Eleven years ago in November 2002, I took the photograph on the left. It was Thanksgiving Day. I was traveling alone in Canada trying to heal my broken heart ten months after my husband died. I wrote about my healing journey in my memoir Above and Beyond Wellfleet. I visited the Abbey Saint Benoit du Lac seeking solace on a day that really was my husband's high holy day. He loved Thanksgiving. Nothing made him happier than to be at the head of the table in front of a huge turkey, table laden with scrumptious food and surrounded by family and friends. One year, we had too many to be seated around the dining room table, so we brought the ping pong table up from the basement and covered it with several large damask table cloths.
Facing my first Thanksgiving without him was almost more than I could bear-so as I wrote in my book "I ran away from home." Almost as divine intervention, this beautiful Abbey was about a half hour away from the inn where I was staying. I went to the 11:00 o'clock Mass Thanksgiving day morning and listened to the Monks sing Gregorian chants. When I took Communion--I felt my husband by my side. I was consoled.
Last week, I went to the Abbey for joy not for solace. I was taking another Canadian sojourn. This time I was not alone. I was retracing some of my over a decade old experiences with my 11 year old grandson, Ethan. We stayed in the same town, No. Hatley, where I stayed in 2002. I asked Ethan if he would like to go to the Abbey. He is a remarkable child/young man--another blog for that description. Yes, he wanted to go.
What a privileged moment I had in store. He was entranced.So entranced that when we went to the Abbey gift shop, he looked for architectural drawings of the Abbey (which we did not find) so that he could design his future house with what he saw. I thought the visit would be quick. It was not. He took it all in. He asked questions about the altar, about the gorgeous container in which the holy water was kept. He even made an extremely funny comment. Which had to do with seeing a small group of people on a platform next to the tower. He wanted to go there, so we asked and were told, "no, that's not possible." When we were leaving Ethan remarked about the group on the platform, he said to me, "they must have been Monks dressed in casual clothing." Priceless.
Eleven years ago, I left the Abbey with a slightly uplifted spirit. Hope was beginning to melt my icy heart.
Last week, I left the Abbey laughing and full of joy. Both experiences are sacred.
I just left a friend's house after an overnight visit. A friend I've known for over 27 years.
Right now, I am sitting on a bench overlooking Cape Porpoise, ME harbor. It is one of my favorite places. It is about an hour from my home. I come here some times alone--some times bringing visiting friends. I come here in every season. I have a photograph of a dear friend and me in this very spot on a freezing-cold January day when the harbor was slick with ice crystals.
The harbor is beautiful-calm and peaceful. As I sit here looking at the beauty, my thoughts of friends pleasantly overtake my being mesmerized by the water, boats and island. My journal captures these thoughts (which are now being transcribed on my computer).
I think about the greeting card phrase "friends are the family you choose." I am fortunate in that my family are my friends--my daughter and son and their families being my best friends.
When I mentally survey the list of those I feel privileged to call friend, I realize they reflect the mirror of my life--each phase of it. There are the friends who shared childhood, school and college experiences. There are those who shared experiences of being a new parent, burgeoning careers and dramatic changes of life and loss.
My friends represent the rich tapestry of my life. Each is like a thread that I hung onto and wove into my happy and sad moments.
Last night over a glass (or two) of good wine, my friend and I talked about the old days--some good-some bad. We recounted a story we've told each other time after time about how we first met as strangers on a 36 ft. sailboat living together for five days. We were a part of three couples who were sailing around the island of Antigua. We could have become instant enemies--dealing with the close quarters and the "events" which happened every day. Instead we became close friends.
Her husband and mine are gone. We hold fast to the remaining couple, because they are the standard bearers of our original friendship.
As I left to go home this morning, I stopped for coffee, and then I was pulled to this bench, overlooking this harbor to collect my thoughts. I did not know that they would lean into a whole retrospective of thinking about all my friends. As I reread that sentence I wondered if it had an air of pomposity -- as if I were saying --"oh, look at me and how many friends I have." I was worried. That would be a terrible interpretation. Rather, the meaning I wish to convey is "look, how lucky I am." Because, in fact, I count my friends as one of my great blessings. And it's not often that I got to say a group "thank you."
A humming bird visited me on my return home from Maine, attracted by the flowers on my patio. He/she comes by nightly now around dusk. Two nights ago, I sat poised with my camera to try and capture my new friend hovering--I failed.
Sitting still waiting for his/her return, I thought about how good it was to be back in my home after having spent a glorious half summer with family and friends at the Maine cottage. I leave there reluctantly, but it doesn't take me long to realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have a home I love.
I call it my nest.
The first chapter in Above and Beyond Wellfleet is dark--it was the hardest chapter to write, because the world I recounted in that chapter was filled with foreboding. I felt terrorized (not too strong a word) about not being able to focus on my future positively. I was stuck --mentally and physically.
My family and I moved quite a bit when I was growing up, and no matter how insecure I felt moving to a new place, I always felt secure in the homes my parents created. As an adult after marriage, I moved into new homes five times. I remember each lovingly.
So I was shocked to discover that the home on Cape Cod that my husband and I cherished turned into a haunted house for me after he died. I write that I tried desperately to love it again, but each day we quarreled. I moved furniture, I bought two cords of wood for the fireplaces, always having been comforted by the warmth and light of fire. Nothing worked. The luster of the beautiful house was irrevocably tarnished.
I sold the house--and I did it abruptly and in the opinion of most way too soon after having experienced a dramatic loss. But I could not feather this nest--this nest that held my husband's and my dreams--which without him had turned to nightmares.
These are strong words I write. They reflect the value I place on my home. When my husband was going through a year of Interferon treatment for his Melanoma, we sold our family home in Rochester (the Cape house was our retirement home) and moved into a one bedroom apartment. The apartment was different from what we had been used to. One night, we had friends over for dinner--they were not only worried about my husband's health, they wondered how we were adjusting to our new and very different living environment. I overheard Larry say to them when they asked how we were, "Connie has made us a home here."
A home. A place where it doesn't matter the elegance or fancy address. It matters that you wake up and go to bed peaceful in the knowledge that you are safe and secure. A place where hummingbirds might stop by for a nightly visit.
Several days ago, I found my grandmother Wilder's photograph albums. There are four. They capture my grandmother's life from about 1909 to the last one dated, 1929. The photograph pictured here is of my father, in 1929--he was eighteen.
There is a lot for me to think about after having spent the last several hours turning the pages of her life. Her photographs captured joy and good family times, but I know that her life was not all joy and good times. She lost her first child, Ruth, (whose photograph is in the first album) when she was barely a year old. My father was her second child. I wrote in Above and Beyond Wellfleet that for the first few months of my father's life, she kept his bassinet by her bed, and would wake up several times during the night to make sure he was breathing. When my father was eleven, she lost her beloved husband, Solon, when he was just thirty nine years old.
None of these sad events are revealed in the photographs. Instead, the images show how much she made of her life as a single woman, bringing up two boys while healing her broken heart.
Unlike many single women then and today, she was financially secure. While the photographs show some of the advantages that this security allowed her, they also show what meant the most to her--her cottage in Friendship was a recurrent theme throughout the albums, showing the times she shared with her husband, her boys, her friendships and connection to the people of Friendship.
When I look at this photograph of my father, I see the dashing young man he was at eighteen and the handsome man he continued to be throughout his life. He was afforded the best education, attending Andover Academy, and receiving graduate and post graduate degrees at Harvard. But his life wasn't easy either.
I stared at this photograph for a long time this morning. Taking in his confident stance, his argyle socks, his handsome face. He did not know then that he would lose three fortunes and suffer many other challenges over the next sixty eight years.
Like my grandmother, he did not focus on the things that went wrong in his life, he concentrated on what went right. He never talked about what he'd lost, he always made it clear that he appreciated what he gained. When I was a teenager, I asked him how he managed to be so cheerful and not
complain about some of the circumstances that he faced. He answered with this aphorism "I cried when I had no shoes, and then I saw a man who had no feet." He really lived like that --with my mother's help.
That's my family history. It's an honorable legacy which helped me cope with my challenges. It made it easier for me to truthfully write the subtitle of Above and Beyond Wellfleet which is "A memoir about welcoming life after loss."
The images I sifted through this morning renewed my sense of optimism. I felt strengthened by the courage revealed in a family beset by sadness, but determined to shirk that weight. Sometimes it is hard to push away the phrase, "life isn't fair". These albums are the proof that the phrase is a waste of time.