When You Look Beyond.
My mother loves to decorate with things she describes as “primitive.” Rough wood. Cast iron. Antique farm equipment gone to rust. All things that have survived and show their age, rather than hide it. Her house is warm with wood of various kinds and ages.
My taste is different.
I love things that are antique, but dainty as well—china cup and saucer sets—gold-rimmed, floral. Some with porcelain so thin you can see the shadow of your fingers through the walls of the cup. Silver trays, topped with a matching tea pot, sugar bowl, cream pitcher.
I never had the joy of playing “tea party” as a child, so I guess I never really outgrew it. My sister was a tornado. Breakable things were locked away from her. My family dined off of things as durable as possible through my childhood. Thick. Dull. Plastic, whenever possible.
It’s easy to buy silver on the cheap.
My mother has bought me plenty of silver trays. A friend recently gifted me with an imported silver coffee set, whose immense value she was utterly unaware of, because it was sold at an antique store for a tenth of its worth. Silver tarnishes. It doesn’t take much time on a shelf before its glint is faded to a dull pewter, black grime lining its filigreed designs. It takes a special sight to see what’s underneath.
It takes time and attention to keep it shining.
My mother is just as happy to see the beauty in what a lack of time and attention has cost something beautiful. She is contented with the rust and tarnish. The cracks in the finish. The frays and the fading.
She sees things as they are, not as they could be with time and attention.
I wonder which of us is the realist and which is the optimist.
Today is my father’s birthday. He would be seventy-six today. Fifteen years have passed on this earth without him.
I wonder what he would make of today? I think every day when the news is dark.
My father was an optimist. A loud and often bellicose optimist. One who argued loudly and brooked no bullshit. But an optimist, nevertheless. He believed that people ought to behave better than they do, that they are capable of greatness, and that there is a common set of ideals that all should aspire to. He believed in polishing your boots to keep them in good shape, paying your taxes to help the common good, and being patriotic with your vote, your service, or your protest—whichever was required.
That’s why he would be quick to tell a man he was wrong. Because there was such a thing as good. And that’s why he often got loud about it. Because, deep down, if he could make the man see the error of his ways, he’d want to do the right thing.
If that’s not an optimist, I guess I don’t know what one is.
Today it snowed and the roads ice, starting early this morning, right around the time Russia invaded Ukraine. I made it home safely from a church basement on shitty roads anyway. Today I drink herbal tea from my favorite tea set and enjoy time with my mother. Tomorrow will be Friday, and that night, horse trailers will try not to fishtail in the parking lot of the local fairgrounds. Cowboys will ride in the final events off the rodeo that started last weekend. I will sell charity raffle tickets there wearing boots and one of my father’s Stetsons. On Sunday, Real Town’s not inconsiderable Ukrainian population will gather in a motley collection of churches whose signs are defiantly in Cyrillic and pray together.
Last night, a dear friend told me how she felt about my writing.
It’s raw, and it’s beautiful. It’s like you take something rusted, you go in and restore the world to what it should be, she said.
And it made me cry and wonder.
What should the world be like?
I think about my father’s certainty that there is a good, and people do it, once they truly know what it is. He certainly grew and changed as he aged—more than acquiring character in his lined face and a seriousness in his eyes. He grew in wisdom and humility and was willing to be wrong, to grow closer to what was right.
I think about my mother’s love of things as they are. It mirrors her willingness to accept people with their cracks and frays and fading, complete in their flaws. Her acceptance is driven by the knowledge that people are doing the best they can with what they have, and everyone’s perceptions are shaped by all we have seen and experienced and known.
It was dizzyingly warm before the snow rolled in. Climate change making February feel like mid-May. The sun set red and purple. It was stunning and fierce. It was stark and beautiful, and the sort of grace note that ought to accompany a storm. A warning. A gift. I stood on my patio and breathed air that I knew was lifting moisture into the sky that would turn to the ice and snow I feared.
Maybe I see that there is no restoring the world to what it was. There is no returning silver to its former glory—not really. Tarnish has already changed what’s there, and taking the tarnish away removes some of the silver, too. But even things permanently changed can be beautiful. Even when things are changing, things can be beautiful. I believe that—God help me, I believe that.
And in seeking the beauty when things are hardest, we can better the world.