senses

the taste of memory

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We celebrated both boys’ baptism anniversaries a few weeks back. (Now you know why I’ve had baptism on the brain so much lately.) Their days are only a fortnight apart, so in the blur of busy schedules we set aside a single night to celebrate and remember.

As I was setting the table for their special dinner, my son snatched his baptism candle out of its holder and playfully held it in front of his mouth as if to bite. Coyly offering one of his beloved kidisms, he teased: “Does it taste?”

He offers this phrase about anything he knows he’s not supposed to eat, as he watches his younger brother jam everything into his mouth. No, we shake our heads – books and crayons and blocks and chalk do not taste. Food is the only thing that tastes.

But as I smiled and chided him with the response he craved, I caught the half-truth in my words. Dinner and dessert were not the only things that night that would taste. The anniversaries we celebrated tasted, too. The chew of communion bread before the baptism, the crumble of cake at the party after. Even the earthy chrism oil that lingered on my lips when I kissed my baby’s forehead, slick from the sacred smear. All of it tastes.

. . .

I thought about taste as we passed the pasta that night, snuck extra helpings of dessert and savored memories of special days. Anniversaries do indeed taste, some bitter, some sweet.

There are wedding days we remember, the festive dates we celebrate with happy memory of cake and champagne and crying at “I do.” There are death dates, the dreaded days when we don’t know what to do with ourselves but call up someone else who loved them, too, and simply sit with each other in the sad strangeness.

All sorts of anniversaries mark our calendars: jobs started, homes bought, trips made, degrees earned. And all of them taste. We notice the date, circle it on the calendar, and all at once we’re flooded with thick memories of the sight, sound, smell, touch, taste of what the day held.

But exactly what is the taste of anniversary? Is it the cake and candles, the silver and china, the special sacred of set-apart? Or is it the deeper memory of the most-important moments that mark our lives – the births and deaths and gains and losses whose tastes are imprinted so firmly in our minds we almost salivate as we remember.

I think of the dinner I gobbled down after bringing my first baby home from the hospital, how delicious the simple saute tasted when my mom heaped it over steaming pasta: it tasted like love.

I remember the cellophane-wrapped cinnamon rolls that my younger brothers and I unwrapped together in the kitchen the day after our brother’s funeral: it tasted like grief.

I return to the last Thanksgiving my family held in my grandparents’ home after both had died, the stories and laughter and tears we passed with dishes and wine round the table: it tasted like clan.

Maybe it’s a reverse Proust: memory that jogs taste, and not the other way around. But all of the anniversaries that remain retain their own particular flavor.

. . .

My cheeky boy who asks each day what tastes is now nearing the age when my first fuzzy memories emerged, the shadowy snippets that a young mind seizes: a play of light upon the nursery floor, a scoop into beloved arms. I wonder what his earliest memory will be, how it will taste as he savors it over and over.

It will be only one of a lifetime full of anniversaries and every-days that linger in his mind’s eye. But that first taste will teach him how to remember: with senses wide open.

the sound of sacrament

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I do.

For over a year, our oldest son switched “I” and “you” whenever he spoke. So he sounded like an overly compassionate child, always concerned with what “you” wanted and what “you” needed, constantly volunteering that “I” should help the crying baby and “I” should clean up the mess. His malaprop-kid-ism was cute at the beginning. But after months and months of ignoring our corrections, his habit got grating for those closest to him who were constantly being asked whether they wanted a diaper change.

With help from his teacher and sitter, we recently redoubled our efforts to help him learn. And over the last month, he’s started to switch, slowly. Now we hear a hybrid of “I” and “you,” but trending towards full claiming of self-hood when he speaks. Today when we pose a question, he responds carefully and proudly – “I do!” – the words still new, fresh and powerful in his mouth.

. . .

Last week we were talking after Mass about baptism, about the babies who had been dunked in water and blessed with oil and dressed in white. My boy pondered this thoughtfully, remembering what he had seen when he gathered around the fount with the other children. Then he posed me a question:

“Do you say ‘I do’ at church?”

I paused, surprised. I’d forgotten to talk about the “I-dos,” the vows we all renewed before the babies were baptized. But he remembered.

I started to correct his I/you confusion for the zillionth time, but then I stopped. In fact, we had both said “I do” at the morning’s baptism. And I have spoken these words at church many more times than he has. When the priest asked my husband and me if we were ready to give ourselves to each other in marriage. When our pastor asked if we knew what we were doing when we brought each of our boys to be baptized. We speak these words often at church, whenever we renew baptismal vows or attend a wedding: I do. I do.

. . .

Lately I listen to my son sing-song his new words around the house, talking himself while he plays or responding when I ask him questions. He is learning to claim and assert himself, to stand as a separate and independent entity, one who understands who he is and what he wants. And by recognizing who he is, he better understands who others are as well. The lines become less blurry each time he states clearly, “I do.”

Baptism sounds like this to my ears: I do, I do, I do. It is the sacrament of self-hood, the claiming and christ-ing of each child of God, the initiation into a family and a life of faith. This morning when I watched two more babies plunged into waters of new life, one silent and wondering, one shrieking and wailing, I thought about the sounds of baptism.

Sometimes baptism sounds like a splash, a squeal, a seal. The pour of water, rub of oil, spark of candle. But over time baptism sounds like the long learning of “I do,” growing into identity and understanding, claiming for ourselves what the church and God believe we can become.

It’s a big step, learning to say “I do.” I’m still trying to figure out how to do it every day. But I’m proud of my boy for his awakening, and grateful for journeying on his gradual realization of what it means to be “I” and what it means to “do.”

It takes all of us a long time – maybe a lifetime – to get there.

the sight of grandparents

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My in-laws came over for dinner last week. An ordinary meal, nothing special. But when my son swung wide the door to greet them, their eyes lit up bright against the darkness.

His grandma scooped him up, right there on the doorstep, and squeezed him tight; his grandpa grinned and ruffled his hair, waiting his turn for a hug and kiss. For a moment I felt a twinge of envy – what a gift to be greeted with such delight.

Later that night I chatted with my parents on the phone, played to the cheap seats and tossed them a few cute-kid stories: the news from preschool, the baby’s latest milestone. In the telling of one tale, I mentioned offhandedly how my son’s teacher said he seemed shy at school, keeping to himself rather than talking with other kids. No surprise to his parents who know him to be a cautious soul. But my mother interrupted my story, gentle indignation coming through the phone line: No – he’s just fine! What could those other kids really have to say to him anyway?

I burst out laughing. Of course. A grandparent’s eyes see only perfection.

. . .

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s latest, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son. She writes about her astonishment at discovering what it means to be a grandmother:

Kids are hard – they drive you crazy and break your heart – whereas grandchildren make you feel great about life, and yourself, and your ability to love someone unconditionally, finally, after all these years. A friend of mine said, “When I return, I am only having grandchildren, not children.” A grandchild is like a fine jewel set in an old ring.

The beauty of his head – how it rests in the crook of my elbow – almost makes me want to flog myself, out of a desperate, unbearable love. All grandparents I’ve mentioned this to have felt this. He’s a Fibonacci spiral, like a nautilus shell – one of those patterns in mathematical expression with a twisting eternal perfection.

. . .

Grandparents can look into a child’s face and see nothing but promise. All the possibility they hold. All the perfection they might become. They don’t see dirty fingernails that need trimming, messy hair that needs washing, torn jeans that need patching, sticky floor that needs scrubbing. Grandparent eyes skip the surface and gaze straight to the heart.

And grandparent-seeing goes beyond biological preference. I’ve caught the same sight in the eyes of older folks at church, the library, the grocery store. Maybe it’s simply the wisdom of age, the perspective we lack before adulthood matures. Or maybe when generations have enough space between them, skipping over the middle where the worry and the busy get stuck, they can connect more freely, immediately, instinctively.

Last Sunday a kindly couple watched as my youngest threw a tantrum in the gathering space. While he hollered and kicked his legs on the carpet, glaring up at the ceiling, they smiled down at him beatifically behind their spectacles. Surprised, he met their gaze from the floor, then flipped over and raised his head to stare wide-eyed. He suddenly smiled, a broad goofy grin. All forgiven, without even a word exchanged. The couple laughed softly to each other, walked away satisfied. My boy turned to watch them go, finally at peace.

I think God must see us the same way: always looking above the dirt and the distraction and the disappointment, gazing into the good, seeing the soul that matters. Like a grandfather, unable to resist ruffling our hair; like a grandmother, stubbornly in our corner.

God the Grandparent who sees straight to the heart.

the smell of God

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I am addicted to the back of my son’s neck.

I first noticed it several months ago, long after he’d lost the newborn scent. I must have been rubbing his hair dry after bath, or tickling till he squealed with glee, or wrestling around on the floor as he tried to crawl away. I buried my nose in the back of his head to give him a kiss and breathed in deeply, and I was astonished.

It didn’t smell like shampoo or lotion, like sweat or tears, like food or playdough or paint (or anything worse) that I often find smeared in his hair. Nothing of the normal eau-de-bébé. It simply smelled pure. Fresh. Warm. Holy even.

Right in the curve between the muscles at the nape of his neck, such a small soft space, was buried this primal scent of possibility.

All I can think is it smells like God.

I know it sounds clichéd, comparing baby’s sweetness to perfection of the divine. Too easy a metaphor, too saccharine a simile. Yet every time now I swoop in to nuzzle his neck, trying to find the familiar mysterious scent, hoping to inhale before he chuckles and pushes away, it smells exactly the same. It smells like God.

But I’m only sure of this because I know God doesn’t always smell so sweet.

I remember ripping urine-soaked sheets off Philippe’s bed every morning at L’Arche. God smelled like that, too.

I remember scrubbing burnt food off the bottom of giant steel pots at the soup kitchen. God smelled like that, too.

I remember coughing outside with the women from the shelter as they escaped for a cigarette and conversation. God smelled like that, too.

Whenever I catch a whiff, it’s a surprise, pure recognition in the moment, something primal that hits my senses all at once, a memory too far back to trace, but something I know. The smell of God. Sometimes grimy hands and sweaty limbs and dirty floors and filthy laundry. And sometimes soft hair whisper, baby-neck sweet.

I’m a full-blown addict now, craving my next hit, scheming and plotting to distract the baby so he’ll turn and I can sneak another sniff. I don’t know how much longer he’ll hold on to the scent; how quickly we lose the purity, dirty it up with everyday muck or overclean till it reeks too sweet.

It won’t last forever; this much I know. And I don’t know how long I’ll have to go before I smell God again.

For now I breathe it in everyday, when he’ll let me. A deep breath or a secret sniff and I remember all over how earthly an incarnate God can become. And I wonder what small spaces within my own body – hands, feet, limbs, neck – might still hold some trace of the original.

The mark of the maker.