Saturday, May 10, 2014

Any Questions?

You come from a culture of questions.

As a person of extreme youth, with little in the way of experience to draw upon, you were surrounded by questions whose answers defined your status.  To an extent, these were self-defining rather than selfish questions.  You acknowledge certain questions where the answers were meant to assure you that previous gratifications were once again forthcoming.  May we have chocolate ice cream again?

Other questions ratified your growing sense of kinship plateaus, as in wondering if a person introduced to you as Aunt Vivian could possibly be your Aunt Vivian.  Were you guessing, or were there some hints that she, Aunt Vivian, your father's brother's wife, could be related to Aunt Augusta, your mother's eldest sister.  Both your parents, your mother in particular, seemed to use similar adjectives in describing both.  

Your mother's mother had a word that could be either Yiddish or German, often used by her in connection with Aunt Augusta.  Your mother told you she was sorry you'd heard the word used in connection with Aunt Augusta.  This gave you license to ask your mother if she was sorry you'd heard her use the words "cold fish" in connection with Aunt Vivian.  To your mother's credit, she said yes, she was sorry, because her relationship with her sister ought not to influence your relationship with her sister.

To your credit, or lack thereof, you said, "Why?"  Questions are, after all, the thrust of this reflection.

"Because,"  your mother said, "as people grow older, they form their own opinions."

You asked when you should start forming your own opinions, and your mother assured you you already had.

You asked if your opinions about Aunt Augusta would differ from her and your father's of her.

Your mother hoped you would try to keep an open mind.  Of course, you asked why.  "You can never tell where your friends will come from.  She could very well turn out to be a friend."

Some twenty years later, Aunt Augusta did, indeed, cause things to happen that resulted directly in your being considered for a spectacular experience as a writer for television, to which your mother said, "See."

But perhaps forty years later, Aunt Augusta accused you of having taken a number of Eskimo Pie ice cream sandwiches from her refrigerator, to which your mother also said, "You can't say I didn't warn you."

The big question of your culture is Why?  Because yours is a questioning culture, asking a litany of questions from which some sense of direction and purpose may be taken.

Perhaps this question has its origins in the big question you, as the youngest, were supposed to ask at the Passover Seder:  Ma nishtanah ha-laylah ha-ze mi kol ha-leylot?  Why is this night [Passover] different from any other night?  There were four answers, describing the things "we" did differently.  For instance, All other nights, we eat bread or matzoh.  On this night, we eat only matzoh.  For instance, All other nights we eat all manner of vegetables and herbs, but on this night, we eat only the bitter herb.  For instance, All other nights, we do not dip our vegetables in salt water, but on this night, we dip them twice.  And this remarkable instance, All other nights, we eat sitting upright, but on this night, we eat reclining.

"Then why do the pictures of The Last Supper show everyone sitting?"

"Interesting you should ask,"  you father said.  "I often wonder about that."

"And why,"  you ask, "is David not circumcised in that statue everyone goes to Italy to see?"

"Interesting you should ask,"  your father said.

"Jack,"  your mother said, "don't get him started."

But you were started, asking those two dear ones hundreds of questions, which they could not possibly answer because, well, because they were questions you had to answer for yourself.
You knew your father's favorite question, which you still play out in your mind for an immediate quick-fix reminder of him.  "Hey, Annie, when do we eat?"

By most accounts, he was a patient man, sturdy in his acceptance of some of the discomforts born upon him during his final years.  But any overdone ritual was for him the equivalent of wasted adjectives on the ritual of communal dining, family and friends, passing the serving dishes, him looking to see each of his guests was aware of all the possibilities within the cornucopia that was meal time.  If he had a mantra, it was, "When do we eat?"

Now, in these days, it is your habit to set forth a class with some brief lecture, some expression of the day's subject, and its relationships to the craft of reading, writing, thinking, and feeling.

"Any questions?"  you will say, and you will hope there are a few to get the conversation going, the opinions stepping forth, defenses and shyness disappearing like shed clothing as the subject begins to tumble from the cornucopia that is the classroom of experience.

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