Life goes on in Blue Grass, and winter goes on, too. These are certainly the doldrum days, when it's been too dark and too cold just a little too long. Not that we can really complain about the hard winter this year, because it really hasn't been--at least compared to some of the record-busters we've had. There hasn't been one respectable blizzard since Christmas, and the kids next door are moping because they haven't had any of those wonderful days when you wake up in the morning and peek out the window to see the snow coming down sideways, and the smell of pancakes and bacon are drifting up from the kitchen along with you mother uttering the three most beautiful words in the English language: no school today.
Your Uncle Arnold is content that the snow shovel by the back door has pretty much stayed there, and a mild winter suits us pretty well at our age. But even still, I get itchy for signs of spring and those soft days when you can stand out in the back yard in the morning and smell the earth getting mellow and soft and ready to make things grow again. I made up my mind yesterday to go down in the cellar where I hung up some of last summer's geraniums to dry. I pulled one down, knocked the old dirt off of the roots, and potted it up and gave it a good drink. It's in the kitchen window now--a little early, I know, but I need to watch for something green to sprout in my life. At my age, spring can't come soon enough.
I felt like knocking the old dirt out of your Uncle Arnold this morning. I noticed at breakfast that he was wearing the same shirt for the third day in a row. I told him that I'd like a little change of scenery in the kitchen, and he grumbled at having to trek all the way into the bedroom to change. The shirt was a green plaid flannel shirt that is pretty much worn down around the collar and cuffs, and the button missing in the belly-button area seems to accentuate a notable section of Arnold's abdomen trying to escape from its confines. But he says it's his most comfortable shirt, and he likes to point out the stain above the left pocket which is roughly the shape of the state of Iowa if you squint at it. "It's a collector's item," he suggested as I offered to run it through the wash machine for him. But the only collector that I can think of who would want it is the one who picks up the garbage on Friday mornings. But I guess it does no harm to let him wear it, and I suspect it's one of the little things we put up with when you love somebody as much and as long as I've loved him.
Maybe that's why they schedule Valentine's Day right about now. The drab, dreary days of winter are the time to remember why we love the particular and sometimes peculiar people who are in our lives. Of course this isn't Arnold's favorite holiday. Like most men, he's not sure what to do about it. Radical romantic gestures aren't exactly in his repertoire, as you know. For one thing, he grumbles about how they jack up the prices of flowers right before Valentine's Day, And shopping at the drug store sometimes leads to problematic gift choices. He didn't quite understand my lack of enthusiasm the year he wrapped up a large can of bag balm and a pair of those pink fuzzy slippers instead of roses. Even the card rack at the drug store is kind of a mine field for him. He tries to navigate a course between choosing one of those flowery cards with the gushy sentiments and, on the other extreme, one of those funny cards that doesn't quite feel sincere enough. This year he has offered to take me out to dinner, but I know that going to a candlelit place in the city is way out of his comfort zone, especially if he's going to be wearing that flannel shirt, so I told him it would be fine with me if we had a nice Valentine's Day dinner right here at home, as long as he cooked it. He weighed the offer in his mind for a minute or two and accepted the challenge. "How about bratwurst and baked beans?" he asked. I may get out a cookbook and open it to a slightly more exotic recipe and see if he gets the hint. But at least we'll be together. And in the end, that's what matters.
Arnold's friend Nels Brostrom planned on spending a special night with his wife, too. For years they had a farm over in Durant with a barn full of Jersey cows, the ones with the beautiful brown eyes and long lashes. During those years they didn't have too many romantic nights out or weekends away, since milking duties always came first. Doreen never complained. She knew what the life of a farm wife involved when she signed up in the first place. And I imagine that she made a calculation that in the balance of things, a good steady husband, a plot of ground to call their own, and a warm house to raise their three kids wasn't a bad trade for a dramatic and sophisticated life in the city that she had once dreamed of. She hadn't figured on cold nights in the barn helping to deliver calves, or the autumn neighborhood gatherings when they got together to butcher hogs, or the joy of attending Friday night farm auctions when it was time to replace a tractor. But she had done all those things anyway, rarely doubting that she had made the right choice. Once in a while she still dreamed of slipping into a slinky dress and high heels and heading out to a candlelit night club where a band played sultry Latin music while a waiter with slick-backed hair and a moustache brought vodka martinis to your table. But she knew that Nels' idea of a good time could never be listed under the category of sultry. And she accepted that his gift to her was probably just his plain steadiness, which was a love of a higher kind that would never make a very good movie or a steamy novel. Once in a while Doreen would head out to the barn and pretend she was Tammy Wynette, and belt out a chorus of "Stand by Your Man." She told me once it helped her keep her focus on the one thing in her life that kept her sane.
But now that he's retired and they have no cows to worry about, Nels has begun to investigate the secret fascinations of his wife's heart. He began to notice that she would perk up at love scenes in romantic movies, and that while his polka music left her cold, he'd catch her once in a while listening to some bluesy jazz and dancing with the broom in the kitchen. Nels was intrigued at this. He loved this woman who had been a familiar fixture in his life for four decades, but there was something here that was new and fascinating. Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, said, "I hope that one day you will have the experience of doing something you do not understand for someone you love." And that's just what Nels did. A couple of weeks ago in the Sunday paper, he read that there was a special offer at the Coliseum Ballroom in Davenport, a Nuit D'Amour--a Night of Love. He and Doreen had not had a Nuit D'Amour since their honeymoon, and he was not at all sure that this was an event designed for a cattle farmer and his wife. The ticket would include a romantic dinner for two, featuring prawn bisque and lamb with demi-glaze, smoked polenta, pecan crusted Brussels sprouts and white chocolate mousse--none of which he had ever tasted before--followed by dancing to the music of the Five Satins, who had made their fame and fortune once upon a time by recording "In the Still of the Night." Nels felt a wild and impulsive urge, something like the Holy Spirit telling St. Paul to go to Macedonia, and he bought two tickets, spending more money than he usually coughed up for two week's groceries. These he tucked in the inside pocket of his best blue suit coat and told Doreen to save the night.
In the Still of the Night played in the background of Nels's life all week--while he filled the bird feeders in the back yard and swept a dusting of snow off the sidewalk, and even while he slurped his coffee down at the White Way Café on Wednesday morning with Arnold and a few of his other friends. Gladys the waitress even heard him humming a few bars. "Warming up for American Idol?" she asked him jokingly. The truth was that Nels was not particularly looking forward to this evening for himself, but he longed to offer this little extravagance to Doreen, who had rarely asked for any. So it was inexplicable to him when, two days before their Nuit D'Amour, she announced that she would not be going anywhere with him on Saturday night.
Nels tried not to think about the hundred dollar bills flying out the window, tried not to think that maybe he had committed some trespass so egregious, so unforgivable, that Doreen would forego this romantic evening with him. "But, why?" he asked incredulously. "This, this is all for you!" She smiled and patted his chest.
"I just got a call from the nursing home. It's Aunt Florence, and it's not good. They think it's the end of the road for her, and I've got to go and be there." She said it like a proclamation, and Nels knew that meant there would be no discussion. Still, he tried once more.
"But your Aunt Florence hasn't been in her right mind for years. She won't even know if you are there or not. The people down at the nursing home take good care of her. They'll watch her, surely, for just one evening."
Doreen didn't smile this time. "There's nobody else like family, and I'm her family," she said matter-of-factly. "We'll go out and have a nice dinner some other time," she added.
Nels knew there was no arguing. What he did not know, in his own disappointment, was that this was all about love. Aunt Florence, the tough old bird who had never married, who had never had children of her own, who had never worn a slinky cocktail dress or sipped a martini--had once been the saving grace in Doreen's life. She confided in me long ago when I was wild with grief at my own mother's death--had told me about the dark days of her childhood. Her father had been a hard and unforgiving man, cruel by today's measure. He was bitter that he had never had a son, and had treated young Doreen no better than a hired hand. She had yearned for affection, longed for her father just once to tell her that he was proud of her, that he thought she was pretty, or talented, or smart. One night, while they were at a church supper, she had spilled a cup of coffee over the table, and he had struck her across the face, called her clumsy and useless. It was then that Florence had stood up, marched over and took her niece in her arms and told the speechless old man that Doreen would be coming to stay with her for a little while. As she was holding a large serving spoon an inch from his nose, he did not protest. It had saved Doreen's life. Tough old Aunt Florence would take her to church on Sunday, give her long bubble baths and brush her hair, read to her Charles Dickens and Shakespeare's sonnets, and pack lunches for her to take to school. In every lunch was a small envelope containing a little inspirational proverb or quotation from literature. Always the envelope was addressed, in Aunt Florence's elegant penmanship, "To beautiful Doreen." Eventually Doreen went back home, but by then she had learned to suspect that there was something like love at the heart of the world, something she herself could contribute to combat the dark and fearful places in the world around her. She had come to believe in herself, and it was the very thing that Nels had come to treasure about her.
Over time, Aunt Florence had slowly disappeared amid the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. But from once in a while Doreen would still stop by and sit by her bed in the convalescent home and read Tennyson and Wordsworth and recite the Shakespearean sonnets she still knew by heart. And now, in the still of the night when Nels would have given her romance, music, and passion, she would be bending over a hospital bed with her head lying on Aunt Florence's chest, whispering a promise, which the old woman probably did not understand:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
She was, in this hard moment, "doing something she did not understand for someone she loved." And this was why Nels loved her, and why God, in his infinite mercy and wonder, loves any of us at all.
While she was there at Aunt Florence's bedside, Nels was out by the curb bringing in the garbage cans when a car with Nebraska plates pulled up in front of his house. In it were a tired looking young man, and an equally weary pregnant woman in the passenger seat next to him. The man rolled down the driver's window and asked if Nels could recommend someplace to get a good meal. Nels started to point out directions to the White Way Café, and then he smiled. He fumbled to pull out his wallet, and extracted two golden tickets and handed them to the couple. "You'll have to drive a few more miles," he said, "but it will be worth it." He dragged the garbage cans to the house, whistling.
Love comes in many shapes and forms, Timothy. Sometimes it means doing difficult things, even without always understanding why. At its best and most beautiful, love is a holy sacrifice that makes us hold our breath because we are so unworthy to be in its presence. And it is joy, too. But it is always the thing that heals us, always the hard, diamond-edged gift that changes the world. And I suspect that when Arnold fixes up his bratwurst and beans on Valentines Day, it will be there, too, feeding me. "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives love and this gives life to thee."
May it give life to thee, too, Timothy. And whatever is on your menu for Valentine's Day, may it be a Nuit D'Amour. Keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.