ESSAY – July 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
“It was like a metaphor that stood for something else.” Richard Ford
We are alive.
Every July it seems there is a weekend morning when I awake and feel utterly aware that I am alive. This gentle re-minder rides in on the breeze that pushes through the trees and lilacs outside the windows above my bed, and that fills the room like a warm, sweet breath. Half awake beneath white sheets, I cannot help but smile. Maine summers bolster my spirits, for what they might lack in length, they make up for in intensity.
Lately, I’ve been writing in the second-story guestroom of the house. There is a small dormer in the room that faces the street, and I have my desk set against the window. On most days I push it wide open when I’m writing, and the wind coming up off the river flows in and rustles the papers on my desk. Outside, the neighborhood is alive with summer activity and the sounds of the street. Everyone has thoroughly shaken off the cobwebs of their winter hibernation, and they are finding any excuse, it seems, to get outdoors.
Most of my neighbors are out working in their yards as I write these lines, and a few are walking their dogs in ceaseless circles around the loop of our street. Lawn mowers whirl at all hours of the day and coat the air in an earthy balm. Little circles of women chat on the street corners or at the end of one another’s driveways, and I can often make out their laughter on the wind. Packs of doughy, sticky-faced, dirty-kneed preteens troll the neighborhood on banged-up scooters and bicycles. Sometimes I’ll hear the almost indiscernible shriek of a child, and I’ll have to wonder for a moment whether it is a cry of joy or one of pain. And when the afternoon sun begins to wane, the inevitable smells from outdoor grills waft in through the open window.
We are alive, I think to myself. This is life and everything is all right.
But these thoughts of life remind me of how precious it all truly is. And I’m reminded of the Sunday before Memorial Day, when my daughter and I went with my parents to plant flowers at my grandparents’ grave.
My father’s parents are buried at the top of a wildflower-covered hill that runs down to a salt marsh and tidal river. The breeze there is always cool and tinged with salt. After arriving at the graveyard that Sunday, my father took his spade from the trunk of the car and turned the earth at the base of the granite tombstone. I carried over the fertilizer, mulch, and flowers. My stepmother and daughter walked away across the grass toting jugs to fill at the water spicket nearby. There we were, four generations united by a sunny day—three above the ground and one below.
I never knew my grandmother, since she passed away five years before I was born. But my grandfather is indelibly etched in my memory. He had bright, laughing eyes and brows that would rise and fall dramatically when he was telling one of his many stories. And all the time I knew him, he had a full head of thick white hair that grew silky and fine in his final years.
Visiting my grandfather’s grave made me think of the summer days I spent sailing with him aboard Dawnwind, his 44-foot ketch. I was quite young then—so young, in fact, that when we sailed from Cape Porpoise to Casco Bay, I was dumbfounded by the sight of cows on Peaks Island. How did they get out there?, I wondered. When I remember my grandfather now, I think of the sea and the summer light at dusk and of all the things he helped me to love.
“Twelve years,” my father mumbled under his breath after he had stopped digging. The dates on the tombstone read 1913–1995. My father’s brow was damp with sweat. “If there’s a stretch of really hot days and you’re driving by,” he said, “stop in and water these flowers if you would.”
But I couldn’t answer him in that moment because the words were caught in the tightness of my throat.
We are alive, and I could not be more grateful. As I write these words, they are partially obscured by the blur of tears for all the things that I have lost and for all that I have. But the wind is blowing in the window, and I’ll just close my eyes now and let it blow right through me. It feels like cool, fresh water slowly filling a tall glass—the wind is the water and I am the glass.