Old Woman Reading by Cornelis Kruseman, Amsterdam Museum
In 11th grade, our class studied British Literature, but we didn’t study it fast enough to suit me. We dawdled through Chaucer (even in translation!). We slogged through nasally BBC Radio records of “Macbeth” for a week straight. Even the murders were boring. I flipped ahead in the book to get to the more modern writers, the ones who had actually seen a telephone and motor cars. The ones we wouldn’t have time to get to by the end of the year. It was infuriating to me–how we always ran out of time in the school year and never got all the way through the end of the text book. With every chalk dust diagram of sonnet rhyme schemes or droning exegesis of Wordsworth, I felt the chances of studying William Butler Yeats, Wilfred Owen, and Ted Hughes slipping into nothingness. So I read ahead.
One poem by Yeats never left me. I committed it to memory, or more rightly “learned it by heart” while sitting there in the windowless classroom filled with rows of desks and bored teenagers.
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
I was sixteen years old, and I yearned for a day when I could look back on my moments of glad grace, when someone–anyone!–would have seen the soft look my eyes had and their shadows deep. Even the last stanza, the sadness of a Love that has fled and hid his face among the stars–I even wanted that. Something to miss at the end of my life. I hadn’t had anything yet, so I couldn’t wait to have something to miss.
Yesterday was Richard’s birthday. He would have been 47. I meant to write this post for August 5th, and I’ve been feeling sad about that since I didn’t. Like the English teacher who had good intentions of getting through the whole text book, but the year just ran out.
It’s fitting, because Richard hated his birthday and refused any fuss. His mother making a Julia Child’s chocolate cake was the only ceremony he actually enjoyed. He was happiest as a kid when camp coincided with his birthday because he wouldn’t tell anyone. No cake from home, no cards, no nothing. It befuddled me, but I did my best to honor his wishes. For the four years we had together, we mostly did the anti-birthday party party. We made a POINT of ignoring his birthday. But yesterday was busy with packing up my family of five, leaving the beach and driving back home in time to make it to the “Meet the Teacher” night at elementary school then unpacking and laundry and sandwiches from the grocery for dinner.
On Sunday night, right at sunset, G kept the kids entertained at the pool while I took a walk down to the ocean with my glass of wine. I walked out into the lapping waves of low tide and floated there. Pelicans sailed over the flat water, headed towards the red lights of buoys on the sandbar. I had the beach to myself and if I looked straight ahead, I could pretend that I was the only soul between here and everywhere. I wished Richard a Happy Birthday then rolled my eyes at how he would have snorted at that. I told him how I missed him. How sorry I was that he missed out on getting to have kids. I told him how hard it can be, with the training wheels and bloody noses and the why why why of it all. I couldn’t even speak the words for how joyful it can be. What it feels like to see my son say “Fee-two-un….BADASH!” and pretend to be a rocket. How my heart swells when Vivi and I pedal a bike together and she tells me stories about lions as we ride. The peace that comes when we are sleeping in a room all together.
Then a light blinking off in the distance reminded me of a star and this poem came to mind. I stood in the waves and recited the words that I learned by heart almost thirty years ago.
He taught me how to travel and how to feel like I had the right to an adventurous life. He loved the pilgrim soul in me. But he has paced among the mountains overhead and hid his face amid a cloud of stars.
Looking back over my life, I feel like my first husband, Fartbuster, got to love my beauty with love false or true. Then Richard came along to love my pilgrim soul. G gets the sorrows of my changing face. This is how weird it gets when you’re three husbands in–they all can start talking in your head at the same time.
As I walked back up to the dunes and to my family and to the life I love, I took an inventory of the person I have become since I learned that poem and dreamed of being loved and having lost. I am so different now–a grown woman, divorced, widowed, a mother–finding her way. Would Richard even recognize the woman that I’ve become because of what I went through with watching him die? Could we have made it with happy hearts through the skinned knees and training wheels and rocket rides? He loved the pilgrim soul in me, but he never got to know the sorrows of my changing face.
That is the thing about growing older. I keep growing.