Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pink Hats 20: Untarnished and In Uncharted Territory

The Livingstone House, as the parishioners of Grace Episcopal Church fondly referred to it, wasn't exactly in Concord, though its mailing address claimed otherwise. About a mile outside the town limits, Bob swung his Escape onto a country lane lined on both sides with white flat-board fences declaring the acreage within to be horse pasture. At alternating intervals, first right then left, between the fence posts, were rows of not quite leafless maple, chestnut, and birch trees, creating a scene that would have made Norman Rockwell envious.

It was the first weekend in November and the previous month's Halloween was one he and Jessie would retell until their children knew it by heart. The two of them, along with Halley and Ted, dressed up like Harry Potter characters -- Bob as Ron, Jessie as Hermione, Halley was Delores Umbridge, and Ted made a very passable Rubeus Hagrid. They took the twins, each wearing a miniature peaked black witch's hat, trick or treating, and passed out candy to the children they met. Halley enshrouded the baby carriage built for two with black satin, like a hearse, and they took turns at the helm. If it takes a village to raise a child, as Hillary Clinton said, the twins were well on their way.

The lane curved deeply into a stream-fed, thickly wooded glen, and they drove through a small but classic New England covered bridge. Another bend to the right, a quick one to the left, and if they weren't careful, they'd have overshot the driveway marked by orange reflectors and a large, white wooden mailbox decorated with painted yellow daisies and the name "Livingstone" on the side in dark blue script. The reflectors were the small, round variety perched on twisted metal stems extending from ground level, informing nighttime drivers of the existence of an entry onto the lane. There were no street lamps this far into the country.

Bob parked next to a dual-axle Chevy truck with the words, "Southern New Hampshire Large Animal Clinic" lettered on the door with a phone number. "My brother's," said Jessie, as she held her door open for Sam. He bounded out and ran to join a game of frisbee between father, daughter, daughter-in-law, son, and two grandchildren. "Johnny -- we call him that to distinguish him and my dad -- Johnny married Julie, his high school sweetheart," she explained, "and the kids came along while they were in college. They're eight and ten. Julie's the clinic office manager, bookkeeper, and sometime vet tech." Recalling his difficulty remembering names, she winked and said. "Don't worry, we're easy to remember -- think 'J' and you'll feel like you're back in medical school."

Moments later, they were surrounded by her family and a flurry of hugs and handshakes ensued, welcoming Bob as though he was a long, lost cousin. "Thank God Jessie had the good sense to find someone who's name begins with something besides a J," her father said. "We need some variety in this family!"

"Well, I could go by my middle," Bob said, smiling, "James." They laughed at the synchronicity while John herded the group into the house and stood, holding the front door. Bob was about to enter last when John laid a hand on his shoulder and said, "I hope we'll have time for a chat later on, just you and me."

"Yes, sir, I'd like that very much."

"Sir. Did you hear that Jessie?" he shouted, "Bob called me 'sir.' Looks like I'm finally going to get the respect around here I so richly deserve!" He adopted a regal stance, hands on his hips, and gazing about as if surveying his kingdom. The household erupted into laughter as he turned to Bob and said, "I appreciate the compliment, but the truth is, too many 'sirs' and I start looking around to see if my father's risen from the grave." He rolled his eyes for emphasis.

Lunch at the Livingstone House was loud and lively, drowning out the Opus 3 Handel Concerti Grossi playing in the background. Jessie leaned over and whispered, "Don't be afraid to reach for something or to interrupt. Even when my mother was alive, formality at dinner meant you used a napkin instead of your sleeve. Which we all did, but you know what I mean."

"Do you come from a large family, Bob?" asked Johnny. "More gravy?"

"No, I'm afraid, I don't -- yes, thanks -- I'm an only child, but my parents and I were close and I had lots of friends growing up, so I wasn't lonely."

"Me too," said Julie, "Would someone pass the salad, please? When Johnny and I married, I suddenly found I had 'sisters' and it's been wonderful."

It continued like that for a couple of hours
, Bob's impression being, these people genuinely like each other. After the birthday cake had been cut and eaten and presents opened, the two kids insisted on more frisbee and were joined by everyone except Bob and John, both of whom settled into wicker chairs on the front porch.

"If I had cigars, I'd offer you one, but since I don't and never smoked them anyway, I guess it's a moot point," John said, with a twinkle. "So, you want to marry my oldest daughter."

"You don't waste any time, do you?" asked Bob, at which the eldest of the two chuckled. "Well, I won't either, but pardon me if I use the word 'sir.' This is one time I feel like I ought to, and yes, sir, I do."

"Don't worry about it. It's never easy talking to the 'father of the bride.' I practically wet my trousers when I asked for her mother's hand. You're doing a little better than that, I presume?"

"My hands are sweating, how's that?"

"It's good -- don't laugh, I'm serious," he said, "Well, not entirely, but if a fellow wasn't nervous, I'd think there was something wrong, and I am serious about that. No matter how well we knew each other, if he wasn't scared to death I might withhold my approval, I'd wonder if he really loved my daughter."

"You don't have to be concerned about that, not today at least," Bob said, wiping his hands on his pants. "It isn't that I'm afraid Jessie would refuse to marry me without your blessing, it's because she's so important to me that I want us to have the support of her family and, especially, you."

"I can appreciate that," said John.

"I realize I'm incredibly fortunate. Jessie is the most...I don't know how to say it without sounding like I'm putting her on a pedestal, which I'm not. She's amazing. I've never known anyone who was so natural, unselfconscious, kind and generous with herself, and yet, incredibly daring at the same time. I've often thought, if I could only be more like her --"

"-- I felt the same about her mother. She was reasonable when I was hard-headed, thoughtful when I couldn't care less -- and she was daring, too, probably where Jessie gets it. I thought marrying me was risky, but not her. She saw something in me worth loving and it made me want to live up to whatever that was." He paused and said, quietly, "I still try to do that."

Bob noticed the change and hesitated a respectful few seconds before continuing. "I fell in love with your daughter before I even knew it. I'm sure she's told you why I waited before saying anything." John nodded. "She's always mattered more to me than I did to myself and I don't think I've ever felt quite that way before. I thought I did, I said I did, and I meant it. But with her," he sighed and shook his head, "everything is...different. I'm probably not explaining this well and I'm not sure I can. It's as though the person I used to be has been washed away and she's getting me completely new and untarnished."

John looked down at his lap and was quiet. "You're talking about baptism, whether you realize it or not. Baptism is a sacrament, an outward symbol of an inward grace. Am I losing you? Sorry, let me try again. Your relationship with Jessie is taking you into uncharted territory and you're being changed for the better because of it. What you're describing isn't a metaphor; it's real."

He waited before going on. "If you were coming to me for premarital counseling, I'd say you've found the one you were meant to find." He leaned forward in his chair and said, "Listen, there are women a man can marry and have things work out fine. But when he finds 'the one,' it's much more than that. She makes him feel like his whole life, up to meeting her, has been, for want of a better word, preparation. It's as though he's been getting ready for her, and now the stage is set for his real life, the one for which he was born, to begin. And it's the same with her. How that's going to unfold, depends on them. There are no road maps. We discover it as we go."

It was Bob's turn to be silent and he was for a long minute. "You keep using the term, 'meant.' Do you think it was fate that brought us together?"

"Well, fate, the will of God, the benevolence of the universe, I don't know. Jessie probably told you I have more than my share of doubts about the things I believe. All I know with certainty is what I've experienced, and on that basis, I think it's safe to say some relationships -- like the one I had with her mother -- are so unique, so distinct, it takes more faith than I have to presume they resulted merely from the luck of the draw. Remember your Shakespeare? 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreampt of in your philosophy.' It helps to keep an open mind."

"I've said that very thing many times in other contexts," Bob said, referencing John's last statement. "And I have doubts as well, but if there is anything to what you believe, and I mean that respectfully, then loving and being loved by Jessie is the proof of it." Shifting his gaze to Jessie, who was about to leap for an awesome catch, he said simply, "She's the love of my life."

"I know," said John, following his gaze, "and you're hers. That's why you don't have to worry about my approval."

"I don't? Does that mean you...?"

"It does."

(Creative Commons image by Aelle via Flickr)
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