mardi 26 mai 2009

The end of sentimentalism

A red hat


It was my third hat of the week. Melanoma has a way of making hats more attractive, even if they do ruin your hair.

Along with the straw hats not dissimilar to that worn by the master in the over-sized photograph of him that dominates the gardener's corner of the gift shop, the ones that unfortunately bear the imprint of La Fondation Claude Monet à Giverny on their ribbons, there were the real gardening hats; the ones that will stay on your head, protecting it and absorbing your perspiration from your brow over the years. The one that first caught my eye recalled Indiana Jones, had he been an intrepid gardener. I put it on my head and looked at myself in the mirror. It's the one I'd wear around town instead of the one I bought in Les Andelys last week -- the one that made Audouin smile and say, "Tu as l'aire de la mère de la mariée dans ce chapeau." -- were I bolder.

The mother of the bride. That will never be the case for me as I shall be the mother of the groom, and I shall wear a suitably feminine version of this hat. Perhaps the light green, somewhat heathered one, with a brown and écru ribbon. There's even a matching bag. I'll take the gardening tools out and carry mouchoirs and rose petals in their place.

I took off the caramel colored one and placed the red one with the khaki inside and border on my head. The red surprised me.

I took it off and placed first the heathered green one in its place. I felt older than my years. Really suitable for my son's wedding, to which I will bring the flowers, having pruned them wearing it.

I took it off and placed its heathered brown version on my head. Like the caramel one, there was a masculine aspect to this hat. A sort of daring that the heathered green couldn't reach, while not bold like the red, or intrepid like the caramel. I was helped by the fact that all the mediums fit like smalls, squeezing my brow, and would cause me to pass out in the heat of the sun, and the mediums fit like large and would blow away in the merest breeze, making me nervous about bending over to do anything lest it fall in my work. I thought I had decided on the green. The display was the green pattern. Am I so easily swayed? I longed for the caramel; I returned and put the red back on my head.

Bold. I'd start with bold. I'll return for the heathered green for cutting flowers. The caramel for whacking at overgrown things. Audouin saw it on the table when he came home last night and put it on my head.

"C'est pas mal ça," he smiled. "C'est quoi?"

"Un chapeau de jardinage. Je l'ai acheté ce matin à Giverny."

"C'est bien. Ca te va bien." I took it off. "Tu devrais le garder. Ca te va vraiment bien." He smiled again. We have been so much kinder to one another since he thought he really could lose me. Don't try that at home. Just know it.

"C'est mon chapeau rouge. Je vais prendre un autre plus feminin pour couper les fleurs et en faire des bouquets, et puis celui qui fait 'Indiana Jones'," (I did my best swashbuckling gardener) "si Indy était jardinier intrépide et pas archéologue." He smiled. It's really a very nice smile.

Melanoma also has a way of making you playful in the face of the joy of a narrow and lucky escape.

It also goes, sort of, with the gardening gloves my half-sister brought me, along with a reproduction depression era tablecloth she made me and the CD of photos of our father. They, like the heathered green hat, are more suited to the activity and the image of the gardener as cut flower gatherer, which distinction I have not yet earned in my perpetually improving, but not yet improved, garden, but they were a thoughtful gift, a percentage going to breast cancer research.

I have gotten you nothing; memories, I hope, will become heirlooms, I said to her, meaning it.

They already have, she answered. I think, after a week with me -- a week in which I surely said too much of what I have thought and felt, believeing, perhaps wrongly, that anything else was not enough, that any other sort of relationship would not be worth as much --, that she might see them more like I see the photos of our father now, an uncomfortable reminder, something you keep because you can't throw them away, but not something that makes you happy.

I don't think I will feel like crying anymore when I think of our father. For years, my eyes were perfectly dry thinking of him, but I had a way of thinking of him that made a victim of him, a shrew of his wife. Not that they weren't, but I suspect he was something else again. When your memories end in childhood, they have a way of being kind. Probably too kind. It's easier to be hard on those who remain, while they at least deserve the credit for the courage they exhibit in so doing, my father having exhibited none towards me.

"C'est drôle," said my husband, looking at the photos of my father taken from babyhood, through soldiering and salesman, fisherman, huntsman and fatherhood, and back into uniform in his last years, "mais on voit un lâche. Quelqu'un qui ne fut pas un acteur dans sa vie. Il a un drôle de posture, toujours les mains dans les poches, les jambes écartées. Toujours la même."

"Know one thing about our father," she said to me before leaving to ride the escalator to her plane back home, no promises made for the future that can't be kept, "he was a man who was respected by many and admired by all by the end of his life." I could have spoken with her, so expected were the parting words. I know she believes them, but I cannot.

Believe what you choose. Believe what you need. My husband is right. It's what I always knew: my father was not an actor in his own life for certain things, maybe the most important things, but he was for others, and not the best, and he only is responsible for his life, a life I am glad I was spared. I owe him a sorry thanks for that. How much are the empty words in obituaries written by men who hardly knew him and what he carried in his soul, the things he chose to conceal, when he always looked out for himself first, to be buried with full honors for a soldier's life led with no heroism finally worth?

Reading the New York Times today, I came across an article about the letters Donna Reed received from soldiers during World War II that she saved, 314 letters in a shoe box in a trunk in the garage, of which she never spoke, soldiers who "often wrote to her as if to a sister or the girl next door, confiding moments of homesickness, loneliness, privation and anxiety."
Cpl. Bob Bowie wrote of how seeing Ms. Reed in “The Human Comedy” made him long to be back home in Los Angeles and wishing “I could see my Mom.” He added: “I don’t know how it affected the other fellows, we never discuss our feelings with one another.”

If the men and women serving with him at the base knew, then they could answer, but he never discussed his feelings with them. He never told them what he didn't want them to know, what would not have won him praise for loyalty and goodness. They can't answer, and I won't.

Heroes are injured and die in wars, live with their pain and work to help others with what they have, not what they take from their family, not what they conceal of their family, of themselves, and not from personal honor and dignity, but from fear and shame. These are the men and women deserving of honor guards and F16's overhead at their funerals. I won't be found uttering platitudes of respect and admiration.

And I won't feel my eyes sting with tears ever again when I think of him. I will never again feel the slightest regret for the fractures and the resentments and rejections in my family. Let them do that. Let them believe what they will of what they know nothing and judge and punish accordingly. It doesn't touch me anymore.

For years, I have longed to feel as though I had risen from the valley to the top of the mountain, from where I could look out and see everything about me to a far, far horizon, unobstructed, free. For years, I thought it was about work and my success. It is about the soul. Knowing makes you free.

I hope you got what you wanted out of this visit. The words sounded innocent, conveying hope for a wish, but they could have as easily carried the implication, the charge of selfishness. I hope you got what you wanted. It wasn't about what I wanted.

You must be careful, I was warned. You can't start this for selfish reasons; she is a person. But we all walk into relationships vulnerable, and who we are is what takes care us of as we risk; what the relationship will become is up to no one. You can't know before you meet and know one another.

I got what I needed from this visit. I learned who my half-sister is and what she believes. I learned about the later and the last years of my father's life, the part he didn't share with my sister and I. I learned I was better off for it, as hard as anything I ever lived without him was. I could say that my soul and who I am were forged in that crucible, and I would say that I am glad for it. I learned to be grateful and to be glad for myself. My confidence is great. My strength is greater. My world is vaster, my dreams able to carry others and fulfill parts of their own.

You can't protect anyone. You can try to be kind. You must be honest, or nothing is worth a thing, and now, watching her disappear, s'évanouir, in the escalator taking her to her plane back to her home town, a place I left years and years ago, I knew better what many things are worth. I wish her well, and better.

Good-bye, Dad. I don't miss you.
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