Julian Barnes wrote a wonderful, subtle novel about a middle-aged man who slowly discovers that the narrative he’s constructed about his life is based on misapprehension of his most important relationships. The Sense of an Ending is the title of the novel, and that phrase has been coming back to me a lot lately.
After my daughter’s wedding in May, we took a much-needed vacation to our favorite island on the Georgia Coast. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Beryl was also in residence. We had two good beach days, one day of high wind and surf, and the rest were rainy and windy. The wind caused the house to shudder, and huge branches came down. We had brought a friend for my son, a girl who is like a sister to him, and we spent our time playing Apples to Apples, reading and watching “Lost.” Getting cabin fever, I suggested to Maggy that we go look for toe rings. Years ago, when Hannah was fifteen, we’d bought toe rings in the wonderfully tacky beach stores downtown, and I had lost mine. So off we went. I suppose I was trying to recreate the fun I’d with Hannah. Unfortunately, it seems that toe rings are no longer in style–all we could find were ugly, dusty old things. Dispirited, I went outside while the kids shopped, and pulled out my cellphone to call my daughter.
“Hi Mom, what’s up?” I told her about the toe rings, hoping it would kindle in her some memories of our beach vacations, that she would be in the mood to reminisce. “Yeah, yeah, but Mom, Brian and I are shopping for pillows–what kind should we get?” I could hear people in the background. “Down is the best,” I told her, watching an egret alight on the marsh mud. “OK, great, let’s talk soon, gotta go,” Hannah said. I stood holding the silent phone, knowing then that there was no going back, that this change was real. She had left my nest and was feathering her own. Her life is all before her, and the past is prologue. I felt caught out in my vulnerability, in becoming the kind of woman who clings too tightly to the past. But there it was. I stood, stunned, as the marsh grass rippled in the wind, and the egret raised its magnificent wings and lifted off.
Last week, I visited the home of a childhood friend. Her parents have been failing–her father, the curmudgeon of my childhood, is bent over and slowly losing his sharp mind. I brought roses to this former rose gardener, and told him it was like bringing coals to Newcastle. He couldn’t remember my name, didn’t recognize me, but smiled at the allusion. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said, patting my shoulder. His wife shuffled in on her walker, as tall, straight and self-possessed as ever despite the scars incurred in her second fall in three months. Ever the southern lady, she directed her daughter to make the tea and set out the cookies, and graciously led me into her sun-room. The house was almost exactly as I remembered it; it hadn’t changed over the years, only the occupants had. I met my friend’s eyes as she served the cookies–her eyes were brimming with sadness and love. I had never seen her so patient with her folks, so solicitous. “My brother says they will have to go into a home; they can’t go on like this,” she told me privately. No way around it, it seems, but I wonder who he will be without his garden, who she will be without her kitchen. “Lida, cut Sara some hydrangeas before she leaves,” her mother commanded, and her father comes out brandishing pruners. He didn’t know who I was, but he wanted me to have some of his flowers.
Just the other evening, we were staying late at Legion Pool, a wonderful WPA structure that has anchored my summers my whole life. My earliest memories are of learning to swim there, and we spent every summer of my childhood escaping the Georgia heat there. It is a large, gracious pool next to a large open field, surrounded by mature trees. Those trees have been with me as I grew up, married, brought my babies to the pool to nurse, and taught them to swim there. I feel as if I know every branch of every tree, and that as I watch them, they know me too. This place has been a lovely constant in my life, a place of community and continuity which is hard to explain to folks who’ve never experienced it. It is here that families catch up with the latest happenings, swap recipes, make plans, and share our hopes, dreams and sorrows. It is slated to be torn down to make room for a parking lot next year. That night, as I watched the blue shadows of children playing in the inky water as the sun set, I was filled with a sadness that this too would pass. Was it too much to ask for just one lovely thing to remain the same?
In theory, I’m all for things dying to give birth to new things, for the passing of the old to make way for the new. But the living of it is another matter. The wind howling and keening around our vacation house in May echoed my feelings in this season of endings and beginnings. Like the marsh, I have been filled, and emptied out, and I know I will be filled again. I read of how storms changed the contours of our island, how rising waters would change it further. I know I will get used to the new configurations of my family and community life, to the new landscapes of town and island. But not yet. Like the storm, like women for millennia, I need to mark the changes, to keen and lament. And then, maybe, I will walk out again into a calm, sunny day.