Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Letters for Lent

Darwin is in California for half of this week, visiting his family, so I'm thinking about long-distance communication. Ash Wednesday is next week. Lent is upon us. And I'd like to continue my discipline/joy of past years and write letters for Lent.

There are few things more gratifying than getting a good old-fashioned letter. I can't promise that I'll write something for the ages -- more likely you'll get whatever is passing through my head on the day your name comes up -- but my handwriting is legible and I'm set up with my nice pen and some pleasing blue ink and a supply of crisp paper. I'll even buy the pretty stamps.

If you'd like a letter from me written sometime during Lent, please email your name and address to darwincatholic (at) gmail.com. It doesn't matter whether you're local or across the ocean, whether we've never met or we talk every week. If you tell me a bit about yourself, I'll try to write about things we have in common. (I'll write to you whether or not you tell me anything, but I'd like to avoid, say, grousing about child-rearing to someone who has infertility, or going on about the trials of home ownership to someone who wishes they had a place of their own.)

It has been my pleasure in past years to be able to write to some long-term readers and be able to put names to comments, or meet newer readers and form new friendships. And if you feel like it, I'd love to hear back from you.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Quick Valentine Takes

1. Historian Alice Sharp begs everyone to stop spreading spurious stories about the origin of Valentine's Day.
It’s tempting to say that these stories don’t matter. We want, after all, to teach people that marriage is important, and it makes a nice story. Let’s not fall into that, however. Christianity is a faith that makes a historical claim—that God became man and lived with humanity, in a specific culture and empire and year. We don’t need to rely on bad history to teach a lesson, nor do we want to undermine our historical claims by ignoring what we can say. Not every historical question will have a tidy answer of cause and effect. The story of St. Valentine and love, however, gives us a picture of a world in which the saints offered a sanctification of the calendar itself, marking the seasons and the days—even days given over to the most secular of pleasures.
2. Meanwhile, in Heaven, St. Valentine longs to hear the end of it.

3.  It just don't get any more romantic than being rickrolled by the talented Gunhild Carling.



4. Give that special lady in your life the Solomon treatment.


5. ...You know what, my dears? Five takes is about all I can muster for Valentine's Day, a holiday I actually care little about. But if you do care about it, but want to make like you don't because you really ought to be above all that, and then find yourself hurt because your significant other takes you at your word that you want nothing, Simcha Fisher has some wise words.
Several years ago, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.  For so many years, the poor man had been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him. 
I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing, which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted. Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster. 
Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.  So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap and price tag off before giving them to me, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!
6. Enjoy your chocolate!

Friday, February 07, 2020

Thorns and Thorin

Yesterday morning I found myself with a bare-bummed boy on the changing table, kicking his heels as I rummaged around looking for a diaper. But I out of luck, because there was no other package of diapers in the huge cardboard box on the floor. It had been empty for weeks, and I'd been tripping over it every day for naught. And so the boy had to go into a pair of training pants, and I had to run to the store.

Later that day, one of my daughters looked in the washing machine and remarked how disgusting it was. Now, the washing machine is on the fritz. Every time it hits the spin cycle it sounds like an express train roaring through the house. Oh man, I thought. The thing has finally busted, like the repair man said it would and why don't we just buy a new one because the parts won't be in until 12/31/9999 according to the manufacturer's website? But when I went to look in it, the problem was not the spin cycle. The problem was that there were bits of poop all over the drum, and one pair of training pants sitting damply in the bottom.

Baby had pooped while I was gone, and my hard-working children had cleaned him up, put him in the tub, and put his pants in to soak and then wash. They had made sure to get the loose poop off the pants first. But not having the benefit of Mom's 17+ years of experience (the + is for all the years I spend changing younger siblings before we used disposable diapers), they didn't know that you have to rinse the pants out in the toilet or sink first to get all the other bits off.

I couldn't get mad about it, in context, so I added bleach and ran the rinse and spin cycle again, which cleaned off most of the tidbits. Then I wiped out the washer and ran a hot load of towels with the pants. Everything looks okay, and we're all still alive, so that's a win, right?

The washer is not the only thing acting up. As I was leaving for the store, the minivan's brakes were grinding so badly it sounded like something was dragging underneath the car. By the time I got to the end of the block the wheels were grinding whether I was braking or not. Fortunately, I have another working vehicle at home, so I turned around and took the behemoth instead. And I added the minivan to the list of Things That Need Money.

Microwave: stopped working 2 months ago, error code SE which means humidity. $300+ to fix, so for now we're not.
Stove: The large two burners only heat to high, or to low. There's no middle ground.
Living Room Ceiling: bulging under the upstairs shower; held in place by the paper on the ceiling. If we don't look at it, we will not have to do anything about it right now.
College Tuition: Yeah.

But you know what's free? DVDs from the library. And I'm sorry to report of myself that after we watched the last Hobbit movie, I went and got the first two. The past two nights, after I painstakingly get the three younger ones to bed, the older four and I have sat and watched the padded adventures of Bilbo and Co.

It was not all evil. I'd forgotten that the first half of the first Hobbit movie is quite serviceable. It's not until Rhadagast the Brown shows up that things get too ridiculous. (Why is it that when Rhadagast is going to draw the Orcs away from where the company is hiding so that they can escape, he keeps running his sledge in circles around where the company is? Why not just go in straight line somewhere else? I know the filmmakers have some gorgeous NZ landscape to work with, and I'm happy to see as much of that as possible, but let's think strategy here.) The Orcs pursuing the Dwarves, and the whole Necromancer subplot could have been cut, and so could the running time, and the movie would have been better for it.

As to the second movie: I could happily watch an entire movie just about Aiden Turner as Fili (or was it Kili?), and Lee Pace chewing the scenery in a restrained way as Thranduil was good value, but let's put Legolas and Tauriel the She-Elf in their own movie so that we can all skip it. I'll go to bat for Martin Freeman's adorable mug, though. I wish I could have liked Richard Armitage's Thorin more, but it was just so much glowering under brows.

I just watch for the scenery.

And I caved yesterday afternoon and let the younger ones see the second half of Fellowship, after holding out for 18 years about people who don't read the books don't get to see the movies. I skipped all the orc bits except Boromir's death scene, and I made baby cover his eyes, which he didn't like. Everything was just too truncated to me, but now the kids are agitating to watch The Two Towers.

"No," I said. "It goes even farther astray. Read the books."

"But it's a snow day, Mom!"

"Go read."

I'm left pondering the phrase "Lead us not into temptation." I brought the Hobbit movie into my house, and now my kids are all going to have Peter Jackson in their heads. This is what happens when you are an old parent and don't have the clarity of your earlier convictions. Don't get old, folks. That's all I've got.



Wednesday, February 05, 2020

My Day On Stage

I'm in Dubai this week participating in the annual sales meeting for my company. As well as meeting with various people, I had a twenty minute talk I was supposed to give during the general session, the last third of a one hour session being led by the CFO. Twenty minutes to tell a bunch of sales people and sales managers something about pricing that would stick with them during the coming year.

One of the reasons I love pricing is that I like struggling with complex problems and large amounts of data. I've given talks before to pricing conferences, and there my goal has been to help other people understand good ways of tackling such problems. However, in this case, I was presenting to people who were not pricing experts and who were likely to glaze over if I started throwing too many number and charts around. So I'd make a presentation that was very simple: four content slides and a sum-up. My plan was to give more examples verbally as I talked, but I really wanted to focus on my main theme. So I wanted a small number of really clear visuals on my slides, and I wanted to hit my main points repeatedly. I also expected that the CFO would run over his time slot, leaving me only fifteen minutes or maybe even ten to cover my content.

Last light I was really struggling with jet lag when I got back to my hotel room at 10:00pm. I wanted to rehearse and prepare some more notes, but that morning I'd woken up at 2:00am and not been able to get back to sleep. So I decided I'd to my prep in the morning. I set an alarm for 5:00am Dubai time and went to bed.

When that alarm went off at 5:00, was still really tired and felt able to sleep. My talk wasn't till 8:30, so I thought I'd get thirty more minutes of sleep. I reset my alarm, and dozed off again.

Some time later, I surfaced from a dream to see light peaking in from under the hotel blackout curtains. Panicked, I looked at my phone. 8:09. I vaulted out of bed, adrenaline pumping. If I moved as fast as I could, I knew I could just barely get down to the meeting room before the CFO kicked off our presentation at 8:30. But there was zero time to prep. The one thing I did besides get ready and into my suit was to send MrsDarwin a text at 8:15: "Pray for me. My alarm went wrong. My talk is in 15 minutes."

MrsDarwin, wonderful woman that she is, texted back that she was saying a rosary for me, despite the fact it was 11:15pm in the states.

Somehow I sauntered into the ballroom, trying to look calm, at 8:25 and the first person I saw was the CFO, who greeted me as if nothing was wrong (which was far as he knew was true) and offered to let me cut into the coffee line with him.

"All set?" he asked.

"Ready as I'll ever be."

"I wanted to make sure you've got plenty of time, so I've rehearsed mine and got it down to thirty minutes."

More to panic about, but I took my coffee and headed over to the A/V guys to get miced up.

During the CFO's talk I drank my coffee and tried to split my attention between listening an looking over my slides to make sure that I was clear in my mind how I would talk. And he was as good as his word, he wrapped up in thirty minutes and passed the stage over to me.

One of the many debts I owe to my late father (who as a planetarium lecturer for thirty years) is that I have a loud, clear speaking voice -- which naturally becomes louder and clearer when I get in front of a large crowd -- and I think well when talking. I was particularly focusing on speaking slowly and clearly this time because I knew that the majority of my audience were not native English speakers, and something I'd heard from co-workers of that background is that many native English speakers talk too fast when presenting and use a needlessly wide vocabulary which taxes their listeners.

So I introduced myself and my team, and then told the audience about net price. The idea of net price is that at a time when your costs are going down, if you succeed in not reducing your prices as much as your costs have gone down, you have in fact increased your prices (and thus your profit margins.) At a time when your costs are going up, you need to increase your prices enough to cover those higher costs just to keep your profits flat. If you want to increase your margins, you need to increase your prices faster than your costs are going up.

On my main slide, I had one graph which showed a recent example of costs going down while prices stayed relatively flat, and I could tell them about how this had resulted in all of them doing well on their pricing performance metric. I used examples. I talked about how this worked differently for different teams. And I tried to tell the audience very clearly what I needed them to do during the next year in order to continue to win on price.

I said thank you, I asked for questions, and while I was answering the first question the buzzer for the end of the hour went off. I'd filled my thirty minutes.

And through the rest of the day, people kept coming up to me and telling me that the presentation had been really good. Sales people. Executives. The CEO. I feel like MrsDarwin and her rosary ought to get credit for this, because I could not have come into it less propitiously that morning. You could even say I deserved to fail. But somehow I didn't.

And fascinatingly, the two things I heard most from people were "I felt like I could really understand what you were saying about pricing," and "You seemed like you knew so much detail." This from a presentation in which I spent half my time talking about one simple graph.

I think maybe if there's a lesson to be learned here (other than: set two alarms) about how to present, it's that it actually can help if your slide is simpler than what you say while you're talking about it. If the slide had a ton of detail, and you provide the quick summary, you give the impression of a big complex topic of which the audience has only skimmed the surface. If you have a simple slide, and you provide extra detail verbally to illustrate the simple point, the audience is allowed to think that they grasp the simple point and that you are someone who knows the additional detail that supports it.

But anyway. That was my day on stage. And now we'll see how jet lag treats me tonight.

Lord of the Wrongs, Part II

After yesterday's post about Peter Jackson and his cinematic missteps, a friend recommended I check out the documentary about the making of the Hobbit movies, an account of creative upheaval and actors just trying to make do. It sounded like a great dose of schadenfreude. And lo and behold, the library had the third Hobbit movie (Battle of Five Armies) in the stacks, so I sent my daughter down to check it out, and we all settled down in the living room to enjoy the special features.

You must understand that we'd had a series of disappointments over the course of the evening, because a) I'd made cabbage and potato soup, which no one wanted, and b) I have been reading The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, which promised me excellent and easy ricotta cheese through the application of Science, and we'd planned to have warm ricotta and toast for dinner, except one doubled recipe later, we had two teaspoons of fresh ricotta and eight cups of vinegar whey that refused to curdle. I followed the recipe to the letter, I even used a thermometer, but no dice. So, when we pulled up the special features to find only a documentary about New Zealand, and that wouldn't even play on the library disc, and I had a couchful of expectant children, I pivoted.

Friends, we watched the first half of Fellowship together.

I felt this was fairly harmless. For one thing, the kids have heard this on audiobook, however little they may have been paying attention. For another, the imagery of the Shire is lovely and not far off Tolkien's own drawings. Jackson makes the Hobbits sillier than they need to be, but it's hard for me to disapprove too much of the glorious curls of Hobbiton. I skipped through the Isengard scenes as having too many ugly orcs for small children late in the evening, and we stopped after the Council of Elrond, which the kids are mostly familiar with in this incarnation.



It was just getting too late at night to watch any more. But also, Arwen had just showed up. And it's here that Jackson starts getting silly. Sure, you have the Wizard Battle in Isengard, which my kids laughed their way through. But at least there's the faintest textual basis for this strife. But Jackson's dopey Arwen, with her dopey dialog, just did me in. I had to pontificate on the omission of Glorfindel, and my 11yo son, who knows about Glorfindel because of the Project Elrond scene in The Martian, nodded knowingly. I'd also forgotten how cheap some of Jackson's effects are -- Frodo being carried to Rivendell, with the floating head of Elrond speaking Elvish, was a real lowlight.

After driving sleepy children upstairs as the Orcs drove Merry and Pippin, after the long slog of getting the 2yo to settle down and shut his eyes, I settled down to read The Return of the King, with which I'm nearly done. The Ring destroyed, Faramir and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing, the Hobbits awakening on the Field of Cormallen, the crowning of the King. I was just drifting off to sleep when I received a text.

At 8:15 AM Dubai time, Darwin, jetlagged, woke up and realized that his alarm had not gone off, and that the presentation that he had traveled halfway around the world to give was starting in 15 minutes. Could I pray?

And so, at 11:15 pm Ohio time, I got up, and I sat on the edge of my bed, and I prayed. I was the proper person to do it; who should pray for a husband but a wife? All I could do was love, and so that's what I did. I sat with Darwin in spirit and was calm and peaceful in his stead while he had to rush frantically, and I started my rosary.

As I prayed, I got up and went around the house, locking doors, moving the laundry, turning off the lights. When I poked my head in the library to see why the light was still on, I found my two big girls were up, sitting on top of each other in the library couch. So I roped them in and made them pray a rosary with me for Dad. And then we needed to stay awake and find out how things had gone, so there was only one option for both waiting and offering up some suffering.

The library DVD of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies beckoned.

And so, my friends, I attest that I have now viewed the last Hobbit movie, and it's a visually spectacular dog. Some of the scenery was neato, like the Lost Mountain and the halls of the Dwarves, but the story was just bizarre, especially since I hadn't seen the second movie. Any scene with the lady elf just brought everything to a clunking halt, and I really had no idea what was going on with Gandalf in the stronghold of the necromancer, or why Galadriel could lift him up like he was made of balsawood. My daughters and I attended to the important things. I maintained that Aiden Turner as Fili (or was it Kili?) was hot; my 16yo, bored to snoozing, couldn't see it, but knew and approved of Richard Armitage because he played John Thornton in the BBC's North and South.

Just before Thorin's prolonged death scene, my 11yo appeared in the room, holding the baby who'd woken up, so by this time I had five kids in the living room, gawking at the absurdity of the character of Alfred, the bad guy from Laketown, stuffing his bosom with gold and sneaking off. Where was he going to go? Everyone in town knows he was a coward during the battle. Where is he going to take that gold? Where will he spend it? Did the filmmakers think about the fact that there are no other human settlements within leagues and leagues of Laketown? It just makes no sense.

Finally, at 2 AM, I was in bed. Darwin had texted to say his presentation had gone well and been praised. The kids were down. The 2yo was snuggled against me, with his pink cheeks and damp curls. And I was reading Return of the King, because I couldn't get to sleep. The hobbits journeyed back to the Shire, and instead of well-deserved rest they had to clean up everyone else's mess. The evil they faced was small, internal, insignificant compared to the epochal events they'd just participated in, but fully capable of harming generations if not stopped. And it was their responsibility to take charge, because they were Home.

At 3 AM, drifting off, I laid down my book, said a final prayer of thanksgiving, and I went to sleep my last thought was:

I'm totally going to the library tomorrow to get The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, just to complete my hatewatching binge.




Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Lord of the Wrongs

I've been rereading Lord of the Rings over the past two weeks, taking it fairly slow and reveling in the descriptions and the geography of Middle Earth. And over me has crept an insidious desire to rewatch Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, just to refresh on the visuals. Heck, we even have two box sets -- the theatrical release and the extended versions. So what's stopping me?

It's that I know this impulse is a mistake. When the movies first came out, I was excited, like many other people, just to see the thing done. And no money was spared on costumes or special effects or settings (though more on that later). But Jackson's failure is a failure of vision and understanding. Each time I read a new scene and think, "Boy, I'd like to see that on film," I remember something bizarre about the movies that makes me mad just thinking about it.

For example: I read the chapter about the Rohirrim assembling at Dunharrow, and considered rewatching that scene for the winding road up to the safe haven, with the Pukel-men at each turning. And then I remembered that Jackson had so rewritten that episode that Elrond shows up to tell Aragorn that Arwen is dying of Sauron-plague or something. 

Nope.

I wanted to rewatch the Mines of Moria, to see the road that led to the mines, and Gandalf at the bridge, and even the misplaced conversation between Gandalf and Frodo about Gollum. Then I remembered the ridiculous CGI-laden scene with the staircase falling apart.

Nope.

I thought about watching the charge of the Rohirrim and the battle of Pelennor Fields. Then I remembered Legolas and the elephant.

Nope.

I thought about watching Frodo meeting with Faramir, then I remembered that Peter Jackson rewrote Faramir's character so that he decides to take Frodo to Gondor, and then in Osgiliath they meet a Nazgul.

Oh my stars.

Darwin was the one who pointed out the cinematic lack of agriculture anywhere in Middle Earth but the Shire. Tolkien, who lived a key formational time of his life in the country, had a good grasp on how exactly a kingdom is fed, and incorporated small details into the text that suggest a broader economy. In the films, though, no farms surround Edoras; no rich townlands on the fields of the Pelennor, with rick and cottage. Minas Tirith is surrounded by -- nothing. Where do they get food?

I know that this is partly because Jackson was filming in New Zealand and had to leave a minimal footprint, so when he build his Edoras set he couldn't also turn the surrounding fields into farms. So we get lots of pretty imagery in the films, without the smaller corresponding touches that would give those images life. Pretty, but dead. This fake awesome ethic -- immediately impressive, but incoherent on two seconds of rational thought -- pervades all of Jackson's Tolkien forays. If you're not already convinced of this on the basis of the Hobbit movies, I don't know how I can move you with further persuasion.

On the other hand, Darwin is gone for the next week, and I need something to do with my evenings. Please, people, talk me down from watching Lord of the Rings.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Sown Among Thorns

A few days ago, we had the gospel parable of the Sower and the Seeds, one of my favorites. The seed falls where it will, some among the thorns where it takes root well, but the thorns choke it out and refuse to allow it to flourish. The thorns are, as Jesus explains, worldly cares and anxieties which overshadow the necessities and demands of the Christian life.

I love the phrase "sown among thorns", which is going to be the title of my as-yet-unconceived novel. And the concept resonates with me because I live among the thorns, the cares and anxieties of worldly life. Not bad cares and anxieties, mind you; just the average family chaos that can dim everything outside of it. If we have any readers left at this point of blog negligence, they'll have noted that January was an unusually fallow month here. Not for any exciting reason, but simply because of the thorns.

Our oldest daughter, 17, has applied and been accepted to Franciscan University, our alma mater, and leaves in August. This entails a lot of fuss in various ways, of course, but one of the January ways was the filling out of the FAFSA. To be brief, we are on the hook for a great deal of money because we make a great deal of money, and having seven dependents doesn't make that much of a difference. Fortunately, we'd begun a process of retrenching a few months earlier, but I think we had not fully grappled with the cost of college until we saw some hard cold numbers.

As it is, with a scholarship and some other small aid, our assessed family portion of our daughter's tuition is about 2/3 the sticker price, and that's a bit of a shock. Retrench, retrench.

Our big blue van is back at home, after the hit-and-run damage. We had the insurance deductible, of course, and then the shop asked: did we want to replace the bumpers, dented and rusting out? For an extra fee? We sat and discussed present financial necessity vs. tax return coming up vs. needing this van to last for about ten more years, and opted for yes. Unretrenching. At least the shop washed and vacuumed it before sending it back.

All of January was a lead-up to February, in which Darwin will be traveling a good deal of the time. His company's international sales conference is being held this year in Dubai, and at this moment he is in the air, probably over the Persian Gulf. Dubai is probably about as safe as anywhere in the Middle East -- safer, probably, because it needs to project the image of being a secure place for people to indulge in Oriental luxury -- but still, one is nervous. And one is alone at home for a week with seven children, so one needs to keep up business as usual.

All the thorns have not been secular. This past Saturday Darwin and I gave a talk at our parish's marriage prep program about Christ Restores God's Plan for Marriage (the program's title). The total amount of work we did for this was watching the official video on Thursday night, taking some notes, and deciding we could do it better, but the logistics of the day of the presentation were made more complex by the fact that the two oldest daughters were in the car all day, delivering a friend back to FUS after being in the car all day on Friday picking up the friend so they could all watch the musical Anastasia in Columbus. Fortunately for us we have a third oldest daughter who needs to pad out her Confirmation hours with some babysitting.

No doubt even the most generous reader's eyes are glazing over at this point of family minutiae, but here's my point: these are the thorns I live among: teenagers driving places, husband on the other side of the globe, other small peoples with their own needs, obligations here and there.

In the midst of all this, I've been rereading Lord of the Rings. I've just finished The Two Towers, with Frodo and Sam creeping down through Ithilien, guided by Gollum, to get to the secret pass into Mordor. At one point, they hide among thorns.
Their twisted boughs, stooping to the ground, were overridden by a clambering maze of old briars. Deep inside there was a hollow hall, raftered with dead branch and bramble, and roofed with the first leaves and shoots of spring. there they lay for a while, too tired yet to eat, and peering out through the holes in the covert they watched for the slow growth of day.
Here are thorns as unexpected safety and protection, outwardly forbidding yet with unsuspected interior space. They're no good for permanent settling, but for passing through for a season they offer structure and support. I'm trying to keep my thorns from overwhelming my interior space, and I'm trying to use that space as Frodo and Sam did: watching, waiting, listening.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 6-1

I'm traveling off and on this month (editing this section for posting from the Chicago airport before flying to Dubai) so it's possible that at some point during February I'll miss a post, but here's the opening of Chapter 6, where we're back with Philomene and life under German occupation.

Chapter 6

1. Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. July 19th, 1915.
Since the boys in the town had been drafted into work parties during the spring planting, it came as no great surprise when the notices were posted stating that all boys aged 10 to 16 were liable for fall service: in late July for the wheat harvest, and again in September for the sugar beet and apple harvests.

Pascal refused to let Philomene see him down to the town hall. She stood at the door and watched him walk down the street, his bag slung over a shoulder, newly broad, and a pair of Grandpere’s old workboots on his feet. This boy, so nearly a man, who did not look back at her as he walked down the street, was a different person from the one who had seen his father off at the train station a year before. He had passed Philomene in height, and though she still had to fulfill a mother’s office in reminding him to wash himself with the new regularity his age required, there was a newly muscular quality to his back and shoulders that was more of Henri than of the boy she had nursed and cradled and held close all these years.

Henri. It had been nearly a year since that sunny day on the train platform, that last kiss through the door of the passenger car, as the wind carried away steam from the locomotive. A year, an age, a lifetime. Now here was Pascal with his voice showing the first signs of deepening, and a worrying silence creeping over the boy who had told her of all his thoughts and hopes. And little Lucie-Marie, now full to bursting with all the words her five-year-old mind could string together. It would not be a quieter house during these ten days with Pascal gone. But there was, gnawing at the back of Philomene’s mind, like termites in the structure of her stability, the feeling that one by one her men were being taken from her. First Henri to serve in the army. And now Pascal, by the labor detail, but also by that angry gaze he turned upon the world. And even her own father, now pulled deep into the world of buying and selling necessities hidden from the occupying Germans. How long until that took him away from them? Right now his activities gave them luxuries such as meat and coffee and sugar. But at any moment the consequences of this double life could snatch him away and leave her alone.

It was no great comfort when the ten days were past and Pascal returned. He came back tired, tanned, lean, and silent. He slept in his room for hours on end, trying to make up for the days in the fields and the nights spent on hay piled in the barns. When at last he came down he went out into the garden. Philomene was glad to see it. The girls were running and playing in the sun. He could provide a set of watchful eyes, and it was good to see him rejoining the family. She went happily about her work, and it was some time later that she went outside to see how Pascal was getting on with the girls.

The girls were building themselves a lean-to with old garden stakes. Pascal was not immediately visible to the eye, and Philomene asked after him.

“He’s behind the cucumber frames,” said Lucie-Marie. “He’s boring.”

Philomene found him sitting against the wall, behind the cucumber frames as his sister had described. She saw him wave a hand before his face while putting the other behind his back, and only after a moment realized that he was stubbing out a cigarette with one hand while waving wisps of smoke away with the other.

“Where did you get that?”

Pascal responded with a shrug.

“Where?”

He might be taller than she was, and harbor the anger of a boy who felt he should be a man fighting the occupiers of his home, but the edge which had entered Philomene’s voice still demanded obedience from him.

[continue reading]