It is the summer of my fiftieth year, and I have just returned from a long journey to pay my last respects to my mother’s sister Charlotte. Everyone called her Chad, pronounced “Shod.” Her husband of forty years, my Uncle Glenn, had preceded her in death by less than six weeks. When Glenn died, I was in Paris visiting my daughter, and the news of his death troubled me, not because his death was a surprise — he’d suffered from throat cancer for several years — but because I was visiting churches nearly every day, and the urge to light a candle for him kept nagging me.
I was in and out of those Paris churches not for ecclesiastical reasons — I am not Catholic, nor even Christian, really — but because looking at churches is what one does in Europe. Or, at least, it’s what I do, because it’s cool in there, because they pop up on the long and leisurely strolls the French call flans, because the buildings are old and lovely, and because the prayers of the old women and the hushed whispers of the tourists shuffle the mystery.
From St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, the oldest and one of the smallest churches in Paris, to Sacré Coeur, the enormous nineteenth-century landmark that towers over the city from its position atop Montmartre, a voice within me kept saying, Light a candle for Glenn. But an equally insistent voice always responded, No, you’ll get him in trouble. In heaven’s admissions office, a heathen’s prayer might seem a spurious letter of recommendation. Worse, the flame of an apostate’s candle might light my uncle’s path to a possible hell. Would it not be, at the very least, an act of hypocrisy for me to put five francs in the donation box, light the candle, say the prayer? European churches aren’t like American churches. Even for those of little faith, those European cathedrals are heavy with the weight of centuries of prayers, a billion Hail Marys launched heavenward from the echoing stone floors; and the holy men who uttered those prayers are, quite often, right under one’s feet, or embedded in the walls, their bones long since gone to dust. Even the godless are well-advised not to trifle with all that.
So I resisted the urge to light a candle for Glenn until five days after I learned of his death, when my daughter and I again climbed the formidable steps to Sacré Coeur — so many that just going there is a penance — past the vendors hawking souvenirs and the Africans selling knockoff Rolexes. Out of breath and sweating, we entered the coolness of the cathedral, where the cumulative solemnity of the place seemed to command me to light a candle, whether or not heaven would have it, and I did, lighting it and placing it with a hundred others, flickering wanly there for Glenn, an uncle dead half a world away, a man I had not seen in years, nor known since I was a child.
And in that instant, something broke in me, and I cried: not a solitary tear, not a discreet and choked-back burble, but a full coursing of tears, a shoulder-shuddering spasm of grief so overwhelming that until I regained my composure, grief was all I was.
Fortunately, my daughter had wandered far from me in that cavern of a place. To have seen her father so emotionally unhinged would have been upsetting to her. Tourists slunk by, looking away, surely thinking I’d just lost a wife or a vanload of children in a tragic accident, to weep so unreservedly in a public place where people were on vacation.
Not for Glenn alone were those tears, though how these accumulated sorrows had lodged themselves in me and where they all dwelt I did not know. At fifty, we often can’t recall the source of our sorrows.
But I remembered Glenn, as I stood weeping in that cathedral on Montmartre, remembered him as he’d been when I was a boy of ten, remembered riding with him on his route in southern Wisconsin, delivering cumbersome and heavy water-treatment tanks on days so hot that solitary beads of sweat would hang from the tip of his aquiline nose before dropping onto his lap, one after the other. He drove his truck from farmhouse to farmhouse and wrestled the tanks down into the cool, dank basements of homes built before the Civil War, the farm wives directing him, flapping their aprons to scatter the chickens from his path.
God, he was strong. The tanks made him strong, each of them weighing more than a hundred pounds and standing taller than I. He took the full ones from the truck in a leather sling, the weight across his shoulders, and descended into the cobwebby basements, where he exchanged them for empty tanks. He did this maybe thirty times in a day. We stopped in late afternoon at a taproom, him for a beer, me for a Coke, both of us so thirsty we drank the first one down with barely a pause for breath. When he crooked his arm to sip his second beer, his biceps flexed, and it seemed as big as my entire body, as hard as an ax handle, and I despaired of ever becoming such a man as he.
When we got to the house, Chad would be cooking supper, and the aromas would reach us even before we stepped onto the porch. Chad was a heavy woman, as soft as Glenn was hard, and her cooking was of her time and class: heavy on starches and carbohydrates, rich in gravies and fats.
“Hi ya, boys,” she’d say, giving me and my uncle equal status, the two of us just a couple of working stiffs home after a long day’s toil, hungry as hyenas — but not for long. Chad served up short ribs or salmon patties (cheap back then), mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, deep-fried zucchini, tomatoes as big as softballs, apple-walnut salad slick with Miracle Whip. Or chicken backs and wings piled high on a platter, deep fried in the same Crisco as the zucchini, sure to leave your cheeks and chin glistening. And Wonder Bread in a stack half a loaf high at the center of the table, waiting to be slathered with the oleomargarine we had massaged with food coloring, turning it from lard white to crayon yellow, before we sat down to eat. Then strawberry shortcake, nearly every night in summer, sprayed with whipped cream from an aerosol can. Milk for me and my young cousin Sandy, then about four; beer for Glenn and Chad, the cans, beaded with condensation, depicting the “Land of Sky Blue Waters,” a place far off to the north of us where Indians still paddled birch-bark canoes across silent lakes. I planned to join those Indians just as soon as I was grown; I would learn their ways and be their friend.
In my memory, Chad is a middle-aged woman, like Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show, in a big apron and a cotton housedress from the Montgomery Ward catalog, with little or no makeup and her hair pulled up into a bun. Even at fifty, I have not grown as old as she seemed to me then, and does now, in memory. But at the time she was just twenty-four. People, even close relatives, spoke of her having “such a pretty face,” a condescending compliment reserved for fat women.
After supper, Glenn always headed back to the tavern to play euchre with his cronies. Chad and Sandy and I would listen to the radio: My Friend Irma, Inner Sanctum, Gangbusters, The Great Gildersleeve. Or we would sit on the porch and listen to the crickets while Chad retold, in baroque detail, the story of a movie she’d seen, the actors re-costumed, the dialogue re-spoken, the plot re-plotted, and the suspense re-hung. As I grew older, this habit of hers grew tiresome, and she grew even more likely to indulge it, but when I was a boy, the willingness of an adult to tell such long stories was a rare treat. Sometimes she would interpolate into one of her movie retellings a few lines of poetry remembered from her single year of high school, where she’d developed a love of rhyming verse.
I think now they were evidence of Chad’s loneliness, the film plots and poetry recitations, but I was innocent of adult complexities then, so I listened alike to her and to the crickets, picked at a scab if I had one, or twisted a strand of hair around my finger until it cut off the circulation, then unwound the strand, if it wasn’t too snarled, and began again.
Chad had a good voice for storytelling; there was patience in it, a kind of balm, and music, too, a rhythm like a line of low hills against a far horizon. Crickets, lightning bugs, occasional headlights casting long shadows across the porch, and Chad’s story of Tyrone Power or Jeff Chandler winning a lady’s love in some place dreamt up in Hollywood and redreamt in Chad’s imagination.
In this way, we drifted toward sleep, at last trundling off to bed already drowsing, to be awakened momentarily an hour or so later by the squeak of the screen door downstairs — Uncle Glenn letting himself in. And with that, the day was done.
Now, forty years farther on, in Paris, my daughter says to me, “You ok, Dad?”
Recomposed but red-eyed, I say, “Yeah, sweetie, just a little emotional ambush; I’m ok now.”
We leave the cathedral and walk the twisty streets, among the oldest in Paris. At a tourist shop, I buy postcards, send one to Chad, a picture of Sacré Coeur: “Dear Chad, I lit a candle for Glenn in this place. Thinking of you. Love, Jaime.”
Three weeks later, I’m back home, or what passes for home at this point in my life — a one-bedroom apartment in a California valley town I don’t much like. On my first Sunday back, the phone rings. It’s Chad.
“Hi ya, hon. How ya doin’?” she says, as though we’ve spoken just the day before. In fact, we speak but once a year, at Christmas, and then only briefly, still ruled by the manners of a time when people spoke long-distance only in the most dire of emergencies. Except for occasional cards and letters and two hasty visits to the Midwest, I have not known Chad much in my adult life, but the bond we made when I was a boy remains strong.
It is to be an unusually luxurious phone call, unhurried, unstrained. She thanks me for lighting the candle for Glenn, asks how I am handling my separation from my wife. She wants to know what Paris is like, and how my daughters are doing. “Y’know, hon,” she says, “I don’t think I ever thanked you for that lovely book you sent me.”
But of course she did, ten years ago, in a little card with pastel bunnies on it: “Thank you for the book of poems,” she wrote. “I’ll read it some more when I can get it away from Glenn. Ha-Ha!!! Seriously, tho, it’s a lovely book of thoughts, and I’ll treasure it.”
Which, at the time, made me feel a little guilty; I’d gotten the book for nothing from a textbook salesman.
“You thanked me, Chad. I still have the card you sent,” I tell her, though I don’t.
“That’s nice. I still have the book, too. ’Fact, I picked it up after the funeral and read a few poems out of it. Do you know the one by Howard what’s-his-name, Nemer-something, I have it here somewhere. It’s called ‘The Common Wisdom.’ Do you know that one, hon? Here it is: Nemerov.”
Because I went to college and teach English, Chad thinks I know all poems and takes all my protestations to the contrary as modesty. It probably says nothing good about me that I like for her to think this. “No, I don’t think I know that one,” I say, “but I do like that poet.”
“Well, it’s short. You want to hear it?” And she reads it to me:
Their marriage is a good one. In our eyes What makes a marriage good? Well, that the tether Fray but not break, and that they stay together. One should be watching while the other dies.
I have no idea what to say, so I say, “That’s nice,” though I’m not sure it is.
“Yes,” she says, “and I didn’t even notice right away that it has a rhyme. Could you hear it, hon? It’s pretty subtle. I still like the rhymed ones best, but I didn’t even notice that this one was rhymed until I read it over again.”
We talk on. She tells me about Glenn’s final days (“He was on a lot of painkillers at the last there”) and about the funeral. (“They did a nice job. Real nice.”) She accepts my condolences like a woman grown used to condolences; I can almost see her fanning them away. I share the memory of Glenn’s strength, of the beads of sweat on his nose. “He always was a good worker,” she says.
She sighs. “I guess we’re just gabbing the day away, eh, kiddo? I probably oughta get busy. Good talking to you, though.” Then she adds, “I love ya, y’know.”
I say it back. We’re both self-conscious about expressing our feelings. She urges me to come for a visit, an obligatory sign-off whenever I talk to any of my Midwestern relatives. We say our goodbyes, hang up.
It is one of those phone calls that lingers in the air for the rest of the day. I wish I had shared more memories with her: of the time Glenn hooked a seven-pound catfish on the Pecatonica River, where no catfish that size were thought to be, and he let me reel it in; or of his patience as a hunter, sitting under a tree in the woods with his .22 across his lap, sipping from a can of beer and waiting for the movement of squirrels in the branches up above; or of his amazing ability to sketch anything he saw, with just a few strokes of a stubby pencil.
And I wish I’d asked her about a story I’ve carried with me since childhood, a story my grandmother told when my aunt was not present, of Chad’s solitary girlhood when she would go down to the creek behind their house on hot summer days and lie on the creek bottom in a foot of water to cool off, her dress billowing around her, her hair a part of the creek, rippling with the current. She could stay underwater for an impossibly long time, my grandmother said, every once in a while letting slip some bubbles that rose from her puckered mouth and were carried off downstream. “You’da thought she was dead there except for the bubbles,” my grandmother said, and shook her head at the strangeness of her own child. “She could actually fall asleep underwater.”
Perhaps. With my grandmother, you never knew. She told so many tales, not a few of them farfetched. But she was my grandmother, after all, rich in years, and could not be readily dismissed. Because of this story, I tried several times to fall asleep underwater as a boy, overfilling the bathtub and forcing myself to stay under, pinching my nose and fighting the compulsion to surface. For me, it was not at all conducive to sleep. But for Chad? Maybe.
The image keeps coming back to me for the rest of the day, of this farm girl under a foot of water, sleeping, her face white and distorted, her hair billowing, her hands clasped behind her head in repose. I wish I’d asked her to tell me the truth of it.
I drink too much that night. It is summer, and I am a teacher on break and do not have to be at work in the morning. A depression hovers near, ready to set itself on me. So I drink — first beer out by the apartment-complex pool, then Scotch — until I’m a fair bit drunk, and I fall into a restless sleep.
I may have had dreams of cathedrals, and Chad underwater, and Glenn sweating, but probably not. It seems right to me as I write this, though, four summers on.
The next morning, I awaken late to a hangover, the phone beside the bed like a power drill in my ear.
It’s my mother. I can tell at once by her guarded tone that something is wrong. “Chaddie’s gone,” she says, though I have to pry it out of her, she’s so reluctant to reveal the truth, especially to me.
“Gone where?” I say.
“She passed away this morning.”
“But I just talked to her yesterday.”
We have the conversation one has at such a time: the impromptu eulogies, the faint consolations, the questions, the wardings off.
And I decide right then that I will go to the funeral, will drive across country, something I have not done in more than a dozen years. If I leave right away and drive pretty much straight through, I will make it with time to spare. My car has only twenty-three thousand miles on it and gets good gas mileage. Aside from the opportunity to pay my respects, the trip will be a chance to reunite with family and to revisit the places of my childhood. It will also be, of course, a flight from the life I have here, where I have too much time, too little to do, and too much need of alcohol.
But for all my resolve to go, there are the inevitable voices in my head saying no. Too far, they say. Not a good idea, they say. Still, I get the oil changed and the tires checked. I pay my bills. I can wait until dark, I tell myself, then drive in the cool of night. There is in me a vestigial sense of romance about night driving, some holdover from adolescence when I read Kerouac: all that stuff about speeding through the American night, listening to jazz on faraway radio stations. Of course, in the places I will drive through, jazz is rarely broadcast except by a few college stations of low wattage; instead, I will be able to count on lots of religious broadcasting, a good bit of hateful talk radio, and a steady and monotonous diet of country music written and performed by men and women from LA who write slickly derivative songs chronicling the many legitimate reasons for distrust between people of different genders — not something I particularly want to be reminded of for two thousand miles.
Come nightfall, though, I’m too tired to leave. So the next morning, I’m off, with my things thrown hastily into the back of my Geo, a carton of cigarettes and a shoe box full of cassette tapes on the seat beside me. To get to Charlotte’s funeral, I drive up through the Sierras, across Nevada and the Great Basin into Salt Lake City, then up and over the Rockies, through Laramie and Cheyenne, and down onto the plains, running just behind a series of violent storms that leave fallen trees and flooded fields on both sides of the road. I cross the Mississippi and speed through northern Illinois, anxious now to be there, the place where Charlotte drew her first and last breaths. Three days. Two nondescript motels. A backache.
I miss the funeral by the better part of a day. My parents are there, up from Florida, my father still able to outdrive me, this man who enlarged the bladders of anyone ever forced to travel with him, such was his commitment not to stop.
I stay for three days. We haven’t seen each other in many years and talk late into each night. I lie down to sleep on my sister’s living-room floor after everyone has gone to bed. On the second day, we go to Charlotte’s house. Though it is not the place I knew when I was a boy, it might as well be. The furnishings are all the same. There is the big overstuffed chair with the little maple telephone table next to it, scarred with cigarette burns. This is the chair Charlotte sat in the afternoon of our long phone conversation, the chair she rose from before she walked three steps and fell dead. There is the painting Glenn did, of a forest and a mountain in the distance, though I don’t think he ever saw a mountain in his life. There are the doilies Chad knitted, and the little humorous plaques she picked up at garage sales: “Insanity is contagious; you catch it from your children”; and “Ve get too soon oldt, und too late schmart.” There is the print of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, a picture that once belonged to Charlotte’s mother, my grandmother. There are the dime-store curtains which, like the furniture, seem to have absorbed the cigarette smoke, the cooking aromas, the hair tonic and hair spray, creating an olfactory record of the life that was led here, a smell now gone flat somehow, but Chad’s smell, and Glenn’s too. I would have known it if I’d been brought here blindfolded.
I leave early on the fourth day, stopping at the cemetery on the outskirts of town. When I was in high school, I came once to this cemetery with a carload of friends to drink beer and taunt death, but the presence of the dead tamed our bravado, and we left before midnight, our tires flinging gravel behind us. It is primordially strange to see the mound of fresh black earth and know Charlotte is under it. Glenn’s grave, beside hers, is already covered in grass. From where they lie, the landscape of northern Illinois drops off to a vista of gentle rolling hills, verdant in this season, almost tropical in the humidity, the air humming with the sounds of insects. Though it is not yet 8 a.m., I am already sweating.
I am at a loss for what to do. For a moment, I try talking to them: “Hi, Chad. Hi, Glenn.” But, though no one is around, I immediately feel silly. Perhaps meditation is what’s called for. I hunker down at the foot of the graves, but the whoosh of each passing car on the highway reminds me that I want to make Minnesota by nightfall. The flowers from Chad’s funeral are drooping and faded, and I think I should have brought some. I go to my car to see if there is something I can leave, a memento. Under the seat, I find a poetry anthology from a class I recently finished teaching. In the absence of anything else, I decide to leave it. But first I write an inscription in the flyleaf: “Dear Chad, I leave this book in honor of your love of poetry, and the poetry that was in you.”
It is an unsatisfying act, self-conscious and self-referential, but I prop the book against the headstone my aunt and uncle share.
I sleep that night in Blue Earth, Minnesota, under a rainy sky. I wonder if it is raining in Illinois, and I imagine the book going into the earth, the words of the great writers seeping down to Charlotte: Emily Dickinson and Alexander Pope, Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Andrew Marvell and John Donne, Howard Nemerov and Pablo Neruda, all their voices a balm against the loneliness of the grave.
I’m back in my apartment by late evening of the third day, and the next morning I’m awakened by a call from my mother in Florida, wanting to know if I am home safe.
We talk about the visit; then Mom says, “I hope you won’t be mad at me.”
“Well,” she says, “we went out to visit Chaddie’s grave before we left, and I saw the book you left for her. That was real sweet, hon.”
I light a cigarette and hear her do the same three thousand miles away.
“Anyway, it was drizzling a little bit and the book had gotten wet, so I took it with me. Dried it with the car air conditioner on the way home. Hope you don’t mind.”
I’m surprised to find that I do mind, though I assure her I don’t.
“You know your Aunt Chad, hon,” Mom chuckles. “She was a fast reader, and I figured she was probably done with it.”
I know why my mother took the book, know of the rivalry she had with her sister, how it hurt her feelings that I shared poetry with Chad and not with her. And I also know of the lessons she learned as a child of the Depression, which told her that leaving a perfectly good book out in the rain is a wasteful thing to do. I remember, too, how reading has always stood between us, how she called me a bookworm when I was a boy, and later, when I was a teenager, how she caught me reading at 4 a.m. and tore the book up, exclaiming that I was ruining my health and my eyesight.
It was never about my health, of course. My mother, whose schooling ended when she gave birth to me at seventeen, was threatened by books, cowed by people with educations. All books had ever done for Mom was increase her sense of unworthiness. It took a long time before I understood that my interest in books was for her a kind of betrayal, a stepping away. The books forecast the loss of her eldest son. And for a time after I graduated from college, there was an estrangement. She was ill at ease in her speech when we talked and reluctant to write me, fearing that I would find her low-class, that her ignorance would shame us both.
“That was a real nice thing you wrote to Chaddie in the book,” Mom says. “It would have pleased her.”
“Well, I hope so, Mom,” I say. “I just came across it in the car, and I wanted to leave something.”
“Y’know, hon, I found this poem in there by Yeats” — she pronounces it “Yeets” — “that seemed right on the money about Chad, especially where it says, ‘The wind blows over the lonely of heart, / And the lonely of heart is withered away.’ Do you know that one, hon?”
“I think so.”
“Well, y’know Chad just wasn’t going to last long without Glenn, and that was all there was to it.”
I agree. Then she says: “There’s another poem I found in that book. By Thackeray. Can I read it to you? It’s not long.”
I hear her clear her throat, and I can tell my mother, not one to show emotion, has been moved. She reads:
Werther had a love for Charlotte Such as words could never utter; Would you know how first he met her? She was cutting bread and butter.
And then she asks: “How about that?”
“Nice,” I say. “Nice.”
She hears condescension in my tone. My mother may not have an education, but she has the sensitivity of a polygraph.
“Well, the thing is,” she says, “that’s just how Chad met Glenn: she was making a sandwich. All those years together, their whole lives, really, and Sandy and the grandchildren — all from that minute.”
It is only later, after we are off the phone, that I realize my mother is right: the turning points in our lives are often the most mundane of moments.
It’s a few weeks later; the summer is gone, and my first day of classes lies before me. I head off to school, stopping for breakfast at a diner. The young man who waits on me is from Poland. Ever since my daughter moved to Paris, I have had a greater appreciation for the courage shown by people who brave a new country, so I make small talk, searching my mind for scraps of knowledge about Poland.
“Have you read a poet named Wislawa Szymborska?” I ask. He looks puzzled; I attempt the name again, and his face lights up. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Of course.”
Of course, he says, but in the classes I will face today, few if any students will be able to name a living American poet. This is not a country where people have a use for poetry. There is much indifference toward it, and even hostility. The young men assert their masculinity by showing their disdain for the subject. “Why should I have to take this class?” one will surely ask. “I’m a business major.” And I will give my standard speech, attempting to sell poetry, doing all I can to make it sound new. I will tell them that it is a way of reintroducing ourselves to wonder, that it is a hedge against loneliness, that it helps keep us human. I will trot out the generalities and high-sounding notions that were shopworn when teachers recited them to me, before these students were born.
After breakfast, I have a little time to kill before I must get to school. I browse a cluttered bookstore, flipping through a book of Howard Nemerov’s poetry, looking for the poem Charlotte read to me the day before she died. The store is a jumble of books, loosely organized, with hand-lettered signs that read: used philosophy, used humor, used biography, used poetry.
I think of my poetry textbook, of my students with their brows furrowed, struggling to understand, struggling to find the words to express their understanding. I think of the book on Charlotte’s grave, raindrops glistening on its cover. I think of its pages riffling before the air-conditioning vent in my parents’ car and, once they have dried, my mother easing the miles and the loss with the words of the dead, using poetry to help get her back home.