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Authors: Donald Hall

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Essays After Eighty

BOOK: Essays After Eighty
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Out the Window

Essays After Eighty

A Yeti in the District

One Road

Thank You Thank You

Three Beards

No Smoking

Physical Malfitness

Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr.

Death

On Rejection and Resurrection

Garlic with Everything

A House Without a Door

Remains

About the Author

Copyright © 2014 by Itzy

 

All rights reserved

 

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

 

www.hmhco.com

 

The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

Hall, Donald, date, author.

[Essays. Selections]

Essays After Eighty / Donald Hall.

pages cm

ISBN
978-0-544-28704-4 (hardback)

I. Title.

PS3515.A3152A6 2014

814'.54—dc23 2014016310

 

e
ISBN
978-0-544-28694-8
v1.1214

 

The following essays previously appeared elsewhere: “One Road” and “Remains” in
The American Scholar;
“A Yeti in the District” in
New Letters;
“Out the Window” in
The New Yorker;
“Thank You Thank You,” “Three Beards,” and “Garlic with Everything” in
The New Yorker
's “Page-Turner”; “No Smoking,” “Physical Malfitness,” and “Death” in
Playboy;
“Essays After Eighty” in
Slice
.

 

Jane Kenyon, “The First Eight Days of the Beard” from
Collected Poems
. Copyright © 2005 by The Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press,
www.graywolfpress.org
.

 

Donald Hall, “Ardor” from
The Painted Bed
. Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

 

 

 

 

For

Andrew, Philippa, Emily, Allison,

Ariana, Abigail, and Peter

Out the Window

TODAY IT IS JANUARY
, mid-month, midday, and mid–New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window. I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window. Snow started before I woke, and by now it looks to be ten inches; they say we might have a foot and a half. There are three windows beside me where I sit, the middle one deep and wide. Outside is a narrow porch that provides shade in the summer, in winter a barrier against drifts. I look at the barn forty yards away, which heaves like a frigate in a gale. I watch birds come to my feeder, hanging from a clapboard in my line of sight. All winter, juncos and chickadees take nourishment here. When snow is as thick as today, the feeder bends under the weight of a dozen birds at once. They swerve from their tree perches, peck, and fly back to bare branches. Prettily they light, snap beaks into seed, and burst away: nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, American goldfinches, sparrows.

Most days, squirrels pilfer from the birds. I'm happy to feed the squirrels—tree rats with the agility of point guards—but in fair weather they frighten my finches. They leap from snowbank to porch to feeder, and gobble my chickadee feed. They hang on to a rusty horseshoe, permanently nailed to the doorjamb by my grandparents, which provides a toehold for their elongated bodies. Their weight tilts the feeder sideways, scaring away the flightier birds while the bravest continue to peck at a careening table. No squirrels today. In thick snow, they hide in tunnels under snowdrifts, and a gaggle of birds feed at the same time.

As daylight weakens, snow persists. In the twilight of four p.m., the birds have gone, sleeping somewhere somehow. No: a nuthatch lands for a last seed. The cow barn raises its dim shape. It was built in 1865, and I gaze at it every day of the year. A few years ago, when we had an especially snowy winter, I thought I would lose the barn. A yard of whiteness rose on the old shingles, and I could find no one to clear it off. The roof was frail and its angles dangerously steep. Finally friends came up with friends who shoveled it, despite its precariousness, and the following summer I hired a roofer to nail metal over the shingles. Shingle-colored tin disposes of snow by sliding it off. Now I look at the sharp roof of the carriage shed at the barn's front, where a foot of snow has accumulated. The lower two-thirds has fallen onto drifts below. The snow at the shed's metal top, irregular as the cliff of a glacier, looks ready to slide down. In the bluing air of afternoon, it is vanilla icing that tops an enormous cake. A Brobdingnagian hand will scrape it off.

Suddenly I hear a crash, as the snowplow strikes the end of my driveway. High in the cab sits my cousin Steve, who expertly backs and lurches forward, backs and lurches forward. The driveway is oval, with Route 4 flattening one end, and Steve executes the top curve with small motions of snow-budging, building great drifts back far enough from the driveway so that there's room for cars—and for Steve to pack away more snow when he needs to. It's his first visit for this snowstorm, and his plowing is incomplete. He will return with exact skill in the middle of the night, when the snow stops, and tidy the path among the drifts. When he thuds into the driveway at three a.m., I will hear him in my sleep and wake for a moment, taking pleasure from Steve's attack on drifts in the black night.

 

My mother turned ninety in the Connecticut house where she had lived for almost sixty years, and spent her last decade looking out the window. (My father died at fifty-two.) For my mother's birthday, my wife Jane Kenyon and I arrived at her house early, and at noon my children and grandchildren surprised Gramma Lucy with a visit. We hugged and laughed together, taking pictures, until I watched my mother's gaiety collapse into exhaustion. I shooed the young ones away, and my mother leaned back in her familiar Barcalounger, closing her eyes until strength returned. A few months later she had one of her attacks of congestive heart failure, only a week after her most recent. An ambulance took her to Yale–New Haven Hospital. Jane and I drove down from New Hampshire to care for her when she came home. She told us, “I tried not to dial 911.” She knew she could no longer live alone, her pleasure and her pride. We moved her to a facility attached to a hospital near us in New Hampshire.

She died a month short of ninety-one. Her brain was still good. A week before she died, she read
My Ántonia
for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain. Even so, her last months were mostly bleak. Her arthritic knees kept her to bed and chair, and the food was terrible. We visited every day until she died. A year later, Jane, at forty-seven, was dying of leukemia, and showed me poems she had been working on before she took sick. One was “In the Nursing Home,” about my mother at the end. Jane used the image of a horse running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller until they ceased.

 

Twenty years later, my circles narrow. Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer's. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody, and now when I shop or see a doctor, someone has to drive me. If I fly to do a poetry reading, my dear companion Linda Kunhardt, who lives an hour away, must wheelchair me through airport and security. I read my poems sitting down. If I want to look at paintings, Linda wheelchairs me through museums. New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It's better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

 

Generation after generation, my family's old people sat at this window to watch the year. There are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later. My grandmother Kate lived to be ninety-seven. Kate's daughter, my mother, owed her “early” death to two packs a day—unfiltered Chesterfields first, then filtered Kents. My mother was grateful to cigarettes; they allowed her to avoid dementia. Before senescence my grandmother looked out the window at Mount Kearsarge, five miles to the south. As I gaze in the same direction, I see only a triangle of foothill, because softwood has grown so tall that it gets in the way. When Kate was a child here, elms blocked the foothill. They grew tall on both sides of Route 4, some of them high enough to meet over the center of the road. When she was ninety-four, she stumbled on the porch outside the window. Her fractured shin put her in the hospital—Kate, who had never taken to bed except to bear children. Her hospital stay affected her mind. Three years later, in the Peabody Home, I sat beside her listening to Cheyne-Stokes breathing. I was holding her hand when she died.

 

After months of snow and snowbirds, I look out the window at flowers and a luxury of green leaves and always at the wooden ancient hill of the barn. For the last ten years in her house, my mother sat in her chair looking out a window, but she did not see what I see. She was born in this New Hampshire farmhouse, growing up when the barn was heavy with Holsteins, but turned old in my father's territory, on a street corner in the suburb of Hamden, Connecticut. She looked not at a barn but at other six-room houses built in the twenties. Twice a day she watched children walk by with their backpacks, ambling to school in the morning, returning in the afternoon. They attended Spring Glen Elementary School on Whitney Avenue, to which I had trudged for eight years when it was Spring Glen Grammar School. Midday in winter, she watched it snow, and watched the Connecticut birds, cousins to New Hampshire's, fly to the feeder outside her window.

With aching knees she hobbled to the kitchen to warm up canned clam chowder. From April through September, sitting by her window at night, she listened to WTIC from Hartford, carrying Boston Red Sox games. In middle age she had been a substitute teacher, and she was proud that a Red Sox broadcaster had been her pupil. Her father, in New Hampshire, followed the Red Sox by reading the
Boston Post
, which arrived two days after the games. My mother heard baseball as it happened, from the small radio beneath her ear, next to the ashtray. (In another room, an enormous steam-powered television showed a continual blank screen; she did not want to move from her chair.) The radio games replaced her window of schoolchildren and birds. During the months between baseball seasons she spent her nights reading
Reader's Digest
, Henry David Thoreau,
Time
, Robert Frost—and Agatha Christie.

My summer nights are NESN and the Boston Red Sox.

 

When I was a child, I loved old people. My New Hampshire grandfather was my model human being. He wasn't old. He was in his sixties and early seventies when I hayed with him, only seventy-seven when he died, but of course I thought he was old. He was a one-horse farmer—Riley was his horse—with an old-fashioned multiple farm. He raised cattle and sheep and chickens, with hives for bees and a sugarhouse for boiling sap into maple syrup. He worked every day all year, mostly from five a.m. to seven or eight at night—milking, lambing, fencing, logging, spreading manure, planting, weeding, haying, harvesting, each night locking up chickens against foxes. Summers I helped with farm work and listened to him reminisce. All year he walked rapidly from one task to another, in his good nature smiling a private half smile as he remembered stories, or recited to himself the poems he had memorized for school.

 

After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other—thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty—and then came my cancers, Jane's death, and over the years I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying—in the supermarket, these old ladies won't get out of my way—but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

BOOK: Essays After Eighty
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