It is Llea’s idea, to take Christmas to Mary Lane. Jolly coconspirators, we load a miniature Xmas tree, a Currier and Ives tin filled with fudge and cookies, a set of pretty blue glasses, a poinsettia, spools of wired ribbon, sparkling cider and a zip-up sweater for our frail 70-something friend living alone in her 90 year old farmhouse.
Llea warned me before she first introduced us that it is best to visit Mary Lane when you have no other agenda, nothing you personally need to do or say. Simply allow her to pour herself out, all those words and emotions with no other outlet, nowhere else to go since her heart condition (and probably a series of mini stokes) has compromised critical connections between the conceptual and executive branches of her brain, slowly extinguishing her ability to express her self in any cohesive way.
To be with Mary Lane is to enter her “world,” as she herself calls it, a psychological space devoted to the nature she has nurtured on her 50 acre farm and other transcendentalist and often romantic sensibilities: philosophy, prose, poetry, art, and music... Altho her thoughts scatter and roll in all directions like a broken strand of pearls, they are still pearls. Her manic monologues are rife with references to “beauty,” “depth,’ and “mystery.” And, sadly, with increasing frequency, “regret” and envy.”
The small shady yard looks a bit wooly and overgrown, but the pots on the porch have been painstakingly clustered together and covered with a sheet against the light freezes we’ve been having.
Llea pushes the front door open, calling out loud to Mary Lane. It is dim inside, more so than the three windows would suggest. A dusty film of age and neglect blunts edges and dulls colors. Spider webs lace the window frames while the detritus of ancient floral arrangements, faded, brittle and drooping combinations of synthetic and dried flowers and grasses, slowly compost on the table tops. The walls barely remember white. Scuffed now, the porous old pre-laytex paint has absorbed the stains and shadows--material and emotional--of decades of living. Heavy dark wood lintels and beams, also filigreed with spider webs, fight the light for supremacy in the high ceilinged room.
I remember when the furnishings of the 60s and 70s were shiny new and oh so modern, but nearly 50 years later remnants of that era are tired. The earth tone florals on the matching love seat and sofa need to be refreshed. The pink polyester blanket on the sofa is pilled and forlorn. Still, there are telling treasures here. My favorite thing in the room, a gloaming forest abstract painted by Mary Lane’s own hand, begs to be hung on a rich colored wall, deep warm blue, ochre or blood red that would reactivate the nuances of color on the canvas. The dusty baby grand piano and worn guitar and violin cases, deep cut crystal bowls, and a singular carved antique chair suggest once keen ears and eyes, but like Mary Lane herself they tend to get lost now in the haze of Havisham-ish loss, great expectations disappointed...
Mary Lane comes thru the kitchen door with an “OOOHHH” of pleasure on her lips and two open arms. I’m struck anew by the birdlike delicacy of her bones inside her oversize pants, layered shirts and her small stained powder blue quilted nylon jacket held together by a safety pin across the breast bone. The absence of the makeup she usually dons for visitors speaks of hastening decline. Her full head of black and grey hair is missing its normal curls as if it is too weary to hold its once graceful arcs and curves. Llea and I hug and pet her, feeling how insubstantial she is inside the old coat, under the salt and pepper cloud of hair that is softer than it looks. She is so excited, “OOHHH, OOHHH,!” she exclaims joyfully at a loss for words that scatter before her like a flock of starlings. “I, I, I don’t know what to --oh my--I can’t believe--OOHH, this is so wonderful--I feel like I could cry...”
She does cry before the visit is over. In the midst of watching us plug in the tree lights (altho it is a fake tree we’ve attached miniature old-world glass ornaments to it), pour cider and drape gold edged wire ribbon, (Mary Lane’s decor has fallen victim to time, but at her heart she appreciates the finer things, and it would be cruel to impose tacky or garish commercial decorations on her artistic sensibilities) Mary Lane, unaware that she has lost one lilac slipper buries her face into her hands, shuddering and weeping while we wrap our arms around her yet again, rocking her and stroking her head as if comforting a child...
“Oh, oh, you don’t know how much this means to me. I’ve been so so, so-- I didn’t even want it to be Xmas... since I can’t... I had--” She stammers, talks in starts and stops, struggling to remain on track, making it obvious how easily overwhelmed she is by even the simplest task these days. When words fail another hearty hug says it all.
The wood floor is lost beneath layers of blankets and carpet remnants Mary Lane put down for her labradors during their final illnesses. The layers of synthetic fibers caked with the black and brown fur of dead dogs triggers steammatic carpet cleaning fantasies in Llea and I. In fact we both itch to clean the room that speaks far more eloquently of lost powers than its mistress can. Ironically, Mary Lane’s obsessive compulsive tendencies have derailed her from basic cleaning tasks. Llea finds a washcloth and, giggling like kids about to be caught smoking in the girls room , we do some quick cleaning, swiping at the heaviest coatings of dust when Mary Lane mumbles her way in and out of the room, looking for some of her own Xmas decorations.
She comes back with a hand=made nativity from “South of Mexico.” I don’t know what that means exactly as I came into her life too late to hear more than fragments of her stories, but I like to imagine her in her prime, studying art, playing guitar with passionate young beatniks, a beautiful woman in Mexico wearing large silver and abalone earrings... Our humble offerings have sparked something and you can see it on her face, the memories that come flooding back to return her to herself however briefly.
That is why I invest so much time and energy into holiday preparations for my family, going to the trouble to dig the boxes out of my own attic, that crude and cramped time machine that takes me into Christmases past. A few bars of Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song and the ritual unpacking of lights, garland and ornaments floods my brain with endorphins. (However my mother might believe she has failed, she feasted us with her version of beauty for the holidays --the home baked goods and handmade ornaments, colored lights, fresh crows foot evergreen wrapped around the bannister, the rare experience of family unity as we decorated the tree together... Later, aroused by our interactions here today, I will call to tell her so, surprised by the raw emotion that clots my throat when I try to thank my mother for the precious memories and traditions she gave us.)
Mary Lane clasps her hands together in pleasure at the tiny changes in the room making the cider, cookies and fudge all the sweeter. Standing on the porch to say goodbye she gestures at the yard around us and says emphatically that she couldn’t see the beauty even in this, her heart’s delight before, but now--she gestures again forcing me to read between the broken phrases--color, texture and the simple grace of trees and nodding narcissus have been restored to her.
Mary Lane frets that she cannot give us anything in return. She confesses that she can’t even write a thank you note. She is sincerely bewildered by our loving regard as she has been stripped one by one of the layers of competence and identity she felt gave her worth. There was a time when we wouldn’t have had to explain the mysteries of love to her, but now...
She thinks we’re here as a Christmas present to her, but I know this natural high is one of the best gifts I’ll give myself this year.