Grief has a strange way of becoming very private. It’s not that I don’t still miss my mother—more that the expression of that sentiment has tired. Harp on any longer every time I feel unfinished if I haven’t called her, or shudder at the pang of bittersweetness with each joy she doesn’t share, and I’ll become that stuck cog in the flow of letters, irrelevant and droning in the void.
It’s not a single note exactly. The tune of her modulates from key to key. But more and more I wonder if she (ethereal)—that is, the song of her—is audible to other ears. So I hold her between mine and she reverberates, like the harmonics of a singing bowl—sometimes grating, jangling; sometimes like a pulsing bell; and sometimes peaceful, warm and crystalline.
So many times I want to shut her up, drown her out. Sometimes I do. Other times, I want…
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My father and I have always had a fall connection, a deep and shared affection for the moment when the world turns crisp and things must die to make us feel alive. We’re both suckers for that hangnail moment between summer lush and ice-blue stillness, the liminal season of decay before the sleep. The smell of wood smoke, rotting apples, and the Urge for Going.
I spent teenage years sailing down the grey snake roads of South Vermont, listening to Blue and Hits and feeling deeply understood by both my father and the warbling woman on the discman hooked up to the tape deck. “Urge for Going,” I always thought, belonged on Blue, the album that taught me my own melancholy—with its tenderness and too-young-to-be-threadbare heart, so different from the husky hard stuff I’d grow into later. Turns out, this was a last minute omission, and the song wound…
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There’s a voice mail from my mother that I like to listen to sometimes—when I’m up too late, or home alone and writing on a long and lonely afternoon. It’s from August 22nd, 2012. I’ve just come home from a visit, with (her words) my new beau, and she’s on her way out to Caloosa. There’s some (her words again) stormy weather coming to Florida, and she misses me, but not as much as usual, because for the first time in a long time she’s not worried about me; I seem to be in a good place.
Yesterday morning—long before dawn, but still the twenty-sixth—made one year. Twelve months, four seasons (inasmuch as we have seasons here), and all the joy and darkness they have layered over us. I look upon the calendar, incredulous. It might as well have been last week. Or never—in weaker moments of cognition…
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It’s not summer, but it might as well be. The days are oven-warm, green and damp and choked with leaves. The magnolia grandiflora are in bloom—giant evergreens that explode with foot-wide flowers and dwarf the other trees.
Soon we will have been here for eleven months. Here feels a lot like home: four walls holding steady when so much else has changed. I quit my job. I sold my mother’s car for scrap and bought a used, blue ford with bluetooth and a fancy radio. We’ve hung pictures, driven nails into the walls, and filled the pantry drawer with staple grains. We’ve strung a paper lantern with a solar bulb out front. Magnolia the miracle dog is now a few weeks into her new regime of isolation (on trainer’s orders)—blinds drawn, other dogs avoided, fed kibble-by-kibble until she acclimates to calm. Were it not for the robustness of this life…
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Two weeks ago, the world was white. Bare branches and eaves were painted with it, and all the trees that still had leaves or needles sagged, laden with snow. In Carolina terms, this was a flood, six inches deep, that would, within a span of days, recede. And so it has.
I always find myself a little low this time of year—resisting the transition, shy of extra light, and wary of the creep of warmth. It makes me itchy. I feel unprepared, not ready for the planting and the reaping. I’m still hibernating, still living off my frozen stores.
Meanwhile, the trees have shaken off the winter and are rife with buds like painted fingernails and pale green knots of newborn leaf.
Meanwhile, the girls go bare-legged in sleeveless rompers. They let down their swinging hair. The clover has come up overnight, carpeting mud. The yard begins to smell of…
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Beavers construct their refuges overnight. Their dens are islands with hidden underwater entrances. They choose a new watery home and set to work and, in the morning, that creek or rill is stayed by their blockades of twigs and bark and moss and mud.
They are adaptable. And, in return, the river adapts with them. They make wetlands. They build ecosystems. They defend and lose and build again, but once they find a dam destroyed, their hearts depart. They know that what is lost may never be replaced. They move to other rills and creeks and change new currents, make new homes.
Is that what I have done here? In this little bungalow, on this side street, in this slice of unfamiliar state, and with this little life?
Even in the February freeze, some foliage survives: the evergreens, the patch of lawn. Winter persists, but still the soil thaws to…
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We came back and it was winter.
Among the shrubs and evergreens, elms and oaks stand bare. The jungle out our window thins. In place of deep shade and tall green, there is a wide blank whiteness, veined with branches. In the woods, frost hardens things. It crunches underfoot, squishing dead leaves into still unfrozen mud. The dog roots around for deer droppings, discarded treats, and I stare through the flock of trees with leaves that seem to have been dipped in gold. They glint dully in the diffuse day.
This is the first new year without my mother in it—fifteen years into a century almost absolutely doomed. But it is a new year all the same, and it is cold and pure as Januaries ought to be. We see our breath, the dog’s breath, and the breath of engines making heat. We feel the bite of fresh-lunged wind.
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You bring a plain pine tree into your house and it is every fight your parents ever had about its height or straightness, the correct number of lights, or where the bare patch best be rotated. It’s the so-called “marriage saver” tree stand. It’s every pair of sweatpants she wore every year we decorated trees. And every shade of hair. And every time we played Bing Crosby albums while we did it. It is sickly thick egg nog with clumps of powdered nutmeg. It’s your father in a Santa suit with sleigh bells in the drive.
At very least, that’s how it smells.
It’s also “do you think it’s crooked?” and “stand back there and pass the string around to me,” and “make sure you hang that one to catch the light; it has to catch the light,” and “you already hung too many [red/green/gold] ones there.” My mother was…
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