when the sun turns traitor cold

My father and I have always had a fall connection, a deep and shared affection for the moment when the world turns crisp and things must die to make us feel alive. We’re both suckers for that hangnail moment between summer lush and ice-blue stillness, the liminal season of decay before the sleep. The smell of wood smoke, rotting apples, and the Urge for Going.

I spent teenage years sailing down the grey snake roads of South Vermont, listening to Blue and Hits and feeling deeply understood by both my father and the warbling woman on the discman hooked up to the tape deck. “Urge for Going,” I always thought, belonged on Blue, the album that taught me my own melancholy—with its tenderness and too-young-to-be-threadbare heart, so different from the husky hard stuff I’d grow into later. Turns out, this was a last minute omission, and the song wound up on Hits instead, some twenty-five years later. Though my taste for her would only deepen, through twisting meters, murky decades, acid sounds—and that’s where Dad and I diverge—these two albums, played in autumn, were then (and always will be) gateway drugs to my own sadness.

Back then, of course, I thought the song was all about inertia. I get the urge for going but I never seem to go. And by the time she said she’d like to call back summertime and have her stay for just another month or two, I figured her a fool. The kindling and the blankets and the recognition of the rhythm of it all—cold and terrible as that could be—was beautiful enough, for me, to lock the vagrant winter out. I welcomed the spindly embrace of frozen branches. I welcomed the harbingers of silent stillness. And of course the exodus, my father’s favorite line: the geese in chevron flight.

Come In From The Cold always hit me harder; it always seemed to have the most autumnal twang, to match the palette of the flaming leaves, to echo best the new chill in my sternum. Now I’m older and my mother’s dead and I realize I understood so little then—about sex and loss and just how quickly seasons blur and pass. Urge for Going isn’t about leaving or not leaving, turns out. It’s about being left behind.

~

I’ve just returned from three weeks’ travelling—a long weekend in Ireland to mark what would have been my mother’s sixtieth, and two weeks in the south of Spain.

It’s easy to see why all the grievers say it feels like yesterday. In olden days, I’d probably be the one afraid to change out of her mourning crepe. Refusing to take off the armband, that invisible black stripe I’ve worn for months. And stalling, stalling, waiting for time to work its unknowable magic—waiting to restart my life in case, like Didion’s husband looking for his shoes, she might be coming back?

The letter was waiting in the mailbox on the day that I came home. My mother’s estate had closed—some eternity of months after the fact, some synchrony of paying off each other’s debts. Cue the deep breath in the dark before the hibernation. No more lawyers, creditors, or banks. No more of the endless paperwork of death and dying. This is it. The waiting over, and with it, the chance for all of it to be a drawn-out dream.

I’ve been waiting, also, for permission—her permission—to begin again. For the pending status finally to pass, in every fold of my life. I learned this out there, in those strange and fitful moments of aloneness in another place, both tethered and untethered to what feels like home. Losing pieces, leaving pieces of myself. Bringing other new ones back.

Good news, I realize, will never come as shockingly or swiftly as the bad; good news must be manufactured, brick by optimistic brick.

 

~

On the top shelf of B’s closet, tucked behind his hammock and his kilt: That’s where I’ve kept my mother’s overnight bag. The one I couldn’t bring myself to go through last July in her apartment, or even this July in mine. For months, even the smell of it unzipped—her makeup and her perfume, the smell of all her womanly ablutions—was just too intimately hers to bear.

As if to show the void that I can do this (be alive again, grow up, write books, have babies, build some small amount of meaning in this world), I took it down. I opened it, and breathed her in, and spread all of her wee things out across the study floor: her pills, her hormone syringes, her portable salon of nail kits—complete with cuticle pusher-backers (two), hair tonics and face creams (innumerable), hairbrushes, hand cream, Shalimar (when did she switch to that?), her makeup brushes, assorted pots of display-only cosmetics, allergy medicine, anti-anxiety medicine, anti-leg-cramp medicine, antacids, contact lens equipment, hairspray, and—

And nothing. Apart from the fact that, apparently, she had started taking passion flower, there were no secrets to discover. I saved the almond-scented hand cream she almost certainly found at TJ Maxx or Stein Mart. I saved the Shalimar, though it smells all wrong. I saved one of the weather-beaten hairbrushes and her painter’s case of facial ones. And I kept a nail clipper for good measure; she was always after me to trim my nails.

The rest I’m letting go. I’m ready to. I must.

But I will miss the idea of that smell. Her smell. And in it, all her rituals of primping. Her traveling cohort of cosmetic help (though I never really thought she needed any). It was always up there on that shelf, one unzip away: that wall of memory, talc and mineral, the residue of gel and spray on brush bristles, the trace of so much else.

Stuff, I realize, is only stuff. She is not in the flaming coral lip colors, or the tube of brow de-greyifier. She is not in this pile of stale makeup and plastic combs at all. I know where I can find her and it isn’t inside any overnight bag on any shelf in any corner of this house. It’s out there where I left her, in her element. In water.

Besides, that smell is always hers. If I put on lipstick, Loreal or any other, I am wearing her. She’s in every hairspray, every dust of blush. I do not get ready for an evening out without her, for better or for worse.

 

~

The song is not a song of shoring up for winter. It is a song of loss. A song for when the meadow grass is turning brown. One morning, soon, I’ll wake up to feel this year’s frost perched on the town, and all the summer-colored boys and leaves and geese will be long gone. (She’s got the urge for going / So I guess she’ll have to go.)

But I have bricks now. Enough to lock the vagrant winter out and bolt my wanderings in. We who stay must die a little, maybe, while the live things leave, but then the spring and sun (and yes even the boys and leaves and geese) will all come back. Another year will have passed, without warning or announcement.

This time, though, I want to watch it coming through the naked trees.

 

 

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