Thursday, June 6, 2013, I saw the bed in which Emily Dickinson died...

I am on the road again. Yesterday, I left my cozy little respite at Laura's place and turned onto 84E and headed to my 12th state:  Connecticut.

I was born in Connecticut, in Hartford, the city of insurance. My parents and my older sister Sarah took me home to East Granby where we lived in relative stability until "the divorce." I was about 8 or 9 years old. It's vague; a blurry photograph.

The divorce was weird, but we never saw Dad anyway, so it was actually nice to be able to expect to spend time on a routine basis. And, Mom was dating all these guys and seemed happier than before the divorce. Of course, we met all of the men except the boring dentist.

The boyfriend I really liked was named Bill. He was a lot younger than my Mom (36 at the time) cool and talked to me like I was a person. I also remember that he once rubbed Vick's Vapor Rub on my chest when I was really sick. I mean, really! My parents never nursed us when we were sick. They went to work.

My sister and I were true "latch-key" kids. My Mom went to work at Lord & Taylor when I was three. I had a babysitter, Mrs. Johnson, and spent my Mom's work hours with her until I was six years old. At that point, the story goes, my parents couldn't afford the full-time babysitter so I didn't go to Mrs. Johnson's anymore.

So, my 10-year old sister became my babysitter. In other words, I had no babysitter. Sarah couldn't be bothered, and several times locked me in a closet so she could go out to play and not worry about me.

Despite the lack of parental supervision, I still felt like I had a home. Our red house with its black shutters is drawn with indelible ink. Forever

It is now sort of an ugly light blue.

I know some products of a broken home consider the divorce a seminal moment, i.e. "before" vs. "after" the divorce. For me, though, it was actually "before" Mom left us and "after" Mom left us.

 Before Mom left for California, I lived in my house with my mean big sister and my cat, Graykey (as in "the gray kitty" in baby English). Mom came in and out and occasionally Dad made an appearance. But, in a fundamental way, I had a family and a home - however dysfunctional.

My Mom died in 2007. I really miss my Mom. She was an amazing mother to her two grown daughters, and a completely devoted grandmother to my sister's first three children. Shabria didn't come into our family until shortly before Mom died. I think they met once or twice. I'm sure Mom would have adored her, too.

A wonderful thing happened when Sarah had her first child, Elijah. One day, my Mom, my sister, Eli and I were hanging out at Sarah's. Eli was about 8 months maybe? Anyway, Mom suddenly told us that she never realized how much she'd missed out on when we were kids. She was sorry that she'd not been there for us. Sorry that she missed out on raising her children.

I didn't know what to do. My Mom did not express her feelings very often. This is not to say that she wasn't a warm woman - she was. She was easy on the mind, patient and a great listener. Everyone loved my Mom.

In fact, my ex-girlfriend Laura from law school - the woman who is sheltering me right now - ended a years' long silence (we had a fight and neither of us would give) because she saw that my Mom had died (on FB of course). This ultimately led to our reconciliation as friends, and another try at a romantic relationship in 2008 and 2009.

I think that Sarah and I both went and hugged my Mom after her declaration of love and contrition. I don't really remember the specifics, but it was a super sweet moment for all of us, with little Eli rolling and laughing at our feet.

However, back in the day when my Mom left my sister and me in Connecticut to chase after a man all the way to Northern California, I was left without a mother and a home. I was 11 years old.

I was dropped off at my father's house in Glastonbury, Connecticut where he lived with my first (of three) stepmothers, Hercy. My sister was shipped out to my father's alma mater prep school, Kent. This was the summer between 6th and 7th grades.

I turned 12 that summer. My birthday is August 9 and my father had dragged me out to a summer "camp" on some island in Maine that could only be reached by sea-plane. It was owned by his friends, The Bacons. My father and Hercy flew the plane and I sat in the little back seat.

I think they made a cake and sang Happy Birthday to me after dinner on my birthday. I might have received gifts. I don't remember. The only thing I remember was that I spent a long time that  evening locked in the bathroom trying to figure out how to avoid telling anyone in the other room that I'd just gotten my first period.

I knew all about the curse - or Aunt Flow. Sarah is almost four years older than I am so I read those little pink books from her 6th grade Health class when I was in the 2nd grade. Mom was never shy about body stuff - it was the practical, physical realm and she was pretty comfortable with all of it.

So, I was not shocked. I was not afraid. I was just mortified that the only people within who knew how many miles, were all strangers in their late 30's - including my father. There I was washing out undies and -- did you see this one coming -- my white shorts, just like my Mom and big sister before me. But, they were not with me and I didn't know what to do next.

Ultimately, I had to peek my head out of the door and get Hercy's attention. Fortunately, she had some pads (dear universe: these were never a great idea), and didn't tell anyone else.

Hercy was an odd duck who worshipped Ayn Rand and who probably married my father just because he was an architect. She was also smart and discreet. After all, she'd managed a torrid affair with a married man for a long time before his wife found out.

Interesting that the usurper (my father's mother's monicker) was the one there for me when I "became a woman," and not my Mom.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I was on the road again...

I also drove into my 13th state yesterday as well, Massachusetts.  I'm visiting my Mom's younger sister, Janet, for a few days. She lives in Northampton, MS, which seems to be a great place - there are universities and colleges all around (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, University of Massachusetts, etc.).

There is also the birthplace of Emily Dickinson. When my Aunt Janet suggested we go to the Emily Dickinson homestead museum in Amherst, I was stunned. I had no idea I was so close to the place where my poetry muse had been born.

Emily Dickinson gave me poetry and gave me to poetry. There was no way I was not going to that museum. And, so, today, I saw the bed in which Emily Dickinson died.

This is one of two known photographs of Emily Dickinson. She is on the left. This photograph has only been found recently, and it has taken several years to authenticate. The only other image of Emily is a portrait painted by a traveling artist when she was a child.

The homestead museum is the house Emily was born in and lived in until she was about 10 years old. She didn't move into the house that looked out on the town's cemetary until that time. (Her father repurchased the homestead when Emily was in her 20's.) They don't have a lot of Emily's personal effects - or the desk where she wrote her poetry. There is a museum in Harvard that has all that. I will get there eventually.

Even so, Emily still lived in the upper right (as in stage right) corner of that house -- and the museum did have the bed in which Emily died. When the docent lead the other tour goers out of her bedroom, I lingered long enough to reach out and touch the dark wood of the twin-sized sleigh type bed.

When we returned to the initial exhibit room after the tour, I just stood there staring at the few original drafts Emily wrote in her heavily right-slanted script. I couldn't move.

As any poet will tell you, we all have our own system or method of editing. For instance, all my poems get transcribed into a software program I have for writing.  When I edit, I block and copy the original on top of the original and then edit. I do the same thing with each successive edits.

Emily's system was right there on the originals. She used + signs in front of words or phrases to refer to footnotes where she listed alternative words or phrases.

It was thrilling - yes, thrilling with goose bumps and all - to see these "variants." I was tracing over Emily's process of writing; absorbing her attention to the details of a word's relative meaning within the structure/intention of one poem.

There is a 3-volume set of her poetry that includes all the word/phrase variants. It's $140, but someday, I will buy that set and pour over it like molasses.

There are some obvious reasons why I relate to Emily's poetry:  she was interested in nature and botany, and held an ongoing conversation with mortality. She also had a similar dearth of parenting as I experienced growing up.

This is what Emily had to say of her parents:

“My mother does not care for thought, and father - too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.” 

Even so, her father seemed to consider his children's needs - he even got Emily a Newfoundland in her teens who kept her company into her 30's.

Emily had this to say upon her mother's death -

"The dear Mother that could not walk, has flown. It never occurred to us that she had not Limbs, she had Wings—-and she soared from us unexpectedly as a summoned Bird—-"

These words make me feel as though Emily must have come to some sort of understanding with or about her Mom. They also make me feel a bit closer to Emily.

As the years passed, and I grew up, my Mom grew up as well. By the time she died, she was a supportive parent to both Sarah and I, and someone we could talk with and rely upon to give her ever so pragmatic advice.

I think that because of her presence in my life for so many more years than her absence, the "before" and "after" that now fills my heart with grief and gratitude are those days before November 5, 2007, and these sometimes endless days after.

I hope that Emily has rested in peace all of these decades gone by, and perhaps has had the honor of sitting with my Mom and sipping on a cup of dark hot chocolate.

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