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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lessons under the Chestnut Tree

My reason for not drinking beer died earlier this year.  That is to say, in more polite terms, my grandmother entered life eternal on February 2, The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord.

What does this remarkable woman have to do with rejecting beer?   My grandmother was a good Baptist woman, and it was a common occasion when I was growing up for her to corner one of my more wayward cousins and demand an answer, "Have you been drinking?"  Trust me when I say she would have the truth, and it did not set one free.  

I can honestly say I never touched a drop of alcohol until I was twenty-six years old, but still, whenever I went home to visit, she would sometimes ask that dreaded question.  I occasionally drink wine, and I drink whiskey, but I could look my grandmother in the eyes until her dying day and reply, "Why, Grannie, I've never had a beer in my life!"    It was very Jesuitical of me, I'm sure, but it answered her question and avoided a venial sin, and created a boundary that I will never cross.  I will not, even with her passing, drink a beer.  

I have no qualms in admitting that I am old-fashioned.  There are any number of things that I will not do because they are unladylike.  I do not wear white before Easter or after Labor Day.  I will always wear hosiery, and it will always be off-black, off-white, or nude.  I will not ruin my very fair complexion by worshipping Apollo, and I will not argue with my husband or family in public.  It isn't to be done, no matter what Jerry Springer may think.  My perfume will always be a floral, preferably the one to which my husband has grown accustomed in our twenty years together.  A lady should have her own signature scent, her own unique style, and above all, personal respect, as well as respect for others.  That, I think, is the most important lesson I learned from my grandmother.  To be lady is to both give and demand respect.  

Like so many others, I can point to her death as the passing of an era, the final nail in the coffin of my childhood.  Always before, I could envision my old home the way it was, the same fences and fields, the Chinese chestnut tree that my cousins climbed when I wouldn't, leaving me on the ground, seeing things a little bit differently from a firmer position.  I could imagine the old barns still standing, and the willow trees that stood between my house and hers, long since gone, but always there in my memory.  I can remember the holidays, filled with everyone's favorite foods and the family all gathered around the piano in the old house, sometimes with other instruments, sometimes with none at all, but always singing something, usually hymns.  My memory serves me well, and I have no desire to return to those places now, for it would be hard to convince me that they ever existed if I saw what they have become.   

My grandmother was not a fool.  She was not dim-witted, blind, or gullible.  I have no doubt that she knew precisely why my response was always the same, and I am sure she was offering me the same subtle respect that I was offering her.  It was that way with much in my life by this point, including my conversion to Catholicism.  I am not sure that she ever understood my love for liturgical worship, but she recognized that I was no longer the little girl standing alone beneath the chestnut tree.  The music that I now sing is older even than the hymns she knew, the prayers I offer by rote convey the thoughts that I cannot always express in my own words, the Mass that is offered brings us both before God in that wonderful communion of saints, and she, I've no doubt, genuflects before Him, giving God the respect to which He is entitled, and He, in turn, will raise her up, and listen as she intercedes for me.  

"Lord, now lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart in Peace.  According to Thy Word."

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