A Yankee Notebook, Columns

A One-in-ten Chance

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EAST MONTPELIER – When my wife and I were married, back in 1959, our prospects were so grim that the priest to whom we went for our church-mandated counseling gave our union ­– “frankly,” he said – a one-in-ten chance of survival. She went to work in an S&H Green Stamp redemption store, and I, with the summer construction season ended, parleyed my commercial driver’s license into a job driving cab on the night shift, from six to six. We lived with my parents.

It soon became obvious that our situation was unsustainable. I calculated my net earnings to be 35 cents an hour; hers were about a dollar more. There had to be a better way. In desperation, I called my old boss at the bobsled run in Lake Placid, where the jobs paid New York State wages, and heard some of the sweetest words an unemployed laboring person can hear: “Willy! Where the hell have you been?” The next day we piled everything into and on top of my old Jaguar roadster (we were young and poor, not especially smart) and roared off to the Adirondacks. It was the beginning of a long, hopeful upward slog toward eventual solvency. And the marriage, doomed as it had been by the experts, somehow survived 59 years.

I look back on those years now, and it’s easy to see the feature that sustained us. It was hope. No matter how bleak, and even grim, were our prospects, we invariably had the hope that they’d improve. Granted, during the early years we weren’t exactly performing without a net. There was always a bedroom and a driveway at my parents’ house, like Robert Frost’s definition of home. And in later years the largesse and generosity of friends. But we always had visions of better things beyond the artificial respiration, and still had the strength to work our way out of where we were.

Those days are long gone now, as is my wife. She lives on in this house that’s nearly perfect for me, the last that she designed, in a large photograph over the head of my bed, and a granite urn in an alcove on the west wall of the bedroom. Any hopes that I have left these days are that the money will last as long as I do, and that the current moment will do the same. Hope has been replaced by anticipation.

About three years ago I woke up one morning with my little dog, Kiki, snuggled up against me, and considered a day coming that would be much like the day before and the one after. Is this it? I wondered. What if I happen to live as long as my father? Am I for the rest of my life going to be the old widower with the little dog up on Towne Hill Road? Huh. I wonder how old Bea’s doing. I’d known her over half a century earlier, knew she was married, and was now a distinguished professor in Boston. But the same disregard for reason that inspired my buying the Jaguar over 60 years earlier led me to Google her and send her a pusillanimous little email.

In a very few minutes I learned that I wasn’t the only widower around; and very shortly began the relationship that’s replaced hope with anticipation. We’ve hiked in the White Mountains, driven top-down through Smugglers Notch, spent a few nights in fancy resort hotels, cruised Penobscot Bay in an old schooner, wandered through the national parks in Utah, and visited my old haunts in the Adirondacks and Hanover. I’ve attended afternoon lawn parties of graduate school faculty and students; she’s accompanied me to weekend gatherings of wilderness paddlers and winter campers (at the last of which we discovered to our distress that the zipper on her big double sleeping bag was not working). We’ve been to Europe twice with public television tour groups, to France and Portugal, and dare to anticipate another, to Croatia. She’s considerably younger than I, by 12 years, and a lot spryer, but that’s hardly a problem. Whenever I give out and head back to the car or hotel, she continues, and brings back photo-illustrated reports. I get a nap.

This transfer of consciousness from hope to anticipation has been seamless. Looking back, I can’t see the moment at which it occurred. But I like it a lot. With an 89th birthday coming up, I find myself adding an old Adirondack expression to all our plans – “If the Lord spares me” – but also have discovered that looking forward, and getting ready for whatever’s coming (the schooner again in September!), have a lot to do with Gesundheit – general health and soundness of body and mind. As Ulysses says near the end of his soliloquy by Tennyson, “Though much is taken, much abides . . . one equal temper of heroic hearts.” He’s right, of course; and though I may no longer plan to work on my Ph.D., or even in bad days buy green bananas, I’m looking forward to as much of it as remains. To do less would be a tragic waste.

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