Friday, June 28, 2013

The End of the Matter

                It was late afternoon and I was sitting in the solarium looking out over the garden.  A light drizzle was falling from the sky and a fine mist was glistening on the garden flowers and foliage.  The afternoon sun slanted through the edge of the clouds casting fingers of liquid light and illuminating a patch of flowers here and there throughout the garden.  I have always loved afternoons like this and we have far too few of them in the Dallas area and I treasure every one of them.  I was enjoying a small glass of Pouilly-Fume, that dry white wine, when I heard voices from somewhere in the house.

            Agnes our Scottish housekeeper had answered the door, “Oh Mr. Horace, how good to see you.  Colonel Montrose? To be sure, he’s in the solarium.  You can go right on through.”

            A minute later Horace arrived in the solarium followed by Agnes, who, clever lady, was carrying an extra heavy cut crystal wine glass for our guest.

            “Horace, welcome.  What bring you around this afternoon?”

            Horace took the offered glass of Pouilly-Fume gratefully and sat down opposite me, took a sip, then answered, “I’m not sure how to ask this, but I think I really would like to know.”

            “What is it?” I said, curiosity nipping at my heels.

            “Well,” he said, “You know my Aston Martin Lagonda was rear-ended and the other driver tried to claim on my insurance?  At our bible study Angelo had offered to ‘fix’ the problem and I said ‘No.’ My insurance agent called this morning and said the claim had mysteriously been dropped.       Do you know if Angelo fixed it?  It would be embarrassing if he had.”

            I thought for a moment before replying, “If Angelo was doing you a favour and expected you to do a favour for him in return, he would have let you know.  It’s like a contract in a funny sort of way.  As it is Angelo didn’t say anything, so I wouldn’t worry about it.  If it was Angelo, he would be embarrassed if you challenged him.  By the way, I followed up with Angelo because I was concerned about what he was going to do with the lupara.  An Sicilian shot gun isn’t really a toy.”

            Angelo had laughed and said, “Nothing you need worry about.  My father had it mounted on a marble plaque with grandfather’s name and dates.  It’s hanging on the wall above his fireplace.”

            We sat there for a few moments savouring the unusual flavour of the Pouilly-Fume, before Horace said, “Sometimes we just worry too much about what others might do with what we give them.  One of the lessons I’m still trying to learn is letting go of my own tendency to control.  It’s one thing in business where some things really need to be controlled, but it doesn’t work very well with family and friends.”

            “You are quite right Horace,” said I.  “I would be an absolute goose if I thought I could control Mother.  That’s one place where the only options are surrender or negotiation.”

            Horace laughed, “So right you are.  It’s the same with Grace.  Both of us fell in love with strong minded women; that’s why we love them.  And come to think of it even in business, wise negotiation becomes extremely important, especially where surrender isn’t an option.”

 “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.  Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” - Proverbs 3:5-7   

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Briar Pipe

Mother was sitting across the Sheraton table from me poring over a printout from the Internet

“Alfred,” said she, “This astrology business is very complicated.  I was born on November 23, never mind the year, and that means I'm a Sagittarius, and I was checking around and discovered that I was born under the moon sign of Gemini and in the rising sign of Capricorn.  That means I have a strong moral conscience and can see through the hypocrisy of others.  Well, I hope that’s true.  “What do you think?”

I must admit that I was taken aback.  “Since when have you been interested in Astrology?

“Well, Alfred, you want me to become more religious, so I'm just looking around.”

I shook my head in disbelief.  “Mother,” said I, “my aunt Marjorie was very big on astrology.  It became a family joke.  My father, I always called him Pater, would say ‘Now, Marjorie, you should make a practice of reading your horoscope the day after; that way you can see just how ridiculous it is.’  Marjorie once retorted, ‘You are just saying that because you’re a Libra, and Libras are gullible.’  That started a verbal battle that lasted for months.  The problem is that there is a little bit of truth in everything, but that doesn't make the whole thing true.”

Mother went digging in yesterday’s paper and found her Astrology Word for the Day and read, “Even the most stoic and solid of authority figures have off days. They've also made bad decisions based on the best of intentions. Mention that before you start confessing your sins. Even if their choice of entertainment for tonight is undeniably the very last thing on earth you want to do, smile and say you'd love to. Isn't it your turn? Just when you thought it was safe to come out, friends are starting to take bids on how long you'll be able to manage the balancing act you've been juggling. You've got a bone to pick with a higher-up, but this just isn't the right time to pick it. Sit quietly and bide your time. Give it two weeks.”

            Mother sat there for a few moments, her shoulders sagged and she looked somewhat despondent.  “Well, Alfred, I guess your Pater was right, but I so hoped that there was something that could make sense out of things.”

            I busied myself with my pipe.  I think that I've mentioned before that pipe smoking is not a habit, but a hobby.  At the least it provides a temporary dodge.  This particular pipe is a rather fine English Estate Ashton Old Church Bent Billiard.  I tamped some Captain Black in the bowl, lit it and drew slowly before replying.  I was stalling for time, and here is why.  Knowing Mother as I do, I knew that this was no time to get preachy.  She was already irritated that I had had a spiritual experience and she, quite evidently, had not.  Nor was it the right moment to give advice; and direct advice was sure to backfire.  Fiddling with my briar gives me a little respite and time for an arrow prayer.

            Finally I said, “Mother, it’s not for me to say.  Perhaps Grace can give you some direction.”

            Somewhere in the background we could hear the rich Scottish alto voice of Agnes 
singing, “As pants the hart for cooling springs, so longs my soul for thee, O Lord.”

            Mother listened for a few moments then brightened up, “I think I’ll ask Agnes what she thinks.”

            Trust Mother to find an alternative!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Sicilian Cousin

Cousin Angelo

           Even for Mother it was rather an elaborate breakfast; a damask linen table cloth, our Crown Princess Silver, and our Royal Dalton Primrose china. And what a spread! Papaya with lime wedges each carefully wrapped in small squares of cheese cloth and secured with a neatly tied piece of fine white string, shirred eggs, bacon and breakfast sausages, and toast.  Mother was not looking at me, nor had she said a word.  She sat there with the New York Times carefully elevated.  In short she was hiding.

            Know I knew what the problem was.  Angelo!  Her Sicilian cousin!  He had actually changed his mind and came to the dinner and Bible Study at the Whittington’s last night.

            Apparently what he had said to Mother was, “Anything for a laugh!”

            You can well imagine that I had some trepidation, but I will say that our group was most hospitable.  The only sticky moment was when Horace Whittington asked for prayer regarding a recent accident.  Someone without insurance had rear-ended his Aston Martin Lagonda and then tried to claim against Horace’s insurance.

            Angelo, always ready to grant a favour said, “You want I should to talk to Carlo Civello about ‘dis?  I can get it fixed.”

            “No, thank you,” said Horace; but let me make you an offer you can’t refuse.”  How about coming to Church with us on Sunday?”

            For a moment Angelo just looked stunned, then he muttered, “What do you think I am?”  Then he burst out laughing and said, “That’s a good one.  I’ll have to tell Carlo.”

            Horace was grinning from ear to ear, “Hey, we’d like to invite Carlo also.”

            Angelo was quick to say, “Nah, that won’t work, Carlo is Catholic.”

            Then Horace began laughing, and everybody, including Angelo began laughing; that is, everyone but Mother.  She was mortified.

            I looked across the breakfast table at Mother who was still hiding behind her New York Times.  “Now what will I do?” I asked myself.

            Just then the phone rang and Mother threw down the Times in exasperation and went to answer the phone.  I heard her say, “Oh, good morning Grace,” then she walked into the dining room where I couldn’t hear her.  About twenty minutes later she came back, looking considerably more relaxed and sat down.

            For a few minutes she busied herself with her papaya, then she looked up and said, “Well, Alfred, I suppose it’s going to be alright.  Did you know that Horace Whittington has a cousin who spent some time in jail for embezzling?  Grace said, ‘Don’t worry! Every family has its characters; and I’m glad you brought your cousin Angelo.’”

            Jesus said: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dubious Backgrounds

            Mother and I were sitting in the Solarium and the pitiful remnants of breakfast were on the Sheraton table before us.

            “I must admit, Alfred,” said Mother, “that French bread does make the very finest French Toast.”

            “That makes sense, Mother,” said I, “after all the French invented French Toast.”  I paused, “But come to think of it there is some suggestion that it has also been called Gypsy Toast.”

            “Gypsy Toast, Alfred?” said Mother with an obvious shiver, “I certainly hope not.  The Gypsies are absolutely awful.  My cousin Angelo told me this morning that they have been having trouble with Gypsy pickpockets in Palermo.  He was at an Eagles game at the Stadio Renzo Barbera when an unfortunate Gypsy tried to pick his pocket.”

            With that Mother actually sniggered, “That was an exceptionally stupid thing to do,” she said.  “Men of respect don’t put up with stunts like that.”

            “Angelo?” I asked, somewhat alarmed.  Angelo Talliaferro was not one of my favourite people.  There is a reason why Mother’s family changed their name from Talliaferro to Toliver.  Some of those old country connections are just a little challenging.  Mother says that he’s just a respectable insurance man, but I think that’s like a rainstorm selling flood insurance.

“Why was Angelo calling?” I asked cautiously.

            “Oh, it’s nothing, Alfred,” said Mother.  “It’s just that he’s going to visit Dallas next Wednesday.  He said he had a little business to take care of with Carlo Civello and he thought it would be nice to get in touch with family in the evening.”

            “Well, that’s awkward Mother,” said I.  Wednesday is our Bible Study at the Whittingtons.”

            “Yes, I know, Alfred!” said Mother triumphantly, “That’s why I invited him to come to the Bible Study that evening.  I’m sure Grace Whittington wouldn’t mind.”

            “But, Mother, Angelo at the Whittingtons?  He’ll never fit in.  There are some people who are socially acceptable, and some who definitely are not.  What will the Whittingtons think of us?”  I should have kept my mouth shut.  I knew as soon as I opened it that I was heading for trouble, and far be it from Mother not to oblige me.

            “Alfred, she snapped with fire in her eyes, “Angelo is my family, and my family background is no worse than yours.  Your grandmother was a Campbell, and inviting a Talliaferro to our Bible Study is not nearly as dangerous as inviting a Campbell to spend the night with the McDonalds in Glencoe.  After all Angelo is not going to murder us in our beds like the Campbells did to the McDonalds.”

            Well, I must admit that she had me there, and I was deeply embarrassed.  After all, I fell in love with Mother and married her knowing very well that one side of her family was difficult.  I pushed back my chair from the table and took out my meerschaum pipe and tamped some Captain Black in it.   Pipe smoking is not a habit but a hobby and provides a good delaying gambit.  Our bishop smokes Captain Black, so Mother finds it quite acceptable even though she doesn’t like the smell of my cigars.

            “Mother,” said I.  “I humbly apologize.  I hadn’t thought it through. You are quite right and we shouldn’t be ashamed of either of our backgrounds.”

            “That’s perfectly alright, Alfred,” said Mother with a smirk. “Angelo won’t come anyway.  He said, ‘What the hell would I do at a Bible Study?’”

            “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." Luke 15:1-2.