. . . ora pro nobis peccatoribus . . .
Chanticleer empowered Christmas again this year by singing at a great New York City Church, and of course they performed the Franz Biebl Ave Maria, a piece I never knew until I heard them sing it twenty years ago but is now compulsory for them and obligatory for me. I am not a Marian theologian, but when those twelve guys sing of the mother who will stand by us now and at the last hour, my bones melt.
December is illud tempus. All the times and all years recur. Deploying the same lights and pendants, the same museum store stars and snowflakes and angels (plus one new of each) on a new tree, I suspend the course of life on those branches, and see what I have lost and gained, given and received. A ledger of credits and debits, from times long ago and recent.
A day boy could leave my prep school early if he didn't have a sixth period class. On those days I might walk home. Or I might call J from the phone booth and, with her permission, walk to her front door.
J and her husband had been youth counselors in my dad's church. When they gave up the work, some of their friendships lasted. Now and then four of us day boys would gather in their parlor. But I had an arrangement of my own.
When J saw me at her front door she would put me to work. Her two daughters, of middle school and elementary age, would be home in a while, and later their dad, and then there would be a family dinner. But in the interval, maybe an hour, I worked in her kitchen, and I had her attention.
Over cutting boards and paring knives, baking sheets and measuring cups, there was no anguish or existential tremor. I spoke of teachers, assignments, intramural sports, the latest tiff with my father, and she heard me as if I were not the strangest and most unlikely boy, as if I might grow into something. She spoke of daughters and husband, the preschool where she worked in the mornings, and herself. We would pass the time, and as time passed she was showing me how to be in the room with her, and I was learning how to be a person in the world. I could not have said even to myself that I adored her. Once or twice she asked me to stay for dinner, but mostly when the daughters and their dad got home, it meant our time was over, and I walked home happy.
In those days a girl of my age could crush me quick and hard without noticing, but this woman saw me, heard me, and didn't reach for the fly-swatter. She seemed to think I deserved my place and my time. It wasn't anything she said. She was herself the glad tidings. Later I would forget her teaching and regress, but the marker was there to be found again.
A shrink asked me, what was in it for her? And I wonder. Perhaps among the aromas of her kitchen she whiffed my safely repressed testosterone. Perhaps beneath my chirp she heard the pedal-point of adoration. Perhaps a boy's obliviousness to shades of feeling brought moments of quiet to a mother of girls. Perhaps she was curious what it would be like to raise a boy.
Or perhaps . . .
In my work I now and then meet a client who makes me think this one is mine. It's as if I have been sent by greater intelligence, because I'm the one who can help. I see where the wound is, and I know how to get to the sweet spot. No one else can do what I can do.
I met E in the hospital, raging that she had ever been brought there. Brilliant, peremptory, not to be trifled with. A white northeastern Episcopalian intellectual. A woman psychiatrist in a time when you couldn't be nice, you had to break the ceilings with your own head. I saw all this, and I knew where the sweet spot was.
E died for five years, holding court from her couch, bored and scared, vaping a cloud and soaking herself in Bushmill's Irish, fussing with her home attendant, wishing she could believe in afterlife, wondering what dying would feel like. She had given up her profession, and as macular degeneration took her sight away she could not work and she could not read. She grieved for and could not recreate the life of her mind.
Most every week I would come to E's parlor on Central Park West. Five times I saw the cycle of seasons conceal and reveal the Sea of Onassis. She bore a grudge against certain trees whose summer foliage hid the lake, and would have cut them down by her own hand if she could.
She wanted from me things that almost no one wants, things I put on the shelf when I go to work. My genteelly poor prep school culture, my easy reference to the Great Books and the lexicon of Classical Music. ("More Chopin than Schubert" was a phrase she would understand.) And she mined my seminary education. She wanted to know what "Incarnation" meant. And what a "Messiah" was. And what sort of place the "Kingdom of God" could be. And she didn't want church answers; she wanted to know what the original words were, and who had first written them, and what they thought they were talking about. I shared what little I knew. I revealed my growing conviction that Yeshua was, prior to Christian fantasies, a Jewish prophet preaching from the history of people who, unlike most historians, had lost everything, been reprieved, and wanted to do more good from their Second Temple than they had done from the First.
She always said, "There was something I meant to ask you, but I forgot what it is." Which was funny. So I brought her music, and poems, and passages of philosophy. When we needed to know more, we would look stuff up on the internet. Sometimes I left her laughing. Sometimes I left her (a chaplain's tribute) peacefully asleep.
It was a long rough ride, but I was glad tidings for her. And she was glad tidings to me, because she wanted from me the thing that is hardest to bear: intellect. She wanted me to help her figure out the answers. I couldn't bring the answers, but I could bring her the life of the mind.
A colleague asked me, what was in this for you? And noting that E had two daughters but no son, he suggested that she was a kind of mother to me, who could follow the racing of a smart son's brain and desired it for herself. I had known when I met her that the sweet spot was a place I could fill, and I had said, this one is mine.
And perhaps, so long ago, J scanned for my sweet spot and said, this one is mine. This is all my fancy. I could not ask the question I would ask now of a friend: how am I doing? what are you getting from this?
I think of J and E, two mothers of daughters borrowed for an hour at a time, one from my youth and one from my ancientness but about the same age. Their gifts to me are perennial, and I cannot repay such debts unless I pay them toward the future. Though I am timeless, the world grows younger every day.
About this time last year, my borrowed moms both died. I hope they know how much I love them.
And love I wish for you;
May you give it frequently.
Charles Stephen, Jr. "Some Wishes for You"*
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