The glue here is Bourdain

Morgan – where & when?

My older son worked in restaurants while in school, during the summer, and when out of work. In fact my younger son worked in restaurants — how could I forget? I’m pretty sure both Sarah and Sam, their wives, did also.  Morgan at the old wonderful Woodshed in Moultonborough, Egg in Brooklyn, even Chili’s in Nashua, someplace on Martha’s Vineyard, at a few ski resorts, and Alex at Court Street Grocers again in Brooklyn, both of them at our Olde Orchard Inn. They washed dishes, cleaned the stove, threw pizzas, shucked oysters; worked the line and the register; expedited, managed, served, and played various roles at our bed and breakfast.

513wxtu2q4l-_sx331_bo1204203200_They told stories of course, but nothing like those of Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, which came out in 2000. I read it, learned from it, cringed at parts of it.  It was a peak into what went on in kitchens and what happened after the kitchens closed. It was a frenetic read, but thankfully it was neither of my son’s lives.

I never forgot the book, in fact thought of it often, but never followed Bourdain nor watched his series. Now Journeyman, the article in a recent New Yorker has Bourdain calling to me again and hopefully I’ll catch up.  He is not, yet he is, the same man whose book I read.

Bourdain takes Obama to dinner in Hanoi - $6

Bourdain takes Obama to dinner in Hanoi – $6

Why my inerest? His life, his work, his experiences are legend.  He’s been everywhere, eaten everything, gets to film it, write about it.  President Obama had lunch with him on one of his adventures.  So cool.  Would I like to go on  one of those adventures?  Not so sure I could do it.  I once invited myself to lunch with Norman Mailer and then could barely say a word.

All through the  New Yorker article I found snippets that made me think of my children, quotes to send them or not send them. I usually have to think it through — how often to email, call or text. How often to intrude into their already full adult lives.  These are important decisions for a mom who is so proud of and so loves her sons and their wives but doesn’t want to be over-momming it.

Instead I’ll write them here.  Perhaps they will read them some day.

For Morgan, who has done research on New York City’s food carts, and who with his wife Sarah works at the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, this quote from Bourdain describing his proposed Pier 57 “market modelled on Singapore’s hawker centers or open-air food courts.”  Bourdain plans to bring in the “best street-food vendors” recruited “from around the world and awarded visas — assuming that the United States is still issuing them — ”

Singapore’s orderly hawker markets combine the delights of roadside
gastronomy with an approach to public-health regulation that could pass

muster in post-Bloomberg New York. They cracked the code with out
losing this amazing culture.

For  Sam, who writes for Food 52, and Alex who is a frequent commenter, this clip on Bourdain confessing that he now seeks to “capture how people go about their daily lives amid violent conflict” while filming Parts Unknown — ”

160912113331-parts-unknown-s8-card-large-169

As ‘Parts Unknown’ has evolved, it has become less preoccupied with food and
more concerned with the sociology and geopolitics of places Bourdain visits. . .
To viewers who complain that the show has become too focussed on politics, Bourdain responds that food is politics: most cuisines reflect an amalgamation of influences and tell a story of migration and conquest, each flavor representing a sedimentary layer of history.  He points out that most shows about food are premised on a level of abundance that is unfamiliar in many parts of the world.

Go Sam!  We all knew you were right to bring politics onto the website!

I’ve got a good one for my buddy Lee, who’s a firm believer in “if it doesn’t kill you it will make you strong” as he judges the edibility of some morsel that I question.  It’s a conversation of Bourdain’s with Stephen Werther, his partner in his new market project, and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams, the design firm which has agreed to work on the Market.  They are talking about those Asian food vendors again. “The new frontier for American tastes is fermentation. . . That’s funk. . . Aged steaks. . . Age is code for rot. .  . Cured.”

“Alcohol is the by-product of yeast,” Stephen Alesch chimed in.  It’s the
piss of yeast.”

“Basically , what we’re saying is that filth is good,” Bourdain concluded.

And I found one for me. Bourdain’s publisher Dan Halpern from Ecco and HarperCollins says of Bourdain —

“He can’t believe his luck. He always seems happy that he actually is Anthony Bourdain.”

I am so lucky too!

* * * * * * * * * *

Last night, after putting this post to bed for a quick review in the morning before publishing, the thought came to me that there was still more to do. Netflix streams Parts Unknown.  I watched the first episode, filmed in 2013, in Myanmar.   Bourdain presents an interesting, colorful travelogue, integrating the life of the people with the food of the country.   His dining companions spoke out loud, but guardedly, of their new freedoms. The story is out of date because the papers today are filled with atrocities against the Rohingya, and I was left wondering what his experience would be if he went back.   Bourdain seemed surprisingly uncomfortable in front of the camera.   I will watch more.

One summer’s reading group: Postscript

This is the third part of a three part post.
Click for the first — One summer’s reading group:  Preface
Click for the second — One summer’s reading group

The memories in part two of One Summer’s Reading Group came back to haunt me about a year ago while reading Letter from Germany — The Last Trial: A Great-grandmother, Auschwitz, and the Arc of Justice by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. It was very difficult to read, as were the articles researched for this post, and that dreadful feeling of not being able to pull myself away came over me.

Kolbert’s Letter begins with the trial of Oskar Groning, whose assignment in the S.S. was to collect, sort and count the money taken from people sent to Auschwitz. Groning lived freely but discreetly in Germany after the war. In 1985, nazi-oskar-groenin_3274160bhowever, he came forward with details of his work  and observations at Auschwitz in an effort to deflate the lies of Holocaust deniers.  In 2014 at the age of 93 and was convicted as an accessory to murder in 300,000 cases.

Forty years after the war, Groning did not fear or anticipate arrest. There were many attempts to define crimes against humanity, murder and genocide, and  how far down the ladder of responsibility did guilt creep.  Kolbert leads us through three stages of trials in which the line between “guilty” and “innocent” was continualy moving.

She quotes a chilling statement of Germany’s first postwar Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer,

‘You don’t toss away dirty water when you don’t have any that’s clean.’

* * * * * * * * * *

In the attic of the home of Kolbert’s grandparents in New York state, were boxes of the papers of her great-grandmother, Franziska Maass.. Kolbert and her mother went through them in 2009 after both grandparents had died.  Among them were her great-grandmother’s letters written between March and October 1942 to her son who, like so many others, had moved to the Americas during the war.

‘With great longing I am thinking of you,’ one read, in part. ‘I pray to God that I will see you again.’

‘Beloved Children!  I think a lot about you. I am very lonely.’

08_its_impressions_3Franziska’s son had tried with out success to learn what had happened to his mother.  Kolbert and her mother were able to put together a sketchy picture of her life from these papers and from information found in the records kept by the Third Reich stored now in the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen.  On December 14, 1942

. . . she, along with eight hundred and ten others from Berlin and surrounding towns, was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On the record of the transport, she was listed as arbeitsfähig, or able to work. She was sixty-two years old.

Several years ago friends of Kolbert who lived in Germany told her of the German artist Gunter Demnig, whose Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones,” are found embedded in the streets of Berlin where victims of the Nazi barbarity lived before they were sent to concentration camps.  Kolbert writes:

placing stoneIn contrast to most memorials, which aim to command attention, Stolpersteine are understated—literally underfoot. Each one consists of a block of concrete onto which a plain brass plaque has been affixed. The block, which is about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, is embedded in the sidewalk, or inserted among the cobblestones, so that the plaque’s surface lies flush with the ground. Every plaque is stamped by hand, as a gesture, according to Demnig, of opposition to the mechanized killing of the camps.

. . . The project has been called the ‘largest decentralized memorial in the world.’ Demnig installs most of the stones himself, and the project has more or less taken over his life. Demnig himself has placed most of the more than fifty thousand stones now in the streets of Europe. In Berlin, where there are over six thousand of them, “residents formed groups to find out who had been deported from their neighborhood.”

one line of stones

Kolbert contacted Demnig to place a plaque in memory of her great-grandmother. About a year after she filled out the forms a date was set. She and her parents and a few friends attended the “laying of the stone.”

Kolbert’s Letter holds out a light. It is not a beacon of hope for a more tolerant and peaceful future, or for understanding the horrors of that time so we will do better in the future. It is a small spotlight on a man and his quiet, solemn, dignified memorial to those who suffered and died, including those whose stories still have not been discovered and therefore have no stone.  These stones are a path for all who bemoan the senseless loss of loved ones and the unnamed.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is so much more to Kolbert’s Letter that I strongly suggest you click on the link at the beginning of my post and read it for yourself.  Some interesting additional material is available at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/world/europe/oskar-groning-auschwitz-birkenau-guard-trial.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Gr%C3%B6ning

http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolperstein

One summer’s reading group

 

This is the second part of a three part post.
Click for the first — One summer’s reading group:  Preface
Click for the third — One summer’s reading group: Postscript

CCI15022016

Every summer a group of about twenty high school students, mostly Jewish, from Bayonne, Jersey City and Hoboken met every day on the beach at Tenth Avenue in Belmar. One year, 1966?, someone started reading holocaust stories out loud.  I took the photo above.  That’s not me front and center.

Dad (Grandpa), Uncles Eddie & Elliot 2I knew about the Holocaust. I had read Anne Frank and had seen the movie. My father, he’s on the left, and uncles had fought in the war, although none in Europe. Family of friends had numbers on their arms.

Tamara & Shulamith Minz, Tel Aviv 1954Distant cousins would write to us periodically telling us about their lives and asking us for financial support. They had escaped from Hitler — I do not know if they were in the camps or not — but they had made their way to Israel. There were two girls, Tamara and Shulamith, about my sister’s and my age. That is them to the right in Tel Aviv 1954.  My mother always got upset when these letters came, and there would be whispered conversations between my mom and dad.

My mother always made me feel as though it could happen again — Jews being rounded up and imprisoned or killed, anytime, anywhere. It is true that one morning we woke up to a swastika drawn with snow on the gate to our backyard. We believed but never were certain that the children who lived on the corner and who attended St. Andrew’s did it. After all, the nuns at St. Andrew’s used to walk their students to the corner after school to make sure they didn’t stop at “the Jew” Lennie’s candy store.

CCI15022016_2Mom distrusted anyone who was not a member of the tribe. She spoke of Jews not being served in restaurants, not getting jobs. We knew of families who had changed their names. I’d come home from school during the McCarthy era to find her glued to the television set, and many evenings I would hear her talking to my father, who was the token Jew in his department in the Civil Service Commission. She feared he and some of their friends would be called up before the committee. Who knew what to think? I was young.

I was sucked into the Holocaust readings with fascination and horror, and felt we were doing something that our parents — at least mine — would not approve. Even many years after that summer, my imagination was filled with images of blond, blue-eyed men and women with thick accents opening up my stomach to see if the monkey sperm with which they had tried to impregnate me had created a monster. Or they would take away my glasses and since I was minus 16 in one eye and minus 18 in the other I would be useless and they would send me to the showers.

CCI15022016As my life became more my own these nightmares disappeared. My mom relaxed too. She welcomed into the family a “very nice” Protestant son-in-law with parents who, she was surprised but relieved to discover, had similar values and life-style to hers. There she is with my husband’s mom at the our wedding.  She lived in senior communities with few Jewish neighbors and fewer if any Jewish staff on which she grew to depend. She sang the Jewish holiday songs and relished the holiday meals and lit the Sabbath candles. She sang Christmas carols and enjoyed the lights on the Christmas trees. I hope her heart softened and she was less afraid.

But now I think mother might have been right, and I was naive.

It would do us all good to spend a summer reading about the Holocaust and the millions killed in genocidal wars in Korea, Rwanda, India, the Ukraine, Algeria, the Congo, and, and, and. We might read about how self-righteous white men in our own country treated the Native Americans, and how they pulled Africans from their homes and made them slaves, and how they now, every day during this tedious primary season, spew hate and bigotry as a mainstay of America’s exceptionalism.

Oh dear, I’m ranting.  Forgive me.

Our world is diverse. Let us one day rejoice in these differences and recognize the infinite possibilities they offer. Let us one day work together for the benefit of all mankind and this remarkable, beautiful, rich world we live in.

One summer’s reading group: Preface

My mother’s parents, Fanny and Harry, also known as Little and Big GG, bought a house in Belmar, New Jersey when I was three? five?  Perhaps I could ask my aunt — just one aunt alive now and living in Wisconsin. It had four bedrooms on the second floor.  Grandma & Grandpa’s had a private porch which I loved to sit on.

CCI13022016_2I remember the day we accompanied them to look at the house — climbing up the porch stairs and walking into the living room with its robust wood pillars and dark brick fireplace.  (The photo is from 1983).  My parents wouldn’t let me play on the stairs to the second floor during that visit.  You could start climbing a few steps either from the entry or from the kitchen.  These two small staircases joined at a landing and then turned to go up to the second floor.  They were a favorite place for me to play when nobody was paying attention once it became our summer home.  A grate in the floor at the top of the staircase so that the heat from the fireplace could hopefully warm the second floor was another object of childhood fantasy.

CCI13022016My mother had two sisters and I was one of eight cousins. We all lived on the same street in Bayonne, and every summer we would go down to the Belmar house. The men — my father and two uncles — divided the attic into three bedrooms and a full bath to accommodate us all as the family grew. I have only a vague remembrance of my grandfather joining in on the work but perhaps I could ask my uncle — just one uncle alive now and living in Wisconsin.

CCI13022016_3Every June after school let out we would drive through Staten Island to the shore. I remember going in our 1937 Pontiac. Even after the Turnpike and Parkway were built we would often go through Staten Island since we lived at the southern end of Bayonne very close to the bridge. We would travel old Route 440 and pass Dinger Farm. I watched for it every trip and would giggle to myself because that was the word one of my aunts used for that strange thing that my boy cousins had but girls do not.

The picture of the car is from 1949 when the car still belonged to my grandfather.  He had a vanity plate.  HR were his initials and he lived at 80 West 5th Street.

The moms and the cousins would spend the summer in Belmar.  We had two refrigerators in the kitchen — two families would share each and each family had its own kitchen cabinet and pantry shelf. As the families grew we would switch bedrooms. It finally wound up that Aerial Belmar copythe older boys and Janet and her parents were on the third floor and my sister and I were on the second. Going up to the third floor to use my favorite shower after a day on the beach was like entering uncharted almost hostile territory. The boys always seemed to be up to some sort of boything. The second floor shower was small and creepy and I never felt comfortable in the outside shower.  It’s amazing that it still exists, while the two porches are now gone.  It’s the little bump out at the lower left corner of the house to the left.  Showers were tough.

The uncles and Grandpa worked in the city and would come down by train on Friday nights. As I got older I was allowed to stay up for their arrival. There would be Entenmann’s crumb coffee cake and coffee. Do you remember the Entenmann’s man coming to your back door to sell cakes and things?  In later years Uncle Eddie would make pizza — which was quite foreign to me. It was much later when Vic’s in Bradley Beach became a regular for us for a fun night of pizza out. My father would take a two week vacation to be with us every summer. We’d go fishing at the inlet which is now apartments, play miniature golf, and go to Asbury Park for the rides and salt water taffy.

CCI13022016_4 (1)I’m second from the right — 1953

As we grandchildren grew into our “tween” and teen years, my aunts and their families stopped coming and the summers consisted of just my parents and older sister and my grandparents. I loved these years at the shore. It was the only time I really felt free — no school, a gang of friends who spent every afternoon on the beach and every evening at the 10th Street arcade. My parents let me roam.

CCI13022016 (1)One year I had a blue polka dot bikini with a wired top which caused me a lot of ridicule from the boys who knew that it wasn’t me. I would get burnt to a bright red color at the beginning of every year. I had a crush on a Lawrenceville boy who sometime would give me a ride home on his bike. That’s him to the right.  At night we played pinball and listened to rock and roll.

My parents eventually bought the house, winterized it, and moved in. I was already away at college and home only for the summers. and moved out on my own immediately after graduation. By that time too many bad feelings kept me from visiting much.

About ten years after my dad died my mom finally sold the house. This was much later than my sister and I knew she couldn’t live there by herself, and she resisted. We moved her to a senior residence in New Hampshire, just a few minutes drive from me.

59070_998689121839_819097_54198838_4550174_nMy boys have few memories of the house, which is my fault for not visiting with them, but we all went down to look and walk the boards a few years before Sandy. I am sure the inside has been modernized — at least I hope so.

Every year as Thanksgiving nears I look for a place to bring the family to celebrate. Nothing is as good as Grandma’s house.

But the house in Belmar and the memories it stirs are an aside to my story.

Click for part two:  One Summer’s Reading Group
Click for part three: One Summer’s Reading Group: Afterward

If I believed spirits walked the land

samandalex_200Morgan and I are planning a camping trip on our fragment of abandoned orchard in Moultonborough.

Both my sons are exceptional and they fill my heart with happiness.  I emphasize my love for them both so Alex doesn’t read anything into our not inviting him to join us.

We three have good, hard, simple, strong memories of this tiny spot in New Hampshire.  A lot of memories for the little amount of time we spent there.

People who have orchards write about them — indexJane Brox for one.  It would be hard to capture the struggle and resolve of working an orchard and the struggle and release of letting it go better than she has, and I’m not going to try. Rereading her books now, after putting our remaining 2.65 acres with apple trees up for sale, has rekindled memories and given words to many feelings never expressed.

Buying this orchard was really a crazy thing for us to do.  My husband Clark had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  He was feeling good after his bone marrow transplant and wanted to spend his last years working for himself, with me, at home.  He wanted a bed and breakfast.  We looked at other b&b’s but kept coming back to the first one we visited — Olde Orchard Inn.

I’m not sure what he hoped for at this point in his life, but I like to think he found it.

On move-in day we stepped into the kitchen and the house gave me a warm, firm hug as if it were waiting for us for a long time. That feeling never wavered, even when I was alone in it day after night after day in the coldest of winters, with the snow piled high over my head, and the wind wailing outside the bedrooms windows.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHThe land took a little longer to get to know, but after our first harvest we knew we had chosen wisely.  It was hard work, but there was constant reward.  I still wonder about the people who lived and worked there before us and what they left behind.  If I believed in spirits or fairy godmothers or guardian angels I might be able to explain it better.

There were two or three innkeeper/owners before us.  But before them there were only the Young’s, the Larson’s, the Brown’s, and the Abenaki’s.

White settlers drove the Abenakis from their land around Lake Winnipesaukee in the second half of the 17th Century.

Larson era brick house (1)We know that Batchelder Brown bought 50 acres from the colorful General Jonathan Moulton in 1783 for 5 pounds.  General Moulton received a large tract of land as a reward for his successes in the American Revolution and sold parcels to Brown and others who served under him.  The Browns bought abutting property in 1791 and 1803 and members of their large family lived there for over 150 years.   One of the Brown men made bricks from clay by the stream, and built the brick addition when the family outgrew the original center chimney wood structure.  Mildred Carter (a Brown through a second marriage) married Peter O. Larson.  They bought the home and land from the Browns, planted the orchard, and gave it the name Homestead Farm. They shipped apples all over the country and sold them at a farm stand on Route 25.

The Youngs, who bought the farm from the Larsons in 1968, perhaps like my family, loved the land too much. Kate Young Caley writes beautifully of her love for the farm in her memoir.  Unfortunately as I read reviews of her book, this part of her story seems overlooked and unappreciated.

At some point lands were sold off, and houses were built on Orchard Drive.  Homestead Farm became Olde Orchard Inn in 1987.  I’m not sure of all the owners but one of them, was the town building inspector, and that may account for why the tiny bathrooms in some of the guest rooms and a good deal of the wiring look like they couldn’t have passed code!

We bought the land from the Senners who ran the inn for several years.  Grandma Mary, who would ride in the bucket of the large tractor and pick the apples high on the trees, was sad to go.

admin-ajax.phpPeople with connections to the land would visit. A Brown descendent sat down in the old kitchen and and spent some moments in the past.  Two Larson women visited and told me that as children on very cold nights they would sleep on blankets on top of brick ovens behind the central fireplace. These pilgrims would walk the orchard and visit the family cemetery.  We all agreed that there was something special about the house and land.  Guests would ask me about ghosts and tell me they felt a presence. One couple came back to renew their wedding vows because they felt the orchard a spiritual place.

100_0674The 1790 house came with a barn built even earlier, and over 500 trees on twelve acres. We spent our first months there fixing pipes and moving snow and figuring out how to keep warm. But once spring arrived the apple trees exploded with a flowery welcome.

We learned how to care for the orchard by trial and error. We joined Beginner Farmers and went to workshops at the Carroll County Extension.  We tried our best to figure out which apple was which, when to prune, how to keep the apples crisp for as long into the winter as we could.

hat rack treesThe orchard was rather comical. The trees had buzz cuts. Old huge trees were mixed in with newer, younger, smaller  hybrids. Some were espaliered but neglected. Others had grown so many suckers and water sprouts they reminded me of banyan trees.  We found cherries (the birds always got them before us), pears, and a few peaches scattered throughout. The pears did very well, perhaps because there weren’t enough of them to attract their own pests and diseases. The peaches withered away.

You cannot imagine my delight when I discovered the gorgeous raspberries galore —enough to make the richest raspberry ice cream and still have plenty for muffins and kuchens. I liked them because they practically took care of themselves.

There were special moments. We were picking up drops one autumn afternoon.  The sun hit the maples just right, and we sat down and took in the colors, said how lucky we were, and stopped work for the day.

100_0770We saw bear curled up under bushes; a baby cub up in the crab apple tree outside our window.  Sleeping deer left matted ovals in the grass.  Wild turkeys strutted across the field picking up whatever goodies they could find.  Fox would jump up and dive into the snow coming up with a snack every time.

wild turkeysPepper, our dog, would walk along with us plucking dandelions off their stems without missing a beat. He would pick the apples off low hanging branches.

Our second year’s harvest was our best.  I doubt we had one apple that didn’t have a blemish or a hole, but that didn’t matter to us.

Apple Tree, written & illustrated by Peter Parnall

From Apple Tree, by Peter Parnall

The following winter Clark started to fail quickly. He continued to plow but I did the shoveling.  We drove into Boston in early spring to meet Morgan for a Red Sox game, but Clark wound up in Dana Farber.  He went home to hospice. The apple blossoms came and went and the grass grew up to my hips. One of my first mornings alone a mourning dove called to me from the top of the barn.  A weight lifted off my shoulders and Clark was now free.

Mowing took 18 man hours.  When Alex was up, they shared the work, one on the tractor, the other taking the lawnmower up close under the trees.  It was my job now and it was when I really started to love the land.  I understood why Clark gave up when he no longer could manage the mowing.

The new Woodshed -- April 2015

The new Woodshed — April 2015

It was too easy to stay put, protected and comfortable on this magical land, to be the widow at the old orchard who only went into town to buy cheese at The Olld Country Store, or walked across the street for takeout at the Woodshed.  Too easy to create my fantasy of being the crazy lady standing at the door with rifle in hand, dressed in calico and little brown boots, telling the tax collector to get off my property.  Too easy to imagine a slim handsome stranger with a cigarette in a pickup driving up and staying on as the live-in handy man.

I put the inn on the market, split off a small piece in the back orchard for myself, and sold the house to a a woman who had spent some time at the house before it was an inn and had felt the pull of the place.  She and her husband moved over from England and  immediately hung a Union Jack from the flagpole.  Batchelder might have shuddered in his grave.

winter apple treesNow these 2.65 acres are on the market. My sons and I are ambivalent. We want to enjoy the land but we live too far away.  My neighbor who lives in the former apple storage building is under the spell also.  He mows the orchard while he can.

Perhaps someone will buy the property, put up a sweet little home, care for the pears, choose a few apple trees to pamper back to health, steal a few of the raspberry plants from the inn’s property, spend a few years carving out a tree from a behemoth gone wild, and find peace.

But if it doesn’t sell, that’s okay.

She had a big breakfast, lay down and . . .

Mom, 2009?

Mom, 2009?

My mother died November first. She was 98 years old, though she looked younger. Yesterday her death became one of the stories Lee tells to people — at dinner, parties, breakfast, or whenever they seem appropriate. This telling was at Crafts People in Spillway, according to Lee, or Hurley, according to their business card.

When we walked into the first building — Jewelry, Lamps and Toys — the man sitting at the door, the owner, recognized Lee. We wandered a bit about until we were in different places. I was kneeling at a counter with barrettes and hair ribbons, sticks and such, hoping to find just the thing for my niece for Chanukah, when from the other side of the aisle came the words: “She had a big breakfast, and lay down for a nap, and . . . .”

He may have already told the story to Derrick or Eric or others of his men buddies separate from our life together, but this was the first I heard him tell it and it shook me a bit.

Only those few words. I quickly moved into the little room at the back which held the toys, in order to avoid hearing more. If it becomes part of his repertoire, it may acquire embellishments, and I’m looking forward to them.

But this telling was, like her death, quiet, peaceful, simple. I wasn’t at her death and will never know if she died as peacefully as the woman who sat with her told me. She said it was beautiful and the way she said it and looked at me and cried, there is no reason not to believe her.

I would have liked to have been with her.

She was in her own world these past few years or so. For the most part they seemed comfortable, content, healthy years, although I have no idea at all of what was going on in her mind. Did she know that she was and yet was not the woman she used to be? that she was unable to communicate? that she no longer could walk? that her sister had died? that her grandson got married? that people still loved her? Did she really just exist in the moment and did that moment ever seem much too long or meaningless? What did she do in-between those moments?

Did she recognize me as her daughter, did she recognize me as someone who came to visit every now and then, did she miss me when I wasn’t there?  Did I disappoint her by not doing whatever she might have wanted me to do, or not saying whatever she wanted me to say? Did she want?

redheaded woman illustrationMy presence during these later years may have had no impact on her happiness. My presence at her death may have been the same. Her last thoughts may have been of those who died before her — her mother, father, husband, or maybe no thoughts, only a longing to be finally free of the confines of her wheelchair and her own mind, or maybe no longing but just a blissful nothingness.

Is it a gift to be present at death? My husband Clark told me of how he held his father’s hand and felt his spirit pass on to him as he died. I wanted so much to give Clark the chance to be on the giving end when he died but I made a mistake and I’ve never forgiven myself. The night of his death was a nightmare that still continues to haunt me, all the layers of which I have yet to explore.

Perhaps being at the side of my mom when she died would have helped me.

It’s been written that

            “when Mister Death come, the living couldn’t see him, and wept and wailed,
            but the folks that was dyin’ rose up to greet him, and smiled at him on their way,
            like they knew him for a friend.”

I like to think that is true, but its simplicity makes me cringe when I think of those who lose loved ones, especially young loved ones, to accidents, gun shots, cancer. Who gives a shit about this Mister Death coming and taking our innocents away?

           “Well son,” said granny, “here’s another question she asks of you. Why did you take             away her baby sister from the cradle?”

           Then Death twisted and turned in his sleep again. “She was sick,” he said, “She                  was full of pain. I took her so she need never cry again.”

Life, death — it’s all a burden and a blessing.

*

redheaded woman cover

Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman, by Helen Eustis, with illustrations by Reinhard Michl. A Star & Elephant Book published by Green Tiger Press, 1983, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1950 under the title “The Rider on the Pale Horse.”