On Wednesday, we had our usual lunch with my father-in-law, and toward the end of the meal we were joined by his friend B., another resident of the retirement home. B., a former professor, was in Beirut at the American University for a time with his wife, and they’re both very appreciative of the Middle East – his wife now takes Arabic lessons once a week from my father-in-law. We had gotten to know them prior to the whole retirement home deal, through Middle East peace work, and when they moved there we were pretty sure that they and J.’s father would become friends.
When he first moved in, my father-in-law had said all he wanted was to be left alone; he reluctantly went down to the dining room for meals and ate alone when he could. The other residents were “boring”, or they were “only interested in sports” or they “didn’t care about foreign affairs”. And besides, he said, he couldn’t hear anything. As had been usual throughout the time I’ve known him, he’d say so-and-so was “very decent” – which was a polite put-down, translated within the family as “they’re nice but not intellectual”. But gradually he began to make friends – or, more accurately, people began to make friends with him, despite his former intentions. Now, several years down the road, as we walk down the hall or go through the dining room, the affection and respect the other residents and staff have for him is very obvious, and his caring for them is genuine.
Not long ago he told me he had at least a dozen very good friends there, and admitted, without a single qualifier, that that was more than he’d ever had before in his life. His best friends are probably B. and his wife, and N., a woman who is a writer, an avid reader, and, God forbid, an Episcopalian. In fact, all three of these friends are pretty devout, practicing, liberal Christians – a humorous irony that isn’t lost on my "humanist" father-in-law.
After he retired, my father-in-law wrote three full-length books. They are fictional biographies of religious figures, set in the Middle East that he knows so well, but too creatively non-traditional to suit a religious market, and too religious to suit a publisher of fiction. They’re written in a flowery story-telling style, often veering off into the poetic and philosophical, that I’ve come to recognize as typically Arab, and although the English is grammatically perfect, the style seems very strange to a westerner. To my father-in-law, though, they are brilliant, and the greatest disappointment of his life has been his inability to find someone to publish them.
That is, until B. came along and decided to start a publishing company and bring out one of these books. This has been quite a saga, with some family involvement and help with the intricacies of digital on-demand publishing, but it’s happening, and both B. and my father-in-law are all excited, and hanging on to their own precarious health in order to see the project to completion. They were already good friends before this project, but they’ve gotten a lot closer, and on Wednesday it was great fun to see the two of them teasing each other and talking naturally together, almost as if “the children” weren’t listening.
Somehow, talking about prep schools and colleges in the 1960s, we got onto the subject of drugs. B. turned to my father-in-law, and asked him if he’d ever smoked dope…
(to be continued)
If all goes as planned, we'll have lunch with my father-in-law tomorrow noon and then head north for a week. This has been another intense week of work, culminating with a presentation this afternoon; all that went pretty well and if the boss doesn't do something unpredictable tomorrow, we might actually have a few days to regroup and relax. I wonder, especially in exhausted and frustrated moments, why I still do this - and the answer is that it's fun, on certain levels. Today we met some new people, consultants from D.C., and they were smart, interesting, engaged, very likeable, and impressed with what we showed them. It's that stuff - the chemistry, the creation of teams trying to fulfil a challenging and worthwhile goal, the figuring out how to do something new from scratch - that makes communications work fun and interesting, even when it's also maddening.
On the other hand, there are limits.
“I had a very good day yesterday,” announces my father-in-law, as he settles into his chair. From the buffet, he’s brought back a plate of salad greens topped with baby carrots and ringed with six big strawberries, and another plate with a grilled hamburger from the buffet. He peers under the bun, and starts carefully spreading the hamburger with ketchup, mustard, and relish that he’s arranged in layers in one of those tiny folded paper cups that mints or condiments are served in.
“What was especially good about it?” we ask.
“Well, for one thing I was pleased with the new pope. And I wrote a few letters, which was something I haven’t been able to do at all lately.”
“You were pleased with the pope?” I’m astounded that he’d say this; a few weeks ago he made it clear he was completely disgusted with the entire thing.
“Oh yes,” he says, nonchalantly, and goes on preparing his hamburger. J. looks at him, hard, shakes his head, and goes off to get something he’s forgotten in the buffet line.
I'm somewhat at a loss. “You are kidding about the pope, aren’t you?”
“No! I think he’s an excellent choice.”
“You don’t think he’s too conservative?”
“Someone has to hold the line.”
“What? So you really think it’s good to have someone in there who, let’s see, forbids contraception?” Now I'm getting suspicious; it looks like he’s enjoying this; his eyes are half serious, half mischievous, and he knows I can’t tell exactly where he’s going to land today.
“Sure. Someone needs to be against contraception…and that other thing…” he makes vague gestures in the direction of his abdomen.
“Yes. And no…”
“No women priests.”
“Exactly.” He crunches decisively on a baby carrot.
“Come on,” I say.
“No, I mean it,” he says. “Somebody needs to counteract my liberalism, you see. I worry that there is too much liberalism like mine and unless it’s opposed…”
“People will go wild.”
He nods, and takes an appreciative bite of his hamburger. “I’ve put on weight in the last two weeks,” he says. “I need to watch it. But you should eat more. Go gets some cake.”
“I’ll get something else later,” I tell him. “Now, do you really think that?"
“Yes! Did I ever tell you – once the prep school where I was teaching sent me as a ‘delegate’ to a Catholic prep school conference, so I went, and there was a theological discussion in which everybody seemed to be taking a very liberal point of view. So I decided, for the fun of it, to take the opposite view, and I argued the strictest, most conservative Catholic position. Afterwards one of the priests came up to me and whispered, ‘That was very impressive – may I ask, what Order are you a member of?’”
"Maybe you should go to Africa," I tell him. "You might fit right in with those conservative bishops."
He looks up in mock horror. "I don't think so!"
I look at him, grinning, and shake my head. He seems very pleased by the memory. "You see," he says, "if no one takes the traditional view, there's no one for me to push against."
And I still don't know what he really thinks.
Last night was too warm and too lovely to spend inside. We walked in the park, along the serpentine lake, and then, reluctant to go in, got our bikes and rode up absolutely quiet, nearly deserted streets, past cars parked along the sides shining like dark green and black carapaces under the indefinite streetlights; the sound of a piano or a violin drifting from a window, yellow light behind lace; an occasional rustle revealing a mother coming home with a child; someone bringing in a folding chair; a cat; a woman with a cigarette gazing at the street from the shadows on a third-floor balcony.
I caught up with J. and we rode side-by-side on the dreamy street, saying nothing, reaching out once to touch hands.
Across on St. Gregoire, at the top of the Plateau -- and then coasted back home.
We rode our bikes through nearly-empty streets this morning for the 10:00 church service at the cathedral; it was the first time we've been able to do that this spring, and it felt great. Our usual route takes us down the Av. Berri bike path past the new and about-to-open Bibliotheque Nationale with its pale aqua louvered glass facades, and then along Maisonneuve past Place des Arts into downtown. This morning as we waited for the light near Jeanne Mance, a woman rode by wearing a retro black-and-white checked coat-dress with a tight waist, 3/4 length sleeves and flared skirt, black fishnet stockings, black flats, and oval black movie-star sunglasses; she had a bright pink milk crate on the back of her bike. She looked like she had walked out of Lauren Bacall/Humphry Bogart movie - it was a great outfit, and she had the attitude to go with it - some study had definitely gone into that one.
I just washed down the planters and bench out on the terrace; the sliding doors are open and every now and then the sound of the traffic and bicycle wheels is broken by the voices of a passing group, talking happily in French. I want to thank everyone who commented on my post about language frustrations; I'm sorry I couldn't write back personally to everybody because I really appreciated what you said. Hearing your experiences not only encouraged me but reinforced the fact that this is a universal feeling that one simply has to go through on the way to becoming more fluent and more comfortable. Most days I just enjoy the bilingualism of the city and go with the flow of it; it's easy to see that I've made a lot of progress just from noticing how much more easily I understand whatever spoken French I hear and how much more comfortable I am in various situation than I was when I first came. Along with humility, I think another lesson to be learned is patience!
This morning quietness, combined with the beautiful music and sense of peace, shared commitment, and community I've come to find at the Cathedral, have helped me rejuvenate after many days of very intense work. I could feel myself fraying on Friday and Saturday: very much in need of a break and some extra rest, if not sleep. I still feel tired but much better than I did. I like the work I'm doing a lot, and feel grateful for it - as usual, the question is balance and taking care of myself, something I've come to accept as a continual task and responsibility, not a place I'm going to arrive at and stay without readjustment.
It's today: moulting day, when Montrealers shed their dull winter garb, the heavy layers, the scarves and hats and fleece and fur, and...get naked! It's the first weekend day of the warm weather, and the warmest day we've had yet. Like colorful butterflies, an entirely new flock seems to be passing by my window. They're on bikes, on roller blades, on skateboards, in baby carraiges; on running feet and slow old feet, on barely-able-to-walk-yet feet, and on four paws. It's fabulous, as if everyone has suddenly been set free, and they're celelebrating in motion, in color, in cafe-windows flung open, in an exuberance of winter-pale skin bared to the sunlight.
We're going to friends' tonight for the first barbeque of the season, and I offered to bring strawberry shortcake; the shortcake is baking in the oven right now, awaiting the basket of strawberries we brought home yesterday from the Jean Talon market. It's the first cake I've baked here; with boulangeries such as there are in this city, I'm afraid my Vermont country baking has seemed, well, superfluous. But the scent of butter, sugar, vanilla, ginger, and browned almonds is lovely in the house today; I'm going to play my flute a little, with the door open to the outside, where, above the happy people and happy dogs and children in their carriages, a light blue sky is crossed with a delicate tracing of tree branches, each dotted with swelling buds of almost-leaves.