Saturday night and while Carol sleeps I have been watching preseason baseball, my Dodgers playing the Cubs. Ordinarily, I would not write tonight, instead taking my usual one day break to recharge the batteries. But tonight, changing metaphors, I sense that the well from which I draw my ideas is brimming with thoughts, feelings, and observations that need to be sorted out and expressed. I will try to get started, drop the bucket down, then pull it up, and see what’s in it.
No doubt I will have to drop it in deeper but this will do for now, just a few sentences for tonight.
Today has been emotionally exhausting. For several hours, I was literally in two different worlds.
This morning at precisely 10:30, I clicked on a link that opened up a service that was about to stream my grandson’s bar mitzvah on Long Island, NY. I had intended to be there, but for the combination of reasons I have already discussed, I canceled my plans to drive across country.
Instead of sitting in the temple among family, I was in my usual chair in the living room. I had made sure that we got moving early enough to take care of all morning chores, and Carol had fallen back asleep. I had toyed with the idea of setting up the laptop so she, too, could watch, but that was a silly foray back into the then whereas in the now Carol would in all likelihood not remember this young man whom we had not seen very often, and even if in the unlikelihood that she did, she no longer can process visual content on a screen.
Having abandoned the idea of sharing the event with her, my hope then was that she would sleep through it. That might sound unkind, but it was a practical concern.
And so I sat in my chair staring at my laptop screen while occasionally glancing at Carol and past her through our sliding glass door to a view of the back of our five acre property that offers a sliver of East Bay beyond the trees. On this gray day, the sliver was dark blue tending toward black, and the trees were still bare of their leaves.
That scene contrasted sharply with the bright colors and textures of the interior of the temple, and as the streaming began I could hear the low murmur of the congregation out of the view of the camera, and watch as the final setup preparations were completed on the bima, the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary.
Thus my two worlds.
That’s a good enough start.
Sunday night after the first day of spring forward. Sun up an hour later and sets an hour later. Hereabouts dusk now approaches eight o’clock. By the peak of the summer, it will be another hour later.
Went to the store as usual this morning but the Times hadn’t been delivered yet. Read it online, but missed the feel of paper. Rest of the day was, as usual, quiet and I had a chance to catch up on email including one related to my writing business. We’ll see if that one bears fruit.
The starkly different visuals of the bar mitzvah on my laptop screen versus the rural Michigan landscape outside my glass door only begin to explain the separation I experienced yesterday. There was, of course, and probably more intensely, the matter of the people on that screen dressed out in their fine clothes on the one hand and my bed ridden wife on the other, while not forgetting the ever present dog on the floor.
To be honest, I was not all that interested in the service itself. There’s a reason why after my own bar mitzvah, I only attended services for necessary ritualistic occasions, primarily bar and bat mitzvahs. My attention to Judaism leans more heavily toward the cultural rather than the spiritual.
So, I waited for what I was most interested in seeing: the people who would be called up to participate at various times during the service. And most importantly, the bar mitzvah boy himself. As the rabbi and canter opened the proceeding the fixed camera providing the streaming captured the heads of my daughter and son-in-law. Then at different points, they and their older son would ascend the bima along with my other daughter, husband and children. And the grandparents, not forgetting, of course, my ex-wife.
While I sat in my chair in Michigan.
It is hard to voice my feelings, to find the right words. I can say what I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry or sad. Nor was I happy. Perhaps a little curious, just to see them, how they presented themselves, especially the children.
I suppose bittersweet comes close to capturing my feelings.
But only close.
I also felt, for what it is worth acknowledging, a confirmation of the decision I made, perhaps without full awareness of the implications, of my move a thousand miles away to northern Michigan.
Oh, I had good reasons then for the move. My New York money buying less expensive Michigan real estate. My lifelong distaste for suburban living. Carol’s strong desire to return to her home turf. And maybe underlying all of that, my sense that no particular place claimed my affection.
Except the Brooklyn of my childhood.
And that is gone as is my youth. I have visited the Brooklyn of now, and I am not at all sure I would be happy there.
So, I reasoned, if that is not too strong a word, that since no place called to me, any place other than suburbia would do just fine.
That judgment was largely correct.
But only largely.
It did not hold up all that well while I was sitting in my chair in Michigan watching my family celebrate the coming of age of my grandson.
While Carol, who always encouraged me to remain involved with my family, lay unaware in her bed.
My grandson did a fine job.
The camera did not provide closeups.
If it did, I would have seen a confirmation of what I already know.
The final irony.
As if I needed proof of that ironic fact, it was articulated by my English cousin who spoke to me on the phone in the midst of the party later that afternoon.
“Stephen,” she said, “I see a lot of you in Brandon.”
Tuesday night, Carol not quite yet asleep. She had a difficult day, getting a bath and hair wash she, as the aide related to me, really did not want. I never witness these proceedings because they occur on my shopping day.
After a brief respite, winter has returned but so far only in the form of cold without much snow. Spring arrives next week, but northern Michigan is often indifferent to what the calendar says.
Today at my daughter Kerri’s suggestion I downloaded an app that the kids use to video conference. Only they are not conferencing, they are doing what teenagers do as the name of the app suggests.
It is called Houseparty.
Apparently, Brandon socializes with his friends using this app. By arrangement this evening, we signed on. I held my phone in front of me as if I were taking a selfie, and on the other end the phone was so placed as to capture the image of whoever was in front of it. I congratulated Brandon on his successful performance and he gave me the thumbs up sign. The conversation moved from him to his parents and then to Peter, his older brother. Brian, his father, wanted to know what the streaming showed. I explained the fixed camera provided a clear shot of the bima, but there were no closeups, and only a sliver of the first row of the congregants showed up, sufficient, however, for me to see half of the top of his head.
Peter wanted to show me a couple of pages of Old English he had downloaded. I didn’t learn why he was interested in this particular material, but I am aware that he is something of a history buff. He had written a translation above the Anglo Saxon words. He has been invited to sign up for Honors English, the reading list for which includes Beowulf, no doubt in translation. I don’t know if that is why he went online to snatch this piece of that ancient language.
Peter’s academic progress was the focus of the latter part of the conversation, and when it concluded I was again struck by the strange feelings engendered by this visit into this other world, the one inhabited by my daughters and their families. But in particular, I recalled with a familiar pang how fond Carol had been of Peter. She saw something in him that perhaps others had not, maybe his strong imagination so much like her own, or that he was just somewhat different, as she had been as a child. She saw that he, like herself, was drawn to the natural world with an unusual intensity.
I told her about this digital meeting and about Peter’s exploration of Old English. She offered a small smile.
It might have been because she remembered.
More likely, it was just a socialized response, a product of her having been taught manners by her Southern mother.
The dementia has not stripped that bit of good breeding from her.
I suppose that is a good thing, but it is also a reminder of how much else has been lost.
A cold Thursday afternoon in the ides of March, working in the library against the sound of books thumping as they are shelved. As is usually the case on the afternoons I come here, there are no other patrons.
I left Carol sleeping as she had been for the past few hours. The aide will give her lunch when she awakens.
It seems like Long Island is reaching out to me to remind me of my connections to it. Of course, this past weekend was filled with the afterglow of Brandon’s bar mitzvah, followed on Monday evening by the session on Houseparty.
Then, last night, the phone rang as it has been with increasing frequency lately, one telemarketer after another, but this time was different. My caller ID told me that it was an old friend and colleague who lived in Fort Salonga, across the road from me and with whom I some times carpooled, and at others played tennis. Our daughters were of comparable ages but did not develop strong ties with each other.
He called, he said, because last Friday at his retirement party he spoke with mutual friends, heard from them about Carol, and perhaps prodded by that sad news decided to get back in touch with me.
And I am quite glad he did.
We had a warm, hour-long conversation.. We spent some time talking about Carol, but then moved on to catching up, what our kids were doing, and what each of us was into artistically. I was not surprised that his restless creativity has led him to try writing plays, as well as to continue his old passion for film making. In the latter regard, he promised to send me copies of his recent documentaries.
But what sticks in my mind today as I sit here in the library are the memories our conversation evoked of the college at which I worked for thirty-five years. He mentioned a number of colleagues who were at the retirement party whom I remember fondly and certainly would have enjoyed seeing again.
He also told the story, which I must confess I did not remember, of how I as the Chair of Humanities was instrumental in his being hired at the college. It’s a great story, involving his wearing a suit he found on the road while riding his motorcycle. He was wearing it when he strolled into my building, asked about a job, and was directed to my office. I told him he must find a way to write it up. Or maybe make it part of a film.
However, where all this leads, as it must, is to Carol.
For some ten years after his hiring, at that same college I met Carol, at that time what we in the education game called a non-traditional student, one well past the usual starting age.
She remembers—I should say used to remember—our meeting. She was working as a tutor in the writing center, for which I was administratively responsible. I came into the room, and as was my wont, sat on the teacher desk, lit a cigarette—still marginally acceptable in those days– and introduced myself.
And that is how this woman from rural northern Michigan, whose travels had brought her to Long Island, met this kid from Brooklyn.
It’s hard not to make what follows not sound like a line from a bad novel, something which both of us would be ashamed to write. But nonetheless it is true.
Our attraction to each other, for whatever reason, was mutual and strong.
Strong enough that in memory it remains with as much strength as ever.
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