Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Midst of Life...

 Ruby Dixon Fleming with grand-parental bloguiste

The past week has been a crowded one, its high point being of course the birth of Ruby Dixon Fleming at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn about 7:30 in the evening of Saturday, November 24.  An event of such magnitude as to cause a palpable tremor in the earth’s crust demanded at the very least the brief “Extra” of Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche that I posted on Sunday.  One of the poems I memorized as a child is Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”, now sadly neglected with the rest of the work of that fine poet.  Its most famous lines are probably these:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

Looking at little Ruby’s identification certificate it suddenly occurred to me that this great woman was not about to wait for her departure to leave her footprints.  It was practically the first thing she did.

            Ruby’s birth was the apex of this family’s week, but there were other exhilarating heights, one of which was the preparation, by yours truly, of the perfect Thanksgiving turkey.  Let no reader be offended that I thus mingle matters of greater and lesser import; the bird weighed exactly twice as much as the baby.  If you are lucky enough to live in a family that includes some kosher-keepers, some vegans, and some Anglo-Saxon carnivores, the preparation of large holiday meals presents a special challenge in the creation of a multiple choice menu.  It might have been easier to bag a wild turkey in Washington’s Crossing Park than to track down the penultimate Tofurky in central Jersey, which I eventually succeeded in doing at the Shop Rite in Montgomery Township.
 Tofurky: the vegan's sweetbreads: "It isn't sweet, and it isn't bread, and I'll be damned if I'll eat it," she said.

         A good deal of what I know derives from the erudite group of early-morning athletes with whom I share a rank of lockers in Dillon Gym.  Among them is this really nice, smart guy named Steve who happened to be talking, a few days before Thanksgiving, about the virtues of brining the holiday bird.  I had never even heard of it, but I leapt into the epistemological void and did it—in a big old ceramic pickling vat that for the last five decades has done nothing more noble than cool beer and soft drinks.  To about a gallon of heavy brine I added two or three quarts of apple juice, covered the whole thing with a couple of bags of ice, and left it in the outdoor cool for about thirty hours.  The result was the first really moist, succulent turkey in family memory.

            The two miracles, the seven-pound one and the fourteen-pound one, were not unrelated.  Katie Dixon, the unflappable mother of Ruby Dixon Fleming, partook heartily of the Thanksgiving turkey.  She then went for a lengthy and fairly strenuous walk, which involved dodging or clambering over numerous arboreal victims of the recent hurricane, along the side of the canal.  Next day, after a good night’s sleep, she drove back to Red Hook, whence on the next day, Saturday, she drove over to the hospital in Park Slope in the morning and gave birth to a miracle-child in the evening.  As for the theme of giving thanks, it is perhaps too obvious to mention.

            Literary theory is not a recent invention.  It is only incomprehensible literary theory that is new.  What many of the ancient Latin rhetoricians like Quintillian and Cicero taught was common sense only partially disguised by its geeky, Greeky polysyllables.   They taught, for example, that two particularly important parts of a composition were the beginning and the end, initiation and termination.  What is true of poetry may also be true of human life itself.  Certainly it was for me this past week.

            In an earlier post I mentioned having gone to Wales to visit a very old and dear friend from my college days in Oxford.  His name was Owen Roberts.  Though overtaken while still in late youth by multiple sclerosis, he became one of the premier Welsh-language journalists of his generation.  His career in television was marked by a notable variety and an unvarying success.   No man’s life is adequately summarized by a professional curriculum vitæ; but for Owen the suggestion would be laughable.  He was one of the sweetest men I ever knew, and one of Nature’s aristocrats.  I use the past tense verbs because to our great sadness Owen Roberts died a very short time after our visit with him.
 Owen Roberts and his wife, Ann Clwyd, M.P. with old friend, September 2012

            Among the most striking sentences of the striking Anglican burial service is this one: “In the midst of life we are in death.”  There can be no human heart that is deaf to the import of that sentence, but it takes on an augmented poignancy when you reach the age at which your contemporaries begin to vanish.  Virgil summarizes the whole tragic sense of ending with three haunting words: Sunt lacrimæ rerum—there are indeed tears in things.  But this is where the miracle-child Ruby Dixon Fleming comes in.  “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come,” writes Saint John the Evangelist, “but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”  In the midst of life, we are also in life.


  1. I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend, but happy for you that you got in one last visit.

    I like to think about the opposing view -- "In the midst of death, we are in life". I lost my beloved father on June 12 of this year, and then on July 4 my grand-niece, who would have been his first great grandchild, was born. But it's true, the death of a significant loved one does color life and remind us of the temporary nature of this world.

  2. Would it be wrong of me to find my excitement at being described as the Christmas chef who cooked "the perfect turkey" in a recent post were to be slightly diminished by your claim to yourself have cooked "the perfect Thanksgiving turkey" in this one? Or may I assume that the perfection of a bird so described in December supersedes that of one written about in November?