“You understand, I shall not/ If I survive you care/ To raise a headstone for/ You I have carved on air.” ~Donald Davie
Twelve years today.
There is no stone marker for my husband, who is present in every lovely seen thing. Nor is there any such marker for my father, whose ashes touched down by the academic building where he truly lived, but whose energy inhabits the subatomic universe.
Growing green and light, as a perished child gently exhorted her deeply grieving mother in The Poisonwood Bible, is the only marker my husband needs.
For a college centenary celebration, Veronica Forrest-Thompson wrote “The Hypen,” an ode to a shorthand notation that reflects both the infinite and constricted space of human time. The poem itself has now been with us mortals longer than my husband was.
Forrest-Thompson observed that hyphens’ wee lightly floating dash is used both to link and “to divide/ for etymological or other purpose.”
My husband entered this world on a December day in Maryland, and left it on March 22, in New Hampshire, but you will find neither date bracketing a carved hyphen.
His physical memorial is something that would delight him: a high school bench dedicated “In Musical Memory of Dr. Jim Glennon.” No dates need be applied. Music, after all, boundlessly reanimates and rejuvenates whatever surrounds it. Once released into our world, it never leaves us, and we are incapable of letting it go.
Spring ordinarily is death’s antithesis, as surely as it is winter’s.
At the end of our family’s harshest winter, my dying husband’s heart improbably would not let go of us. It refused to take its last beats until, at least by the calendar, winter had at last elided into the season of growing green that he had always tended to.
Just four days later, the snow had melted entirely away. That afternoon, in a sun-soaked Spring service at her school, one of our daughters read “A Man,” written by poet Louis Untermeyer after his father’s death: “I thought of you…. / And it was like a great wind blowing / Over confused and poisonous places. / It was like sterile spaces / Crowded with birds and grasses, soaked clear through / With sunlight, quiet and vast and clean. / And it was forests growing, / And it was black things turning green.”
One of her brothers read Amy Gerstler’s “In Perpetual Spring,” which ends with an expression of “the faith that for every hurt / there is a leaf to cure it.”
Spring was my husband’s season–although all seasons were, in their way and his. He would rotate his birdfeeders’ weekly specials to accommodate anticipated guests, and make sure our porch was off limits to humans when robins began building their nests in a favorite corner of the 1805 ornamental molding atop its pillars.
The fruit trees he had planted would begin to bloom. His vegetables and fruits would soon make their way into the world. Armored khaki orbs of quince would drink in April showers and grow so heavy that they bowed the thick branches which hosted them. At their greatest girth, they often settled together on the ground, still attached at their stems to their sturdy trees. They congregated there like meditating buddhas, to be sniffed at by our perplexed beagles. Sour bruised blue-black grapes and fuzzed raspberries and peaches would cluster.
In true winter I would survey once colorful leaves entombed under ice, and headless bush branches and empty trees and abandoned robins’ nests. I would be certain none of them could be brought to life again, to bear peaches and sour apples and cartoonishly colorful hydrangea and rhododendrons. But in Spring they somehow still do.
Even that Spring.
Since that singular March day twelve years ago, true Spring arrives for me not on the designated calendar date, but whenever I spot the first fully-bloomed flower. In New England, that has invariably been a crocus.
I picture it gingerly poking its way through richly layered leaves glossy with melting snow, as if doubting whether it truly is time to be visible and vulnerable. But once it peeks out above the dense autumn detritus, its lavender or buttered white soup-ladle petals relax, and it theatrically basks in the sun. A Fantasia character come to life, for as long as the light lasts.
The road most taken in my photographic ouvre is more of a zig-zag over land and sand towards water.
I sink in soggy soil and crunch through panes of glassy frozen water. I watch plovers pause for sunrise and Kingfishers surveying sunset. Gulls gather for the sun’s debut before skimming atop rolling saltwater as they ascend to glide above the retreating waves.
I look up and down by degrees. I rotate, snapping photos in a panoramic arch. I ignore a riot of color on the horizon when I am smitten by an unusual rock or glistening algae underfoot.
I shoot into blinding sunlight and muted mammatus skies. I collect green and every other color. New England snow and molten dunes. Working lobster boats surrounded by vacuum-sealed pleasure craft hoisted from harbors and set aside for the season.
But the subject is always the same: my absent better half.
Sometimes, instead of receiving and recording visible or audible signs from denizens of worlds we–technically–do not share, metaphorical flight proceeds in the other direction. Pablo Neruda both received and dispatched messages over the exceedingly thin space between here and not-here. Alive and alone on shore, in his poem, “If You Forget Me” :
everything carries me to you, as if everything that exists, aromas, light, metals, were little boats that sail toward those isles of yours that wait for me.
Some fabrics are much too special to sit on shelves or in boxes, never to be leavened by sunlight, or by a child’s fingers gripping them for comfort at naptime.
I have found peace in some unusual places, including a snowy owl’s golden eyes, a sedate sunrise, and yards upon yards of cotton fabric.
I collect mainly what my father would aptly have described as an “absurd” amount of fabric. I have traveled as far as India to marvel at woven silks and printed and embroidered cottons. Our first son’s first declarative sentence was made at the threshold of the room where I kept my stash: “Mess room!”
In “Noah’s Garden,” a wall hanging I made soon after my second son’s birth, the fruits and radiating colors were cut from a single enormous piece of woven cotton hand-dyed with plants; it was carried back from Malawi on a visit from my husband’s Aunt Jeanne, who was a nurse there for decades and knew I loved to sew. Some fabrics are much too special to sit on shelves or in boxes, never to be leavened by sunlight, or by a child’s fingers gripping them for comfort at naptime.
My fabric collection patiently waits–sometimes for decades–until I am stricken with inspiration. I usually end up cutting fat-quarters into much smaller pieces before introducing them to dramatically contrasting or subtly companionable neighbors, reconfiguring them into something unique and new.
Fabric will always be tied to family. It may not be a coincidence that my mother’s principal art form was making fabric collages. She collected and made all her clothes from wildly bold Marimekko prints from the 1960s and 70s. I saw the way she looked at those fabrics and hypnotically ran her hands across the tall bolts they wound around. Pure, silk-screened vivid reds and yellows and blue-greens she gathered from Copenhagen to Cambridge.
Having grown up without money for luxuries, and some necessities, she would not throw out even the tiniest scraps when she cut the pattern pieces she designed for clothing or collages. Many of her fabrics’ saturated colors now enliven fabric insects and radishes and carrots and wildflowers in quilts I’ve made.
I began sewing clothing when I was a child, but did not begin sewing in earnest until I was in college. By the time I graduated, more than one professor had observed what I had not: that much of my academic writing was a patchwork, taking them on a winding path through seemingly unrelated concepts–history, literature, philosophy, religion, poetry, music, plant biology–until, at the end, they began to see the connections I had assumed everyone sought among such disparate elements.
There is nothing that cannot be rendered in fabric. Feathers, fungi, planets, pomegranites with ruby glass “seeds.” The constellation Pleiades. Wedding bouquets. Biblical fruits and the stone-inset Rose Window at Iona Abbey, off Scotland’s western coast.
Quilts invite quiet, and are quintessentially comforting.
Almost without exception, each quilt I’ve pieced together has been a gift to someone–most often for a child or a wedding or Birthday of Significance. I’ve made memorial quilts for survivors of tragedies and sewn countless quilts for strangers.
I worked on one quilt for a year, after, on his final ride home, my husband asked that I do something for our friend Dr. Bob, who was at our house preparing to shepard us through my husband’s last days here with us. At home, my husband was covered with the first quilt I made for him. His bed faced our daughter’s whimsical oil paintings and a wall quilt overflowing with an alphabet of fruits and vegetables he had grown in our New Hampshire garden.
I design, applique, and quilt each one by hand; machines are not soothing. Even the repetitive physical motion of taking stitches is calming and brings me peace. One cannot sew for long without letting go of tension.
And every time I sew, I hope the finished gift will be a visual and tactile treat that will bring at least an equal measure of comfort for its recipient. Best of all is when love undoes the careful stitches, and a child eventually wears a beloved quilt back to pieces once again.