Elizabeth Adda Robinson Ratcliffe
In Memoriam

Text Steve Ratcliffe read at April 17, 2016 Memorial Service


For Lepai —

Another day in April, looking out the kitchen window at light coming into the fog against the invisible Mount Tamalpais ridge – which if the fog hadn’t come in last night would have been clearly present, visible, apparently just a stone’s throw across the growing-longer-now-that-it’s-spring green grasses of the field. Birds chirping from shadowed pine branches at the right corner of the yard, crows calling from the cypress branch across from it – no sound of wave in the channel this morning, swell disappeared these last few days, ridge disappeared into the fog. My mother Lepai (that’s what I’ve always called her it seems, since I was a young man, “Lepai” being her Chinese name, “Lepai-gi”) also disappeared – at least not visibly, physically present (‘here’) except in the mind’s eye, so-called, being here in interior recollection, present like the ridge is now (though not visible), concealed in fog across the field of motionless, shadowed green grasses.

      Since Lepai left us back in December there hasn’t been a day that she hasn’t also been here, concealed as if in fog but somehow present, somewhere inside, where thinking goes on, thinking that brings her to the nearness of the neighborhood at the present moment of thinking – “recollection in tranquility” as Wordsworth put it, Wordsworth being one of her favorite poets . . . And it’s the poets that I want to talk and think about here, the poets she loved and returned to more and more often in the last years of her life – Wordsworth and Milton and Shakespeare and Frost and Longfellow and Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

      Because, toward the end of her life at least, at a time when she sometimes lost track of things that had happened more or less recently, she continued to remember things that had happened in her life many years ago – including, in this case, lines of poems that she had learned when she was a girl (perhaps her mother, my grandmother, had read these things to her when she was growing up? Because Lepai often told me that her mother loved poetry, was herself a poet, though she didn’t show anyone her work as far as I know) – or things she read and learned ‘by heart’ in school, most likely at Wellesley I now think, where part of what they did ‘back then’ was to memorize poems, commit their words to memory – where, as she so amply demonstrated to me, they continued to live (in the mind, somehow among the things most there it seems); and from this experience of hers in learning poems ‘by heart’ as they say, she would say to me from time to time (and often now it seems) “you should make your students memorize poems!” (and so I did so last fall, happily so at her bidding, because I realized that she was right, was on to something important – seeing how many lines, and whole poems, live also in my mind). Anyway, her head was full of poetry, and we would read and recite poems together, and/or rather and also she’d remember things or parts of things she once knew and I’d look them up and read them to her.

      Lines like these (most of which have something to do with seeing) which I’ll read here now not only to you but also to and for her (because she knew them ‘by heart’ and loved them, and would want to hear them here again too), and which I hope will help us to see and hear her again too . . . .

From Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 —

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

And from Shylock’s speech on Mercy in The Merchant of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. . . .

And from Milton’s sonnet —

When I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days in this dark world and wide

And from Wordsworth’s sonnet on the state of the world (which seems strangely prescient, the state of the world then and now) —

The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing in the pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

And also these lines from Wordsworth —

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

And these lines from Longfellow (which I didn’t know but she knew, and I looked them up and found the whole long poem, and a photograph and a whole long story about it) —

From my study I see in the lamplight
Descending from the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra
And Edith with golden hair.

And these from Frost, of course, the Vermont connection —

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

And these lines from Dylan Thomas, which she returned to again and again late in her life, as if some kind of anthem to her leaving the world behind —

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I’m sure some people in this room have heard her say those lines.

And finally these lines which also I didn’t know but she did — this I think from probably way back — from Edna St. Vincent Millay, who grew up on the seacoast of Maine, and when I was there once we took a hike up the ridge above the coast and came to a bench that said, “Edna St. Vincent Millay” looking out over the water. These lines from Millay ‘see’ the world in a kinder and gentler way than Dylan Thomas, I think, as all of us who knew her know that she herself did, once upon a time and always —

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see:
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.

[       H O M E       ]