Poet Donald Hall died. His poem “Affirmations” is one that is on my mind today. My mother has dementia, and with it comes moments of anger and aggression that she no longer anticipates or remembers moments after they pass. Instead, I try to focus on the times she shines, as she did recently in the hospital, telling every nurse and doctor what a wonderful place it was and how kind everyone was to her.
“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Your hair is beautiful”
She said this to anyone who walked in, knowing after all these years how to be gracious and engaging. But, in the end, she will forget even that.
To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
Photo on Best Running
People often ask what my car tags mean: SH Harbr. My great-grandmother, Ellen Woodbury born in 1863, built a house there in 1910, in a small artist community where all the streets are named after composers. Her daughter Babbie and her husband “the General” retired there after their life of travel. Because my military father also moved every year (I attended 13 schools in 12 years), home was always Shelter Harbor in the summer.
My grandmother, pictured here pushing the hair from her eyes, influenced me in ways I am only now beginning to recognize. She had an art room, where she exposed us to painting, clay, jewelry making, and doodling the hot afternoons away. She wrote, though she only had an 8th grade education. I still have a folder of her short stories and letters of rejection from well-known magazines. Perhaps my love of poetry and printing grew out of this.
Each summer, she would organize an activity for the cousins–usually an extravagant play we would perform for the community. Any money collected went to the New York Times Fresh Air Fund. I remember being Peter Pan one summer and an island girl in Mutiny on the Bounty another time.
We ate meals in the yard at specified times, so cousins and friends would come from waterskiing, napping, playing Monopoly or reading to gather for swordfish, corn on the cob, and usually a choice of three desserts!
Picnics on the beach, sailing on the pond, long talks in the living room with my grandfather. These are the memories.
Today, we cousins all still gather from places across the country, though we are now Babbie’s age when I was a child. We try to create those memories for our grandchildren as we eat popsicles on the porch and try our best to swim out the dock to win the 5 silver dollars my grandfather bestowed on each of us.
I know I am lucky. And as my life takes turns and swerves, ups and downs, I try to remember the foundation of love I was given and to appreciate how lucky we were.