Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Many travels to side chapels over this time period. Bill followed the dark line to a chapel dedicated to the angel of death; Tom and Roxann toured lands once loved by Druids, Arthur, and, probably, even a few Roman soldiers and government officials, while Kate, Joseph, and I traversed, again, the world’s granary, stopping only when we came to the great westward barrier, the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, within which Jon and Jen wed under a hot sun a full mile closer to us and mediated therefore, through less protection.
Death is a pilgrimage unique to each of us, yet, common, too. Since none escape the question is not whether, but when. This morning I got an e-mail from Mary, now back in Singapore, advising of the death of Tony Collier, my stepmother Rosemary’s son the same age as my brother Mark, and the original reason Dad married Rosemary. Now, Dad, Rosemary, and Tony are all dead; Mark lives. Death creates these strange lacunae in our lives, places once filled by vital presences, now replaced by vital absence.
It is true, as the Greeks knew, that we certainly live as long as our memory survives. Thus, the place of honor in ancient Greece of the poet, the one who could sing the deeds of your life long after death.
At Jon and Jen’s wedding they lit a candle to serve as the presence of Jen’s father, Henry Bandel, who committed suicide five years ago. He was an immigrant from Rumania, afflicted by depression. He went into the garden shed while his wife Barbara shopped at a sewing store. There, he hung himself, leaving his body visible through a window as Barb returned home. She ran screaming from the spot after she realized he wasn’t leaned over at an odd angle.
Still, he is Jen’s father and his presence, in the matter of fact way Jews deal with death (a matter of factness I respect) was there. Jon and Jen also named other persons in their program who, though dead, attended by virtue of their spirit still present among the living. Those names and the remembering of them, part of the Jewish way of dealing with death, helps keep memory alive and, therefore, the individual.
Joseph’s presence on this trip was a blessing. I don’t know what other word to use. There are not many times when I get to spend that much time with my boy and I loved every minute of it. He found much of the trip incredibly boring, as I recall feeling when at family events, weddings and funerals especially, where I understood the importance of my presence, but the presence of my parents, aunts and uncles, reinforced my still junior status.
He gave a touching toast to Jon and Jen, “I’m only 22, so I don’t have any wisdom to share, but I remember when I was 8 and I met Jon for the first time—he was the age I am now—and I thought, ‘Boy, he’s old. I wonder if we’ll spend much time together?’ He helped me with skiing a lot and spent a lot of time with me, and now, at 22 I know how much effort it makes to keep those kind of appointments. I love you and the relationship. Jen, I think you’re the sweetest woman I’ve ever met.” (flattery will get you everywhere.) He said more, but that was the gist.
I realized this event was like my Aunt Roberta’s funeral and my Dad’s in this way: I was now of the generation between the family and death. The senior members of the Keaton family were now those of us first cousins who’ve stuck together through the years. I’m now the eldest son and an orphan, as I’ve said before this means a particular set of responsibilities, never articulated but clear to me anyway.
Death knocks one more time. Raeone called this afternoon; her mother, Ione, has lung cancer. She could die anytime. She has congestive heart failure and a pacemaker already. The usual hiccups with Medicare have made the situation even more confusing, and, of course, therefore more painful.
Raeone surprised me by asking me to conduct the funeral service for her mother. It makes sense. I know Ione, and have some personal history with her. Ione has no church affiliation and I also know the family likely to be present: Joseph, Raeone, and her three sisters and probably some of their children. I’m honored she wants me to do this for her, still it felt a little strange. Another twist divorce brings into life.
Joseph, who sprained his ankle last night, went to see Ione today and said she looked better than he expected, “She’s strong. I guess she’ll live months, not weeks.” Then he added, “I’m glad you’re doing the funeral.”
Meanwhile Jon and Jen have taken off for Costa Rica. The first night they watched seat turtles come ashore and lay eggs. On the second or third day they go into the rainforest canopy for a “canopy tour.” My understanding is that they string mountain climbing strength rope from tree crown to tree crown. The tour proceeds up at the canopy level. In some tours you can sleep up in the trees, slung in a hammock. It would be quite a place to conceive a grandchild. (Kate made baby bibs for Jen’s bridal shower. Jen got it and said, “We want two.”)
Weddings have a distinct pilgrimage quality. Two people, set on a quest by romantic love, decide on a public commitment and a legal joining. Two families, unknown to each other, come together, often, as in this case, from all over the country: Rhode Island, North Carolina, Arizona, Wyoming, Minneapolis, Andover, Chicago. Friends of the bride and groom also come, as well as work colleagues.
In the time leading up the wedding these two families and two sets of friends all meet each other. On the face of it it would seem the most potential for friction lies between the families and potentially the different sets of friends, but anyone who has attended a wedding knows the real conflict is intra-familial, not inter-familial.
Why is this so? Because the stakes are very high, the family’s very nature shifts during a wedding. In fact, from an anthropological perspective the purpose of a wedding (similar to a funeral) is to begin the process of renegotiating family relationships now that Jen has become an Olson and Jon has become a Bandel. Their presence in each other’s families changes dynamics and adds new possibilities (grandchildren, new guests for holidays, more e-mail and snail-mail, photographs).
These negotiations begin long before the wedding day: who will pay for what, who will participate and how? Who gets invited, who gets left out? Where will the wedding ceremony be held? What religious tradition if any will inform the ceremony? Jewish in this case. Chuppah and the breaking of the glass, chanted blessings in Hebrew and English.
I had a profound sense of the depth in which life changed for Kate and me over this weekend. With Jon and Jen married we become in-laws; we are now parents of a married child. Grandchildren, a hope for us as a present joy, really represent the extension of our lives into the future beyond our death. They probably also represent the best hope our memory surviving into the next century. This is the generational chain, forged each time relationships become permanent.
Let me see. I’m not saying this well. During the days leading up to and including the day of the actual ceremony, I got a visceral, existential jolt. It involved the extension of our family (Kate and mine’s—and our extended family) into the future.
In my words to Jon and Jen I offered this image. When I first met Jon and Jen, we went hiking on a trail leading to the top of 14,000 foot Mt. Evans. This hike happened after I’d only been in Denver a day and I had not acclimated to the altitude. At about 11,000 feet or so, I could go no further. I chose to sit on a rock and wait while they went ahead and climbed to the top.
This is an image of what happened on August 1st when Jon and Jen wed. Kate and I will climb the mountain with them as long as we can, but at some point we’ll fall back and Jon and Jen will go on ahead of us. I found this reassuring, in a deep way, and exciting, too.
Another image I used was white water rafting. I based this on my total rafting experience, of course, that is, approximately 2 hours worth attained on the Friday before the Sunday wedding.
Still, it was fresh.
When you get ready to go, the raft guide leader gives you a safety talk. I suppose its primary significance is to convince you of the danger and wonder about to unfold around you, but his comments about, “This is your rock detector.” (Your butt when held in the appropriate swimmer’s position, feet angled up and downstream, butt in wet suit detecting rocks.) made me take notice, and his next comments made me wish Jon had picked a different activity for his bachelor party. Both entrapment, when your foot gets jammed in a rock and the violent water pushes you under causing you to drown at an embarrassingly shallow depth, and strainers, objects like minivans, trees, or two rocks close together, which, unless you swim up and “embrace the strainer” pushes you under and causes you to drown at an embarrassingly shallow depth, are bad. Staying in the boat is good.
Next, the guide in your boat, Ron in my case, says, “Follow what I say and you can forget about the safety talk because you will not fall out of the boat.” He then teaches the persons in his boat, a military grade neoprene built to carry five, four crew and a guide who handles the rudder, how to maneuver. A simple forward stroke and backward stroke, “Lean your whole body into it.” and a command, “When I say high right, everybody goes to the right side of the boat; when I say high left, go to the left side.”
Improbably, to me at least, you sit high up on the edge of the raft and jam your feet into the channels formed by the boat’s bottom and its sides. To do a high right you have to leave your seat, perched on the left side, and scramble across to a position on the opposite side—while the boat tips toward you. This happened twice on our trip and the reward for doing it right is staying dry and safe.
This image was for Jon and Jen. Marriage is a rafting boat. If you work together, pay attention, and, when necessary go high right or high left, your marriage will work. The course of a life is not too different from the course of a river with shallow spots, placid pools and sudden drops, then whitewater and the ride is a lot more fun, and manageable, with a good partner.
I also used some information about the pilgrimage gleaned from Woolly gatherings, in particular the last lines of Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
I suggested that this was what their parents were doing and what they will have to do as their life and marriage unfolds.
I ended with this toast, quoting Ogden Nash: “To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the wedding cup, whenever you're wrong, admit it; whenever you're right, shut up.”
Chief Hosa Lodge, in the Front Range of the Rockies. A wonderful place for a marriage. Hosa means peace in Ute. This site was a place for peace for 17 tribes, many engaged in open hostilities with each other. Chief Hosa, whose name was Little Raven, became Chief Hosa for his efforts to bring peace not only among the 17 tribes, but also with the white settlers.
More on all of this as it settles. Glad to be home and to have my hands in the soil here in Andover. Tomorrow I plant an Iris garden and dig out Juniper roots.