First, Ellen's letter to Willie:
My sweet guy,
I hope everything's continuing to go well for you and that you had a great Fourth. You can tell me all about it when we talk Tuesday night. I'll be by the phone at 9:45, so if your plans change, get your counselor to call me and let me know the new time.
July 4 was the day when your grandfather always celebrated his birthday, you know, so I've been thinking about him this week. I talked on the phone to Bonnie, who's still in Alabama, and we admitted to each other that we were missing him and feeling a little sad. It's odd, because Daddy wasn't the best company in the world. Of course, he mellowed quite a bit before he died. Anyway, I was very aware of his being gone this past week.
I went to the pond yesterday, and the crazy lady who lives in the house on the other side was playing some New Age music--what your Uncle Morris calls "ear candy." Soon she glided down through the trees in a long white robe, promptly let it fall to the ground, and entered the water naked, like a big white bird in a dream. I believe she was having some kind of special New Age moment. Just when I was thinking I would have to leave, she went inside and stopped the music. Then it was really beautiful. You could hear the ocean over the dunes, and I swam all the way around the perimeter.
It's lovely being down here, but I think you would be bored. I work in the mornings. Then I go swimming, read, eat dinner, listen to the ball game if there's one, and go to bed. Dull. But I'm getting a lot done. I think by the time you come home, I'll nearly have enough poems for a new book.
I love you and miss you and can't wait to hear your voice Tuesday night. If you need help with anything, be sure to ask for it. That's as much a sign of maturity as not needing help--if not a greater sign. Most adults still don't know how to ask for help, and they get themselves into a lot of trouble because of it. I know this, because I'm one of them from time to time.
Have a blast, my sweet guy. Drink some milk, eat an apple (or other fruit), brush your teeth, blah blah blah.
I love you very much,
And Morris's most recent e-mail message to Ellen:
Is it a conversation if only one person is talking?
You've probably noticed that Ted Williams's remains are back in the news again. An artist has created a shrine of some kind to Williams's severed head (on display in a NYC gallery), rekindling the endlessly fascinating cryogenics debate. Is this what people mean when they say, Dead but not forgotten?
What do you hear from Willie? I still don't understand how you and Dan could send him away like that. I HATED camp as a boy. As far as I can tell, camp takes everything that's already hard about life and makes it harder. If Willie's miserable, just pull him and send him to Richard and me. I know I said no before and now I'm saying yes, which is probably annoying, but some things have unexpectedly changed and Richard's not going to Chicago after all. We're here in Ipswich through the middle of August. Willie could come up and go canoeing with Richard, which would take some of the pressure off me. Come to think of it, what's husband Dan doing for the next few weeks? I'm sure by now he's manicured most of the hillside, straight to the edge of the marsh. There are only just so many weeds that can be whacked in the world, and besides, don't they have environmental laws about such things on the Cape? Send Dan to us. I'll stick a canoe paddle in his hands and make Richard very happy.
I had an idea: When we come down for our long weekend on the 19th, why don't we swing by Willie's camp and bring him with us? Do you think they would release him for three days, or do they have ideas about how contact with the outside world might affect his incarceration? It would be so nice to have a thirteen-year-old around for the weekend, an ally when Dan's onslaught of shellfish dinners begins. Somebody to eat cheeseburgers with while the rest of you all are cracking open crustaceans and sucking out the innards.
Are you getting any work done? (Sorry. Idle curiosity.) Did you think of Daddy this past week? It would be gratifying, someday, to learn whether or not he was really born on the Fourth of July. I don't know why it matters. Somehow it does, though. Would also be nice if Bonnie would someday make known her intentions (I refer here mostly, but not solely, to Daddy's ashes). Will you please send me something to read, or at least recommend something? I find everything I lay my hands on disappointing this summer (I refer here mostly, but not solely, to books).
p.s. Cafe Martelle finally reopened on Saturday, and there's a big sign in the window that reads under "new management," further evidence that most people think quotation marks are for decoration and don't have any particular meaning.
Ellen Owen, middle-aged poet of Marsh Light and Mirror in the Woods, sat at a battered drop-leaf table by a triptych of double-hung windows and stared at her brother's message on the screen of her laptop until Morris's words began to go blurry and jumbled. She closed the lid of the computer, shut her eyes, and saw in the darkness a clear image of herself at the table in the small room: wearing a baggy white T-shirt, pink jogging shorts, and sky-blue trainers, a possibly too-thin woman with a bad haircut. A reckless pre-vacation visit to the beauty salon and an untried stylist had resulted in straight chin-length hair, unflattering, matronly, the color of dark mahogany, much too red, and entirely artificial-looking. The last few days, she'd noticed herself avoiding mirrors--both here in the little cabin, where she came in the mornings to work, and in the main house a hundred yards up the hill--and she hadn't quite managed not to interpret this symbolically, a cowardly evasion of truth. Now she opened her eyes, turned toward the window by her right elbow, and asked herself why oh why had she begun her letter to Willie--already mailed yesterday--with My sweet guy? She should have avoided a salutation that would embarrass him, should any of his buddies be looking over his shoulder. At least, she thought, she'd had the presence of mind to sign the letter M rather than Mommy.
She gazed down a tunnel in the locust trees to the lime-green grasses of the marsh. This view, meticulously tended by "husband Dan" in summers past, boasted a ragged periphery, a change Ellen thought she liked, even with its gentle threat of occlusion. She'd withheld from her brother the fact that Dan was not with her at the Cape house--that she and Dan had decided to spend the six weeks apart--for she wanted to spare herself Morris's voluminous opinions. Willie did know his father had remained in town, but not why. With Willie you could say, Daddy's staying behind to take care of some things, and that was enough of an explanation. With Morris the result would be twenty rapid-fire questions and an hour of debate.
Across the cabin's small central room, three other windows looked onto an expansive slope of lawn that led up to the main house, an antique Greek Revival so essentially Cape Cod with its white clapboard walls and roof of cedar shakes, its rambling side porch, wide parson's door, many dormers, and clothesline stretched between whitewashed posts, it had been featured over the years in no fewer than four coffee-table books of photography. Some two hundred years before, a half-dozen acres had been cleared of trees in this spot, providing most of the lumber for construction of the house, but only a small portion of the acreage--a circle hugging the house and the long slope to the cabin--was still dedicated to lawn. A perennial garden had been planted near the porch, which faced south, and beach grass about two feet tall had taken over the rest of the original clearing, so that the overall impression was one of fields, which changed in color with the seasons and gradually rolled to the edge of the abutting salt marsh. A single towering horse chestnut stood in the side yard twenty feet from the parson's door and--happily, to Ellen's thinking--humbled the house on its hilltop. A small grove of locust trees provided shade around the three-room cabin, which had been used by previous owners as a place for guests but which was now Ellen's private retreat. She loved everything about the cabin, its weathered shingles and unpainted wooden interior walls and black potbelly stove, but she valued most its artistic usefulness: Something about its removed position, in this larger dramatic scene, she found encouraging to poetry. This was especially true when the main house was filled with people, and music and voices drifted down the hill, or near the end of a day, when an upstairs window ignited with the sudden yellow fire of a light switched on inside.
Beneath the chestnut tree was a turnaround of crushed clamshells, where now, to Ellen's surprise, sat a black pickup truck beside her own car. She moved to the cabin windows and could see, indecipherable from this distance, gold lettering on the driver's door. Few unsolicited visitors found their way to the house, at the end of a long driveway through the woods, marked by homemade private signs; the drive itself was at the end of a narrow dirt road, whose sharp ruts and heaves discouraged explorers. Ellen felt in her stomach what she gauged to be a normal flutter of butterflies--a woman alone in a remote place, encountering a surprise visitor--but in the next moment she recalled having scheduled a noontime appointment with the local chimney ...