vendredi 24 décembre 2010

Bending, a Christmas tale

Winter on the fields


As far as Christmas is concerned, the snowfall came too soon. The snow that covered the trees, bushes, fields and roofs is mostly melted here, although it still lies fairly thick once you pass Poissy and head into the Forêt de Marly toward Paris, where drivers, stuck in the heavy traffic, lowered their car and truck windows, pointed their iPhones toward the snow-covered tree trunks and branches and clicked.

"Ils n'ont que ça a faire," said my husband as his window slid down and he pointed his iPhone toward the white-frosted trees.

It was true. Sitting there in stop and go traffic on our way to the shopping mall in Versailles, there was nothing else to do but appreciate the winter forest landscape and take pictures. I hit the button again, and his window slid back up. The car in front of us moved forward a meter. The driver seated high up above me smiled over our way. I nodded slightly and smiled back. 'Tis the season.

There, the snow looked as though it had just fallen, where here, we only had the tiniest of flurries, hardly more significant than a delicate dusting of frost accumulating on the leaves that have not fallen and the crusty bits of melted snow that had hung on. Those minuscule flurries made me hope this morning, when I went down to the wood pile and peeled back the tarp to fill my rubber bucket, but now, there is no reason to hope for the white Christmas that seemed almost certain. Bright sunshine is forecast for Christmas day tomorrow, although temperatures will dip further below zero.

I also noticed that the frightfully overgrown yew down in the lower garden is still bent over to make an arched tunnel over the opening in the privet hedge, however, bringing it to within reach of my long-handled pruning shears. I ought to go down and prune it while I can, but at nearly 4 pm, it will be dark soon.

(I really ought to go clean up all the mounds of decaying dog pooh left apparent by the snow's withdrawal before it is too dark to see them. Not that anyone is at risk to step in it, over by the France Telecom utility building. No one but me and my dogs goes there, except whatever other dog on the poor diet it is who contributes his poohs without a similar contribution in clean-up by his master.)

When the snow was at its thickest on the branches and the tops of the clipped shrubberies, the boughs, as well as entire shrubs, bent their heads nearly to their feet, the falling snow mixing with the weight of the snow on them to fasten them tightly to the ground. My stepdaughter was alarmed.

"Papa, ils sont cassés," she reported, leaving the panes of glass in the French window.

"Qu'est-ce qui est cassé?" he asked.

"Les plantes. Elles sont cassées sous le poids de la neige."

I had seen them already. I knew they were bent. It's another miracle of nature that she can design boughs to withstand the force of wind, snow and ice, bending but not breaking, at least not until the forces are extreme. I know this, and I felt superior in my knowledge.

You paid attention in school and in life, the voice I know as my meaner self said to me. I didn't like the sound of that. I tried not to let it out.

"Les plantes ne sont pas cassées," I said, deliberately checking the impatience in my voice, and wondering if I had hit the right measure between checking too much and not checking at all, the terrible one that would leave her wondering if I had been unkind, or not. "Les branches sont souples, capables de se plier en réponse aux forces importantes de la neige, de la glace et du vent."

You could have added that you know they are nearly to their breaking point. In some cases out there, anyway, the voice I know as my meaner self, frustrated by my having attempted to check it, said in a counter effort to let me know I hadn't done such a good job in the event that I had failed to notice the edge in my spoken words. It hadn't escaped me. Like I said, I knew what I was doing, but I hoped it wasn't too noticeable, neither to my meaner self nor to her. I grabbed my gloves, slipped my boots on and crossed the terrace to the Nandina domestica.

The "heavenly" bamboo.

The slender branches that normally reach toward the sky and bend only towards their tips under the weight of the bouquets of thin leaves and airy bunches of green fruits that turn orange in the autumn and bright red in the winter, arched to the ground, where their heads rested on the crusted snow. Two short branches already lay nearby, broken clean off. I picked them up and considered my attitude one more time; it kind of looked like some plants were "cassées".

I took a branch and gave it a shake. Hard bits of snow flew in all directions, stinging my cheeks and making slightly metallic noises as they rained to the hardening snow, like bits of plastic confetti on a glass tabletop, or frozen rain on frozen snow, actually. It nearly broke off in my hand. I took more care with the next ones, shaking as much frozen snow from them as I could so they could stand almost as straight as they usually do.

Over the course of the afternoon, I watched the snow begin to melt and fall from the bowed branches of the yews at the top of the garden stairs, my sentinel yews, making faint, dull thuds. Each thud gave me the faint, dull pleasure of vindication.

See? Nature is hardy enough to survive what she throws at herself. It was my meaner self again, but I did not give her the pleasure of a hearing.


But, are our relationships? Those most fragile of human relationships, the "steps"? Can they take what we throw at them? The jealousies and the barbs of alterity and territoriality?

"You women think you have a maternal sense," my husband once said to me, "but you are essentially animals because it is only for your own. We care for all children, yours as well ours."

"That's not true," I had charged right back, my hackles up as though he had attacked my child, not merely my sense of maternity and sorority.

Maybe it is true, said the voice of the self I recognize as my better one. It sounds like it might be, you know. Look at you and how you feel about his children.

"Not all of them," I said, my defense at the ready, arguments all lined up and ready to go. "And that's not how I felt when once before I nearly had two stepdaughters. I missed them so much later that I cried, and it wasn't just because I hadn't had my own child yet, like he likes to say it is; it was because their mother didn't hate me for her own failings and try to ruin things. She let her daughters love me."

This was true. My better self had nothing to say, and since his daughter has come to live with us, my husband's will has bent under the weight of the consciousness that I am doing at least as much for her as I did for the heavenly bamboo, or that I am trying to anyway, and that counts between us nearly as much or more (but in a different way) than my succeeding. If we fail, we will have failed together now.

Two people can stand straight-backed in their mutual opposition, each defending his own position and giving the best of arguments for refusing to bend toward the other, but the truth, the very difficult truth is that it is only in accepting that there is also truth in the other's point of view and in his needs can one's own truth have any force of effect. In the absence of that acceptance, there is only sadness and loss. Truth falls to power, and with it goes down love.

So why is it so hard, then? Why is it so hard to answer the need in the other and give up insisting on one's own, when time and time again it is shown that in doing that, so much that one says one truly wants finally becomes possible? Is it more satisfying to continue to claim one's wants than to give in order to see them satisfied an hundred times over? Is that why Men continue to wage wars?

In the car, on the way to do our Christmas shopping for the older children, grown to make couples and careers now, I turned to him and asked, "Est-ce qu'on peut se mettre d'accord qu'on ne se fait pas de cadeaux cette année?"

I asked this question even though I had reason to believe that he had already gotten me a present. I hoped to avoid spending money we need for his daughter's riding lessons and that we will need for her competitions, soon. He hesitated a second before replying, just long enough to show me that I had been right. "Tu m'as déjà fait un cadeau alors?"

"Oui, mais ça n'a pas marché."

"Alors, on peut dire qu'on ne se fait pas de cadeaux de Noël cette année?" He nodded.

"Tu veux savoir ce que ça a été?"

Did I want to know what my failed Christmas present was, he wanted to know. I saw him smile a little sadly. I nodded. He paused, and then he said, "Un D300."

A D300? My brain turned over once, twice, and I understood.

"Un appareil de photo? Tu m'as acheté un Nikon D300? Mais -- j'en ai déjà un --"

"Je sais. Sam me l'a dit."

He knew I had one already, but that knowledge came too late. Sam had told him. But, why? How could he not have known? I use it every day.

He explained that thrilled with his purchase for me, he had told Sam that now we would have three lenses for our cameras. Sam had looked at him, not understanding what he meant by three lenses for our two cameras.

"J'ai acheté un D300 pour ta maman pour Noël," he told Sam, probably beaming.

"Mais, elle en a un déjà," Sam told him, most likely as confused as I was.

"Ce n'est pas le tien alors?" he asked, disappointment certainly creeping in along with the dawning light of realization that something had gone very wrong.

"Non. J'ai un Canon."

"Mais, Maman avait ton appareil, non? Tu l'avais laissé pour elle à utiliser."

"Oui, mais elle s'en est acheté un, alors j'ai repris le mien, le Canon, pour l'avoir avec moi à Paris. Les objectifs sont les siens. Elles les a eu avant."

Somehow, my husband had entirely forgotten whole conversations, but this is not amazing nor new. It is somewhat disconcerting, but less so since he has nearly always done that. I don't think Alzheimers starts at 30, and if it does, it generally gets much worse than it is now after a quarter century more has passed. And, were that the case, he should have been lost in the winter snow naked, only several fields over, long ago. He is otherwise thriving, albeit occasionally doubtful and disappointed about the various things he has to accept that he has indeed been told, and completely forgotten.

The very day I received my camera, I was exclaiming about the fact that I could take a picture of him from across the room, in the dim of the evening without a flash, and still see the herringbone pattern on the wool sweater I shrunk shortly thereafter.

"Avec l'appareil de photo de Sam?" he had asked.

"Non, avec le mien. J'ai acheté un Nikon D300 d'occas sur eBay, et Sam est allé le chercher pour moi à Paris aujourd'hui."

Another time, he asked if the camera I was using was Sam's. No, I explained again, trying to pronounce my words with extra clarity so he would be sure to hear them; Sam had taken his camera to Paris since I had gotten one of my own. I added that I had realized using his just how big a difference there was between my previously wonderful Fuji digital SLR-type camera after the little Russian Aptek I had used for my first "Garden Updates", emailed to friends and family, and his Canon Rebel XTi, and since I couldn't keep his camera forever and wanted to be able to photograph the dogs, my garden, travels and everything and everyone I love (or for whom I at least care, for one reason or another), I had searched for an used Nikon digital SLR for myself.

Now, he will not forget again.

Later, in between the freezing cold sheets, I put my even colder hand in his still colder one and said, "Merci de mon cadeau. N'importe quel des deux que je garde, l'appareil de photo sera toujours mon cadeau de Noël."

"Merci, mais c'est bête. Je suis quand même déçu."

"Il n'y a aucune raison d'être déçu," I said to him. "C'est vraiment un cas quand c'est l'intention qui compte. Tu as voulu faire le plus beau des cadeaux pour moi et c'était très généreux. Je ne m'attendais pas à autant."

In my mind, it really was the perfect case of the intention being as important as the gift. He had wanted to offer an exceptionally generous and considerate present to me, and it hadn't failed at all. The camera, whichever I will keep, will be from him because he wanted to give me that.

"C'était parce que je t'aime, et j'ai voulu te le montrer comme je peux," he said. Very quietly.

"Je sais," I said.

I know. I do know. I also know that it is because I bent and accepted the weight of his daughter, and it is amazing how far you can bend without breaking and become stronger for it.

Our hands felt a little warmer in the dark.

Joyeux Noël to all, or the joy and the peace of the spirit of Christmas to each of you.
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