Jun 2 2011

Top-Seeded

It was the sound of birds, chirping and singing – not just cooing pigeons – that woke us. The bright sun streamed in through the square skylight, hinting at the beautiful day ahead. No school. No clients. No phone. No rush. I do love waking up at the country house.

Buddy-roo, who’d opted last night for a sleeping bag at the foot of our bed rather than sharing a bed in the other room with Short-pants, slithered out of her nylon nest and climbed in between De-facto and me. She was still half-asleep, and the three of us hovered in that barely-awake state.

“Do you know how amazing it is – what’s happening in the French Open?” asked De-facto. (Okay, I’d thought we were all mostly asleep.)

“No.”

“Do you know who’s in the semi-finals?”

“No,” I said, into my pillow.

“Not one name?”

“No.”

“Come on, you can’t name one well-known tennis player?

“André Agassi.”

“No, a current champion. Can you name one?”

I couldn’t. I am not an avid spectator of sporting events, tennis and golf least of all. Since I don’t care, I don’t track on the names. My brain is so far from sticky and there’s already too much data that I’m trying to hold on to with my maternally-challenged mind, I have to push out all non-essential pieces of information. I put tennis in this category.

“You’ve never even heard of Federer?” I detected more than a hint of disdain in De-facto’s voice.

“Yes, I’ve heard of him.” This was true. I’ve heard this name volleyed about in the company of real tennis fans or on the sporting news. De-facto gave me the synopsis of his career, how he holds the record for major titles and if he wins the Open that would give him the second grand slam of his career.

Since I couldn’t come up with any other modern tennis greats, he filled me in on the other three of the four top-seeded players who’ve made it to this year’s semi-finals: Nadal, who’s aiming to tie Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles, Djokovic, who broke the winning streak record shared by MacEnroe and Lendl, two tennis players I have heard of – and the underdog Murray, who just wants to win a French Open after three near-misses. I can see why Roland Garros is the place to be this weekend, though I’m very glad to be here at the country house instead.

“Am I supposed to be listening to you guys talk,” Buddy-roo protested, “or are we going to have a morning cuddle?”

It wasn’t her admonishment that quieted us, but that De-facto and I were trying not to laugh at her irritation. I didn’t mind, though, the end of my little tennis lesson.

This weekend is a long one, due to school and bank holidays. France is famous for its pont weekends, when an official day-off falls on a Thursday, so people take the Friday off to bridge it into a long weekend. These usually happen in May; the Ascension and Pentecost guarantee two long weekends, and if labor day falls propitiously, there can be three pont weekends in one month. This year, because Easter fell so late in the year and labor day was on a Sunday, May was holiday-free and all the long weekends have been pushed into June.

We decided to take advantage of the extra days off to see how the garden we planted last April has fared in this spring’s drought. It’s a 4-hour drive to the country house, not worth it for a regular weekend but by sneaking out of Paris on Wednesday afternoon (with every other Parisian, ergo the slog of traffic we endured) we get at least four sleeps in the country air.

Short-pants hobbled in to our bedroom, her long, lean bones still creaky with morning stiffness. She slipped under the covers beside me so that I was now sandwiched between my two daughters.

“Why is there no school today?” she broke the silence that had ensued after the abrupt end to the tennis talk.

“It’s the Ascension,” I said, “or the Assumption, or some religious holiday that starts with an A.”

“The Ascension,” Buddy-roo clarified. “Because it’s when Jesus went up, like in an ascenseur.” (That’s the French word for elevator.) She went on to tell the story of Jesus rising from the dead. “He looked around and he said, ‘My work here is done, people,’ and then he went up to see his father.”

“And Murray, he’s really funny,” said De-facto. “He says, ‘if I win a tennis match, then I’m English. But if I lose, then I’m Scottish.'”

“I’m talking about Jesus,” said Buddy-roo, irritated, “I don’t want to talk about tennis.”

“What do you mean?” he said, “Jesus was a huge tennis fan!”

“Papa, they didn’t have tennis back then.”

“Are you kidding? Jesus loved tennis.” De-facto flattened his voice like a sportscaster: “Jesus goes into the corner, skidding on the clay, and he loses his sandal!”

“You’re right about one thing,” she said, “he did wear sandals. And a dress.”

“He had a wrathful backhand,” said De-facto.

“Stop!” Buddy-roo screamed. “Jesus didn’t play tennis. I’m the one who goes to Éveil Chrétien. None of you go. I’m the one who knows.” You can tell she’s still a little angry that her sister is excused from the class to go to her viola lesson.

“I used to go to Catholic religious classes, too,” I said, “and I even had to go on Saturday mornings!”

“I thought we were Jewish,” said Short-pants, “because of Grammy.”

“According to the Jewish religion you are,” said De-facto, “but your mom only celebrates when it’s convenient.”

“I grew up going to church every Sunday,” I said, “but it’s your Papa who went to a Jesuit high school, where he had priests for teachers! He knows something about Jesus.”

“How come there are so many religions?” Short-pants asked.

I explained how, over time, different people came up with different ways to believe in God, and how some people even believed that there was more than one God, and how maybe all the Gods were the same God, just with a different name – nobody knew for sure, and how unfortunately a lot of wars were fought because people thought their God should be the only one. It’s like fighting over who’s the best tennis player. They’re all good. You could just take all the top-seeded Gods and send them to Roland Garros each year to see who wins the title. It’ll always be an exciting match.

“That’s ridonculous,” Short-pants said.

“What? Fighting a war over God, or getting the Gods to play tennis?”

“Both.”

“I’m telling you,” Buddy-roo said, “Jesus did not play tennis.

Oh, but if he did.


Apr 4 2010

God Won’t Mind

“But why do I have to go to the Jesus class?” Buddy-roo whined.

Religious instruction is an optional class at their school and Short-pants is excused from it because we opted to schedule her viola lesson at that time, to avoid an evening commitment at the conservatory. The reason Buddy-roo attends the class: convenience. It’s part of our strategy to limit the number the days when they get out of school at different times (it already happens twice a week) in order to make end-of-the-day school pick-up less complicated. Besides, a little religious instruction won’t hurt Buddy-roo. She’s the rebellious type; this will give her something to reject later in life. As De-facto says, we might as well put up a couple of false walls, ahead of ourselves.

“Well anyway,” she said, “I know that there are two Jesuses. The one that died on the cross, and the one you talk about when you’re mad.”

Oh, yes, that Jesus.

I guess you could say we’re not particularly religious. I was more spiritual before I had children, when I had the time to meditate and read provocative books by the Dalai Lama, Carlos Castaneda and Eckhart Tolle. Children may be closer to the spirit – miracles that they are – but I’ve found that having them gives me much less time for such sacred contemplation.

Short-pants practices her own religion of angels, healing energy and metro tickets, much of it the result of her hospital experience and fueled by our belief that the intentions and prayers of all the people who were rooting for her recovery created an energy that was directed at her and absolutely made a difference. Buddy-roo prays at the altar of our DVD player, finding meaning in the plots of every movie she watches. Her favorite film of the week, appropriately, is The Ten Commandments.

I am the product of a mixed marriage: a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I know the Jewish faith claims me because of maternal lineage, but there was no temple in my rural hometown and only a handful of Jews. What I knew about the Jewish faith was Chanukah and Passover. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were remotely in my awareness only because they were printed on a calendar my mother used to mark her appointments.

So my brother and sister and I were baptized and fulfilled the sacraments of the Catholic Church, not because my father was so devout, but because those rituals teach lessons about life, about coming of age, taking responsibility, being a kind and responsible Christian (as opposed to a gun-brandishing, tea-bagging Christianist). And as my father used to say, “Church is a good place to think. The phone doesn’t ring. Nobody interrupts you.”

One thing my father and De-facto’s had in common – and they never knew each other – was a penchant for ditching church early, after communion. After receiving the host, we’d walk with hands folded and heads bowed to the transept and out the side door. In the winter, we’d be the family clumping down the aisle in our laced-up ski boots, making our early exit to drive right to the small mountain 45-minutes away for a few Sunday runs.

When my mother was dying, she consulted with a friend, a Jewish history professor, about what she might suggest to us to bring a few Jewish customs into her memorial service. He wondered about having a minyan to pray for her, but worried that it might be hard to collect ten adult Jews from our community. In the end, he advised her that the minyan could be constructed of people from any faith, because, “God won’t mind.”

This is the kind of religious tolerance I grew up with, and that I hope to pass on to my children. Our girls get a goulash of religion: They go to a Catholic school (it helps that it has a strong English section). We live in the pletzl, in
heart of the Jewish quarter and we have Muslim neighbors. We trim a Christmas tree and we light the menorah. We color Easter eggs and eat matzah. We did our own truncated version of the Haggadah at our Passover Seder. We’re doing an Easter feast (and Ricky’s roasting the lamb). And why not? It’s all very Cambellian in our home.

Earlier this week I was at the local butcher shop buying a bone for our Seder plate. I was waiting patiently for my turn – not an easy task when it felt like the butcher was taking his time, entirely unconcerned that the line of customers in his narrow little shop was spilling out into the street. I reminded myself to just keep smiling. Demonstrating exasperation in this situation only invites condescension. Not that being patient ensures you will be treated kindly. But it puts the odds slightly in your favor.

When I was next to be served, I took a deep breath. I’d rehearsed my appeal, having been rejected at two other butcher shops the day before.

“Pardon me, sir, I hope you can help me. Do you, by any chance, have a zeroah?”

He stared at me like I was from the Vatican.

Mais, non,” he scolded, “C’est vachement trop tard.”

Yes, I’ve been told it’s too late. But I’ve been a very busy half-goyim, and this weekend is the only time my Jewish friend, who’s also very busy, and I could organize ourselves to do our Pesach. And anyway, isn’t it enough that I’m trying to carry on the ritual and pass it down to my children? Isn’t that the idea anyway, tell your sons and all? Does it matter if it’s early or late?

“Jesus H. Christ on a Crutch.” I said. (Not out loud though.)

He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to leave, boneless.

“I realize this is very unusual,” I said, not really meaning it. I thought you could celebrate a Seder anytime you wanted during Passover. “But due to personal circumstances, this is how it must be in our home this year. Wouldn’t you please suggest to me another kind of bone I might use? I’d like my children to experience the Seder.”

He shrugged that brilliant gesture of indifference that is part of the French genetic code and suggested a small lamp chop. I nodded.

“It’s okay,” I said to him, as he was wrapping it up in butcher paper. “God won’t mind.”