September is a melancholy month, marking, as it does, the end of summer and, along with that, the traditional end of the summer vacation. Growing up on a resort lake, I was always of two minds about September. It did mean that the summer crowd was gone and control of the lake was relinquished to the few of us remaining. The departure of the summer crowd also meant saying good bye to summer friends. Addresses were seldom exchanged because, socially, we had little in common other than the lake. It was best that way as many would not be returning the following year anyway; their families seeking other vacation spots. One exception, a girl whose family vacationed at the lake for several summers running, was an occasional correspondent. A friend, we discovered we actually had little to talk about by our 15th year. Just as well, since it was obvious that her parents didn’t like me anyway. Status was all important in those days.
By September, summer is a slattern in her dotage. Summer always begins well, receiving well manicured lawns and bright, well organized gardens from spring. But that is always spring’s way. She beguiles people out of their winter doldrums and urges them into a frenzy of cultivation as inordinate sums of money are spent on foliage of every type. Summer receives this orderly landscape and then capriciously ignores it. She distracts those, who just a few weeks previously worked so hard to put things in order, into other pursuits and it is not long after her arrival that most people abandon what they so bravely began, leaving the results their labors to survive as best they can. As a result, things are quite messy by August and are in positive disarray by September. That weed that would have been pulled in May is considered not worth the bother in September. Gardens cascade into chaos.
Fall, the messiest of the four sisters, receives the dying vegetation, adds a few colors to it as the days shorten and grow cooler, but leaves the mess for us to clean up. Winter, when she arrives, receives a generally tidy, but bare, house. She makes no improvements but allows matters to fall into further disrepair as she slumbers, dreaming of ways to delay spring’s advent.
The preceding could be considered a fair description of our lives. The older we get, the less concerned we are about the outward trappings. Oh, we do keep things clean, but it seems to take longer, and there is always a certain disarray about our lives. Newspapers and magazines breed and multiply in the wee hours of the morning and we seem constantly to be putting more and more paper out for recycling while not really decreasing the size of the pile left behind. There are the exceptions, those people whose public lives appear meticulously ordered, but there is something sterile about such orderliness. Their homes have an unlived in look. I like to think that they have rooms not open to public view that would rival Fibber McGee’s closet; their contents overflowing into the rest of the house should some hapless person open the door by mistake. These ordered persons leave their descendants an uninteresting legacy of orderliness.
I, on the other hand, intend to leave a certain amount of disorder to my heirs. Having cleaned out, or helped clean out three houses, I found that the process of going through old papers, while fascinating, raises such questions as: why did my father-in-law keep gas receipts from the 1930s while at the same time marveling at the low cost of gas. The cheapness was relative; it was the Depression after all. Or running across the early 1900s funeral home receipt for my cousin’s mother’s funeral; $12 and change which included the cost of the casket. My great aunt’s family were great newspaper article clippers and saved a ream of clippings dating from the early 1900s until the early 1930s, when they abruptly ceased. They dealt with nothing particularly noteworthy and one has to wonder why they were kept. Perhaps someone asked a similar question and that was the reason they ceased. Either that or a box of subsequent clippings was somehow lost.
Some things I was happy to see kept. My great-grandmother’s dress forms. They are carefully wrapped in paper with the admonition that they be taken care of. I doubt that they are of any historic interest and suspect that they will not survive my passing. The same can be said of boxes made by my great-uncle over 100 years ago. They are well made and testify to his skill at wood burning. They may be of some curiosity value at some future point but since I am among the last to know the maker, they will have curiosity value only. “Gladys, did you see the box I picked up in the Thrift Store. Someone made it for his sweetheart in 1902. I thought I would look nice on the mantle.”
It is September which generates these thoughts; September, which balances between summer and winter, half way between the solstices. Fall is just a wayside on the way to the silence of winter. Brooding over my cup of tea as I reminded myself to reset the timer on the living room light (the days are growing shorter, you see), a review in the Washington Post Book World caught my eye; a review of Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes.
In the book, the author wrote: “For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out forever – including the jug – there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?” Perhaps because I have always had a morbid fascination with death, the words struck a chord. September’s Song, if you will.
Face it, death is the 500 pound gorilla in the room. You can ignore it, but the gorilla will not go away, often reminding you of his presence with the departure of some acquaintance, friend or relative. Depending on the closeness of the individual, you may nod on hearing of the death and continue on your way; you might attend the viewing; or, if it can’t otherwise be avoided, you might attend the funeral. The latter two events bring you closer to the event and cause you to reflect at even greater length on the possibility of your own demise. I have written before of this self reflection on the possibility of death; progressing from the youthful denial of the event to the realization, when you are more mature, that death might be inevitable after all.
When we lived in Munich, a group of us at the office used to read the obituaries in Munich’s main daily, The Sueddeutsche Zeitung. This ghoulish interest resulted from the passing observation of one our members that some of the expressions of grief contained in said obituaries were overblown. In the obituary on the death of a centenarian one reads the “the family was shocked by the untimely death.” Untimely! The individual was 100 years old. Wouldn’t you think that they had some inkling that granny was going to buy the farm sooner than later? Other expressions, “overcome by grief’ or “inconsolable,” also were quite common. In most cases, we were sure the grief was genuine but couldn’t help speculate that, on occasion, someone didn’t whisper inwardly, “it’s about time.”
Being a fan of old movies, I watch them frequently. Familiar faces populate the screen as musicals, mysteries, westerns and the occasional horror film unrolls. Yet, even as I watch them, I can’t help but ask myself if any of the people I see on the screen are still alive. There was a time when Native Americans did not want their photographs taken, believing (perhaps some still do) that the image captured their souls. Yet as I watch Bogart and Bergman part company in Casablanca, I can’t help but feel that a part of them lives in that scene, cheating time and capturing immortality.
Morbid thoughts. I personally plan to have Willard Scott announce my 100th birthday on the Today Show. What happens subsequently I leave to fate, realizing that someone might whisper, “it’s about time.”