A Midafternoon Lunch in New England on a Gray December Day

I was intrigued by the elderly couple who sat across from us at the restaurant.  It was her, really, that called my attention.  She had to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties.  And she was beautiful in a hearty New England way. I would venture that she might not have been considered beautiful in her youth, but at that moment, as the beauty of others her age faded, she was vibrant.   She was robust, not lithe; her face full and happy; her skin porcelain and glowing.  Her eyes were blue, but what struck me most was that the lids did not sag with the heaviness of age.  Those eyes sparkled large and childlike. She drank a cocktail and breezily chatted with the gentleman who sat across from her and whose back was to me. I gleaned that he was older, mid-eighties maybe.  He sat hunched over.  His head was nearly bald.

It was a dreary, gray day, warm for December but winter nonetheless, and it seemed that the only place to be was a warm New England restaurant. The key was to ignore the view from the window and attend only to those who, like yourself, sought refuge from winter under the soft lamplight of that place. As we shared a bowl of mussels,  my husband, children and I chatted about our son’s birthday and Christmas and the wonderful things we planned to do over the winter recess, while the couple across from us appeared to do the same.

There was a gorgeous bouquet of peach and white roses on our neighbor’s table.  Their anniversary I figured.  “How wonderful,” I thought.  How long must they have been married?  Fifty years, give or take?  And still, seeming so much in love. They chatted away, her voice somewhat high pitched and girlish. She reached across the table for her companion’s hand.  She smiled and giggled and sipped her cocktail, and, at one point, she belly laughed.  It was the kind of deep, uncontrollable, sincere laugh that, unfortunately, we seldom experience. She laughed so heartily that, try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself.  It was only after about five minutes that she was able to regain her composure.  Only, you didn’t want her to stop for the sound of her laugh was so cheerful.

Later, a guest from another table, approached the couple to congratulate them on their anniversary. I heard the guest inquire how long they had been married, and I waited for the response, certain for it to be forty, fifty, perhaps even sixty years.  The elderly lady smiled and said, “It’s our one year anniversary.”

Suddenly, the entire narrative I had created for our neighbors dissolved; yet, they were still so captivating, so charming, more so perhaps. Now there were so many questions.   What had her life been like?  Did she spend the first thirty years of her adulthood in a loveless marriage?  Was she widowed while raising young children?  Did she have any children?  Maybe she didn’t have any.  That might account for youthfulness.

The couple continued on, laughing and chatting.   And then she said, “Here we are.  Having this lovely lunch in this beautiful restaurant, then we will go home and sit and it will be over.”  She reached for her partner’s hand again and smiled and looked at her roses and grew silent just for a moment.  The waitress returned and she immediately resumed her happy chatter, commenting that the when she returns she would love it if the sangria had whole blueberries in it. She ordered dessert for herself and her husband-they would share a piece of chocolate cake.

How she worked to hold onto that beautiful late afternoon lunch.  I understood.  I looked at my husband and our two children.  He and I somewhat bewildered to find ourselves in our forties, still with the silly hopes and dreams we shared in our twenties, but different now, tired, worried. And our children.  One who has so many struggles and the other  who seems to navigate through life with ease but who already shoulders the weight of being the one for whom things seem to come easier. The four of us sharing a beautiful few hours. Just us. In that place.  Wanting to stop time.  To remain just as we were in that moment.

As the sky outside the window grew darker we were realized our moment was over.  Afternoon was gone, having slipped away under a cloak of charcoal sky. Our neighbors stood up to leave.  She, tall and straight and carrying her vase of flowers, led the way to the exit.  He, fragile and stooped, followed slowly behind.  I prayed they would return again for another anniversary.

La Vita e’ Triste

photo.JPG JackAnna

Over the past week I have caught myself repeatedly muttering, “La vita e’ triste.” You see, my Roman mother-in-law Anna is visiting for the month of June. Over the years, despite Anna’s broken English and my inability to speak Italian, the two of us have forged a means of communication that works.  Sometimes we speak through silence.  Most times I lean on Anna to translate whatever she wants to say into English, and, on rare occasions, I shamelessly attempt to articulate complete thoughts in Italian.

Despite Anna’s joy over seeing us, there is always an undertone of sadness to her visits.  Her son and her grandchildren live in the United States; she lives in Italy.  Piergiorgio left Italy almost twenty years ago and has not returned home.  He will likely never return to Italy, at least not permanently.  He is American now.  His children are American.  And, while I am blessed to have him, his mother has suffered greatly.  Piergiorgio’s mother and father (who we lost far too early) were wonderful parents.  They gave him and his brother beautiful childhoods.  They were good and loving parents who placed their children above all else, and yet that was not enough to keep my husband with them.  Piergiorgio’s is an adventurous spirit.  There was something that called him here.  Unfortunately, with my happiness, came Anna’s sufferance. Where there is great joy there is also great pain.  Such is life.  La vita e’ triste.

I am so puzzled by life.  Recently my son inquired, “Mommy, why is God a bully?”  He continued, “You know Mommy.  Why does he let us love people and then take them away?  Why?”  I have noticed that Jack has been preoccupied with aging. My father, who will turn seventy within the next couple of weeks, is Jack’s best friend.  He and my mother also suffer from Parkinson’s disease.  This weighs heavily upon my son.  Jack knows that we do not live forever.  He cannot reconcile himself with the fact that, while we were gifted with the capacity for incredible love, those we love will be taken from us.  Why?  I was caught off guard.  How do you answer that? How was I to answer that?  I responded, “Don’t worry Jack, we are all reunited in Heaven with those we love.”  But Jack does worry.  I worry.  What is the point?  Why would a benevolent God allow, nay…create, such a painful life? We are born; we love, we rejoice; we suffer; we lose; we die.  La vita e’ triste. 

Of course, there is great, unbearable, catastrophic sufferance, and then there is the gentle sadness of living.  I wouldn’t dare to even venture into the topic of the former.  That I cannot even begin to comprehend.  I am talking about the small things we all suffer as part of the natural course of life. As young children, we are forced to ride the tides of life.  We change schools and say farewell; we move to new homes and say farewell;  we lose grandparents and say farewell.  As young adults we move away from family and say farewell.  As parents, we devote our lives to our beloved children and then release them into the world, only to be left empty and alone.  We continue to say farewell.  As elderly, we say farewell to friends and spouses.  We witness ourselves become obsolete even as we continue to live and breathe.  La vita e’ triste.

And all the while, despite all this sadness, we rejoice.  Babies are born; friendships are formed; lovers are wed; beautiful music is created, delicious food is consumed.  We laugh heartily.  We enjoy sunrises and sunsets. We cradle our infants and cuddle our children.  We sing.  We dance.  We enjoy this beautiful life.  So how is it that life can be so, so sad?  This is the great paradox of living.

I think of one of my favorite pieces of music,  Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa.  It is a work full of silences, silences which fill the listener with anticipation and excitement.  These silences are followed by the intensely beautiful and melancholy strains of the violin.  The violins pulse like metronomes, speaking the language of love and passion as they count down time.  Everything is finite.  All must end. The music tells us so.   The end of the first movement of Tabula Rasa, entitled “Ludus,” is so dark and forbidding that I almost cannot bear to listen.  And then, like angels whispering from the heavens, the second movement, “Silentium” begins.  And it is peaceful and sad.  As I listen, I picture a lover cradling his dead beloved, all the while, angels sing the sad song of finality and eternity. 

After listening to Tabula Rosa, I feel more human, happier, sadder, more complete and more understanding.  Perhaps that is the point.   To understand this life, with all of its joy and sufferance, we must view it and listen to it, as we view and listen to a work of art.  We must be detached, apart from, yet fully emerged.  We must understand and embrace life’s intrinsic sadness.  We grow old.  We love.  We lose.  We laugh.  We cry.  We live.  This is life.  Such is life.  In our final act, we die and others lose and suffer.  La vita e’ triste.

Yet, there is beauty in our delicate frailty.  Joy, sadness and loss is part of our human condition. In order to appreciate this life we must observe it, as if lying supine under the surface of water, and watch life unfold above, knowing we are hopeless as the currents move us in directions beyond our control.  In our hopelessness, we relinquish control and cherish all of it.  Life is wondrous.  Life is beautiful.  Life is sad.  La vita e’ triste.