Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Turrets and Towers

Nostalgia always seems so grand a thing.  Nostalgia for turrets and towers, queens and knights of old, the mighty days of Camelot or of John Cheever's consequential castles.

Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot!

King Arthur:  "Ginny, Ginny, suppose we create a new order of chivalry?  A new order where might is only used for right!  To improve instead of to destroy.  Look, we'll invite all the knights, all the kings of all the kingdoms, to lay down their arms to come and join us.  Oh yes, Ginny.  I will take one of the large rooms in the castle, put a table in it, and all the knights will gather at it."

Our ideas of castles, formed in childhood, are inflexible, and why try to reform them?  Why point out that in a real castle thistles grow in the courtyard, and the threshold of the ruined throne room is guarded by a nest of green adders?  Here are the keep, the drawbridge, the battlements and towers that we took with our lead soldiers when we were down with the chicken pox.  The first castle was English, and this one was built by the King of Spain during an occupation of Tuscany, but the sense of imaginative supremacy—the heightened mystery of nobility—is the same.  Nothing is inconsequential here.  It is thrilling to drink Martinis on the battlements, it is thrilling to bathe in the fountain, it is even thrilling to climb down the stairs into the village after supper and buy a box of matches.  The drawbridge is down, the double doors are open, and early one morning we see a family crossing the moat, carrying the paraphernalia of a picnic.
(John Cheever, from "The Golden Age")

My own nostalgia, a key component of my writing and a significant part of me, is usually for ruined abbeys, far-away places scented with pine and casting shadows back many millennia, the still mysterious abandonment of Crete and silencing of all its temple complexes, the tomb scene of Aida—especially as sung by Jussi Björling.

But lately I've been achingly nostalgic for nothing more than those little paper frills that people in the 60s stuck on chicken drumsticks for parties.  Silly at the time, and so much sillier to think about—let alone miss so badly—fifty years after the greasy chicken bones went into the garbage, surely? 

Remember, though, the leg bone is connected to the thigh bone . . . and so on and on until the whole body is fitted back together, animated, rising to life again.

Those paper frills bring back a whole era, a way of living irremediably lost.  The life I'll never have, which was so beautifully created and sustained by my mother, for us.  Our family home, the many family friends who came to dinner several times a month, the perfectly ironed linen guest towels (one of the two or three things that hit me hardest when I had to clear and sell my childhood home five years ago), the spotless rolling pin, the good dishes and polished silver—no, gold—ware, the cupboards full of spotless tablecloths.  I marvel at how clean it all was, and how sure; how that immense enchanted realm of wellbeing continued on into my mother's eighties, right up to the end.  Her annual Norwegian Christmas bread.  My father's Heritage editions of the classics (English, Russian, French); the Met broadcast every Saturday at noon.  Every detail ordered, meticulous, carefully tended and preserved.

I, on the other hand, have been so haphazard.  So relatively careless with the things I love.  My future as a place of gracious living and a safe haven doesn't bear scrutiny.  I've been a traveler, the meaning of the word including all the worst connotations of gypsies in their feckless caravans.  I cook inelegant tagines and bake lopsided cakes; my plates are utterly mismatched and any dinner guests sporadic.  (So I'm nomadic and sporadic, both.)  My castles are in ruins, and I've preferred—often hotly defended—that.

But I'm sad now, aware of how much I have 
missed—and how much I will miss, projecting my nostalgia into the uneasy future.  The lovingly dusted vigas, carefully tended piñon fires, white gloves worn to church.  Several generations of family close at hand.  The wherewithal to drive down to La Fonda in the snow and borrow a couple of dozen paper frills from their Norwegian chef who'd come for dinner in the fall, complete with sandbakkels and aquavit, to fit onto the ends of chicken legs to jazz up this year's New Year's Eve buffet.

image:  Camelot, Gustave Dore

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