Friday, November 2, 2012
He's taller these days. He rarely wears red Wellington boots, or a leather pilot's helmet, either. In those distant days, what you see pictured here was his daily uniform. Here he stands, aged five, with his long-lost friend Eloise, who is probably taller these days, too, wherever she is. The floral pillow by the fence is Eloise's little sister, Sophie, also probably taller by now and not so pillow-ish.
We were at Wimpole Hall's Home Farm, just outside Cambridge, with these dear friends, when I took the picture; I remember that it was really, really cold, and I was carrying this boy's now-ten-year-old brother in a baby sling under my coat. This was right after Christmas, so it's just a hair less than ten years ago. Though I had no way of knowing it, a year from the day this picture was taken, I'd be in America with another baby in a sling under my coat, but that is another story.
I love this picture because it brings that boy before me again so vividly, the bon vivant, the wearer of red wellies and pilot's helmet, the boy who, ten years ago today, for his fifth birthday wanted to go on the free bus to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford to celebrate among the airplanes. That was the Biggles year; we had picked up an audiobook of Biggles Learns to Fly at the library, and he had listened to it, and listened to it, and listened to it, and memorized it, which is why you see him here in the pilot's helmet and the bomber jacket he'd gotten for Christmas, to complement the masonite aerodrome his father had made for him, complete with Spitfires (okay, so Biggles mostly flew Sopwiths, but Spitfires are the goods). He was so completely that person, that year, so completely and so transiently. I look at this picture, and it comes back thinly, like an old, patched Super-8 home movie. Oh, yeah . . .
Maybe it's not that surprising that I can't remember what he got for his birthday, only the day itself, out to Duxford and back, on the bus, with a clutch of little boys, all in the pouring rain which is sort of the right weather for All Souls. And maybe a war museum is a fit setting for an All Souls birthday, all the air technology an ironic reminder of the frailty of everything, including itself.
An All Souls birthday: hello and goodbye, telescoped into one event. Several years ago, this boy spent his birthday -- cheerfully and voluntarily, I might add -- praying the rosary in a cemetery in Mount Airy, North Carolina, hometown of the lamented Andy Griffith. It was an odd pilgrimage, even if it hadn't also been a birthday: drive three hours, visit a vintage soda fountain and Opie's Candy Store; pray the rosary among the tombstones; go to a Missa Cantata in the tiny stone church there; and back home again in the dark. We stopped for a late dinner at an O'Charley's along the highway, where people were whooping it up in the bar -- one man, the birthday boy reported after a trip to the bathroom, was wearing suspenders with shot glasses affixed somehow to the straps. I didn't see this myself and still have trouble envisioning it. Anyway, the birthday boy kept shifting uneasily in his seat and suggesting that we eat up and leave. There's bon vivant and bon vivant, and this was the wrong kind, or else we were. I remember feeling that way in restaurants sometimes as a child, sensing that we were in the wrong place, a family in a scene not meant for families. Anyway, the drunk people were not threatening or unfriendly, just convivial and loud. Nevertheless we did eat up and leave, because whether it's your birthday or not, O'Charley's after ten is not where you want to spend time, when you still have miles to go before you sleep.
This year the birthday boy is spending his day cleaning dissection pans in the biology lab at the college, which is exactly where he wants to be, and what he wants to be doing. Then maybe he'll come home and listen to the first lecture in the Great Courses series on Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which was what he most wanted for a present. Frailty, frailty. After that we'll have pasta and meat sauce for dinner, because even though it's Friday, it's a solemnity and a birthday, a double observance, and we're that kind of bon vivant. Also, even the frail gotta eat, especially when the frail are boys of fifteen.
Fifteen. Man. What happened to that red-wellie-boy?
And then I realize I've written my own answer.