Living an Old-Fashioned Poem

GRANDMOTHER walked ahead of us into the library and fluffed up pillows. We had finished supper, Grandpa complaining of bouillon and toast, when once he had feasted at diplomatic receptions around the world. ``Now dear,'' Granny said in her amiable low growl - for she could only do endearing things - when Grandpa ordered the custard and blueberries that I, as their guest, was getting for dessert. ``Now Kitty...,'' he would say, holding up his ex-tennis championship hand, his shock of hair whiter than tennis balls on a fast serve. This was their house in Maine, and this was the way they acted together. In the library where we sat down, I as a visiting schoolboy had settled into my resignation that the only drama I would get this evening - a precious night out of boarding school - was the soft, golden lamplight on the table, my grandfather settling back with a cherished book on Napoleon, and my Granny offering me a mint. I was supposed to read along with them, National Geographic or something. Then they'd go upstairs, remind me benevolently about coffee ice cream in the kitchen, but to be quiet and not wake the cook who rose early and slept next to the pantry. Their life was like layers of veneer on a polished antique.

But that night my grandfather surprised me. He slammed shut his volume of Napoleon and said gruffly, ``If I don't know enough now, I never will!'' Then he looked at me, his namesake, and asked, ``Hallett. Are you interested in young women yet?''

``Now Hallett...,'' said my grandmother, getting into a new amiable growl.

``Now Kitty...,'' said Grandpa. ``It's a perfectly reasonable question.''

I looked at them both, wondering about the diplomatic answer, knowing my grandfather had strong approvals and disapprovals hundreds of years beyond my likes at boarding school.

``Yes,'' I said, taking a leap of faith.

``Good,'' said Grandpa. ``Look at your grandmother. Marry someone like her. Someone who will still be beautiful....''

``Now Hallett!''

``Now Kitty. I have a point here.''

I wondered what Grandpa's point would be. My grandmother was lovely and enchanting, but there was no way I was going to find anyone who would run into rooms ahead of me, with servants in the house, fluffing up pillows. It was a different world. I'd be lucky just to have a couch and pillows, let alone a ``pillow fluffer.'' My grandfather was a quaint tyrant; no modern woman could be edified by that.

``You see I married her,'' said Grandpa waving his big hand, ``because she runs everything. The kitchen, the cook, the maid, the house - she even tells me now what to eat and not eat. And she doesn't make a fuss, she doesn't have to talk about it.''

I looked at my grandmother and she looked embarrassed, smiling and scrunching up her eyes, saying something calming to herself under her breath.

My grandpa reached on the table for a book, one I had not seen there before, between Time and Newsweek. It was a little green leather-bound book, with its title in gold leaf.

``Now really - you know that will upset you,'' said Granny now, compassionate, no growls.

I WOULD know afterward the book was important to both of them; perhaps read by my grandfather to his love on young April nights smelling of lilacs or on snowy nights in their dressing gowns after a social dinner in Stockholm; it was a book important to them, when my grandfather didn't have to be a stiff shirt or play the smiling bully on the tennis court. This was where Grandpa was soft. The book was a long poem called ``Marpessa,'' by a poet I'd never heard of, or ever did again.

My grandfather read. It interested me because it was fairly dramatic. (Better than coffee ice cream alone.) A god offers Marpessa eternal youth and life on Mount Olympus, but the beautiful young woman rejects easy life for an earthly love, a simple farmer. The poem is Marpessa telling why she makes this decision - to share with a man sunrises and sunsets, raising children, sorrow and laughter, fellowship in the fields, struggles, hopes, dreams - then ``... alas, one of us must in the end go first ... though it would be my desire to leave this life together ... one of us, one, to be left behind....''

``Now Grandpa,'' said Granny, as my grandfather stopped to wipe his reading glasses.

He got up and walked out of the room. He came back in. He took a fountain pen out of his jacket and wrote, ``To my grandson - from Hallett the First! December 1964.''

I am not much one for heirlooms. For me, the objects take up too much psychic space, or force one to long for a life that was not one's own. My personal choice. But I've kept ``Marpessa.'' It was long after that I realized what he was passing along to me. It was the personal vision he had shared with my grandmother, that amidst the opulence of embassies and foreign dignitaries and tennis court life, this vision had leveled out their lives as friends and loves - he had really wanted to spend his life with her, not just his good fortune to be an ambassador.

I think of my grandmother's sacrifices for a man with his will. But perhaps her comfort was, that he saw her even that night as a beauty who could have been invited to live with the gods. And admitted that she ran things in his life.

Those who had not been to that house by the sea in Maine, where they often walked on the shells together, dressed in tweeds to the collars and accompanied by a feisty Irish bulldog, could not know that this old man, beginning to bend with age, and this kind-faced woman who said the right things, had made a passionate and happy life out of an old-fashioned poem.

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