Nothing Gold Can Stay: In Memory of Charles W. Petersen

My Dad and I used to have a lot of literary…disagreements. We disagreed on Edgar Allan Poe and several literary theories, among other things. We didn’t disagree, though, on which short stories were our favorites. And we didn’t disagree on how much we loved Robert Frost.

In the house where we grew up, he had a study. On the wall, he had a few poems by Frost—the poet he liked to discuss most, and the one about whom he wrote his Master’s thesis, the topic of which was “Frost saw nature as malevolent.”

We sitting here now might think nature is malevolent, how could life have dealt more than a few crushing blows to a man who maybe didn’t deserve it, to a man who passed on so young. But I believe that despite his thesis subject, Dad believed that there was dark beauty in all of that, and I believe that was probably why he was so enamored with Frost.

The first poem he had on the wall was “The Road Not Taken”.

Dad used to read this to me when I came home bawling after a bad day at school. Recess, you see, was the thing I hated most. It was when the kids made fun of me because I preferred reading to kickball. So Dad sat me down—with his beer and his cigarette, because this was back in the 1970s when he did all that stuff—and he explained that this poem was about how rewarding it was for a person to be different. For a person to stay true to himself. Which is something that he did do. I mean, take, for example, when he built the house we lived in, and it had to have a room big enough to accommodate a 20-foot Christmas Tree. (No 7 or 8 footers for him). Or when he decided at 2 in the morning that we all just needed a trip to Disney World and he threw us all in the car and off we went (no advance planning on that one, but somehow, he’d gotten us booked into the Polynesian). Or when he was doing a show, and he needed stage lights but they were too expensive, so he made them out of paint cans. Or when he bought the cabin he loved so much in the Adirondacks, and everyone told him not to do it because it was falling down around his ears—he did it anyway, and then he tried to put in real plumbing, and the toilet he put in fell through the upstairs floor. But actually, he was rewarded. When he ripped out one of the walls, he found a Civil War newspaper that had been used as insulation. He took that board and shellacked it, and he always used that as an example of just how right he was about the way he chose to do things. And he always did stay true to what he wanted to do.

Like, for example, in 1977, and the hot movie that year was Telefon. This was a violent Charles Bronson flick with plenty of material inappropriate for a six year old. But of course, Dad decided that I deserved to see this film on the big screen. Not because he thought I should be exposed to inappropriate things, but because he wanted to introduce me to another of Frost’s famous poems, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.”

We’ve probably all heard this poem at one time or another, but for those of you who have not seen Telefon, it was a cold war spy flick that featured Bronson in charge of saving the world. Basically, the Russians had brainwashed several operatives to “take out” people in the United States Government. When the Russians wanted to assassinate someone, one of their spies picked up the phone and called an unsuspecting, usually upstanding, American citizen. The Russian said, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” and the person on the other end of the phone fell into a trance and responded, “And I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Then the American went out and followed through on his task. We watched the film—I don’t remember much of that day in the theatre, but I do remember he bought me Strawberry Twizzlers which I later puked up all over the yard—which is and on the drive home, the first thing he said was, ‘Don’t tell your mother I took you to see this.” The second thing he said was, “Kristi, did you know that Robert Frost went to a party once, and an eager student asked him, ‘you know that poem, ‘Stopping By Woods’? Well, what does that mean? I always thought it had something to do with death.’ And Mr. Frost replied, “I wrote what I wrote, and it means whatever you think it means.” Of course, I’ve always been a believer in that this poem means just what it means to whoever’s listening. And I know this much. I believe it is about suffering. And if that is the case, than my father no longer has miles to go before he sleeps.

But there was a third poem of Frost’s on that wall. And this one was called “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” This one is brief, so I’ll share it.

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

While you might think that this poem is a little depressing to read at a funeral, my father did not see such a tragic end in this particular piece. Dad used to teach his English students that this poem meant that life is darkly beautiful. That although all things die, all things are resurrected. And that death is a transformation into something new. It is not the end, but the beginning. And I am sure that my Dad is appreciating whatever’s gold where he is, and that he is looking back on whatever was gold that he had during his tenure with us. And that is what he leaves. That we should be looking at all things gold. And that when the chips are down, all things gold will eventually come around again.