All those Young Lives

RJS 1915

My grandfather in his Army uniform taken just before World War I. He was sent to fight in France.

This is my teenage grandfather on his way to the first world war.  Does he look scared?  Standing ramrod straight and expressionless in stark contrast with the bucolic backdrop.  Perhaps the photographer told him not to smile — war is serious business, after all.   I look at him and it’s hard to imagine what he was thinking, this son of English and Irish immigrants, born and raised on Staten Island, NY, about to go off and fight German soldiers in France.  I wonder what it was like for him over there?

Roderick James Stanfield was luckier than many who went off to fight in that war.  He came home physically unscathed.  I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken man who entertained us by pulling coins out of our ears.  He must have had stories to tell, but I never got a chance to ask — he died when I was younger than he was when he went to war.  Instead, I made do with reading poetry written by so many impossibly young and talented boys, many of whom did not return home to the people who loved them best. I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and cried. The scope of all those young lives lost was hard to comprehend. The suffering of all the survivors, almost unfathomable.

The sixteen year-old me weeping over the carnage of World War I still naively believes that the best way to honor the dead is to love and respect the living.

The present me, shell-shocked by the last two years of rampant xenophobia and nationalism is hanging on to hope. For the sake of young Roderick James Stanfield and so many, many more.

It didn’t snow on April 6th

April 6, 2018. This is not what spring is supposed to look like.

twenty-seven years ago.
There was sunshine and abundant warmth on that day,
a blessed gift after a solid week of rain.
Our son was a corybantic toddler in need of a playground
and an ice cream cone.
We were all desperate for ice cream,
that harbinger of truly spring when the days open again
to burgeoning possibilities
like green shoots bursting from the sodden ground.
And so, when the phone rang as we were leaving,
I did not answer it;
I answered my heart instead.

Years from now I doubt that
I will remember that it snowed today,
or that my husband brought home pizza
as a consolation for the weather.
To render a day in such focus that you never forget it
requires the prism of an unanswered call
that waits to inform you that your brother is dead.
It casts an image so sharp you can play it back at will:
a heart answered; a brother gone; and still the world spins.
There was also ice cream that day, and laughter.
I remember that. What there was always counts
as much as what there is no more.

*For Puck who is always in my heart.

 

A Proper Farewell

Toni, Alison, Me. Canterbury, UK 2013

My friend Alison is gone. In a blink. Like the flutter of a bird’s tiny wing. Suddenly and unexpectedly. I hate that there was no time to say goodbye. It sucks that we have no say in who we lose, and when. Life is hard enough the way it is. We should get to say a proper farewell to the people we love. And Alison was someone I truly loved.

That we met at all was a fluke. That when we did we became friends was as if preordained. I can’t remember whether I first hired her to pick my field or she hired me to pick hers, but that was the beginning. We chatted, because it was what you did on Farm Town. You talked to a total stranger who lived who knows where in the world because you could. In our case it turned out that we were 3300 miles apart with an ocean between us.  We quickly sussed how much we both loved to read ALL THE WORDS in all the books (when we weren’t making art out of imaginary fields on virtual farms, of course). We friended one another on Facebook, and continued to talk over the Farm Town fence where we learned that we each had an only child we were awed by, and who, despite being opposite genders and nearly seven years apart in age, were remarkably similar in their temperament and interests.  How could we not become true friends?

Eventually, we met in real life. I adored her daughter as she loved my son. We were like sisters once separated through no fault of our own,  now found, and reunited. It was happy days again. It was happy days each of the handful of times we got to spend time face-to-face.

Alison had a wicked sense of humor. She was one of the sharpest wits I knew. But she was an introvert like me, and she would go quiet occasionally, when the world was too much for her, and I recognized that tendency in myself. There are times when words are not enough and only the space for silent contemplation will do.

Still, I wish I would have told her how brilliant I thought she was, how much she made me laugh. I wish I would have let her know those naughty (but erudite) words I looked up for writing on her cast when she broke her arm. (rantallion, bescumber, fustylug, stympahlist.) They would have made her laugh. We should tell the people we love that we love them. We shouldn’t take for granted that they will know how much they mean to us unless we do.

I wish I could have thanked her for the years we had as friends. I wish I could tell her how the light is a little dimmer now that she’s not here.