A year ago, in the early days of March and of the Conservancy’s stewardship of the house and garden, I opened the beautiful French armoire in the living room and marveled at the tumbles of Paula’s linens—bold colors, intriguing patterns, fine fabrics from places she loved most. They had caught my eye several times before as we explored the pockets of William and Paula’s enchanting house, but this time I pulled tablecloths, runners, and napkins from the shelves, and spent the morning washing Paula’s linens. As ikat and Provençal fabrics swirled together in the wash, I imagined the dinners for which Paula was so well known, the carefully crafted gatherings of vibrant minds around the old and charismatic farm table, the engaging conversations that Paula conjured with her wide-ranging knowledge and skill at drawing people forth.
I didn’t meet Paula in life, but I have come to know her in and through the spaces she created, the objects she carefully chose, and through stories of her strength and unsentimental but emphatic care for people, things, ideas. The simple act of washing and folding her linens that morning felt like a gesture of reverence and remembrance; March is the month in which both William and Paula died, two years and a few days apart. Today, March 10, is Paula’s birthday, and an all the more fitting occasion to remember her—as a woman who boldly left behind the familiar bustle of New York’s Upper East Side and ventured to Haʻikū, a new home on an unpaved road with early (and unreliable) solar-powered electricity; a keen-eyed and intuitive gardener; a curator of the Green Room program series (and of every dinner); and prescient founder of The Merwin Conservancy itself. All the while and in all things, it seems, she was a discerning editor, and she became William’s first. In the documentary Even Though The Whole World is Burning, she recalled finding the manuscript of The Folding Cliffs sitting upside down on the corner of the dining table, the spot where William quietly placed new work to signal that it was ready for Paula’s eyes and mind.
A few days ago, I had the pleasure of connecting with the poet Grace Schulman, a longtime friend of William and Paula’s who in March 2019 wrote a brilliant piece in The Paris Review. In it she remembered William and Paula through the letters she had exchanged with them over the course of their decades-long friendship. Returning to it, the first line astonished me anew: “We must not vanish all at once; it’s too hard on the survivors.” William wrote this to Grace late in his life, when he was remembering John Ashbury and Galway Kinnell, and I return to this idea now, as I remember William and Paula. I am grateful that they live on in this place, in the abiding commitments of The Merwin Conservancy, and in our individual and collective expressions of care. This week, as I revisit what may well become a ritual of remembrance and celebration each March, I will keep front of mind my good fortune to be among those who carry her vision forward.
With warm wishes,