It was an afternoon much like this one, precisely 30 years ago, cold and as bright as a distant sun allowed, when I walked out of Mount Sinai Hospital, fatherless. Except that I wasn't. Leukemia had ended my dad's 69 years one week before Christmas--and so terribly prematurely, it seemed. I have now been without him longer than I was with him.
Yet not a day has passed that he hasn't been with me. He literally taught me how to be happy, through a humble self-forgetfulness that I can only dream of emulating. He lived a life without fame or great material gain, in the insurance industry--and managed to sanctify that unglamorous work, taking satisfaction and joy in selling policies honestly and helping men (and back then, it was always men) provide for their families after their deaths. He treated everyone, from janitors to vice-presidents, with respect and affection. He held his wife and daughter in chivalrous esteem, and his brother and sisters in unwavering filial affection. I never heard him utter a bitter or judgmental word in his life.
An adult convert to Roman Catholicism, he modeled the personality of Christ to all he met. Hours before his death, weakened by opportunistic infections, he told me he had been "contemplating the mystical body of Christ." The day he died, his doctor, scheduled to fly back to New York from Italy, was unaccountably moved to change his flight--and thus avoided being at the Air Italia desk when a terrorist bomb ripped through the airport. One year ago today, my best friend, whom he loved like his own daughter, underwent dangerous surgery--and I knew that this day, once so steeped in sorrow a week before Christmas--was an auspicious one. (And after a hellish year of treatment, she is doing well.)
Over the years, I have become convinced that a life lived in holiness burns a channel through time and space, a portal of grace; such a channel was how Therese of Lisieux sent her "shower of roses." My dad has become that portal for me. I miss him terribly and often; he was the one person in the world who made me feel truly safe. And I ask myself, safe against what?
And the answer comes back: Safe against evil. The only way I find to assuage the missing of him is to try to bring him back through the channel. He held doors for frustratingly slow walkers; smiled at cranky babies; listened patiently to the rambling tales of long-winded, lonely old men with genuine interest; fixed broken things with ingenuity; gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. When I do these things, we are together again.
Happy birthday in heaven, Richard Q. Becker. (And if you need a friend up there, ask for Quen--no one but business associates called him Richard.)
If there is anything lovelier than walking home through the "magic land" of Prospect Park South at twilight, it's walking in the unseasonable warmth of a gentle December, passing radiant century-old mansions lit within and without for Christmas. I'm so glad these folks don't bother with curtains, drapes, or blinds.
Not everyone on Marlborough Road went for a classic tree; these folks have a sparkling silver tree twinkling behind Dickensian leaded-glass diamond panes. Gosh, how I yearned for a silver (or better yet, pink!) aluminum tree as a child--while still wanting the fresh, fragrant natural tree that we always got.
For the 29 years that we have lived a block away, I have admired the perfect proportions of this house, like something from Colonial Williamsburg. (And I love blue doors, especially with wreaths.)
Porches and columns of every description are signatures of this neighborhood's sprawling homes. But it's not the spot to look for Disney World-worthy displays of Christmas characters or wattage visible from outer space; head to Dyker Heights for that scene.
When you cross hectic Church Avenue, you leave the magic landmark land behind and enter a somewhat less grandiose level of domestic architecture, but Caton Park is our realm and we love it. The Crazy Stable is looking almost respectable, these days, especially with its fringe of lights. I love the sky at precisely this l'heure bleu, or what I call "Maxfield Parrish light."
As I stepped onto the porch, I heard a gravelly voice moaning and hollering in the driveway...the same unruly singer who has been keeping us up at night carolling lustily. The last two Christmas lights of the evening lit up from atop the fence!
Several friends have recently bought big old houses; they've gotten them renovated within months, in a blitz of interior and exterior makeovers. Our time frame is more "geologic"–say, 30 years. But we're getting there.
Early this year, for example, we finally got the hallway plastered. This epic task will be covered fully in another post, but suffice it to say that your Stablemistress decided to "do the trim herself." That would be: 15 paneled doors and one zillion linear feet of molding, all encased in at least 90 years of chipping, cruddy paint. Many moldings have phone wire embedded in them and painted over; the doors bear brutal gouges from multiple mortises for countless locks. Yep, no biggie there.
So I've started scraping off the loose stuff, or as the Daughter puts it, "scratching at the walls," and adding a coat of pop-white Ben Moore "Chantilly Lace" to the creamy golden "Soleil" on the walls...a lot of bang for the buck, considering that we've looked at this soul-sucking dirty-white for all those years.
Yesterday, as I cleaned up the door to the living room, I scraped off something that had always puzzled me—a small, square, round-edged patch that old Mr. Chang in typical fashion had simply rollered paint over. (He also painted over wads of gum on the floor.) The top layer of latex almost popped off as the patch fell into my hand.
This, folks, is original detail, Crazy Stable style!
When we first moved in, a former resident had left behind a pinup calendar in what is now the Daughter's room, opened to "Miss Hawaii." I like to think that an earlier generation of bachelor made this little statement, turning his lonely room into a bit of Hef's mansion. And speaking of mansions...
...the other day I stumbled on the original ad for the Crazy Stable in the New York Times real estate section. I had completely forgotten that it was billed as a "one-family mansion." (It was, in fact, basically a flophouse.) The price was a ludicrously low one even at the time and went lower; the "TLC" is ongoing. But the playboys are gone.
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.
The consul banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?
Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, "They must die":
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.
Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.
Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
W. H. Auden, "Refugee Blues"
What does it take to awaken the conscience of a nation? I have always hoped, when it comes to extending human rights to the unborn, that appealing to our better nature--to tenderness, dignity, beauty, the recognition of ourselves and our children at our beginnings--should take precedence over gruesome images of dismemberment and death, over polarizing accusation and labeling.
And some things disturb me about the campaign by the Center for Medical Progress to secretly record and disseminate video footage of discussions of "fetal tissue" procurement by Planned Parenthood personnel and the middlemen who farm this harvest of shame to researchers. Not the hidden-video gambit, that's a technique from legit broadcast journalism. Nor any deceptive "editing" (they've released full versions). But perhaps the campaign's narrow insistence on finding evidence of illegal for-profit activity that is probably well-protected by legal technicalities...when the real story is the utter deadening of human decency.
That's been the story all along. It was the story when Bernard Nathanson released an ultrasound video (primitive compared to today's "windows to the womb") called "The Silent Scream." He described how abortionists like himself must fish out the child's head; it was called "Number One" in his practice, and in Planned Parenthood's clinics is called "the calvarium."
My own little apostolate for life has been based on winning hearts and minds...and in not violating the trust and friendship of the women I love who have lost unborn children to this terrible choice, under circumstances I can never claim to have experienced. That mission is inconsistent with leveraging horror. The politics of this movement are so polarized and ugly that I have virtually recused myself from them. I heard a radio interview recently about legalizing drugs in which a reasonable man said, "I would be content with a world in which drugs were legal but no one ever used them." I would be likewise content with a world in which abortion was almost unthinkable, in which all of us loved and supported both mother and child. A world where we all, to quote Cate Dyer of StemExpress, "know what it is."
And we do know. And, if we practice denial long enough--for abortion (and research on its discarded casualties) seems so necessary, for so many good, sane reasons--we can let our sanity slip away, and laugh about the shocking sight of a tiny human body in a box while we drink wine at lunch.