a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…
someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying.
someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind.
because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here.
somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.
as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.
when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.
in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.
of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.
there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably.
every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful.
in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes.
and it’s a promise i will never break.
fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)
and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….
Oh, dear heart, have been praying, for all of you. Feel all our Chair hands holding all of yours, our arms snug around you. Sending all love. All the love. All the love.
Bless you, bless you. You are with me in the garden, in the kitchen, in the nooks and crannies of my thoughts. Xox❤️❤️❤️
Emotion runs to a place where words cannot follow… Please know I’m joining dear Nan and all who cherish you and your family, offering up a thousand, thousand prayers, and sending love upon love. xoxo
I know you know this landscape, sweet A. It’s for my faraway loves that I send all prayers, and that great great blanket of light and blessed peace. And love to you. ❤️❤️
Your love is so beautifully expressed! Count me in with the rest of the chairs who are holding all of you up as your loved one relinquishes her physical presence here. Remember that she will always be with you. 💕
thank you, beautiful P. xoxoxoxo
As I thin my basil and endlessly pick all the bindweed from my flowers, I am thinking of you and B and how blessed you are to have 2 mothers so full of love and knowledge to share. Keep on gardening dear, it is the best balm. Sending prayers.
i must be thinly near tears here this morning, because your words just made me cry. we had giant storms last night, and thank heaven RAIN!!! i am wandering the sodden ways, lifting up bent branches, hoping the sun + nature’s rain make new bursts of magic all around. love to you, dear P. xoxox
dear friend of mine and the chair, MJH, made the connection between the color red and juneteenth (a connection i only read about after writing this morning), in which crimson is the symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage. so, always keeping with the times, the one i love and her color red is perfectly in sync with the newest national holiday. here’s a link to the NYT story about red, red, red in food and drink to lift up this and every juneteenth. try a strawberry slab in your half-sheet pan. xoxo
My heart! This was beautiful! I’m so sorry for your family pain right now. Special love to Blair! Going to reread as it was so lovely!Sending love and prayers for a very special woman.xx
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thank you, my beautiful friend. sending a giant hug, and a squeeze of the hand as well. xoxoxoxoxoxo love, your old old friend.
Miss Rumphius is right. But how I arrive at beauty or pass through it or create it or think of a beautiful idea is a mystery of its own. All I know is my heart longs for beauty every hour, and the path to it is unique and different each time. Ha! I have revealed nothing of about Miss R’s adage except that I do pursue beauty wholeheartedly. Which IS (intrinsically) beautiful.
And you pursue it magnificently! And artfully and with your every syllable and chord….
Barbie, is it even possible that we’ve reached the age where we begin to lose the people we’ve known and loved throughout our lives? The ones that are a mere generation ahead of us? I’m similar to you; intense physical activity helps pass the time before the inevitable and heart-wrenching end occurs. That and sharing my feelings about how my heart aches, like you have with us. I’m praying for you, B and his dear mother. From what you’ve shared with us about her, she made your world and the world that is the fabled Jersey Shore, more beautiful. What a blessing!
Oh gosh, I’ve thought a lot about that very thought: how we are moving toward front of line, and how natural the rhythm is and how our perspective shifts and shifts. How it keeps getting clearer, crisper. I remember the first goodbyes of grandmothers and how that shook me. We watched our parents be left behind. Now we watch again, and feel ourselves slipping to the front line…..