Thoughts on “A Midafternoon Lunch in New England on a Gray December Day”

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I wrote this four years ago, and, since that time, have often thought about the couple in the restaurant. I hope they are still well, but time when you are in your twilight years moves faster. Time in your middle years moves faster; I know because that is where I find myself today-thinking about that restaurant, that couple, my husband and children as we were when I first posted this, and that gray December sky; the same sky I tried to ignore at the restaurant; the same sky that I see now as I look out my window.

Here is the original post (with a few minor edits).

I was intrigued by the elderly couple who sat across from us at the restaurant. It was her, really, who called my attention. She had to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties. And she was beautiful in a hearty New England way. I would venture that she might not have been considered beautiful in her youth, but at that moment, as the beauty of others her age faded, she was vibrant. She was robust, not lithe; her face full and happy; her skin porcelain and glowing. Her eyes were blue, but what struck me most was that the lids did not sag with the heaviness of age. Those eyes sparkled large and childlike. She drank a cocktail and breezily chatted with the gentleman who sat across from her and whose back was to me. I gleaned that he, with his nearly bald head resting upon a neck buried deep beneath hunched shoulders, was older, mid-eighties maybe.

It was a dreary, gray December day, and it seemed that the only place to be was a warm New England restaurant. All you had to do was ignore the view from the window and enjoy the soft lamplight of the indoors. As we shared a bowl of mussels, my husband, children and I chatted about our son’s birthday and Christmas and the wonderful things we planned to do over the winter recess. From time to time, however, I couldn’t help but study the elderly couple across from us.

There was a gorgeous bouquet of peach and white roses on our neighbor’s table. Their anniversary I figured. “How wonderful,” I thought. How long must they have been married? Fifty years, give or take? And still, seeming so much in love. They chatted away, her voice somewhat high pitched and girlish. She reached across the table for her companion’s hand. She smiled and giggled and sipped her cocktail, and, at one point, she belly laughed. It was the kind of deep, uncontrollable, sincere laugh that, unfortunately, you seldom hear. She laughed so heartily that, try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself, and you didn’t want her to stop for the sound of her laugh was so cheerful.

Later, a guest from another table approached the couple to congratulate them on their anniversary. Then she asked how long they had been married, and I waited for the response, certain for it to be forty, fifty, perhaps even sixty years. The elderly lady smiled and said, “It’s our one year anniversary.”

And just like that, the entire narrative I had created for our neighbors dissolved; yet, they were still so captivating, so charming, more so perhaps. Now there were so many questions. What had her life been like? Did she spend the first thirty years of her adulthood in a loveless marriage? Was she widowed while raising young children? Did she have any children? Maybe she didn’t have any. That might account for youthfulness.

The elderly couple continued on, laughing and chatting. I heard her say, “Here we are. Having this lovely lunch in this beautiful restaurant, then we will go home and sit and it will be over.” She reached for her partner’s hand again and smiled and looked at her roses and grew silent just for a moment. But when the waitress came to check on the table, she resumed her happy chatter, commenting that the when she returns she would love it if the sangria had whole blueberries in it. She ordered dessert for herself and her partner-they would share a piece of chocolate cake. She might not have wanted the cake, but she didn’t want the moment to end.

How she worked to hold onto that beautiful late afternoon lunch. I understood. I looked at my husband and our two children. He and I somewhat bewildered to find ourselves in our forties, still with the silly hopes and dreams we shared in our twenties, but different now, tired, worried. And our children. One who has so many struggles and the other who seems to navigate through life with ease but who already shoulders the weight of being the one for whom things seem to come easier. The four of us sharing a beautiful few hours. Just us. In that place. Wanting to stop time. To remain just as we were in that moment.

As the sky outside the window grew darker, we realized our moment was over. Afternoon was gone, having slipped away under a cloak of charcoal sky. Our neighbors stood up to leave. She, tall and straight and carrying her vase of flowers, led the way to the exit. He, fragile and stooped, followed slowly behind. I prayed they would return again for another anniversary.

A Simple Decision


It was between navy and silver violet. She had to decide which before she could proceed. Anne had no aptitude for design, but Christopher left it up to her. The only thing he requested was that she not replicate her mother’s home.

Anne wished her mother, Lucy, were there to help. She had an eye for decorating. Anne remembered when her parents moved to the house on Highland Street, how her mother chose fabrics and patterns with such confidence. Lucy liked traditional design. Anne knew she would disapprove of the silver violet. It would be so different from the hunter green and mahogany colors her mother selected for her own family room.

Different was what Christopher wanted though, and Anne wanted to please him.

But, did Anne like silver violet? She didn’t know. Sometimes Anne didn’t know her own mind.

Damn it. Anne always needed help making decisions. Growing up her mother was forever telling her to change her clothes, change her friends. She was usually right, although Anne still didn’t understand why her mother would sometimes slap her for her missteps. Anne could never hit Lily.

For Christ’s sake, she was forty-three years old. Why was it so difficult to make a decision for herself? Her seven-year-old daughter could say what color she preferred. Lily would prefer silver violet. She would be upset if Anne chose the navy.

Decision made. Silver violet.

 

Today

Today the light shone-the sun beaming through a clear, blue November sky.

As I walked I thought of Mary Oliver and her words:

Do you need a prod?

Do you need a little darkness to get you going?

Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,

and remind you of Keats,

so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,

he had a lifetime.

* From Oliver’s “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” which is published in her collection Blue Horses, The Penguin Press, New York, 2014

But today I don’t need the darkness.

It has done its job.

It has been my constant companion and I am grateful, for darkness has helped me to see this

this beautiful day.

And all I can think is,  “Live.

Live.

It is the only thing you haven’t done;

not really.

Perhaps you tried, but

only in the space of shadows.”

A lifetime should not be reduced to a blot on a page.

The story is elsewhere

on clean, white paper.

written in a pen that doesn’t bleed.

The Chair Downstairs

The chair was out of place. The design was early American, so it did not fit in with the rest of the room’s Ikea aesthetic. We used to keep it upstairs in our bedroom where I paid it little attention-probably because it functioned as a catchall for our laundry and was usually buried under mounds of clothing. But, when we needed extra seating to accommodate guests, we brought it down to the living room and placed it near the bottom of the stairway where it remained, standing there dignified but an outlier, small and stiff, like something an 18th century scholar would sit in as he pored over musty books, straining his eyes to read by the dim candlelight.

Rarely did anyone choose to sit in the chair-I assumed because it looked so uncomfortable. But there was something else about it-a quality of being already occupied, as if one would need to whisper into the air, “pardon me, but mayI have that seat now?” if she wished to use it. At night, when I’d turn off the lights, I’d dash upstairs, not wanting to be left alone in the dark room with whatever sat in that chair. I could feel its gaze though, watching me take my leave, and when I’d wake during the witching hour, I’d think about the living space below and wonder.

Eventually we moved, but we did not bring the chair along with us. Whatever company it kept, I was finished entertaining.

 

A Warm October

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I waited for October’s chill to chase summer away

but instead she brought heat

a sick heat, like a fever.

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I watched the leaves, which should have ignited like flames of gold and amber,

shrivel, die and fall to the ground

then crumble under the feet of passersby who might or might not have noticed

that something was not quite right.

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In my lawn I noticed the squirrels

which should have been busy preparing for winter

forget what was their purpose

unaware that nature, although herself unburdened by the dictates of her own laws,

does not forgive those who ignore them.

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And snakes-I saw two on my morning walk.

One, a baby, I would have crushed underfoot

had I not noticed something wriggling across the pavement.

Another larger green serpent had been flattened by a car

at the end of my neighbor’s driveway.

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Night might well have been day

as I lay in bed, damp and awake.

And that thing that was wrong

began to push through my skin

leaving impressions

like slashes of a beast

on my chest.

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And, as the rest of the world rattled,

here it remained still

quiet

hot

October, insisting

like a ringing in the ears

that something was not quite right.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer’s Burden

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This poor life-we demand so much of her.  Give me happiness.  Give me success.  Give my children happiness and success.  We place upon life’s shoulders the burden of impossible expectations, expectations that she cannot possibly fulfill, and then we, feeling so entitled, label her a disappointment.

We have divided every year of life into four seasons, each functioning to help us achieve fulfillment. Autumn must bring vibrant beauty to inspire us and cool temperatures to prepare us to head indoors and begin creative projects and academic pursuits.  Winter, with her storms and frigid air, isolates and keeps us inside.  She rids us of all distractions so that we may keep our heads down and continue working undisturbed.  Then spring comes to tease us with her sweet air and gentle breezes, letting us know that the time has almost come to move away from our desks.  Her’s is a balancing act-keeping us focused on our work with just enough wet weather and gray skies to finish what we have started, but also alerting us with her blossoming flowers and vibrant greenery that the days of toil are coming to a close.  Then summer…..

Summer, the happiest of all seasons, has the greatest responsibility-to give us rest and in giving us rest allow us recharge. By lying out on sandy beaches and listening to waves lap upon the shore, we are supposed to quiet or minds, yet, at the end of ten weeks, we also expect to emerge better, clear headed and knowing how we should march forward into the coming year.

Sometimes, however, life does not cooperate and sends summer to us a bit weaker than we remember her in the past.  We lie in the sun, but our bellies still quiver with worry.  We sit quiet, but our minds do not rest.  Summer’s long days seem to race faster than winter’s short ones.  And now August has arrived.

August has arrived, reminding us how quickly time moves.  We are now faced with the task of figuring out the answers to all the questions-the answers that summer was supposed to bring. We now must race to the sound of the cricket’s song, which will grow increasingly louder with the passing days, and find the answers before fall is upon us-all the while hiding our disappointment in summer, in life, and perhaps if we have leaned anything, in ourselves.

 

Poem About My Mother Written at 11:26 Last Night

 

Last night, I recalled a beautiful moment from my childhood between myself and my mother.  This memory seemed to come from nowhere.  My husband had returned late from work, and we were standing in the kitchen, talking about something I cannot even recall, and suddenly, there it was, this memory.  It was so vivid; I abruptly (and rudely…I am sorry Giorgio) broke away from our conversation, opened the computer and began to write it down.

I don’t often remember the happy moments with my mother, so I felt an urgency to record it, to find a way to preserve it, so that the day my memory fails it will not be lost forever. I wrote about a time so long ago, but that last night felt so close. As I wrote, I felt and heard my mother as she was then.  I felt myself  as a small girl, cradled in the arms of her mother.

I wrote with longing for my mother as she was in that moment and with sadness for what could have been and was not-she had so many dreams for how her life would be.  Mostly, I wrote with love. As I wrote, I felt the same love I had for my mother when I was so little.  It was pure, not tainted by anger and resentment.

When I was done and just before I hit publish, a thought struck me.  Once I hit publish, once I send this out into the world, into the blogosphere, what if the memory disappears?  What if I had just transferred it from my mind to the computer?  The brain’s capacity to retain and retrieve is limited.  What if our minds are inherently lazy, unwilling to fight to keep memories that have already been wrapped up neatly into text and boxed into notebooks and computer screens, happy to free up space for the lifetime of more memories that will clamor for a place in the mind’s limited storage facility?

And what of recalled and recorded memories? No matter how hard we strive to remain true, the written word is never as pure, as real as the actual memories and feelings we hold within us.  Those are invariably filtered as we strive to match feelings to words and translate the unspoken into a code of letters and commas.

Last night, I did not want to lose that memory of my mother, to send it away in a document that couldn’t possibly express what really was and what I really felt.  I prefer to keep her, as she was that night so long ago, close to me, in me, in my memory.  Perhaps, years from now, when my capacity to recall becomes so diminished that my memories begin to escape, then I will hit publish.   Until then, I will remain the keeper of that moment.