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Ashes and Flowers

Ashes and Flowers

 

            As many of you know, Linda suffered from a clutch of degenerative genetic conditions—Raynaud’s, scleroderma, pulmonary hypertension—that while they incrementally limited her mobility, never sapped her optimism, her good cheer, or her ability to be a loving friend and a supportive member of her many communities. She gloried in our kids, our partnership as scholars, her crafts, and the flower-encased home we built here in Santa Cruz Etla. During the last six months the three conditions, complicated by some nasty infections like C-diff (claustridium difficile), increased her discomfort. After a spell in a hospital here in Oaxaca, and a month of attentive and loving care by the pulmonary hypertension specialists in Rhode Island Hospital, she died on October 24.

 

Linda left an enormous hole in the lives of many people. Just how enormous became clear to me as emailed condolences poured in.

 

Despite (and possibly as a consequence of) her lifelong dedication to scholarship about holy places and pilgrimages, Linda was not a religious person. She insisted that there be no funeral, no traditional burial, but rather that her ashes be scattered in the little flower garden—dahlias and geraniums, lavender and rosemary—between our casa and the casita. She never liked being the center of attention, and she wanted no ceremony, no formal memorial act. I complied completely with her first wish, and partially with the second. Our friends here in the Etla Valley, both Mexicans and international ex-pats, felt her loss individually and also collectively, as part of a community whose members very consciously support each other as we grow old(er) here together.  So as a community we scattered Linda’s ashes in the garden, informally, but with ceremony improvised to reinforce the ties between our joy and sorrow, loss and determination, and celebration of life that lives on in its impacts on others.

 

            Deborah was here in Santa Cruz to help with the setup, and Abby, from Indiana by phone, to advise on details. We began, of course, by baking 250 chocolate chip cookies, remarkably without burning any and with sampling only a few.

 

 


The three of us scoured our photo archives and tagged about 30 photos of Linda over the last 40 years: in the archives, on the pilgrimage road, in the Wind River Mountains, teaching, hanging out with family and friends, the two of us as a couple. We printed them out and taped them up on the windows of the casa, so that the terrace became a photo gallery of a life.

 

                          


 

On the trunk in the dining room we laid out the 10 (!) books that Linda published, 5 in collaboration with me and 5 with other scholars, some of them our former students. We set out as a memorial book for comments one of the art-paper books that Linda had created. We had our gardener Lauro prepare the flower garden for the ashes.

 


 

 

                                                            

 

            People gathered late on Tuesday afternoon. I had placed Linda’s ashes in one of her favorite fancy Puebla-style soup tureens, and set the bowl on a beautiful wooden stepstool that our friend Luis Shein (philosopher, mathematician, and master carpenter) gave us when he and Miriam moved from Oaxaca to California. A large scallop-shell silver-plate spoon, again one of Linda’s favorites, served as the scoop. About thirty of us formed a ragged circle around the flower garden.

 

 


 

The girls and I had planned a brief ceremony in four movements. After a few words noting how Linda had a talent for taking joy in just about everything, from the extraordinary to the mundane, I read one of the poems that I had written to Linda over the years, one that in spite of its goofiness was one of her favorites. I wrote it in 1977, when we lived in Nebraska, 40 years ago almost to the day.

 

         Balloons

 

There is this muskrat

burrowing in the basement

of the Satellite Tabernacle

Gospel Church

on South 13th Street,

which is not all that far,

you know, from the river.

The whole Satellite

Tabernacle Gospel Church

shines brighter than toothpaste.

I mean, by God, somebody

must have flossed

that steeple just

this morning.

But, the building is old,

and some of the brickwork—

which used to enfold

German Lutherans,

and then some Moravian

minions, and afterwards

an assembly or two

of Eastern Orthodox,

before this particular

congregation—

has gone to dust

and let the muskrat in

to nest, and consort with kin,

and drag breakfast

from the cans behind the bars

and Ethnic Sandwich stores

on South 13th Street.

 

As a matter of fact,

I never did see

the muskrat at the Satellite

Tabernacle Gospel Church, since

I just made him up,

you know, but I did

see the balloons

through the place in the panes

where the purple rhombus

should have been.

Woman, by some miracle

those balloons were dancing

in the rhymelight,

throwing off lumens,

trailing praised-be’s

and amens

and hear-me-Jesus’s

like so many strings of feathers.

You know, those crazy

balloons had more colors

in them

than the senate has sinners

or a catbird has songs;

 

and if my fingers

were even the slightest bit

magic,

I would have picked

a bunch of those balloons

to give you a bouquet,

my love, that you would not

believe!

 

            From the email outpouring of condolences I had printed a dozen comments, which we passed around the circle so that each was read aloud by a different voice, and after each selection Deborah or I translated it into Spanish for the dozen or so of the friends who are not comfortable in English:

 

I was and still am so grateful for the comfort [Linda] gave me when I first moved [to Binghamton].”

 

“You two created … a model for a creative and civilized life.”

 

“La Maja se nos fue, y ella era una persona increíble.”

 

I remember a photo of Linda teaching the rest of us [on the Camino de Santiago]. Secure, confident, and knowledgeable - with the sun shining on her blonde hair - that is how I will remember her.”

 

“Her impish smile, her quick wit, her kindness ... her knitting!”

 

The world was better for her presence in it.”

 

“You always made me feel welcome, like a part of the family. ... When I introduced you to my parents I did it with pride: éstos son mis amigos. And when you became friends with them ... well, you have no idea how proud I still am about having brought you all together.”

 

“Linda fue una de las personas más luminosas que conocí en mi vida.”

 

“I think back on how much Linda enjoyed hearing Deborah and me singing in your living room. … I have a scrapbook Linda made for me to collect my memories of our first adventure to Spain. I love that book and I was so surprised that she had made it. It will always remind me of her, her generous concern for others and her artistic skills in manifesting that thoughtfulness.”

 

What [my wife] and I both picked up on was Linda´s cheerful, sometimes jocular, tone in the face of adversity. … That spirit lives on, and if I listen to my inner self, I can just about hear Linda´s voice and that particular flair for sublime irony.”

 

“Linda inspiró nuestras vidas … siempre mantuvo una buena actitud, llena de sonrisas y chistes.”

 

 


 

“I just learned of Linda’s passing and want to extend my sympathy as a person you’ve never heard of but upon whose life you and she have had a major influence in the past decade. I write this seated in our Manhattan apartment having spent the past few hours going through Linda’s pilgrimage bibliography as I pull together sources for the doctoral dissertation I’m writing at Stony Brook. … At the age of 77, I’m certainly one of the oldest students in New York State. … On my first walk I began at St Jean Pied-de-Port bearing … a copy of your guidebook, which I tore pages out of as I passed the landmarks you described (On later trips I was able to buy the e-book version). … I decided I wanted to learn more about the Middle Ages … [so] I chose to enroll in a PhD program ... I had hoped at some time to meet you both in the course of my involvement with the Camino.  Your groundbreaking work … has been an inspiration to me, and I feel the loss of Linda as a Camino scholar in a personal way.” 

 

“You two together had a very special way that always amazed me. I think of all the conversations and genuine caring you two have shared with me. I will treasure them always.”

 

Then we lifted the Puebla tureen and the spoon and took turns parceling out Linda’s ashes into the circular depressions that Lauro had scooped out around each of the stakes marking where the dahlias will emerge when the rains begin again in April. Everyone took a turn. The mature folks our age helped some of the older people—Coralee, doña Carmen—crouch down over the earth. The younger folks helped their children spoon out some ash and sprinkle it around the stakes. Strange as all this must have been to our neighbors whose experience is largely the elaborate religious rituals of Mexican Catholic funerals, they each took the spoon and murmured a few private words as they sprinkled ashes around a flower. I think Linda would have been pleased to know that she had provided enough to enrich not only the nine dahlias but also the geraniums, the lavender, and the rosemary.

 

       


 

Deborah, who often views the world through the eyes of a youth librarian, closed the event with a reading. As we devised the event, we hadn’t paid particular attention to the thematic coherence of all these individual moments, and yet the book Deborah brought with her —Rabbityness, by Jo Empson—was a perfect coda. Rabbit liked to do rabbity things, but also had a contagious enthusiasm for song and color and exuberance. When rabbit one day suddenly disappeared and left a deep, dark, hole in the forest community, a gray pall settled over the woods. But before long the gifts that rabbit had left to the community—music, color, enthusiasm—made everyone so happy that they became a fitting and lasting memorial to their lost friend.



 


 

And then we all repaired to the front terrace, the cookies, the two pots of steaming pozole that Cathy Overholt had brought, and beer and wine and soft drinks. The children ran around. Qalba accepted caresses from each and every one of the many dog lovers. People reminisced and swapped stories and gazed at the photographs and wrote in Linda’s book, as we all watched the last of the afternoon light fade over the pyramids at Monte Albán and Atzompa. The last to leave were Lalo and Lauro and their families, as Lalo recounted one more time how Linda had monitored the house construction every day, and had always provided lollipops for the workers, and watermelons, and had conspired with Lalo to make a surprise birthday party for our architect Cynthia, and how he had never met anyone quite like her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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