Time passes

The other day I was invited to a friend’s house for coffee, and yesterday I had a friend over at my place, and somehow it all felt familiar — the way it should be — and yet oddly strange. Are we really emerging from the lockdown mentality of the past two years? I’m triple vaxxed and still pop on a mask in a store and will definitely wear a mask on Transit, and yet, eating and visiting with folks outside my bubble, well it’s wonderful, isn’t it! I’m particularly pleased to have visitors because some months ago I got a new sofa and chair and now I also got a new coffee table and end tables. And would you believe, I even assembled the tables myself? Everything in that department was always Helmut’s job. I could have asked my son to help but I thought, he’s plenty busy so I’ll give it a try first at least, and soon I was turning the Allen wrench like an old pro and nothing’s fallen down yet.

I was startled today when I opened “Borrowing Bones” and saw it’s been more than four months since I’ve written here. Since then I have a darling new grandson and Christmas happened and in January, my mother died (today would be her 100th birthday, in fact, and my siblings and I are going to Zoom together later to commemorate), and not long after that, two of Helmut’s older siblings in Paraguay died. The livestream of his brother’s funeral was at four o’clock in the morning my time, so I woke and watched it, but when it was done I fell asleep again and I had the most wonderful dream in which Helmut and his brother were talking happily behind a kind of screen or gauzy material, and then Helmut stepped through it and gave me a very tight hug. In February, I spent the first anniversary of his death with the Toronto kids and we had a family Zoom on that day while eating DQ blizzards, which was a favourite treat of his.

So all these things have come and gone, and now it’s March and spring and locally the blossoms are out. I suppose the theme of this little post is simply “time passes and there’s much to be grateful about.” (Though we’re riveted and saddened by events in Ukraine, birthplace of both my parents.) I have some book news to tell you about too, but I’ll save that for a subsequent post. I’ve decided I must try to be a little more regular here. See you again soon!

Letters: life fixed, life retrieved

“Letters,” noted journalist Janet Malcolm, “are the great fixative of experience… They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so.”

Over the past months, off and on, I’ve been re-reading letters — letters from Helmut’s family in Paraguay, as well as our letters to his mother, who had carefully saved them so they could be returned to us later. In 2020, the year before Helmut died, he looked into that box of letters and read quite a number of them. Mainly, I think, he read the ones we had written, which he enjoyed because of the way they brought parts of our past back to him. He would stop sometimes and tell me bits that he discovered or delighted in.

I didn’t look at the letters then, but when I decided to go through them to organize and re-read and decide if any should be kept, I was astonished how many there were. Apparently we’d kept them all! I gave up counting, but it was hundreds. (Since many were written on thin airmail paper, they hadn’t taken up much space, even in a pile.)

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Some of the letters we got from our Paraguay family over the years

Reading old letters can definitely be interesting. It can also be unsettling. As Janet Malcolm said, in reference to a biographer’s use of letters, “Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved.” So thoroughly can a letter provoke presence and a sense of “life retrieved” for me — especially from two of Helmut’s sisters with whom we were close and who were terrific correspondents in terms of lively description and “gossip” about anything and everything — that I find myself wanting to sit down immediately and reply. The next moment, I shake back to reality, of course, for these sisters have since died. But it feels like whiplash.

For the same reasons of presence and sense of life retrieved, however, I’ve enjoyed the instances of Helmut’s letter writing I come across. I did most of the correspondence to Paraguay, which he appreciated, while becoming well-known for Schluss machen (making the close, i.e. the last few sentences). This was — understandably — never quite enough for his mother and one sister, who poked at him about it sometimes. After enough nagging he might fill up a whole page. A letter to his mother for Mother’s Day is a treasure to re-read. There’s never been doubt about his affection for her but, once again per Malcolm, what letters do is “prove…that we once cared.”

This might be a logical place to launch into regret that handwritten letters through the postal service are no longer a thing, but I’m not going there. We loved getting letters, that’s for sure, and I’m grateful for the retrospective this trove has given me, but I haven’t forgotten that it took time and effort to write them. As much as we wanted to keep in touch with those faraway in South America, it could be burdensome at times, for they were many families writing us and we were one family replying to them all individually. I like the various and often easier ways we have of staying connected today and will gladly leave, to future generations, the task of figuring out where life has now been fixed and how to retrieve it.

Charlie Pride at midnight

I keep telling myself I don’t want to write about grief, but then I show up to my semi-regular blog writing and it wants out again. Grief expert Alan Wolfert says grief is the interior experience and mourning expresses it outside yourself. And mourning is essential, he says, because one heals through mourning. (My friend Ruth Bergen Braun alerted me to Wolfert’s work; see “The six needs of mourning”.) So here I am, expressing.  

I’ve been reading Emily Carr’s journal, Hundreds and Thousands. I had not known that, besides her wonderful painting, she was such a good writer. Describing her dead sister Lizzie “radiant” in her coffin, all her “frets and worries” gone, she writes “I always want to remember Lizzie’s coffin face. It was so completely satisfied.” Seeing the dead person may be traumatic in many circumstances of death but my experience of Helmut’s body was similar to Carr’s of Lizzie’s, for in spite of the awful sad silence of him no longer breathing I was struck by the beautiful ease of his face. He looked good. I’d always thought him handsome, but what I mean is, his face was settled — utterly settled. There was nothing intentional or effortful there, just rest. This wasn’t entirely new for his face, for he’d won resolve and patience in his suffering, but now it was a step beyond; perfected.

So I was thinking about that, remembering, and later, when I went to bed I couldn’t sleep because I was imagining him slipping away from himself with his last exhale, but I couldn’t see him running or leaping or dancing, the way people often imagine their ill loved one’s release. He was never runner, leaper, dancer. What it would have to be was the sensation of wind, freedom on the open road. What he felt on his motorcycle. A motorcycle ride was like prayer for him: restoration in almost every kind of way. And if his drive took him northwards or through Birds Hill Park and he happened to see a deer, that was a God-sighting as bonus. D4EBDA4D-42F0-4903-A444-A202CBD15A03

Yes, that I could imagine. Or flight. He’d taken a test flight once and would have liked to learn to fly. Air and speed or lift. Not the mechanics of these objects in their metal and leather for his soul, but the particular ecstasy of movement they imply.

Or like hitting the road in his El Camino. Which made me think of our honeymoon, a road trip from Manitoba to Ontario and back again, all those hours in that two-seater brown El Camino when we listened, many times, to his tapes, chiefly Kenny Rogers and Charlie Pride. Music in my family of origin consisted of two kinds of music — classical and church music like hymns, fireside choruses, cantatas, oratorios, and the like — to which I added radio pop, but he liked country, and that’s what we listened to that week, and the sway and croon of it seemed just right for miles and miles to go and for a honeymoon.

So I was thinking all this and wasn’t falling asleep. Suddenly I wanted to hear Charley Pride once again. I knew there was a CD of his hits in the other room, which hadn’t been listened to for ages, and I figured maybe I would listen the next day, for nostalgia’s sake. But no, I needed it now and I argued with myself because I glanced at the bedside clock and saw it was midnight. But who would it bother, I was the only one in the apartment, and besides, I would keep it midnight low, so my wanting won out and I got up and put the CD in my little boom box, next to my pillow, and I listened through all 20 songs. They sounded a bit thin in that little thing, and began, the sleepier I got, to sound more or less the same, but for that hour or whatever it was, I lived in the longing and heartbreak of that music, and in the memory of being on the road a long while ago, together.