Looking back, looking ahead
As I sit down to write this, it is one of the last days of 2013. I am someplace in the woods of Connecticut under a bright winter sky. Squirrelled away in a greenhouse, I have a panoramic view of the seasons changing. As 2013 gives way, I find myself reflecting on those who have been part of my life, and about things I have done and those left undone. Regret and a wish to make amends dissolve into the usual resolutions: be a better person, read more, lose weight, be more thoughtful and walk.
In the run-up to the New Year, caught in my recurring search for metaphors, I also find myself thinking of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. He is the one depicted as having two faces: one looking back, one looking ahead.
Until this year, I hadn’t known that Janus was also the god of gates, passages and doors— and as such it seems entirely appropriate that his name has been immortalized in the first month of our calendar and that he presides over our entrance into a new year.
So it is I find myself mulling over the past, even as I make promises to the future. In thinking about those who’ve left us and about how we work through the emptiness they’ve left behind, I’m aided by the tug of memory — a hidden room in which they linger and which I carry around within me. Each year I puzzle about how to step from that room, about what to take into the New Year and what to leave behind.
Taking music with me
For me, a good part of what to take is music — starting with what’s floating around in my head at the moment: Chanukah songs and Christmas carols, Tchaikovsky’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” My love of music comes directly from my mother. My recollections of her are filled with melodies.
She brought home recordings of every musical that punctuated my childhood and my siblings’ — everything from “Oklahoma” to “South Pacific.” When the “wind came sweeping down the plains,” we kids whirled into dance with her from room to room of our house.
And even Dad got into the act every now and then, singing a few bars of “Five-foot two, eyes of blue,” with his own eyes twinkling as he gazed at his Rosie (our Mom) in his own special way.
An incurable romantic, she loved all the current pop songs and ballads and kept the radio or record player going all day — filling up the house with tunes which have subsequently burrowed deeply into my consciousness. There they have woven their way into the innermost layers of memory to be called forth instantaneously — like Proust’s madeleines — by a title or a lyric.
In the midst of the everyday chaos of a growing family — juggling the household expenses and balancing the emotional demands of four lively, but very different, children — my Mom and Dad infused music and great doses of fun into our lives on a daily basis. It was a conscious act on each of their parts.
When we moved into a new home, one of the first things Dad did was to have a family room built for us. He wanted us to have our own space for play and for having friends over. When I was a teenager, it easily became a place to have parties and in which to dance to the pop music of the day.
But it wasn’t just our space, as I became aware quite accidentally. One night awakened from sleep by the light strains of music floating up to my bedroom, I went down to discover Mom and Dad, in deep embrace, dancing at midnight — with the lights turned down — to a favorite love song: “Dancing in the Dark,” sung by Frank Sinatra.
I’ll be seeing you
They were also perennial optimists, my parents: always believing in the promise of the future, in our own resources to make ourselves “to be whatever you want to be,” as they repeatedly told us. They also believed — even when we didn’t believe in ourselves — in our capacity to realize our dreams and to become good people.
Shortly after my Mom’s death, I was standing at the Bluffs looking out over the ocean. When I turned, I saw the words on the back of someone’s T-shirt: “I’ll be seeing you” it read. Instinctively, I filled in the lyrics that followed in one of her favorite ballads: “… In all the old, familiar places/ That this heart of mine embraces…”
For the moment, my mother reached out of our common past to whisper a tune to me — tell me once again as she always had — to “Remember, when one door closes, another is waiting to open.”
I am aware that I romanticize my childhood and my parents — perhaps we all do — but my mother’s message of doors closing and opening has resonated with me and with her grandchildren for some time.
Without knowing it, my mother was in sync with Janus, god of beginnings, annually offering us a gate into new, fresh possibilities. Closing the chapter on 2013, as we are stepping into the New Year, hopefully we are taking up a new slate — one in which to discover our better selves and to make a better world — to take this one more chance to get it right.
To all our island friends, we Treehouse dwellers wish you a Happy New Year!