Ruminations at Year’s End

Snow gauge
Copper Snow Gauge at gardners.com

I had an odd thought yesterday while I was out walking my dog. I’d put on my winter standby coat – a lined wool Winnie the Pooh letterman’s jacket I bought from the Disney Store when I was in NYC in 2001, standing with co-workers on line in Times Square in below-freezing temperatures, hoping to get tickets to The Lion King.

All of a sudden, I realized that I had owned this jacket for 17 years. I had worn it every winter since 2001 and lost six friends and a husband, a house, and two jobs in that time. What a strange thing to think, I said aloud. And yet, like most of my seeming non sequiturs, it has a context.

This year, I had Christmas dinner with a family friend and another guest was a recent widow. This was her first Christmas without her husband of more than 40 years and she was dealing with it better than I think I had. She had still baked Christmas cookies, gone to a cookie decorating party, celebrated the season. I had not celebrated for years. In fact, this 11th year since my husband’s death was the first time I took any real pleasure in Christmas and the first I made more than a half-hearted effort towards enjoying it.

My husband died on December 6th, so that first Christmas was a complete mess. I bothered with no decorations, no Christmas dinner, no gifts, no cards.

This year, my hand-stamped cards were completed in November, addressed, postage affixed, and mailed the first week of December. The effort reminded me of how much time I had spent 20 years ago on finding just the right cards, carefully calligraphing the addresses, writing a humorous holiday letter, and getting everything out on time – an endeavour that my husband’s relatives said only pointed up the fact that their guy had truly become a married man because cards for any reason had never been seen before with his return address on them.

An article I read today spoke to how many widows and widowers had to find new traditions for the holidays. For me, contemplating an old tradition, like Christmas cards, or something new like a watching a different holiday movie, meant using a pain gauge. Did the idea of doing this thing cause me pain and if so, how much?

For quite a few years, my husband’s death alone was the pain gauge. But as other people disappeared from my life for one reason or another, the pain gauge also became about memories and relationships other than having been a wife. Losing friends I had known even longer than I had known my husband became part of the equation.

When I was very young and fascinated with life, I heard that old people sometimes welcomed the idea of dying and I found that mystifying. At 66, I don’t feel old and yet I find I understand that thinking much better. It’s hard to lose those with whom you were close – with whom you shared a particular set of moments in time, events, other people. It’s the same as losing a part of your life – a piece of your soul and history entwined forever is ripped away and it leaves a mark that can’t be erased. When it happens a lot in the space of a few years, it can be overwhelming. The pain gauge pegs in the red and all you can think about is getting away from the pain; part of you shuts down.

This year has been a mixed one for me. I’ve had a couple of blessings and some challenges that have pegged that pain gauge more than a few times. But I also enjoyed Christmas this year and that brightens me in a way I didn’t expect.

For the first time in the 11 years since my husband died, I didn’t mark this December 6th with tears and a sense of loss. I acknowledged the day, but the pain gauge needle didn’t move much. And that’s probably a change I still don’t realize the immensity of. I probably won’t understand it for a few more years as I approach future Christmases.

I expect that in those future holiday times, I will once again pull out my Winnie The Pooh letterman’s jacket against the cold weather. Probably when I do, I will be reminded of those who have left this life since I have owned it. I hope when I recall them, it will be with wistful fondness and the pain gauge will register that feeling appropriately.

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Yard Sale

Author’s Note: This is the first satisfactory draft of a new story.

Picture of items at a yard sale

They were in a neat stack on top of a hospital table, one of those things on wheels that roll sideways to fit under your bed so you can eat your bland hospital food while you watch the television and try to ignore the beeping equipment, announcements, harsh light coming in through the windows.

Six boxes of them. Men’s Super Plus. Maximum Protection. Adult diapers.

Most of the things at the yard sale seemed like a man’s things to Claire.  Sports magazines, tools, a small television. Individually, they were all things that a woman might also like, but taken together, they said ‘man’ to her. Older man.

There were a couple of stuffed and mounted trout, a scarred, near-shapeless baseball glove and a bat so dry it looked ready to splinter. There were maybe half a dozen hard cover books, mostly biographies, a rack of plain and sturdy shirts and pants in browns and blues. A stack of vinyl record albums, a moustache cup.

Claire imagined the man watching a baseball game, wearing one of the blue shirts, drinking a beer. His fish trophies were on the wall, the stack of sports magazines near to hand. The vision seemed so familiar somehow, as though it was a dusty memory rather than something of her imagination.

She fingered a box of dominoes. Next to it was a narrow wooden game board with a lot of little holes and numbers marked on it. Cribbage. She remembered her father had played it . Like many of the games he had played with his friends, it involved cards and beer and quick calculations made among high shouts and laughter.

Further down the table was a man’s jewelry box. Plain, dark brown vinyl colored to look like leather, then stamped with gold to try to make it look rich and exclusive. It was a drugstore item from the days when drugstores sold jewelry, had lunch counters and candy counters. The gold stamping was worn away in spots. Inside was a tired watch that wasn’t running, a few mismatched cufflinks of silver and gold with large fake gemstones of aquamarine and tiger’s eye. And one gold tone tie clip with a set of initials engraved into it. It had tiny spots of rust on it.

Next to the jewelry box there was a small collection of ceramic coffee cups with various inscriptions: “World’s Greatest Dad”, “World’s Greatest Fisherman”, “#1 Dad”, etc. They were the kind of gift you got when no one knew what to get you. He had probably had a lot of Father’s Day ties, too, and been the sort of guy who hated to wear a tie.

Suddenly Claire stopped, stood still in the too-long grass of this man’s front lawn.

He was likely dead, this man she had been imagining, or in a condition where he no longer needed what was being sold off. The realization struck her like a slap and sent her heart beating faster. She pivoted, the grass squeaking under her shoes, and she did not know what she was looking for. But then words curled underneath her tongue, seeking exit.

At a table next to the street, a tired looking woman was collecting money, smiling and thanking people. Claire imagined herself walking up and asking the question she now inexplicably wanted the answer to: Did he like his life – had he been content?

To keep herself from doing just that, she looked again at the tables and forced herself to concentrate on what she saw. He had kept the coffee mugs; one or two had even been mended. So there had been meaning for him in even these generic gifts. Unless he had just been frugal. Her own father had been raised by someone who had lived through the Great Depression and Claire remembered how he had hated to throw something useful away, especially if it could be repaired.

The tables said he had had hobbies. He had had family. He had been acknowledged by them. But none of tables held the answer to her question. Had he been content? She would not expect happy, not many people had truly happy lives. But satisfaction that work had been done, that responsibilities had been fulfilled, that affection – love – had been present… had he had that?

She looked around again, feeling oddly off-balance, attempting to find her footing in a new perspective. About her, people moved to pick up and put down, to verify a price, to ask for a lower one. Cars pulled up to the curb and left again.

She took a deep breath and let it out, feeling something tight in her throat ease a little. Saw the hospital table and the boxes. Took another breath. She walked to the woman who was managing the sale and said, “I want to buy all  of the men’s diapers.”

Light brown eyes, which had been looking somewhere over Claire’s right shoulder, suddenly snapped to her face. For a moment they just looked at one another, then the other’s expression became something Claire did not care to see and she busied herself getting out her wallet and counting out the cash. When she handed over the bills, their fingers brushed and Claire pulled back from the touch, but the money had been taken.

“Thank you,” the woman said to her quietly. “And good luck.”

Claire nodded and turned away to go gather the packages into her arms to take home.

Six boxes. Men’s Super Plus. Maximum Protection. Adult diapers.

Tasting

 

Sometimes I can almost taste a different life

Where foods that never touched

my tongue

are familiar

Where smells I can’t

remember are

nevertheless

remembered.

I can taste the still, busy air

layered with lives

soaked with labor’s sweat

washed with cheap soap

floating down hallways in

crowded buildings

Fatigue and love and someone else’s

hate are buried

in the old wood of the door frames above

the flaked thin carpet

where I never walked