This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.
Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.
This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.
I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.
I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?
That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.
Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.
Except the world as we know it.
My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.
This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.
Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.
Okay brace yourself! As some of you know, despite my name, I am ‘Sad’, while my sister is ‘Joy’ (according to the gospel of ‘Inside Out’). She is often required to drag me around by my heels, until I cheer up. (Confused? You’re going to have to see that movie.)
Then along came my 80th birthday on Cinco de Mayo, and a house full of people, 18 months to 81, all of them beautiful, people who had gone to the trouble of seeking out 80th b’day cards!!
The biggest surprise was a six foot parcel of fun from Brussels.
Well, maybe he was the second biggest surprise. The biggest is my realization that in spite of events, I have not actually failed. It was never my job to save everybody. They all had their own saving potential. Whatever happened was not wrong or my fault.
Back in the Sierra Nevadas, having exhausted myself walking up the mountain at 7,000 ft., I came down to the village to walk beside the lake, really a pond that holds the water for the fire department. One side of the water is thick with cat tails and behind there is a slope covered with deciduous bushes of different hues, including a soft red. Suddenly, I had a flash of standing beside the Indian River with my grandmother, Gladys, when she was the age I am now and I was 42.
She and I had found ourselves single and living alone that summer. Her son had gone off to live with his best friend’s wife, best friend having passed to his reward. Gladys had left the farm and gone to live in a small house on the Quebec/U.S. border. Meanwhile, my husband, daughter and son had gone off in their own directions. Gladys and I were heart-broken and yet she still made me laugh.
She recalled a day in her first home, a farmhouse. It was spring cleaning time and she had hired a French Canadian girl whom I remember later as Aunt Kate. Kate was cleaning upstairs, when she suddenly came rushing down yelling, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” It burned to the ground. All that was left was a stone-lined cellar hole. Gladys roared with laughter as she imitated Kate.
They didn’t lose everything. The “men” -two of them would have been about 12- must have smelled the smoke or heard the sound of pots smashed together that called them back. They rushed in and grabbed the first thing the saw, the big round oak table, which immediately got jammed in the door. Gladys screamed and yelled. They pushed and shoved. Finally the door jam yielded and the table flew out, but precious time had been wasted. Other men began to arrive and grab what they could. Some things Gladys loved were lost and the family of 6 was homeless. But in the country, someone can always squeeze in a family of six.
Twenty seven years later, the family had changed shape. My mother, who was 13 when the house burned, was married as were her next three brothers. But there were still three children at home, more or less the same age I was and I was 19. This house, too, caught fire. Once again the men seized the oak table first. Once again it got stuck in the door and Gladys screamed, “Leave that damned thing to burn”. Gladys never damned anything. It was the worst word to her. They didn’t leave it. See above.
The third house was built by the community across the road from the second one. The porch was smaller but screened. There was a coal furnace in the cement cellar and no longer needed to be insulated on the outside with banks of sawdust. And there was an actual bathroom. Until 1955, the old out-house had stood at the back of the wagon shed and only little children could use the commode inside. Gladys was very happy there. Her kitchen stove had a wood side for heating and an electric side for cooking. She had hot and cold running water, which ran into a claw foot tub. Many a visit, we sat at the much despised round oak table and laughed.
We laughed about the time that four of us, aged 11 to 13 decided to jump in the hay. It wasn’t a dangerous sport once the new hay had been harvested, but it hadn’t. All there was in the mows was last years hay, so low in the mow that it could be pulled down through the lowest door. Moreover it had compacted and was hard.
I was 13, Evelyn and Ted, twin aunt and uncle, 11 and Percy, 10. The boys dared us to go out onto the side beam that led across the mow from the barn floor (ramp) and jump from there. Sure, we girls said we can do that. The boys went first, sliding on their bottoms far across so as to leave space for us. I went next, noting as I began that it was at least 20 down. I could barely move. Finally, Evelyn began the crossing. We were all scared but she was terrified. She didn’t want to lose face in front of her brothers and once, embarked, she couldn’t go back either.
My sisters, Georgia 7 and Anne 5 stood watching on the barn floor.
I was sweating and gripping the beam. First Ted and then Percy launched himself off into the air with a bloodcurdling whoop. They would crash together, I thought. Both disappeared. A few seconds later their heads appeared as they dug themselves out of the dusty hay.
I knew I couldn’t do it. “Go back, Evelyn,” I cried.
“I can’t move”, she said. Me neither, I thought.
I studied the mow. The boys were urgently calling us to jump. “It’s fun. It’s not so bad.” My stomach heaved. I had to go to the out-house. I jumped.
The worst part was drowning in hay dust and desperately scrambling out. But now we had another problem. Evelyn was deaf to our pleading. She was weeping in terror and hiding her face in her shoulder.
“Go get Ma,” Ted yelled to my sisters. They clomped off down the wooden ramp. Crying and yelling ensued while we waited. Then Gladys was there with her small grand daughters, wiping her hands on her apron, and clearly not happy.
“What in the name of heaven were you kids doing out on that beam?” We always jumped from the barn floor and never into low hard hay. “Get back here,” she screamed at her daughter.
“Can’t,” said Evelyn,” Can’t move.”
“Well, then jump!”
Evelyn protested she would die if she did.
“Well, you’ll die if you don’t, Evelyn Grace. I’ll come out there and give you such a clout…”
Evelyn threw herself headlong, screaming, and landed on her face. We pulled her out and I dusted her off, but she continued to scream that it was all our fault. The boys and I ran across the hay, through to the mow over the cowshed, down the trap door, out through the empty cow shed and up around the barn. There on the dirt ramp, stood Gladys, her face in her apron, laughing so hard her body shook. My little sisters, who were totally unused to laughter, clung to her skirts.
>> An orchestra and popular choir singing the 9th Symphony in the street, in Sabadella, near Barcelona, Spain.