We often wonder at the speed of technological and social change experienced over a lifetime by our elders; we have less ability to predict what life will be in ninety years. How can we? Life is about change. It is about renewal and invention. It is about coping and discovery, achievements and mistakes. We can imagine, but we cannot plan.Read More
Over the jigsaw we leapfrog topics and memories as hurdlers do, with grace and instinct, always looking forward to the comment just ahead. Onomatopoeia. Brains. Polanski. Our children's children. Wyeth. Bhutan. Husbands. Homer. Ratatouille. We wrap ourselves in blankets and hats to buffer the wind that blows through the leaky house. The fire blazes, the coffee's on. The books we brought intending to read or recommend lie scattered on tables and chairs. It's the talking that warms us most.
We had the same father, the same mother. We lived a common childhood from different angles and from varying points of view. Our details do not always match but together, we have learned how to fashion something true.
The reason for our reconnection is to share, to mourn, to celebrate. Our lives, like all others, are complicated, and aging takes its toll. We help each other finish words that tell the stories and express the fears. We laugh and remember. We admire each others' grit and grace. We sort through the letters and the stories of our parents' lives and, in so doing, we build a bond no longer centered on the ones no longer here.
Coming together requires a certain letting go, a release of the quotidian. It enlists a generosity of spirit, a celebration of our differences, a willingness to listen and to learn. It asks us to go deep quickly and come back up as nimbly and as fast. It depends on synching moods and schedules in complicated lives, and, despite all good ingredients and intentions, the magic bond is never guaranteed. None of us, I suspect, were exactly sure how it would work out or if it could be done. It would have been a lovely retreat, regardless, a stolen moment to curl up with a book. But here we are by the fire, just "being," like only sisters can do.
When it’s minus twelve degrees at the gas pump in the morning, you tend to count your blessings but you do so at the pace of stamping feet - short and to the point. Today my counting stops at number one: my father’s coat, a heavy, old-fashioned, insanely warm down thing that envelops me as I wait for the tank to fill. The coat became mine when we cleaned out my father’s last room. I took it for my son. But once it wrapped itself around me, I couldn’t seem to let it go, a metaphor for my struggle to release the notion that parents are supposed to live and care for us forever. I buried myself in that coat for days, my nose protruding from above the zipper as we managed the details surrounding my father's death; I enjoyed its comforting propensity to swallow me whole throughout all of the last, long winter as we awaited in vain for some instruction on how to live without him.
A year later, I have hauled the coat out again to protect me from this first January blast. The size and bulk of it are familiar, but the metaphor has slightly changed. I realize now that more of my father remains behind than I expected. Small rituals and sayings, old cocktail glasses, his paintings scattered around the house, a certain cheese and joke remind me of him daily and, like the coat, envelop me with memories of home. I have come to recognize that rich legacy of “being” that I have inherited from my father, a lifetime of acquired mannerisms come from watching my Dad be himself and emulating his best parts.
Over a decade ago, when I was diagnosed with what has turned out to be a mild and generally unobtrusive form of multiple sclerosis, my father visibly winced and said to me, “I’m sorry for the genes I gave you.” Wait, what?!? “Are you kidding me?!” I squawked. “First of all, MS is not hereditary and even if it were, I’d take it gladly along with all the other natural gifts embedded in my genes – your genes, Mister!” He shrugged off my ensuing list of genetic gratefulness: the indefinable artist eye and ear, the unmerciful creative drive, the analytical bent, the curiosity, the wit, a quiet empathy disguised, sometimes, by inappropriate laughter, the particular gifts and challenges of a closet introvert in an extrovert’s career. All of these assorted genetic imprints daily make me thankful to be my father's child… but heck, today it's cold outside. I’ll just settle and be grateful for his coat.