Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Last Chapter

Peter with Ally and Ajax on Fearless, Lake Geneva 2014

I learned yesterday that my cousin Peter passed away. Second cousin, technically, but his mother Jean was like an aunt to me. No one knows, yet, exactly what happened. Some hikers found him sitting beside a trail near Telluride, his pack still on his back. Likely it was peaceful for him. Maybe he didn't even know what was happening. It is comforting to think he was doing something he loved in a place he loved.

I'm always interested in learning what goes on in people's heads. Understanding what moves them, how they perceive the world. Peter, though, especially intrigued me. I saw him nearly every summer at the lake, but he was a mystery. He was ten years older than me and ran with the elusive pack of cousins that were the first in our generation. I was in the tag along group, hoping, maybe, to get a chance to water ski when everyone else was through or to get invited for late night swims.

The summer I turned 12, I started spending more time at his family's cottage when Jean's best friend's daughters started coming to the lake. We stayed up late at night playing Spades and Trivial Pursuit. Peter would never give up trying to answer the trivia questions, even if it took him half an hour to comb his brain. Somehow, the answer would always be in there! Mostly, though, he was off playing tennis or golf, and I was not part of that circle. His college years stretched into decades as he pursued graduate studies in anything that caught his interest. He traveled the world. He was a voracious reader.

So I knew about him, but I didn't really know him. I wish I'd tried harder. Instead I filled in the gaps with my imagination.

When we were all grown up, I'd sometimes be invited to his cottage for dinner. He'd sit at the head of the table while people buzzed around him, getting the meal set out or cleaning up afterward. He seemed oblivious to the activity. Was it what he expected of everyone? Or did he just let things happen? Other times, he'd track down Ally, a friend's daughter who was like his own, at our cottage to let her know he'd made her grilled cheese or hot dogs for lunch. As much as he loved surrounding himself with people, he also liked to disappear. He was notorious for being difficult to track down.

A few years ago, I caught him alone and asked him about a trek he'd taken in northern India around the time his mother died. We talked about spiritual journeys and how intangible they are, and we bonded over our mutual rejection of dogmatism. I was left hungry for more. What were his questions? Did he ever find answers? Was he driven by restlessness or curiosity? Or maybe both? Or maybe neither?

This summer I watched Peter as we listened to another cousin's son play the trumpet with a jazz quintet. We were in an old clubhouse that probably hadn't changed much in our lifetime. It felt timeless. I tried to read him, but couldn't really. He looked serious. Sad? Or was he just reveling in the music? Or maybe both? Or maybe neither?

It struck me in that moment that he seemed to move through life as though he were a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Later he told me when I asked what he remembered about my Grandpa Stuart, who died when I was six and Peter was 16.  Someone else I wish I'd known. "I admired him," he said and described him as soft spoken, intellectual, and curious about the world. He credited Grandpa's extensive slide shows for sparking his interest in traveling to far flung places.

I thought I'd have time to find out more about what was in Peter's head. Next summer, or the next. But the last chapter of his novel has ended, and as far as I know all the words I wanted to read died with him.


Unknown said...

this is great writing Margie. I want to talk to him next summer too!

Michael Case, Jr. said...

I spent many summers with aunt jean and peter as well (my mom is an ullmann) - always looked up to him. I used to drive fearless around bunches as well - his passing has brought back a bunch of good memories about peter and my youth. He and jean were awesome. I wish I could thank them.

Scott Belknap said...

I have so many memories of growing up with Peter as my next door neighbor. The endless hours of play from 3rd grade until sometime in Jr. High, when our individual interest expanded our group of friends, are unforgettable. Our lives almost exactly followed the same course. I wish we had stayed in contact.