December 2000


It was 1943 when my dad went to North Africa and my mother brought us down river from Canaan, Vermont to Newbury. They had been married barely four years and we were aged one, two and three. She was young and a looker, strong willed, lively and optimistic. It made sense.


In a leaky little house about a mile south of the cemetery where she now lays mother taught us kids to sing Christmas carols. There in the place the Algonquians called ‘land of the great pine’ the wind and snow rattling the window beside the old Motorola the four of us sang together. We were too young for pretension and mother, knowing it, had none either. Each had their favorite. Fifty-five years have passed and I can still hear mine as if it were yesterday: Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright.


My father did not return from the war. No. Divorce. He stayed in Germany to work for the CIA and then became a Foreign Service Officer, married a beautiful German girl and spent the rest of his career abroad and in Washington. He never missed a payment and every few years he visited.


Once later in life when I was a man I asked him a question that haunted me; what happened, Dad, between you and mom? There was a long pause and he said. “Oh I don’t know. The war I guess.” The truth was in his voice not his words. He had issued a man’s lie and not to protect himself.  My father was very brave and a gentleman. But it was mother I loved. And he knew it.


Back in Newbury her life had became hard and then even brutal. It was tough in those days, a divorced woman in a small town with three little kids. She worked hard. She tried to be a father too. And mostly failed. We never had a car and it was a one-store town. But mostly it was the loneliness. Too many New Year’s Eve’s alone. Too many things that broke that she didn’t know how to fix. There were men in her life and one especially (a farmer bachelor just south of the village) I was routing for. But none of them took.


And no one ever stayed over. And I never went hungry. And she was always there. In my younger wild days when the selfishness and arrogance of early manhood trumped compassion and understanding my recurring memory was of her sitting at the kitchen at night playing solitaire and smoking cigarettes. The sadness of a single woman left by her children to face age and bygone dreams alone was beyond me. No one with which to share the terror, no one to dry her tears, no one to understand. 


I don’t know exactly when the booze took over. But by high school I was on the look out for hidden bottles to try to preserve some order at Christmas. And I do remember the day when as a young man I drove her to Waterbury to be dried out by the state. Three weeks later I drove her home and she told me with her great sense of humor how she had deliberately set the representative from AA (who said she had a physiological addiction that was incurable) to fighting with the resident psychiatrist (who said she was beset by mental afflictions that could be treated.) “Damn fools.” She chuckled.


I dropped her off at home and went down to Charlie’s to help with chores. By the time I got home she was dead drunk in bed. But she left a note on the kitchen table. “No one is going to tell me what I can and can’t do.”   What a woman.


Mom bottomed out in Washington, DC in 1983, where she had been living with my sister for several years. They found her drunk and half dead on the street.


So she came back to Newbury and lived out the rest of her life. Mostly sober. As her mind slipped away Dave and I slowly took over trying desperately to keep her in the old house she loved so much. But you know the story. I could feed her and did. I could not change her diapers.


It was the Christmas of 1993. I had picked her up from the nursing home to spend Christmas with us. She would recognize almost no one. It had been a year since she had called me by name. There would be no reasoned conversation. Only mutterings and random sentences wrapped in confusion and even fear. The presents would be meaningless. The mother I knew had been gone for years.


As we sat in the car waiting for my daughter’s return to her place in Shelburne  where were to have Christmas a light snow fell sending long tears melting down the windshield in the dusk of an early evening. Over the mummer of the engine a local station was playing Christmas music. There we sat. Alone. It had been a long haul since mom had moved to Newbury a half century earlier.


Then from the radio came the song. Silent night.” “Holy Night.” and in strong, clear tones and in perfect tune my mother began to sing along: “All is calm. All is bright.” She needed no prompting so clear her memory. Round yon virgin, mother and child.  Then she turned to me and said. “You sing too Bootsie. This is your favorite.”


And I did. The circle was complete; I the mother and she the child, nothing to confuse the bond. “Holy infant so tender and mild.”


I suppose it came from some random mix of brain waves or quirk of biology whereby the avenues of memory in her tired old mind were triggered to respond to tissue not yet quite dead. The explanation was simply physiological the scientists would tell us. Nothing more. It was an odd juxtaposition of happenstances but clearly no big deal.




But perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps what happened is explained by the existence of a distant paradise called Newbury. There in the sweet melancholy of an August afternoon only the locust cry and from the backyard is heard the laughter of children at their play.  A breeze touches the cheek of someone young and beautiful, someone whose spirit is free of demons and whose heart is filled with love.


She looks down the road that winds through the village. First as but a longing but then with joyous certitude an incandescent truth emerges. Toward her through the dance of shadows cast by a canopy of ancient elms – there comes a soldier.


Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace