How do you sort through a life at the end of it? What do you organize, archive, catalog and what do you let go? What do you treasure, much as you treasured the person who has passed? How do you pay tribute, honor, and lovingly say goodbye?
Our dear neighbor and friend Jack Jackson died in late February at the age of 92. Born in pre-war Gary, Indiana, where his father worked in the steel mills, he feared that mill life would also be his fate. Being unusually bright, he attended college briefly in Chicago at the age of 16, but he became overwhelmed and dropped out — and was quickly drafted into the army. He laughingly recalled being trained as a military policeman — him! — a slight, frail gay man — having to run at someone with a rifle and bayonet. The idea!
He made his way eventually to Boston, and after a stint in banking decided he would like to work at the prestigious Boston Athenaeum. He applied for a job as a custodian, but before the interview was over the Director realized that this man was brilliant, engaging, and passionate about the arts and humanities. Thus began a career of nearly 40 years as an indispensable reference librarian.
He found a loving partner one evening at a Boston rooftop picnic, introduced by friends. Jack and Peter spent over 50 years together, first at homes in Boston and after retirement, at their home on Holly Lane. They gardened, listened to music, studied, read, created art, went to the library, toured Cape Cod, entertained visitors, and enjoyed their quiet yet full life. Eight years ago, Peter died. And Jack carried on.
When I began dating my now-husband Dan, who had known Jack for nearly 20 years, he took me to tea at Jack’s house, a ritual that they had developed over the years. Tea, treats, and talk. What did we talk about? You name the subject and Jack had a file or clipping or book about it. Art, literature, poetry, music, dance, archaeology, religion, history, movies, travel, antiques, his family, his life, his philosophies, his memories. His heart. He prepared for his weekly visits by making notes about what he wanted to share, and putting aside magazine articles, photographs, quotes, or cards to discuss with us. Despite his “note to self” displayed prominently on his desk (“YOU TALK TOO MUCH”), there was never an awkward silence when you were with Jack. There was always something to talk about. He was interested and interesting.
Like us, he was a collector. His home was filled with thousands of books, music, movies, paintings, pottery, clippings, toys, miniatures, and rabbits in every shape and form. He kept every piece of paper, letter, photograph, or note that ever crossed his desk, all organized in boxes and labeled with their contents. He had three desk drawers filled with things to make cards with — pretty papers, stickers, images, and quotes. He wrote thank-you letters acknowledging every gift, whether it was a birthday present or a bouquet of wildflowers.
Though he called himself the Hermit of Holly Lane, he loved company, and genuinely enjoyed people. We would walk down Holly Lane from our home around the corner, and when approaching his house we would always see him at his desk, reading by lamplight, taking notes on passages that pleased him. When he looked up to see that we had arrived, his face would light up and he would clap his hands in delight. If there’s a better welcome than that, I don’t know what it is.
Jack was not sentimental about or fearful of death. As each birthday approached, he expressed an honest wish that he not live to see another year. After losing Peter, life lost some of its sparkle. He became frailer, less able to walk, unable to drive, and had health issues. But he stayed at home until a week before he died, and in the end went, as they say, peacefully.
He had no blood relations left, and being a fellow librarian (with a passion for the past) I volunteered to take on his voluminous archive of papers, prints, photographs, letters, and all the documents that he had amassed over the years. And so in the last few weeks I have been reliving his life, from before he was even born until death. It has been a pleasure and privilege to sift through these things that meant so much to him.
Dan and I and our neighbors profoundly miss our wonderful neighbor and friend. When I walk or drive by his house, I imagine him sitting at his desk at the window, looking up with delight, and waving goodbye.
What more is there to say about a man who touched our hearts? He loved Edna St. Vincent Millay, so, here, then, is a poem by her that speaks to how I feel at the closing of a very special life.
Dirge Without Music
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Fare-thee-well Jack Jackson. Much love.