Requiem

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Trees croon yellow and gold
in mid-September.
Bellow orange, scarlet and ruby
by late October.
“Look at me!” they insist
on these brittle blue days.
Soon, one night of wind and rain
will drop shrouds of leaves,
while writhing limbs
scrape the stars.
Today, on a river road,
a village of sugar maples
links arms overhead
and chants, “Let go!”
A canopy of stained glass
shatters down on me
in one last
glorious
chorus.

For Denise

A New Year’s Eve so long ago in Marcus.

Denise

Cheers from Denise in Des Moines.

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On a visit to Rhode Island in 2018.

2018

 

It is one of the inevitable realities of growing older: the deaths of friends and family grow ever closer and more frequent.

I have lived far from my hometown and family members for four decades now. As a result, my experience with funerals as an adult has been limited to my parents, close relatives, and the family members of colleagues and neighbors – probably less than 20 funerals in all that time.

In contrast, attending funerals was a common (often weekly) event for me from about fifth through eighth grade in the small Iowa town where I attended an even smaller Catholic school. That’s because the Holy Name girls often sang at funeral Masses before lunchtime, while the boys took turns serving Mass.

I remember huge funerals that overflowed the pews (in a church that was majestic in comparison to the size of the town) and funerals with a handful of mourners. This aspect of small-town life remains the same for my friends who live in my hometown (although they no longer sit upstairs whispering in the choir loft). They now pay their respects to deceased friends and neighbors by helping to serve the funeral meal, making the salads and desserts, and mourning another local family’s loss. When I used to visit my hometown with my daughters in the summer, I often attended a wake or funeral with my parents. It was something you did to show your respect, to note a passing, to console the living.

On Sunday, Denise Theisen, a high school classmate – and one of my “Marcus Girls” – passed away. Over the years, as demanding family or business lives relaxed a bit, several of us got together for long weekends every other year in cities all over the Midwest, and it had become known as the Marcus Girls’ Trip. The girls had even traveled to Connecticut for a perfect leaf-peeping weekend two years earlier.

In recent months, Denise had warned us that her cancer had finally won the war – but the shock of its fury and finality is still hard to grasp. Her funeral is today, and her huge, close family and long-time friends will fill the church pews, which have seen generations of mourners come and go.

I had last seen Denise in May when I returned to northwest Iowa for the high school graduation of my brother’s triplets, and I had last talked to her on the phone just a few weeks ago, after she had moved into her sister’s house for hospice care. Even then, I thought she had months to live, instead of days. We laughed about how much chocolate she would eat without feeling guilty – and I now realize she probably never took one bite of the chocolates I mailed to her a few days later.

I will miss her laugh, her deep voice, and those looks that pierced through the bullshit in seconds. She was a smart businesswoman and a thoughtful friend. She was artistic and logical. She was a caring daughter and a mischief-maker. She was a joker and a philosopher. Even in our last conversation, she urged me to stay positive and be strong. And she told me that knowing cancer had finally come to take her was better than worrying about the likelihood of it happening for so long.

“It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said, about her long journey with cancer. “I don’t have to worry about that anymore. For me, knowing is better than waiting.”

Some of the Marcus Girls got together just days before Denise quietly passed away, and she gave them all something of hers to remember her by. During the visit, my friends told me that Denise grew visibly more tired, so she decided to return to her sister’s home to take a nap. However, instead of saying good-bye, she said, “Till we meet again.”

I have a black-and-white photo of Denise from high school. She is in the art class that we took together. She is looking up from the project she is working on and flashing that sly, what-the-hell smile of hers. If I can find the photo and scan it, that’s what you’ll see at the top of this post. If not, it will remain in my memory. (And, of course, I can’t seem to find it right now. But I look forward to stumbling upon it in the future, when I’ll have a good laugh with Denise.)

Till we meet again, Denise. Till we meet again.

“What do you see?”

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The white-haired woman had propped her camera and telephoto lens up against her mailbox and was snapping photos in the direction of the Mystic River. As I got closer, I wondered what had grabbed her attention. On this solid blue summer morning, the river was quiet: no kayaks or crew teams or fishing boats rippling the water. I spoke a little louder.

“What do you see?”

“Oh! It’s my osprey, in the pine tree. He’s got a fish in his mouth,” she said, as she squinted through the lens. I looked in the direction it was pointed and saw the osprey perched atop a scrubby pine.

“I’ll miss him. Any day now, he’ll be heading south,” she said. “Each spring it’s the same. I wonder which one of us will be here next year. So far, so good.”

We laugh, and I wish her well.

I continue walking down the road that passes by wooden fences of old Mystic homes and the remains of summer gardens, underneath an interstate highway overpass, a saltwater estuary, the road to a peace garden, and a meticulous cemetery.

But now I am looking harder, longer.

I see the sunlight break into a thousand stars among the reeds at the water’s edge. I listen to the tractor trailers on the overpass overhead, tires changing their tune as they meet the bridge. I brush my hands over weeds and give them names – Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and beach plums. I turn into the cemetery and sounds feel muffled. Shadows flicker off the stones as a breeze stirs the oak leaves high overhead. They hang on the longest in the fall, but soon they, too, will let go.

“What do you see?”

The question lingers. I could have passed by the old woman without saying a word, just as I have done hundreds, thousands of times on other paths and sidewalks and roads.

I think of all I’ve missed.

Of all I haven’t seen.

In the park

I love to find beautiful little spots that surprise me. This evening I walked through Wilcox Park in Westerly, where an outdoor play with four nuns was going on, people were setting up a stage for a concert tomorrow, someone was playing the guitar on a park bench, a young couple was fishing their toddler out of a fountain, and families were sprinkled around on blankets. It was filled with flowers, fountains, stately trees, and it was the sprawling backyard of a lovely old library — another surprise.

The library was a busy place on a Thursday evening in the summer — people played chess, a man read in a window seat, and the meeting rooms were busy. It even had a little coffee house, which is open during the day. It felt like a well-loved place. I will be back.

Westerly sits on the southeasternmost edge of  Rhode Island, a place I never visited when I actually lived in the state. But it is a sweet gem that has reinvented its downtown with little shops and cute restaurants — and it is celebrating its 350th birthday this year.  Here are a few more favorite photos from tonight’s visit.

 

Anniversaries

be the breeze 1

 

Two grandsons race each other across the backyard,

across this longest day of the summer,

which looks as worn out as the boys’ parents.

My daughter shouts a warning of poison ivy

as these pre-schoolers stumble and roll into weeds,

and I find myself fretting about deer ticks again.

One grandbaby cuddles in his mother’s lap

while another coos and kicks in a screened play yard.

All they need do is smile, and I am theirs.

 

Then, from another yard in the distance,

I hear my mother’s voice yell “Go!”

And she is sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse again,

as four of her eight children

race barefoot to tag the pine tree near the road

and back again, trying to miss thistle patches.

My grandsons now pretend to be monsters.

 

When the mosquitoes take over,

my daughters’ husbands pick up plates

of half-eaten hot dogs and empty beer cans

as my children get their children ready for bed.

And I am reading Charlotte’s Web in a  twin bed,

choking back tears over Charlotte and Wilbur

and my own fears and my own loss as two little girls

half-listen as their mother pretends to be a spider.

 

But it is Sunday night and these young parents

have to pack for work trips and study for online courses

and make lunches and double-check daycare schedules.

I remember how much I too dreaded Sunday nights,

how I dawdled over grading papers, making lesson plans,

or ironing a pile of button-downs and pressing pants.

 

Tonight, all I have ahead of me is the drive back home,

and I open the moon roof and turn up the music.

I have lived almost half my life on four wheels,

from gravel roads to interstates to suburban streets,

and now I watch the stars circle above me

on a Connecticut highway that leads

to a quiet condo, my choices, and maybe a Netflix movie.

 

Forty years ago today, I put on a white gown,

pearl earrings, ballet slippers, and a picture hat.

I slipped baby’s breath behind one ear

and walked down a church aisle to say, “I do.”

And I did for a long time. But I don’t anymore.

 

And so, by the time I get home,

this longest day will have blown out its candle,

and a soft breeze will lift my bedroom curtain.

I may hear a foghorn on Long Island Sound,

or the whistle of an Amtrak train stopping in New London.

Yes, a soft breeze will lift my bedroom curtain,

just as it did in a farmhouse surrounded by Iowa cornfields,

and an apartment off I-95 where tractor-trailers roared,

and a bungalow in New Jersey next door to a peach orchard,

and a suburban cookie-cutter house in Rhode Island,

and one big room over a deli on Benefit Street,

and a second-floor condo in the trees off busy Rte. 2.

 

Tonight, on this unmarked anniversary,

I celebrate all this day has offered,

for the memories that sifted up from long ago,

for daughters who are mothers,

and a mother who gave us all she had and never asked for anything,

for those I couldn’t make happy,

and those I did.

 

And I celebrate the girl in the white gown

who walked down a church aisle forty years ago

and that one single sprig of baby’s breath

tucked

behind her ear.

Two months

 

Days pass so quickly. One week. A month. Two months without coming back here to write.

And now tomorrow is June 1.

Days march silently away when you don’t hold on to them with photos and words. I’ve been busy. A cruise to Cuba–I need to capture that too. A visit to Iowa to see family and friends–always needed. A new part-time job in visitor services at–yes!–Lyman Allyn Art Museum, where I spent many a winter day.

But these endless raw spring days (spring?) always do a number on me. They can feel monotonous. Like check boxes.

And then finally. Finally!

Summer kicks in. I could not let this day pass unforgotten or checked off.

Today, I was back on my bike on a new path that winds along near Long Island Sound. I still miss the familiar beaches and bike paths of Rhode Island. But I’m here now. And Connecticut’s state beaches are free and just a few exits away.

Today was a glorious day. A day that kicked clouds across the sky. A day when you could smell the flowering beach plums and honeysuckle and seaspray.

Today was a surprising day. The paths at Hammonassett State Park kept curving around the sea, past a salt marsh, past steps to a lookout with a bench, past a man painting on a ledge, past storm-tossed boulders and sun-bleached tree trunks.

Today was a day that reminded me of my goal a year ago–to explore, to keep trying new things, to grow, to learn, to reach out, to breathe, to leap.

To keep writing.

I’m back.

 

And just like that

 

 

My part-time job at the Lyman Alllyn Art Museum is almost over.

I have enjoyed it immensely, even on the quiet days. Even when I sat in the gallery by myself for hours. Even when the galleries were filled all day long on free Saturdays. Even when a few visitors popped their head into the gallery, looked around, and didn’t explore more.

But I am ready for spring, my garden and sunshine.

Everyone who worked at Lyman Allyn was kind and talented and proud of the work they do.

I now realize that people of all ages still come to art museums and linger longer than I ever thought. I realize artists are like poets, playing with images, always thinking about technique and skill, leading with their heart.

I learned how to take a close look at art. How to look long and hard.

I have learned and been changed.

What more can anyone ask?

 

“Overwhelmed”

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That’s what the woman said when I ask her if she enjoyed her visit to the art museum.

Her steel-gray hair was pulled back in a bun, and I would have overlooked her, except for the fact that she had been squeaking back and forth in her sneakers between the galleries on the second floor that I tend for most of the afternoon.

Actually, she whispered the words, and then choked on the final syllable.

“I.  Am.  Overwhelmed.”

I wanted to hug her.

Because when she said the words, I realized that’s exactly how I’d been feeling all day.

And my throat closed up too.

It was the first Saturday of the month, which meant admission to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum where I work part-time was free, and dozens of people had been swarming through the galleries all day. The videos in the Tiffany exhibit had not stopped playing. The three galleries in the John F. Kennedy exhibit were filled with visitors who slowly meandered from photos of JFK as a child to the final photo of Jackie as a widow. And then there were the tranquil sea-blue galleries that paid their respect to Emil Carlsen, an unsung 19th-century master who taught young artists how to paint light in the quiet woods of Connecticut.

That’s not all the woman said. She told me that she had been here on a quiet weekday afternoon, but her daughter had called and asked her to pick up her granddaughter from school. So, she left before she could visit the second-floor galleries. That is why she had returned today.

As I watched this whispering hubbub that surrounded me, I, too, realized I had been feeling overwhelmed today.

Overwhelmed that so many chose to spend their precious Saturday afternoons here.

Overwhelmed that they lingered and read and looked and looked again.

Overwhelmed by their wonder, their gasps, their desire, by their sincere need to learn and understand and know.

Overwhelmed by how art finds its own community across generations.

Overwhelmed by all that I didn’t know. And all that I knew by heart.

Overwhelmed by all I had gained in these galleries.

Overwhelmed by my renewed love for art.

Overwhelmed by makers of art.

Overwhelmed by lovers of art.

Overwhelmed by our immense need for art in today’s world.

And thankful. Thankful, that today I simply asked a woman if she enjoyed her visit to the art museum.

And she said,

“I.  Am.  Overwhelmed.”

 

 

 

 

 

Where artists played

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At the Florence Griswold Art Museum, Old Lyme, CT

And here they disembarked from the train
to make art.
Here, they were welcomed.
Here, they painted on dark doors and wall panels.
Here, even a few women artists were allowed.
Here, they painted cows and sheep.
Far from city streets.

In the late afternoon, the winter sun fills these rooms
with light,
searching for the painters who once sang its praises,
who grabbed their paint boxes and canvases
and ran down country lanes to favorite spots,
who shaped their hopes and shadows
with pigments instead of laws.

And now they are mostly forgotten
in the hues of time.
But here, their stories settle in the brushstrokes,
in the well-worn porch boards,
in the path to the river,
in the cracks of light.

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