Sunday, May 30, 2010

Things We Don't Know We Know

my backyard

My family has always been spiritually adventurous. All of my grandparents started out as Roman Catholics, but my paternal grandparents became Pentacostal after my grandmother fell ill, and my step-grandparents became Jehovah's Witnesses. My stepmother did not like the Witnesses, so she brought us up in the Protestant church closest to our home, which happened to be Methodist. That didn't happen until I was 8, so I did make my first communion as a Catholic, as I was reminded recently when my godmother sent me pictures of the event. Since my most vivid recollection of communion is that the incense made me sick, the pictures were a nice surprise. There I was, in my white dress and veil, which I think served as the prototype for Sally Field's headgear in The Flying Nun. There are my friends, in different dresses but matching veils, including Joan who lived across the street. There is the back patio of my godmother's house, and therein hangs my tale.

Fast forward a bit. When I bought the house my husband and I live in now, I didn't like the postage size back patio, which could hold either furniture or people, but not both. One of the first things we did was have a newer, larger patio poured. It needed shade, so I convinced my husband to build me a pergola like one I saw pictured in Southern Living. The pergola now boasts a sturdy wisteria vine which provides a lot of shade. Hubby and I had some differences over the construction of the pergola. He wanted to use 6 by 6's for the columns and I wanted the delicate ones in the picture in Southern Living, which I got.

So there amidst my godmother's pictures of flounced little girls is a picture of a gathering in her backyard, with relatives sitting on a patio under a familiar looking pergola. The pergola does not look familiar because I remember my godmother, or any other relative, having one. The pergola looks familiar because there is one like it sitting right outside my back window.

"Look," I say to my husband, "I didn't remember that."

"Yes, you did", he replies, pointing out the window. "No wonder you wanted me to make it out of matchsticks." Hubby is the one who does eternal battle with the wisteria to keep it from yanking the pergola completely over, so he favors function over form.

"I didn't remember I remembered it."

I wonder how many other things we don't remember that we remember.

celebrating my communion, long ago

Friday, May 21, 2010


Recently I have been looking frantically through all my household files, bookcases, and other paper storage spots to find a copy of a poem I wrote 20 years ago. So far, I haven't had any luck, although in the course of searching, I have weeded out a lot of paper clutter, and found a number of other poems, essays, and letters to the editor I had written.

I also found something else, something I had forgotten I had - a letter that my brother wrote me 22 years ago. I knew what it was as soon as I saw it, and knew also that I should take it over to the shredder, only a few feet away, and shred it without re-reading it. I knew that, but of course, I re-read it anyway.

The letter was a complaint, one of those letters intended to be more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger which are of course always more-in-anger-than-in-sorrow. It was the kind of letter you write, put away till the next morning, read again, and rip up before writing, "You know, you really pissed me off and you owe me an apology."

My brother is like me in that we both tend toward the cold and cutting rather than the hot angry style. I suspect that he did not hear what he wrote in his mind the way I did in mine when I read it, but let's just say that in re-reading it I was surprised the paint hadn't blistered off the walls around the bookcase years ago. Your family always knows how to hit you where it hurts.

The substance of his complaint was that I had treated him badly at our niece's wedding a few months before, and had made a recent comment on the phone of a similar type. As best I could piece together from what he said, he was unhappy that I had told his children stories about him from our childhood, like the time he rolled peas from his lunch down the aisle of an airplane; he was mad that I said it was funny that my son was so much like his uncle since they hardly ever saw each other; and he was furious that I said I didn't know how his wife put up with him. To me, only the last of these seemed like something to complain about, but I can also see where hearing that might have disposed him to take anything else I said in the worst possible way.

So I could understand why he was mad, and recognized that even though I hadn't set out to be hurtful, I had acted like a jerk, and 22 years ago, when I received the letter, I sent him a letter of apology, after first writing a few paint-blistering drafts of my own which I then tore up into little pieces. We've been cordial ever since, although we aren't close.

Re-reading it 22 years later, however, was a different experience. My remorse has been tempered by the passage of a couple of decades and my hurt at his words is fresh again. I had remembered just enough to know that re-reading it was going to be a bad idea, but not enough to know that re-reading it was going to be a really bad idea. Telling the cop who pulled you over where he could stick his speeding ticket bad. Telling your mother-in-law what you really think of her birthday gift bad. Finding the busiest street corner in town and crossing against the light bad.

My brother chose not just to explain what he found so obnoxious about my behavior, but what he found obnoxious about me in general. Furthermore he implied that everyone else in our family, close and extended, felt the same way about me. He wrote as if he believed I had been trying to pick a fight, and that I had mistaken his patience for weakness, instead of my mistaking his not complaining about anything for his not having a complaint. But what hurt and puzzled the most was a gratuitous attack on my intelligence. "Someday maybe you will learn that intelligence is not the same as wisdom."

My brothers and I have the great fortune to be smarter than the average. I am not any smarter than either of them, and none of us are actually geniuses. The only difference I can think of is that they, being boys, were allowed to be smart in peace, whereas I, being a girl, was viewed as as being a problem child for getting straight A's, and it became something of a family project, or at least hobby, to convince me to play dumb. That was about as effective as convincing a giraffe to pretend to be short, and the subject of intelligence became a hot button one, with my brother convinced that I think I'm smarter than everyone else, especially him. That apparently was an issue for him even into our 40's, which is how old we were when the letter was written, even though we had stopped getting report cards 20 years before. How did that happen?

If I had either wisdom or intelligence, I might be able to figure that out. I didn't even have the brains not to read the letter, despite the promptings of my better judgement, so I doubt I am going to find an answer any time soon. The best I could do was belatedly put the letter in the shredder and remind myself that next time my better judgement says, “Don’t do that”, I should don’t do that.

Maybe that is wisdom, after all.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My Jet-Setting Life

John in Neal's Paris loft

For our 22nd anniversary, my husband took me to Paris, where my son threw us a party.

Okay, this is how it really went down. My son's job takes him to out-of-town locations for weeks or months at a time. His most recent job has him spending four months in Paris. Meanwhile, I get a week off from work every year at Easter. Back when my husband and I got married, it was two weeks, so we got married the day before Palm Sunday and had two weeks free for our honeymoon. We went to Paris, Florence, and Rome.

Even though Easter is a movable feast, some part of my spring break often coincides with our anniversary. We also often take trips at that time, since it's not too hot, not too cold and I have the time off anyway. We went to Hawaii for our 18th and the Caribbean for our 19th.

So what could be more appropriate than to use my break this year to take a trip to Paris to visit my son, who has rented a charming apartment, a former artist's loft, where he could put us up?

I tracked down airline fares, and found a flight that could get us to Paris early Saturday morning, so we'd actually be able to spend the weekend with Neal before he went back to work and left us to our own devices. I found a shuttle service to take us back and forth from the airport at half the rate of a cab, having vetoed my husband's idea to take our baggage on the Metro. I emailed Neal our exact itinerary.

Men are amusing. The Sunday before we left, my husband turned to me in church and said, "Don't we have an anniversary coming up soon?" "Yes", I replied, "Friday. The day we leave for Paris." Two days later I saw a note on Facebook that Neal was having a party at his loft Saturday night. I emailed him to say that while we were delighted that he wanted to throw a party to welcome us to Paris, we were going to be a bit jet lagged. It turned out he thought we were coming in Sunday. (Note to the young: read those emails from your parents.)

It all worked out well. Neal found us a hotel to stay in for our first two nights in Paris. We spent a few hours at the party, which I hear didn't break up until 3 AM. And now I can tell people that for our 22nd anniversary, my husband took me to Paris, where my son threw us a party.