Category Archives: longing

Dad and Barbara

The dear dead ones

What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!

But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?

Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.

I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.

The glance

In Mexico, where my wife and I were vacationing, the girls and young women know how to pack it in and wrap it around.

mannequins
Mannequins at store in Guadalajara

You can see the fashion cues in the mannequins at the stores, out on the sidewalk, stuffed into tight jeans, the zippers sometimes not zipped up all the way. What the hell, it’s a semi-tropical if Catholic country, and the girls aren’t walking like virgins or saints down church aisles. They are strutting their stuff, if they got it, and not shy about it either.

One consequence of this strutting, of course, is early pregnancy and poverty. You see many young girls either pregnant or with babes in arms or tow, or both. Combine this sad fact with the begging vendors on all sides, people without much education out on the streets hawking wares of all kinds — food, clothes, phones, flashlights, bird whistles, glass stirring sticks, bootleg CDs and movies, you name it — and you’ll get some inkling of how quickly things ripen and then rot in Mexico, how rapidly possibility runs into impassivity.

One day, about a week ago, in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico — terribly crowded and polluted too — Jen and I visited a couple of museums and then, about noon, sat down in an outside restaurant on a square.

When I entered the restaurant — there are metal rails all around, defining the space — I noticed, directly in my path, a gorgeous young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20, sitting with a couple of old folks, that is, about my age and Jen’s. I looked at the girl with obvious interest, and she looked straight back, unblinking.

We took a table next to that where the girl and her party were sitting, and had a beer and snack.

When we left, I looked at her again, helplessly, with obvious interest, and she stared at me as boldly and unwaveringly as any woman has ever looked at me. (Back in the day, women would look at me, you see. But we needn’t go into that at this time. ) The girl swiveled her head and stared at me as if, well, I don’t know. As if I were the second coming of Christ? Or Satan on a stick? Or her last chance at getting out of that life of limited education and income?

As if to say, Hey, old gringo, get me out of here?

As it to say, What the hell you staring at me like that for?

As if to say, Now where if anywhere does it go from here?

I think of a song by Rupert Holmes, sung beautifully by the late Susannah McCorkle, “The People That You Never Get to Meet,” with wistful lyrics like these:

You’re browsing through a second hand bookstore,
And you see her in non-fiction V through Y.
She looks up from World War II,
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye …

Of course, there are a thousand other possibilities that lie behind that glance. What do I know? I’m just an old gringo with all the usual old boys’ habits and longings. I know, as you do, that life is short, and sweet, and fleeting. I know that in a tropical, or subtropical, clime, you do as the Romans, or the Tapatios, do (as Guadalajarans call themselves). You relax, expand, look around, and sigh. You go on with your life, and it takes you where it will.

And you think about
The people that you never get to love,
The poem you intended to begin.
The saddest words that anyone has ever said are
“Lord, what might have been.”
But no one said you get to win.

Now my dear wife Jennifer, who’s been my bride for 90 years, I joked to people in Mexico, says that the girl was obviously mentally defective, perhaps one of those Down’s Syndrome people who don’t look like Down’s Syndrome people. Why else, she reasoned, would a beautiful young girl look at a geezer like me?

No one said you get to win, all right — except what you’ve already won, like your spouse, who, if she’s like mine, is fine, and took some doing. Or the poem you not only intended to write, but did.