Friday, February 23, 2007

St Valentine’s Day Reminiscences

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.

King Solomon, The Proverbs of Solomon, Son of David, King of Israel

Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife…

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing (Act V, Scene IV)

Though it was over a week ago, I haven’t had the opportunity to write about some wonderful Valentine’s moments our family had. Somehow, the idea of ‘surprise’ seemed to be an infectious one, as you will see, if you read on.

During the day, I received two Valentine’s email cards: one from my wife and children, and one just from my wife. I also found, in the backpack I always carry, a homemade card, with contributions by all, and the message, ‘Daddy, our love for you grows everyday.’ This one will remain on display in my office for quite a long while.

On the evening of St Valentine’s, I arrived home from work to find the door open, and my two oldest children, Grace (6) and William (3), dressed in their Sunday best (colour-coordinated, too!), and with big smiles on their faces, waiting at the door. Grace had a nice towel draped over one arm, and William had a moustache (curled up on each end) and pointed beard pencilled on his face.

Grace, very prim and proper, spoke: ‘Welcome to Newsom CafĂ©. Our menu.’ This last as she gestured toward a sign on the dining room door with the afore-mentioned appellation, and a second sign on which was drawn, in the very best crayon, a picture of the dinner menu.

Grace took my backpack, and William took my coat; then they led me to a place of wonder where my beautiful wife, Angela, sat waiting for me in a dining room darkling except for seven candles on the table. She was also dressed in fine clothes (making me feel just a little out of place in my workaday raiment!) and was also smiling. The soup course was on the table, along with homemade breadsticks and salad. My surprise was to be a candle-light dinner with my bride, and two of my children as waiter and waitress (is it politically-correct to say ‘waitress’ any more? Because, if not, I…oh, wait, that’s right—I don’t care.)

During the course of the meal, the children brought the food to us (except the main course, which was beyond their abilities of strength and balance), and took our dishes away when we were done. When they were not so engaged, they sat in two chairs, some little distance from the table, where they picked up instruments—Grace, a recorder, William, a ukulele, neither of which they know how to play—to provide us with soft, dinner music. Sometime during the excellent spaghetti and meat balls, my youngest son, Nathanael (9 months) awoke from a late nap, and, when he was brought in, I found that he, too, was dressed in tie and pencilled-in facial hair.

There was candy, and dessert, and a lot of fun. The children really seemed to enjoy an opportunity for responsibility and service (plus playing a part in what must have seemed like a mini-masque or play). It was a wonderful evening, and a grand surprise for old Dad. Truly, I am blessed far beyond deserving to have such a delightful family, and I honour them for their love and thoughtfulness.

Unknown to any of them, however, I was planning my own little surprise for the weekend. This one will take more time to tell, not because my surprise was more important, but because, my wife and children far exceeding me in intelligence, it was far harder for me to surprise them that it was for them to surprise me.

Angela and I had planned to go out for a Valentine’s dinner on Friday night, and I had made the arrangements for it. My parents were to keep the children for the evening, and we were to return by about 9 or 10. We dropped off Grace, William, and Nathanael at my parents' house, and took to the road.

But on the way, I revealed the surprise: I was actually taking Angela away for an overnight excursion—our first alone since well before our oldest child was born—and we would not be returning until Saturday evening. My parents, I told her, were prepared to keep the children overnight until our return.

Now, men with wives can easily imagine the kinds of questions that will, of necessity, attend such a surprise, like an inevitable conclusion following hard upon the heels of logical premises. Such queries will normally include the following:


‘No, seriously, what?’

And a host of other questions, all beginning with a preamble of ‘but what about…?’

Actually, my wife was, as I could have told you beforehand, a wonderful good sport about it, and was thrilled at the prospect of this little adventure, once she got used to the idea. She did, of course, want to know that everything had been taken care of for the children, and, though she did not say it, I don’t doubt that her feminine mind experienced no inconsiderable doubt re the ability of men, in general, to successfully pack everything a woman would need for an overnight jaunt. Complicating this was the fact that she is nursing our youngest child, and had never been away from him for more than a few hours. Parents of nursing infants will know the kinds of preparations that have to be made when Mommy is away from the little one even for a short time.

I am pleased to report that she was pleased, and informed me later that I had not overlooked a thing. Here’s part of how I pulled it off (this, I believe, was my Dad's idea): a couple of weeks earlier, I told my wife that I was working on a scene in my new book (a novel) in which a woman packs her things for an overnight trip. I told her that I was weaving certain storytelling symbolisms into the choice of items, and that the symbols in this scene were vital to an understanding of the book as a whole. Therefore (said I), it is important that I have a realistic understanding of just what sort of things a lady might pack for a short trip. Can you help me, my dear?

None of it was true, of course, except that I am writing a novel, and I did need such a list of items. She told me later that she thought it an odd sort of request at the time, but, as I really am writing a new book, she didn’t think much of it, and duly provided the information. I also consulted my Mother and Mother-in-law to make sure I had not overlooked anything (I had). My Mother-in-law uses some of the same make-up-type items as my wife, and was able to describe the various bottles and whatnot that she uses so that I would be sure to get the right things.

I packed our clothes, and bags for the children, over the couple of nights before our trip, and took the children’s stuff to my parents’ house on the way to work Friday morning. I hid the bag with mine and Angela’s clothes in the back of our minivan. I got off work early, and returned home. I had not been able to pack things like toothpaste, hair items, makeup, and so on, because, of course, she would need them just before leaving. So, we got into the van, ready to take the children to my parents’ house for what Angela still believed was an evening away, and then I told her I had forgotten her present, and had to go back inside to get it. What I got instead, however, was the makeup, toothpaste, and so on, that I had not been able to pack earlier.

Such were the machinations of my tortured mind as I carried out this diabolical plot. I could not have pulled it off without the help of my parents and in-laws, and probably would have made a shocking mess of things otherwise. Back to the moment of surprise: when my wife, on the way to our destination, was at last convinced that everything was well-prepared, she, while still, like a good mother, harbouring some anxiety about the well-being of the baby, settled down to enjoy our journey. I took her to a wonderful bed and breakfast in Winston-Salem, Colonel Ludlow’s, which is about an hour from our home. I chose this spot because Angela had surprised me by taking me to the same place exactly ten years ago, for Valentine’s Day. It is a beautiful, Victorian-era (1887) mansion, in the heart of the city’s historic district. The rooms feature stained-glass windows, antique art and furniture, as well as all the modern conveniences. For a short, one-night-only, tightly budgeted getaway, it was a wonderful choice.

After checking in, we walked one block to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations at six: The Old Fourth Street Filling Station, also located in an historic building. The food there was outstanding (filet mignon for her, southwest flank steak for me, with crab bisque soup, barbecue quesadillas, and a most unbelievably delicious Lemon Mist Cake for dessert). We dined on their outdoor patio—yes, it’s February, but it is a heated patio, so the cold air was not a factor. Returning to our room, we called the children to tell them (surprise!) that they would be staying overnight with Papa and Grand-mama. They were delighted, as I knew they would be.

Throughout the weekend, I gave Angela homemade cards, with little poems in them I wrote just for her. On Saturday, we breakfasted in our room on polish sausage, Amaretto French Toast, ham biscuits, and quiche, after which we visited the historic Reynolda house (the mansion of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds), which is now an American art museum. Here we saw an exhibition of the paintings of Grandma Moses, and toured the family manse. Angela, who does some decorative/scenic painting on the side, was greatly inspired by the artwork of Grandma Moses. Afterwards, we lunched on burgers and bean and bacon soup at Mayberry Ice Cream in Reynolda Village, and caught a movie, A Night at the Museum (quite good, and with the surprising message that we neglect a good knowledge of history at our own peril).

All in all, about twenty-seven hours of having my wife all to myself, and it was truly one of the most delightful days I’ve ever had. We laughed, and loved, and lived, just delighting in being together. We had more time to talk than we ever get in the course of a busy week. I knew, even before this weekend, that I was thankful for her. After all, she has been faithful to me, lo, these many years (17, including our years of courtship, or, as we called it in the old days, ‘dating’), she is the mother of my children, and diligently educates them in our little homeschool (The St George Dragonslayer Academy), and she is as happy and contented a wife as ever drew breath. She loves me unconditionally, and is not at all hard to please— which, of course, is why I went to such great lengths to please her with this surprise trip. She doesn’t complain, or nag: she has grown in grace over the years, and we are far closer than we have ever been before.

So, as I say, I knew beforehand that I was thankful for her. But this brief journey brought it all before my eyes again, like the vivid pictures of a relief sculpture in a Roman arch. Angela is patient with me, supportive, tender, and loving. She manifests the grace of God in my life, and, though we are very different in many ways (thank God she’s not just like me!), she is perfectly suited for me, and I cannot believe my good fortune (under Providence) in such a wife. She is a magnificent companion, a noble mother, and my best friend.

I write all this, partly to express my own heart on the matter, and partly to encourage those who are, for whatever reason, sceptical or jaded about marriage in a world of broken homes. I can claim no credit for the fact that I chose such a wonderful wife, except that I did see her quality, even then—but God knows I was far from the wisest eighteen-year-old when Angela and I first began seeing each other, and it scares me to think how easily, in my folly, I might have ended up with someone else. God’s mercy is very great. But to you who are contemplating marriage, or contemplating contemplating marriage, or are too afraid, or hurt, to think about marriage, I say this: all the effort and pains it takes to really get to know someone, all the time it takes to find a good mate, is eminently worth it. There is really nothing like a good marriage: though it involves sacrifice, though it involves denying ourselves and killing our own selfish tendencies, though it is, quite often, just plain old hard work—it is all worthwhile. The pain and frustration are overwhelmed by the comfort and joy. To ‘God, the best maker of all marriages,’ and the giver of all good things, I give all praise. To my wife, I rise and call her blessed. She is my crown of glory.

On Friday night of our trip, I gave her another poem, longer than the short pieces in the cards I made. It is actually a song, but the music is still being written, so it exists for now as a poem. It is, I think, weak in spots, and I plan to give it something of a revision, but here it is in its unedited state, written quickly in a whirlwind hour of inspiration, when the thoughts and feelings were tumbling out almost faster than I could write them.

For Angela
15 February 2007

Take my hand, walk through the gate:
Inside, a display of what some call Fate.
Galleries, rooms, every one filled
With relics of Something we’re trying to build.

Ancient artefacts, treasures beyond price;
History’s haven, virtue and vice:
All on display, awaiting our eyes,
And maybe our judgment, as though we were wise.

This is our Museum…

It’s all in this place, every moment and choice:
Exhibit of memories, History’s voice;
Ours to remember, rejoice, regret;
Too many things we’d like to forget.

Doom whispers coldly: accuse and condemn—
‘In this Museum, I’ll crucify them.’
Not his the last word, no sentence to speak:
Divinity’s blood is sustaining the Weak.

This is our Museum…

Here in this Museum, I witness my life;
Sorrow has ravaged—but you are my wife.
Wherever I turn, there’s your face on display,
Turning the Enemy, winning the Day.

A story is told in these hushed galleries,
Of triumph, revenge over dark enemies.
And all is not over, there are empty rooms still:
Let us fill them with relics of war and good will.

This is our Museum…

In the fire, and the furnace, let us forge a great Love:
With the lustre of laughter, the fruit of the Dove;
Dip our fingers in the ashes of the ruin of all,
And write of our joy on the eternal wall.

Let us love so wildly that even in death,
The living will envy these two without breath.
A thousand years in the Cathedral we’ll stay,
And the evening and the morning were the first day.

This is our Museum…

And I will find you beyond the circles of the world,
When the flag of the universe at last is unfurled;
We will taste the twelve fruits, and never more part,
I will hold you in wonder, my eucharist-heart.

I will hold you forever, both now and then:
Flesh, then Spirit, then Flesh once again.
‘Til then, we’ll wander the Gallery-halls
Of this old Museum, where history calls.

This is our Museum…

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

St Valentine's Day

It is that time of year, when a young man's thought turns to love, or something like that. Few people know much about St Valentine, the man for whom this day is named (in case you were wondering, he wasn’t some sort of Don Juan or Cassanova, at least not that we know of). Here’s what New Advent has to say about him, or, rather, them:

'At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. In William of Malmesbury's time what was known to the ancients as the Flaminian Gate of Rome and is now the Porta del Popolo, was called the Gate of St. Valentine. The name seems to have been taken from a small church dedicated to the saint which was in the immediate neighborhood. Of both these St. Valentines some sort of Acta are preserved but they are of relatively late date and of no historical value. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known....

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine's Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair…For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers' tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines.'

So, another Christian holiday whose origins are nearly completely forgotten by our post-Christian culture. Who’da thought it?

I am one of those fortunate ones who live in great love with their Valentines. And here’s a detail that many will insist is mere fiction for effect, but is, nonetheless, quite true. My wife and I first went on a date on Valentine’s Day, seventeen years ago today. Now, in the interests of historical accuracy, she did accompany me to a Christmas banquet a couple of months earlier, but only as a friend, and we had not kept in touch during the interim. But on 14 February, 1990, she accompanied me to church (it was a Wednesday), and we went to dinner afterwards. At that time I declared my interest in her and my desire to spend time with her, and we came to an accord, namely, that we would begin to see something of each other. On 14 August, 1993, three and a half years later, to the day (the length, in some ecschatological schemas, I note in passing, of the Great Tribulation, a fact that is completely inapplicable in this case), we exchanged vows before God and Man, and were wed in the holy covenant of marriage. She is that rarest of jewels: a good wife, perfectly suited to me, and I can abide no thought of spending my life with anyone else. Angela, you are my crown of glory, and I love you.

Here is a poem I wrote for Angela, on St Valentine’s Day, two years ago:

A Short Poem for Angela Upon St Valentine’s Day

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
Chaucer, Parliament of Foules

This is the day when birds are wont to choose
From all the other birds their ‘destined mate;
And I that to a bird would nothing lose,
Did make my choice upon that self-same date.

St Valentine’s, the day of love and choice;
St Valentine, who loved and chose to die;
A martyr, whose brave death gave love a voice,
Who lent his name to those whose hearts shall fly.

Three things I seek and ever long to see:
For Goodness, Truth, and Beauty mark the Wise.
And under God, I, blessed, have found all three
Within thy heart, thy mind, and in thine eyes.

St Valentine’s Day, 2005