28 May 2008

Memorial Days

My corner of my freshman dorm room, in Poland Hall,
As it looked on May 26, 2008.

“The past is another country; they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley, and since landing in New York a few days ago, I have been traveling without a Baedeker guide. (Or Rick Steves, or whatever.)

I began to write this note on the train as I returned from Providence, Rhode Island, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of my graduation from college. I have hardly set foot on the campus in all that time. Despite the presence of so many faces familiar to me from my youth, I didn’t recognize myself among the middle-aged. No, I was a student again, and because this was not my graduation ceremony, it must be assumed that I was at most a junior, like so many other undergraduates who linger for days after the final class has been dismissed. But then, from time to time and all too often, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a windowpane as I passed. My hair is almost white now — by far the greyest of anybody in the Class of 1983. I am not the person I think I am.

The whole city seemed to be celebrating this weekend. The air in Providence was filled with the scent of flowers, and every garden on Prospect Street was in radiant bloom. I wonder whether I’d have been a better student — or a poet, instead — if Providence were always like this, if “youth’s fleeting golden hours” were always springtime.

Scooting along the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak, I look out at the Connecticut woodlands, and I remember the days when Alan Organschi introduced me to his homeland, around Litchfield, pulling back one curtain of green to reveal another and yet another curtain, always greener and more distant. For a long time, Litchfield seemed to me the most beautiful place on earth, and though the Amtrak line runs nowhere near the town, I’m closer now than I’ve been since the last time Madeline Gilford took me to Freedonia, her house in the country.

Soon I will be in New York City again, walking the hallways of the Gilfords’ apartment. The place will brim and burst with activity, and our voices will resound against the walls that are dense with memories and monuments. But Madeline won’t be with us — not physically, anyway — because the project that consumes us is not a play or a protest but her memorial service.

The hallway of the Gilford apartment, May 26, 2008.
Jack Gilford’s Oscar nomination can be seen at top left.

Since before the day I met her, my role in the Madeline Universe has been that of production assistant. If there is some small task to do, I do it. And this week I will be production assistant again, perhaps for the last time. It is my way of keeping my emotions in check. Madeline wouldn’t approve, but that is the way of my ancestors. I will be a shabbos goy — or a shiva goy — until my chores are done and it is time for me to grieve again.