For keeps

Last Saturday, my youngest sister got married. It was a brief ceremony in a riotous garden. We stood for the bride, my sisters and I, and her oldest friend, and her back was to us. We could see her groom’s face and hear the vows he’d written and was now making. When it was Mary’s turn, I could neither hear her words nor see her face, only the reaction on Josh’s face, on the brink of becoming her husband. A bumblebee bounced drunkenly off the portico above their heads. Another crawled under the layers of tulle in her dress. Across from me, standing up for the groom, my baby brother swiped at tears.

After the ceremony, my elder son and I danced for three hours straight. His younger brother found the music too loud and stood, like a curmudgeon, out by the pond behind the tent. After an hour or so, my husband took him home. I stayed to dance and the next day, my neck was sore from inclining my head down to look at my seven year old dance partner. By the last dance, when the remaining couples were slumped against each other, swaying almost imperceptibly, I was jerkily rounding the floor with my son. My husband and I are in the last years of rearing very young children, when so many of our interactions are transactional (“You have the diaper bag?” “Can you make them sandwiches?” “I can’t meet the bus today, can you get there?”) and we can see the the golden light of the mid-childhood years creeping in at the windows–the years when they aren’t so desperately needy, but have not yet been lost into the wounding teenage rage for freedom.

During one of my brief dance breaks, I talked to my brother for a bit out in the garden. He pointed out that he’s the last of us five, and the only one still unmarried, and so far, everyone’s gotten married and stayed that way. My parents for more than thirty years, me for more than a decade, my other two sisters for six or seven years apiece. “Nobody’s jaded,” he said to me. And I’ll grant him that. It’s not to say that no one’s struggled, just that we all still see this commitment as worth making, and worth working at.

IMG_5891The week since my sister’s wedding, I’ve been helping out my dad. He and my mother own and live in a five apartment building, and they have a new tenant moving in under a tight deadline after another of my sisters and her family moved out into their first house. The whole apartment needs the usual repairs, cleaning, and painting. For three days, I painted, the wedding manicure disappearing under smears of primer and paint. The house is old, well past one hundred years now, and was once a barn. It’s been added to, renovated, and painted over so many times the rooms must be substantially smaller now for all the pigment layers. All the corners are eased and rounded with a shale of paint. In corners and awkward spots, there are glimpses of a canary yellow, turquoise, and a rosy pink. There are divots in a bedroom door just at the height of a toddler’s swinging foot. There are pencil marks on the door jamb where my sister recorded the heights of my nephew and niece. Throngs of spiders inhabit the corners, and they high step through the drying paint. A wolfish one huddles in a ceiling crack. The house is old and peculiar. I lived in that apartment once too and know the quirks of its window sashes, the cant of the floor, the sweetly Victorian doorbell and knobs. It’s always in need of something, always threatening to crumble. In the few places where my father has added a new closet, or shelves, the paint goes on over harsher angles, and the wood itself feels lighter, less significant.

Old houses are exasperating. Old marriages the same. But my young brother is right. I’m not jaded, and I am up for the work. We Faheys do things for keeps.

After just about thirty five years of service to the Town (City) of Amesbury, Massachusetts, my father, Joseph Fahey, at last retired. He did not stop working; apparently they are still contracting his assistance, but the official day came, and the official party too, and now he is much more at liberty to garden. This is a pastime he manages to extend about year-round, even when it becomes the spectator sport of seed catalog perusal in winter.

For many years, he had no time to garden. Taking the job in Amesbury in the office of Administration and Development, as I believe it was then called, he took on a day job and also all the night meetings: hearings, Board of Selectmen, Town Meeting, then City Councils, Zoning Boards, Planning Boards. When I was little, I remember him being gone a lot at night, and when he came home, he carted a brown briefcase with him. I didn’t understand what he did, or why; the minds and motivations of our parents are not so much impenetrable to children so much as they are of little interest, compared with our own crises and fears. My mother was cooped up with me and an ever increasing number of other children, and no means of ferrying us around town, my father being in possession of the only car. Now that I have children, I recognize what a misery that can be.

Dad's gotta work (a letter dated one week after I was born).

Dad’s gotta work (a letter dated one week after I was born).

As I approached adolescence, I took gradual notice of what it was my father was up to. Already, he had affected great changes in the town. The old Upper Millyard, which had become a parking lot for hulking tanker trucks and construction equipment now was made up instead with a path by the river and bridges over it, tree-lined walkways, flower beds where I had crouched, grinning, not more than a toddler, for a newspaper photo as we all planted tulips and then, later in the season, marigolds. In summer, the concrete amphitheater they built hosted concerts, plays, and one summer, on my very birthday, a magic show in which I was selected to come up and volunteer to help with a trick. There was a pancake breakfast in the pines, a firemen’s muster, a downtown that struggled and vacillated between its old self (full of townie bars, an ancient hobby shop whose owners seemed to detest children) and its new self (the brief lifespans of a book shop and a soda fountain that I loved and then mourned when they did not survive.) I could not list all the people who worked on and helped with the many projects my father had underway, because I would forget some of them, and that would be no good since I know them all personally, or did. They came for my parents’ dinner parties, where I would crouch in the dark hall to listen to them all talk town politics (or gossip).

Downtown Amesbury now is a charming nest of streets and squares and parks with plenty of restaurants and little shops and places to get coffee or nice chocolates. There’s very little grit left, just a bit swept into the corners here and there. Christophe and I lived, briefly, in an apartment in a rehabilitated mill building verging on the Powwow River above the dam. We could look straight down from our window to the begging ducks. When I walk through town now, I can see the underlayment of what used to be here. It’s taken my whole lifetime for these changes to be put in place. My father spent nearly his entire professional career in civil service to this one community. It’s not glamorous work, and though he had a hand in nearly everything that’s gone on these three decades, rarely did he get the full measure of the recognition he deserved. His was not an elected position, and when he started, we still followed the Town Meeting form of governance. There were no mayoral campaigns, and the Selectmen were hardly a flashy bunch. He was caught up in politics plenty, to be sure, and he is, fundamentally, a political animal. But not having to be elected, he was more at leisure to concoct strategies and angle for plans. His job was physical, on the ground, intimate with the town and its inner workings. My sisters and I found a series of VHS tapes at home once, and settling down to view them, discovered they were footage of the sewer network below ground. Hours of grainy, gray, sloshing straightaways, turnings, and side tunnels. We called them “the sewer tapes,” and, inexplicably, watched them more than once. He might resist the analogy to the rest of his work, but it’s apt; the job required rubber boots, determination, and the courage to keep on in the dark when the future was lit with only a thin beam of light.

On a freezing wedding day, a stop in the Millyard.

On a freezing wedding day, a stop in the Millyard.

I have since moved to a town five miles from Amesbury, but the rest of my family still lives there, at least for now. I was married there, in a stone church downtown, and we had our portraits done on the bridges over the Powwow as it began to snow. I know my father sees our attachment to this town as one of the greatest marks of his legacy. We were raised there, and didn’t want to leave. I see it as larger than that still. Most of us, when our parents come to retire, don’t really understand what they did all day. What drove them, what frustrated them, what they hoped to leave behind. I didn’t really either, but I have the great good fortune to see it all around me whenever I walk through my hometown. I can see what mattered to him. He was pragmatic, diligent, and focused, but there was the dreamer in him too, all along. A part of him that hangs on to the Kennedy rhetoric, a commitment to a progressive agenda that goes beyond preservation of open space, mixed use zoning, and walkable communities, though all that mattered too. He was the Director of Community and Economic Development, and he balanced them expertly, but I know, in his heart, that it’s that first part of which he is most proud. And not only have his children elected to stay in that Community, we’ve learned, trotting along at his heels to work sites, or listening in on meetings, or reading the papers, that this is what you do–offer yourself into public service. We are all of us committed to public art, public education, global governance, conservation and an environmental ethic, town service. That’s not solely his doing, but it is a partial accounting of his work. When the last major project he’s been pushing for, the Lower Millyard rehabilitation, comes to fruition, they tell us there will be a plaque with his name on it somewhere or other. I think there should be some grand monument instead. Then I realize, there already is.

Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

Entering the Sandwich Range Wilderness.

The day after my elder son finished school for the year, we set out for a three day backpacking adventure in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. This is backcountry camping–no shelters, no designated campsites–just find a likely spot and hang the hammocks and make some supper. So we did, following the easy grade of the Dicey’s Mill trail up to the Wonalancet River for our first night. We found a length of rope tied to a tree by some previous unruly campers who had also left scorch marks on the boulders and a wide swath of burnt away vegetation. We tried to tread bit more lightly, and the boys spent a few hours messing about in the river with the rope. We kept the rope, but somehow, Malcolm misplaced his beloved fishing hat, the one that makes him look like a very prematurely retired person. Should you be hiking along Dicey’s Mill Trail and come upon such a hat, with a navy and red band, perhaps you might help it find its way home.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Recreation by the Wonalancet River.

Next day, we headed up the trail for Mount Passaconaway’s summit, but our pace was so slow (the youngest of our party being only five) that I elected to skirt the summit and take the east loop to the Walden Trail instead. We intended to camp wherever we came upon water, and the afternoon wore away as we crossed the waterless, windy ridge and then a sheltered col with a boggy stream where we stopped to snack and for me to read a few chapters of the BFG aloud. We couldn’t camp there, as it would have left us too many miles to cover the next morning when we had an appointment to keep. So we pressed on, and the trail turned into the steep, scrabbling sort of dropping down that make these mountains notorious. Staring down the umpteenth of such stretches, Simon moaned, “Mom, please can you call Mountain Rescue and they can carry me out?” “I can’t,” I told him, “even if we wanted to, my phone can’t communicate with the outside world.” “Mom,” said Malcolm, “We’re in the outside world right now. We’ve been in it since yesterday.” “Oh, yes,” I said, “The inside world then. Civilization. That’s what we can’t reach.” We saw only two other people the whole day: two young Quebecois men, speaking heavily accented English and warning us that the trail was about to get worse. That is when I admit to the feelings of dread that inevitably strike me at some point on a backcountry venture. What if I can’t get them out of here? What if we can’t walk to water before dark? What if, one of these times I am sliding down a rock face or teetering on a ledge, I fall, and crack my skull, and my children circle my insensible body for hours, howling in a literal wilderness? What if I can’t get Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” out of my head this entire trip?

The indignity of sharing a water source with one's little brother.

The indignity of sharing a water source with one’s little brother.

There was howling. There was crying. There was carrying of the younger son. And I could not shake Dreamlover. As we traversed that ridge and descended though, the dynamic between the two brothers and me came clear. When one boy was in a trough of despair, and my spirits tugging down with him, the other would announce, “But I suddenly feel a turbo boost of energy, Mom!” and indeed, Malcolm hauled himself uncomplainingly down some frightening terrain. Then, when he began complaining of blisters, Simon offered to carry his water for him. We made it to the end of the Walden Trail and turned down Old Mast Road, and I dropped my pack and applauded them and nearly cried into their hair with relief. Old Mast Road is an easy stroll, though we did not find the stream indicated on our maps and by the reports of hikers earlier in the season.

The view over to Chocorua.

The view over to Chocorua.

As evening approached, I realized we’d probably be all the way back to our car before we found water, and it was so. A clear, sand bottomed stream came into view two tenths of a mile from the trailhead. Though Malcolm wanted to camp again, I offered a consolation prize of candy and Gatorade at a gas station on the way home. And so it was decided. As we finished the last bit of the walk, Simon, in his piercing, piping voice, yelled, “Another toad!” and something big went crashing off into the underbrush. Then, a few moments later, a young, rangy black bear loped across the trail a hundred yards ahead. We stood there, watching it go, and Malcolm whispered, “In my whole life, that’s the first time I ever saw a bear.”

Would it were so for us all, that we need wait only seven years of a lifetime to see a bear, to cross a ridge with a view to Mount Washington and be alone and away from the “inside world.” I don’t know what possessed me to start coming to the Whites like this; my family never even went camping, let alone backpacking. I suppose it came upon me like the urge to travel the world comes to other people. Whatever it was, it gets more deeply rooted all the time. I still get nervous, and sometimes genuinely scared, but it’s my hope that these trips will seem so normal and routine to my sons that they will feel even more at home out there than I probably ever will, not having been reared in that sort of wildness. So we take these trips, covering six miles in almost ten hours, our progress so slow as to seem imperceptible. I shoulder loads approaching my own body weight to keep their burdens light enough. Sometimes, I long to be able to stride at my own pace, though it’s been so long since I was able to, I’m not sure what it would be. But I remember that these trips are an investment. That one day, they will be bigger than I am, and able to hike fast and carry their own provisions, and I will sometimes long for the feel of my little boy’s weight in my arms, and the stink of him in my nose, and his arms around my neck and his face buried happily against my shoulder as I stagger down the trail. Even the little miseries are fractured with joy.

Though I deplore most forms of degradation of the commons, I actually see graffiti as a positive good. There’s a time and a place, of course, and most of it is fairly insipid, but once in a while, one comes across a bit of public scrawl worth mulling.
On a drive along the Kancamangus Highway in the White Mountains last summer, we stopped at an overlook and I perused the carvings and writings on the benches there while we snacked. Here’s a favorite:


This “clamydra” sounds like nasty stuff. Though I wonder if blaming the bench is quite fair.

And another, more sobering:

These are the messages that stay with me, much like Clamydra with that unfortunate bench fornicator. More anonymous than even the anonymous internet, this person with a Sharpie is untraceable; there is no way to know when he or she came through this pass in the mountains, and whether this despair was genuine or not.

A couple weeks ago, the boys and I climbed up the Federal Hill fire tower here in New Hampshire with a small band of 4H club members. On the top platform, there were years worth of painted over carvings into the wood planks, some deep gouged enough to threaten their structural integrity. But on the metal rail, there was this blue writing with a flat lack of punctuation.

At first, it seemed like a plea to a feckless would-be suicide contemplating flinging himself off a tower that is high enough to kill, but not certain to. Then, as I looked around, at all the carved hearts and initials, profanities out of all context, homophobic slurs and poorly done drawings of penises and magic mushrooms, I saw the tower for what it is at night–the province of teenagers. Just far enough off the road not to interest adults, but with buildings and ladders that bring adolescents circling around them like moths, I began to picture instead a quiet kid, there as part of a herd of them, or only a trio, or maybe only a pair, feeling the whole weight of those social compacts coming down on her. Paralyzed by fear of ostracism, or embarrassment, she might manage to utter no words of refusal, but could scrawl them.

The next time the forest guys repaint the tower, the words will be wiped out, and that will be a loss. For far better than advice about STDs, this is a bit of advice that might serve many an adolescent gripping that rail, her back to the goings on, or the already happened, and her eyes out to the hills.

Learn the names

When I was working on the prerequisites for veterinary school, I took a night class in organic chemistry. For five hours every Tuesday night, I and the other aspiring vets or doctors or pharmacists, were led by a zany adjunct instructor who would say such things as, “Oh yes, your homework. I do have that at home. It’s under the toast.” Among his more memorable speeches was a pep talk he gave us when the class was heavy laden under the mass of information we had to assimilate. “Memorization,” he said, “is nothing to be afraid of. You do it all the time. Were you born knowing your best friend’s name? You had to memorize it, but you didn’t mind, because you like your best friend.” Of course, many of the students objected that they had no interest in the friendship of organic chemistry, but the analogy struck me then and I use it with my students now.

IMG_5526When I take my students out for hikes and wildlife surveys, they often become daunted by all the names. Some stick: red-winged blackbird, turkey tail fungus, and even some Latin names have some particular staying power (the genus name for the club mosses, Lycopodium, always resonates) but others run out of their heads like water through a sieve. The same thing still happens to me. It’s like any language; it fades as you don’t use it. Even from year to year, I have to refresh my memory as things show up, unfurl, leaf out. The key is not so much a superior memory, it’s wanting to learn the names.IMG_5530

When my semester began back in January, I had almost ninety students’ names to learn. I made my little charts, and compared them with snapshots I took on the first day. Adding a gloss of memory prompts and notes to the chart, it acquired the bizarre quality of a list of lesser characters in a demented play. “Stoner guy” “Old-timey/Victorian face” “weird elf girl” “scowler” are jotted next to the given names on my lists. The hardest ones are the passel of similar looking students. The women with long hair, skinny jeans and impassive, innocuous faces. It takes a while with them, until I’ve learned more about them, something to fix them to a name. One turns out to be a quick wit, another, nearly identical in appearance is a cheerful imbecile. Information accumulates until there is no one I would confuse with anyone else by the end of the semester. By the end, I know them by sight, by voice, by handwriting, by wardrobe, by the pitch of their back row whining or front row questioning.

It’s the same with learning the names of anything–students, birds, plants. First you know one tenuous fact, then two, then a suite of things that make you recognize the thing. You know your best friend not only by name, but by voice, by gait, by silhouette, by laugh. It becomes not any kind of work to remember. Two plants that seemed frustratingly similar at first differentiate in quality of green, height, or by the disparate seasons when they sprout. You learn the names in their context and by their relations. Once you know them for good, you’d know them anywhere.

It doesn’t feel like memorizing to learn the name of a friend, but it is. To learn all the names in the woods or in the meadows, it’s just the same. It’s only a matter of broadening what we consider friends.

This year, my marathon Monday began exactly the same as last year: pack our lunches and books, watch the series of starts from mobility impaired through the elite men and first wave, and then head to the train station for the first leg of the journey. As with last year, my husband had left well before to get to the shuttle bus that would take him to his start in Hopkinton hours later. I wouldn’t see him until he passed us on the course somewhere in the latter miles.

As I pulled into the parking lot at the train station, Space Oddity played on the radio, and suddenly, tears were running down my cheeks. Only the briefest moment, and the strangest prompt–a song about an astronaut lost in the abyss of space–but the lyrics would stay with me all through the day. I hummed the song over and over, first the cheery bits, “This is ground control to Major Tom, you’ve really made the grade. And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear…” but then always the part when things go wrong too. It fast became the soundtrack to the things I remembered over and over–the police officer who told us to “just go home. People got blown up in there,” the sudden flood of texts and phone calls coming in to my phone, my uncertainty about where Christophe might be, and where the bombs. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” over and over.

The train ride on Monday was just the same as last year, down to our sandwiches and the appearance of the cheerful man with developmental delays who patrols the cars each year, yelling out, “Going to Boston! Patriots’ Day! Some people want to see the marathon…Some people want to see the Red Sox…”

Last year was the first time I ever went to the marathon, though all my life I’ve watched it on tv every year. Last year was the first time my husband ever ran a marathon, or at least, he tried to. He had to turn back two miles before the finish line. Last year was the first time my sons ever saw me genuinely scared.

1464601_10152341004626462_8483145491376094191_nAfter last year’s marathon, there was the chaos that reigned around Boston for a few days, and then the fatigue, and the sadness. There were so many people who wanted to know what they could do to help us, but we hadn’t been physically harmed and hadn’t witnessed any of the worst of it either. We just went back to work, Christophe quietly picked up his finisher’s medal in the city a few days later, and our older son had nightmares for a few weeks. There was noise swirling all around us–calls for justice, cries of mourning, rousing renditions of the national anthem at a Bruins game–but I felt like the world had gone quiet the moment I stood by the side of the road between mile markers 21 and 22 and heard the news that there’d been a bombing. My whole body stoppered up, I began walking the boys against the flow of the crowd toward the city, the way their father had run twenty minutes before. So far out, we heard no sirens, and as the streets emptied and a low cloud ceiling moved in casting everything in gray, we stood our vigil by the medical station.

It seemed like that quiet that fell, that muffled woolen isolation that enveloped me while I waited for Christophe, stayed with me the whole year. He had decided to give the race another try, so the winter hours were consumed with his long absences for training runs, and my long hours home with the boys. The public clamor began in earnest a couple weeks before this year’s race and built through the one year anniversary memorials up to race day itself while I withdrew from it steadily. The marathon had never really left us, after all, and now, it was only the rest of the world’s attention turning back to us.

After our subway ride, we came up the steps onto the street into full daylight and a cacophony of sound. Taking up our position at mile 23, I began yelling for the runners, and all that freighted memory evaporated. I cheered myself hoarse. I cheered until waves of nausea choked me. I called out every name I could read emblazoned on a shirt or numbered bib. All the Michaels, the Sarahs, the Kates and Katies, and Vivek, and Paco, Paola and Akash, and Koji, carrying two tiny flags, one American, one Japanese, and a lumbering Asian man who slid me a glance and wide smile when I called out “Dong Dong!” which he had markered across his chest. There were the given names and the chosen names, the joke names and the serious names. I called out for V-Money and Nudey and Tranny. I called them by whatever true name they had chosen for us to call out, hoping it might summon them back from themselves in those hard middle miles.

As the hours went by, the runners graded from sinewed speedsters to the slower sorts, and finally, to the halt and the lame. But the crowds don’t diminish, not in spirit or in numbers. When a man stopped and bowed down, hands on his knees, his face a rictus of pain, the gathered spectators on both sides of the street raised a roar so loud it seemed to hit him physically. When he straightened and began limping down the course again, our cry of triumph set him laughing as he went, though the pain was, undoubtedly, undiminished.

A runner in orange came to high five our knot of screaming strangers and said, “I love all of you guys! Thank you!” Runners hearing me call their names sometimes seemed to jerk awake, and would smile, or flash a peace sign, or maybe muster only a nod. But we were doing, together, what defines this race and gives it its legend. We were staying to lift up, to ferry onward, to praise and to celebrate even the slowest among them. After Christophe ran past us, I knew we wouldn’t get to the finish line to see him cross, but I also knew he was heading into a gauntlet many rows of people deep who would bear him over that line with the sheer force of their will, and he would cross with our tribe of runners, who would bodily carry him, if it came to that. I was not afraid for him, this second time watching his back recede toward the finish line.

10264274_10152341004251462_3367539835904041648_nThe race had been reclaimed and restored to its rightful possessors–the runners, and the strangers who see them through. Last year’s race was fractured at its end. Runners couldn’t finish, were set adrift in the streets. Those cheering throngs who would see them through were splintered apart, body and soul. It was an extraordinary and a terrible thing. But by the end of this year’s race, though there are still the unhealable wounds, the race itself, the organism that is a ribbon of runners stretching thousands deep, and the flanking ribbons of all of us there to see them run, to bear them up, was alive again, and it was only the marathon once again. It was only the ordinary marathon: thousands of people helping thousands of other people do only the ordinary, extraordinary thing.



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