Swimming in the Ancestral Gene Pool

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Because she didn’t understand that love was meant to be soft and warm, but she intended to be loving, nonetheless, my mother gave from her brain, instead of her heart.  I believe her heart had been battered shut in childhood by a tyrannical father and ineffectual mother, but her mind was limitless and her teaching skills formidable, so that would have to do.

When I was five, she insisted the local librarian permit me access to the adult library.  She disapproved of children’s books, except as occasional recreational airbisquits for the brain, and even at that, Anne of Green Gables was about as airbisquity as was acceptable.

My mother was an inventive teacher.  I learned the succession to the thrones of England and France by learning tales of the King’s mistresses.  Occasionally we would play that we were guests of the Borgias – she said it was safe to discuss power or papal politics there, but food and drink were out of the question.  She made learning an arduous but larky enterprise that enticed the brain and engaged the heart.  She led me through authors from Auden to Zarathustra with unerring instinct about what could excite on a given day or a given year.  She pushed and pulled and crammed in learning as relentlessly as Romanian gym teachers prime their tiny charges to be flying human pretzels, but I loved every minute.  Loved the learning, the knowledge, the literature, the open doorways… loved the fast track and the accolades.  I never measured up, of course.  Not the straight A’s nor the 100’s nor the winning essays nor the Ivy League scholarship, won in my Junior year, were enough to make her happy.  But they were her gift to me, nonetheless.  She gave what she had to give and it was extraordinary and appreciated, even if neither of us was what the other would have ordered from a God with a less perverse sense of humor.

My father, on the other hand, was just the one I would have picked, had Fate given me the option.  He laughed a lot and taught me useful things… how to hang storm windows… how to recite poetry with passion… how to love every minute of being alive.

Papa had a way about him… a kind of gentle poetry of being.  Not a namby pamby Ashby Wilkes gentlemanliness, but the sturdy, stalwart kind that men of “The Greatest Generation” seemed to have.  The protect the family, save the world for democracy, go to church on Sunday, play pinochle with the men in the family, roll up your sleeves, fix the toaster or your skinned knee, kind of benevolence that made you feel safe and loved.

Maybe nothing in this world has ever made me feel that safe again.

He came as close to loving unconditionally as anyone I’ve ever met.  Not that he didn’t hold you accountable for your actions – he did – but he seemed to have a handle on human frailty and the notion that if you failed the test, but were willing to try again, that’s what counted.

There was softness and hardness in his nature… a hard and fast code of honor, a soft kindness and nurturance.  And a practical, no nonsense attitude toward life that said you roll with the punches, you love the hell out of the good stuff, endure the bad without bellyaching, and try to keep the balance.  The bottom line was, I think, goodness, decency, integrity and kindness.  And a lot of laughter.  My father had the gift of laughter.

He liked to fix things… the lawnmower, the window broken by a local baseball game, an aching heart… always seeming to have a gentle, sensible something to say that put the brokenness into a larger context.  He was a tinkerer with a workshop (I think all dads had them back then) where things went in broken and came out fixed, a potent metaphor.  Sometimes they came out a little funny looking – not perfect and shiny – because he didn’t believe in throwing things away until you’d done your level best to get them on their feet again.  Another useful lesson.

He came from a time – the Great Depression – when every penny counted, but there was such generosity in his nature that it pervaded every action.  He always gave money to beggars on the street and when I once asked him if he didn’t worry they were con men, he laughed good naturedly and said, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that.  I just give in God’s name and He sorts it out.”

He loved his family with a sense of old friendship… the ones he’d loved and lost, and the ones who still remained, equal comrades on the road of life.  He loved to laugh, to dance, to talk politics, loved books and learning all sorts… took unmitigated joy from simple pleasures.  He read me Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant a hundred times and said we should plant trees, so if any passing deities should stop by and need a branch to rest in, we’d be ready for them.  When I was six, he managed to find a recording of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in English, so I could learn the words to Un Bel Di, my favorite aria, and in a time when women were housewives, he told me I could grow up to be anything I dreamed.

Papa’s Philosophy

by Cathy Cash Spellman

Love god
Love your fellow man
Follow your heart and your conscience
Don’t hurt anyone
Be decent
Don’t take what’s not yours
Respect all life.
Fight for everybody’s rights
Not just your own.
Own up
Live in balance
Learn to forgive.
Forget what you don’t want to carry
Measure people by their choices
And by the size of their hearts
Not their wallets
Don’t bellyache
Don’t give in to bullies
Don’t give up
Share what you have
Be grateful
Love your family.
Be generous of heart.
Be kind. Always. No matter what.
Love life.

Papa came from a family full of rollicking merry people who seemed to like each other enormously, so much so that they tended always to be together. “They travel in packs, like wolves,” my mother would sniff disdainfully, giving me a lifelong affection for anything lupine.

We would meet in each other’s houses after Mass or for Sunday supper. Generations tumbling over each other, children making a fort under the dining room table, men and boys talking football in the living room, while women and girls gathered in the savory kitchen to learn the ins and outs of cooking and life. I had an aunt who could cut up a turkey and put its skin back on so it came to the table so perfectly intact, it could give Martha Stewart feelings of inadequacy. Another who baked things no Cordon Bleu pastry chef ever equaled. We laughed and washed dishes and smushed up the funny little red thing in the wartime margarine that turned it yellow. A kind of kitchen bliss that has never faded in my memory.

Having reached a place in time in which only the good memories seem worth holding on to, the gifts I received from both parents now loom large on the landscape of my heart. I so wish they were here so I could tell them…

Prayer to the Goddess for My Father

by Cathy Cash Spellman

Dear Mother, do you know the magnitude of the soul
That now resides on your side of the veil?
I’m talking about my father
His name was Harry.
Please mark it down, so You don’t forget.
So many souls must come and go in your
Celestial Realm, perhaps you never noticed that
One noble spirit had left the world an emptier place.
Words seem much less than he deserves,
But let me tell you anyway
He was a gentleman, wise and kind
The sort who leaves a comet trail behind
For those of us less sure in our soulfooting.

Bless him, Mother, and keep him close to you for counsel.
You never know when you might welcome a wise kind heart
to help you judge something or other.
Honor, forgiveness, morality, integrity, he knows them all.
Love God, love your fellow man. Be kind.
Live in balance.
Work and love a lot.

He loved unconditionally, just like You do.
All he asked was that you do your best
“The Lord weighs the sins of the warm-hearted and
The cold blooded in different measures,” he would say.
For his was a stalwart and an understanding heart.
If you ever need a friend who’ll be there for you, Mother,
against the cold or bitter years
Think of Harry.
“Never give up,” he’ll say to you. “Never give in.
Never bellyache. Love life and be grateful.”
It came from perfect faith You see.
He took more joy from life than anyone I’ve ever known.

The world’s a darker, colder, lonelier place
Without his shining spirit in it.
But you’ve got him in your neighborhood, now.
So permit me to introduce you, Mother
You two will like each other.

The River… The Tiger… The Fire

Time is the substance from which I am made.

Time is a river that carries me along, but I am the
river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the
tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

© Cathy Cash Spellman / The Wild Harp & Co., Inc. 2011

Posted on February 17th 2011 in Family, Women

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