True Sympathies

In the birth-order of his large family, Glen's place was somewhere toward the eldest end of siblings. He was a few years older than me and I was close to him by association, which is to say, I wasn't close at all.

After college, a dozen of us singers from UMass, joined singers from New York, North Carolina, Florida, and California to work as performing wait staff at the Mount Washington Hotel, in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. I'd worked hard at the several jobs I'd had before this, but the work at the hotel was most intense.

We worked breakfast and dinner and rehearsed every day for a few hours following the breakfast shift, until about 1:00 or so. We had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves (such as it was) until returning to the dining room at 5:30 to prepare to serve dinner and, most nights, to perform one or two songs in the main dining room at about 8:00. After dinner we made a quick change (out of alpine-inspired waiting garb) into evening costumery and performed an impressive floor-show for hotel guests in the ballroom.

The living was intense, too. The vast majority of us lived in small, private rooms in the on-site housing (dormitory) above the hotel's laundry and dry cleaning because housing, beyond the rambling resort property, was scarce (if you've ever visited the Bretton Woods area, you know how remote it is); it also made it easier to be on time for those 6:30 AM breakfast calls.

Only a couple of weeks into the season, and there was an outbreak of salmonella. Kitchen, housekeeping, and dining staffs were reduced by more than a third. We were asked to call on friends and family to see if any were available and interested to join the ranks of hotel workers while those ill went off to recuperate; some hunkered down in their rooms; others left altogether. That's when I met Glen. He was one of the replacements who showed up that June to work as a member of the performing wait staff. Glen teamed up with Mary in the dining room and lived, not in the dorms but behind them, in a dwelling that was a bit further down the property. Instead of stressing out about the work and rehearsal schedules, Glen seemed amused by it all.

The music, sweat, and laughs we all shared, as well as the dorm-style living and long days of work with little time off, made fast friends of us all, and some of those friends married each other; Mary and Glen did so not long after that summer. I didn't keep up with them afterward, even after the birth of their daughter; they stayed up north and built their lives in NH. After a few years, though, they divorced. I'd seen Mary only a few times since then and lost touch with Glen altogether.

An out of the blue email, sent to me and my bestie, Carol, informed us of Glen's untimely passing. She had remained in touch with Glen and, in her follow up email to me, wrote that she wanted to go to the service, and offered to pick me up early and drive us there.

Spring in New Hampshire is the exact opposite of its lush green summer or crisp colorful autumn; it's called "mud season" for good reason. The landscape is bleak and uninspiring, but grey Cranmore, Moat, and white-capped White Mountains rise above it all.

We arrived ahead of schedule, parked on the street across from the church, and walked up the block for coffee. Our reminiscing, begun in the car on the drive up, continued in the cafe. We talked easily and laughed hard about those busy, chaotic hotel days. Memories, of the time we mapped our dreams and held them close, quickened. Unconsciously, I panned to my twenty-something self, then to my contemporary me, as if scanning a view in different seasons from high atop some precipice.

Our coffees consumed, we walked to the church. Mary greeted us at the entrance, all twinkling eyes, bright smile, and open arms. Inside it was pristine and light and full of family and years of friends. Sunlight streamed through clear glass, full-length and clerestory windows. Glen’s casket was at the foot of the altar steps. People acknowledged each other with big hugs or smiles or by simply nodding. During the service they shared delightful, heartfelt stories; beautiful music and songs and poetry and tears were offered. Before the final blessing, a piper played “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes, outside, from the knoll behind the church.

The church emptied slowly as we followed the casket and pooled onto the walkway. Only immediate family would go to the interment. The rest of us were slow to move to cars, but eventually we did and drove a few miles to the inn where we would meet up with Glen's family for a reception.

The too-bright sky, brilliant blue and cloudless above dense pines, reflected on mirrored and polarized shades of the mourners, outside, on the inn's broad patio. We lingered there, over coffee or ale or single malt, sharing stories and laughing and catching up. I was struck to feel, after all the years between the hotel and now, this connected to Glen. No Time stood between us.

After visiting a good while, Carol and I said our goodbyes to everyone and settled into the car for the drive home. We did so in silence, initially, reflecting on observations from the church or during the service or at the reception. That "No Time" feeling, I now understood, was Love: Love between friends and shared experiences, for family, and for places and times. A poem had taken shape in my mind and, once home, I wrote it down:

to the big White Mountains
in a church to pray
the thoughtful people
what they sang and had to say

in the church
Love testified
to wise and poignant turns of phrase
a tapestry of vibrant hue
the record of his days

Love never dies

reflected big blue dome above
drove past pines
and heard the ‘pipes
amazing grace
how sweet the sound
put Love into the ground

Love never dies