For the Fallen

I love In Flanders Fields, but this Robert Laurence Binyon poem, written in 1914, gets to me just a bit more. I am not sure why, but the first time I visited Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery, the French cab driver who took my there said, of my uncle, “at least he won’t ever grow old.”

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

The Power of Letters

Fascinating and heart-wrenching story about the first letters written by Holocaust survivors after they were liberated from the camps. Researchers at Yad Vashem are compiling these letters, letters full of joy, shock, anger, sadness and, of course, survivors’ guilt. The following — written in Polish by an Auschwitz survivor —  is only a small part of the project, but so much is captured here:

How could I justify to you that I left the lions’ den intact, that I saw fiery furnaces, red flames in the skies? That I saw thousands of people led daily to the gas chambers, not knowing what awaited them in ten minutes; that I saw sheaves of sparks and tongues of fire, and sometimes even part of a roasted hand bursting forth from a gigantic chimney; that I stood naked daily at roll call for the Selektion, and the SS man, as if to anger me, sent me back to the camp and didn’t take me to the oven … and a huge prayer, a stubborn prayer for divine benevolence, for death.

Read the rest of the article here. 

The Gypsy and the Hobo

I wrote about my brother yesterday and said I would write more today. I think of him every day, of course, but when the anniversary of his death — Hallowe’en — approaches, I think of him more intensely. This week, I got my usual “grief migraine”, for example, and I also found myself thinking of a conversation he and I once had about a show we both loved, Mad Men.

He and I were both Mad Men addicts and had long conversations after each new episode. One episode by which we were both particularly touched was The Gypsy and the Hobo. It takes place over Hallowe’en, and as Don and Betty navigate an upheaval in their marriage, Sally and Bobby are unhappy that they can’t have store-bought costumes.

Don reminds them that the store-bought costumes are cheap. Betty makes them beautiful costumes — a gypsy and a hobo —  which they wear but do not appreciate. As a kid, I was very jealous of my friends who had tacky store-bought costumes. My mom made me a beautiful Red Riding Hood outfit, which I wore but did not appreciate.

I shared that memory with Alan, who was very touched by it, as he and I both were by the episode’s ending: Don and Betty, standing behind their trick-or-treating gypsy and hobo; Betty holding their baby, Gene; the adults shaken by Betty’s earlier uncovering of Don’s secrets, trying to put on a happy front for the neighbours, for the children, for themselves.

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Reformation Day

Today is Reformation Day. It is also the third anniversary of my brother Alan’s death. I will post more about him tomorrow, but I wanted to make a reference to this day and to this hymn — in my opinion one of the most magnificent — because on the day he died, I had posted this same hymn and a reference to the Reformation on my Facebook page. This was before I knew Alan was gone and I remember clearly that the fact that he was not commenting on the post gave me a sick feeling. I knew something was wrong because it was the sort of topic upon which he would usually offer a witty or brilliant observation.

 

Feast of St. Francis — from the Archives

Very busy these days, folks (understatement). So not able to post as much or about all the stuff I’d like. But I wanted to acknowledge the feast of San Francesco, the man who blessed the birdies and tamed the wolf. In honour, a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.

It makes me realize that I miss my kitties immensely, and that I still feel such guilt about their last days, particularly Pushkin’s.

 

Book Recommendations

I don’t usually do book recommendations on my site but today I will. I read insane amounts — mostly non-fiction but some fiction — and the fact that I am taking time to write about these two books tells you what they meant to me.

The books are Bettyville, by George Hodgman, and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. In a way, they are similar: both stories about family, about the past, about loss and love and about being grateful in the present. But they are different, of course.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is drawn against the painful backdrop of the relentless (and seemingly endless) persecution of Jews in Europe, the sickness of the Holocaust, and also has a strong art history focus (something I really appreciated).

De Waal is English, but a descendant of the (originally Russian) Ephrussi family, for a time on a par with the Rothschilds (even related by marriage to them) in terms of wealth and influence in parts of Europe. Proust’s Swann is said to have been based on Charles Ephrussi.

When de Waal inherits some “netsuke” from a favorite relative (he represents the fifth generation of his family to inherit them), he decides to trace their journey, which includes stops in Paris and Japan and Vienna. And it is truly something, particularly when you discover how the netsuke escaped being stolen by the Nazis, while pretty much all the rest of the Ephrussi art was taken.

In some ways, the book reminded me of the brilliant movie, “Woman in Gold”, though the former unfolds over a much longer period of time.

Bettyville is, on the surface, a memoir with less grandeur, but Hodgman’s portrait of his mother, Betty, is mighty grand. My own mom died, just short of her 93rd birthday, last year, and I saw so much of her in Betty. Same generation, same decency, work ethic, wit, and a similar stubborn dance with declining independence. The same good, strong people.

Hodgman is a successful editor and writer who, after growing up in Missouri in the ’60s and ’70s as a clever — though struggling and often bullied — gay kid, moved to New York. Along with an enviable career, he got into drugs, went into rehab, had some dysfunctional relationships, all of which he writes about with tremendous humor and no self-pity.

When his mother began fading, he moved back, initially to find someone else to care for her, but then decided to see her home, as he says, himself. In the process he finds “home”, in a manner. It is certainly touching to see him discover Missouri — fly-over country — as an adult, after having felt out of place so often as a kid and teenager. Honestly, I laughed, I laughed so hard I cried, and I just plain cried.

Read them both!

 

 

Ash-Scattering

As regular readers know, my mother died last year. Most of her ashes were scattered in 2014, but for various reasons there were some left to scatter still.  So last week that deed was done, and it turned into quite a lovely nature walk.

First, we met a super polite groundhog who held up his little paw when he coughed/burped.

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Then we saw this lovely guy…

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…who apparently had something to say.

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And that something was “Kiss my backside, humans.”

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And then we met a skittish bunny.

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But he wasn’t so skittish that he couldn’t also manage a loud and clear message, similar to the duck’s.

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Mum would most definitely approve.