Friday, June 14, 2013

Time and Space (Part I)

I went to visit my cousin Meghan in Warren, Vermont. The week before I'd been to visit with her Mom, my Mom's younger sister, Janet.

On my way home from Meghan's this week, I walked into the Barnes & Noble bathroom somewhere in Springfield, Massachusetts and chose the second stall. I immediately grabbed a toilet seat cover and wiped down the seat, grabbed another to cover the seat and sat down.

For a moment, I was confused as to where I was. I sincerely believed myself to be in a B&N bathroom in CA; maybe at the Bay Street Mall in Emeryville.

It is strange how confusing space can be, even stranger how little time is a measure where memory is concerned. One can be in 10 places in a matter of minutes - when you smell a lit cigar, hear a running river, or see someone or something from your past - you exist in another time; another space.

When I was traveling across the country, I felt that the place of my disastrous relationship was receding by the mile. But, when I arrived in KC to spend time with my college mates, I realized that time is more often an illusion than not.

As I sat with Jeanne, Tracy and Beth, at some level we had never parted or separated. Our story just was put on hold until that moment of reunion. But, also, our reminiscing brought us into a time and place we hadn't been for years.

My travels these last few months have been physically my life in reverse. It's been like shedding an overcoat of the present and living in memory after memory - jumping from this time to that time, this place to that.
Last week, on my way to visit Aunt Janet, I stopped by the Simsbury Cemetery to check on my grandmother’s gravestone. My father had paid for her name and years of life to be etched into his father, my grandfather’s headstone. He wanted me to visit their grave site to ensure that the job had been done. 
When I got to the cemetery, where I had been only once before – with my father upon a visit to his Mother in West Hartford, I followed my instinct, and found their grave site easily. There were Henry Fairchild and Margaret Fairchild, laid to rest alongside each other under a shade tree.
My father’s parents divorced when he was in prep school; sometime in the 1950’s. Isabel, his mother, never remarried. She was an artist, preferring charcoal and watercolor. She was also a professor of art at a Connecticut State College.
Isabel was a strong and imposing presence in my childhood. My sister and I were a bit afraid of her – but she also offered us creative costumes, games and even an assembly line cookie shop at Christmas-time. However, break manners at the dinner table, and you’d be sent to the car, in the cold, until it was time to leave. Thank goodness my father brought me a blanket.
Anyway. I visited Isabel before her death and I was glad of it. She had a strange sort of short term memory dementia. Her mind was still its sharp self, but if you left the room for too long, she forgot that you’d been there before.
I’d gone with my Dad to visit. His younger sister, and my middle-namesake Jane was there. Jane had been Mommom’s primary caretaker for many years at that point. That's another story for another day.

During the visit, Dad and I went to visit Henry’s grave. We also drove to the frigid tundra of upstate New York to visit Henry’s second wife, my grandmother Margaret.
Margaret, or Marge, had been Henry’s secretary. Cliché, I know, but Marge adored Henry and put up with his moods – moods which were caused by issues of brain chemistry – issues that I inherited from him.

Our visit was interesting in the way that watching Rear Window is interesting to me. I know the story because I've watched the movie a dozen times, and the characters seem to be in real-time. But, when I really think about it, the clothing is different, the furniture, the mannerisms, the relationships are not quite right.

There is an otherwordly feel to the whole thing - because that movie was made in another world entirely. Grace Kelly wasn't even a Princess yet.

Marge’s new apartment underneath her nephew’s home was decorated with their things – mostly Henry’s things to whom she deferred to regarding most everything.

I say this not to reduce Marge in your estimation, but as a testament to her unconditional love for my grandfather because he so valued deference.
That was a bit of a dig at my Poppop, but we Fairchilds appreciate the well deserved dig. Anyway, my grandmother gave it to him without complaint.
Dad and I waited a very long time for dinner (we had a four hour drive to get back that night) and Marge kept her apartment at a brisk 80 degrees. Even so, we were all enclosed in a space-time bubble, that made me feel that Henry would pop in from a cigarette break at any time. 
When Mommom served dinner, and profusely refused our help even though she suffered from severe osteoporosis, and was bent nearly in half, both my father and I were touched straight to the bone. I had to hide tears as she served us the same ham and burnt rolls she’d always served at holidays.
That day, she tended to us like precious feathers likely to blow away without her steady care; the last remnants of her life here on Earth; the last living connection to her beloved.
On the occasion of my 40th birthday in August 2007, I had a large garden party at the little cottage where I lived in Rockridge, Oakland, California. Along with about 60 other folks, my father flew from Missouri, and my Mom came from Santa Cruz. My sister, her wife Jill and their then three children were there; and of course I was there.

It was the first time since my parents divorce that our nuclear family was whole, in one space and time. It is always a bittersweet memory. My Mom died 3 months later. It was her last public appearance.

But, my Dad did something very special for me that day. Marge had died a few months before my 40th birthday, and my father and his sister Jane inherited all of Henry’s things. My father also inherited Marge’s wedding band and engagement ring, as well as the original cigar band that Henry used to propose to Marge.
I was standing in the kitchen of my cottage getting something for someone – and he handed me a black box. Inside were Marge’s rings. He kept the cigar band, but wanted me to have her rings. He told me they might bring me luck in finding love. (And, I certainly needed it.)

I knew Marge had been all right with her death. It was, after all, the only way back to her Henry. When I sat in front of their gravestone and cried like a baby, it was both out of grief for the suffering that is inherent in life, and loss; but also, in relief that they were together again.
I was honored to be wearing Marge’s engagement ring and wedding band.
Henry’s sisters, Edna and Ruth, are buried a few gravestones away. I sat in front of them and cried like a baby as well. I should say I was still crying – but also that I continued to cry.

Ruth had a life, married, etc. But Edna had inherited the family curse – what was then known as the “circular disease,” i.e. she was bipolar. As her brother, my grandfather Henry was, and as I am.

I was crying for Great Aunt Edna, not really out of empathy, because our experience of bad brain chemistry was so different. I was crying because most of her life was spent inside an institution – that she wasn’t let out until the advent of Lithium in the late 1960's or early 1970's.
Or, so the family lore goes.
I can only thank the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals and my own stubborn and tenacious disposition – the disposition of being born of two hard-headed parents - that my life has been (relatively) "normal."
I took pictures of both gravestones and as I was walking back to my car, I sent a few in an email to my Dad. I'd accomplished my mission; the gravestone cutter had done his job. All was well.

As I was walking, I noted one gravestone, the inexpensive slab in the earth kind, with five spent metal votive candle holders turned upside down and pushed into the earth in a neat row.

They made me stop. One votive for each year that had passed since this loved one or beloved had died. I realized then that I'd forgotten to bring flowers, or a candle. I walked back and placed a rock on each gravestone -- a Jewish tradition but something I could do in remembrance.

Next time I pass through the Hartford area, I will bring a red geranium plant and plant it in front of Henry and Marge's grave my Dad told me those were his Dad's favorites. And what were Henry's favorites would be Marge's favorite as well.

I might bring a chamomile plant and plant that in front of Ethel and Ruth's gravestone. Something to soothe the spirit of my Aunt Ruth.

May they both all rest in peace.

I finally made my way back to my car and wiped my face with Kleenex, covered my red eyes with my sunglasses and drove to the local Starbucks.

A Starbucks that was fashioned in a Revolutionary War tavern.

Gotta’ love capitalism.

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