As a young boy growing up in upstate New York, I sometimes roamed through some nearby woods and fields. As I did that one bright summer afternoon I came upon a large tree – perhaps an elm or poplar. I noticed that its trunk had a deep scar; it looked like it had been struck by lightning some years before.
That memory came to mind recently, while reading two recent New York Times articles about loss and love. They appeared on the same day, and reflected two very different kinds of life events. Yet I think they go together, in a way.
One was the “Modern Love” column in Sunday Styles, titled “Affirmation, Etched in Vinyl,” by Connie May Fowler. It was about the loss of her father from a heart attack, when she was six years old. Both parents appear flawed, apparently alcoholic. But Fowler describes her mother as having been intent on portraying her father as malignant. She writes that
“…most of what I knew of him came from my mother, who considered him the embodiment of evil.”
And most significantly,
“…My father’s death stole many things from me, including the sound of his voice.”
Ever since, she had longed to be able to know and hear what his voice sounded like. Well, it turns out that her father had somewhat of a career as a country and western singer.
“The lack of any memory of my father’s true living voice was all the more perplexing to me because before my birth, my father, Henry May, had enjoyed a reasonably successful run as a country-western musician. He had a television show in Jacksonville, Fla. He and his band, Henry May and his Rhythm Ramblers, were a major draw all along Florida’s northeast coast.”
In her essay, Fowler describes her search for a record that he had made along the way, as she looked in old record bins and on e-bay, over the years. Then, one day, she received a message from a stranger who had learned of her search and, in fact, had a copy of her father’s record in his possession. At last, she might be able to hear his voice. Here’s Fowler’s full story.
The other essay is “First Love, Once Removed,” by Lee Montgomery. It describes a drop-in visit by the son of her first lover, with whom she had many romantic and adventurous experiences in her early youth, during the 1970s.
“When I think of Ian, I think of endless days hanging out in the woods and fields around our New England prep schools, sucking dope out of a metal chamber pipe. Ian showed me the world and taught me to live in it. New York City. The Great West. And Europe, where we lived for several months during his first college year abroad. He was socially connected and wealthy, two things I was not. For a long time, it didn’t matter.”
Eventually, their relationship ended. No surprise, for two 18 year-olds. She went on with her life, married, began a career. He inherited money, married
“… had no career that I knew of and shot himself when he was in his 30s.”
The son, quite young at the time his father committed suicide, was now about the age Montgomery when she and his father were lovers. He had dropped by her office hoping to hear some stories of what his father was like. Montgomery’s essay describes how fresh and alive the memories felt to her, as she drew into them and spoke with her young lover’s son about his father:
“Sitting across a booth studying this young man, I was overwhelmed. So many years later, I was stunned to find the feeling of first love still there.”
The full article is here.
To me, these two essays read like bookends. Both portray the enduring loss of love and connection and how it affects us, permanently. No matter whether it comes from a child’s loss of a parent, from the ending of an adult love relationship at any age; or from an unexpected death. Or, for that matter, if the loss results from something you did that harmed or damaged a relationship that was important to you. None of those experiences can be undone. Their legacy becomes woven into the larger tapestry of your life, where it remains, even as that tapestry expands over time.
And that’s what brought to mind the old tree trunk. Damaged where the lightning had struck, I noticed that the trunk had continued to grow around it and gradually encompassed the damaged part within it. It was like ourselves: Even if we continue to grow and change, learn from our experiences and continue on with our lives, our losses nevertheless remains part of us…. always there, a visible, enduring part of our lives.