Friday, October 21, 2016

Last Rites

My mother had, apparently, lived a Zen existence: her house was small, pared down, a treehouse meant for viewing her forest. It was not, we thought, meant to hold anything much more than my mother, her animals, the most basic of utensils (of which a computer was one), and the receding but luminescent love of her dead husband.

How wrong we were….

The day after she died, we went into a kind of frenzy: John, my lawyer brother, was diligently doing the legal work and making the arrangements for the disposal of the body. (Yes, mothers at some point become bodies, and though the funeral home had collected her / it the day before, John still had to go to the home, talk to the coroner, and arrange for the cremation.)

Right—so John knew what to do, but what about Eric and me? We looked around and decided that the best course of action was to rake the leaves away from the foundation of the house.

At some point, it became clear.

“Listen,” I told Eric, “you’ve just retired, and I’m not that far behind you. And don’t you think that what we’re doing, any high school kid could do better and faster?”

Well, we both stopped working and began panting, which allowed John to say…

“I think Marc’s right. We need to start going through the photos and the papers—all of the things that only the family can do….”

It sounded like a good plan, but how was it that Eric got stuck with the photos, and I got stuck with the papers? Eric is, after, a writer, and has a Pulitzer to prove it. But my mother had been a poet, and had often sent me her work. And since she had spent a decade writing, there was a lot of it.

That wasn’t the worst. My mother had had two terrible tendencies, from my point of view. First of all, more than any other writer I know, she had relentlessly revised, rewritten, rethought, and finally scribbled revisions on printed pages. And then, what had she done? She had printed multiple copies, since she was taking classes and sharing her work. All of that would have been bad enough, but she had also printed those copies  without putting dates on her versions. So it was entirely possible to have 16 printed copies of “Will ‘O the Wisp,” in four different versions. The sixteen versions would be scattered into different drawers, piles next to the computer, baskets, and book bags. Thus, among the masses of paper, I was constantly coming across a poem I was sure I had seen before. It was madness, and I spent the next five days after her death weeping, taking walks, drying my tears, and returning to the task of sorting it all out. And it was then that we discovered: she had been a hoarder after all, since she had, for example, kept all of the postcards she had written to my grandmother in 1964, on her first trip to Norway.

So the year was 2010, and I was holding some two-dozen postcards nearly half a century before. Was I bound to read them? Was the world pining to know that she had eaten a rum-flavored Napoleon in a bakeri in Trondheim? Was it worth saving them?

I suffer from the opposite impulse. The grand piano in my living room? If I haven’t played it in a week, it goes into the trash….  

There were not just postcards to worry about: what about all the sea charts that my father had bought, at quite a lovely penny, from somewhere or another in Norway? My parents had had a boat, built in Norway, and quite lovely it was, too. But like everything else in their marriage, it had been a compromise. My mother wanted a sailboat, and dreamt of falling asleep gazing up at the star-bejewelled sky—those skies that would never rain. My father had wanted a decommissioned Navy destroyer: windowless, but with iceberg-breaking technology. A wooden boat was the answer.

So my father had spent his winters memorizing all of the rocks, markers, channel passages, lighthouses, red versus yellow versus green stakes, and other points of interest and peril in whatever fjord they were exploring the next summer. These charts he had marked precisely in his terrible scrawl, and so this comprised a vital testament to the working mind of….

…nah, I tossed them.

It was not, I felt, an expedition that required a trowel and brush, but rather the backhoe. At last, at last—I assembled just one box, which would surely be a snap to get through, back in San Juan. Because at the time of departure I was still cramming papers into the box, there was no time to get to the post office. Not a problem, though: Eric was driving back home with boxes of pictures, he could take my box of documents and send it later.

I prayed that “later” would never come….

Is that unfilial? Actually, it was exactly how my mother felt: she had seen with less than mixed feelings the widow of a great pianist expending her weakening energy in trying to keep her late husband’s legacy alive. The widow would spend hours writing letters, urging memorial concerts, contacting illustrious people from the past. Why, my mother would ask? When you’re dead, you’re dead: let history take care of itself.

It was a point of view, of course, but then I had Emily Dickinson pop into my head. There she had been, scribbling away all those years, and had she ever published? Well, the answer was either “no” or “not much,” so someone, somewhere must have put dotty old Aunt Emily’s poems into a box, and consigned it to the attic. And now, of course, wasn’t I in the same hot seat? Imagine what we don’t have: the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach represent only half of what we believe he wrote. So how many cantatas, masses, passions were sacrificed to kindle fires or curl hair?

And so, for a year or two, I lived without the box, and then my brother, cruelly, sent it to me. The postman, you’ll be happy to know, suffered only two or three herniated discs, and is now entirely pain-free, except on rainy days. And so I wrestled the box up to my apartment, but then what to do with it? My solution was not to put it in the attic that, anyway, I don’t have. No, I would put it right next to my favorite chair, which would ensure that I would get right to dealing with it….

Well, it was a reminder, all right, for a month or two, and then it became a whispered, then spoken, and last shouted reproach, since I saw it every day for four or five years. And a health hazard too, due to the termites which had consumed most of the furniture / books in the apartment, and the cockroaches which roamed freely, since they were tearing up the street outside. So there was the real fear: if indeed I ever did open the box, what would I find? And in what condition?

At last, I can tell you:

1.     yellowing copies of the Wisconsin State Journal from the 1940’s, when my father and mother were building with their own hands my childhood home
2.     a beautiful linen, hand-embroidered handkerchief, probably from the late 19th century
3.     several letters from an ancestor on my maternal grandmother’s side from the 1880’s concerning the vital matter of a Sunday social at the church in Wichita, Kansas
4.     two magazines with articles of my mother’s mother, one of which concerned a witch-burning judge, an alleged ancestor, in Salem, Massachusetts
5.     articles about my father’s retirement, as well as my grandmother’s last sale of a story to Chicago Magazine, in the 1970’s
6.     a stack three feet high of the dreaded poems
OK—I’ve gotten rid of items 1, 3, 4, 5, leaving only a beautifully embroidered handkerchief from the 19th century. And the work of the last two weeks has been item 6.

I responded to the crisis in time-honored fashion: I wrote an email.

I sent it to ten people—friends and relatives. I received two responses. A friend wrote with good advice: put the poems in some sort of order, and then save them in several different forms, preferably print. And then give them to my niece, who has a PhD in English: she would know, over the course of time, what to do with them.

Sage advice—but wasn’t it a bit of the old dead hand? Was it fair to shove off my responsibility onto the next generation?

The second response was from one of my brothers: he suggested that if, after six years, nobody had done anything with my mother’s poetry, well, wasn’t that an indication that nothing need be done?

There was some truth to this, as well, though how long had Aunt Emily’s poems sat up in the attic of her house in Amherst, Mass? (Answer, courtesy of Google—apparently not long, since sister Lavinia instantly realized their worth, and published them all four years after Emily’s death. This of course puts me even further to shame, though why my mother didn’t name me “Lavina…”)

So was it a box? Of course.

Or was it a decade-worth of creative effort? Of course.

And thus it became a kind of Venn diagram, and who knew exactly where the shaded or thatched area might be? I did what I could: I assembled piles of poems, then I separated them into thematic piles (nature / grieving / pantoums and villanelles / and miscellaneous, which of course was the most towering of all). I threw away the superfluous copies, and decided on which one of the multiple versions I would keep, based on my own impeccable taste. And then, one by one, I began to compile them into a Google doc, which I could share with my siblings, and their siblings.

As I wrote, or rather transcribed, my mood darkened. Was it that I was passing judgment on my mother? I held some paper in my hand, and it was my job, seemingly, to say yes, it would survive. It was worthy. A grad student, scrounging for a dissertation topic a century hence, would settle on “The Popular Rise of Poetry in Regional Wisconsin in the Late 20th Century.” And then, wow—my mother’s words on the shadbush blooming next to her house! Whitman had his lilac; my mother her shadbush!

There were two problems, as I waded through my mother’s poems, so often containing scribbled revisions (her handwriting deteriorated through the years, as he eyes failed and her hands grew weaker….) First of all, I became convinced: her poetry may have been of variable quality, but very little of it was actually bad. She had read, after all, a lot. One of her poems, which I had never seen before, had been titled “…the letting go.” I immediately wondered: why the quotes? And why the points of ellipsis and the lower-cased letters?

The poem contained the clues: an aging professor is trying to remember a quotation by Emily Dickinson, and the quotation, of course, was “first chill, then stupor, then the letting go.”

So there was every reason for her to have been a good poet. And as her star rose in my horizon, my own star crashed through the thin outer atmosphere, met the oxygen, and vaporized. I could no longer write, and had to admit the truth: I was a writer of little skill and with nothing to say. I had resurrected one writer and killed another.

It was, after all, the last thing I would do for my mother. I had taken her out of a box in a room in an apartment on a street in Puerto Rico, and I had put her into cyberspace.

She is free, and now is gone.