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Time for Memories and Saying Goodby

October 04, 1987|MIV SCHAAF

An hour and a half in the garden doing useless things--picking up five branches hardly bigger than twigs, watering a back corner, cutting off dead bird-of-paradise stalks, but most of the time just admiring the nasturtiums. It's too hot, too late in the season, too dry, too sunny for them to go on trying, but there they are, leaves getting smaller and smaller on the ends, but running rampant still, climbing bamboo, the fence, the rose bushes, essaying the bird-of-paradise clump.

Less time I spend in the garden, less time in the house, more on the back porch. The sun comes through the leaves the way it always did and the hummingbird comes to check me out, vertically rising and falling in the air, making his little flying-mattress sounds.

From time to time I go upstairs and go through half a closet, putting things in bags for the Goodwill. After they are picked up I forget all about them; I could not tell you what I have given away.

I may fire up the Cimbali machine and have a cappuccino ; then I admire the living room--redwood molding, curved ceiling, handsome windows with leaves I cannot bear to cut away, shadows of green leaves on green floors, green rug. I realize what I am doing; I'm saying goodby.

Here in the silent house I am trying to put it all together--the happy years, the sad years, the child years, the dog years, the joy, the anger, the resentment. Alfred has been dead 2 1/2 years; those years cannot be reclaimed. Nor, bringing a most desperate pang, can those dogs be called in again from the garden.

I go out of the house to my studio, a rather hilarious 18-by-20-foot one Alfred never saw. I would not call it a studio except that it's one of Earle Hugens' little gems of a shack--built as art studios and called such--and I respect Earle's work as I respected Earle, whose quixotic architectural ideas and elegant watercolors all dissolved in Alzheimer's, as Alfred's elegant equations dissolved in emphysema.

I go back and forth to the house, to the studio, I sit on the porch and think. I am pleased the hummingbird comes to call, that the blue jay is still defending the property, and I think of Alfred and Gia and our dogs, Six and Calico, all of us when husband, child, dogs were new.

There are different ways of saying goodby. Several of my widow friends--imagine that I would ever reach the age when I would have such a thing as widow friends!--have been courageous, decisive, efficient, speedy. They have popped off to New York, sold houses, bought houses, gone to Europe, gotten a new job. And more than one have hurled themselves into other marriages. It takes me longer.

My father used to sit and smoke a pipe long evenings ago, his Peerless tobacco surely the most foul-smelling stuff made (but tables seem empty without those chrome-yellow packets showing the Peerless plant itself proudly belching forth black smoke).

He sat with one knee crossed over the other, his hand tucked under the top one. I find I sit the same way now, as though it were a bitter Michigan night and my fingertips were cold; it is a comfortable way to sit.

Toward the end of Alfred's illness I would sit up after everyone else had gone to bed, as my father did, and smoke a pipe--but not Peerless--and just think. I found it restful at first and then necessary; I seemed to need a night of thought time, an hour or two of quiet sanity. Some nights there were even tree frogs, and it smelled like northern Michigan if you imagined it so.

Later I smoked out of anger, so I stopped.

We have different ways of saying goodby. Some do it with a laugh, a joke, a wave of the hand. And some of us, muddle-headed perhaps and slower than the rest, find we must just stop, stop for a while and think, until we can say goodby.

Last, round the woody turn we swing,

Goodby, goodby to everything!

So ends Robert Louis Stevenson's "Farewell to the Farm." I can never read it without a catch in the throat.

With a similar catch in the throat I must say goodby to you readers in this, my last Things column. Your kind interest has been an appreciated mainstay in my writing and I thank you for it. (To be on my mailing list for a book, send a card to me in care of View, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.)

I wish you joy, and time to think.

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