Today it is January, midmonth, midday, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window. I am eighty-three, I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window. Snow started before I woke, and by now it looks to be ten inches; they say we might have a foot and a half. There are three windows beside me where I sit, the middle one deep and wide. Outside is a narrow porch that provides shade in the summer, in winter a barrier against drifts. I look at the barn forty yards away, which appears to heave like a frigate in a gale. I watch birds come to my feeder, hanging from clapboard in my line of sight. All winter, juncos and chickadees take nourishment here. When snow is as thick as today, the feeder bends under the weight of a dozen birds at once. They swerve from their tree perches, peck, and fly back to bare branches. Prettily they light, snap beaks into seed, and burst away: nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, American goldfinches, sparrows . . .
The feeder used to dangle from a maple branch farther away. Always when winter moved into March, bears would wake and tear the feeder down, crushing it in clumsy hunger. In spring there is still bear scat between house and barn, but the bears, shy of white clapboard and green shutters, let my feeder be.
Most days, squirrels pilfer from the birds. I’m happy to feed the squirrels—tree rats with the agility of point guards—but in fair weather they frighten my finches. They leap from snowbank to porch to feeder, and stuff their cheek pouches with chickadee feed. They hang on to a rusty horseshoe, permanently nailed to the doorjamb by my grandparents, which provides a toehold for their elongated bodies. Their weight tilts the feeder sideways, scaring away the flightier birds while the bravest continue to peck at a careening table. No squirrels today. In thick snow, they hide in tunnels under snowdrifts, and a gaggle of birds feed at the same time.
As daylight weakens, snow persists. In the twilight of 4 P.M., the birds have gone, sleeping somewhere somehow. No: a nuthatch lands for a last seed. The cow barn raises its dim shape. It was built in 1865, and I gaze at it every day of the year. A few years ago, when we had an especially snowy winter, I thought I would lose the barn. A yard of whiteness rose on the old shingles, and I could find no one to clear it off. The roof was frail and its angles dangerously steep. Finally friends came up with friends who shovelled it, despite its precariousness, and the following summer I hired a roofer to nail metal over the shingles. Shingle-colored tin disposes of snow by sliding it off. Now I look at the sharp roof of the carriage shed at the barn’s front, where a foot of snow has accumulated. The lower two-thirds has fallen onto drifts below. The snow at the shed’s metal top, irregular as the cliff of a glacier, looks ready to slide down. In the bluing air of afternoon, it is vanilla icing that tops an enormous cake. A Brobdingnagian hand will scrape it off.
Suddenly I hear a crash, as the snowplow strikes the end of my driveway. High in the cab sits my cousin Steve, who expertly backs and lurches forward, backs and lurches forward. The driveway is oval, with Route 4 flattening one end, and Steve executes the top curve with small motions of snow-budging, building great drifts back far enough from the driveway so that there’s room for cars—and for Steve to pack away more snow when he needs to. It’s his first visit for this snowstorm, and his plowing is incomplete. He will return with exact skill in the middle of the night, when the snow stops, and tidy the path among the drifts. When he thuds into the driveway at 3 A.M., I will hear him in my sleep and wake for a moment, taking pleasure from Steve’s attack on drifts in the black night.
My mother turned ninety in the Connecticut house where she had lived for almost sixty years, and spent her last decade looking out the window. (My father died at fifty-two.) For my mother’s birthday, my wife, Jane Kenyon, and I arrived at her house early, and at noon my children and grandchildren surprised Gramma Lucy with a visit. We hugged and laughed together, taking pictures, until I watched my mother’s gaiety collapse into exhaustion. I shooed the young ones away, and my mother leaned back in her familiar Barcalounger, closing her eyes until strength returned. A few months later she had one of her attacks of congestive heart failure only a week after her most recent. An ambulance took her to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Jane and I drove down from New Hampshire to care for her when she came home. She told us, “I tried not to dial 911.” She knew she could no longer live alone, her pleasure and her pride. We moved her to a nursing home not far from us in New Hampshire.
She died a month short of ninety-one. Her brain was still good. A week before she died, she read “My Ántonia” for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain. Even so, her last months were mostly bleak. Her knees kept her to bed and chair, and the food was terrible. We visited every day until she died. A year later, Jane, at forty-seven, was dying of leukemia, and showed me poems she had been working on before she took sick. One was “In the Nursing Home,” about my mother at the end. Jane used the image of a horse running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller until they ceased.
Twenty years later, my circles narrow. Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years, I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody, and now when I shop or see a doctor someone has to drive me. If I fly to do a poetry reading, my dear companion Linda, who lives an hour away, must wheelchair me through airport and security. I read my poems sitting down. If I want to look at paintings, Linda wheelchairs me through museums. New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do. [cartoon id="a16342"]
Generation after generation, my family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year. There are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later. My grandmother Kate lived to be ninety-seven. Kate’s daughter, my mother, owed her early death to two packs a day—unfiltered Chesterfields first, then filtered Kents. My mother was grateful to cigarettes; they allowed her to avoid dementia. Before senescence my grandmother looked out the window at Mt. Kearsarge, five miles to the south. As I gaze in the same direction, I see only a triangle of foothill, because softwood has grown so tall that it gets in the way. When Kate was a child here, elms blocked the foothill. They grew tall on both sides of Route 4, some of them high enough to meet over the center of the road. When she was ninety-four, she stumbled on the porch outside the window. Her fractured shin put her in the hospital—Kate, who had never taken to bed except to bear children. Her hospital stay affected her mind. Three years later, in the Peabody Home, I sat beside her listening to Cheyne-Stokes breathing. I was holding her hand when she died. After months of snow and snowbirds, I look out the window at flowers and a luxury of green leaves and always at the wooden ancient hill of the barn. For the last ten years in her house, my mother sat in her chair looking out a window, but she did not see what I see. She was born in this New Hampshire farmhouse, growing up when the barn was heavy with Holsteins, but turned old in my father’s territory, on a street corner in the suburb of Hamden. She looked not at a barn but at other six-room houses built in the twenties. Twice a day, she watched children walk by with their backpacks, ambling to school in the morning, returning in the afternoon. They attended Spring Glen Elementary School on Whitney Avenue, to which I had trudged for eight years. Midday in winter, she watched it snow, and watched the Connecticut birds, cousins to New Hampshire’s, fly to the feeder outside her window.
With arthritic knees she hobbled to the kitchen to warm up canned clam chowder. From April through September, sitting by her window at night, she listened to WTIC from Hartford, carrying Boston Red Sox games. In late middle age, she had been a substitute teacher, and she was proud that a Red Sox broadcaster had been her pupil. Her father, in New Hampshire, followed the Red Sox by reading the Boston Post, which arrived two days after the games. My mother heard baseball as it happened, from the small radio beneath her ear, next to the ashtray. (In another room, an enormous steam-powered television showed a continual blank screen; she did not want to move from her chair.) The radio games replaced her window of schoolchildren and birds. During the months between baseball seasons she spent her nights reading the Reader’s Digest, Henry David Thoreau, Time, Robert Frost—and Agatha Christie.
My summer nights are NESN and the Boston Red Sox.
When I was a child, I loved old people. My New Hampshire grandfather was my model human being. He wasn’t old. He was in his sixties and early seventies when I hayed with him, only seventy-seven when he died, but of course I thought he was old. He was a one-horse farmer—Riley was his horse—with an old-fashioned multiple farm. He raised cattle and sheep and chickens, with hives for bees and a sugarhouse for boiling sap into maple syrup. He worked every day all year, mostly from 5 A.M. to seven or eight at night—milking, lambing, fencing, logging, spreading manure, planting, weeding, haying, harvesting, each night locking up chickens against foxes. Summers I helped with farmwork and listened to him reminisce. All year he walked rapidly from one task to another, in his good nature smiling a private half smile as he remembered stories, or recited to himself the poems he had memorized for school.
After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other—thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss of fifty—and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I travelled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying—in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way—but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.
People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending. When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done, she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.
When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. Sometimes, the reaction to antiquity becomes farce. I go to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts, and arrive two days early to look at paintings. At the National Gallery of Art, Linda pushes me in a wheelchair from painting to painting. We stop by a Henry Moore carving. A museum guard, a man in his sixties with a small pepper-and-salt mustache, approaches us and helpfully tells us the name of the sculptor. I wrote a book about Moore, and knew him well. Linda and I separately think of mentioning my connection but instantly suppress the notion—egotistic, and maybe embarrassing to the guard. A couple of hours later, we emerge from the cafeteria and see the same man, who asks Linda if she enjoyed her lunch. Then he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, “Did we have a nice din-din?”
In spring when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, blue jays that harass them, warblers, blackbirds, thrushes, orioles, redwings. Starlings strut in the grass pulling worms. A robin returns every year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw and mud. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them, and look for farther nests, small clots in branches of oak or Norway maple visible from my window. The blackest crows peck through my grass. Most strange and wonderful are the hummingbirds that helicopter by the porch, wings blurred with incessant whirring. They enter the horns of hollyhocks, gobble some sweet, and zig off to zag back again for another lick.
Late March or April onward, depending on the year, I watch the flowers erupt and subside. Snowdrops crack the wintry earth, crocuses, and dazzling daffodils. Tulips rise in extravagant crimsons and golds, metallic fleshy shapes that ask to be filled. In June, peonies bloom at the edge of my porch, a column of them, as their buds swell green until they burst into white and feathery soccer balls—and then a thunderstorm shatters the blossoms. There are lilies of the valley and, across the yard, a patch of old single roses that some years are few and some years put forth a hundred blossoms—first white ones, then pink, then red, lofting beside the road’s gutter as two centuries ago they rose beside a trail for oxen.
One day, I look out the window to see great machines at work. A farmer neighbor comes to harvest the grass that has grown dark and thick in my fields. The first contraption cuts the hay. Another rakes it, and another shapes it into huge circular bales, which a last machine lifts with great clamps onto a truck that replaces the old hayrack. My neighbor collects for his cows in winter, and returns a second time and a third as new grass rises. I watch out the window. These are the fields where my grandfather and I, seventy years ago, cut hay with a horse-drawn mower, trimmed the shaggy edges by hand with scythes, pitched it onto a horse-drawn hayrack, and stacked it in high lofts of the barn. Cow manure, spread on the fields in April, fed the grass for a century and a half. Decades after my grandfather died, the goodness wore out, exposing New Hampshire’s sandy soil. My neighbor spreads lime late in spring.
Flowers by turn rise and fall all summer—foxglove, sweet alyssum, bee balm. I watch two wild turkeys gobble as they strut stiffly up the slope toward the barn. Behind them four small offspring hurry to keep up. Daylilies ascend the hill beyond them, the same bright-orange wildflowers that grow in ditches and in clearings beside cellar holes. Indian paintbrush raise late flags. Cornflowers bloom, and leaves of swamp maples flare the first reds of autumn.
Whatever the season, I watch the barn. I see it through this snow in January, and in August I will gaze at trailing vines of roses on a trellis against the vertical boards. I watch at the height of summer and when darkness comes early in November. From my chair I look at the west side, a gorgeous amber laved by the setting sun, as rich to the eyes as the darkening sweet of bees’ honey. The unpainted boards are dark at the bottom, and rise toward the top in a brownish yellow that holds light the longest. At barn’s end is the horse’s window, where Riley stuck out his head to count the pickups and Fords on Route 4. I study the angles of roof, a geometry of tilting, symmetrical and importantly asymmetrical, endlessly losing and recapturing itself. Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at. Down the road, I see the ghosts of elm trees, which met overhead when Route 4 was the Grafton Turnpike. A hundred and fifty years transformed them from green shoots to blighted bark. Out the window, I watch a white landscape that turns pale green, dark green, yellow and red, brown under bare branches, until snow falls again. ♦
Our windows keep shrinking. Our vision narrows and narrows. Mine roams, for much of each day, in a space roughly the size of a playing card: the rectangle of my phone’s screen. The view through that piece of glass is not out onto the actual world but inward, down a digital depth over which I exercise near-dictatorial control. If I want to see a bird on my phone, I see a bird. If I want to see a manatee captioned by a motivational slogan, I see that. This means, of course, that my phone is not really a window at all. A real window is something that frames our fundamental lack of control.
Windows are, in this sense, a powerful existential tool: a patch of the world, arbitrarily framed, from which we are physically isolated. The only thing you can do is look. You have no influence over what you will see. Your brain is forced to make drama out of whatever happens to appear. Boring things become strange. A blob of mist balances on top of a mountain; leafless trees contort themselves in slow-motion interpretive dance; heavy raindrops make the puddles boil. These things are a tiny taste of the bigness of the world. They were there before you looked; they will be there after you go. None of it depends on you.
Sometimes what you see can be astonishing. One day, I was taking a nap in the red chair in my office when I woke up to the sound of a car crash. I sat up and looked, immediately, out my window. Across the street, in a parking lot, a car had just backed into a chain-link fence. The car must have been moving fast, because it was in bad shape: Its hood had popped up, its windshield wipers were snapping back and forth under a perfectly clear sky and part of its bumper was sitting on the ground. The fence was mangled, bent out in exactly the shape of the car’s back end.
I couldn’t believe I was seeing this, on an otherwise ordinary weekday morning, out of my office window. I watched the driver get out of the car. He was stocky with a shaved head; he wore cargo shorts and a flannel shirt unbuttoned to expose his chest hair. I disliked him immediately. After a few seconds of assessing the damage, he walked around the car and opened the passenger door — from which a very small child scrambled out. A toddler in the front seat! My disdain for this man increased exponentially.
As the child ran around the parking lot, the man tried to repair the damage he caused. He attempted to tug the ruined fence back into place, but it wouldn’t move. He tried to shove the fallen piece of bumper back onto his car, but that only made the rest of his bumper fall off too.
I sat in my red chair, looking out my window, silently cheering.
The man tried, a little harder, to fix the fence. He grabbed its vertical support pole, which was wickedly bent, and pulled against it with his full weight. The pole suddenly broke, and the man fell hard onto the blacktop. The entire fence fell on top of him, and one of his sandals flew off and landed 10 feet away on the sidewalk.Continue reading the main story