By Debra Feiner-Coddington
Inspired by Edna St Vincent Milay’s, What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)
“… but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”
Part I – My World is Full of Ghosts Tonight…
Our house is getting a new room. Built to make our lives easier, it will stand in front of the old glass double doors dented and scratched by 30 years of assorted cats and dogs. A portico is what I thought it was called but recently learned it is a vestibule – if one cared about accuracy in names – because it will be enclosed when it’s completed. A portico would be open sided. Built to collect pebbles and mud from our boots before we enter our house. Built to hold the mess scattered through our lives and our kitchen: shoes, coats, hats, containers overly full of recycling. Built to make our lives easier, our home is getting a new room.
Made of wide glass panels, its roof is open and light. Lovely. My husband built it from galvanized steel sheet he carefully measured, cut, laid and folded to fit glass inlaid with chicken wire, like the glass protecting hallways in the little apartment house in the Bronx where I grew up. The first project he’s done for himself in 25 years, he stands under it looking up through the wired-glass at the threatening clouds. Under the safety of his new roof, arms folded across his chest he surveys his work and radiates satisfaction. His chest rumbles, “Hooommmmme.” It is his home. The home he opened to me so generously when we met 40 years ago. The home that grew our business, our children, our lives.
I gather the heavy bag, open the front door and carry the trash out to the newly poured concrete floor of the new room, visualizing what the space will look like when the floor is tiled. When coats are hung on iron hooks we’ll make. When it’s completed. Setting the big bag down in the farthest corner I pause to look through the glass up into the night.
I breathe in my memories: of dogs and cats and birds and kids; of decades of shared meals and birthday parties; of homework done at the kitchen counter; of working together; of arguments in the driveway; of laughter; of building our home and of a cherub boy wearing a golden lame cape (and nothing else) who jumped into water pooled in the hollows of the muddy driveway, running from the house in quest of perfecting a perfect puddle dive, his curls muddy, his grubby little face determined.
I stand, listening to my memories echo from so deep inside me I feel them thrumming through my spine and the bones of my skull.
Cozy behind the new wooden walls, I can hear the wind picking up and remember how much I used to love the sound rain made on the roof. The wind blowing through branches in the night; a sound that used to make me feel safe in my home. Now the trees moving in hard gusts fill my hollow heart with longing for my cape-wearing, puddle diving boy, lost to me in a storm that ruined those sounds forever.
The dog stares through the glass doors. Her panting fogs the clear panels. She wants to join me. The house behind her glows. I’ve always loved how warm it looks from the outside. I pause to look into the night sky for another minute and understand that the new room wants a rocker I can settle into during cold winter nights as I watch the stars move across the sky through the glass roof.
I plan for a rocker in the new room that will make our lives easier; that will make our lives neater and recognize the pain-pull in my heart that I first felt the night our son Baylin went missing, the night he died so unexpectedly, and wonder again, as I do every time I feel this; how can it be possible to be so grateful and so sad all at the very same moment? With no answer coming, I stand quietly and then turn away from the driveway we’ve shared as a family for so many years. I collect my thoughts. I collect my memories: my love, my heart, my ghosts. I gather them up and fold them gently in my arms to carry very carefully back into the warm light of our messy home.
Part II – Butterfly Children & the Perfect Puddle Dive
From the beginning Baylin loved costumes. As soon as he could dress himself he carefully put his shoes on the wrong feet and wore his ninja turtle underpants as a hat. When we arrived at his day care center his teacher greeted him with, “nice hat Bays.” His little face was set and serious. To avoid being humored he refused to acknowledge her and looked away. She and I snuck a smile across his curls and keeping our eyes downcast we shrugged at one another, palms up. During that year of watching Baylin make decisions our shoulders learned to move simultaneously in the funny physical dance representing the affection grownups demonstrate for kids they care about.
Baylin’s Grammy Lee sewed. Straight backed and square shouldered, Lee sat at her machine in her sun-streaked extra bedroom. Her basket holding fat little tomato pincushions on her lap, Lee watched kids walk home from school on her tree-lined street while she made soft corduroy overalls with zippers that allowed easy diaper changes and beautiful tiny dresses from complicated patterns for her nieces and their dolls. A serious woman, except when it came to her grandchildren, Lee willingly complied with whatever ideas Baylin thought up about how to make the costumes he wanted. Grammy Lee was a stoic. A California farm-girl transplanted to marry her Eastern blue-blood husband, over the years she’d morphed into a perfect hostess. Martha Stewart had nothing on Lee whose dinners were simple, spectacular and elegant – a center piece on the table, crystal candlesticks with air bubbles in their middles, and the right fork and spoon always correctly laid at each perfectly made place setting. Because Baylin learned at Lee’s knees I relied on his knowledge when we held our very occasional dinner parties. That was his job. Salad plates, forks and dessert spoons eluded me but Baylin always laid them beautifully because he shared so many years with Lee.
Though Lee seldom laughed aloud, Baylin made her smile. Always. An unabashed original she delighted in creativity, and Baylin’s antics were so uniquely imaginative that she encouraged him with her quiet unwavering support. Off she’d take him, on a trip to town to pick his favorite fabrics, usually the brightest and most garish the store had to offer. Though Lee vetoed my choice of fabric when sewing my wedding dress because it would clash with the flowers she’d selected, she was incapable of so much as wincing at Baylin’s fabric decisions, no matter how riotous the palette. The two of them returned home with stunningly ostentatious fabrics: sparkling lames of bright pink, silver, chartreuse and gold, all to be sewed into capes to fuel Baylin’s imagination.
We worked from our front yard blacksmith shop until Bays was 3 years old growing our business along with our family. Our 8 employees, all bearded, denim-clad, blue-collar, mechanically talented guys helped me raise Baylin. When he crawled into the shop they gave him a hammer to pound iron along with them, turning him towards the steel stairway they’d built… “Here kid. Pound on this,” they’d say, thinking, “What damage can he do to a set of heavy iron stairs?” When his noise threatened their hearing they’d pick him up by the straps of his overalls to deposit him back across the driveway through the front door of our house; “He’s making us deaf. Your turn.” And after he stopped crying he’d play with matchbox cars or we’d go for a drive until he nodded off in his carseat.
Our property was always being worked on, always had heavy equipment destroying the underlayment of the gravel and dirt road. Disorganized, we never managed to have the driveway professionally graded which meant the hollow in front of our shop collected water. The year Baylin was 2 it turned into a perfect puddle, ripe for soap-bubbles and mud-pies. One foggy gray morning in the early spring Baylin came downstairs dressed in nothing but his determination and the first of the capes his Gram made him. The golden lame cape sparkled and his curly hair stood out from his scalp, askew in its naturally wild, assorted directions. Picking his careful way through the construction site that was our home; Baylin headed to the front door and opened it ceremoniously, the lord surveying his kingdom. Opening his arms wide to the day, as though he was greeting his subjects, and fueled by his single-minded ambition, Baylin began a full-on, flat out run at that single perfect puddle in the middle of our dirt driveway. Within a foot of it, he lifted off, stretching his arms high, up, over his head and leaped. Taking off, gold cape glittering and fluttering behind him he dove, to belly land in the soft mud. An enormous happy mud-streaked grin covering his speckled, dirt-spattered face.
For the rest of the morning Baylin dove into that perfect puddle running at it from every conceivable direction. As his cape got grubbier, muddier and soaked, the guys in the shop came out. Leaning against the building smoking, they stood and watched him. Laughing with Baylin and one another, they discussed the best trajectory, method of takeoff and how to manage the softest landing. Offering Baylin suggestions, they watched him refine his two-year-old’s personal quest for the ideal puddle landing. When Bays was satisfied, he came back into the house where he and his cape took a bath with his bubbles and his boats. He took a very long nap that day.
One bright crisp autumn morning Baylin decided to wear his golden cape to daycare. His classmates laughed when they saw it and poked fun at him. But Baylin understood the magic the cape provided. He remained calm and undaunted and began running. Playing whatever tag game they were involved with, the sunlight bounced off his sparkling cape. As he jumped off rocks and climbed the low hanging tree branches with the golden cape catching the light, one by one his classmates quietly came and asked if they could borrow his cape, wanting to share its magic. Happily Baylin untied the bow around his neck and lent it to each of his friends till, by the end of the day they’d all had a chance at wearing it.
A few days later after another trip to the fabric store with his grandmother, Baylin showed up at class with a cape for each of his 6 classmates: lames of pink, silver, gold, and chartreuse along with army camouflage were the chosen fabrics, and the six friends galloped over the freshly mowed lawn, sweatsuited and sneakered: lords and ladies, aliens, insects; they brandished their invisible imaginary weapons, capes glittering and shimmering behind them in the sunlight like cosmic fairy dust or the wings of giant sparkling butterflies.
Five months after the terrible night Baylin went missing in the Hudson, his body returned to the shores of the big river. Carefully, we gathered his favorite things to travel with him on his final journey: his stuffed animal Friend-Bear, who he couldn’t fall asleep without for the first 5 years of his life; reeds from his clarinet and saxophone; books about botany, about gardening, about magic; a flask of Irish whiskey; beer; sushi; a small bag of chili powder he ground in Montana for recipes he was always devising; cigarettes; a joint; toothpicks; CDs of Bach, Zappa and Mozart; his watermelon costume from Burning Man still encrusted with powdery gray dust from the Black Rock Desert and embroidered with shining marcasite beads; his favorite diabolo from circus; a handful of soil from the gardens he dug in our backyard; the jacket he inherited from his beloved gardening teacher – pockets over-filled with gifts; seeds he cultivated and gathered and the boots he wore while hiking alone on his many excursions throughout Yellowstone and the South West.
Years before, after Baylin left for college, I’d packed up his toys, his blankets, his capes and his costumes to store away in the attic; patiently waiting to unwrap them until he had the children he often talked about; he so often dreamed about. The children his dad and I knew would be fun to steal away and have adventures with… someday. I carefully unpacked the very first cape his grandmother so lovingly sewed for him. The sparkling golden cape that Baylin perfected his puddle dive in, now frayed and time-worn. I folded it gently and placed it in the wooden box of treasures to be tucked away with Baylin; treasures meant to travel with him for his last trip away from us.
The others capes remain; carefully wrapped in tissue and kept safely in a box I hope I will someday find the heart to open.
Although she identifies to the world as artisan-business owner, Debra Feiner-Coddington has been a closet writer since 2nd grade, when she wrote short stories and plays she performed for her family. Raised in New York City Debra met her husband-partner at a blacksmithing conference. Together they built their ornamental iron business, their home and their family in New York’s Hudson Valley. In December of 2012 on the night before he was to be married, Debra’s 26-year-old son Daniel Baylin drowned in the Hudson River. Sitting on the couch she shared with Baylin for many years, Debra fell into her writing. She hasn’t yet emerged.