NoisetteandtheDude’s Blog

October 31, 2008

That day.

Filed under: Election 2008 — noisetteandthedude @ 5:04 pm
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I got an early morning email from my younger daughter yesterday – an email with a very short message: “It’s that day again.”

Took me a minute of pondering to decipher that.  Finally, “Oh, yeah. That day.”  Elizabeth, my wife of 35 years, died exactly four years ago yesterday – suddenly, unexpectedly, and way too soon.  She was only 68.

And so, a flurry of emails amongst me and the kids, all of us sharing remembrances of G. Elizabeth Berry, my remarkable bride. 

My daughter-in-law said:

“I just got out all of our Dia de los Muertos stuff yesterday and showed Rachel pictures of her grandma Liz for the first time. She seemed impressed. I’m glad that [my man] will be up this weekend so we can give her coffee and peanut butter toast together. I always think of the whole tortured time when I vote, because [my man] and I were sitting down to vote when he got the call to come to the hospital.”

My older son had been spending his day with his girlfriend, listening to Harry Belafonte’s “Calypso” album, one of mother’s favorites.  And he’d just sent a newly composed eulogy to a music blog peopled by some of his friends:

“Mom’s been deceased for four years today. I think this music-saturated list is a perfect place to write a few words about her. Mom’s life was defined by music, and her obsession helped shape me into the insufferable music geek elitist jerk I am today.

She became a mother at a relatively young age, but a part of her wanted to be an explorer, or astronaut, or probably even president of the US. That part of her personality sparked a restlessness and an intense curiosity about people and places that served as a fine example for me. But it also caused her quite a bit of unrest and dissatisfaction, too. But just think about the obstacles a strong woman faced in the 50s and 60s.

Mom was an ardent supporter of civil rights. She had good friends of many sizes, colors, sexual orientation, personality and religion, and she didn’t do this to be politically correct: she enjoyed the (yes I know the term is overused) diversity.

Mom loved music. She loved folk, calypso, and Flamenco, and classical guitar, and symphonic classical music, and opera. She listened to just about everything she could. She claimed to hate jazz, but she liked “Ellington at Newport”. She claimed to hate country music, but she had some Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, too.

Mom played a little guitar, and she’d play Harry Belafonte’s songs for me, and she’d smile when “Brown Skin Girl” or “Come Back Liza” brought me to tears. I am gifted with a good ear for music, and this is due in great part to the music playing constantly in our home.

There were always musical instruments around the house — guitar, piano, mandolin — and I know that is in part why I ended up being able to coax a melody out of just about any stringed instrument. And I think her love of polyrhythmic music is part of the reason I seek out African and Brazilian and Latin American music now, and why it doesn’t bug me if the singer sings in a language I don’t understand.

In 1963, when I was struck dumb by the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, she didn’t get it right away, but she tolerated my thirst for Beatles LPs and 45s. But right after that she went back to school to get her master’s degree in history education, and she started bringing home music that amazed me even more. One day she came in with a stack of albums and said: ‘now, you might not like the way this guy sings, but you HAVE to hear his songs!’ And that started my infatuation with the music of Bob Dylan.

For a good portion of my childhood, Mom was single going to school and working nights. In the late 60s, she took a teaching job in Rapid City, South Dakota. She wrote a fiery letter to the Rapid City newspaper, denouncing the Vietnam War. A young USAF officer read that letter and said to his roommate: “I have to meet that woman.” He looked her up in the phone book, called her, and they were married a few months later. Dad has been such a good father that I just call him Dad — no need for a “stepdad” title.

Later on, an illness left Mom partially deaf. The good news (we would joke) was that she could no longer hear electronic beeps or rings of any kind. The bad news is that this severely diminished her passion for music. But she still loved music she could hear, such as opera.

In 2004, Mom developed cancer of the esophagus, and it came on quick. She died before election day, but she and Dad had mailed in absentee ballots, and Dad is sure that they were part of the reason that Kerry carried Washington state.

Mom would have loved Obama’s run for presidency. And like me, she would have really been torn up during the nomination process when a strong woman and a strong person of color were vying for the nomination.

Anyway, I miss her, but I also am reminded of her each and every day. Today is a good day to put some of those memories into words. Thanks for tolerating my sentimentality.”

 

—To which my younger daughter replied that her mom was more than just a fan of Belafonte: “As a young mother, mom always felt that racial integration should commence and commence immediately, starting with her and Harry Belafonte.  And who could blame her?”

Thanks, daughter – I needed a chuckle, right then! 

I sent one more email to the kids:

“I suppose it’s just more proof that time does indeed pass and that life goes one, and I know that one needs to be grateful.  But when you first said, “It’s that day again,” I drew a blank for just a moment. Then, oh yeah, THAT day.  That day is here.

Earlier this week – Monday, I think – I finally understood the pensive and mildly distracted mood I’ve been in for the last couple weeks.  Looking at my bill calendar did it. You won’t find Liz’s death noted on that calendar – or any in my house – because it’s engraved on my heart.  But actually seeing the date of October 30 on the calendar (with a long list of bills due) made me look inward.  So I cried for a bit, again. And then put my heart away, again.

Until your note this morning.  So thanks for the reminder – really.  Because I don’t ever want to forget.

I don’t automatically think of Oct 30th when I vote, probably because in 2004 Liz and I voted a week or so before the 30th, filling out our ballots in that hospital room over a shared lunch.  It gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure to know that your mom’s vote counted that year, even though she wasn’t around to be counted on election day.  Didn’t make any real difference that we helped make sure that Bush the Lesser did NOT carry Washington state in 2004, but it mattered to me – and I think, to Liz as well.

So I’m going to take a drive today, to a hilltop in Portland, listening to Maria Callas and Luciano along the way.  I’ll leave some more roses and some more tears behind.  Then I’ll drive slowly home, and I’ll have a cup of coffee and some peanut butter toast and I’ll feel better.  I know I will.

And yes, I have paid all those bills that were due today.  Liz would be pleased.

Love, Dad”

Then I drove to Willamette National Cemetery, the veteran’s cemetery in Portland, where Liz’s remains are entombed under a simple granite slab with both of our names on it – where I’ll be placed too, eventually.

When I got home last night, I sent on last email to the kids:

“The drive to Willamette National Cemetery was fast, featureless and forgettable.  As it turned out, I didn’t listen to music at all, didn’t even turn on the stereo.  Just drove and thought and remembered and felt.  I did stop at a Fred Meyer for a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses – and more coffee.  

As fate would have it, I arrived graveside at the exact moment of your mom’s death four years ago: 2:10 pm.  Which seemed fitting.  We had a nice chat.  The lawn had been freshly mowed so it looked especially crisp and green and pretty, and Liz’s bouquet was the only one on the entire hillside.  Apparently an end-of-October Thursday isn’t a big day for commemorations.  The roadside tap for water for the little cone-shaped cut-flower holders wasn’t working – shut off for the cold weather, I suppose.  So I filled the flower cone with the bottled water I’d been drinking, after first taking a last sip.  

‘From my lips to yours, darling.’

Your mom’s doing fine.  She enjoyed hearing about your emails re: Harry Belafonte – I swear I heard her laugh.  I couldn’t leave there, until she laughed.  So then I did.

I had forgotten to take along Maria Callas and Pavaroti CD’s, but then remember my iPod was in the glove box.  So I plugged it in and listened to Maria’s “Diva” album and Luciano’s “Concert in Hyde Park, ” performed just before Princess Diane died – the concert was dedicated to Princess Di, or “Donna, Non Vidi Mai” (never have I seen a woman like this), the penultimate aria in the concert (the finale being “Nessun Dorma”).

And that completed a nice circle for me.  Would have been a perfect circle if I’d been able to listen to “Day-O,” too, but at least I could hum it.

And now, some toast and peanut butter.

Love, Dad”

Just before I fell into bed last night, I got an email from a friend in Washington, who had also been thinking about Liz:

“When I do go to Pegasus [a coffee shop where Liz and I met our friends, nearly every day] – there’s a thinly veiled malaise that hovers like fog over the crowd – people try to inject intelligent thought, they try to come up with topics and they try to juice up the conversation, but they fail – mostly because their attempts start in the first person – Liz threw hard balls at you that she expected you to catch – she dropped ideas on the floor and then poured burning oil on them while we danced around trying to make sense of what was happening… then she’d ask something like:  ‘What’s worse?  The mess? The smoke? The fire?’  A few people try but they’re really just telling you something.  Liz brought questions the asked us to tell her something about the questions…it was magic.  We all miss her.”

Indeed we do, my darling Elizabeth.  And we always will.

–Your Dude

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