Monday, September 19, 2011

Nothing Wasted




From the age of ten until college, I spent two weeks every summer at a fishing lodge with several similarly aged cousins and family friends, all dropped off by our fathers to the chaperoning of a middle aged widow. The widow was a semi-retired college professor, whose husband had died just after my first summer there.  Her father originally owned the land and had built a large but rustic lodge between the lake and the cold river that ran on the other side of the hill.  When she had inherited it as a young graduate student in the 1960’s, the lodge was a revenue-generating fishing club, sought after for its rainbow and brook trout who naively gulped the flies presented to them.  She stayed there every summer and henned over the small local lodge staff who tended to the guests.  When we arrived, all but one of the lodge employees were sent away, and she did the cooking and caring for us herself.

The widow/hostess’s late husband Charlie was a professor of engineering of some kind, and he had prospered by holding patents on some complicated weaponry-related technologies.  He was about twenty years older than her, and she never fell out of love with him, even long after he had died.  During the winter, she lived in Boston, in a large townhouse on a fashionable street, purchased for something like seventy five thousand dollars decades ago, where she sat in her large study and wrote her papers and refined her research for publication.

Everything about her was sharpened.  She was handsome in the way a predatory bird was with sharp eyes, statuesque build, wavy blond hair cut in a bob, and tall slender limbs, almost wiry, that occasionally revealed spear-point elbows and knees.  She never formally exercised, but she was always lean and tautly drawn, with an intimidating gaze from perpetually serious blue eyes.

We would arrive each summer and be sent to “the dorm”: a room full of ancient bunks and a small wood stove where we would live for two weeks.  We were up at four thirty or five every morning, at the rousing of our hostess. Hot chocolate or tea was offered to the groggy boys (coffee when we were older) and we were sent out fishing (with a teenaged “guide” when we were younger than 14) until seven o’clock, when a full breakfast was served back at the lodge.  Our hostess prepared and served all the meals with the help of one young lady who drove in from the neighboring town each day at seven, and we were expected to wash the dishes.  On Thursday and Sunday, we had to wear a coat and tie to dinner, and she would require us to say grace before each meal (though she was actually an atheist).  She served hot roasts with potatoes, and light vinegar salads for dinner.  Lunches were packed for everyone, and nearly always consisted of sandwiches made with the cold meat of the previous evening’s dinner, like cold roast beef on buttered bread with lettuce and thin tomato slices.

She was strict and cold, and she spoke sharply and briskly, even in the early hours.  She smoked two cigarettes per day: one at five in the afternoon and another after dinner.  She only wore navy blue sweaters in thick wool and small-waisted but sturdy and conservative skirts.  When it was hot, she wore khaki shorts. 

One afternoon as we fished from our various canoes on the far side of the lake, a summer storm caught us, and we tried to make for the shore to beach the boats and wait it out.  Out of the rain and wind appeared a Boston Whaler, driven by our hostess in her dark green rubber rain coat and black sou’wester.  We lashed the canoes in a train and she towed us back through the violent-but-short storm, like Mother Goose with her goslings.

During one summer at the end of our stay, she gathered us together in the front room by the hearth and told us that she would not be returning the next year.  Her writing and research would require more of her time and she would remain in Boston.  We all looked down.  She said that Sarah would be taking over the Lodge duties and that all of the usual member-groups would still be booked for as many years as they wanted.  We knew that that we had just had our last summer there. 

“I want you all to know that I’m proud of each one of you.  You’ve turned into nice young men, and I’ve adored watching you grow up.  I always thought of you as my family somehow, and I love all of you.” 
We were stunned by the tenderness of her admission, delivered in her typical untender tone.  She brought us all into her small office and gave each of us something that belonged to either her husband or her father.  Among other things, there was a small old camera, some binoculars in a leather case, a collection of briarwood pipes, a compass, a leather billfold for holding flies and tippets, and some beautiful brass candle lanterns.  I was given two pipes and a fly reel and a silver stop watch.

Ten years later, when I was in my twenties, my father called from Florida to tell me that I would have to attend a reception in his stead as he was unable to fly back for it.  I put on my blazer and tie and made my way over to the campus on the subway.  The school was dedicating a research grant to Charlie, endowed by his widow.  When I saw her, my stomach tightened unexpectedly, partly from nostalgia and love, but mostly because she looked frail and weak and much older than the seventy or so years that she was.

She smiled when she saw me, and said “Your father told me you were coming.  I’m sorry that he couldn’t make it.  You’re looking well.”

“You too.” I said unconvincingly and trying to keep it together.  Her hair was still cut the same way, but it was white, and though she moved slowly, her voice and flickering eyes were still sharp.
She kept me next to her for the whole evening, literally leaning on my arm for stability and refusing to sit when I’d offer.  At the end of the reception, her Haitian nurse appeared and helped her to her car.  The nurse casually mentioned the advanced breast cancer that had spread, as if I had already known about it.  Typical.  The old gal was too stubborn and beak-sharpened to tell us she was dying. 

I visited her a few months later at her home and she was unable to talk at all.  A month after that she was gone.

Her nurse was at the service, and told us that our hostess had kept a photo album of “her boys” next to her as her treatment-battered body failed.  It had been compiled over years, and had photos of us from each summer and photos that our parents had sent during each school year.  We were also told that she had wanted to see us all during her cancer battle but had been too embarrassed of her “undignified” state and her homecare.  Very typical.  Her service had one (and likely only) distant relative attend.  Charlie was her family first and foremost, and after it was too late, we realized that we were too.  We had always thought that she was annoyed by us.  I recently asked my father how much he paid every year for us to go to the lodge.  He candidly told me that she requested a check from each family for $35 at the end of the summer... a little over $2 per day.  I called my uncle a week ago to verify this, and he said "The old goat would ask for a check from us, and in all the years we sent you boys there, she never cashed a single one ever.  But every year we sent one."

--

Spreading her ashes at the lodge was probably against her wishes, as she was always unsentimental about herself.  At the slightest hint of attention or care towards her (especially admissions of vulnerability) she would clip the conversation dead.  We put her remains under the cedar tree and smoked Charlie’s pipes while we tearfully sang a hymn she somehow loved.  As we headed to the car, my short-tempered cousin suddenly ran to the front door where the brass bell hung and twisted the clapper free, hurling it into the lake inexplicably.  Somehow we understood.



Every autumn, two or three of us go to the campus to present the small research grants to promising young geeks who could use a boost doing all of the engineering magic that I can’t even pretend to comprehend.  We wear Charlie’s bow-ties that she gave us… a little too thin and a little too 1950’s… but we wear them.  We all have good eyes, but we secretly wish that we needed glasses just to go with the suits and the tweed... the way Charlie did, and the way that only a few souls in academia still do.
Whisky or Brandy afterwards at a local college bar, though we skip the cigarettes, and when it rains, we buy drinks (anonymously) for any gal who strolls in with an unfashionable-but-practical sou'wester.

14 comments:

  1. A beautiful and heartfelt story. She sounds like someone straight out of Cheever. I see her played by Frances Sternhagen.

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  2. She was merciless during dissertation defense and made another professor cry during a panel presentation. When Deb gave birht to our twins she sent us two very heavy dictionaries as baby gifts. We always called her The Hornet.

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  3. *Sartre: I just looked up Frances Sternhagen. It's close, but Sternhagen is smiling in all of the photos I saw. Look up Helen Mirren in Gosford Park.

    *Anon: No doubt the inscription said something like "You'll likely never use these..."

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  4. Well, I didn’t finish this with a dry eye! You paint quite a vivid picture of a most unique sounding person. In my youth, I spent some summers working at a friend’s hunting and fishing lodge in northern Maine, where the view from the bar was of Katahdin, moose and loons, so what you describe feels very familiar. It sounds like such a visceral and lasting experience. And that is a lovely pipe.

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  5. A very vivid and poignant remembrance. The widow sounds a bit like my grandmother. Prickly people are sometimes hard to love, but they are impossible to forget. What a beautiful legacy your friend left. I really needed a good cry - thank you.

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  6. What a lovely post. Thanks for sharing those memories.

    Best regards,

    JRC

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  7. What a poignant story. You may have realized too late that you were her family, but sounds like she always knew.

    Btw, I have a sou'wester and I think it's very fashionable!

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  8. And that is why I am proud of my New England heritage. Somehow, I feel; that if the world had more people like her, we would be a whole lot better off.

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  9. Some of the best prose I have read in quite a while....damn fine post. Thank you.

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  10. I've been waiting to comment, hoping I'd come up with something appropriate. I've decided that "Thank you" is the best.

    jkg

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  11. The "unlovable crow" was a favorite. BTW, I'm not "short tempered". Reading through this reminded me to unearth some of the old letters. She was a case but I loved her.

    -CP

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  12. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute. Your blog and Muffy's have restored my faith that there are still a few "Real People" left in the world, and I am inspired by your example. Your writing and pictures are wonderful!

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  13. Nick in RotherhitheApril 28, 2012 at 6:14 AM

    I stumbled upon this lovely story thanks to a small chain of blog links. You are a very talented writer, and this is an affecting tale. Thank you very much.

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