In the crate of ornaments not to be touched, rested in cotton my mother’s golden walnuts: glass, thinner than egg shells, easily shattered. She hung them from the boughs herself.
Real nuts, we ate on Advent evenings, sitting round the burning wreath, cracking hazelnuts and almonds, peeling tangerines. My father split the walnuts single-handed, then let us root out gnarled halves and pieces. Each nut, a mystery beneath its sealed shell.
I hate mysteries, my son proclaims one day. And yet, he sits all season snapping nuts, gathering pecans from the back lawn, separating the green and black or gnawed.
The tools—a toothed and silver hinge, a screw and lever, assorted picks—he places on the table. Some of the harvested will be rotten, some unripe. The best emerge from cocoons as rich as butter, most in shards and others whole. All of these will be put to use in pies and bread.
He works quietly, entirely focused on the task. On the oilcloth, a pile of husks easily swept away, and the delight of knowledge, gleaming brown and full of grace as a new pair of shoes.
There’s a stranger in the field of apples. Somebody’s hands have left a blush on the Staymans, have scattered half- rotten fruit in which wasps will burrow. Somebody’s presence has spun the sugar, banished bitterness from yellow cores. Pips have polished themselves like beaks of sparrows, Sweet Wines waxed tender.
Now is the time for us to climb ladders and fill a crate for our family’s pleasure. To hear the ticktock of falling fruit. To lighten the bearded branches.
Let husbands feel the round arms of their wives, and wives laugh in voices rich as custard.
Let there be shouting like shaken tambourines! Let the musician bring his fiddle!
The Quaker Meeting House in which we wed was shabby—its carpet faded Wedgewood blue, no festive flowers in a vase, or ribboned pews. But I loved the butter-yellow stucco walls, and the little graveyard at the back, ivy-grown, where only the tops of squat square stones shown grey above the vines. Beneath the eaves, we held for view our newly golden fingers, the charms through which we’d changed from two to one.
We knew a great thing had been done. We were to be each other’s rune and grail, trunk and totem, handkerchief and spoon. Forsaking sex with all others, refusing escape alone from trouble, we promised to cling to the human whom we’d named and kissed. And what a wonder that we did, and have, that years have proved us braver than we knew, and merry, too, love still searching out each other’s hands, as when, beneath the poplars’ summer green, we walked from vows to wedding cake and dancing, and cars drove in the street below the underpass, distracted, to their many destinations.
The same morning I press my shorn chest flat against an x-ray machine, my sister pushes from her body a baby girl. Praise God, whose hand passes over itself like river currents as it gives and takes, pulls one film from the whirring machine while pushing in a new, unprinted slide. Praise God for this fearful doubling, over which I will sometimes weep and curse. Little breathing at the still whole breast of my sister, little gold seed of death awakening as the first sun touches its tendrils.
Let this, too, be a source of praise, that trees meet in the park like six- winged seraphim, stooping low enough for a boy to find foothold and swing himself to a crooked seat.
This act of grasping something greater, knowing that one's weight won't break the boughs, that weakness allows mastery. The sudden slip that bloodies the thigh, the husky bark rasping one's shin, then the elation of hanging by the knees, trembling, maybe, but trusting the limb.
Surely Jesus, too, climbed trees in Galilee, frightening Mary by exceeding her grasp, then flinging his body from the upper branches and returning to earth, triumphant and flushed.
He must have enjoyed as a boy the enabling flaw, must have loved the flesh He knew would fail, trailing for hours the ascents of his nimble creatures: the ring-tailed raccoon, the unseen lizard, the silent beetle, armored and green.
“Each time that we have some pain to go through, we can say to ourselves quite truly that it is the universe, the order and beauty of the world, and the obedience of creation to God that are entering our body. After that, how can we fail to bless with tenderest gratitude the Love that sends us this gift?” —Simone Weil
The pathology report an icon; the tissue staining the slide, God’s kaleidoscope. And those cells, obeying their DNA, cosmic dust as they whirl and split. Why not praise cancer, relentless, blind, that seeks and finds the lymph and blood? Because I am unthankful, rude. Because if I linger over this gift, I will change, I will vanish from the earth. In Russia, an icon of Mary has wept for twenty years. Mary, do you see my nuclei mutating, like words in “whisper down the lane”? This same God took your son away. Help me disobey.
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