Tag: kindness

The Correct Position

 

The Correct Position

Even as a pre-kindergardner I was aware that girls had private areas. And I say areas because I really didn’t know how many of them there were. Or exactly what they were. And once I knew, and that ocean of complexity lay before me, my focus first changed to my place in that complexity and then to everyone else’s. And it has been that way ever since.

My Uncle Albert weighed just over three hundred pounds and stood some six feet five inches and limped, staggered really, when he walked, shuffled in a ponderous forward crab-like strut. In short, he was out of alignment, heeling over before burdens and forces I could not see. My father said he was one of the kindest men he had ever known. And that he was deeply private.

 

He married Aunt Sally when he was almost fifty and she just a few days over forty. She stood no more than a few inches above five feet and also limped and was unable to maintain a true course, angling her diminutive torso first right, then the left, driven by her own little pendulum of awkwardness and later, pain, as her joints froze, at first slowly, and then more rapidly, until their walks together were limited solely to the hottest days of July, August and September. Even then with her piggybacked up behind him.

Uncle Albert taught school, and was beloved by his sixth graders, who – parents complained – would not leave at the end of the school day, begging him to tell them one more story about this legend or that carefully concealed and controversial lesson in history, biology and Inca astronomy. The last straw was when he began teaching them rudimentary Latin so they could one day read the love poems by the Roman poet Catullus. At the school board hearing held to consider his case and his future, an Episcopalian with knife-sharp creases in his trousers and indignation in his voice, got up and read a poem from a dusty translation in which one object of the poet’s romantic interest, a young woman, on being approached by the poet, trembled like a fawn on a mountainside.

I had been one of his former six graders and was now an eighth grader. I sat beside my father at the hearing, who had come to assure himself that his brother would receive justice. My father was a fearless if slow public speaker when he stood up, took off his felt hat and began to speak at our town’s town hall meetings. There he was known for his furious defense of the beavers that swam submerged and blocked the culverts that, left unattended, flooded the town’s woods and marshes, making them breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“The woods and marshes become a haven for fish and wildlife when there is water,” my father’s voice boomed out over the graying heads. “It’s a natural rhythm. Flood and bounty, flood and bounty. It only takes a few minutes now and then to break up the beavers’ dam building in the culverts. We can hire a college student for that. The beavers bring a richness to the county, fishing for everyone, a biology lab for our children, interesting hiking grounds for our scouts, and protection for our deer, raccoons and wildcats. Let me remind you that before the arrival of culverts and dirt roads the area was called Wildcat. As for mosquitoes, it costs very little to pour barrels of mosquito fish into the water where they will breed on into the future. That is a far better solution than the present one which is to fly C47s low over the town, spraying tons of DDT on all of us.” This was the kind of talk that came out of the mild, quiet man who was my father.

“As for my brother, he is, as you all know, a brilliant teacher for our children who are reluctant to leave the classroom at the end of the day because of the interest and enthusiasm he kindles in them. I sincerely doubt that my brother made any reference to romantic activity when he described a young woman trembling like a doe on the mountainside. I even went to the extent of asking him this question to which he replied he had not and would not ever. So, good citizens, it is not as if he were reading to his 6th graders from the secret sex diary of a reprobate. What he is in fact doing is showing them that there are other languages and that they carry our history of literature in themselves. What he has done is elicit curiosity and the desire to learn in our students, not just in language but also in biology, history and even mathematics. My brother invites you to visit his class, with permission from the principal, of course, to see for yourselves how lucky we are to have a man of this stature and devotion.

No one spoke after my father. People looked at each other as if to say, “Who left the door open? or “Why are we even sitting here?”

And that was the end of it.

I saw other things as I grew up. How each day Aunt Sally waited for his huge frame to come in sight at the corner of Pitnam Ave. and Curtis Place, when Uncle Albert rocked and swayed and elephanted his way home, always with a thin bouquet of poppies, rock roses or Shasta daisies, which he plucked from this or that forgotten bloom between the sidewalk and the street on his path home.

Once I watched him pass by our wooden porch, and then saw Aunt Sally waddle toward d him, rolling from side to side from their house, which was next door to ours. Saw this from the window of my bedroom when I had just gotten up from a nap. They were smiling and wiping tears from their eyes as they came and then held each other in a delicate, tender long embrace, where his massive arms held her head against his stomach, at a level not much above his belt, even when he was leaning forward to accommodate the difference in their size.

When I grew a little older and a little meaner, I found myself preoccupied pretty much with one question, and that had to do with the act. The way it was clearly done according to the movies I saw, where the male held his doe-eyed love below his muscles and bounced around on top of her while she sighed as if she were just short of fainting.

Then my Uncle Albert choked to death on his own saliva during my freshman year in college when a nasty flu  brought the city to its knees. Then something happened that made my father very angry. At first I thought it had something to do with me and my attitude. But that wasn’t it. My mother told me to listen carefully, as she rushed to finish a flower arrangement for the funeral. It was during the war, she said. The Navy rejected Uncle Albert because of the way he walked, but then inducted him because of the way he swam. They trained him in demolitions and appointed him the leader of a squad of some forty other men who together with my Uncle Albert arrived at Utah beach, Normandy, dropped off by submarine, long before the great armada and in silence and predawn darkness blew up steel landing boat traps and obstacles, clearing routes for the Allied invaders, and who only faded away, mostly submerged, when the German defenders, boys themselves, raked the beach with searchlights and M60 machine gun fire, killing all but Uncle Albert and three others. “But why is my father angry?” I asked. “Because somebody said again that Albert had died because he had drunk too much water staying submerged and hidden from the German machine guns—a stupid cruel joke that we’ve heard before. In fact, he received some sort of distinguished service cross for towing the three wounded survivors all the way back to the distant half submerged submarine when he was badly wounded himself.”

Aunt Sally lay beside him for two days, refusing to release her grip on the man she loved so much, and only let go when our doctor decided her own health was in crisis and slipped a handkerchief laced with chloroform over her nose and laid her unconscious into a waiting stretcher. A special coffin had to be built, and a truck with a crane swung it up onto the back of a second truck and after the trip to the cemetery they unloaded the box beside an oversized grave.

In the space of a few days, Aunt Sally found time to make several quick arrangements, one of which was a note for my father saying she was too distraught to attend the service, that she would contact him about other matters later, and then she dropped out of sight completely.

When the crane was about to lower Uncle Albert’s huge box at the end of its greased cable, and we bowed our heads and tried to weep for the sadness of it all, a dark van drew alongside, stopped, and two men, not quite dressed as funeral directors, carried a small pomice-whitened box to the edge of our circle of mourners and stood back. In a voice that was deeper and stronger than usual, my father asked the mourners to come away from Uncle Albert’s grave, to ask no questions and to face away in the opposite direction. Which the mourners did, murmuring and mildly miffed, but complying. Thinking, I suppose, my mother and father needed a moment to kiss the coffin or something. Though I was too old for it, my father took my hand and led me back to the grave.

Following someone’s instructions, probably my father’s, one of the new coffin bearers raised a hinged window of old beveled glass, and we saw our Aunt Sally looking up at us, but not really looking because her eyes were shut, sad, and serene.  She held a very familiar looking bouquet of flowers, the kind of flowers you could not find between the street and the sidewalk, and very much unlike the kind Uncle Albert had liked to pick.

The new funeral directors, who seemed more relaxed and pleasanter than real ones, turned some wooden latches on Uncle Albert’s coffin and removed the lid. My uncle lay face down. I expected an awful commotion, like the one I was feeling myself, part shock, part horror, part sadness and anger. But the mourners continued facing away. With my father’s help, the two men placed the flower arrangement in Uncle Albert’s coffin and Aunt Sally herself on top of him, higher up in what you would have to call a piggyback position – not the one I would have chosen if I had done the planning. Because it could not have been the position they chose for themselves in the private moments of their strange and unbalanced relationship. Plus, it was all a little ghoulish, I thought, to have moved her even stiffer limbs so that her hands wrapped over his shoulders as if she were hanging on.

After the coffin crunched down on the bottom of the hole and the cable snaked back up and the truck left us standing in diesel fumes, my father handed me a shovel and together we set to work on the great mound of excavated earth, rattling it down over his brother and Aunt Sally. We did not talk. At times, when I glanced over at him, his eyes were red and filled with tears. Then, when we were finished and the mourners had left, a few of them Navy veterans, he turned to me, laid his hand on the back of my neck, held me for a moment and said, “Now you know.”

  I learned that Aunt Sally had taken sleeping pills. But for a long time I did not really understand what my father had meant by his comment, and then he himself was gone before I was old enough, mature enough, and kind enough to ask him.

 

Greeting Josefina and Remembering Mateo

I stopped by the church steps today and greeted Josefina, who sat in her usual place on the bottom step. She replied, “Mande?”—”Yes?” with like a school child afraid she has is being called to account for some mistake. “How are you?” I asked. “Fine,” she said.

I can see a kind of generalized confusion in her face when she addresses me. I hate the term mental illness. But I don’t think she’s all there. Then, of course, who of us is “all there”? She does what she does. I have no idea where she goes when she’s not at the steps.

There was another “beggar” that wandered up and down the side of the canyon that is Guanajuato. His name was Mateo. Most of his front teeth were missing, but his smile was always very much in tact. I usually could not understand what he was saying when I dropped 10 pesos onto his very dirty palm. I am embarrassed to say that. It’s like talking about an animal, but I also think twice before petting a dog that clearly has all kinds of problems.

Mateo suffered from some kind of mental problem, too. And I would think, from loneliness, as well. I know people were maintaining him. Once in a while he would appear washed and in warm new clothes. I think that is very typical of Mexico, and probably of most places in the world. People feed and clothe people like Josefina and Mateo.

There seems otherwise to be no solution for “saving” them. In Mexico, to the best of my knowledge, there are no agencies that sweep them up, wash them, feed them psychiatric drugs, dress them and give them a new life. I have no idea whether their families still exist or whether their families, still there, have given up on them. Recently, I have concluded that Mateo may be dead. He no longer shows up. On walks around the ring road on the side of the canyon, I look down into various vacant, overgrown pieces of land that have not been build on—looking for Mateo, or for what may be left of him. An old coat, a pair of worn shoes—still connected to Mateo.

First the Joining

I had gone to bed early. That is one of my favorite things to do. It is like Christmas, or vacation, to watch the deepening shadows, the last glow of day, hear the slosh of the waves against beach—ancient sand, I like to think, ground up stones from temples to Apollo. Just beyond the promenade outside the old hotel.

I lay on my back, spread eagle, which is my way to relax. On the top sheet, clothed only by the soft Mediterranean air coming through the windows. I must have slept, drifted off, sunk down into the weariness of a day of water and sun and walking across ancient landscapes, greeting the small gray lizards on warm rocks, who took bits of processed cheese from the tip of my finger and were no different than those Alexander the Great considered his equal companions on the earth.

It is all the easier, this dropping off, this going to sleep earlier, after forty.

There was a noise at the door. I thought at first it some play in the latch, the door responding to a shifting draft. Then I heard a clear knock. My first concern was for my nakedness, my second for my loneliness in the world. And the disasters that could break over me. A telegram about one of my two sons—drowned while surfing, a blow against the head.

I opened the door wide enough to speak but also to hide my nakedness. It was the artist from the beach, a young French–English woman I had spoken to and admired. She had passed me carrying a wicker laundry basket with wet wash she intended to spread on the breakwater’s dark rocks, and I had retracted my legs some, so she could maneuver through the space between me and a snoring sanglier of a German, who–judging from his color–could soon be served with a side of rot kohl and, in his mouth, an apple .

Out from under her straw hat, she gave me a cheery thank you, and I said something like, this way—with my legs pulled back—she wouldn’t drop her basket on my head. She said I shouldn’t worry, the clothes were freshly washed. And I had said–all smiles and charm–in that case go right ahead and drop them.

Later she returned, in her long blue dress, and set up her easel where the wild bore had been cooking. And we talked—I from where I sat on my rotting, about-to-rip, candy-striped beach chair, with my notebook; she standing at her French easel, leveling it in the sand, holding her brush in her teeth like a bone.

While she painted her clothes, which were now spread out on the dark rocks of the breakwater, and while the waves sloshed close by, we talked about Greece and the history of its admirers.

We brought up names. Many we weren’t sure of. Winckelmann, Flaubert, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Edwin Dickenson. We ruminated on what people hoped to find when they came to Greece, and on how to address a theme–a motif–so that when you worked it, it didn’t become just one more variation on a cliché.

She said she mostly painted headlands and points, and moored fishing boats, sometimes villages and children and goats. She said she thought the ancient essence of Greece could still be glimpsed in the rectangular pupils of its goats. In this painting, with her wash lying over the stones, and the boats in front and the sea behind, she used blues and oranges and emerald greens, all of them set off by bold darks, which gave a convincing depth that, in my opinion, was almost troubling. I read her a poem I had written beside the roasting German about the shadow of sorrow one can feel in the face of immense beauty—by which I meant Greece, its mountains, dark islands, and seas. I told her how I had suffered for a long time from my sense of separation from the world I observed, until I realized I was made of the same carbon matter it was.

Her name was Alex. She was French and English. Her language showed the accents and richness of both cultures. When she said “boat,” her lips came forward, rounded, as if she were blowing out a birthday candle. When she smiled out from under the brim of her straw hat, her dark eyes caused a yearning in me, powerful at first, then fainter when I remembered how many women I had yearned for–and not found. There were a thousand reasons–psychologists knew all of them–why she would never be the woman I wanted to see in her. I think for the first time, in that moment—pivotal for me—I decided to toss aside ideals and take the risk of living in the real world, without any assurances, without expectations, without any guidelines but kindness.

When the light weakened, she packed up her things and got ready to leave. She paused beside me for a moment, holding her basket of now-dry, folded clothes against her hip, with her box of paints and brushes on top. In her free hand, she held the easel folded up and vertical, with her wet canvas still clamped against it. I could tell she was pondering something. She was studying me, not quite ready to speak. The wind played with her black hair, her long blue dress.

“What do you want?” she asked, holding my glance with her dark eyes.

I was speechless. This was a question I had never directly asked myself. It was also unsettling that someone else was asking it.

“Sex and applause,” I said, twisting and weaving. “The first followed by the second.” I said this with one of my smiles, being clever and evasive, but also laughing a little at myself .

“I believe that’s true,” she said.

“Maybe love,” I said, shifting about in the arena of discourse.

“No, I think it’s the former,” she said, and the corners of her mouth rose, as she found humor in it all.

“And laughter,” I said.

“What about sadness,” she asked, still holding the basket on her hip, one brown foot jutting seaward.

“Ah, sadness. That’s the key. I don’t think men know how to grieve. And I’m a man. We’re too busy coping, surviving, searching for meaning. We stagger along stuck full of arrows, and we pretend they aren’t there. We place crosshairs on the forehead of a boy from the next town and squeeze the trigger, full of certainty and righteousness. Plastic floats beneath the surface of Homer’s wine dark sea. Men can only grieve over the someone they love when one or the other of them is dying. Sadness is a dark subterranean river—that is always there.”

She looked alarmed, but then took a deep breath, and shifted the basket, then nodded, and said she we should talk another time. I said good-bye and did not expect to see her again.

Two steps away, she turned around briefly and said, “Good answer.”

I had said farewell as many times as there were years in my life. I watched her go, examined her bottom, the way the off-shore breeze pressed the long blue dress against the curve of her legs, the way she pivoted on the balls of her feet, swinging her heels inward, to gain traction against the sand. At the narrow stone boardwalk, she turned and—I like to think—smiled at me and tossed her head in a kind of wave. But I don’t see that well, and all I can say for sure is that she then turned and entered the hotel and was gone.

When I drew the door back toward me, the one in my room, in the dark of that evening of the soft wind and the waves, I saw Alex standing before me, barefoot as at the beach, with a long white dress and holding a bottle in front of her and, in her other hand, two long-stemmed wine glasses.

“Do you like Retsina?” she asked. “With goat’s cheese and raw garlic and Greek bread?”

“I like Retsina,” I said, still poking my head around the corner.

“I don’t have any goat’s cheese or garlic,” she said.

“I don’t have anything on,” I said.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, and came through the door.

We sat on the bed, drinking the Retsina. Me clothed only by the wind and lit only by the deep Aegean night. We talked about the things we liked in the world: cities, books, films, and friends. Then we talked about things that threatened us most. I spoke about abandonment and betrayal. She talked about severed relationships, remoteness in the midst of closeness, the conflicting expectations of lovers, the absence of gentleness, walls of defensiveness. Last of all, about violence and anger.

When the bottle was empty, and I think we were both feeling the Retsina, she asked me if I knew what she was wearing, and I said a long white, probably cotton, shift. She said I was mistaken, that I was affected by the wine. She asked for my hand, and I wondered how that could determine the color of her dress. She held my hand higher than, say, the level of her knees, higher than her waist, and placed it against a soft curve of bare skin.

“How did you manage that?” I asked.

“I just decided to do it.”

She held my hand against her.

“I mean take it off without me knowing.”

“Timed to the slosh of a wave.”

“I can feel your heart,” I said. It was not something clever. I could feel her heart, and its beat was slow and steady.

“Is this a moment that joins or separates?” I asked.

“Joins,” she said.

“Then separating?” I said.

“First the joining,” she said. “First the basket full of wet wash, then my painting of the clothes, then your poem, then a declaration on grieving men, then your nakedness, now my beating heart.”

“I’m not a superman,” I said.

“I’m not a pin cushion,” she said, “—or a jukebox.”

“How about lips?” I asked.

“And lips,” she said, and she raised my hand still farther, until the tips of my fingers were touching her French and English mouth—which I could tell was smiling.