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Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver

HarperCollins Publishers, October 17, 2000

Don’t wait around thinking you’ve got all the time in the world. Maybe you’ve just got this one summer.

A woman I know, an avid reader, gave me this book to read and for several years it just sat on a pile of books. Even as the pile grew and new books replaced old ones this one would always somehow rise to the top. I never touched it, I never even opened it to read a passage even though it was written by an author that I admire. It would just rise to the top on its own accord as if to say, “Come on, don’t forget me.” But when would I read it? When the time was right as my elders used to say.

During this past summer an old friend was dying, little by little the long garden wall of her life was crumbling, as soon as one stone could be replaced in the failing wall two more would fall out elsewhere. I had said my goodbyes on our last visit and the next time we returned to her house in the Blue Ridge Mountains it was merely to tidy up the physical remnants of a life that are inevitably left behind.

How pointless life could be, what a foolish business of inventing things to love, just so you could dread losing them.

When I returned home I picked up this book and I knew that the time had suddenly become right to read it. It follows the lives of three strong independent women of various ages through one short summer season. The mile markers of life the three women encounter are set in the very same mountains I had just left. My friend could have been any one of the women in the story. In fact she was all three.

She was the early prototype for the accomplished feminist preceding the movement by several decades. It was rumored that she was the first woman to graduate from a Japanese university with a law degree. She was a defense attorney at the war crime trials after the war and got her clients reprieved from certain death.

She was one of a handful of women to graduate from a renowned Midwestern university journalism program in the early ’60s. By the late ’60s she graduated again with yet another law degree. Breaking barriers and setting precedents was routine for her. All this was at a time when the doors of prestigious university programs were just beginning to pry open for young American women.

Who would care about his project when he was gone? Nobody. That was the answer: not one living soul. He had kept this truth at a distance for so long, it nearly made him weep with relief to embrace the simple, honest grief of it.

This was a woman who after a life well lived, spent her last days in the embrace of the oldest mountains on earth. She came from war ravaged imperial Japan to prime time America and never looked back. Oh how I envied that trait. She never spoke Japanese again – refused to in fact until she said she had completely forgotten it.

While going through her papers we found articles related to her hidden past that confirmed some of these stories that she refused to talk about. Every card, every note and every letter neatly filed in orderly fashion in closed envelopes, dated and boxed waiting for us to open them up. Sometimes we would read them, most of the time they were given a glance and soon were added to the pile of paper, magazines and cardboard that comprised another load of recycling.

Every night I would take the boxes of paper to the recycler. One night while I was unloading the car my wounded wife began to cry. “I feel like I should apologize to her for throwing out a life’s worth of written words.” I slowly came to the realization that each death within your circle brings you closer to the end as one more piece of who you are is gone.

If the thought caused him sadness—that he would never again know the comfort of human touch—he sensed it was merely a tributary to the lake of grief through which an old man must swim at the end of his days.

All around this lake of grief are woods. I had been in these woods before and I’m certain to be in them again before I take the solitary traverse of them myself. We are all being prepared for that swim across the lake. I was just being shown what the near side shoreline looked like, littered with memories of the departed.

… the world grows quickly impatient with grief.

She was sitting with us under a gazebo looking longingly at the mountain perched directly behind the nursing home, listening to what the slight breeze had to say. The end was near but it was one of those June days that you wished could last forever. If asked in the dead of winter to describe the perfect day this would be it, but after several weeks of emotional turmoil, I had already become immune to the beauty of a perfect summer day.

She spent her last years helping to save our natural heritage, wildlife, and the oceans and according to her wishes her ashes were scattered in the Pacific near Kauai.