I’ve been thinking along several seemingly disparate pathways the past couple of days. I’ve always been like that. The other day, I met a friend to help her sort through a harsh diagnosis her partner had recently received. After a lifetime of dealing with medical issues, starting with my mom’s lifetime health problems which frightened me when I was just a little girl, to the ones that appeared throughout the decades in other family and friends, and eventually the five year cancer trip with Michael, I’ve gotten pretty good at wading into the morass of illness. My mom always said, “I’m sorry you were exposed to all my physical troubles, but look how smart you got?” Thanks, mom.
This friend of mine I met with is a fellow swimmer. Perversely, we met outside our empty pool where we’d swim next to each other for years while swapping life stories. Outside of the summer months, we’d rarely get together. Up until last Tuesday, aside from our summer swimming, we’d had lunch together exactly twice in three years. She is an artist and photographer. I’ve purchased a few of her pieces which are unique and especially marvelous because she repurposes a lot of throwaway stuff that would otherwise be landfilled. Last year she came to my house to take pictures of me and my yard, which were to be featured in a show about women and their gardens. That show was cancelled because of the virus quarantine. Maybe someday? Who knows?
Anyway, what frequently comes up in our conversations is how I always go off on tangents in what appear to be significant digressions from the topic at hand. But in my circuitous way, I always wind up back on the subject. That’s what this blog is going to be like on this mild, sunny day, as I sit in my backyard with my feet kicking away in my kiddie pool. I’m watching butterflies feed while looking at and listening to birds. I’m learning a lot out here. I’m trying not to worry about Pumpkin, the female cardinal I foolishly attached myself to, despite knowing that’s a bad move with any wild animal. I haven’t seen her in two days. Carmine, her male partner has been omnipresent. And I believe I spotted one of their babies at my bird feeder yesterday, identified by a splotch of that beautiful cream color of its mom.
I can’t hear a damn thing out here except for the birds. My headphones are turned up loud. I’m in my own universe with just the natural world, music, and the always palpable sense of Michael that emanates from this space. Sometimes I catch myself staring at what I can only describe as hologram of him, weeding away in his incredibly meticulous vegetable beds. I can actually see the tendons moving in his legs which were pretty scrawny compared to his muscled upper body. It kind of reminds me of what popped out of R2D2 when Obi-Wan Kenobi retrieved Princess Leia’s message in the first Star Wars film.
The other morning, I was hurrying through kitchen chores when my son showed up in the dining room. He’s staying with me for awhile he works on a postdoc at our local university. I was chattering away at him when he looked at me through bleary eyes and asked, “ what’s up with this intense energy level so early in the day?” Despite my 70th birthday being my next, I still have almost the same high energy that I did when I was young. Apparently that’s hardwired into me. Sometimes I think it’s dissipated over time, but only on a relative scale, I move at a faster pace than most of my family of origin. My mom, despite her ailments, was clearly the progenitor for this trait. My dad spent his time off work lolling on the couch. Everyone in my immediate family also slept more than me. The same was true for the family Michael and I made together. I was always the first one awake, back in the days we were still living as a unit. In addition to the excess energy and the need for less sleep, I have an essentially sunny disposition. I can be sad, go to dark interior places and certainly recognize them, but in me, they don’t last long. After a sad day, I’m always surprised to feel my humor and energy bubble up from somewhere in me. Even in the worst of times, that’s been consistent. Once, a very long time ago, my brother, eight years older than me, told me that the first time he felt real joy was when I was born. I marveled at that statement. My parents also told me that I was such an easy, good baby that they were worried about me. I fell asleep easily with no complaints, which made them put a mirror under my nose to make sure I was still alive. I wasn’t a fussy eater and wasn’t ever colicky. I burbled happily through my days, primarily content and effortlessly pleased.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m certainly not that sweet saccharine type that you might want to punch in the face. I’m just relentlessly not difficult on a daily basis. Michael always said I was a cheap date, easily pleased and satisfied without a lot of effort. In other words, I’m not high maintenance. There’s just a lightness in me, sometimes despite all my efforts to the contrary. I’d like a maudlin wallow that lasted longer than an afternoon. My recovery time is so fast, I always feel like no one ever feels sorry enough for me. Maybe a more dramatic show of angst would get me more attention. Oh well. I think it’s mostly biology that’s running my show, modified by life and experience, but fundamentally locked in. I was twenty when I moved in with Michael and he often told me during our 45 years, that I was the singularly most unchanged person he ever knew. I took that as a compliment. He didn’t mean that I hadn’t evolved during our life together, but rather that my fundamental self was consistent. Since his death, I find that taken together, these essential traits of mine are both beneficial and problematic. My behavior indicates to the outside world that I’ve adapted fairly well to losing my partner. I do a lot of different activities. My brain is still active and I’m perpetually curious. I can have conversations about virtually anything. But inside of me where my intangible substance lives, I feel like I’m just fabricating a life to occupy my time. After all, I’m still alive. My instincts tell me I have to do something. But in my depths, I often think this is all filler, placeholders for what my real life should be, a real life which still feels like my old life with Michael. I don’t know if or what a person is supposed to be in this world. You hear all these quotidian lines – “she’s a born mother,” “he’s a born grandfather,” all these “born” descriptors which seem to define some essential bent that we’re all expected to have. I suppose if that’s true, I’m a born life partner. Except I’m still here being that while my partner is gone. I don’t want another one. I can’t find a shred of evidence in me that would indicate I want to team up with anyone else. So basically, I’m using my essential traits and making up the current me on a daily basis. I don’t much like this. I simply don’t see another choice.
I guess that focusing on transience is the best coping mechanism I can employ to deal with this piece of time. Like the 18th century Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch, whose still lifes show the influence of the Vanitas movement, which display the inevitability of death and the loss of earthly things, I know that ultimately everything and everyone will disappear, if not completely, then certainly by changing form at the very least. Her painting above shows flowers reaching the end of their prime. I can relate to that.
I’ve now lived in my town for almost 52 years. First I was a student with my life centered mostly around campus. After a time, I moved into the community at large. The places I spent time in over these decades, vary in terms of their continued consistent physical presence, a modified presence or their complete disappearance. I rarely go through the university campus any more.
But the other day, I drove through the heart of what is known as Campustown, very near the main quadrangle where I attended classes in beautiful old buildings, many of which were constructed in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Of course there have been many renovations and updates to those over the years. They are still recognizable. But Campustown is completely changed. High rise buildings dominate the landscape, mostly businesses on the first floors and apartments above. Green space is noticeably absent. Many of the places I frequented have vanished. I have vivid memories of them.
The Record Service where both Michael and I worked, he for 27 years, had several locations in the heart of that place. No trace of it exists. The corner drugstore which sold sundries and the like, but also had a few booths and a kitchen where for a modest price, you could get a hot roast beef or turkey sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes. My friend Fern and I went there a lot. There was the Spudnuts doughnut shop and Follett’s bookstore. The Co-Ed movie theater and McBride’s plus the Art Mart which now exists in a new location far from campus.
There was Mabel’s, the music venue on the second floor of a building on the main drag, with an impossibly steep staircase even when my knees were good. The Deluxe, home of the best fish sandwich I’ve ever eaten. The Cellar, a basement “head” shop, Thimble and Threads, an alternative clothing store, The Leather Shop and Marrakech Clothing Imports. The Campus Florist, The Art Coop and the camera store way before digital cameras existed. Bailey and Himes sporting goods store. Chin’s restaurant and The Brown Jug. All these places and more exist in my mind. I can feel myself in them, feel what I’m doing as I jiggle my favorite pinball machine, Drop-a-Card, a little tipsy from beer which I never liked. I see my view of the stage from the good tables at Mabel’s where you could listen without getting too squished and sweaty and still get up to dance if you were so inclined. I can see my friends and remember conversations there. And of course there is Michael with me. As I drove down that strange but familiar street, I realize that when I’m gone, along with others in my peer group, all that energy from that time will spiral out into the universe somewhere, vanished from sight but yet alive in a context I can’t fathom. I believe that science will one day bear out my feelings about those mystical ideas.
A year or so ago, I had the presence of mind to drive around town to take pictures of every place I lived in before Michael and I bought the house I still currently occupy. Two places were demolished but I found photos of one of them. The other I hope to describe before that memory disappears. In my head, I can still walk through all those houses, turning into the kitchens, the bedrooms, the bathrooms. I can feel the doorknobs in my hands. I navigate the past, parallel to the present. So much has happened in my life already. With the grinding repetitive routine that the coronavirus has required of me, these filler assignments that I concoct to occupy the present vacant time, aren’t as much fun as what’s already behind me, or next to me, or floating around somewhere in these difficult-to-comprehend wavelengths that are the stuff of physics and string theory and other befuddling concepts. I’ll take these scientists at their word while wishing for concepts easier for me to understand.
The other day, my son told me that my daughter didn’t want to sell our house after I die. Actually, she’d already told me that. He doesn’t really want to sell it either. I think I get it. Our home is like their ancestral shrine. People tend to move a lot in this country. When I came here in 1968 I was a 17 year old college freshman. Ten years later, after living with Michael and bumping around for six years, we bought this house, never dreaming we’d live here forever. But that’s how things worked out. I am anchored here, where so much of my adult life happened. My kids were conceived here and stayed until they went off to college. But they came back and brought their friends. We hosted 35 Thanksgiving dinners here with a wide assortment of family and stragglers. People who needed a place to stay intermittently shared our space. My mother lived here in a room that still smells like her. Michael and I did every conceivable activity that passes between friends and lovers here, up to and including his death. I am never uncomfortable or unhappy with our memories in this space. I wondered if I would be but instead it’s my gift and comfort to be here. If I’m lucky, I’d like to die in this place, just like Michael, although no one can predict what awaits us. If I could choose it, though, this is where I’d be.
When we moved in here, there was major reclamation to be done on this structure built in 1893. Daunting work and still it never ends. But the house emitted these wonderful feelings immediately, and we often wondered what good things must’ve happened that lingered in the walls and drifted out, enveloping us in the warmth of home. I imagine we’ve added to that deep resonance of succor which is palpable to me. I’m not surprised that my kids intuitively understand that their history still resides here. Not something they’re likely to quickly cast aside once I’m gone, to hopefully commingle with whatever is Michael, who is out there afloat, still pulling on me daily, while I make up my current daily existence. All these changes I’ve experienced, internally and externally. My, my. I muddle along, creating a space around me that seems to pass for a full life. Maybe filler is too negative a connotation for what I’m doing now. Some days are better than others. I am confident that I still have value in this world and my intellect is fully operative which helps immeasurably. But the draw of my partner still dominates me after three years and change. If that alters, maybe I’ll redefine my current perceptions of this iteration of me.