All night, snow, then, near dawn, freezing rain, so that by morn- ing the whole city glistens in a glaze of high-pitched, meticulously polished brilliance, every, thing rounded off, the cars submerged nearly to their windows in the unbroken drifts lining the narrow alleys, the buildings rising from the trunklike integuments the wind has against them. Underlit clouds, blurred, violet bars, the rearguard of the storm, still hang in the east, immobile over the flat river basin of the Delaware; beyond them, nothing, the washed sky, one vivid wisp of pale smoke rising waveringly but emphatically into the brilliant ether. No one is out yet but Catherine, who closes the door behind her and starts up the street.
A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves, And also the partridge in a pear tree And the golden rings and the turtle doves. In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled, Enduring the cold and also the flu, Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled. Not much triumph going on here—and yet There is much we do not understand. And my hopes and fears are met In this small singer holding onto my hand. Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.
All day we packed boxes. We read birth and death certificates. The yellowed telegrams that announced our births, the cards of congratulations and condolences, the deeds and debts, love letters, valentines with a heart ripped out, the obituaries. We opened the divorce decree, a terrible document of division and subtraction. We leafed through scrapbooks: corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet, racetrack, theater—joy and frivolity parceled in one volume— painstakingly arranged, preserved and pasted with crusted glue. We sat in the room in which the beloved had departed. We remembered her yellow hair and her mind free of paradox. We sat together side by side on the empty floor and did not speak. There were no words between us other than the essence of the words from the correspondences, our inheritance—plain speak, bereft of poetry.
When you were small, we watched you sleeping, waves of breath filling your chest. Sometimes we hid behind the wall of baby, soft cradle of baby needs. I loved carrying you between my own body and the world.
Now you are sharpening pencils, entering the forest of lunch boxes, little desks. People I never saw before call out your name and you wave.
This loss I feel, this shrinking, as your field of roses grows and grows….
Now I understand history. Now I understand my mother’s ancient eyes.
It’s 1945. The crops laid by in October if he was lucky, by Thanksgiving if not, my father would throw his hat into the threshing machine with the final shock of rice from the final field. That one moment of the year he was jubilant, cocky even, winning out over creditors and blackbirds and rot. Then the December rains, the hunger for rattling machinery, for sweat, for missing crews— wasted months of accounting and tinkering. He would have cut off his thumb and buried it, had he thought that would hasten spring. Then, spring— when, laying his plow to the insolent dirt, he began again.
We burned our leaves on the bluest October day, the sun still warm on our backs, frost just a ghost in the shrubbery. We raked the leaves into shifting piles on the lawn, scooped them into deep round baskets and spilled them in the street against the curb. The vein of fire, unseen at first in diamond light, whispered through oak leaves brown as butcher paper, and maple still flushed with color like maps torn from The Book of Knowledge. We were letting go of October, relinquishing color, readying ourselves for streets lacquered with ice, the town closed like a walnut, locked inside the cold.
Some days you have to turn off the news and listen to the bird or truck or the neighbor screaming out her life. You have to close all the books and open all the windows so that whatever swirls inside can leave and whatever flutters against the glass can enter. Some days you have to unplug the phone and step out to the porch and rock all afternoon and allow the sun to tell you what to do. The whole day has to lie ahead of you like railroad tracks that drift off into gravel. Some days you have to walk down the wooden staircase through the evening fog to the river, where the peach roses are closing, sit on the grassy bank and wait for the two geese.