Today I went to watch my eldest grandson play a soccer game. My daughter and son-in-law were there, after having enjoyed a rare date last night without their kids. My daughter shared an interesting anecdote that happened on their date, one that somehow feels like the glue that will hold together these slippery threads of thought that have been running through my head for the past few weeks. I’ve known they’re connected somehow but I couldn’t find the link. I’m going to go with this one that emerged from her unusual little story, the serendipitous kind that happens when you spend your life in your hometown.
At the restaurant where they were having dinner, a young man approached my daughter and asked her if she was married. She replied in the affirmative. He then inquired about her maiden name. My daughter replied that she didn’t have a maiden name, having kept the name under which she was born. She then asked him why he wanted that information. He in turn suggested her possible last name, which turned out to be correct. So how did he know it? He told her that when she walked into the restaurant, he recognized her face as that of his high school history teacher. Of course that was Michael. My daughter’s resemblance to her dad has always been obvious to family. But he’s been dead for almost five years, so this recognition was surprising. He then told her that her dad was his favorite teacher, which may account for the rapid identification. I just loved this story, not simply because of this long-remembered image of my teaching husband, still recalled by a former student long after Michael had left his beloved second career to cope with cancer. The story fit with my currently whirling mind. Recently I’ve been trying to analyze these big existential questions. What is a person’s legacy? What’s the most important contribution an individual can make to the world in the grand scheme of life? What really matters? In the end, most of us are tiny motes in an ever-expanding universe, existing for not more than a nanosecond, given the big picture. After we’re gone, will anything that we did have left anything lasting behind, for whoever or whatever is the future?
Who am I at this waning time in my life? What am I leaving as evidence that I was ever here? I know that the diversity between human beings is so profound that when these thoughts are considered, the answers will be as far apart as distant planets.
Eventually the time will come when no one will actually remember Michael or recognize our child. He leaves behind his name, engraved on our local library and city building, both built during his terms as alderman. Also a scholarship in his honor which will be annually awarded to a high school senior who demonstrates commitment and dedication to a future in social sciences. As for me, I’ve been stimulated to think about these questions because of many little gnawing irritations of daily life which make me feel like Sisyphus, endlessly rolling my boulder uphill, only to find it back on the bottom to roll anew the next day. Of course I haven’t cheated death, supposedly the reason behind his punishment. But if I could’ve cheated death from taking Michael, I would have, so perhaps that’s the mythic connection.
So how did I get started down this questioning road? My car, my mostly-reliable-for-17-years car, which about six months ago, started acting its age, was the impetus behind this thought process. The final straw was getting stuck in the drive-through line at Portillo’s, a Chicago hot dog joint where my vegetarian daughter-in-law just had to go because she was craving one of them. Periodically she needs one. And I was happy to oblige. In order to not waste gas in these times of high fuel prices, in addition to not wanting to pollute the air any more than I already do, I turned my car off and put it in park while waiting to order. A friendly young guy showed up, tagged the car window and electronically sent our choices into the building. I paid and then started the engine, ready to move along to the pick-up window. However, somehow my car refused to allow me to shift gears from park back into drive. I tried everything, jiggling the steering wheel, using all my power against the gear shift, turning the car off and on. My daughter-in-law joined in, thinking I was perhaps a little old for this task, but she couldn’t do anything either. I’m still pretty strong but looks can be deceiving. Soon our server realized we were in trouble, disappeared and came back with a burly young man. Okay. Have at it, I thought. I got out and he got in to show his prowess, but despite his burliness, nothing happened.
I decided to call AAA, my emergency towing company, as the line of cars behind us managed to squeeze past, tossing us hostile and annoyed glares. Meanwhile, as we waited, our server brought our food which we ate. Might as well as we were going nowhere. Eventually the tow truck showed up and hauled us out of the drive-through while we sat at an angle, laughing and feeling ridiculous. After he pulled us out of traffic, he came back with a screwdriver and jiggled a small piece of metal off the gear-shift console, poked it in, wiggled it around and voila! The gears could move. He told me I could drive it as long as I didn’t stop but truly, relying on a screwdriver seemed kind of reckless for someone my age. So he towed the car to my mechanic’s place and left my key and a note in the dropbox as this of course, happened on a weekend. My son-in-law came to drive us home. I went inside to stew about my car.
I was thinking about my dad. He was a brusque guy who taught me all kinds of things about the world. His lessons started when I was about ten. I think I remember all of them. The car one was this: cars are a wasting asset. Wasting assets are stupid investments unless you have tons of discretionary income. Don’t buy new cars. (He actually bought a new Chevy Bel-Air once, but my older brother snuck my older sister out early one Sunday morning and they drove it into a viaduct. Totaled, no insurance.) I believed dad. I bought my 2005 Honda Accord when it had 50,000 miles on it. A reliable vehicle, I figured I’d drive it until it had rolled for at least 200,000 miles. I had more than that on my 1993 Camry, also bought used, which had lasted for fifteen years. I know that a certain amount of maintenance is required beyond a certain age, for every car. I know I haven’t spent more on repairs than that expected expense, and certainly don’t want to buy a car in today’s crazy inflated market. But things feel more challenging when you’re over seventy, single, with the decisions all being on you. I miss Michael’s input because he was great at working on cars and actually taught me to feel pretty competent. My kids want me to just get a new one so they don’t have to worry about me. I just can’t get there yet. This is what car life was like with Michael and me back in 1972 – how can I just fold now?
So my car’s been in and out of the shop, for months, quite inconvenient. But its not just the car. Everywhere I go, there are never enough employees. I spend a lot of time waiting. In lines. In stores with lots of people. Worrying about mask-wearing and when Covid will just do what it does. And this is just the small stuff. I’m losing track of how many people I’ve known who’ve died during the past year. I just lost my older sister. Too many people I know are getting cancer or having cancer or failing from their cancer. I know this is what happens as you age – more and more people will be gone. Against the backdrop of our mad political situation, where criminals are winning primaries to run for office, where old men are trying to rescind women’s autonomy over their own bodies, (which is only the beginning of the rights they want to abrogate,) where mass shootings happen every day and where war is blazing across the world? Did I forget to mention climate change? In New Mexico, one of my oldest and dearest friends and his family has had to evacuate their home, with fires raging all around them as they shelter nervously between the infernos. Where I live, the weather has been unseasonably chilly and incredibly wet, until a few days ago when it felt like spring. This week’s forecast, however is for blazing hot summer temperatures, expected to break records, accompanied by relentless winds which have been the characteristic of too many days. So, yeah. Basically I’m trying to understand what all this means, from my aging car, to the incomprehensible absurdity of a social rupture which has made me feel like all the principles I’ve held dear for my whole life, are being trampled by individuals I can’t begin to comprehend. I feel like I, and the rest of my generation is running out of time as our aging bodies get caught by inevitable disease and deterioration.
The other day, while submerged in all these thoughts, my daughter-in-law asked me what I liked best about my garden. I immediately replied, “Michael,” because it’s true that we worked so hard together for so many years to create a beautiful space. Every time I’m out there, I feel him in the most amazing visceral way. But later, I reflected on that question because I’m struggling to figure out what has meaning, what will last, what I’ve done to make the world a better place. I’ve donated my genetics to my children and theirs, which apparently is a good legacy because they are working their tails off every day, one to champion the rights of the least capable people in our society, and the other to save the planet, one bird species or land tract at a time. Michael’s DNA is of course critical to all that. I’ve got a cohort of young people who still surround me, evidently because I can offer them a beacon of hope in their own various turmoils. That’s meaningful.
Still, I kept mulling over the question of what I love most about my garden because it was reverberating in me. I realized that so far this year, I’ve dashed around outside, clearing, digging, weeding, planting and mowing, only to rush back inside to avoid being drenched. I realized I haven’t really taken any time to just be in it, reflect on it at all this year. So I squeezed a chair into the back hallway the other day, simply to sit and observe my yard. I counted seventeen different bird species in an hour. My house wrens are back, choosing which box will hold their nests, chattering away, bickering with each other. I saw bluejays, mourning doves and cardinals mate within that short time. I was amazed by the startling white stripes on the heads of the white-throated sparrows. The rose-breasted grosbeaks showed up. I checked my yard birds list and realized I’ve recorded 47 different species who’ve visited to date.
I saw bees and wasps on the wing. So far I’ve only seen two butterfly species but last year was dazzling, with literally hundreds of pollinators passing through this space. I’m hoping for more joyous times this summer as the year progresses. And suddenly, I figured it out. What will last from me, my gift to my place in time, and given my successful perennial plants, my gift to the future, is a habitat. A habitat that is a haven for multiple creatures, many of whom are under climate duress. What I love with such intensity isn’t simply about my pleasure, but is my way of making survival possible for these miraculous characters, who find a way station in their lives right here, that provides sustenance for them and opportunities for reproduction to ensure the survival of their species. At least for a time.
I planted this kousa dogwood a few years ago because its mature posture reminds me of the way Michael held his body. I’ve planted a few perennials in the same space. My most recent one was an impulsive purchase, based solely on its name. I didn’t give a whit about its appearance – I just want it to survive. Even though it is astoundingly corny and so unlikely from my usually sardonic self. I’ve got a soft spot.
Michael’s ashes are in a beautiful box in my dining room. One day when it’s my turn, I want my ashes mixed with his and both of us strewn into our garden. Our habitat. Our honorable little corner of the world. My kids can toss some of us into Lake Michigan and have the rest of us blown into glass vases or paperweights or whatever. But as we blend into this ground, we’ll be what lasts as part of a gift back to this mad planet where we lived. I feel better. This works for me.