Late August Afternoons

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood, the wide expanse of the upper Hudson River flowing beyond the lawn, the dark hills of the Catskills, and the lady of the house seated on the great porch overlooking a view that could have been painted by one of the luminous Hudson River School artists living just up the road.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: a respite from all the many ills that afflict this summer of 2020.  The Covid-19 pandemic, Trump, George Floyd and racial discord, protests, fires consuming California—the ancient Anderson Redwood Forest in Guerneville burnt to stumps some nearly a thousand years old. It’s hard to find hope in any of this. Yet, here on the Hudson River in Columbia County, time stands still. Morning mist on the river lifts to sunlit afternoons and dazzling sunsets before the stars come out at night, and the lone green channel marker blinks across the water. No other lights mare the darkness of the night horizon on the farther shore.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: in this solitude I swim naked in the warm river, snaking through the water lilies to reach open water, the current at times so strong I swim in place. The rare freedom of my unclothed body only matched by the clouds floating above. Free to be, for a moment in time.

Can this be real?

Time can never relax like this again.

I’m reminded of Richard Murphy’s most beautiful poem, The Woman of the House. I’m not writing an elegy here, as he was, but I, too, am writing of a woman of the house, the woman who created this gracious home from a Livingston family legacy, a place where grace resides and beauty is a by-word of everyday living. Every time I’m here I wonder if it will be my last. The lady of the house is ninety-three. And yet another late August has come and I’m here again, participating in the immense privilege of life at Midwood.  Life is slower but undiminished. Time itself seems to have slowed down.

It was her house where we spent holidays,

With candles to bed, and ghostly stories:

In the lake of her heart we were islands

Where the wild asses galloped in the wind.

No wild asses here, but oh the wind did blow on Thursday when the sky erupted in thunder and lightning, downpour obscuring the river and mountains in a tremendous grey blanket of rain. By night the stars were back and dinner on the veranda with friends, to me one old, one new.

And those happy days, when in spite of rain

We’d motor west where the salmon-boats tossed,

She would sketch on the pier among the pots

Waves in a sunset, or the rising moon.

I’m thinking of other times here, times when I brought the women in my life to share this out-of-time experience of hospitality and warmth.  The many shad parties with Evelyn, the one with Ellen, the last time here with Brenda. Did she know then she no longer loved me, would find a way to end our marriage? It was the last thing that would have occurred to me then… but now, when I remember back it’s only the wistful end I see. I see it in her eyes, in the way she never held my hand, or showed any loving affection, the way she never touched me, never held me close. No lovemaking in our bedroom named Washburn, its antique quilt covering only a bed for sleeping.

They are gone, those women in my life. And yet I am here in the immense privilege of Midwood. Does friendship trump love? It’s lasted more than forty years—so the answer must surely be yes.

Maybe that’s love by another name.

This time I’m in the far bedroom, Bamboo, named for the eight-piece craftsman bedroom set adorned with bamboo inspired carving, a charming period piece of whimsical delight. I fall asleep at night to the sound of cicadas coming through the river -facing  windows, broken only by the occasional northbound Amtrak train.

Back in Boston this time away is a healing memory, late August afternoons in my blood. I have jam from Montgomery Place to see me through the winter (peach, apricot, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black currant) and a small painting of the Hudson at Midwood to revive what fades in my eyes. I will paint many more scenes myself as the season wanes.

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood will last when the inevitable more ephemeral days to come alter life in petty ways that must be fought against with all the energy I can muster, a debt repaid every day.

Please one more time. One more afternoon at Midwood, with the lady of the house laying the table for dinner, with friends old and new, civilization realized, out of time, out of place in this dumbed-down, tragic world and time we live in.

Through our inheritance all things have come,

The forms, the means, all by our family ;

The good of being alive was given by them,

We ourselves limit that legacy.

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