Friday, December 31, 2010

Stand-in Father

Yesterday I visited a cemetery near the home I had sold two Christmases back. During my eight years as a resident in the neighborhood, I probably walked through that cemetery at least once a month. Even in winter months, sometimes under falling snow, I paced the pathways.

When my father died at age 90 in his New Orleans home, I returned from his burial to a New England fall and winter.

In my upbringing I had gotten to watch my mother grieve the death of her own mother. The drives to the New Orleans cemetery with my parents had been almost weekly at first. I received lessons in what people looked like when all they could do was place their hands on the mausoleum wall and whisper, "Mama..." I learned that rhythm and sound of grieving from the French Louisiana culture in which I grew up.

What would I do after the death of my New Orleans father if I was fifteen-hundred miles away from the cemetery where he was buried?

I found a grave to visit in that New England cemetery.

Yesterday I drove again to the grave where I had mourned my father in 2001 and 2002. I parked the car and rolled down the window as I had done that first winter. Fresh cold air on my face again, I recalled the determination with which I had focused on this man's gravestone back then. Deceased in 1964, he has no wife buried beside him. When Easter came in 2002, I put a pot of daffodils by his stone. I sometimes wonder if there was family that had come while the flowers were there, puzzled at this gesture by someone unknown.

What my sudden visit to this cemetery accomplished for me yesterday was a calming at the close of the year. It brought a reminder of the earnest pleading for guidance I had made on these walkways over the years. It was important to experience again within this landscape the affirmation I had found for the journeys I keep undertaking in my life.

And it is good to have a father nearby.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Two Mothers

Let me say it starkly – I had two mothers. None of my brothers would have a notion what I mean. The December sun had to remind me of the truth this morning.

When my twin brother and I were born, our mother had already been the owner for fifteen years of a mantle set of Roseville Pottery. The cornucopia vase on the left in the cabinet is an example of what antique dealers identify as the blue apple blossom pattern. No water or flower ever touched this or its companion vase. A wedding present, they were display pieces in my parents’ home, resting on a pair of gilded sconces flanking a framed sofa mirror.

House pride was a besetting sin of my mother. She purchased a mahogany dining room set and breakfront when I was in high school. No meal was ever eaten on that table until one of my nieces inherited the set five years ago. My eye, meanwhile, had been on the Roseville Pottery, nothing extravagantly valuable these days but evocative for me of an era of dark woodwork and sheer curtain panels pulled taut over glass-paned doors.

How we looked, how we sounded when my mother told stories of my brothers and me to relatives and visitors and hospital nurses and emergency room doctors mattered to her.

When my mother reached her late fifties, I entered seminary (a good story for her to tell to lots of people). What my mother did not realize was that a woman even older than she would begin to pay me a particular kind of attention.

Eighty years old, Katie had been a member of a religious congregation for fifty years when I met her. Meeting at Mass sometimes, we enjoyed the kind of conversations we kept having. It became a custom to arrange an occasional afternoon over convent china and to sit across from one another on cane-back furniture. She asked about my family and my training, about my experience with daily prayer and retreats. We would sometimes walk under the crepe-myrtle trees lining the walkways on the convent grounds. I heard about her family in Columbus, Ohio, and the discernment that had led her to convert and to embark upon her long, productive years in the convent.

When her sister died and her Ohio home was sold, Katie was sent some early photographs of herself. The pictures show a Katie before she entered religious life – earnest, soulful, intelligent. In a comment she had written to a family member on the back of one of the pictures, she poked fun at the seriousness of her expression.

One day Katie gave me two of those photographs. They would end up lost in the province archives if they were still in her room at her death, she confided in me. Katie seemed to want to acknowledge the kind of friendship we had enjoyed. They have gone with me wherever I have lived for the past thirty-five years.

The sun this morning hit the cabinet in my apartment as I sat reading the opening chapters of The Red and the Black. On this day off from work at the end of a momentous year, I was ready for the different world of bourgeois society in post-Napoleonic France.

Alert to the look of my home and alert to the transforming power of good questions, I was ready to nod in gratitude to my two mothers as well.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Ornament: The Nest

When I decorated a tree on Christmas Eve, I had no hesitation about the first ornament. It needed to be something I had received from a friend a few hours earlier. That friend understood that "The Nest" would be the theme for Christmas in a new home.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

City in Winter

Walking through the Old Port section of Portland this week, I recalled a photograph I had taken two summers back. It was an image I had been proud of capturing -- the balance, the morning light, the peaceful surface of the water. A picture like that explains why I used to sit there some mornings when I was visiting friends in the area. I would sip my coffee from nearby Standard Bakery and indulge in slow reverie, tasting a mood reminiscent of retreats I have made in years past.

Want to see a contrast?

Not a Chamber of Commerce shot, is it? Not an image around which to create a visitor campaign with an eye to local development and tourist dollars. But when does the way we spend our days in real life have to do that?

On the other hand, the picture actually fits the mood of some retreats. Some of us manage to take time out during the winter months and choose to stand under grey skies and feel cold winds off the water. With nothing merely picturesque to distract us, we get closer to feeling what our lives are like -- or what they could be. We yearn for lives that do not close down when the circumstances in which we lead them touch on grief and loss and economic uncertainty.

Briefly freed from the routines of holiday hospitality, I gave my eyes permission to see things that no tour guide would point out. I discovered myself across the street from a building that looks to have been at one time a confident addition to a busy portside neighborhood. The five windows on its second storey surprised me and encouraged me to keep my eyes open for architecture that may have had something to say in years past.

I kept my eyes open that day and I recorded what I saw. Time visiting with friends sometimes feels like it has to be filled up with outings and amusements. I ventured to presume on the better instincts of friendship and earlier today in a gesture of holiday sharing showed these pictures within an early draft of the post. I even asked to hear the first paragraph read aloud.

Gifts look so many different ways. I liked the way they looked this morning.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I Listened to Vinyl as I Wrote My Cards

I walked somewhere yesterday.

A mere week before Christmas and I walked rather than drove somewhere I needed to go, the countdown of holiday deadlines notwithstanding.

There is a post office a fifteen-minute walk from my new apartment, and around 9:30 on Saturday morning I set out on foot with the twelve Christmas cards I had written and stamped Friday evening. I had been playing Nat King Cole on vinyl as I wrote them.

I have never actually walked to this post office before; there is always on-street parking nearby and I usually tack on post-office visits to other errands with the car. I looked at the keys on the kitchen table as I put on my jacket and cap. I recalled a colleague’s exasperation midday Friday recounting the traffic frenzy she had encountered on her lunch break. I opted to avoid the possibility of frenzy.

I took what started out as an errand and made it work for me as a journey that I wanted. No one else was walking my street, and that solitary status let my imagination play a bit. The suburban neighbors along whose quiet sidewalks I made my way Saturday morning were already out, I presumed.

It was good to feel the cold air and know that house after house, I was passing story after story of people who did not need to think important any of the things that were preoccupying me – this year still again – a week before December 25.

What was the story behind that second-floor window, for example?

And then I stopped.

Could the story be any more unpredictable than the one that I have lived the past eight months behind my own second-floor windows several houses back – the story, in fact, that I was telling in the twelve cards in my hands?

Will twelve people behind their own windows in various parts of the country later this week read with the curiosity and intentness that I strove to inspire as I sat at my writing Friday evening?

And the people whose cards I addressed upon my return – will they sense the sun of my easy Saturday afternoon?

Friday, December 10, 2010

In Search of New England Holiday Reading

Sea gulls and a lobster roll in the middle of December.

I’d prefer a novel with these elements but – to be honest – I’ll settle for a cable movie. And I’d prefer an older novel off a library shelf but I’ll settle for a paperback from an aisle in a giant food store.

I know the flavor of the narrative to which I am ready to respond in these weeks approaching Christmas. Somewhere other than poetry and scripture and homily reflections, I am willing to be gently tricked into reflection. With the aid of character and plot and setting, I can ease myself into a consideration of life’s changes and time’s passing and unexpected disappointment and nagging hope.

Let the reader of the first page follow a car through late afternoon village roads.

Let the camera pan and tilt up to a background of gray waves off a New England coast.

There should be a simple house on a side street, a family home. The headlights of the car briefly illuminate a realtor’s sign in the front yard, and then they go dark. Sound cues: the click of a key in the front door, the cry of sea gulls suddenly muffled as the door is pulled closed.

A man in his forties stands alone in a hallway. He lifts his face and catches the familiar smells that intrude on him from the darkened rooms. At the moment he turns on a floor lamp, you see him from afar, paper bag in hand, framed by a kitchen doorway.

Do you know where the story is going? Can’t you almost tell?

Maybe this novel, this film won’t use flashback – visual or auditory – although that would be an easy way to suggest what used to be the life of this home, a Christmas in this family, the feel of growing up as a tow-headed boy of eight. Maybe you won’t see or hear anything about the funeral of this man’s father within the past year.

I prefer to catch our hero at chapter’s end seated at the kitchen table, half-finished lobster roll in a nest of crumpled deli paper, when the door bell chimes. Or the text message arrives. Or the wall phone rings.

I want to think I know what he would say next.

I want to think there are holiday messages I know almost by heart.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Staying Green

Will I learn anything from the people who took these pictures of Christmas trees long years ago?

What must have seemed crisp magic to them proved elusive.

I think I know why people take pictures of their Christmas trees, and I think I understand why such photographs disappoint. Without the equipment or expertise of magazine and catalog photographers, some trees look a muddle in the picture on which you or I click. Our trees with their lights and ornaments appear the earnest efforts that they are when they promised instead to be something mystical.

The truth is, I fear, that photos of Christmas trees rarely appeal to anyone other than those who decorated them.

I salute – somewhat wistfully – these three photographers and the earnest hopes at the heart of their Christmases.

I am safe for a few more days from the temptation to preserve a memory of any tree this year.

Might Christmas trees stay best and greenest forgotten?