball Hall of Fame.  If you don’t remember the Rockford Peaches or Bill Allington’s touring team in the early ‘50s, you may have seen the movie A League of Their Own that featured Dolores Dries, or “Peaches” as she was known.

Peaches arrived at my house and we talked baseball for a good while until finally I blurted, “Peaches, could we go outside and have a catch?”  There it was.  We stopped at her car and she opened the trunk and there, alongside a small backpack was a baseball glove and next to it a pistol.  After retiring from baseball Peaches had become New Jersey’s first police woman.

We walked up to the field with our gloves and began to throw – gingerly at first – she testing me – then faster and harder until each of us was laughing with pleasure, and then she said it and I won’t ever forget it:  “You could have played with us in Rockford.”  That’s all she said and it was all I needed after all those years.  My grandfather would have been so proud.

Facing Up to a Tough Move

As I prepare to move from twelve acres and the family house to an apartment in a nearby town, the priorities that should be claiming me fade away.  I should be putting yellow labels on the things that are coming with me but it’s the things that aren’t coming with me that I can’t shake.

For the most part, there is real pleasure in setting aside the accumulation of 56 years in one house, but there are two things that were such an integral part of my life during all that time that a genuine sadness sweeps in when I think of them. It’s just that the actual things I have loved are different from what others might love.

My tractor (an all-wheel drive Steiner 525) and my Jeep (a Wrangler with a Meyers wide blade snowplow).  Those two things and their predecessors were the constant in a life that has been good to me.  I’m not leaving family or friends I love; they left me in the natural course of life.  The children I so loved grew up and married; my husband and I agreed after forty years that we would each be better on our own.  But from 1959 when we moved to this land (I was pregnant with our third child who is now 56), to the present moment, the fields around me have needed mowing and in the winter the roads needed plowing and doing just that became for me a time for reflection and creation and peace.  I could think about the things I love to think about without distraction or duty telling me to hurry and all around me as I drove, the snow moved aside in neat lines and the grass fell to the mower, cropped short next to the unmowed rest, each section – mowed and unmowed – handing me the absolute peace of repetition.

My former husband, on the other hand, is of a nature that dislikes repetition of any kind.  On a canoe trip in Vermont one day I began to understand that he was always paddling faster on the straightaways to see what would be around the next corner.  When he took his turn mowing our field, it looked like an enormous  green expanse marked up with disordered swaths and swirls, the defense of an adventure seeking mind against the familiar, a mind always looking for something new.

And so the mowing and plowing fell to me. The ‘60s were a time of deep snows, of quiet nights when the traffic was thin and he was home asleep with the children so he could be at work early in the morning.  I had a ledger where I billed my customers – a school, a church, parking lots, neighbors, near and a little farther, but not so far as to waste time getting there.   I guaranteed that each would be out by 8 a.m.  The jobs were different every time because of the depth and consistency of the snow.  Was it frozen?  Wet and heavy?  So light it blew back in my tracks with every puff of wind?  If it was a blizzard, I needed to gauge how many times I would come back during the night to avoid the point where my plow wasn’t up to the depth of the snow.  I loved maneuvering my plow to allow for all this as I made angles and straights beneath me.  It felt like art.

That happened one night at Mrs. Noonan’s.  Her place was high on a small hill down a long dead end road and on this night I had to plow my way in to get to her driveway because the commercial plows ignored the sparsely populated road.  As fast as I plowed, more fell so I came back twice during that night.

Once a snow fell hard and fast until dark when the night turned still and luminous under a clear sky and brilliant moonlight.  Is there anything in this world as beautiful as a new snowfall covering black roads and green trees?  Everything everywhere was still and white and I didn’t want to go home.  Just then I saw an unplowed driveway on a dirt road not far from my house and I turned in, plowed the driveway and circle and went home to sleep.  I heard later that the owner was outraged that someone had dared to come on his land in the night but I had the thrill of carving beautiful paths through his snow under brilliant moonlight in the absolute silence of the night on a country road.  I would treasure that memory and look for the peace of it ever after.

With global warming, the plowing has become a rare thing.  But still, the fields need to be mowed.  During May, June, and July, they grow fast and If I don’t cut regularly, the tractor clogs.  Solution:  to divide the land mentally in quarters and do roughly two hours each day so each quarter was mowed at least once a week.  That decided, the whole thing felt peaceful.

Each time out, I would nudge the edge of the field a little further into the woods and then watch new grass sprout unbidden where brambles had been.  I could imagine opening lines for reviews, write essays, and just roam around in the world inside my head.  I loved the beginning out on the perimeter of whichever piece lay in front of me and then the methodical mowing for a couple of hours as the area grew smaller with each pass and the final feeling of victory as the last small square fell.

August always brought a mixture of regret and relief as the grass grew more slowly and threatened to stop altogether.  I have loved it, every single cut, though nothing has ever quite equaled that night when the moon turned the landscape to daylight.  Plowing or mowing, I don’t remember ever wishing I were doing something else while in the Jeep or on the tractor.

And now they are gone.  Last week I sold each one.  I have a month to make the material things in my life disappear and those are the only things I will miss. They weren’t really things; they were the way of my life for a very long time.

A Look Back Through Time

The service was for Cynthia Lee Russell.  It was held at the Stone Church in Navesink, NJ where I grew up and I was unprepared for the emotional wallop it would deliver.  Cynthia Lee was the oldest child of Charlie and Ellie Lee and she was beautiful, smart, and supremely sophisticated in a very quiet way.  Those of us who were five or so years younger watched her with envy as she grew up.  She was everything the rest of us wished we could be.  She was seventeen and I was ten when my mother took me to her wedding reception at the River Club in New York and to this moment I remember the beautiful bride standing next to her handsome new husband in his WWII Navy dress whites.  And now, after decades of a happy marriage and five children, she died peacefully, surrounded by all of them.

That’s what I was thinking about as I walked into the church.  I was completely unprepared for what happened next.  From a side pew near the front of the church, I watched people walk in and up the aisle.  Among the ones who were over 80, a sudden change of expression, maybe just a slight smile, would announce that he or she was one of the kids I had played kick the can or the flashlight game with years ago on the Lee’s lawn.  One such a man came up to me to say, “Joanie, I haven’t seen you for 75 years.”  A woman, now a widow, said her husband had loved his childhood friendship with me and when I looked at her middle-aged son, I saw his father who had taken me to my first opera in New York.  I had been scared that night because I knew he was smart and loved opera and I, musically ignorant, worried about how to behave.  Traviata it was, and it was a lovely evening that I have always remembered with a smile at my fears and appreciation of Billy’s good company.

David, a young boy who I first met when we were both small and he was newly arrived from England, sent with his brother to stay with cousins for their safety during the war, smiled and there he was at 85, same smile, same expression, same warmth.  Cynthia’s handsome younger brother came down from Maine with his daughter, subdued after a recent illness but still with the quick sharp remarks he was known for as a teenager.  His daughter and her family now live near my son and his family in Maine.  Full circle.

And then there was the sea of faces mostly in their 60s, the children of my old friends.  Most of them were unmistakably of the Lee family and I loved trying to identify them.  It was their smiles, inherited from the generation ahead of them and then to the third level of grandchildren who were already speeding their way toward their 30s and 40s.  I watched a church full of three generations and for that hour felt transported back to the early 1940s.

Back then, my mother took me to that same Stone Church each Sunday.  The pre-service ritual was what I looked forward to the most.  The entire Lee family would arrive on time if with a few spots of dishevelment here and there and always I wondered how such a big family could get itself into the car on time every Sunday morning.  After the Lees were settled, a sense of quiet expectation hovered over all of us.

We were waiting, the whole church knew, for the arrival of the Talcotts.  Suky Talcott was my best friend and she was one of four children of sensible, quiet Hooker and uncontrolled, loud Gertrude Talcott. Gertrude, it seemed, thought everything in life should work as it was supposed to without interference from her and when it didn’t, she screamed at the offending people or circumstance.  They came into church each Sunday like a small explosion – after the organ had begun, always late and arguing.  All heads turned toward their drama.  The Lees, along with the rest of us, always laughed in a dignified under-the-breath kind of way.  I looked forward to it every week.

But this day, 75 years later, belonged to Cynthia and the generations of her family who had come to Navesink.  They had come from all over and they wanted to see each other.  But mostly, everyone there, I sensed, wanted to be there for Cynthia.   Singing the hymns more loudly than I have heard before, it was, I think, their statement that they wanted to be there and to sing in tribute to her.  The Reverend read excerpts from her 24 page memoir full of recollection and ending with “I have loved my happy life.”

At lunch afterward at her sister’s house – the same house we played in as kids – wonderfully unchanged so every one of us felt we were both in today and three quarters of a century earlier – one of Cynthia’s children said that when her mother was a glamorous young woman, someone asked her why she went to church each week…”because it makes me happy” is what she said.

Here Comes The Universe

24 March 15

 

Of all the ideas I had for improving the world over the last fifty years or so, I managed to do something about only one.  The others were ones I talked about in my family without any noticeable response.  I’ve had to remain content with the pleasure of imagining solutions to some of the things I saw as problems.  Only once did I figure out how to put an idea into action.  Continue reading

Old Age vs. New Culture

 

Without warning, I came face to face with a modern problem.  As I carried logs in for the woodstove on a cold winter day, a splinter stuck in my thumb.  I dug around with a sterilized needle and retrieved the splinter.  No problem there.   But when I tried to use my new cellphone upgrade, it wouldn’t let me in because my passcode is my fingerprint which I had messed up by digging for the splinter.  In my wildest dreams I never imagined I would one day be unable to use the telephone because I had damaged my fingerprint.

Continue reading