Nonfiction: Helena Writes #51_On loss and holidays past

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 51st post, Helena reflects on the loss of her son's father and the first holiday without him. 



The weather has been gray. I feel sequestered back in my woods. I am with the tremendous reverberation of Jim’s passing. In a new world, listening for him. I spent September, October, and November crying. Now there is an odd, buoyant happiness of his presence, both of us freed of the things that separated us. An encounter of a new kind. Jim is my second husband, my son’s father.


My first husband, father of my daughter, is descending into dementia. I have known him since I was fifteen. I lived with his family. His mother and father became mother and father to me. Ted’s condition opened another enormous space, beginning three years ago, when his poor memory declined precipitously, and he lost a dimension of the person I knew.

This is painful, a pain that has a barely tolerable sweetness. Love is eternal. I help him when I can. He has become childlike. I find that I struggle to preserve his dignity; the person I knew is always present in me. I can lead him into conversation that is deeper than the first, lost layers, the daily things he doesn’t remember. I can speak to the man who was part of my foundation, through all the years I knew him, before, during, and after our marriage. I can ask him questions that are psychologically subtle. He was a practicing psychologist. He thinks them through and answers, with more intuition now than before. Intuition was always his gift to the people he worked with. When I had something I was struggling with, he was a significant wiseman. We are connected. He’s still there. He is gentler now. I defend him to the Ted I knew, who would be embarrassed by his condition. He knows he has lost memory. He asks me to bear with him.

I bring him dinners I cook for him, foods I know he likes—roast beef, beef stew, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and always salad. I learned to like salad from his Greek family—my Greek family, I have begun to say. I want to own the things I lost when our marriage broke up. I am seeking my own life amidst all the loss.

I bring Ted small gifts: fresh place mats, a tablecloth. On Christmas, my son, in his own grief of having just lost Jim, his dad, joined me to bring dinner to Ted, his sister’s dad. My daughter and son-in-law were absent this year. They were here for the birthdays our daughter and Ted nearly share, two days apart. My daughter and son-in-law live a long way to drive in winter. 

My son and I live within a half hour of Ted. His place is a halfway point, and we meet there. The two families have always mingled, sometimes all of us. I was the center point. Those Christmases were painful, too. The heavy sweetness of broken love, and the struggle to endure my injured soul. A try at living with relationships that had changed. I wanted it to feel a little better, and I tried to pay the price it exacted, to gather and celebrate Christmas, no one missing. A piece of wholeness I felt was good for my children, at least for a time, before it became just too heavy for me to bear. Ted had a new partner. And Jim got too sick to come up for Christmas.

This year was our first Christmas since Jim passed.

Christmas Eve at the Barbers'

I raised two children by myself. A single mother? I think I’ve been married to my work. And my work includes my children. 

But I felt it when I took my son to his soccer games—sitting by myself in the bleachers. It seemed to me then, others were in twos. I was in mourning then, too, but didn’t call it that. I called it loneliness.

After Jim left, our friends, the Barbers, Chris and Michael, invited us to spend Christmas Eves with them. It became our tradition. Chris and Michael were spiritual family. There were usually 10 of them and two of us, a crowd of children and adults.

The Barbers were a musical family. Michael’s father, Bill Barber, had toured with Gerry Mulligan, played with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I was submerged in jazz at fifteen, listening to Cal Tjader, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, the MJQ. Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. I was separated only one degree from Charlie Parker, Bird, by our mutual friend Percy. It would take me years to understand Bird’s music, long after Percy was gone.

By those Christmases at the Barbers’, I was listening to Prokovieff and Vivaldi, Telemann and the Renaissance composers, blasting them on my car tape deck for both Galen and me. Somehow, on those Christmas Eves, Bill Barber was just Michael’s father. Galen hadn’t gotten to jazz yet, and I didn’t connect Mr. Barber with his auspicious identity in the world. Chris’s voice was operatic, beautiful, and she always sang one ancient carol seriously.

But Michael’s family was raucous. I remember Mr. Barber—I never called him anything else—syncopating, snapping his fingers, starting and stopping our singing, rearranging the melodies of those sacred odes. Michael on the piano, his brother and sister improvising. They’d clearly grown up in jazz, but I didn’t connect that then. This was the way the Barber family celebrated Christmas, and my son and I were invited to be with them, witnesses. I watched as if my nose was pressed to a window glass. It was only later, in conversation with my son, when he was deep into the world of Jazz, a musician himself, that, awed, we connected the fragments of our experience. Michael’s father was a jazz master who played with the other jazz masters we revered. I was listening to those very people, including the jazz tuba who played with Miles Davis in my young years before college, when I was part of a crowd of artists, dancers and musicians, who, independent of Percy, introduced me to jazz.

Galen would find those players later. He’d study them, break down their chord changes, their melodies and improvisations, the mathematics of them, to compose his own piano jazz. He’d hear their music in a way I’d never be able to comprehend. Life, circling and circling back. 

Oh, the questions we would have asked Michael’s father—we’d have sat at his feet. I can google him now—John Bill Barber—he looks like a boy in his blond crew cut, with Miles, who is 22, sitting in that circle recording “The Birth of the Cool.” Then “Sketches of Spain.” This was the line-up of that nonet—those nine players: Miles, trumpet; Kai Winding, trombone; Junior Collins, French horn; Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax; Lee Konitz, alto sax; Al Haig, piano; Joe Shulman, bass; Max Roach, drums; Bill Barber, tuba. Arranged by Miles and Gil Evans. If you know jazz, you’ll know those names. All those players, one degree of separation from my son and me, except for Michael’s father. He was close to family, sitting on the easy chair at the Barbers’, talking talking talking with Michael, syncopating, like jazz singing. Talk that went over my head; I never listened, couldn’t catch the thread. Galen was engaged with the children, who wrote and rehearsed their comedies to perform for us adults. Comedies that were prodigiously funny.  

Bill Barber studied classical tuba and played in the orchestra pits on Broadway. A fellow musician knew Miles was looking for a tuba player. Tonight, I learn through Google that Mr. Barber’s jazz tuba is the pivot point between Broadway, classical music, and jazz. He died in 2007, long enough ago for his place in jazz history to clarify.

Those were good Christmas Eves, even with the feeling I also remember. It’s a body memory in the pit of my stomach, of being separated from our own kin.

Christmas 2022

My history is clarifying, too. Slowly, year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day. The question I ask now is not, Who am I?  I don’t know enough to answer that question. But I have begun to ask, Where was I in those years, in those marriages, and in those after-years? 

I can see there is a Me of Me. It was the same me then as now. And that’s the picture, the impression of myself, developing through time. A narrative that gives me a sense of the richness of life, and a growing respect for myself. I can pull forward the ground of those times, shift my focus to the things I didn’t notice amidst my burdens. I can see the way I managed, stayed engaged, navigated circumstances I had no control over but made the best of. I see that I am not my losses. I’ve developed other relationships, with friends, with family and, richest of all, with my children, relationships that are always growing.

Christmastide was quiet this year. After our visit to Ted’s, Galen and I spent two days by ourselves. Talking about Jim, about jazz, our respective work—talking about life.

What memories did this holiday season stir up for you? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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