Friday, October 13, 2006

Banner by Gladys (1918)

One Aunt - Now Gone

This is a true essay, though the names have been thinly disguised ..

My Aunt Madge died two weeks ago. Heavy all her adult life, she had melted down to just over 100 pounds. Kidney failure was the big problem, but there had been a litany of health disasters near the end. I didn’t see her during her final illness; our only contact these last few years had been Christmas greetings. Probably because I had not witnessed her decline, the news hit me hard. My Aunt Madge had never been the sick old lady type.

She and her husband, Uncle Harry, lived in a small city in central New York. I’ll call it Boster. They had two sons, Rod and Will.

My Aunt always had the brassy manner of a career fifth-grade teacher and sometime-performer in light opera theatricals. For instance, if she called your name and you responded “yeah” she would pretend she didn’t hear you. You could keep saying “yeah? yeah?” until the cows came home. Until you said “yes” she would just keep calling your name.

In his working days, Uncle Harry owned the furniture store in Boster. They lived in Boster’s best neighborhood in a sprawling flat-roofed house, ‘50s chic, derivative of Frank Lloyd Wright. One could easily imagine Gregory Peck wandering around the living room, mixing martinis. Of course, as owners of a furniture store, they had nice furniture. I saw the first VCR of my experience in their den. It was the size of a microwave and heavy as a cinder block. They had a little cloth doll labled “the flasher”. He wore a trench coat that opened to reveal he was anatomically correct.

Aunt Madge and Uncle Harry had a boat called the Globus. They had a pool table in their finished basement. They had a refrigerator with a built-in beer tap on the way to the pool table. They had parties. They had a van. They had a good time.

Aunt Madge was also prone to immodesty which I, something of a natural prude, found slightly alarming (witness, “the flasher”). I remember my aunt commenting my cousin Rod’s inability to waterski: “He’s like Crisco, too much fat in the can!” and letting out one of her braying laughs.

As kids, we got Christmas gifts from Aunt Madge year in and year out with the names of local banks on them and things recognizably used.

For a period after her retirement from school teaching Aunt Madge was the mayor of Boster. Her supporters put “Madge for Mayor” bumper stickers on their cars. She always wore a skirt and came to City Hall on a moped, with the skirt flying all around her. She conducted business on the City Hall steps.
My cousin Will once told me that Aunt Madge never once admitted to being wrong about anything, including things like dates of battles or state capitals.

I last saw Aunt Madge at a cousin’s wedding back in 1999. She looked the same as ever then, though slightly grayer. Uncle Harry, however, looked like he might fall over dead at any second. That “kegerator” had done its damage. He was enormously fat riding around on a scooter. I saw him again at her funeral. No change. That she departed this life before him is a source of family amazement.

The loss of my Aunt Madge brings home to me how long gone are the days of gathering round the Betamax and eight-ball versus the cousins in the basement. God only knows what happened to “the flasher”. I have been busy for years now with my own little children. In these last few preoccupied decades I haven’t taken much notice of those people and places of years gone by and now, too late, I am suddenly sorry.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Today at the Last House

A perfect fall day in perfect Vermont. Took Kid 1 and Kid 2 to the craft fair at my holy Mountain - Jay Peak. I cheaped out on them and expended a total of two Canadian dollars so they could each have a piece of fudge. Then it was off to the leafy country town of Knowlton, Quebec where we attended a block party in the neighborhood of our Canadian friends. If Martha Stewart were Canadian, she would concoct a town like Knowlton.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Barn and the View into Canada from the Last House (Yesterday)

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Love it!

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Saturday in the woods

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Whooaa - More Deep Thoughts (Mirren/Dickinson/ Monastic Life)

It's ridiculously early on Sunday morning and my Protestant brain is listing again toward thoughts religious, though church-going is not on my North Troy agenda this morning (for further discussion on that point see previous post, "Softly and Tenderly").

Instead I have been pondering a little revelation provided by reading John Lahr's profile of Helen Mirren in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Helen Mirren may be the actress I most admire. She has been so brilliant in Prime Suspect, it's unspeakable. Until two hours ago, when I finished my insomniac reading of this profile, I never knew anything about her background. Turns out she's the daughter of a Russian emigre (I don't know how to manage a accent mark on this blog keyboard), a defeated sort of character as per the interview, and a virago-sounding atheist English mother. Well, that is interesting. Maybe I should blame it on Lahr, but, despite these promising beginnings in this profile Dame Helen comes off as being sort of insubstantial. Lahr writes about her as a "QUEEN" but talks about a trip he makes with her and her husband - Taylor Somebody - to a California race track where she makes cheap bets. Perhaps I am being unduly influenced by the fact that she has lived in California, primarily, for more than 20 years and has no children. Both leading characteristics of a light weight. Also, the only movie in the long list on her CV that I knew and admired was the Madness of King George. I remember when I saw it, years ago, that her performance had been praised, and Lahr praises it again, but as I recall, her part was just barely more than eensy weensy. She was wasted there. Still, she has got to be brilliant. You can see it on TV.

So, get to the revelation you say. My other weekend reading has been, incidentally, a few poems by Emily Dickinson. At 41 I am now ready for her. I admired the assigned readings I did back at McGill 20 years ago, but I don't think I "got" them like I can get them now. I was lying down to dry off after a bath yesterday and picked up a Modern Library Anthology of Engilsh and American Poetry that I scavenged from the book sale at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington two weeks ago. I read this:

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence-
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

OK, ladies and gentleman, let us observe a moment of silence for that!

So, reading Helen Mirren's profile, thinking of her and California, as it exists iconically to all of us non-Californians around the world, and the cult of celebrity of which the New Yorker performs its part, at the upper end where it is nearly priestly, and of Emily Dickinson and the previous 2000 years or so of Western Civilization, what happened to our ancestors' focus on death? Emily was notably profound on the subject. Good riddance, you say? Well, Yes. I guess. But does it make us silly - even the artists? Memento Mori - remember you must die - was drilled into everybody's heads in Christendom for thousands of years. It made a big impact on Emily. What about Helen? I don't have the answer, just asking the question.

I have thought for a while that many things that we seem to think we have done with in this day and time are really only waiting for a revival in a new "incarnation." All the nuns are old ladies now and no one in the first world is signing up for their thing. But the baby is still there in the bathwater and I think it is due to be born again, even here, where everyone is bowing toward California ...