As I scroll through the photographs from last weekend’s escape to the sea, I think about the people with whom I have never gotten to share my new life. My mother, my little brother — gone these many years. But living folks, too: My sister Joyce, my other siblings, most of my friends from the Midwest. I walk along the shoreline at Goat Rock State Park and imagine them beside me.
My brother Frank would fold his arms across his chest and spare a small smile. He might recall urging me not to tell him that I planned to live in a damn trailer park. He would look across the bay towards the sea. He might laugh, a bit ruefully. He might admit that living seventy miles inland from such majesty seems worthwhile, especially given the beauty of the California Delta in which my house sits snuggled between the San Joaquin and a lush meadow.
Joyce’s voice through the phone this morning brings me home. We open our presents in turns, first she, then I. She exclaims over the ribbon candy and chocolate-covered cherries reminiscent of our mother’s Christmas table. I cry when I turn the handle of the little music box and hear the delicate strains of “You Are My Sunshine”. We laugh over the layers of bubble wrap with which our clumsy fingers fumble, in tandem, with such similarity that the struggle falls way to amusement. I tell her about the little shop in Pacifica where I found her necklace. We discuss the shepherd’s hook on which I might hang the angel windchime.
In the weeks which I spent downsizing before I sold my house in Kansas City, I found a letter that my brother Stephen had written from New Orleans. To be brutally honest, I could not remember receiving it. I could not have told you that my little brother had fled his nightmares in St. Louis for the south. But he clearly had.
In the letter, he described his feelings about the life he had escaped and the refuge which he longed to find. I sat in my empty dining room and wept. Many times since his death in 1997, I have wondered if I could have helped him. I realize this is survivor’s guilt. As my brother Frank once said, “Our Dad was an asshole and our little brother killed himself. Tell me what’s happened in the twenty years since then.” I know that I have a right to my life, to beauty, to joy, to the splendor of the ocean landscape.
But I would give damn near anything to have Steve walk beside me on the shores of the Pacific.
He would be sixty-one today. Perhaps I shed these tears for him, for what he will never know and never experience. But I think my sorrow flows from something more selfish — the thought that I can never see the rays of the setting sun on his face, and the bitter knowledge that I did not appreciate the experience when I had the chance.
Yet my brother will not be sixty-one today except in my imagination. I remember Christmas shopping with him in St. Louis forty years ago. I had come from Kansas City by train with no gifts for anyone, and he took me to a mall to buy whatever I could find at the last minute.
We had a drink in some open-plan bar gazing out over the shoppers in the atrium below us. He carried my packages. He bought himself a fancy pair of socks and some trinket for our mother. We wandered from store to store, talking about the various challenges which I faced in my first year of law school. He chain-smoked while I kvetched about my work-study job and the lack of convenient parking.
Finally, over an Irish coffee and a half-eaten sandwich, he studied my face for a long uncomfortable moment. He looked away for a second, then asked me, in a quiet voice, if I was happy, if I was glad that I’d decided to move and try something radically different. I knew he wanted a real answer and tried to give him one. But my heart could not. I rattled on about the potential of my hopeful new profession, about what job I might get, and where I might decide to live after I graduated. My voice trailed away. Into the silence, he nodded.
I had not fooled him.
Last weekend, in the Guerneville Lodge where I stayed for one dreamy night, I sat at a massive live-edge oak table looking out over an expanse of green above the Russian River. My little brother’s question returned to me. I considered. There I was: Alone; a bit worried about my health; missing my son, my family, and my friends. But was I happy? Despite the challenges, the underlying homesickness, and lingering uncertainty about the wisdom of my drastic move, was I, after all, happy?
I could feel the steady gaze of my little brother, your friend and mine, Stevie Pat, waiting for my response. I held his gaze and promised to give him an answer before Christmas next year. I intend to keep that promise.
It’s the twenty-fifth day of the eighty-fourth month of My [Endless] Year [Striving to Live] Without Complaining. Life continues.
I believe there are 37 photos in this gallery. I did not resize them so they might load a bit slowly. Enjoy.
For the uninitiated, the title of this entry comes from my childhood. My full given name is “Mary Corinne”, though I have not used the “Mary” since I was 17 except among my siblings. However, as a child, my family called me “Mary” and every Christmas, my mother labelled my presents, “Merry Christmas to Mary Corinne”.