At Thanksgiving dinner, as we went around the table saying what we were grateful for, my daughter Jane gave thanks for leaving home, for the excitement of starting a new part of her life on her own. For a second, I thought about being hurt by this, but she assured us that she meant it in the nicest way, going on to thank everyone at the table who had helped her get to this point.
Once I thought about it, I realized I too should give thanks for her departure.
Before I was struck down by my rebellious appendix last summer, I had started a new writing project, collecting stories about pets in my three-block Baltimore neighborhood, Evergreen, founded in 1873. Many of its original residents were the construction workers and tradesmen who helped build Roland Park, the elegant, affluent quarter that surrounds us on all sides.
Marion Winik just released her latest memoir, “The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” out from Counterpoint. This week we publish an excerpt from the introduction of the book, which is a compilation of essays about people she’s lost. Marion approaches the touchy subject of death with emotion, wisdom, and humor as only she can. If you’re a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, you’re in for a treat. Read on. – S.D.
During the spring of 2007, in the dark days towards the end of our marriage, my second husband and I managed to get ourselves invited to a small house party on the South Coast of Jamaica, held over the weekend of the Calabash Festival, a major annual literary event with writers from all over the Caribbean and the world. I had just begun writing The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, the predecessor to this volume.
The first morning, all the guests went up the road to Jake’s, the resort where the festival is held, in our hosts’ van. We heard readings, paged through books on sale, sipped frozen drinks. My husband and I sipped many of them. The group went home for lunch, planning to return in the afternoon, but storm clouds massed and broke and no one wanted to go back in the pouring rain.
Since Jane has not yet been gone for a month, it’s a little early to call it. “It” being the long-dreaded experience of the empty nest. The nest in question had been in operation for 32 years, if we count from the day in 1986 when I quit drugs, drinking, coffee and everything else I knew as the staff of life to begin the absorbing process of having babies and raising them, ultimately sending off into the world three biological progeny and two stepbabies. In the process, enriching the coffers of numerous educational institutions, now including Bard College in New York State, where Jane is currently renting calculus books and eating farm-grown vegetarian meals.
Now, for the first time ever, I am living alone. Living alone is not something I ever aspired to and at times imagined almost as a punishment for something you did that made you unbearable to others. I mean, many people get to this point in life with a partner in tow, but I’m two husbands down with no replacement in sight.
The following is a letter I have composed for my son’s girlfriend, Shannon.
I just received an email asking me to rate my recent experience–July 13-15, 2018–on a scale from terrible to great. As there is no option that adequately describes my experience, please bear with me while I explain.
The story starts one year ago, when I threw a surprise birthday party for my boyfriend in Brooklyn in a building that, once all the guests had arrived, turned out to be nonexistent. I live in Baltimore and many of the 25 guests came from out of town, so perhaps you can imagine how devastating it was that the event space I had booked for $800 simply was not there, nor was there an answer at the phone number, nor could Airbnb provide any suitable alternative venue. (Further appalling details in attached copy of previous letter.)
Have you heard of Car Seat Headrest? Neutral Milk Hotel? Nilüfer Yanya? Tay-K? Alt-J? Milo, the rapper who references Nabokov and Aristotle, rhyming “axis” with “praxis”? These are some of the musicians we listened to in the car Tuesday night coming home from the Taylor Swift concert. My daughter Jane, who turned 18 last month and got a tattoo and a vape to celebrate, is a big girl now. As I write this, she will only be living at home for another 28 days and then she will be off to the Catskills to attend a school that advertises itself as “a place to think.” She is ready for that. She acquired her notebooks even before her shower caddy and extra-long twin sheets.
A couple of weeks ago I was in New York City for my son Vince’s graduation from his masters’ program, held at Radio City Music Hall. His sister Jane and I were waiting on the plaza across the street; I was reminiscing geezeresquely about how I used to eat falafels for lunch in this very spot when I worked at Stanley Kaplan in the 1980s. As I scanned the purple-robed throng for my own graduate-to-be, we were approached by what seemed to be three rock stars: a tall man in a low ball cap, a beautiful blond, and an even taller guy with a mane of brilliant, copper-colored hair and a slim black suit. All were wearing dark glasses. It turned out to be my son Vince, his girlfriend Shannon, and his friend Adam.
Lots of birthdays this month. Baltimore Fishbowl is turning seven, and with it the Bohemian Rhapsody column; meanwhile I am celebrating my 60th, and my son Hayes turned 30 at the end of April. In honor of all this, we’re re-posting the very first column I wrote for the Fishbowl… commissioned and edited by my dear Betsy Boyd, who shares my birthdate. The essay captures a time in our lives that seems long ago already; it, along with many of its successors, became part of the raw material for Highs in the Low Fifties, published in 2013. As for highs in the low sixties, one of the reasons I didn’t write a new piece this month is that I’ve been working on my one-woman show, Portrait of the Artist as a Sad Little Girl in New Jersey. It will premiere at the University of Baltimore Wright Theater May 24, 7 p.m. One show only. It’s part of a works-in-progress series where the audience stays on after the show and gives feedback.
Originally published May 24, 2011 – Last spring, my son Hayes graduated from Georgetown with a degree in finance and was immediately offered a six-figure salary in New York City at one of the big banks. I was amazed. In 1978, when I graduated from Brown with a degree in Russian History, I could hardly land a four-figure job at the 7-11.
Off he went to Manhattan, but things very quickly went very badly. His girlfriend, the beauteous Queen of Ecuador (she was from an illustrious South American family and looked like Penelope Cruz), dumped him two days after he got there. Meanwhile, the six-week training program at the bank was mind-numbingly dull. And while he had not liked New York when he’d lived there as an intern his junior summer, this time, he really hated it. Just making his way from his apartment to the subway in the sweaty morning rush hour crowd was almost more than he could take.
There’s been a surge of fiction and nonfiction by writers of my generation dealing with the matter of becoming the caretaker of aging parents. I myself got a piece out of this life transition — for the New York Times, yippee. But in my case, that phase only lasted a few months, and it was ten years ago. I’ve now aged out and gone on to the next milestone — being taken care of by my children and other younguns.
No, I am not yet completely infirm, doddering and non compos mentis (though as you may recall I was recently taken advantage of by scammers). But I guess I have become a little fragile. On St. Patrick’s Day, I was in a sequinned gold dress on the 13th floor of the Belvedere Hotel, dancing at the wedding of dear friends for whom I had just offered a heartfelt toast. I must have been getting a little too jiggy with it because my right kneecap — which has been letting me down this way since 1971 during my entrance onstage as Cassius during the tenth-grade rock opera production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — took a leave of absence from its leg-holding-together duties. In other words, my patella subluxated. I lost my balance and hit the floor, catching myself with my left hand.
The email list in our neighborhood is an active one, what with people getting rid of furniture and gadgets, looking for plumbers and electricians, and calling for crews to pick up litter at Stony Run, the creek that runs along the edge of our three-block enclave. This posting about Bruce the Cat, complete with framed oil portrait, appeared one day in late February and turned out to be the first in a rather riveting series. But before we follow the drama of Bruce’s recent disappearance, let us begin with his origin story.