Cover Me


Every once in a while I experience a fresh burst of heartache when I listen to a song that Jim can’t hear.

Before there was Pandora (in her modern incarnation), I had someone who took my tastes in music and life and sheparded me into a wider world that stays with me as surely and indelibly as images do.   Another ever-expanding gift, as when he handed off the camera to me.

For my 30th birthday, which my husband attended in the customary corporeal way, he burned me a CD–a precursor to the gold one he left for me to find when I was very nearly ready to hear it.

Jim had an incredible, encyclopedic knowledge of music.  In college he occasionally jockeyed discs–when they also existed in the traditional way (though I understand vinyl has made a comeback, and I still have his boxes of records among the very few things he carried).

(He would have been equally as unnerved as I had he survived to the day one of our teenage children informed me that Nirvana now occupies the radio genre of “Oldies” music.  Sigh.)

Until the very end he followed and appreciated music of all kinds–even, to a degree, country music.  It was a remarkable feat when one of our daughters took it upon herself to produce a collection of his favorites to play at his Closing Ceremonies.  From Bob Dylan (father of The Wallflower’s Jakob)  to the Biff Jackson Group (whose motto is “Quality Through Volume”), decades-long friends with whom Jim played one last time on the same snowy winter day he must have known would be his last time at the wheel.

The CD he made for my birthday included some musical amalgams outside my imagination: not, strictly, covers, but companions, unexpected unions which honored the heart of the original but extracted rich new facets of both chords and lyrics. More marriage than replication.

Bruce Springsteen accompanied The Wallflowers on “One Headlight.”

So long ago, I don’t remember when
That’s when they say I lost my only friend
Well they said she died easy of a broken heart disease
As I listened through the cemetery trees

Luciano Pavorotti joined Bono in soaring interludes of  U2’s “Miss Sarajevo”.

Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day

My husband was able to compile such esoteric musical wonders considerably before the internet placed them at our fingertips.  (How fitting that the physical monument to him is a bench dedicated “in musical memory” of the Portsmouth Clipper Band’s supreme chaperone.)

I, on the other hand, only just figured out how to put together a playlist of my own favorites to listen to during my prize-winning longest-in-the-country commute to work.

My new 78-song playlist contains a cast of bittersweet familiar characters, quite a few of them singing songs which were not yet a glimmer in their artists’ eyes when Jim’s playlists ended.

I have subconsciously coupled some of Jim’s enduring favorites, which along the way have become mine.  My personal soundtrack includes two Richard Thompson covers: REM does a surprisingly upbeat “Wall of Death,” and Greg Brown does a haunting acoustic “Vincent Black Lightning.”

Alphabetically, I discovered I have four “One” songs, including  the eponymous U2 version included on my 30th birthday CD, the original “One Headlight,” “One Last Time,” and Springsteen’s “One Step Up.”  Our youngest child introduced me to “Sunburn,” which appears in her own breathtakingly clear cover of a lesser-known Ed Sheeran song.

I’ve moved far away from you
And I want to see you here beside me, dear
When things aren’t clear …

Memory was painful
Whenever I was away, I’d miss you
And I miss you

Among its more peculiar trivia, my commuting playlist contains three different songs which prominently feature train tracks, and two with references to bearded ladies (one of whom does a double back-flip).

My compendium includes the heart-filling and mind-blowing duet by performers Jim never had a chance to hear, but attuned me to savor: Lin-Manuel Miranda, covering Ben Platt on “You Will be Found,” harmonizes with Platt as he covers Miranda’s part in “The Story of Tonight.”

Only very recently have I come to appreciate Jim’s genius in sending gentle signals for both me and our children to get out of our comfort zones, at our own paces, to adopt and  adapt to shining examples of how to live life lyrically, whether the song is “just” a song or the  music is a metaphor.

If Johnny Cash can cover Nine Inch Nails, I can certainly get past my routine and set out into the world, to places I would have rather seen with him but can still take in for both of us.

I still hear Jim speaking words he never spoke and lyrics which were as yet unwritten and unsung when he died.

My love, take your time; I’ll see you on the other side.

And the inestimable John Hiatt keeps rendering both our old lives and my new life in song.

And if I told it true, all these memories of you, well that’s why I play the game
Friend of mine said a long time coming, like it never came

I’ve sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young
It’s a long time coming and the drummer keeps drumming, your work is never done
I still see you there in that silver-blue air and I never have moved on
Friend of mine said a long time coming, I’m just a long time gone





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In Spite of Spirit, In Spirit of Spite

In Newbury, Massachusetts, a lone house stands only a few bubbles short of round on the giving surface of acres of marshland.

In daylight’s glare the exterior is a Pepto pink not found in nature.  Decades of gusting winds with nothing else man-made to stand in their way have aged it less than gracefully, peeling striations away to a jaundiced layer of naked wood.

I had passed by this house for years, but it was not until last year that someone described it to me as a “spite house.”

Now every time I see it I can think of nothing else.

An oxymoron: a gift of spite.  Like sending black roses, or purchasing a roach in an ex’s name to be fed to a meerkat for Valentine’s Day.

It may be that one should never look a gift horse–or house–in the mouth, but the lingering story of this bright pink edifice’s creation is one of malice.

It is said that in the mid-1920s, a divorcing lawyer agreed to build his soon-to-be ex-wife an exact duplicate of their downtown New England home.  He reportedly availed himself of what, in legalese, comprised a contractual “gotcha” in the absence of a term (here, location).  In 1925 his former spouse found herself the owner of this unusable twin, in a desolate location so unfit for human habitation that its pristine pipes could access only salt water, the better to continue malevolent mockery of the marriage’s corrosion.

Salt marsh in the wound.

My own work involves people who have committed violent felonies, yet even I had to pause and marvel at the concept of building something–and I wince at the word “building,” because it embodies creation, an inherent affirmative and additive–for the very purpose of spite.

It seems a betrayal of human expectations and decency, particularly if the back story here is true: that someone could stir the embers of a human connection that began in love and turn them into a “gift” of hate.

I am stymied by the kind of person who would expend assets and energy not in a burst of  creating–or even in an off-the-cuff emotional release of tearing something down–but in twisting something so far from its purpose.  A home as hate, not hearth.  It seems several steps into an abyss beyond neglect, or even retribution.

But I am somewhat heartened not to have encountered anyone who remembers the name of the villain in this story.  He seems to have evaporated but for the community’s collective memory of his misbegotten treatment of a fellow traveler in this world (and that it was an attorney who, as it were, did the deed).

Nearly a century later no one pays any heed to the original marital home, or seems even to know if it still stands, while the orphaned pink house remains tenderly cared for notwithstanding the physical disrepair that attends its inaccessibility.  There remains collective support of a symbol of the person who found herself so abandoned and alone.  At least one society is dedicated to the house’s preservation, and pink stickers of support abound.  Children leave hand-made Valentines fluttering by its worn front post.  Snowy owls protectively cast their golden eyes from its roof.

When the rising sun completes its winter rotation, it bathes the house in such sublime bright orange-gold that one cannot focus on its imperfections, much less its poisonous origin.

The house is no longer a monument to spite; it is more even than a single house, just as Virginia Wolff’s lighthouse was more than a lighthouse:

“The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.”

The other pink house is true, too.  A thing of enduring beauty and imagination, a memorial to the person whom it was designed to isolate.  A symbol of one man’s unkindness alchemized into the kindness of strangers.


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Ringed Round by Green

“If I could strip a sunflower bare to its bare soul,
I would rebuild it:
Green inside of green, ringed round by green.
There’d be nothing but new flowers anymore.
Absolute Christmas.”
Donald Revell’s poem of never-ending green, the “furnace of” an emerald eye, is titled “Death.”
I had always thought of black as the color of death, and of green as occupying the opposite end of the metaphor spectrum: the ephemeral lime green of incipient spring flower petals before alchemy renders them in magenta; crocus leaves’ broad, flat matte green, thirstily reaching through fall debris in search of stormy April skies; winter’s verdant evergreen perfume.  Jim’s color.  My own mint green eyes, encircled in teal-tinged steel blue, gifted me by my father before the furnace took him, too.
Green eyes open, studying the horizon, crying in the rain, not heavy-lidded in pain or closed in death.
In Revell’s poem, green eyes are not windows to one person’s soul, but the soul itself–a collective being of its own, holding the dead and the living, children never born to murdered children who did not grow old enough to bring them into this world.
Here closed eyes offer infinite sight.
One flower’s dismantling makes perpetual flowering possible.
Death is life and rebirth.
Black is green.
Green is never gone.
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God’s Golden Eyes

It’s the third Tuesday in March, the day, though not the date, when Jim died. Its essence is off-kilter, like Father’s Day (whatever date it occupies), when I lost my father five forever years later.

After little more than an hour’s sleep and a related cluster of dreams I need to process to write about, I am revisiting last year’s letter, which I hope Jim saved.

Eight years.

Love in the Spaces

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March 22, 2018

Dear Jim,

I was awake long before you would have hoped for me.  It snowed yet again, though a far less fearsome Nor’easter than this month’s past three.  This morning I was in one of my favorite places, just beyond ocean dunes only miles from home.  Somehow we never stopped there together, although we brought our children just north and south of this stretch of the Atlantic.

The sun broke through bruised clouds like a lighthouse beacon, unveiling in a vast murky marsh a single gold-eyed snowy owl who turned to look straight at me before promptly closing his eyes to resume napping.

Subtlety still is not my strong suit.  A few years ago I picked up a novel because of the lacuna embraced by its title, The Inheritance of Loss, and discovered an author I wish I’d found in time to pass along to you. …

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