Tuesday, February 26, 2013

...thoughts at eventide

End with an image and don't explain...

These are the words of the late poet, Stanley Kunitz. The Pulitzer Prize winner (one of his many prestigious honors) was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2000. At age 95, until his death at 100. 

End with an image and don't explain: a perfect metaphor for day's  end with its painted skies and unanswered questions. In his poem, The Layers, Kunitz ponders his life's journey, his dwindled milestones and abandoned campsites, and his resolve to go forward: every stone on the road precious to me. Toward the end he writes: In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through the wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: "Live in the layers, not on the litter."

My layers are rooted in memories. My grandmother, who died in 1979, visited my thoughts tonight. Between washing the lunch dishes and starting dinner, she would work a crossword, read the paper, and - every now and then - sit down at the piano and play a few favorites. Her romantic side was unspoken but not unsung: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", "You Are My Sunshine", and her favorite, "Let the Rest of the World Go By". You might remember this as the song to which Meryl Streep and Robert Redford danced in Out of Africa.  

I must've been twelve when, after playing and singing the old tune, she shocked me. I watched in disbelief as she turned away from the piano and looked at me over the rims of her bifocals, eyebrows arched, a puckish smile on her face. "In the arms of the one you love, waltzing..." Her voice trailed off. The smile didn't. In that moment, I saw her in a different light. The biscuit-maker and baker of cakes danced in her dreams. 

Her recital ended with her favorite hymn, "Abide With Me": Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. Here I first heard the word "eventide"... loved the images, the rhythms it conjured. 

I'm now the same age as my grandmother when she sat and played the piano for me. Blessed that the rhythm of her life washed over me during my formative years. When I first read the Celtic household prayers for routine tasks, I thought of her. Her table was filled with delicious meals fashioned from her kitchen garden and the hens that roosted by the smokehouse. Three times a day, seven days a week. She washed clothes in an old wringer washing machine until I was nine. Before the wringer, a No. 9 washtub sufficed. I have her ancient flat iron (not for hair but for clothes) that weighed almost as much as she did. Well, not quite, but hefty. When she finally got a dryer, she used it only on rainy wash days, preferring sheets that had dried in the sunshine. She and my grandfather raised three children to adulthood and buried a toddler. Worked in the fields together...in an era before victimhood was fashionable. An Irishwoman by descent, she could be as feisty as she was sweet. But never mean. She smelled of rosewater and talcum powder and her laughter was contagious. We'd get the "silly giggles" [her description] while pulling taffy or changing sheets. Thankfully, the heaviness - the awful heaviness - I felt on the day she was buried has lifted. She abides, 

Kunitz's The Layers ends with this verse: Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes. 

You listening, Granny? I'm not done with my changes. Living in the layers, not on the litter...yes, ma'am.