Saturday, October 2, 2021

Perspective on Wheels


In late August I took off on a road trip, alone, across Texas. People kept telling me it was a brave thing to do. Maybe it was. But it was a necessary thing.

I may have been running away. From paperwork, new responsibilities, old tasks that never got done during my husband’s illness, and before.

But it felt like running toward.

I was following in the tracks of my husband, Leon Hale, visiting the little towns where he grew up nearly a century ago. Towns like Stephenville, Hamlin, Gordon, Glen Rose and Eastland, among others. All of them are scattered not far from I-20 between Abilene and Fort Worth.

After some sleuthing, I found places I recognized from his writing. The barn where Hale’s cousin C.T. dropped an overripe cantaloupe on the head of an adult relative and Leon got blamed. The tank where Leon felt the sins of the saved nibbling at his toes. A cousin of his showed me Grandma Hale’s house where the family sheltered during the Great Depression when there was no place else to go.

Almost everyone he wrote about and knew find shelter now in the area’s graveyards, so my visit had to be largely an act of the imagination.

Even a few hours with one of Hale’s old girlfriends, from the time before he knew me, blended imagination with memory. Solid detail is hard to come by after forty-plus years.

What was I trying to accomplish?

When the beloved dies, the spouse can be left almost dizzy with the changed perspective that results. I’ve mentioned before that death alters the lens through which we view ourselves. I wept for the first few months over all my oversights and omissions, rendered suddenly and horribly visible to me.

As the realization arrived that none of those could be changed, I began to wonder who this dear man had been before I knew him. Hale had a whole life, and then some, before he met me at the age of sixty.

He wrote about it in several books, as well as in the column, but the boy and man depicted in those writings are seen through his own eyes.

I wanted to view him through the eyes of other people who had loved him.

I suspect that forming a true picture of someone from the recollections of friends is difficult, even when most of the people you need to talk to are alive, as his closest friends are not.

Also, there’s a danger in the process. Truth is the enemy of fantasy. Don’t most of us, happily married, find our happiness in a recipe that mixes reality, acceptance, and compromise with large quantities of love?

My happiness came from being near him every day and the mutual surprise of living together—his fresh observations, often funny, always interesting. He made sure I was happy by never saying or doing anything that upset me. Imagine that. If he could see it would hurt my feelings, he didn’t say or do it. It is the Hale Way, written about in his memoir, Paper Hero.

I never realized he was employing it with me, although I largely responded in kind.

Now I wonder what else I might have missed about him in this happy, easy way of living.

I think that’s why I hit the road this summer, and why I hope to do more of it over the next few months.

Maybe I’m looking for perspective, and peace. Or maybe I’m just hoping to keep the connection with him alive, as long as possible.

(Published on Friday, September 24, 2021 in the Fayette County Record)

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Are Cows the New Chickens

 

“I love cows.”

I heard this from several women during my recent trip to Connecticut. They were not referring to steak.

These were women from the East Coast, whose acquaintance with cattle is restricted to observation, either from a footpath, fenced off, or an automobile’s window. Some of them are the people who became enamored in recent years of keeping hens in the city.

In this case, they’re mainly referring to dairy cows, I think, which comprise most of the animals I saw.

Which were very few in number, as a matter of fact.

I think I was a little homesick during that month I was away. I was visiting in Washington, CT, and staying about twenty-five minutes away in Litchfield. I’ve written before about the narrow twisty roads and forested terrain.

I had two routes I could use between the locations. The meandering route took me up a hill on a curvy and rutted gravel road, past pastures and farms for a few miles.

In one of the pastures, I saw four cows. It was a fairly good-sized field, but the cows were standing quite close together. I’ve seen cows grouped like that around here, so I didn’t think a whole lot about it the first time. I was awfully glad to see them, though. Up until I did, I hadn’t seen an animal anywhere around there that wasn’t a dog.

Not even many birds, although I think they were there, staying quiet.

Seeing the cows was a small touch of home, I guess.

The second time I saw them, they were grouped the same way, as though they were tied together. Surely not, I thought. I could see no rope or halter. And why would anyone do that? (I should point out here, although it’s obvious, that I know nothing about the cattle business. And my usual consultant on bovine matters is not around anymore.)

But I began to make a point of checking every day. I looked forward to my daily visit. Sometimes I would stop and murmur at them through the window.

Some days the cows were grazing at a gentle distance from each other. The weather was generally mild and the grass was plentiful, as it is here and for the same reason. Rain.

Finding comfort in cattle began for me as a result of the serious drought here a few years ago. As the landscape around us went sere and sorrowful, the cows disappeared. Their absence seemed to intensify the pain the countryside was enduring. Living things, us among them, were under attack, that’s how it felt.

When the rains came and the cattle came back, I felt relief. And even now, driving back roads from Round Top to our place, I feel an ease when I see a herd grazing peacefully, or standing shoulder deep in a tank, or even huddled under a tree for shade.

Toward the end of my Connecticut visit, in the evening, I found three of the cows bedded down in the grass, two of them nose to tail, very close, the bigger one on her side. I’d never seen that before. The fourth one was standing over them in a protective manner.

The next morning, when I drove by, four cows were grazing, and right alongside the darker one stood a tiny calf.

You have no idea how the sight lifted my spirits.

Late Migrations

 

I’m spending some time this month visiting family out of state, the first time I’ve seen them since Thanksgiving, 2019. Grandchildren are involved.

They live, part time, in a rural area outside New York City. It is a heavily wooded landscape with steep and twisty narrow roads over which people hurtle at thunderous speeds approaching 45 mph, tops. Thirty seems fast.

Sometimes a van or truck comes toward me on a curve, dragging a trailer that veers into my lane. Nowhere for me to go except up the sheer cliff to my right. Hair-raising is too tame a word.

This is a household of busy people. Both parents work at intense jobs involving hours of pressured Zoom calls and desk work that doesn’t stop at five p.m. Nobody reads books, anymore. I can’t see that they read anything other than material related to their jobs, except a story to the children at bedtime, perhaps.

You might imagine how strange this seems to me.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which my life is entwined with books until I arrived here. The member of the family I knew best when he was young had been a voracious reader. He read Lonesome Dove when he was ten. (Yes, I allowed it.) Since then he has read widely and deeply in literature, until the advent of children.

I wonder if that isn’t a factor for many people. Time for thought and reflection about who you are and why you are alive is replaced by family needs. And, of course, electronic screens with their myriad surprises.

The house where this family lives is surrounded by a forest of tall trees, mixed hardwoods and conifer, with a ferny understory (and no doubt legions of lovely ticks). The ticks appear to have significantly limited outdoor roaming in such places as a way for kids to learn and test themselves as individuals. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a loss worth mourning.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading, Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl, who lives in Tennessee and writes about Southern matters—nature and people—for the New York Times.

In this book, she has interwoven short essays about her family with observations of the natural creatures who live around her, in her backyard, basically.

She grew up in Alabama, barefoot and free to explore her natural surroundings with her brother. Intense, compressed memories of these places and the creatures, situations and close calls she encountered, form what I think of as the leaves and branches of this book. The trunk would be memories of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother. And some of her own life’s journey.

Most of all she renders “place” as something of prime importance in a person’s life. Often, we tend to forget that. Urban dwellers in particular disregard it. They do not have roots where they live for the most part, and the longing for roots somewhere steals into them gradually as the years fly along.

Those of us who have planted ourselves in Fayette and surrounding counties will resonate deeply to the substance in Late Migrations. Those of us who have lived here always, or who began here, will find a lot of home and memory in these words.

Fellow feeling is more accessible, I think, through the written word than through any other medium of expression. And I find it is one of the best ways we have to diminish loneliness.

One warning. When you encounter the essay titled “Howl,” about an old dog, prepare to cry.

 

Round Top Evolves

 

Authenticity. We hear the word a lot lately. People, emerging from the isolation and confusion of the last fourteen months of virtual meetings and social interactions, seem to be out looking for real experiences. Authentic experiences.

What does that mean?

A series of damaging storms, like we’ve been having lately, would certainly qualify as real. No one questions the authenticity of a major weather event when the wind and rain are buffeting their residence.

Authenticity, however, is something more than merely real. It’s a quality of character. Places can have it. People can have it. But both only in relation to something else, maybe their own past.

I’m thinking about what makes an authentic Round Top experience.

A friend once walked into a cafĂ© on the Square where all the customers sitting around were talking in German—and they switched to English because they recognized my friend and her husband as Houstonians. Fifty-some years ago that was authentic Round Top.

Shopping at Mercantile today is authentically Round Top, and so is attending a concert at Festival Hill or a performance by the Black Cat Choir.

Does it take time for authenticity to develop?

Or does it have more to do with inborn qualities? For instance, is it actually the absence of pretense?

I have a long and mixed relationship with pretense. I grew up in a city, in a striver’s social world where a surprising number of people hewed to the principle of “fake it till you make it.” By the time I came along, the ones who succeeded in previous generations formed a solid phalanx against the newcomers. In one more generation, who could tell the difference?

Where in the social trajectory did pretense stop and authenticity begin?

So here we are in Round Top and Winedale, where Houstonians Hazel Ledbetter, Ima Hogg and Faith Bybee changed things. They had a vision of authenticity that involved importing and/or restoring nineteenth century buildings. Was what resulted authentic anything? Authentically altered, perhaps.

Yet what they left behind formed the identity of the Round Top area for decades—at least with outsiders. And outsiders came, drawn by this imagined authenticity and its visual appeal.

They’re still coming. More dilapidated old houses are being brought in for renovation into appealing commercial property--more shops, restaurants and hotels geared toward visitors.

Do we have any alternative? We said goodbye fifty years ago to the—yes—authenticity that would allow a protective historic designation like Fayetteville’s.

So here we are, a work-in-progress.

Maybe that just makes us Texan. Not in the way of advertising—cowboy hats and ostrich boots. We’re more likely to wear work boots and baseball caps. But Texan by the fact that we are adjusting to constant change and finding what is most enduring within it.

Round Top remains a place where, as Leon Hale described in the Houston Post, mockingbirds mimic scissortails from the tops of trees on the Square. That was in 1980, but the Square, itself, still has the trees; still has a public restroom like it did then, plus the tables and benches needed to enjoy the respite they provide. The names on the shops have changed, but the early buildings are still present.

The Square is maintained by the DYD Club, whose guiding force is the little girl, now nearly my age, whose family owned the building Hazel Ledbetter bought in the 1960’s. Once it was Schwarz’s. You will know it as Lulu’s. DYD means Do Your Duty. It relies on the support of volunteers, folks. And maybe that’s the most authentically Round Top thing of all.

A Deep Dive

 

I've been spending a lot of time this month sorting through photographs, documents, pages of words, many in longhand. And I think what it most reminds me of is river or lake swimming, where the destination floats, raft-like, somewhere ahead of you. If you’re extremely nearsighted, as I am, you can’t really see anything more than a blob. It takes some kind of faith to keep moving forward.

But it has me thinking about the liquidity of memory, and the estuary-like conditions where fact meets fiction in a brackish exchange.

How factual is our personal truth? Does it matter? How accurate is our memory?

“Everything is still in there, every experience,” I used to think, just like last week’s carton of eggs is in the refrigerator, waiting.

Or maybe like my computer’s memory, with files waiting to be opened.

But whole memories aren’t stored that way, at all. They’re stored as fragments to be reassembled by the process of remembering, and not all at once, but sequentially.

Hence the sensation of fluidity. And also, the brackishness, as fiction infiltrates the facts you remember.

There’s far too much feeling wrapped up in memory for anything resembling factual accuracy.

The purpose of seining through past documentation has been to recover my early days with LH (in the Proustian sense) and place them in a timeline. How quickly did we move from being complete strangers to the full-body immersion of lifelong commitment?

Naturally, I am trying to write about it. What else would I do?

Fortunately, he was writing all this time. He’d been writing the column for thirty years before I wrote the letter that caused us to meet.

 (I think that’s how he met the woman who became his second ex-wife, as well. Makes sense. His life and work floated on a constant flow of letters, back then.)

Between us in those early months, we produced a thick file of letters. I have been able to cross reference those letters with his columns and with his calendars, at least for the year we met. (Several years of calendars are missing.)

Splash! We’re paddling around in that brackish reality where truth is surely all around us, but certainty is hard to grasp.

The calendars note the daily column subjects, in black, and any notable place he’s going, in red. Stories related to his travels often appear four or five days later. Details for the red notations are minimal. But they give me the dates for the experiences I’ve remembered, some of which are mentioned in the letters. And the experiences, themselves, are described in the columns, while I watch from the wings, there but unseen, unknown to the reader.

As a result, I am coming to admire the achievement of good biography even more than I did before. Finding the living person, or people, among the artifacts of a relationship requires much imagination. Far more than memory, alone, can provide.

I was a very literal person when I was young. I wanted logic and fact, and became annoyed when I was required in school or out of school to assess varieties of meaning in between the facts. The very attempt destabilized me. I floundered.

Experience and time have allowed me, now, to see what lies between and around (the dark matter of our lives, in a way) and I am comfortable within that space.

It is where truth resides.

And though nothing I discover will allow the full recovery of the past (even Proust could not attain that), still—as I paddle—I am discovering a more complete truth than any we experienced as individuals.

A Hole in the Heart

 How big is the hole in a heart? How big is the hole in a life? Is it big enough to draw into itself everything that once had meaning?

When your spouse dies your world pieces its logic together again from scratch, almost as though it were a beginning.

And it is a beginning—or will be once you can see that far ahead.

For now, however, it is all endings, tinted in freshly perceived regret. You did so many things wrong, things that you didn’t think mattered at the time. Decisions you both were sure about, when you made them.

It’s as though instead of just living, you’ve been viewing your lives together through a transforming lens, and immediately death widens the field, adds filters that distort memory, or possibly give memory a truer focus.

You can’t be sure which.

For weeks—only weeks, so far—all you can see is the change. The difference. And you may be forgiven if what you see is visible mostly through a scrim of tears.

Because the initial batting that wraps you softly against full understanding of the blow, takes a couple of weeks to fall away.

When it does, you feel the hole in your heart, in your life, so fully that you must grope for something stable to keep your entire self from falling into it.

People are kind. People are wonderful. They call, they send cards and notes, soup and empathy, and it all eases the pain for a time.

Nothing helps for long.

You’re busy, sure. Paperwork, lawyers, various family considerations, a memorial service to plan during Covid Time. You plod through these tasks like an old burro carrying her pack up a mountain path into heavy cloud.

People ask: what are you going to do? Are you going to stay here?

Where is here, you wonder. The here in your mind doesn’t resemble the here where you sleep. Or the here you walk through on your way to the barn, or out into the woods.

The here in your mind is crowded with memory, filled to the brim with your husband moving through his daily activities—erect, cheerful, warm, beloved. These images almost displace the awful ones from the weeks before he died. Will they ever succeed in erasing those? Those moments whose recall occasions anguish no palliative can reach?

An old doctor you met when you were young spoke of the necessary “tincture of time.” You’ve heard the phrase spoken more than once, since then.

It means that you will suffer in this state until, eventually, you stop. You find that almost comforting. Or you would if it didn’t mean you might also lose the memories you desire to grow stronger, not diminish.

Those are the memories you want to hold close to that battered heart of yours and never lose. And they are memories you need if you are ever going to write about him, as he asked you to do.

You certainly can’t write a word, now. Not about one minute of those forty years together. When you try, what you feel is a frozen mass where a fluid, pulsing life should be.

It’s not time yet.

Now is the time for grieving, for mourning, whatever those things mean. A type of healing is surely implied, and longed for.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Fine Time

 Is it strange to know you’re hungry and have zero appetite? To look through the fridge, the pantry, and see nothing you would even consider eating, not even ice cream?

It certainly is for me.

But this has been a strange year for us, so far.

We’ve had our vaccinations against Covid, which allows a loosening of anxiety on that front. Just in time for a starburst of worry on another.

At the moment, I’m sitting in our second re-purposed room. The first was our bedroom, serving parttime as a ZOOM studio.

I’m in our living room, now fitted out with a hospital bed and attendant paraphernalia. Rolling bedside table, bottles of medicine and so on.

LH is in that bed and presently he is commenting on the wall of bookshelves beside me. They’re a patchwork quilt of color in our beige room, and we both find their presence comforting, even on ordinary days.

“If you want to look at one of the books close-up and handle it,” I say, “I’ll bring it to you.”

I am sitting at the extended leaf of a small side table situated at the foot of his bed, typing the words you’re reading.

“That’s all right,” he says. “I’m already touching them.”

And of course he is, with his eyes. A very literary, Leon Hale, thing to say.

Outside the window by the fireplace, our pear tree is flush with white bloom. In recent years, the bloom has been fleeting, over quickly in February, or even January. This time it looks determined to stick around.

When I sat in my mother’s hospital room as she lay dying, I could see a magnolia tree outside, littered with blossoms like a passing helicopter had dropped handkerchiefs on the boughs.

Late April. Every year the magnolia’s decoration is a reminder of her passing.

The fantasy that sustained us through the year of Covid isolation—that two writers could assemble and see published two books, then promote them virtually, did not allow for the present sorrowful situation.

But, in a way, the denial conveyed a blessing to us both. An older couple, devoted for years, were isolating in reasonably good health in their favorite place while positively engaged in a productive, absorbing activity. Will I look back on that awful year of anxiety and stress as one of our finest times?

It is possible.

When my mother lay dying in that hospital, I was in graduate school, working on a thesis. I sat in a corner of the room, scribbling away, while she slept.

For years I castigated myself for fleeing from sorrow in that way into words, into fiction, actually. My guilt accompanied that manuscript into the drawer, or storage box, where it currently resides--not that I could find it, if I tried.

But now I think I was wrong to heap such rebuke upon myself. When a young person makes a mistake, the error looms over them in a monstrous way. Such vivid proof of their human weakness can seem overwhelming.

By the time a few decades have passed, however, the mistakes a person has made accumulate like abrasions on the skin that turn into calluses.

We deal with sorrow as best we can, each in our own way. Writing about this today, while he sleeps nearby, is mine.