one by one
my mama walked in the door, looking a little more pale, a little more drained than she usually does. how are you, we asked, as she lugged in a 20-pound sack of seed for the birds.
“oh, i’ve been better,” she said, just a little bit softly, just a little bit as if the air had been sucked from her lungs.
mind you, this is a mama who mentioned, after washing a tall stack of dishes, after being at my house for nearly an hour one long ago time, that, oh by the way, they found a tumor and it is malignant.
my mama is not, unlike her daughter, inclined toward drama at all.
so when she answered so softly, we all leaned in closely.
“you didn’t get my email?” she asked, this being the age of talking through digital wires.
we had not. so she told us. “al died,” she said.
now al, like don and arthur and rita and ruthie and gracie and jane, is one of the players, one of the first-name-only cast, who populated all of the dramas, all of the stories, the legend, the lore, of our youth.
they were the ones, each of them, slightly larger-than-life in the way that anyone with a mr. or mrs. in front of their name is, when you are a child sent off to bed, to spy from the stairs, to catch only wisps of the deep conversations.
they were the ones who, you could count on, were in on the comings and goings, the giggles, the laughter, of all of our growing-up years.
al was the tall skinny guy, the lawyer by day, but tennis commando by evening and weekend. he’s the one who wouldn’t eat cheese, and loved the cheapest bottle of wine he could find.
don, he was the biochemist with the voice that awakened the sleeping. he, too, was the one who inspired rather grand and cosmic ideas about God. he made a mean egg nog. so mean you needed to run for the sink after sipping, just to spit out whatever small bit you’d inhaled for good show there in his living room, where he urged you, he did, just to try some, really, you’ll like it.
rita was al’s wife. blonde and gorgeous and gracious from the first time i spied her, there in her little white skirt, slapping tennis balls clear across courts at tennaqua, the club with a pool and tennis and the greasiest cheeseburgers you could get for under two bucks.
gracie belonged to don. she was the small-boned irish wit. she could fling big words and twists of the language the way rita flung tennis balls. she flung ‘em best when at the net across from my very own papa. to watch geno and gracie go at it in the language department, the outdo-’em department, was to take a life-lasting lesson in lingual gymnastics and sparring and laughing out loud.
al is gone now. died this week. at 88. don died a few years ago. somewhere up in his 80s.
one by one, a season is passing, an era is closing, a chapter is ending, the pages are turning, one by sorrowful one.
since my papa died first, since my papa died when everyone else was hitting their stride, that hurt in a way that nothing else will ever come close to. his was the death unexpected. wholly, completely, take-your-breath-away news.
not so now.
the folks who made up all of the stories of our youth–the ones signed up for the courts and the burgers on wednesday and saturday nights, the ones whose cigarette butts i could identify there in the ashtray, the trademark strains of their voices seeping in through my window, the one just up from the terrace, where they’d be out sipping their scotch on the rocks, telling their stories over and over again–they are old now, they are white in the hair, and, some of them, slow of the gait.
the news from my mama these days is mostly of life draining away. she brings dinner to friends who are housebound. she sits with her friends as their husbands are dying. one dearest friend can’t remember to come to bridge anymore, first wednesday of every month, same as it’s been for dozens of years, and when she does come, she can’t read the cards.
slowly, a world once bright and seeming to go on forever, is now fading to gray, and, every once in a very sad while, it is pierced with the awful sad news that one of the heroes, one of the ones you could count on for wisdom when you needed it, or wit when you just plain wanted it, they are no longer.
there are holes now all through the story. like pieces of chess there on the board, they are falling. whole canyons of emptiness fill the space in between.
it’s a dull ache now. and a deep seeping sense that life as we knew it, expected it, licked it straight off the plate, is passing.
i can’t imagine the depth of the grief for my mama. my mama who loses not just a friend, a lifelong friend, a friend who she leaned on, a friend who stepped in, who kept her going and laughing and filling her long empty evenings there in her too-many years as a widow, my mama is losing not just the players but the whole story around her.
i imagine it’s starting to feel, there on the stage, that it’s getting quite sparse and the lights in the wings are dimming.
as a once-child who peered up onto the floorboards where all of the players were swirling, were spinning their lines, i get a chill, a draft blows down on my neck, making me shudder. the theater is emptying out.
but i sit keeping watch on the few players left. and i miss all the ones whose lines are now cut.
not that any one of them was a someone to whom i told all my deep and dark secrets. no, not at all. i was merely there in the audience. i didn’t play on their courts. wasn’t down on the terrace. i sat off to the side watching, up in my room listening.
but i always just knew, i believed, they would be there, and now that they’re not, now that they’re leaving, one by one, slowly, i too feel the turning of pages. i too feel the thinning out of the crowd.
before the stage goes to black, i just want to say it’s been one helluva show. and i’m sorry as you are to see it now ending.
have you too shared this sense that the grownup world that once wrapped around you, kept you safe, kept you warm, or at least kept you paying attention, is thinning out? that even though they might have been minor players in the intimacy of your life, they were, out on the big stage, rather looming, and their absence is chilling? do you get news, one sad bit at a time, that reminds you an era is slipping away? who were the players in the cast of your life? what did you learn? did you, like me, love to keep watch? did you like me think it would never end?
that beautiful, haunting photo above is from my sweet will. will kamin would be the cutline. that’s photo shop talk in the big leagues. and i think he can, if he wants to, head for those leagues. he and i talked last night about what sort of photo i was thinking of. he executed and delivered. took my breath away when i opened my email this morning. thank you, sweet will. it is gorgeous.
HarrietI am in awe of how you capture the essence, the heart, the core of life and death in words, Barb. Today it is 2 months since my Uncle George died. He was the youngest of three, my Mom the oldest. He was one of the most generous people I have ever known. He efforts and care for his parents showed me how to be there for my Mom. He also shared his financial success. While still in college, I received a check for $900 (a lot of money in those days) from the sale of pork bellies. I traveled for 10 weeks on that gift, including my Icelantic flight, my Eurorail pass, and the $600 in travelers checks I took with me. That trip changed my life in so, so many ways. I traveled alone and discovered that I could take care of myself in foreign lands. It was my first venture out of the midwest. I met fascinating people, saw amazing beauty, and ignited a severe case of travel fever.Ten years later, Uncle George gave me the down payment to purchase a condo. Buying property was not even in the realm of possibility since I worked for non profit organizations or independent political campaigns in those days. He gave me my home!Political discussions would be interesting since he and I were at opposite ends and we mostly agreed to disagree since family was always first for him. He was not a toucher or hugger. I am. In recent years, I was pleased that he would present a cheek to me to kiss and allow me to put one arm around him. Thank you for this opportunity to remember and to savor the blessing that my Uncle George was in my life.Love Will’s photograph.d
Yes, you put it well, ” an era that is slipping away” I received news that my grandfather died , while standing in a phonebooth in Yellowstone n\Natl. Park. What I felt when I walked out of the booth , I will never forget……………..kicked in the back!! literally. and I knew why too, I felt like i was pushed to step forward, as the next generation. I was 19. The profoundness of the Patriarch of the family dying left me with, SO, this is LIFE, we are being handed the baton whether we want it or not. Yes, we are always evolving and our families always revolving. so bittersweet, so bittersweet.
My Aunt Nancy calls this stage of her life “being in the front pew”. She’s 87 now and the last surviving sibling. She only has a couple of cousins left out of a gazillion. For the last several years she’s beein sitting in the front pew during funerals for friends and family. But she still has a zest for life that I admire. Even though her eyes don’t see so well anymore and her knees are riddled by arthritis – she still LIVES. She takes the jitney from her home in Bridgehampton, NY on Long Island into the City regularly to see Broadway plays. She’s a voracious reader via books on tape. She keeps track of all her nieces and nephews and their little ones and big ones. So, even as the key players in her life exit the stage, she continues playing her role.
Barb, a beautiful albeit bittersweet essay today. I started to feel this sadness as a young teen or pre-teen when Walt Disney died, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire–wouldn’t they (please) be around forever? The key for people who age (better than the alternative), might be to maintain younger and younger friends–or at least more and more friends, not fewer and fewer. Let’s hug the ones who are still with us!
Oh my … the photo and the picture-stories are breathtaking. I send my thoughts to your dear mama as she says her goodbyes to this lifelong friend. She’s an incredible woman who still has much strength and vigor (she climbed a mountain in my neck of the woods a month ago). And to young Will … your future is very bright. You seem to capture emotion in inanimate objects. The photo is stunning. It truly, truly moved me.
thanks for taking me back to a time long ago…when we were very young…very poiniant…i was there too…a flood of memories returns….players on a stage….departing one by one…you have captured it so well….jsm
I, too, have watched the stage empty…even joked with some aging folks who ask ” who will turn out the lights?” Both of my parents,their siblings and best friends are all gone. From a complete table from my wedding now sits one lonely widow. I have to believe in heaven and take my turn on the stage. I don’t know when we step out of the audience, into the wings and then under the lights. But I have to believe that we are there now.I do hope your mother is ok. I understand she has a starring role.
that was beautiful, bam. and perfectly partnered by will’s photo. thank you so much.