Remembering Barbara Belle Cumming Burrell

I am used to quiet people in my family, but my grandmother was quiet in a different way. Where the others’ silence often seemed to seethe with menace, her calm was an expression of great equanimity. Where theirs should not be disturbed, hers could not be disturbed. Where theirs was imposed upon us, hers was available to us.

I failed to appreciate this soon enough. While my grandfather was alive, I thought of them as him because he demanded so much attention. But after he was gone, she was still there, and her quiet became more positively apparent. It became clear just how much she accommodated him, and how little he dominated her. This is not to say that she humored him. She loved him dearly and thought much of him. Out of her strength, she provided the space and comfort he needed. I saw this all at once in the wryness, but not irony, with which she once said of him, “When he woke up in the morning, he knew everything about everything.”

She was quiet by virtue not of effort or suppression, but as a manifestation. It’s a quiet that I’ve only recently learned to recognize and appreciate. In the silence of her absence, a different sort of silence all together and one that emerged gradually over the course of her decline, I now miss her particular quiet greatly. But I have seen its like in my family. It’s what I find when I visit my brother and his family. That may well explain the profound connection between him and my grandmother.

Over Nauset Bay

The first thing to know is that the scene is laid out before us objectively. Like a panoramic still life, it’s there for us to contemplate at our ease. The second, contradictory thing to know is that we are wholly embedded in the scene. We are there, in and of that peace, and nowhere else. We have just followed the trail up the hill from the Salt Pond and pivoted from a wooded view inland to a vast, open view of the dunes and bay below, and the ocean beyond. All, or almost all, is still. The sun sits high in a solid blue sky, with no clouds to gauge its distance or its path. There are only the rolling surf, too far off to hear, and a single gull wheeling over the flat, glassy bay to suggest that we haven’t left time entirely. It’s a pure moment. Whatever cares plague our life at home, or even back in our guesthouse or on the ride down, don’t exist here and now.

It’s thirteen months after our wedding, which is to say fifteen months after my father’s death and about eight months after her father’s death. But in that moment, on that bench on that hill, we’re the only two people alive, and aside from that gull animating these instants, the only two creatures alive. All of the space, light, and air denied us in our apartment and our offices is here, if not for the taking, then at least for the having, and we’re overwhelmed by it. She lays her head on my lap and closes her eyes. I abide with my hand on her shoulder. Neither of us says anything, because any word, any further movement, would break the spell and we would fall back into time and life.

But eventually, in our naive and needful benightedness, we do move. We get up and continue along the trail, back down and around to where we started from. She needs to get back to the restroom, so we don’t take the additional loop in the trail out to Nauset Beach and back. We hurry to the parking lot and the visitor center, and having tarried there a few moments more, we drive back to the unexpected (foolishly so) melancholy of our guesthouse and the rest of our vacation.