The Work of saying goodbye

From the author’s beach, looking northeast towards the mouth of the Mississippi River one spectacularly beautiful late afternoon in early October. “I just had to go down to the beach to capture the light.”   Photo: Sarah Prospero

By Sarah Prospero

It’s hard work letting go of the past. Concentrating on the here and now while all our yesterdays knock at the cellar door, wanting still to matter, wanting at least not to be forgotten. Just trying to ignore them takes work. It’s exhausting. But it occurs to me that maybe we are not meant to leave the past behind, even were it possible to do so. Maybe the past is simply the baggage we must find room for in our unlit attics or the recesses of our basements. Maybe it’s even worth the trouble to cart it along with us from house to house and maybe it becomes less of a burden over time as bits and pieces get lost from our memory. Besides that, the effort of trying to forget sometimes leaves us more unhappy at the end of the day. In a film I watched last night, a woman told her husband: “You’ve tried to forget the past for so long, but it has caused you nothing but unhappiness. Maybe it’s time you tried to remember.” I think remembering can be a way to be happy, even if it’s hard.

But I’m in an almost sad, almost melancholic, autumn-ish mood this pale grey, weak-sunned morning, back at home after a long, lovely long summer at the cottage. I am cozy without having to tend to a fire and there are no mice in my pantry or poop on its shelves. It is nice to be back here again – isn’t it? Nice to have a pot of vegetable stock simmering on the stove, to look forward to soup, not salad, for dinner for a change – n’est ce pas? Yesterday’s wind swept nearly all the golden leaves from my walnut trees, the grass is now littered with them and I didn’t feel its chill nor hear the old verandah windows rattle. I wonder whether the wind is up at the bay, whether the steel-grey October waves are racing their frothy whitecaps to the shoreline in that relentless stormy way they do at this time of year. I remember, suddenly, the lines of a favourite sonnet, That time of year thou may’st in me behold, and the picture of Hopkins’ Margaret “grieving over Goldengrove unleaving,” and suddenly I feel I could cry too. So I get up and go stir the broth, knowing that a little dose of reality can douse the fire memory threatens to light. And it works.

I used to cry all the way to Perth on our drive home to Toronto after spending Thanksgiving weekend at the cottage and putting it to bed for another year. I used to hug the walls outside my little room and pat the wood and tearfully tell them that I would be back, that I always come back, my throat constricting, my heart heavy with sadness. My whole self filled with longing until we’d passed the beautiful, bright Silver Lake, and then everything lifted, and the sun shone on me again.

I always feel tender towards the child I tote around with me and I open the door when she comes knocking, especially in the fall. I do the same after Christmas has been tucked back in the cupboard each year. My mother used to scoff at my sentimental nature, tell me I was just like my father. He used to feel sorry for scraps of paper he would see in the street with handwriting on them; I felt sorry for the teaspoons that didn’t get used in the spooner on the cottage sideboard. It is sometimes hard to remember sad things – but it’s worth doing. As the song goes, I could have missed the pain – but I’d have had to miss the dance.

The sun has emerged from hiding and is brightening the leaves outside my window; the stock is nearly done, and I need to strain it through cheesecloth. Sitting patiently by my front door is a basket of this year’s sheets and towels, all clean and ready to go back to the cottage. I am going to drive up if it stays sunny, have a look around, maybe haul the shutters out of the shed. I will go inside and admire the mouse-proof pantry, maybe clear out the fridge too. Maybe I’ll just go for a walk and be reminded of other walks, marvelling again at the beauty of the place. Maybe some hearty neighbour will have a little fire going and woodsmoke will fill the air and I will go inside to share with them a cup of coffee or even a bit of soup while we talk about the summer that was. Or maybe I’ll just stay here and think about doing so, remembering how I love the cottage. Easier that way.

Sarah Prospero is a former English teacher now happily living and writing at her home in Almonte – when she isn’t living and writing even more happily at her cottage on the Ottawa River.

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