This weekend for Catholics brought Gaudete Sunday, a break in the rather somber mood of expectation that characterizes Advent to rejoice in the coming Good News. (The word comes from the old Introit prayer in Latin, Gaudete in Domine semper, "Rejoice in the Lord always.") Vestments switch from penitential purple to rose (not "pink," our priests insist), and the Scriptures invoke the coming of Something Wonderful.
And, with the hair-raising lack of subtlety that characterizes my intersection of life and spirit, the weekend provided cause for rejoicing. It is not Christmastime until I smell the trees...and the trees to smell are the ones at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. We've been buying ours from these folks for years; they cost (much) more than street-vendor trees, but they were cut last week, and by Epiphany they're still fragrant and springy in our bone-dry living room. (The street-lot trees, I have read, may be harvested months in advance, which is why they turn to toast by New Year's or sooner.) This year, we settled on a Canaan fir; I always toy with the idea of a white pine, but those long, soft needles seem ill-suited to displaying the Crazy Stable's array of weird and wonderful ornaments. The gentlemen above was very patient as I applied my numerous scientific criteria for tree selection (overall shape, upper-branch strength, trunk straightness and symmetry, angel-topper pinnacle suitability).
Oh, and I also saw my friend the Scottish deerhound, a show-stopping dog who is sort of the canine equivalent of a Tolkien "Ent." His owner says the giant breed is so gentle that no one has ever heard of their biting anyone. (Except maybe a Scottish deer.)
Then there was good news regarding my mother. Not about her health—she died in 1999. But yesterday was her birthday, and in looking through a batch of my late uncle's archive of unsorted family photographs, I found two pictures of Mommy looking happy at Christmas. Given how camera-shy my mother was—and how many pictures show her looking tense or gloomy—this amounted to a miracle and, I feel certain, a message.
This was Christmas Day, 1955; she was 42 and still childless except for Mitten (a.k.a. "Putty-Tat"), an overindulged Silver Persian who is clearly not thrilled about the whole fireman-hat thing. I think it was a good thing for Mitten that I came along two years later to channel my mother's dress-up impulses into years of handmade clothes and ingenious Hallowe'en costumes! The rather wild-eyed shadowy figure behind my mother's head is my grandmother, making the photo an uncanny bit of prophesy as well.
Skip ahead four decades, and Mommy is still cuddling something fuzzy for Christmas—here, the stuffed dog "Fluffy" that she gave to Child (and that still occupies Child's foot-of-bed fuzzy hall of fame, and that Must Never Be Washed and so is now grey as the deerhound). This is the Mommy I have trouble remembering—the one who reminds me of Dame Judi Dench in "As Time Goes By," sharp-witted and soft-hearted, elegant and silly, at ease quoting Shakespeare or Monty Python. Sometimes I forget that the original Mommy ever came out to play after her fall and decline in late life, but thanks to my uncle's ready camera, there is proof.
Oh, and then there was the Miracle of the "Plant Room." In this tiny attic room, I pot up seedlings and store Christmas ornaments; I've been avoiding it because it's a mess of potting mix and summer-garden intentions gone awry, but had to face it to get out the Christmas stuff. And in cleaning up the dessicated remains of various pots, all destined for the compost heap, I found last winter's long-abandoned paperwhite narcissus, which had bloomed and withered and been tossed, with no water, in a corner for 11 months.
They are coming back up. On Gaudete Sunday. When we read the following verse from Isaiah 35:
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
Things like this happen to me because God knows I am too dim, obtuse, and distracted to get it any other way. As for Mommy, here's what Isaiah says next. Happy Gaudete Sunday.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.