No Egrets

Posted on October 5, 2011

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A break in the current reveries over menus, moons, and what Irene did to New England to think for a moment about loss in general, and of parents in particular and – ci-dessus – lists.

Visiting my Mom this past Monday on the eastern tip of the North Fork of Long Island, where Orient Point and East Marion greet tourists newly off the ferry with their miniature post offices and farm stands (dahlias this time of year, and of course, pumpkins, and somehow, more buckets of tomatoes), and the water to the north (Long Island Sound), water to the east (the Atlantic), and water to the south (Great Peconic Bay). One doesn’t need to be one of Long Island’s “Baymen” (those guys who go out in fishing boats and bring in the fish, the lobsters, the crabs, mussels, clams, oysters – in other words, the ones who do the hard work of working hard) to know how important the water is to the land and to the denizens thereof.  The water seems to hold the land in place, those long twin forks that make up the eastern end of Long Island. I’ve been describing the North Fork, the blue-collar fork. The South Fork is something else: the Hamptons and all that implies (which is, if you’ve not been keeping up, wealth. A lot of it). Also dunes, more of the Atlantic, the Montauk Light, mixed drinks and more night spots, more white pants and more flesh per cubic foot than Mykonos.

But it was to the eastern end of the North Fork that my parents moved about 25 years ago, to a small house on the edge of Dam Pond, beyond the north facing picture windows, a thin slice of beach, and beyond that, the Sound. Perhaps there are places in the world one might call even more beautiful, but no half acre in America could hardly be more transcendent, especially so if you’re pulled to the water and enchanted by what flies across and sometime through it: the Bonaparte’s Gulls, Whimbrels, Red Knots, Forster’s Terns, Ruddy Turnstones, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Mallards and Harlequins and Bufflehead Ducks, Geese, Swans, Osprey, Red-throated Loons, Grebes, Shearwaters, Piping Plovers, Sooty Shearwaters, Snowy Egrets, Oyster Catchers, Least Bitterns, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Great and Double-crested Cormorants, Glossy Ibis, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Cooper’s Hawk, the occasional Bald Eagle, and the White-rumped Sandpiper – to name (as they say) just a few.

But Mom & Dad sold the house three years ago in order to afford to move into a “retirement home” – a very nice one, I should say, also on the water. They were a hearty couple then, dapper, the life of the large communal dining hall, and my Dad continued to repair clarinets and flutes and saxophones for the local schools, and he played his clarinet (very well, I might add) in the “Not Necessarily World Famous Monday Night Band” in Greenport, and occasionally still in chamber groups.

Then he fell ill, slowly, ineluctably, indecently, and then one night he was just – you know – woozy, and the next morning he was in the hospice. Six weeks later (the length of their courtship back during the war), 88 years old, he died.  A door opens; a door closes. A door opens. People came and said things. I don’t remember. And took him away. For science. “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” – Colum McCann, Let The Great World Spin.

Much about how we bear loss comes to mind. Issa’s famous poem:

The world of dew is the world of dew
And yet, and yet —-

“I never lied to the children, even if I knew the truth would hurt them.” Dad left that sentence and a handful of others in a rather spare manifesto: some lines scribbled in pencil, I think, on a small piece of notebook paper, torn out, faded, and folded. Mom must have found it in his wallet, or the back pocket of his jeans. She read that manifesto at his funeral a year ago, October 3rd, and I played a bit of Mozart for him, as he’s the one who first put a clarinet in my hand in 1957 and taught me what to do with it.

Now, a year later, we – my Mom and I – drove out this past Monday morning to Orient Point State Park, past the marshes and ponds to the empty parking lot that abuts the wide, long beach in order to have some kind of memorial. We hadn’t discussed what. We knew we wanted to see some egrets, the osprey having flown to Central America for the winter, leaving behind their empty, ungainly nests, cobbled together of big and small sticks and bigger sticks.

But there were no egrets, only gulls and terns. Gray and white and dun. We rarely speak when we go to the beach or sit in the car at Dam Pond, by the sea wall where Mom used to walk their cocker spaniel. I showed her some pictures I took exactly a year ago: the sun coming up over Great Peconic Bay at 5 in the morning. The Crab Shack, the one at the top of this piece, a little rickety now, but somehow still standing after Irene. I said, “It’s been a hard year, Mom. I’ve been missing Dad a lot.”   She took my hand.

to be wind for the kite and kite for the wind, even
when the sky is missing….  ~ Odysseus Elytis

So we walked out onto the beach. Mom to the bench just beyond the last trees, and I all they way down to the water, where I started to collect shells – fragile, translucent, almost weightless shells – in a sort of homage to my Dad. On returning to my Mom on her bench, I found she’d been doing some collecting of her own: smooth, round stones, six or seven of them, laid out in a neat row on the wooden bench.

I thought of that e.e. cummings poem, “maggie and millie and molly and mae” that our friend Elsie Fruson, the artist, painted for us, with illustrations, and that hung on the living room wall in the old house in Sea Cliff for many years . . .

may came home with a smooth round stone  as small as a world and as large as alone.  ~ e. e. cummings

She asked me to choose a stone, and I asked her to choose a shell. We sat, silent, watching the terns fly that way they have, a their wings lifting them about a quarter inch above the water – never lower never higher. They seem to get it right every time, without looking, the wings beating, the water just untouched.

There were no egrets, though later, on my way back alone to the Cross Sound Ferry for the ride from Orient Point to New London, there in the marshes between the causeway and Great Peconic Bay, sunning themselves in the salt water, I saw four or five snowy egrets and thought, I should call Mom and tell her about their memorial.

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Posted in: Poetry