They were so young then, the four of them
sitting on a log in the sand, a row of apartments
in the background, each window facing the sea.
We must have been ten, in matching swimsuits,
riding the long rollers toward shore, dreaming
of soldiers handsome in their uniforms.
They look happy, our parents, as if they had
given away all their secrets and could relax,
not one of them thinking of tomorrow
or yesterday, or any peril that might befall
their children, tumbling about in inner tubes
over the thrilling ocean.
A breeze ruffles the hem of my mother’s skirt.
My father has taken off his shoes.
– Marilyn Robertson, “The Photograph”[i]
My oldest sister Marilyn wrote this poem about an old photo from the 1940s. She and a friend were off-camera, playing in the surf, while their parents kept watch from the shore. “The Photograph” is in a new collection of her poems she presented to her siblings, Martha and me, last weekend, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. I found some of my own childhood inside, like the time I fell out of a moving car at two years old.
In return, I gave her my DVD compilation edit of scenes from our childhood and youth, captured with the clarity of 16mm film by our father. I had added an interpretive music track ranging from “My Blue Heaven” to “Magical Mystery Tour.”
A retrospective mood is common enough on significant birthdays, but the documentary evidence of those home movies gave a vivid immediacy to our memories. Both still and moving pictures preserve long-vanished light. They become the past the instant they are shot. To look at them brings the joy of remembered presence, but also the melancholy of realized absence. Our parents are gone; so is our own past. Who are those bewildered little siblings in the old films, inventing their place in this world, improvising as they go? Did they really grow up to be us?
Eight members of the family––by coincidence, one for each of Marilyn’s decades––gathered for her birthday weekend in one of architect Julia Morgan’s rustic wood and stone houses at Asilomar (“refuge by the sea”) on the tip of California’s Monterey Peninsula. My sisters and I, along with various spouses and children, savored the chance to share memories, plans and dreams, as well as games, walks, and very un-Lenten feasts.
Present and future were as much on our minds as the past. But still, the theme of passing time was inescapable. We grow old, we lose loved ones, we know the meter is running. “Last Times,” another of Marilyn’s poems, considers the divided consciousness of mortal beings. Though “now” is all we ever really have, we can’t help but wonder how long we’ve got.
Halfway through December, a day comes when
I wonder how many more turkeys I’ll bake, worrying
over the gravy, the pan always hard to clean.
Or how many more times I’ll unwrap the crèche
from its colored tissue, lifting out the holy family,
the shepherds and their docile sheep.
I am running on fast forward.
If only I could change direction, like movies
my father ran backward in the projector:
smashed bricks gathering themselves
into a wall again, a smashed truck suddenly
good as new, rolling backward down the road,
clouds of dust sucked in by the tires.
The last time I saw that film I was a girl.
We’d beg him to run it again
and finally he’d agree: But this is the last time.
I make out the grocery list,
slip on my jacket, plan the week
as if the days will follow one another
through this house forever.[ii]
On our last evening together we lingered well past bedtime, happy to postpone the inevitable scattering of the clan. We wandered out to the coastal dunes beyond the lights, where Orion hovered brightly beside the Paschal Moon. To the music of breaking waves, we recited Greek myths about the heavens. When we returned to the house, Martha, a brilliant storyteller, gave us an epic tale about a red-headed woman, Maud Applegate, who tracks Death across the wide world to beg for the life of her cowboy love, grievously wounded in a gunfight. When Maud finally spots her quarry climbing the steep trail to his mountain home, she shouts, “Hey, Mr. Death, wait up!”
She not only finds Mr. Death, she also meets his mother, who proves very sympathetic, and the three of them form a surprising bond. Death eventually grants Maud the boon of sparing her man, but the cowboy turns out to be a cad, and in the end the red-headed woman goes back to Death’s place, to help out as best she can and ease the burden of his loneliness. It was a story both funny and strange, deftly told. We all listened intently, like children with upturned faces. Somehow a tale about befriending Mr. Death was just the thing for our little group of aging mortals.
My wife lost her father in January. Four other people dear to me have also departed in the last six months. Our family has loved ones struggling with cancer and Parkinson’s. The losses are mounting up.
“Oh the separations we endure!” laments my poet sister.
A young man arrives at the station,
two black stones in his pocket.
His beautiful face breaks into a hundred pieces,
then reassembles itself
as he boards the train, waving
goodbye, goodbye to the life that loved him,
watching it fall backward into the wind,
the bamboo gate, the garden
with its wooden bridge over the pond.[iii]
Goodbye, goodbye to the ones we love. And then it’s goodbye to the life that loved us. And yet, as Rilke insists, “there is Someone, whose hands, infinitely calm, holds up all this falling.”[iv] While it’s no use to deny our mortality, there remains a mysterious surplus to human life for which death has no accounting.
On Sunday morning we celebrated eucharist together (it helps to have two priests in the family!), and the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent seemed especially apt. First came Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, contradicting the human sense of loss with the divine promise that our story is never quite over. I am going to open your graves, O my people, and raise you up. I will put my Spirit in you and you shall live.
The gospel for the day was the raising of Lazarus, the Fourth Gospel’s overture to resurrection on the brink of Holy Week. Perfect. Two sisters and a brother. Death doing what it does. Then Jesus doing what God does.
On the way to the post office this morning
I thought about the odd things we believe.
Things we swear by, pray for, put our trust in,
or wear printed on the back of a T-shirt.
Tarot cards. Crystal balls.
Runes and rattlesnakes.
First stars, second sight––
not to mention elves and Armageddon.
Just look at me, believing that someone
might have written me a letter,
that the world is in good hands,
that a man once walked out of a stone cold tomb
into the light of day, leaving
poor old Death completely in the dark.[v]
[i] When a Color Calls Your Name: Poems by Marilyn Robertson (Santa Cruz, California, Limited Edition, 2017), 28
[ii] “Last Times,” ibid., 82
[iii] from “Separations,” ibid., 51
[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fall”
[v] “Belief,” Robertson, 53