Love held us. Kindness held us. We were suffering what we were living by.
I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together?…. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.
—Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
As I flipped through my address book yesterday to make my Christmas card list, I was caught short by all the names of those I have lost this year: my beloved courageous Irish aunt, Sheila; my Jewish godmother, Lily; my dear friend Cecelia. All of these women have blessed my life, in ways both sweet and profound. When my birthday passed without my aunt’s card, I felt an orphan. Her steady support throughout my life has been like a vigil candle. I miss that light now. I miss Lily’s quirky and affectionate and sometimes outrageous letters, like the one that included an erotic poem that she said she would have loved if she had been my age at the time (46?) instead of her age (80?). I miss Cecelia’s elegance, fierceness and mystical streak. I think of how I took them all for granted, as if they would live forever.
Selfishly, I know that part of what I miss is that no one will ever look at me with quite the same indulgent affection as they did, that I am no longer the young woman who drank endless cups of tea and poured out my heart, certain of loving ears. With their deaths I feel I have stepped into a new phase of my own life, one in which I have a new role to play. Wendell Berry in his poem “Ripening” speaks to this process of our lives becoming peopled with our beloved dead, even as we give up the pleasant illusions of youth:
The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been.
And yet as we know the dead
we grow familiar with the world….
What does he mean, that we “grow familiar with the world?” Perhaps that we know its true dimensions–the cost of living and loving—rather than our fantasies of what it should be. My friend Jane, who suffers from Alzheimers yet still retains sharp memories of her past, said to me recently, after describing her mother’s illness and death at fifty-four and how hard it was for her then, “People are just going to have to get with the fact that life is hard.” I thought of my post-war generation, of how privileged we have been and how it comes as a shock to us that, indeed, life is hard.
Every Christmas we make a pudding out of persimmons. We prefer wild ones, but will use “borrowed” persimmons from a neighbor’s tree. The trick about them is that they have to be touched with frost to make them sweet. Grief is like that frost, it can soften and sweeten us, as Berry concludes in his poem:
Having come/the bitter way to better prayer, we have/the sweetness of ripening./ How sweet