November

2016

In the weeks after the election, George felt at loose ends, like a person who has set a task for themselves and forgotten it.  There was a sense that he had unfinished business to attend.  In the manners and the eyes of his friends, he saw a similarly implacable restlessness.

He swept the grass with the rake on a warm Thursday in mid-November; after the late frost the trees let loose the rest of their leaves and he set to work again.  Still the winds that beckoned December brought more organic litter to the grass.  He started to put on his boots one Sunday afternoon to go out once more for raking.  Instead, he let the leather and laces slip through his fingers.  The heel made a dull thud on the floor and he stared at his socked foot too long.

He began to see the problem at last.  In putting all his hope into one outcome, he had reserved nothing to buoy him in the event of disappointment.  Despite a certain degree of intellectual wariness, in his heart he had been certain.  And that certainty had been ripped away; like a thing ingrown it had taken some heart flesh with it.  Although it made him want to laugh at himself to admit it, he discovered that he was in mourning.

Election years had always been fraught with anxiety.  This one was heartbreaking. 2000. 2004. Yet some had ended with a sense of joy. He would never forget watching a young black family take to the stage in a freezing Chicago park; a warm blaze of red against black on the stomach of a future first lady; a halo of light behind a pair of pronounced ears; the rich manly voice ringing out into the night, promising brighter days ahead.  The camera cut away to tears glistening in the eyes of people uplifted by hope.

 


2004

He didn’t want to call his mother to talk about politics.  It was something they hadn’t agreed on since he was a child with no perspective of his own.  Still he wanted to give her a chance to change her mind.

She answered on the second ring.

“Oh hi, honey.”

“Hi.”

They chatted about nothing memorable for a moment.  George took a deep breath and launched into it.  “Mom, I want to talk about the election and I want you to hear me out.”

“George…”

He had prepared a speech.

“I just don’t understand why you think they are your party.  You are a lower middle class woman and they don’t give a shit about your rights.  All they care about it tax breaks for the rich.”

“Now that is not true.”

“What have they ever done for you?”

“Despite what you think, I am not a party loyalist. I voted for Kennedy.”

He had never heard this before and he doubted it instantly.  After a breath, he said, “Well, I’m asking you not to vote for this man.”

“I’ll vote for whomever I damned well choose.”

“You don’t care that he targets gay people like your own son?”

“He does not.”

“Yes he does, Mom.  He’s using people not wanting us to marry to get votes from the religious right.”

“Well, honey, a lot of people aren’t for gay people marrying. It’s a religious institution.”

He knew then that she was not going to change her vote.  Not even an appeal to her to stand with him would pull her away from the party that she called her own.  If blood was thicker than water, than ballot ink was as viscous as cooling lead.

She broke the silence.

“I’ll think about it, honey. Okay?  Now are you and Ray coming to Thanksgiving this year? We miss you.”

“I’ll think about it.”

He heard her sign as he dropped the phone into its cradle.

 


1996

They had only been dating for a few months when election day suddenly was upon them. When Ray wasn’t in school and when George wasn’t at work, the two of them were living each hour of each day as one seamless and unending date.  They drove through all the little towns in the valley, walking through junk shops and eating in little pubs.  Heavy sandwiches, dark brown beer.

They found hidden areas in the woods and made love under a canopy of trees that was bright green when they first discovered one another.  The tent was bones and blue heaven and a few stray leaves when November found them huddled against an ancient oak, watching the distant sparkle of afternoon light on the river.  Their breathing was growing soft again when George said they would need to hurry back to the car if they would get to the polls in time.  He wasn’t entirely sure of when voting ended, but he knew he didn’t want to miss it.

The last time the president had been chosen, he’d been on the other side of the political gulf and he needed this vote to express his own personal journey.  It meant less to Ray, who was less certain about politics.  They’d learned not to discuss abortion; protective of their shared peace, they sheltered themselves from disputes.

They took a scenic route across the county for George to vote in an old school-house where his family had voted for decades.  After he cast his ballot, he took an ‘I Voted’ sticker from an old woman wearing a cream cardigan over a flowered dress.  It took a few tries to get it to affix to his thin jacket and he was still pressing it when he climbed back into the beat-up Dodge Omni.  Ray was looking thoughtful.

“Do you think we have time to get to West Virginia so I can vote, too?”

They had been living together in Virginia for a few months, but Ray was still registered in his home state.  The question filled George with excitement.

“Let’s try,” he said.

While they drove through the three counties that separated their polling places, the sky darkened to a smoky violet.  George felt himself getting anxious.  They should have spent less time in shops and at the pub earlier in the day; less time making love in the woods on the side of the road.  When he glanced over at Ray, he saw his lover wearing a tense expression unfamiliar to his typically jovial countenance.  As another town receded in the rearview mirror, George pressed the car to go faster.

They had just crossed the state line when Ray said, “Wait. I think they changed the location.”

“Would your mom know?”

“Yeah.”

George watched for a phone booth as they climbed up into the mountains.  Finally they saw one in a yellow fluorescent glow up ahead.  George pulled nettles out of his sweater sleeve while Ray stood in the golden nimbus, leaning into the phone as a wind kicked up, scattering rusty leaves into the dusk.

As they got back into the car, Ray said, “They did move it but I think I know where my mom meant. It was a little hard to hear because her damned scanner was going off in the background.”

Noticing George shiver as he fitted the key into the ignition, he said, “You could have stayed in the car.”

“You looked cold.”

Ray reached out and gave his hand a squeeze as they pulled back onto the road.

“Are we headed in the right direction?”

“We need to get onto 29 when we come to it,” Ray said.

They turned on the radio to listen to NPR.

“…with only ten minutes until the polls close in West Virginia,” the announcer was saying.

Gunning the engine, they found the junction to 29.

It was hard to find the polling place.  Twice they passed it and when at last they pulled into the lot, the absence of any line and the presence of only a single car made them suspect they were too late.  Ray clambered out and George watched him talk to an old guy who was standing at the doorway of the fire hall, wearing a hat lettered with VFW.  Ray’s shoulders drooped as he walked forward into the headlights.

George was jealous of their happiness – he didn’t want them to feel glum.

As they nosed back onto the road, he said, “Well, we tried.”

“Yes, we did.”

“We should go back to the house and make some soup. That would be cozy.”

It didn’t take them long to shake off their disappointment. At least they each did a good job of finding things to talk about and to laugh about.  George’s ears popped at they descended into Virginia; he couldn’t remember if they’d gone funny on the way up into the mountains.  They moved softly into the night, the cold and glistening world outside of the vehicle vast and mysterious.

Time would ink the map of their future, but there would always be something left uncharted. It was both a terror and a comfort were they to ponder it, but all they wanted just then was to get home.  And they were thinking about ingredients: potatoes, celery, carrots, cream, salt, pepper, flour, stock.

Dear Dad

 

I went with Ed to put flowers on your grave today. Two roses from the bushes we just planted. One for me and one for Ed. I thought you’d like that, something simple and beautiful earned by hard work. You showed me that in spades.
I thought about you the other day in a particular way I had not before. I thought about how you found a second passion, later in life, when you went into real estate. It was something you’d wanted to do when you were younger. You patiently met your retirement goals with NIH and then you started again, a new life in a sense. And just as you might have the first time around, you had to build from scratch, take risks, be patient, make mistakes, try again. I thought about how maybe it was hard on you waiting that long to start over again. How it must have been so tiring to your spirit.
But then, I wasn’t with you at the NIH job every day. Maybe you had a couple of work pals to cut up with; maybe you took pride in completing projects. Maybe that fed you enough, especially with dreams and future plans to mull over on the long ride home and the ride back.
I was trying to think of which of the flowers we planted to take to you. I thought of the snap dragons and then I wondered if there was metaphor lurking there. I decided not, but it did give me pause, remembering how your eyes glowed red all my childhood, abused as they were by paper work, long hours and – your constant companion – bitter allergies. You seemed tired to me so much, impatient and gruff and hard to please in the years I was little and wanting to please the most. By the time your circumstances, your mellowing age and perhaps a shift in values made you over gentler, I had become the hard one. A young man bent on his own goals, making perfunctory dinner plans, feeling I was doing my duty, thinking somewhere deep that one day it would even out. We’d meet in the middle.
In many ways, we did grow closer. I know you loved me and I know you knew I loved you. The last year of your life, when we thought you’d fooled your cancer, I found often that I had hit a button on my phone by accident. I’d look down and see your name on the screen. For a second, I’d wonder had you called me or had I called you. Caught off guard, distracted, I would give the least of myself to a quick conversation, laughing shortly that I had called by accident. I’d ask how you were and you always answered honestly, humbly, and with thought. You’d ask how I was doing. I would say fine, that work was busy, that all was normal at home.
me and dad at wedding reception
Recently I had a client who wanted some help developing a business plan. It isn’t my expertise, but I felt like I could offer something. Like you, I’m not without ideas, not without a solid sense of logistics. I worked with a friend to help me. It came out good. Then the client’s realtor started acting cagey toward them and I wanted to ask you for advice. It hurt me so much that I couldn’t make that call. Not because of business, but because it was another reminder that all that I could make of us, I had done – in youth, arrogance, unforgiving just a little bit, cautious a mite.
I made peace with the harsher memories of being the different child in the family, the one judged for it, when I was younger. In the years that followed, you showed the kindness and the love that I wish had always been between us. And I was thankful for it. But I was also unsure of it. I stood to the side of it, giving back a lukewarm version of the same. I think time, my own age and humility, would have helped with the knitting you were casting.
I wish you had lived to be old – very old – to have felt strong and manly and capable as long as possible. It would have been great to get to be old enough in my own skin to have met you fully in the middle. It is a regret, painful to be sure, but one that I want to put to bed. It isn’t fair to think I could have done more. I did what I knew to do in those days and hours in which we were both here.
Now, in the aftermath of your death, I have been changed. I have never been short of empathy and compassion, but I now want to show some of that to myself, that I can avoid the snap dragon years. I am a sourpuss at times, eyes red like your own, tired more than my age. I would have what you found later now. I have been trying to feel more patience toward other people. I’ve been trying to let things bother me less. I cursed the garden hose this morning, fowl and guttural, and perhaps battling to become so saintly as to overcome pique at tricky, dumb things about the house is asking too much. I only want to make more room for pleasures, to ask myself if my impatience in a moment would be replaced with calm. One gentle lesson at a time, to retire bad habits of spirit early or as early as possible. I miss you, old man, in more ways than any one letter can cover. Know that I love you, miss you, and wish we could have had more of time and talk.
In the spirit of you, I am happy to set a goal of more life, love, freedom and joy in myself – a little spell to cast, pulling myself out of shadows, delusions of age, finding the sun again, the light and optimism that youth cannot help but hold easily. We who are ripening know something about optimism that youth sometimes misses: it takes tending, I’m grateful to know. You set a fine example.
All my love, your son, Paul