Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Place of Peace by Susan Hart

Blessed with clear blue skies and the company of family and friends, we began our married life. The tiny stone chapel was bathed in the fragrance of lilacs, soft purple and white, fresh-picked from the bushes in our yard. The music we selected and the vows we wrote ourselves provided the framework for our beautiful wedding.

After a joyful send-off we left the reception and headed for Vermont. Our plans for the week were open-ended. Our one specific destination was the Old Tavern Inn at Grafton, where a bottle of wine, a fruit basket and one night’s gracious lodgings awaited us, our wedding gift from Ben’s employer. We headed west-northwest steering clear of all the main roads. The journey itself was at least as important as the destination. The Putney Inn served as a suitable stop on our first night. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and a clean, safe, but unremarkable motel room.

The next day dawned with the same beautiful weather that had blessed our wedding, and we headed out with the same spirit for moving at our own pace on our back road adventure. With our love and Ben’s natural sense of direction to guide us, we arrived in Grafton by midmorning.

The entire village is quaintly preserved, appearing as it did in the nineteenth century. There are no billboards, traffic lights or power lines. Outwardly, it is untouched by modern times. Yet, it is vibrant and clearly full of life. Villagers patronize the Grafton Village Store, the library, and the art galleries. Children play in the schoolyard. It is not so much a place lost in time, as it is a timeless place that you feel blessed to have found.

The Old Tavern Inn is unquestionably the centerpiece of the village, a grand three-story white structure with an open wraparound porch. We knew without a doubt that we had reached our destination even before we parked the car and walked past the carriage barn to the entrance.

As you enter from the parking lot you first encounter the Kipling Room. A warming fireplace on one wall and a deep-set window on each of the other two are all that interrupt the three walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Furnished in comfy antique wing-backed chairs, this little nook of a room invites you to sit and shed the road dust from your weary soul. It is a place where, once fully rested, you’d return either for some solitary time with a good book or a stimulating exchange of ideas with fellow travelers.

We stayed in Room 4. With its canopy bed, fine sheets, and plush linens, we were surrounded by understated luxury.

Our entire honeymoon week was a grand and joyful time, but our two days at the Old Tavern were truly magical.

On our first anniversary, still filled with those magical memories, we treated ourselves to a weekend trip to the Old Tavern. We stayed in Room 4 again. The reality matched the fantasy of our honeymoon memories.

Over the next several years it became our sacred tradition to head to Grafton for our mid-May celebration of our life together, a time just for us.

In the days, weeks, and months between our annual trips to Grafton, we built a life together. We grew and changed and got to really know each other. You know, all those unique yet common experiences, all those ups and downs that make a marriage. The details of those times constitute a longer and different story than the one I’m trying to tell here. Yet, without some glimpses into our day-to-day life this story has no soul.

Generally, my Ben was a man of few words. But, on occasion he would wax poetic and talk in detail about his feelings, beliefs, and dreams. Once, and I really don’t remember what got him going on the subject, he told me that, in his next life, he’d like to return as a library cat. He imagined that he’d laze all day in a sunny bay window and be petted and pampered by all the library’s patrons. And then, at night, when everyone had gone home, he’d be alone with all those books and could read to his heart’s content. That was his idea of heaven.

Our Grafton getaways always included an element of adventure. Using the inn as home base, we would head out on long drives through the Vermont countryside. We mapped out a different route each time, so we’d manage to explore new places and to revisit old favorites. Once we brought the motorcycle on the back of the truck. First, we enjoyed a relaxing evening at the Old Tavern and, then, next morning, we headed off on two wheels.

As we moved through life we tried to celebrate each blessing and accept each challenge. God in his wisdom doesn’t give us a crystal ball to see what the future has in store. In the fall after our sixth anniversary, and our seventh annual trip to Grafton, Ben was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The diagnosis came after many, many months of disturbing symptoms and inconclusive testing. In some respects, it was a relief to finally have a name for what was happening, and at the same time, it was very frightening. The doctors couldn’t really tell us how the disease would affect him. Their assessment was that he had a mild to moderate case. There were medications intended to slow down the disease process and there were regular visits to the neurologist. Otherwise, life went on much as it had, at least for a while.

By the time of our eleventh anniversary, the disease was really taking its toll. The previous winter, Ben had become unable to continue working. We were still waiting for his Social Security benefits to begin. Ben had all but lost his ability to walk on his own. He used arm-gripping crutches to get around in our tiny house and to help in transferring to and from his wheelchair. With assistance, he was able to get in and out of the car but could no longer drive, because the MS was also impacting his vision and hand strength.

Still, neither of us was ready to fully abandon our sacred annual ritual. So we used our hard-learned skills at coping and adapting to come up with a modified plan for our annual adventure. Since the trip took less than two hour each way, we’d drive to Grafton, have dinner at the inn and then drive home. It wasn’t quite the same as our usual two-day getaway but we were there and so was the magic. That trip left us both exhausted and enriched.

We were never able to return.

Over the next fourteen years we faced life as it came. We received what seemed like more than our share of both joy and pain. We laughed every day and we cried when we had to. Medical challenges abounded. Little by little…and sometimes big by big…Ben’s disease took away just about all of his physical function. Ultimately, he was unable to move any muscles below his neck. As his body weakened, it seemed his spirit found strength. He attained a peacefulness that had often been missing in his younger life.

Despite all our losses, we had much to celebrate. Our love for each other sustained us. With the assistance of home health care services and an understanding physician, we were able to keep Ben safe, and happy, and cared for in our home right up to the evening in June when he died peacefully in his sleep.

The following May, I took a trip. I had long known that on that first anniversary as a widow I would head to Grafton. Months earlier, I made a call to the Old Tavern to make my reservation. I shared my story with the desk clerk and added my request to stay in Room 4.

As I set out on my solitary journey, the misty cool weather was more a comfort than a hindrance. I savored each leg of the journey, remembering familiar landmarks, and noting the many changes along the way. Ben’s spirit was with me.

I arrived in Grafton without incident. And, although the sky remained overcast, the steady drizzle, which had been with me all day, lifted as if in welcome. I checked in just in time for afternoon tea in the main lobby and then set out on a walk around the village. I browsed in a gift shop, new since our last visit, where I purchased a handmade syrup pitcher decorated with forget-me-nots…the perfect addition to my blue and white kitchen. After a pleasant conversation with the salesclerk, I resumed my walk passing the Village Store, the public library, and the schoolyard. Completing the loop back around to the inn, I took my bags from the car and was ready to settle into my room.

Room 4 was wonderfully unchanged in nearly every detail. The canopy bed, the antique lithographs, and the cozy chairs by the window were all still there just as I remembered them from that first visit twenty-seven years earlier…so comfortable and so comforting.

Caring friends had expressed their concern that this trip might be too emotionally painful for me. However, except for a touch of melancholy while sitting alone for dinner, there was no need for them to worry. It was a very emotional experience. But I didn’t feel pain, I felt joy. I was here for the pure remembering. I had lived so very long with the Ben who was so very ill. I needed to remember the Ben who was young, and strong, and whole. This was the place to find those memories.

My heart and mind were so full that I slept lightly and woke early. Remembering that coffee would be set up in the lobby, I dressed and went downstairs to quietly start my day. I was alone in my reverie. No other early risers for company, I felt content with the richness of my experience and the rightness of being exactly where I was. Sitting in the Kipling room, I contemplated how to make the most of the day I had ahead of me. Inspiration struck me, as lightning does, strong and clear. I had a mission.

Returning to my room, I took a single page from my journal and wrote very briefly of Ben’s life and death. I outlined the role the Old Tavern had played in our marriage, mentioned his library cat fantasy, and explained my return visit as a widow. My note ended with these words:

“ It seems fitting that he be remembered here. May his spirit touch all who pass and may this be a place of peace.”

Note in hand, I went downstairs again and, to my delight, found the Kipling Room empty. I selected an obscure and solitary volume in the corner of a high but reachable shelf, entitled “Collier’s Yearbook 1946”. I choose this particular book for two reason; first, because Ben was born in 1946 and second, because it seemed a book less likely than others to be disturbed from its place on the shelf. I opened this yearbook to its section on New York City…for that’s where Ben was born…. and carefully placed my note inside before returning the book to the shelf.

I had accomplished my mission in complete secrecy and now my dearest Ben could be that contented library cat for all eternity.

After indulging in a leisurely breakfast overlooking the budding courtyard garden, I gathered my belongings and went down to the front desk to checkout. The desk clerk who assisted me in settling my account was the same young woman with whom I had spoken on the phone months earlier. She remembered our conversation and expressed her sincere hope that my visit had matched my expectations. I assured her that it had.

Because the cool and rainy weather had persisted, I did not linger around Grafton and the inn as long as I had originally thought I might. It’s never been an easy place to leave, even on a rainy day, but I knew by early afternoon that it was time to head for home.

As spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, I set about the business of moving on with life. I made progress on some long overdue home renovations and socialized more with friends, old and new. Occasionally, I told the story of my trip to Grafton and the library cat note. My story was always well received, and I felt so much joy and peace of mind about the tribute I had fashioned.

Then, on a crisp December day I walked out to get my mail. There among the bills and endless advertisements was an envelope from the Old Tavern. I was mystified and excited. I jokingly said, “I bet I’ve won a all-expense-paid weekend.” I opened the envelope and read the following:

Dear Susan,
We are farmers and cheesemakers on a one-night holiday from our flock of sheep writing Christmas cards after a dinner here. Having browsed the library we had the good fortune to come across your note in celebration of Ben’s life and last wishes. We were touched…what a fine subtle memorial…a library cat. When our time comes he will have company if there is room.

Until then our very best wishes for peace in this season and for always.
Bob and Ann

Soon my eyes filled with tears. I had never seriously believed that my note would actually be found. But now, right here in my hand, was evidence that not only had it been found but also that those who had found it were moved to write this beautiful note. I was overwhelmed.

Now that my story had an amazing new chapter, I shared it with just about everyone in my life. I think my aunt put it best when she said, “It’s as if Susan wrote a fairy tale and it came true!”

I am ashamed to admit it here in print, but I am both a perfectionist and a procrastinator. I kept the sheep farmers’ note in the to-do pile on my desk and told myself repeatedly that I needed to make time to compose a suitable reply. Months passed and I never seemed to get to it; that’s the way with procrastinators. Finally, I knew I had to set a deadline for myself and the perfect deadline presented itself, that special day in May. Here is my reply:

Dear Bob and Ann,
I am writing to you now, days before my twenty-eighth wedding anniversary. A year ago, I was preparing for my solitary journey to the Old Tavern. Though bittersweet in some respects, my time there was about love and celebration and healing. My idea to secretly place my library cat tribute in the Kipling Room came to me in the early morning on the day of my departure with the brilliance and clarity of an epiphany. My gesture felt complete and powerful on its own; I had given my Ben’s spirit a fitting place of peace.

The thought that my note might someday be found by an Old Tavern lodger was a fantasy I sometimes indulged, a hope that in that magic environment others might feel the aura of his life and our love.

And then your letter arrived…I was moved to tears, tears of joy and amazement. In the days and weeks that followed I shared the story and your letter with family and friends, sending out concurrent waves of that joy. Among the many blessings of the holiday season, your letter truly stands as the greatest.

So, please, know how deeply I appreciate you…for finding my note and being moved by it, but, moreover, for writing to me. Even my terrible tardiness in writing back cannot diminish the power of your gift.

I’m enclosing a favorite photo of Ben and me taken in 2003. Despite the toll of his illness, his love of life shines through.
Hoping this finds each of you, and your flock, awash in the beauty and wonder of spring’s return, I am deeply and warmly yours,
Susan Hart

I know that through all of this, somewhere in heaven a library cat purrs.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Beginnings

I started this Blog in 2005 as part of my Old Time Music site. I used it to answer questions and write about music and things I found interesting. After about two years I ran out of energy and ideas. The Blog floundered and I let it lapse.

I am once again at loose ends so I decided to revitalize this Blog and start fresh. The theme is New Beginnings. I will be adding posts as time allows and welcome other contributors.

Join the New Beginnings Community and add your comments.