Eighty-degree days have brought summer nights. Slow-moving fireflies appear and reappear over pale moonlit peonies and wild roses in our Vermont garden; the air is damp and still and scented with cut grass, or hay if you venture beyond the edges of the village.
On our last night in Montreal this week we met friends for a picnic at Lac aux Castors - Beaver Lake - on the far side of Parc Mont Royal. Schools of overgrown goldfish shimmered under the surface as we walked around the man-made lake. Groups of Hasidic children - the girls in long dresses, the boys in white shirts and black suits, wearing yarmulkes and long sidelocks - played not far from their mothers. We went to the far side, on the sloping lawn, and sat under a tree waiting for our friends, while an Asian man and his child flew a big kite and a group of Rastafarians set up a picnic on a nearby table. A middle-aged man rode up on his bicycle, sat on the grass, and smoked a large joint; a cop rode by on his own bicycle, paying no attention at all. Couples read, ate, walked through the trees, slept in each other's arms. Our friends arrived and we shared a picnic of cheese, bread, wine, stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh, strawberries.The sun set; the man with the bicycle watched it through outstretched fingers, held in front of his eyes. We tossed a frisbee, talked, drank the remaining wine.
Music wafted from the pavilion on the other side of the lake, and we could see a large group of people gathering on the terrace outside. "It's folk dancing," we finally decided, and since we all needed to go home in that direction, we walked around the lake again and stopped to watch the dancers, perhaps fifty in all, arranged in a circle, holding hands. In the center was the teacher, a diminutive French woman in a white blouse and full, knee-length, dark blue skirt; she wore white ankle socks and what looked like tap shoes, with low heels and a strap across the instep. Diana and watched for one dance, and then got up and joined the circle. I concentrated hard, trying to understand the instructions and imitate the teacher's movements. It had seemed to me, as I listened, that the group was mostly Jewish, and much of the music Israeli, but the dance we were learning then was French. The dancers joined hands and we moved to the right, letting go, turning backwards, rejoining, then putting out hands on each others' shoulders and making steps forward and back, dipping down on one leg. Again and again we began, following her words, and then the music. "Un; deux; vit-vit-vit," she intoned, smiling, "avance; l'arrière; maintenant à gauche..." The dance ended; we let go; it was time to leave. The music was still playing as we made our way to the car.
Last night, on a hilltop in Vermont, we had dinner with an old friend. There had been deer in the meadow when we drove up, and they had watched us, only their alert ears visible above the tall grass. We had drinks outside, until the black flies drove us in, and then ate cold potato-leek soup and curried chicken, bread, salad. I cut up fresh peaches and strawberries for dessert, and we went into the living room with the bookshelves full of music and the old, black Steinway, and talked about old times and people, and then watched a DVD of our friend's music - a violin concerto and a piano concerto - being performed earlier this year in Moscow. On previous visits, over the past year and a half, he had played me parts of the concerti from the unfinished scores; it was wonderful to see and hear the music played by virtuoso performers, and watch our friend come onto the stage at the Rachmininoff Recital Hall, beaming.
We walked to our car across the black back lawn, under the trees, and emerged beneath a sky ablaze with stars. Heat lightening pulsed along the horizon; the only sounds those of late-night birds and insects. We leaned against the car and silently gazed overhead; fireflies danced in the bushes, accompanying the memories slipping back into place, like pages of a just-studied picture-book now being turned carefully from the back to the front before being replaced on the shelf. "Some things last much longer than you, and some much less," the night seemed to say. "So be here, now."
From Afton, we drove to Coventry. On that road my father pointed out a house he had built in the 1950s, when he oversaw a construction crew that was part of the real estate development side of my grandfather’s business. “Do you want to go back and look at it closely?” I asked; we had already passed it quickly.
“No,” he said, cheerfully. “I just wanted to show you. I wasn’t even sure it was on this road.”
We were already into unfamiliar terrain, and not certain of the right back roads between the various villages we intended to visit. “I used to know all these roads like the back of my hand,” my father mused, as we stopped at one unmarked crossroads and peered in each direction.
“That was a while ago now,” I said. “If you don’t drive around the county every day, you’re going to forget – and this is at the other end from the more familiar part. But I don’t suppose there’s a map in the glove compartment?”
He opened the cabinet and rummaged around; no map. “It’s OK, we’ll stop and ask people,” he said. “I’m not proud.”
It had been exactly a week since his knee replacement surgery, and although the pain was still constant, he was able to keep his leg down – as it was now - for longer periods of time. Still, every now and then his leg contracted in a muscle spasm that made his whole body jerk and his face contort. I looked over with consternation as he hit his good thigh with a fist while the spasm continued, and then subsided. “Do you want me to stop?” I asked.
“No. It’s OK,” he said. “it’s going away.”
We arrived in Greene and drove down one side of the large cemetery where my father’s eldest brother is buried. “So how did Aunt Doris describe the location?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“She couldn’t describe it. She didn’t know how to tell me.”
“Great. So what shall we do?”
“It’s up on the top somewhere, the new part on the far side. She said to go in by the building. What building? Does she mean that thing?” He pointed out the window at a structure.
“Beats me.” By then we had turned a corner and were going along the southern end of the cemetery. A crowd was gathered under some trees in the interior, and Kate Smith’s voice blared, distorted, through loudspeakers, singing “God Bless America.” Smaller groups of people were moving through other parts of the cemetery, doing the same thing we were: visiting family graves. We decided to turn around and go back to the top of the hill, where we entered the cemetery near a building and slowly made our way over the narrow gravel roads toward the newer part. I looked out the window, scanning the headstones, and stopped: “Dienhart, ” I read.
My father looked puzzled. “What’s that?”
“Isn’t it one of Aunt Doris’s family names? I’m going to get out and look.”
There was a row of graves with individual markers, all arranged near a larger headstone with the family name. I noticed one married couple, Fred Dienhart and Betty Gross, and stuck me head back in the car window. “Betty Gross,” I repeated.
My father brightened immediately. “That’s Doris’s maiden name.”
“I thought so.” I went back and looked again for my uncle’s name in the family plot: nothing. I came back to the car and got into the driver’s seat. “Well, there are single red geraniums on all those graves. I’d say she’s been here. But no Uncle Porter.” In the distance, shots were fired, and a trumpeter played taps.
It was getting hot. We drove to the top of the cemetery, asking a few knowledgeable people for help, to no avail. We looked more and more aimlessly out the windows. People were starting to stream toward the eastern side; the ceremonies were over. “OK, let’s forget it,” my father said, abruptly. “We’re not going to find him today. Go down there and we can get out and not run into the crowd.”
We left the cemetery and turned onto the main road; the traffic came to a halt. I heard a “rum-rum-ta-TUM” ahead of us to the right, and started to laugh. “Oh-oh, Dad,” I said. “Bad timing.”
“What the hell…” he said, as we watched a group of veterans, in various military uniforms, march rag-tag out of the cemetery behind a color guard bearing flags. Behind them came an ambulance and some fire engines, and then the high school marching band in full uniforms, playing a Sousa march. Next came another set of flags, and some smaller heads.
“Look, even the cub scouts!” I said, glancing sideways at my father’s face.
“I’ll be damned,” he said. “We’re not going to get out of here for an hour.”
“Sure we will,” I said, amused. How many Memorial Day parades had I marched in as a kid? The first one as a second-grader with Mrs. Thompson’s brownie troop, then later with the girl scouts, and from sixth grade with the marching band... The sight of the Greene band took me back, in their old-fashioned green wool uniforms, trimmed with white, just like the ones I remembered them wearing at all the old-home-day parades and dusty county fairgrounds where our bands competed against each other through the endless summers of central New York in the 1960s. My parents had come to nearly every parade, every competition, waiting patiently on hot sidewalks or fairground racetrack grandstands to cheer as we marched by. No wonder this little parade, with its drumbeats that made my heart beat faster and my head arch to get a better view, loomed like a potential Rose Bowl to my father.
The traffic started to move, following the parade into town. A flagman up ahead was waving cars to the right. “Shall we bail?” I asked.
“Yep. It’s a long way around to Rt. 12, but we don’t have much choice.”
“What’s this road?”
“The back road to Oxford.”
“OK,” I said, and we headed up the road and out of town. As we picked up speed he glanced down and pointed silently to the stick shift. I shifted into fifth, and gave him a withering look: he'd never stop telling me how to drive. He grinned. I saw houses and farms that I’d seen before. “All right,"I said, "I think I know where I am now.”
“Good,” he said, and fell asleep.
We hadn’t thought to buy flowers. Our trip was an impromptu decision, taken at the breakfast table, and here it was, a holiday. So while my father called my Aunt Doris to ask how to find his brother’s grave in the cemetery at Greene, I rummaged through the cupboard where old terracotta pots and gardening tools were stored, and pulled out three plant baskets with plastic liners and blocks of green Oasis foam. I poured water into the containers and left it to soak into the foam, and then went out the front door and cut an armful of branches from the rose-colored honeysuckle bush by the steps. Back on the round oak table, my father and I cut the branches into smaller pieces, filling the baskets with fragrant arching blooms, and added some yellow daisy-like chrysanthemums that he had given me when I arrived.
Dad made his way down the stairs, helped by his cane, and we loaded ourselves and the flowers into the car. It wasn’t yet 9:00 am, warm and dry; the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue.
"Where first?” I asked, putting the key in the ignition.
He thought for a minute. “Afton, I
guess. Then we’ll work our way back to Greene and over the hill to
“I don’t think Mom would have done this. It wasn’t really her style,” I remarked, as we drove out the lake road past the fire pond where two geese had been incubating their nest.
“No geese,” my father observed, looking out the window.
“Maybe not.” He shrugged and turned to look at me. “I’ve never done it before.”
“Neither have I,” I said. But the truth was that he and I were the ones to do it; we were the ones who were sentimental, and who felt, deep down, an urge to observe certain rituals.
My paternal grandparents retired to the town of Afton, New York, at the southern end of Chenango County, in the late 1950s, and
although they eventually left that house and lived for many years in a church
retirement home in Binghamton, Afton is where they are buried. My grandfather was a Methodist minister and the
family of four children moved every two or three years to the little towns of
New York and northern Pennsylvania. A carved sign from that Afton house hangs over my father’s woodworking bench: “Dun Movin’.”
When I was a child, we’d go to Afton to visit them several times a year, and I always got carsick on the winding roads that start when you leave Rt 12 after Oxford and head over the hills to Coventryville. Dad had always been at the wheel. Until today, I’d never driven this way myself, and I’d never seen where my grandparents were buried.
“We got them the house in Afton because it was one town where he’d never been a minister,” my father was explaining, as I searched the hills for something that looked familiar. Nothing did, except that it was all typical Chenango County. We had already driven nearly the whole length of the county. We passed small farms in the open, rolling, beautiful countryside, and many houses, more of them dilapidated than not; it was a long ways here between towns of any significant size. There were a lot of American flags stuck on lawns and porches, and decorating soldiers’ graves in the little rural cemeteries with their wrought-iron or wooden fences, out in the middle of nowhere, but we also passed one ramshackle house with boarded-over windows and a big sign, painted in blue letters on plywood out by the road, that read “End Fascist Rule.” There was an old yellow school bus next to the house, completely covered with spray-painted graffiti about the “fascist pigs” and “US out of Iraq.”
We came down onto a flat, and my father gestured at a white ranch house on the right. "Charlie Wayman," he said, singing the name the way he always had. Charlie had been a good salesman for my father and grandfather's real estate agency, covering this part of the county. I looked at the house; now this did feel familiar. "Mom and I waited a lot of hours for you in that driveway," I said. "And every Christmas, he and his wife used to give me homemade popcorn balls wrapped in colored cellophane."
"Really?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said as we drove past. "It's the kind of thing a kid would remember."
The road to the cemetery was on the outskirts of Afton. I had wanted to go by my grandparents’ old house first, but when we started to pull into town, we saw cars parked sideways, blocking traffic, and flagmen in jeans and short-sleeved shirts standing next to them. “Oh-oh,” I said. “It looks like they’re getting ready for a parade.”
“Well, we don’t want to get caught in that.Turn around,” said my father, who hates waiting in lines of any kind.
The cemetery, at the end of a road lined with old trees, was well-kept and full of cedars and clear pink, wild azaleas - “pinxters” - in full bloom, more lovely than any cultivated variety. “Where should I go?” I asked my father. There were several roads in the cemetery; we were at the entrance, near a white shed where a man in a blue shirt and red suspenders was washing his pick-up truck.
“Damned if I know,” my father said. “I haven’t been here for, I don’t know, ten or fifteen years. Maybe this guy can tell us.” I got out while my father rolled down the window and said, “Rev. Charles and Mabel Adams.”
The man wiped his hands and straightened up to look at us. I
had gotten out of the car and walked over to where he was. He consulted a map
that was hanging on the wall of the shed. “No Adams here,” he said. “I’ll look in my book.”
He retrieved a three-ring binder from the side of the
building, and ran his finger down a list. “Ok,” he said, “Rev Charles?
“It says here No. 51.” He led me back to the map in the shed. No 51 showed the name “Ayles.” I relayed the information to my father. He was already nodding. “It’s up there, in the second row,” he said, pointing, “I remember now. They’re on the back side of the stone, or some damn thing; somebody probably gave them a free plot so their names aren’t on the front.”
I thanked the custodian and got back in the care and drove slowly until we came to “Ayles;” we parked and my father slowly got out of the car. “Here they are,” I said, reading the other side of the stone with difficulty; the letters weren’t deeply cut. I went back to the car, opened the trunk and took out one basket of flowers. In the ground near the bottom of the stone was a metal cross incised with the words “United Methodist minister”; beside it was a freshly-planted red geranium seedling with one bloom. “Aunt Doris has been here,” I said to my father, pointing. He nodded, and walked from one side of the grave to the other. I put the basket of flowers on the other side of the cross from the geranium; I took a picture. “Well,” my father said, tapping the ground with his cane, “they were good parents.” We got back in the car.
This is part one of several parts.
My "paying" work involves a lot of maps, generally focused on various aspects of health care in the United States. The same basic technology, which uses zipcode or other geographic data correlated to particular variables, has been used by the Glenmary Research Center to create national maps of religious faiths and denominations showing the concentration of adherents. Some of the maps are obvious, but others not - and if you're like me, it's fascinating to see the anomalies and surprises as well as the predictable results (what are all those Episcopalians doing in Alaska?) One especially interesting illustration maps the various church bodies as a whole. (Thanks to Numenius of Feathers of Hope for the link.)
Paris Hill, New York.
(Click image for larger version)
We made a quick trip to central New York to see my parents on Monday, and came home yesterday morning. Spring is just coming to the fields and farms, and the land was tender and beautiful: the first velvety green on the hayfields, the yellow tresses of the willows in the swampy hollows between hills, the cows slowly walking out from the barnyards, chickens roaming happily behind houses. Tractors plowed wide dark brown swaths across the valleys, and the entire landscape smelled sweetly of manure. Behind one barn, a middle-aged man followed his aged father out to the field, the latter in a cap and dungarees, walking strongly but bent, holding a long green stem of something in his hand.
Crows and geese and blackbirds and hawks were everywhere, and letting you know it; deer grazed - the occasional alert ears raised to face the road - in the edges of fields and turkeys brazenly pecked close to the road. A heron flew low over our house, on its way to some morning hunting of the spring peepers, maybe, who had been so vocal the night before, and just beneath the slightly rippled surface of the lake, four carp swam lazily, their backs to the sunlight. I dug a few worms and fished a little with my mother, in the same sun, and - other than the jet trails in the blue sky far overhead - it felt like we could have been in just about any century of the last four or five.
Last week the incessant rain in Vermont suddenly thickened, became opaque. "It's raining snow!" wailed a friend, and that was right: big white globs the size of maple leaves splattering against the skylight and sticking to the hostas and junipers, coating the still-green grass and fallen yellow leaves with a strange whiteness.
The weight of an early fall snow often brings disaster too - trees fell, their roots wrenche from the ground by the sudden topheaviness. No such problem in our yard; the snow disappeared into the already sodden earth and we headed north, on Friday, thinking that the nearly-overflowing river was the only reminder of the storm.
But as soon as we began to climb up the foothills of the Green Mountains, we saw white: the tops of the mountains were covered with snow which gradually diminished to nothing about halfway down. We drove through the valleys, where the last of this year's dull fall color still clung to the trees, while the mountains towered above us, dusted as if by a heavenly shaker of confectioner's sugar, with the highest peaks shining in the sun like the mythical landscape of a digitally-enhanced film.
Here, in the city, most of the leaves haven't even fallen and finally, yesterday, there was sunshine and a blue sky. I celebrated with a long afternoon walk that included browsing at La Tricoteuse, the yarn store; a friperie (clothing thrift store) up on Mont Royal, and one of the French used-bookstores in the neighborhood. And although my café fare is likely to be a tisane rather than an espresso for quite a while, life begins to seem more normal.