Ellen Herrick

Journey’s End

In Uncategorized on June 5, 2012 at 3:26 pm

When my children had grown past the ‘distract them in their carseats stage’ I still found myself pointing out firetrucks and ‘cowies’ along the road.  When they no longer needed things like dollies or cozy sleepers or Legos or squeaky, rattly, build-y toys I still paused at the ads for Toys R Us or Baby Gap.  I linger, now and then, over the glossy pictures of American Dolls and read with interest the reviews of picture books and even middle grade fiction.  We all know that I am a hopeless Young Adult fiction reader even now.


It is the same with my father since a massive stroke put him into the hospital, then rehab and now death. As I waited for the end I took breaks in the hospital lobby reading the posters that recommended personal alert buttons and foldable walkers, cautioned about the three signs of a stroke, suggested assisted living arrangements for the ageing parent.  Of course, it was too late for any of those considerations.  Still, I would have a momentary flash and think, “Right, that might work for Daddy when he’s stronger.”  But, he would’t get stronger and even though he was 87, it was hard to squeeze his hand without the answering crush he always gave me.  My sister and I sat by him in the last three days of his life.  We talked with him though he couldn’t answer, we laughed at our memories and ourselves, we cried a little.  Actually, Liza cried and I sat and patted.  I am not a cryer, we’ve established that.  I’m a doer.  As Liza smoothed his covers and caressed his arm, I tidied the cups and water bottles, straightened the stack of our extra underclothes, hand sanitizer, travel-sized toothpaste Daddy would never need. Finally, I crawled up on the bed to put my ear against his chest and listened to his improbably strong heartbeat.

As I observed at least a year ago, it would be sad when Daddy–a man of advanced age and full life–died.  Sad but not tragic.  That seems harsh, but I was right.  What was tragic was his reduction, his failing inch by painful inch over the last six weeks.  There was nothing unique or heroic or special about my father’s illness and death.  We none of us get out of here alive and we all will, if we are very lucky, escort our parents from one life into another.  In fact, as scattered and tired and wrecked as Liza and I were, it was all just as it should be, if not how or when we might have wanted it to be.  We were exactly where we should be, doing exactly what we should be doing; making certain the circle was unbroken.  All the nights Daddy sat up with us, vaporizers cutting through croup, holding our hands tight so we didn’t scratch our chicken pox, rubbing our backs and playing quiet games to distract us from a fever or soothe us out of a nightmare–that’s what Liza and I were doing in the last days.  Cool washcloth on his head, pillows just so, whispering to each other as if we might wake him.

So now, or at least until I need help finding my way, I am no longer someone’s child to be guided carefully along.  I am only a parent and a wife and a sister.  When my mother died 22 years ago, the overwhelming feeling was of homesickness, all the while knowing I could never go home again, not really.  With Daddy’s death there is no longer anyone to help us remember home, our early childhood tales, translate the scars into stories. There is no one to say “When you were three you fell over and got a rock stuck in your forehead,” or “In 1964 Liza was Peter Pan, you were Tinker Bell for Halloween,” or “This is how you make a proper devilled egg.”  And that is sad, but it is not tragic because, after all, we have stories to tell, too.

Safe as Houses

In Autumn, family, first love, heart break, homesick, melancholy, mother on December 9, 2011 at 8:11 am

I am lost.  It’s as if I am a sleepwalker woken up in another room.  Even the face of my waker is a stranger to me.  Nothing is where I left it; my books closed and unread, abandoned in piles at my bedside.  This Autumn, a season of such unexpected warmth and sunshine, has left me in darkness.  I am constantly cold.  Some days I leave my coat on until my daughter comes home from school. I tear it off and shove it into the closet when I hear her footstep at the front door.  I bake and I cook but I don’t eat.  While my family swirls in and out of this little house I am left standing at a center that I cannot hold.  But, I am trying, so very hard.  For the first time I am so separate from my children that sometimes I don’t even say goodnight to my daughter, embarrassed that at 8:30 I can’t keep my head up anymore.  She is in her room, chatting, working, singing Christmas carols in a high, sweet soprano, and I am in mine, a single lamp puddling light on a book that won’t be read. I am homesick and I can’t go home.

There is the before, and then there is the after: when I broke up with my high school boyfriend and fell in love with my husband, very nearly 33 years ago, when I had my first child, when my mother died over twenty years ago, when we moved to London, when we moved back.  These are all befores and afters that were, each in there own way, a rupture and a re-sealing. And, in the rupture there was a time of fear and unsteadinesss.  In the re-sealing a time of gathering in and then reaching out for a new kind of life.  There was a loss and then, somehow, a gift: something so entirely new and different that all you could do was open your arms wide and grab at it.  Now, my hands are fisted and cold, my arms constantly wrapped around me, my back bowed.

Look, this will pass, too.  This will be the space between the before and after.  I will figure out how to find my way again.  As my friend in London says “no one died.” And she can say that because her before and after frames deaths so wrenching that any after she has is so hard-won as to be positively heroic.  For me, no one died.  No one is ill.  No one is in terrible trouble, not really.  But here’s the thing, I cannot help longing for something that I have already had.  I’m lucky, you see.  I was once safe and whole and lived in a house that rang with laughter.   I know what it feels like to be absolutely certain (smug, perhaps) that, barring hell or high water, my life is rounded out by love and care.  After all, Cabana Boy was there to make sure we were settled in, safe as houses.  Sure, I miss the babies I once had (although my 23-year-old had to be collected in his pyjamas just this week to be taken to the doctor, so consumed with flu and fever I saw a tear stain his cheek), I watch the summers slide by too quickly, I remember the Christmases when Santa left his footprints in the flour scattered under the chimney.  These are all markers in a good and full life.  No, this time I miss me.  It is myself that has, I guess at least for now, moved out.  I will find that forwarding address and track myself down.  I will convince me that although things will never be as they were, (this is my after, after all), they will be OK, just different.

I have a friend who always tells me “It will all be OK in the end.  If it isn’t OK, it’s not the end.”  I am waiting for the end.

The End is Nigh

In Autumn, Cape Cod, children, cyclical, family, flowers, grateful, home, melancholy, Summer on August 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

kid gloves

It is a fact that I tend toward melancholy.  This is not to be confused with having a sentimental streak.  THAT I do not.  At our recent yard sale—which nearly killed me and several of the shoppers—I all but threw merchandize (including vintage linen and quilts, 60-year old, pristine kid gloves, silver plate whiskey sour muddlers and a set of library steps) at the milling crowd.  “Take it,” I screamed, “Just get it out of here!”  When a particularly creepy man asked us if there was more to see inside the house I almost told him “Yes, just go in there and strip the joint!”

Anybody want an eiderdown?

Right, where was I?  Oh yes, melancholy.  That’s me.  This is my time of year, then.  I see the dark at the edges of the light, September whispering down August’s neck and I have a frisson of pleasure.  As much as I love summer; the sun, the sea, the surf, the sand, the laundry, the care and feeding of hundreds (no, really, hundreds) of kids and adults (Oh fine, I’ve kind of hit the wall on the care and feeding part), I am glad that I wake a bit later as the sun rises.  I am secretly thrilled as I stand on the porch and hug my shoulders in the chill.  I am also terrifically sad.

Last of the Last

The roses are gone, all but a few “volunteers” who poke up bravely, the Shasta daisies are beheaded, the cosmos ratty, the zinnias leggy and the blackberries all but eaten up by man and beast.  The petunias (God, I hate petunias) are limp and slimy and the tomatoes have gone hyperabundant so that when I go to the gym I sneak a bagful onto the reception counter.

Killer Tomatoes

The crickets are singing instead of the tree peepers and the beach has emptied out.  My sons are back at work and college, my daughter is dreaming of #2 pencils and pink pearl erasers.  “Can I get a new backpack?” has replaced “Do we have any surfboard wax?”  The shift is absolutely tangible and even the crows have given up their morning meetings on the lawn.

I have always lived at the sharp corner of bitter and sweet.  I look at a flower in full bloom and can already feel its death.   Even as I pick the nearly translucent lettuce leaves of my third crop, pinch off enough basil to dress the tomatoes, I am mourning their end.   In the positively electric glow of pink and orange and velvety deep purple dahlias I see the mold at their roots.

Dahlias, darling

I am inordinately fond of dahlias although they are just one of my favorite flowers.  Peonies, sweet peas, privet, lilac and roses are all in that list.  It is not lost on me that each of these is terribly fragile in their natures.  Their season is brutally short; their blossoms last a matter of days at best.  And, while their colors can be vivid, eye-catching, shocking almost, there is something particularly pleasing about the soft wash of pink and, pale yellow or lavender that marks the earliest flowers.  The scent of a new rose ranges from lemon to peach to your mother’s dressing table—provided your mother is Blanche Dubois, as mine often was.  The smell of a cultivated sweet pea catches cloyingly in your throat.  That of a wild one flies over the rock walls and tumbling dunes in a whisper-soft touch of clear water and tea.  Privet is sharp and sweet at the same moment and will forever remind me of the early days of childhood summer: biking down to the beach, brushing against a hedge and dodging the bees who got to the flowers first.  Dahlias, for their part, have no particular scent although when you cut the stem with a satisfyingly celery-like crunch, there is a whiff of tomato blossom.  And as for peonies and lilac, I can be overtaken by an almost Victorian swoon at first sniff.  I have an uncanny ability to recall these scents and more in my head so that in deepest winter I am able to reassure myself that summer will come again.  I suppose that gift is in part why I’m a good cook (pat to back); I am able to think of ingredients and mix them in my head until I can smell the aroma and very nearly taste the dish itself.

Memory is tied to melancholy, I think.  Whatever your trigger: sound, scent, sight, it is almost impossible to remember without the hint of loss.  After all, what’s remembered is, in fact, gone.  Still, I find comfort in melancholy.  I remember gazing in exhausted wonder at my infant children and mentally preparing for the day they would dismiss me.  And they have, naturally.

Outer Beach

I watch the summer sky and picture the ladder of clouds that will stack up over the ocean in the fall.  The smell of gin and tonic not only recalls July evenings on the lawn but June afternoons in England.  Both send a trembling sadness through me because both are done.

Striped Bass

Striped Bass

Hey, let’s not get all maudlin (or madeleine since we’re on the subject of remembrance), and let me tell you, I do not for a moment feel sorry for myself or indulge in navel gazing (mostly because I have no desire to locate my navel these days).  It’s just that I seem to practice a kind of brinkmanship when it comes to happiness.  I just can’t quite ‘forget your troubles, come on get happy’ unless I am teetering on the edge of sad.  It’s a kind of compare and contrast exercise.  Any trouble, or to be more accurate because I am terribly lucky (knock wood), my tendency to see the shadow that defines the light, does in fact make beauty more intense.  My children seem more crisply outlined as they walk away, my garden both heavy and weightless in the sun, the striped bass magnificent and tragic as it heads for my table (or the back of the Jeep in this case).  I will feel the same in October as the sharp poke of winter nudges at me, the day after Christmas when all the wrapping, the stockings, the snow, the tree itself look tawdry as a streetwalker in daylight.  In June I’ll cluck my tongue when the sweet peas give way to the clematis and the leaves on the dogwoods go from a translucent green to a dusty olive.

The Boards

For now, I will breathe deep of the sharp, acrid scent of marigolds, sweep away the drift of pollen beneath the sunflowers on my table, tuck a last basil plant into the raised bed.  I will begin the march toward fall by packing up the unopened box of sea salt, putting the butter in the freezer, gathering the stray clothes pegs from the lawn, putting the boys’ bathing suits away and everyone’s surfboards in the barn.  Each of these steps, rituals if you will, is right and proper and signal that I am about to cross the border from season to season.

The Inlet

I do not feel cheated of a single moment and yet, there it is, the twinge of regret, the slight hitch in my step as I give one last look at the receding shoreline of summer.