Staring at Emily

I am beginning this already with the thought -- this won't be a "real" entry. I will write -- I will try not to make it perfunctory, to give you more than simply the run-down on Wally's haircut today and the idea my mom had for pouring Crème de menthe over vanilla ice cream. She had mentioned that idea for dessert the first night we arrived, and we kept forgetting every night because we've all been working in the evenings for the most part, not hanging out drinking wine and eating m n' ms the way we usually do. But right before I go to bed each night I've gone down for a glass of water or something in the kitchen and I've been smacked in the face with the overwhelming smell of mint. I was like, wow, she's really going buck wild with the stuff--what is she doing shots and spilling it all over the place, or what? Turns out I was smelling the peppermint she sprinkles around to keep mice at bay. As of tonight, the bottle of Crème de menthe was still unopened.

On the way out to the grocery store today in the late afternoon, we stopped to get the mail. One card was a picture and beautiful letter from a girl named Caitlin. When my sister and I were little, after we moved from Virginia but before we moved to Acton, Massachusetts, we lived for a year on the Connecticut coast, down the street from my grandparents' cottage by the beach. I don't remember much, if anything, from that year (I was Wally's age now when we moved further north), but I grew up staying friends with the four other kids in what was that day's version of a "playgroup".

My mom befriended two nearby young moms, Angela and Barbara, and the three hung out together with their kids, trading kid-watching duties and getting together all 10 of us, too. Angela's family stayed close by for a while, and we stayed friends with her kids. We mostly lost touch with Barbara's, saw them only every now and again. My mom would still see Barbara; she came to my sister's wedding in 2000. But they faded. Those old, original friendships, those morning playgroups with muffins and oj, those family walks by the beach, those holiday reunions, the yearly surprise at how much everyone had grown, the sense of tracing over some authentic, familial pattern each time we hung out even if we didn't know each other all that well, the way old neighbors do, people whose parents go to the same church as your grandparents, know the same pizza place, remember things you used to do as a toddler--those friendships remained somewhere in the sepia-toned distance. It's been years now since I've seen any of them.

Caitlin's mom Barbara died 8 years ago. After we read Caitlin's recent letter, my mom unearthed a collection of newsletters Barbara used to send, the precursor to blogs, those once-a-year updates, not every night, more real, but not real-time. Here, at the start of one, she quotes Theodor Roethke in a Christmas poem. "There is a hush, a Holy Pause." I am reading the letters now, looking back through pictures, feeling that hush.

Throughout there are vivid scenes that catch you not necessarily for what they mean, but just for what they are. "The girls sat relatively demurely at a candlelit table nibbling on pizza til Aron strolled in wearing his Halloween gorilla mask." There are black and white photographs photocopied into the letter. I suppose people could be of two minds when it comes to a newsletter (or blog) update --maybe thinking, Why do I care? And for some reason, caring. What is their daily life like? Like Hemingway wrote about the "greatest difficulty" he found in writing--"to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced." That is what blogs and newsletters are full of--or at least aim to be. What really happened in action. What the actual things were. We care not just because we care about the people --but presumably we do -- but because a picture of someone's daily life is revealing, it lets us in on a little hint -- a two-inch picture frame -- of what it's like to be alive.

In Our Town, after her death, the main character Emily goes back to her daily life, and she is so heart-broken by how everyone's too busy to look at her. Her mom's making a birthday cake I think, her dad's working like crazy. She implores them to stop but they can't. “Please anybody," she says, "just look at me. I don’t need the cake or the money. Please look at me.”


One year Barbara sent a postcard with the apology, "The economy makes our message briefer, but know you are always in our heart, on our lips, in our thoughts." She wrote my mom after my grandfather died, she continued to send pictures and updates about her children--one a teacher, one in the Peace Corps. And then a few years later, she died. Now Caitlin, her daughter, seems to be carrying on her mom's tradition of at least yearly updates. In one--though this, I see is from long ago, 2003, she writes, "I am my mother's daughter and so it seems, fun is always near at hand. There is so much to do, see, read-experience. I am happy." That must have been just a year or so after her mom died. At her brother's wedding that year, the "pinnacle of her year", she felt that her mom "was in her way, there."

I see from the address on the card my mom received today, that Caitlin lives in Brooklyn with her baby girl. Funny, she's just between my sister and I, and has been in New York for quite some time--a decade?--yet we haven't run into her. My first instinct lately is not to keep reaching out to people, past and future, to resist my impulse to connect--to say, the problem is that you are already so scattered, already so disconnected, don't fall into the paradoxical trap of seeking more connection only to undermine the ones you already have. And yet I think it is just my nature. I am always searching for that sense of shared history, of memories from childhood that resonate at the same frequency as one's own, I am always picking up the paper cup, listening, as Morning wrote today, for that jumbled message back.

I may or may not send a letter to the actual Caitlin, to the actual Brooklyn street so close to my own. Maybe I'll be content to read through her and her mother's letters, to think about the group of friends my mom had when I was little, and the ones -- moms and otherwise -- I have now. Content to stop making the birthday cake or worrying about money. Content to stare Emily right in the face.


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