Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hadley's Legs

 these precious days I spend with you

I read a lot of Hemingway in my teens and twenties. Purely by coincidence, the last thing I read was also the last thing he wrote: A Moveable Feast, a patchwork of memories from his years in Europe between the wars. It's not as well-regarded as his other stuff, but I liked the sense of affectionate retrospection; regret; and sadness for things lost. And I was moved by the elegaic notion of Hemingway, now an old man, writing this book as a prelude to letting go of life. The book doesn't make that point explicitly; but it's the same gentle, if reluctant, acceptance of death expressed in these verses by Hermann Hesse, later set to music by Richard Strauss:


The garden is in mourning.
Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
at his dying dream of a garden.

For just a while he tarries
beside the roses, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

Speaking of men and mortality, Rembrandt likewise regards his own flawed life in this final self portrait:

feeling a lot like Hemingway at the end

So men grow old, and reflect, and regret; and appreciate.

Getting back to Hemingway, the thing he best remembered from his Paris days wasn't the cafes, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Gertrude Stein; what he remembered best was his first wife, Hadley. I wasn't married when I read A Moveable Feast, but I was beguiled by Hemingway's spare yet winsome depiction of their life together with their little son Bumby. And from then on I longed for a wife like Hadley, someone who made life wondrous in a quotidian sort of way. Now Hemingway has a direct, even flat, way of writing; and was never florid in his descriptions. So when it came to Hadley, it's through this quote about skiing that I imagine her: "..she had beautiful, wonderfully strong legs, and fine control of her skis, and she did not fall."

A few years later I married my very own Hadley. One day we were hiking up Table Rock in nearby Pickens County, my wife was in front. As I watched her shapely calves flex at each steep step, I imagined Hemingway's Hadley hiking up the mountains in Austria, and saw those same "beautiful, wonderfully strong legs" on Janet. Since that epiphany on Table Rock, I like to tease Janet about having beautiful strong legs like Hadley's; and how like Hemingway, I was smart to pursue a woman a bit older than me. Janet's riposte is that she doesn't mind having Hadley's legs as long as she doesn't have Hadley's husband.

My life's about three-fourths done; now I anticipate death. I too reflect and appreciate. Unlike Paul Anka, I have a thousand regrets. But marrying my wife isn't among them.