The Place Between Shadow and Darkness

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The first week into the Dutch non-summer and it has rained buckets, flooded the livingroom and was cold enought for me to wear boots to the Twente Culinair food and winetasting event last weekend instead of the fabulous platform sandals I’d bought for the occasion. We spent the afternoon schmoozing with M. Michaud, Frau and Herr Becker-Landgraf and my brother-in-law and his wife in the cold deluge. Despite the weather it was fun. This is my summer mantra.

The last rain, which arrived on Friday afternoon, deposited particles of the Sahara desert on my car. As the wind’s been coming from the southwest, dust clouds from the great desert are carried toward Europe albeit in an attenuated form the farther north they go. Sometimes when it rains, the precipitation is full of this dust and it leaves muddy deposits everywhere.

Today though, the weather was fine. It is evening and warm enough to sit on the patio, light enough for writing longhand (me) and reading (Vince). We sit on the patio because the Dutch don’t know from front porches.

Growing up on the east coast we’d sit out on the front porch at either grandmother’s house on summer nights like this. There was a strict etiquitte involved, even in the 1970s. You’d greet people walking by. They’d often stop and continue the conversation from the edge of the yard or just outside the gate and wait to be invited up the steps, or not. Once invited up the porch steps, another chair would be pulled up, or space made somehow for the invitee to sit and they’d be offered something to drink. The correct answer to the offer was always, “Only if it’s not too much trouble.” No one in our small town would want to be accused of allowing a guest to think something was “too much trouble” so drinks, which could range from coffee, iced tea, cokes, some vile mixture called Take-a-Boost or beer would be fetched, cigarettes would be lit and the talk would begin.

It was a time when most adults smoked. I can still tell you the brands various people smoked on my grandmothers’ porches: Mom smoked Kool, Nana smoked L & M, Granny was a Salem woman, Uncle Jimmy like Camel unfiltered, Aunt Dot was Benson and Hedges…Somehow the fug must have kept the mosquitoes away, I can’t remember people complaining about mosquitoes like they do now, and we were sitting on prime mosquito real estate; smack dab between the mighty Delaware and the canal. As the light faded, faces retreated into shadow and whole people were eventually swallowed up by the dark. You could tell where somebody was sitting by the glow of the cigarette end. You could tell who it was by the way the red dot moved in space. We are a family who talks with our hands.

People had ashtrays then. Pretty china and crystal ones for inside, bakelite and metal affairs on the porch. I especially liked the one you had to press open with a button. Two halves of a metal sphere would open like an eyeball, ash would be flicked in, the button would be pressed again and the eyeball would close. The metallic click of the button sounded like punctuation and often served to emphasize a point: The Phils don’t disappoint, I’ll tell ya’…gonna finish in the cellar again. Did you hear, Shirley’s expecting. No rain expected for the 4th. Where’s the barbecue this year—not at ours that’s for sure? You hear about the strike at the A & P, something about grapes? Buncha commies. Nixon’s a bum…Can I have a popsicle?…May I have a popsicle?…Get one for your brother too…We are going to be in Vietnam forever unless they drop a bomb…Anybody want another beer?…Shirley is having a baby? Ssh. That’s grown-up talk, you just keep it to yourself…

Popsicles demolished, my brother and I would disembark the front porch and head off to the backyard to catch lightening bugs because the light was fading and they were out in force. We would keep them in Ball jars modified with airholes in the lid on our bedroom bureaus and fall asleep watching their winking lights. If any were alive in the morning, we would let them go.

In the last moments of dusk, after a warm (for here) and sunny Saturday, our garden becomes an enchanted place. All the colors are intensified as though they have been fairy painted. The roses release their scent, orange blossom delights, the heady mix of petunia, geranium, rosemary bush, lavender intoxicate. The word for this time of day in local dialect is “Tweeduister” (twaydooster). It means the space between shadow and darkness.

There are bats living in our pines and quite possibly in our chimney in the summer. In this last light you can see them swoop by. I used to think they were “night birds” until Vince told me the truth. Once we were startled by a bat. In a Star Wars X-wing fighter move, the creature tipped his wings from horizontal to vertical,navigated the 4 inches between us and switched back to horizontal span to continue its flight. This close encounter gave me a certain respect for bats and these days I look forward to spotting the “night birds” who usher in the moon.

Vince and I don’t smoke. Our “porch” evenings on the patio are punctuated with the occasional pop of a wine cork being freed, the rustle of turning pages, and the snores of Mack the dog. When we are alone together we are often quiet, not because we have run our of words but because the words are, at times like this, superflous. When it gets to dark to see any print, we turn our attention toward the sky and watch the stars.

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