“May, I love you with everything I am. For so long, I just wanted to be like you. But I had to figure out that I am someone too, and now I can carry you, your heart with mine, everywhere I go.”
Substitute Jeanne for May in this quote about her sister written by Ava Dellaira in Love Letters to the Dead, and you may begin to understand the bond between my sister Jeanne and me. An extremely treasured presence in my life, she is also a force to be reckoned with. She is an Amazing Woman. She has written her own life narrative, literally and figuratively. Here are her words…
I ran away to join the circus…..
Unlike Kurt Vonnegut, a favorite author and fellow Hoosier, from a very early age I aspired to get out of Indiana. And I did. First to Ann Arbor and University of Michigan, later to California and then Europe. My only returns were to visit family and friends or weddings and funerals.
I remember being 12 years old sitting on the stairs and listening to my mother’s friends expound on their life regrets, the lost opportunities of their youth. Deep inside my gut I made a promise to myself, that would never be me. My second dream was to someday retire in Europe. Even as a kid I just felt somehow that I belonged there. I followed Andre Malraux project of cleaning all the national buildings in Paris following WWII. I read book after book of European history. My first visit was in 1969.
My second act, the get a serious job part, included returning to University, then law school while single with 4 kids. Luckily, we lived in southern California and the kids blossomed. I loved my practice and most of my alleged criminal clients and continued for years until one day I became ill. And so my third act was prompted by the side effects of the strong medications I was taking. I realized I would have to consider retirement. Luckily my children were educated and grown.
I sold my practice, my house, my cars and a lifetime of accumulated stuff. I packed clothes, books and my kitchen tools, put 100 boxes of household items in storage and booked a flight to Lisbon. Within 2 months I had bought an old stone casa on a hillside in a tiny village in southern Portugal as well as a beat-up old Citroen.
For the next ten years I traveled Europe, entertained friends and family, made lots of new friends, gave historical tours of Paris, read, wrote and taught the villagers English.
It took five years for me to totally destress from my previous life. I would often sit on my shaded patio and just gaze across the long valley as Martine guided his wooly flock down ancient paths still followed by shepherds today. The hillsides are covered in cork, carob, citrus and olive trees with wild grasses and flowering vines climbing the ubiquitous rock walls.
One interesting afternoon my dear neighbor and I headed to a meadow to meet up with our local shepherd. We selected, killed and skinned a fat sheep, then Helena and I wrapped the carcass in plastic and lugged it onto her large kitchen table where with my novice assistance, Helena and I carved it into freezer size pieces for the winter.
My neighbors seemed to know how to do anything our primitive life required. Manuel, the 3rd generation neighborhood blacksmith fashioned the long wrought-iron railing around my lower balcony as well as several beautiful gates. I practiced Portuguese dishes but also love the amazing fare of every Parisian café. Paris is a short plane trip so I took advantage of its proximity to visit often to wander the streets and buildings until I became familiar enough to act as a reasonable historical city guide.
It’s my belief that ten years away from the US saved my body and my mind. I learned; I grew: I relaxed. However, at some point it seemed clear that it was time to cross the ocean again and return home. I sold my casa and my trusty little Citroen. Had several parties with lots of vinho verde, my favorite Portuguese wine. I packed up my 80 boxes and a heart full of memories and headed west.
Now, what is likely my last stand, I have landed in a charming artsy village south of my old stomping grounds of Ann Arbor. The locals have welcomed me into their busy lives but I am especially fortunate to have found a group of bluehairs that I adore. They are brilliant, witty, creative and splendid company.
But my philosophy is if given a choice between the comfy old recliner and a trip to watch the perfect sunset off the north African coast, I chose the sunset. There will always be another recliner but not as many perfect sunsets.
Life is complicated in our third act. We lose loved ones, we lose health and vigor, we lose old memories. We lose choices. Yet we do gain perspective and wisdom and hopefully patience and are often better listeners.
The circus merry-go-round is slowing down but we really don’t want to get off.