The Love Room – Year 1
The first year after my aunt’s death was spent in a kind of frenzied fog. After almost a decade of long-distance care management, there was still so much to do. As my aunt’s Personal Representative, I was in charge of settling her affairs: carrying out the provisions of her will, selling her condo in Maryland, packing up family mementos to take home. I was also teaching full-time in Maine, and trying to stay engaged with my two grown daughters and my young grandson.
In some ways, the distraction of so many chores became a kind of insulation from the wrenching wreck of grief. But all I really wanted was lie in the sun in a comfortable place, watch dust motes drift through a sunny room, go back to Maryland and find my aunt. The sense of unreality was all-encompassing, but also compelling. I wanted to see where it would take me.
Small comforts during this first year included time spent in the wilderness, watching old reruns of The Waltons on television, playing with my young grandson. And, of course, writing the letters…..
Excerpts from the Letters –
Dear Little Honey,
After carrying you; after the frenzied details of keeping you afloat; after the end, and then sending you off; after tears and hugs from people who leaned into your light, now you’re gone. But here I am, still waiting for you.
For, after all, could a life really just disappear? Could something so rich and tenacious just vanish—poof!—without even leaving a small pile of flower petals on the floor of the world? Impossible. So I keep coming, in the dark and quiet unclaimed times, to sit with you, keep an ear turned your way. Our love room is still the place where I am so much of the time, no matter where else I might be. In the quietest of ways, you are here, too, letting me lay my weary life down at your feet, your sweet, quirky self soothing me even after the end.
Dear Aunt Min,
I can’t share you yet. Even though people are asking, I don’t want to talk. Don’t want to wrap up all my slippery feelings, package them into something tidy, give them away.
This coming-apart time is so wispy and thin, yet so much the realest thing: The quiet breath of the mystery of dying and living; the door between worlds, still open. I don’t want to close that by trying to explain how the care and clashes and holiness of two people continues to thrive.
My love room with you is still hanging in the airy light, tangled in the web of my attention, still pushing and pulling with the tide of my heart.
Dear Little Honey,
Putting up clothes for the winter switch-over, I grab a handful of scarves to hang, and find one of yours: a bright, silky square of roses on scarlet and gold. Automatically, as if my body has a mind of its own, my hands grab it up, press it against my face. I am searching for your scent—the face cream you used, or your own particular sweetness, or the mustiness of clothes that hung in your closet for years. I am hungry for something of you. This time, it’s your favorite color. Red—the fire, the unquenchable spirit, the warmth, the steely heat of your attention, the cutting edge, the joy. Someone said at your funeral that we should all have worn red in your honor.
I miss you. My body has known this all along, while I was trying to forget, trying to live across the hole you left.
Dear Little Honey,
I keep trying to find you. Working on the details of finishing up your life, posting your old photos on a website, planning a Louisiana trip to bury your ashes, going to Maryland to clear out your apartment. I am looking for you in the shuffle of papers, in the busy-work, in making connections with newfound cousins, Nanette, and Lennie and her daughter Kathi.
But, underneath all this, my heart is a yawning awareness that you’re not there. I can’t imagine how it was for you through one hundred years of losing parents, brothers, a sister, friends, the way the world was before so many changes.
I miss you so much.
All I want these days is to slip into the love room—that little space we made together. We could sit and I could hold your small, delicate hand. You could squeeze my fingers and ask me how I am, or sing one of the songs you remember from so many years ago. You could tell me stories about teaching, And I would listen. Again.
There are so many things I want to ask. I want to know why Uncle Johnny killed himself—if you knew how depressed he was. I want to know my dad as you did, when he chattered so much as a little one that you all called him “Peter Parrot”—before he was with my mom and there was no room for another voice.
This is the thing: I am still unfinished. I still need you, but you are done, I guess. But what does that make our love room now, if the walls aren’t painted with need on both sides? If we aren’t stitched together, using the glue of promises and faith and forgiveness to hold it all together? I am still in my love room with you. Sometimes I feel you there, too. My memory of you still knows the best parts of me. Right now, I can’t do without that.
Dear Aunt Min,
I don’t know so many things: how to live without you, how to hold on, how to keep the small fire of our love room going when you can’t be there, when you’ve already let go. Who will hold me up, I wonder? Who will teach me how to age? How will I know who I am, if you’re not here to remind me? You remembered me before I knew myself.
I wonder where our love room is now. Maybe it is passing—as you have—into some other realm. Or maybe it will always be suspended between two worlds—the one in which I am living as my body continues to be form and flesh, and the realm of holy shadows, of memory and ethers, of what has pressed an imprint into the soft, malleable creativity of the world, and then disappeared. For me, you are more than a memory. I miss your “here” self. I miss you.
I want you to know that this coming week I’ll be going down to Louisiana to meet up with my sister, Celeste, and so many cousins from the Vial and Martin clans. We’ll have a funeral Mass there, then take your ashes—what’s left of your small body-self—to the cemetery, put you into the ground with the family you missed so much: Papa and Grandma, Johnny, Major, and Helen. This time, it will be your turn. You’ll be going home to the soil out of which you were born, and we’ll be there for you. I believe you’ll be happy—at least the earth-bound part of you that still might attend to such things. Happy to be home, happy to have your now-powdery bones settled into rest in a familiar place.
Together, we’ll help close one long, rich chapter of our family. I can imagine standing there. I’ll be glad to bring you home—glad, and so sad.
I guess I’ll wait to see how the love room works with only me left in it. But it’s a lonely job you’ve left me to do.
I guess you know that I’m back in Maine after your Louisiana funeral.
Here, the larches are golden, spilling light into the pond, and the copper beech is bronzy in these, the last, bright days before winter settles in. I’ve lived long enough to know that the dark times will turn around to light eventually, but my body slips into the darkness dejected, wholeheartedly lost to what has been lively and easy and warm.
I’m telling stories about you lately, because people are asking. I guess it’s what we all do when we try to bridge the gap, the torn place left by loss.
At the post-funeral gathering in Louisiana, we told tales that spanned decades. Small bunches of us crowded around a table, pored over your old photos, shared what we knew of the complicated lives, the comings and goings of our people. Now, I want to know so much more. You could tell me, if only you were here.
But here’s what I have found again, that I loved so much in childhood and haven’t had in decades: the jumbled, fun, confusing warmth of our big family, of people who love one another no matter what kind of twisty turns anyone has taken. Maybe there’s something about growing up in a small town, living on land where your tribe has been forever, that makes things a little easier. You’re never alone, which probably drives you crazy sometimes, but is also the warm web of belonging, of knowing someone is always there—someone who cares that you flourish, or at least that you’re safe until you can get on your feet again. This is what you came back to visit for all your years.
I am eager to learn more about how far we stretch. In the meantime, I loved the messy tangle of being there, of belonging to that place and those people, even if none of them was you.
In the midst of all kinds of worries and work to keep your estate business moving along, there is this: I am still lying down on the floor of the love room, suspecting that you won’t come back. But, like a faithful pet waiting for its lifelong master who has passed on, I am here on the slim chance that you’ll return. My body remembers. My body can’t give up. Maybe you’ll reach down from the ethers of wherever you are and touch the hairs on the back of my neck, whisper something to me that I wouldn’t hear if I weren’t paying attention. I want you.
I want to lie in the old bedroom like we did when I visited, you in your narrow, sagging bed, me in the stiff, lumpy cot that smelled like unwashed hair and mildew, and that I could never tell you was downright uncomfortable. I want our breaths to mingle, our dreams and memories to rise up in small, damp clouds of family, fears, hopes, mysteries, love. I want to fold around me the threadbare blankets for which you and Helen carded the wool ninety years ago from Aunt Jo’s sheep in the hot Louisiana sun. I want to feel the warm skin of the love room we were weaving together in that tangled work of trying to be real, heal wounds, learn, lean gently on each other, grow. I want the quiet and dark secrets of where you are.
How could you leave without me?
Oh, Little Honey, everything is coming apart. Are we tearing you up as we sort through what you saved and loved? Do you follow along the trail of all your things as they disappear?
Sitting across from the chair you called “old blue,” where you used to rest and talk or sing to me, I am trying to recover from all the busyness of the day. Travel to get here, hitting the ground running, boxing things up, giving away little bits to your helper, Esther, who keeps talking about you and crying, has left me weary and sad.
So many things are packed already: your clothes, the peach-colored comforter that covered your small body as you slept, the family portraits all around the apartment. Your bed is stripped clean, bookshelves empty, mirror gone. The walls are bare. Only the big Jesus picture is left, and the piles of things to give away: lumpy bags of shoes and books, suitcases bulging with seventy-year-old sheet music, fancy outfits from your very social days.
Even though you’d miss all your things, I think you’d still feel at home. Your presence and liveliness still hang in the air. Oh, how will I walk away tomorrow and never return? How could it be that I can never come back, that you will never come back? And what happens to me? I am still here. I’m still somewhere, but without you.
Well…for now, I am sitting with you, scribbling on this notebook like you scribbled in ninety years’ worth of tablets, and I am listening to the stillness. I am feeling you, loving you. Licking away tears as they slip down my cheek. Oh, how could you leave? Oh, where are you? Oh, how can I stand this? How can any of us stand it, the tearing away? And, of course, how can we not? This is what it means to be here, and then to leave.
I don’t know if you paid attention at your leaving time, but you did well. You did what you wanted: sat in your chair, stared out the window, and disappeared. I wanted to tell you, just in case you couldn’t see it from where you were. Probably you were too busy wrenching yourself away to notice. You would have been proud.
Dear Little Honey,
I’ve been ignoring you lately, turning away, walking fast by all the photos of you that I pass so many times a day. Not that I haven’t been thinking about you, because I have—a lot. I miss our little visits together, miss our gauzy tent of time (and time-after). But I’ve been doing the details, trying to tie up all the “official” things that need to be done for your estate. As if any life could really be tied up.
Each thing I touch, each list of figures and accountings, feels like a tiny way to touch you, as if the faded notes you made for yourself are dusted with little flecks of your skin, the blood of your life still flowing through pages speckled with time.
Still…it’s not enough—or, rather, it is both too much and not enough at all. What I really want is more time to meander through the leftover scraps of your life, of our family’s life. I want to open up the yellowed, curling envelopes and peer at so many photos. I want to try to put them, and you, in a time, a place. I want to know who those men were who are holding onto you. I want to know what you were doing in Mexico, or Cuba, or Egypt.
I want to know all about your siblings: how you were with each other, who was light—I’m guessing that would be you—and who was heavy and dark, and why. I want to know about my dad and who he was, things I could never know because, by the time I got him, he was used and shaped by so many things: war, and alcohol, and what it meant to be a man in those years, and my mother’s whims and ways.
I want to pick through the bag of old necklaces, the pearls you wore, and your mother before you, that mellowed from white into cream with all those years of pressing against your skin, and hers. I want to pore through the boxes you left, open one at a time, and wonder about what you saved. But, for now, that will have to wait.
Your 103rd birthday.
Oh, are you close by, on this, the day you entered the world, so long ago? Are you drawn back to this sweet, green planet from which you sprouted? Do you lean down closer, to catch a whiff of familiar air, maybe to touch the gentlest finger to the flesh-of-your-flesh lives that still throb their small liveliness here? Are you pressing your sweet heart to the breast of the earth, to the heart of the life still unfolding, in me, and mine?
Are we still holding the love room so carefully, together, in our hands that reach across mysteries, of living and of not-living, and of whatever hereafter is? Our hands—mine, a little gnarly, speckled with my own years, still pretty sturdy; and yours, once so graceful and strong, now made up of air and my longing and your memories that have seeped into the things you touched: the bright flowered shawl I lean against, the old photos, all the notebooks where you wrote everything down. Maybe our hands are the love room, hands full of wanting and missing, disbelief and sorrow, all the good remembering and the beauty, and the going forth that I know must still be happening, for here I am, loving you, and there—wherever—you are, so recently gone. Your sparkle, the glimmer in your mischievous eyes, spills and shines and shimmers in the air all around me. Life without you—especially today, on your birthday—is hard.
I’m on my way South again, and I’m taking you with me this time. Somewhere in the hold of the plane is my suitcase, bulky with the photo album that is crammed chock-full of the long, wide river of our people.
Tomorrow I’ll spread out all these relics and sit with N. and J., and we’ll get to know each other better; we, these three directions the river of our family has flowed. We’ll hunch over the photos, maybe laugh and exclaim as we find ourselves, our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, and on back. We’ll trace our roots, understand a little more of our history. I’ll be happy to get to know these living links to our rich and juicy past. Who knows how that will shape me from here on?
In the album, there are little bits of you scattered throughout the long family chain of beings. And there is also one whole glassine envelope stuffed helter-skelter with photos just of you. I don’t know what to do with them all. You as an infant, a new, small face in the line of close siblings.Then a spunky, laughing ten year old tease. A serious-faced adolescent. You stocky, then thin and laughing, as one of your brothers snaps a shot of your new, svelte self. You seriously taking on the duties of teaching. You laughing out loud, your eyes on some good-looking man who is beaming at you. And you in China, in Greece, in Germany and France.
In all those in-between years—when you were traveling and mostly gone—there are no photos of me and you. Those come early, and then late: you at 101, and 102, with me leaning over your chair, your head tucked under my chin, both of us smiling.
It has been six months now that you’ve been gone. Soon, I’ll visit your grave. I’ll lean against the warm gray stone, imagine you in your little box underneath, all memory and gritty dust. I wonder if it will help any, being so near. Maybe it will feel like it used to when we sat sometimes, neither one of us with anything to say but loving each other in the quiet, sinking into the warm okayness of just being together.
3/23/11 In Louisiana
I sit with the photo albums. I thought I’d find you in the flat pages set afire by your smile, or that my newfound relatives would lead me back. It turns out, though, that no one knew you like I did. That’s what the love room is, I guess: something only two can share.
Oh, who am I without you? An empty love room? Half of a throbbing heart? An unfinished story, now that my storyteller is gone?
Dear Little Sweetheart –
It seems funny to call you anything. Any name seems just a fetter, pinning you down to what you used to be. But now you’re less, and yet so much more, so absorbed in the Great Emptiness that names seem impossible, and somehow rude. You’re far away. I know you still love me; I can feel you showering over me like the thinnest mist that nevertheless quenches some thirst of my skin, some need in my life. So I have to call you something, at least for now.