Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Infantile Laughter

The Montréalers

In America the aging process has been minutely studied by the commercial sector.  It can be documented quite accurately through the larger rhythms of your junk mail.  And since practically nobody writes real letters anymore, except perhaps at Christmas, that means most of what shows up in the box.  The future is laid out before you in mimeographed flyers and glossy brochures.  At first this may seem rather curious to you.  At approximately forty you start getting regular communications from AARP—the American Association of Retired People.  They continue for the next twenty or thirty years, by which time you may actually be thinking about retirement.  You get a lot of stuff about insurance, naturally, supplementary medical plans, dental implants, hearing aids, and a bewildering number of ingenious gizmos and gadgets especially designed ease the burden of the increasingly arthritic housewife or gardener as we go around our daily chores. And since we live in an Age of Experiences—at least so far as the burgeoning travel industry is concerned—there are marvelous opportunities to search for whales off the coast of Alaska, or join in the Kangaroo Count in the Outback or to “discover” various islands that have been in a state of unceasing discovery since the fifteenth century.  And there are cruises galore.  We have just signed up for our first.

            We have the good fortune, by no means shared by all, of having pleasant experiences to pick and being able to afford to pick a few of them.  Not surprisingly growing old delivers plenty of experiences free of charge and on its own, and a certain number of them are frankly unpleasant.  That I’m having a few of those myself at the moment may be what has led me to this week’s essay, though what I am most conscious of is something very different: namely wonderful experiences unavailable to the young.  There are more of these than you might think, but at the top of the list is an indisputable one, the experience of having grandchildren.  On that score we have pretty well hit the jackpot.  We have six of them, by actual count.   And they are not merely numerous and delightful, but also proximate.  Four of them live in New York, less than sixty miles away.

            For purposes of specific identification we invoke geographical place names, as they did in the Middle Ages.  Thomas Aquinas got his name not from being the son of Mr. and Mrs. Giuseppe Aquinas but because he came from a place called Aquino.  Thus among our New York grandchildren we have the three Manhattanites (Sophia, Lulu, and Cora) and the Brooklynite (Ruby).   Rather farther afield we have the two Montréalers (John Henry and Hazel), though just at the moment they are not far afield at all, but actually under our roof.

            The Montréalers are still quite young—six and four—and they can make quite a lot of noise.  To be honest, the sonic production of young children, which can include wailing, squabbling, sudden shrieks of indignation, alarming coughs, the mysterious thuds of heavy things dropping—is not always welcome.  Such noises can lead to grandparental ire, parental admonition, or even a trip to the ER—all of which we have already had in a rather short period of time.  But it is all drowned out and forgotten in the blessed noise of spontaneous laughter of unseen children coming from some corner of the house.

            It was the sing-song voices of little children playing on the other side of his garden wall that led to the conversion of the young Augustine.  What a laugh that was!  Many years ago in England, when our two older kids were roughly the age of John Henry and Hazel, we visited one of Joan’s aged aunts and the aunt’s even more aged husband.  I have only vague memories of the visit, but one thing sticks in my mind.  The husband was infirm as well as antique.  I believe he had met his wife when he was already an invalid and she a care provider.  He was in a wheel chair.  He dressed in an old-fashioned, formal manner that reminded me of the rich guy on the Monopoly cards.  But he was greatly animated by our visit.  The children delighted him.  “Listen to that!” he commanded me, referring to the noise emanating from our offspring in another room.  “Listen to that infantile laughter!”  It was one of the few times in my life I have encountered the word infantile in its literal and affirmative sense.

            What I thought was white birds.  That is because I often am “triggered” to remember lines of poetry.  The poem that came to my mind was one that nobody else seems to have read: John Masefield’s “The Everlasting Mercy”.  To guarantee that you will never be tempted to repair that lacuna I can tell you that it is a kind of Edwardian Methodist update of “Piers Plowman”.

O Christ who holds the open gate

O Christ who drives the furrow straight,

O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter

Of holy white birds flying after…