Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Love. Period.

Oh, love is handsome, and love is fine. The old British ballad “The Water is Wide” manages, in a brief space, to etch precisely all the phases of love. Love is handsome, fine, a jewel. Love grows old and cold and fades like morning dew. Love is the sturdy oak against which we rest our back, only to find the tree snaps.

And we cannot help what love does to us. In love, we know not when we sink or swim. We find ourselves “in” love, without our devising or without knowing how we have come to be there, its waves long since over our heads.

The words of this beautiful old ballad were ringing in my head as I woke this morning. I’m not sure why, except that they accompanied a tiny vignette from the evening before, the kind of revelatory little scenario that happens to us often in our daily lives, and to which we pay no attention until we’re in a state of rest or sleep.

The vignette: as we left the dinner table, my brother Philip complained, in a mock-angry way, that his wife Penny had picked up his cell phone. Turning to Steve, with whom he constantly commiserates about the life of those espoused to imperfect beings, he asked if I behave the same way, if I follow Steve around picking up his things and pocketing them.

Why did this nugget of the everyday lodge in my subconscious, along with those beautiful lines of a ballad about the many phases of one love? I think because the little scenario is a reminder of the various ways in which one human being loves another.

The love police are forever trying to make love flow in a single channel—their channel, one of their devising, set all about with scriptural admonitions and warnings of natural law, a natural law totally at the love patrol's beck and call.

And yet love is love is love: it flows where it will. It does what it will. It captures hearts heartlessly, whimsically, tragically, magnificently. Before we know it, we’re in so deep we know not if we sink or swim.

The problem, of course, is sustaining love over the long haul, when the cosmic tug of its tidal waves ebbs and we’re left on shore, with that very real and very flawed human being with whom we’ve cast our lot—or, more precisely, with whom we’ve been cast ashore after both of us succumbed to the tidal wave.

It’s then that we find the annoying habits like her picking up my cell phone, his going behind me to load the dishwasher “correctly,” his adding the right seasonings to food I’ve carefully prepared. Love bears a thousand burdens, and usually not gracefully at all.

One of the great surprises of my adult life was to find that my grandparents loved one another—helplessly, totally, I discovered, and was astounded to discover. Watching them when I grew up, I had come to the conclusion that they could barely abide each other.

From my grandmother’s standpoint, my grandfather could do nothing right, though he worked to the point of exhaustion every workday of his life. She would send him to the store after a hard day of work—his hard day of work—a precise grocery list scribbled in her palsied hand.

He’d return, having bought some trifle that was different from one on her list: a Betty Crocker cake mix, rather than the Pillsbury one she expressly wanted. Often, he did this because I would be with him and would note that the same chocolate cake mix cost 59 cents less in the Pillsbury brand than the Betty Crocker one.

We’d come home, she’d unsack the groceries with a sense of triumph, fish out the “wrong” cake mix, and shake it at him: “Dennie, I told you Betty Crocker. You go right back and return this.” And back he’d go . . . .

On days when they were home together, he’d simply sit, quietly, in a corner, never saying a word, while she stirred around the house. If my grandmother did try to talk to him, he’d suddenly develop hearing problems. Once, in exasperation, she took the cardboard cylinder from the middle of a roll of paper towels and hailed him: “Dennie. Can you hear me? Can you hear me, Dennie?”

His reply: “Take that fool thing out of your mouth, and I might.”

If I were a betting man, and had been asked to bet on the chances that this crusty old couple who never once showed any sign of affection for each other were “in love,” I’d have bet my fortune on their lack of love.

Until he died in February 1976. Within days of his death, my grandmother began to pine, to decline. I brought her a winter bulb in a pot to force. I returned a few weeks later and asked about it. She—who loved flowers passionately—had clean forgotten the pot, put it into a dark closet.

By summer, she was falling in her kitchen, and had to be taken to Texas to live first with my aunt Helen, then my uncle Carlton, and finally in a nursing home. She died on Christmas day 1976, having refused to eat anything for several weeks.

Obviously, my grandmother was very deeply in love with the silent, vexed, vexatious old man who could shine so bright and be so witty around any beautiful woman other than his wife. Obviously, he loved her just as deeply. After their death, I did recall my shock, late in their lives, when he remarked, as we passed the house in Louisiana in which she had grown up, "There once lived seven of the most beautiful girls I ever saw. And I married the prettiest of them all."

Her response, a typical one when she wanted to dismiss something said to her: "Aw, pshaw."

Love flows in its own channels. Like water, it seeks its various levels, and does what water does as it flows here and there, everywhere, unpredictably. People can love deeply even when the surface shows no movement of love at all, no indication of the depths of the currents flowing underneath.

People can love the person who takes their cellphone—madly and passionately so. People can (I hope; I try) love the one who re-orders the dishes stacked in the dishwasher, so that they are stacked “correctly.”

The couple with the ongoing cellphone battle are a man and a woman. The ones who wage war over dishes and dishwashers are a man and a man.

And yet, as my brother Philip once told my mother not many years before her death, “Bill and I have been very fortunate in our choice of spouses.” No distinction. No real marriage and bogus one. Marriage. Period. Love. Period.

And love should be celebrated, particularly by believers in a God who is such exceeding Love that God became love enfleshed to help us get the idea of love through our thick heads.

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