Laughter with Tears

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In June a few years back, dear friend Ann Margaret Lewis arrived on a Friday night later than expected. I stood at the end of my drive, cell phone in hand, talking her in down the dark two-lane road. As she came around the second bend she flashed her high-beams across the distance and I confirmed her approach with a near squeal of delight. Her long drive and my eager anticipation ended as we embraced each other in the driveway. It was very good to feel her hugs and, as usual, I welled up with joyful tears.

My friend drove more than four hours to stay with me over Father’s Day weekend. Her husband and son would celebrate Sunday night upon her return. The purpose for her visit was to attend to her parents’ grave site, another two hours northeast.

A late night of wine, cheese, and shrimp made for a slow morning on Saturday. Shortly before noon we headed for the cemetery. For over an hour we traveled along the Interstates and talked of books, writing, and manuscripts. As a gardener who writes I am amazed at how much there is to learn about the crafting of words. Questioning Ann, I listened carefully to each lesson she shared.

Exiting the highway, Ann maneuvered through the congested traffic of two and four lane roads. I was unsettled by all the cars and trucks but she was unruffled. This was where she grew up, in Waterford, not far from Pontiac, northeast of Detroit. My anxiety was apparent, but Ann has grown accustomed to my quirks, and drove on with assurance of knowing the way. I was greatly relieved when we arrived at the cemetery—the open spaces soothed my traffic rattled nerves.

Cemeteries induce a sense of well being for me. As a child, accompanying my grandmother to the family’s plot was comforting. She would cut back sod from markers, pull weeds, and remove metal cones of dead flowers. My job was wiping off the grass clippings and dirt from the marble headstones. Grandmother would share memories as we worked. After we planted the marigolds and salvia she would draw quiet to pray while I wandered off among the headstones of unknown ancestors of other families. I would squat before grave markers and mimic my grandmother by pulling weeds, or wipe off leaves and clippings from headstones as I had done for our family. With my finger I traced the letters carved in the stone and tried to sound out the names. Eventually grandmother would call for me and I would say good-bye to all the silent souls and run back to her, to the land of the living.

Ann stopped at the cemetery office for the rules on planting around the plots. We drove to her parents’ graves and pulled hand tools and plants from the trunk. Soon we were both on our knees cutting back sod, pulling up weeds, and wiping down the pink marble headstone. I placed the plugs of marigolds and blue salvia within the small garden, and Ann planted them in place. After sprinkling a few forget-me-not seeds, Ann watered it all in. The grave site was freshened and showed that the deceased were still well loved.

We stepped back for a silent prayer. Ann began to grieve, but I began to feel such joy that I couldn’t contain myself. I put my arm around my crying friend, and instead of words of sympathy I filled the air with words of blessedness and gift. I’ve never known the kind of love that would produce that type of grief, but I have known the type of love that would produce that kind of joy.

Through the depth of her grief came the reality of her love. The fullness of what her parents had given her was evident in the woman she had become. My joy came from recognizing the connection of that eternal gift and her ability to carry it into future generations. There I stood beside and before the ultimate gift from God—the capacity of love.

As we laughed and cried arm-in-arm I told her parents they had done a real fine job.

Image by Michael Gaida at pixabay.com.

 

Natural Order: Even the Birds Know What to Defend

sunset

Sunset view from the oratory.

I finished praying Compline as the sun was setting, displaying a glorious coral and periwinkle sky. My heart was still troubled from the anger unleashed by the decision to allow gay couples legal union. Both sides, homosexuals and people of the cross, were spitting and hissing; the battle was decided and the war still raged.

The ugliness had driven me off-line. I ached as I prayed for the souls of the losers, for all had lost—gay and Christian alike. The personal decision to choose where a penis does or does not go had become public, vulgar, and base. It appeared Satan had won all bets.

My contemplation was sharply ended by the screams of robins piercing the night. Their nest was in the apple tree along the west fence where I could, from the oratory window, watch them flit between the branches with worms dangling from their beaks.

I blew out the candle and hurried downstairs to the back door. The flash of the yard light revealed a darkened form scurrying at the edge of the garden, then up and over the back stockade fence. I bless the feral cats that keep the mice in check, but this one had gone too far.

The next morning I went out—momentarily forced to retreat from the fog of mosquitoes and find some repellent—to assess the damage. It was bad. The mudded nest had been torn clean from the limb and partially cracked. By the aggravated chip-chip of the robins I knew there were babies still alive.

Image courtesy morgefile.com.

Image courtesy morgefile.com.

Like the childhood game of Hot Boiled Beans, I knew that I was getting closer to or farther from the chicks by the heated desperation of the parents. Eventually I found three very fat chicks, though one was rather cold from exposure.

I grouped the babies together under the geraniums near the apple tree, and then examined the fallen nest. The adult birds, unconcerned with my size, were flapping and darting at my head trying to protect what was left of their family.

In the shed I cut a couple of lengths of twine, tying one around the circumference of the nest to close the broken side, making sure the branch saddle was straight. Back to the tree, with the step ladder in place, the nest was aligned on a branch and the remaining pieces of twine secured it in the crotch of the limb.

nest with twine

My attempt to secure the broken nest.

Gathering up the chicks, I poured them into the nest, and ducked as an adult’s wing made contact with the top of my head. I folded the ladder, walked it into the shed, and closed the doors.

Looking across the yard at the little family of birds just rescued, I felt sad. The adults had tried to drive away what they thought an intruder, when in truth restoration was taking place. I was trying in my own clumsy way to save this small family.

We all simply want to protect our family. But unlike the birds, we confuse the natural order of things. A sinister force lurks in the night to assail the family where vulnerability is greatest—the babies, the children who have not left the nest.

Images by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB. All rights reserved.

 

Silver Tree of Christmases Past

Harold and Margaret 1922A story, one of the few, of family. It was written a while ago–my week has been hectic–and I pray you will enjoy it again.

My grandparents were born in 1896 and 1901. Their families immigrated to Detroit when they were teenagers. She had planned to become a nun, and he had graduated from Michigan State College (now MSU) in dairy science. Not a very avant-garde image. But it was the roaring twenties when they met, and things were about to become radical.

He was a Protestant from Ireland and she Italian and loyal to The Pope. In that decade mixed marriages of this type were scandalous! Unheard of! Doomed. I remember my grandmother laughing as she told the story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time and overhearing her say “Aye Harold, she ‘tis a lovely girl, but did ja have ta go ‘n marry a Catholic!?”

They bought a shanty of a house located off Woodward Avenue near 8 Mile Road outside Detroit. The four room, wooden shingled house sat at the back of the lot. It was the only house they ever owned. Through the Great Depression they found creative ways to expand and remodel: salvaging wood from rail-road crates, removing cabinets and doors from condemned houses, scavenging a local business for discarded ceramic tiles, digging a basement by hand.

My grandmother loved sunlight, lots of sunlight. And my grandfather loved pleasing his wife. So a key feature added in the 1950s was a 5′ x 8′ picture window. I imagined that to the neighbors we all appeared like fish in a bowl.

This same picture window from Thanksgiving until the Epiphany displayed a modern 1960s aluminum Christmas tree. The silver tree was minimally decorated with clear lights, electric-blue satin ornaments, and white candy canes…saved from year to year and beyond being edible. The crowning glory was a matching mercury glass tree finial. To enhance the affect of radiance, a light with a rotating disc of blue and clear sat exactly one yard-stick-measure away. I remember as a child running my hands along the soft aluminum “needles” and feeling the smoothness of the satin ornaments. I was often gently scolded for petting the tree.

Grandmother’s home parish was St. James and only a block away. Grandfather, a Protestant by birth and Freemason by choice, never enter the church but often escorted his wife to and from Mass on Saturday nights.

I remember Christmases and quiet winter nights walking home with grandmother after Midnight Mass. Her steps were always matched to mine so that I walked steadily beside her…but never clumsily trying to keep pace. Her hat, a Betmar black wool cloche, custom trimmed with pheasant feathers from grandfather, sat perfectly over her brow. I mimicked her impeccable posture, even while walking through ice and snow as I held her kid-gloved hand.

When we turned off the sidewalk and up the long drive to the house, my grandfather would have already pulled open the picture-window curtains and plugged in the lights of the silver tree. It brightened our walk to the house, tossing rays across the yard and making the snow a glistening blue; giving light to what was love. My grandfather stood to the side of the tree, and looking to my grandmother would smile at the delight on her face. She, releasing my hand, would place hers on her chest in reply.

This is what I remember most about the silver tree, how it illuminated love in the night and for a moment in time alleviated the darkness of childhood. Christmas for me was about love in contrasts. In the home of Harold and Margaret, Irish gaiety blended with Italian faithfulness. And the results? Two no greater gifts to a child: fidelity and the joy of life.

Eternal rest grant unto them Oh Lord.