Editor’s Note: Benedictio
At sixteen I found myself stumbling backward through a half-open door, my feet clumsy with embarrassment. I had discovered my grandparents kissing. She, sitting on the edge of the pink leather sofa, and he, kneeling on the floor and leaning in with an arthritic back and a half-century’s weight. Kissing. A couch-kiss. They didn’t even notice me. Quietly shutting the door, I walked along the gravel driveway towards the car and thought about kissing the air, creating my fidelity with a four-billion-year-old atmosphere, air that had seen many marriages, inexplicable and unaccountable numbers.
And ten years later I think about that moment, not because of my awkwardness but because of my shock. It was shock that pushed me back out of the door, shock that a fifty-year-old marriage could still produce those kinds of benedictions. In a letter to me a few years ago, my grandmother wrote about their love and said: “He cupped his hands around me.”
My grandmother—who died two years ago, two years after her husband’s death—she and I, our souls were made of the same stuff. In another letter just before her death, she wrote: “In many ways, Brianna, we come from the same planet.” Now that time has handled the rawest kind of grief, I find myself grasping for a way to continue this connection, to form words about her goodness, her rich stories.
A few days after she was gone, we were cleaning out her kitchen drawer and found a journal she had started: a few lines from a Wendell Berry story that she had copied down, a poem by Denise Levertov, and two or three pages to her husband. That’s it, and it broke my heart. How can those scant words of a fifty-year marriage count when husband and wife are dead? My father read those posthumous notes aloud, delivering her eulogy, her words to the Methodist church in Cortez, Colorado, scattering their fidelity upon the ears of those listening. I count the years between 1951-2002.
Oh, fifty-one, I say.
I suppose I am searching for benedictions because the unknown and known arithmetic become so heavy. Like turning twenty-six last month, twisting into my place marker—a quarter of a century plus one, these fractions that flounder to make sense. And more numbers: birthing my eight-pound son—the weight of a heavy bag of groceries, my milk, spinach and sourdough. He is now thirty pounds and I still have phantom pregnancy feelings, a kick here, a flip there.
Or as Wendell Berry writes in my grandmother’s journal: “It was as though Burley stood in full view near by—as though Danny could see him, but only on the condition that he not look.” I know this is how she felt about her dead husband; there are so many phantoms, so many “as thoughs.” But what if we look? What if we claim the “near by,” or that one week when she got to hold and smile and wonder over her first grandson, my first son.
There is another number: Jonathan and I will be married for four years this week. I think about what a little number this is, barely here, now, barely married. For how can four ever become fifty, and where along this timeline does it become blessed? I want to know.
This is a dream I return to: to receive a couch-kiss. Oh, how I will stoop to my young tired knees and join the ground, face tilted upward, and lean in with lips pursed, or as my son kisses, mouth loose and open, slobbery and kind, both benedicted and benedictor. My grandmother writes, “To be generous has to involve giving—our love and all things good that we can share.” I know she is speaking about the need to give generosity, but I want to receive it.
So many words have gifts waiting to be received. I suppose I can choose mine. These are my italics. This is my chosen word: now. And this is my other word: slobbery.
How many words are in a blessing, I ask, as I say pink, and then, where?
Benediction recurs, like numbers recur—years, pounds, and seconds. I received an email from a past professor, who tells me there were copies of People magazine in the small Karen village we visited a few years ago. I picture the village, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, with its old copies of People sitting atop a wooden table. My professor, a Minnesota-man-turned-local, shuffles through the pages with horror and disgust. Not here. Not those people here. Maybe we all pray for Himalayas high enough to bear new pages.
In another letter, Grandma copies down a few lines from Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, telling me how much she loved the image of “the creek run[ning] on all night, new every minute…as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper its own inexhaustible tale.” I wonder if she was thinking about her own inexhaustibility, pointing out my heritage and the pages and pages that have already been written.
Two years ago—half-brave and half-naïve—I started this literary magazine and named it Ruminate. We dedicated the first issue to my grandmother and created an annual poetry prize in her name—because she was the magazine’s muse, its inspiration. Although they don’t reach the Himalayas, these are my new pages, small pages, created out of my inheritance, out of the basement of my house and fits of sleepless nights. They are pages with words from the pheasant farmer in Montana and the mother in Florida who dreams about living in tree houses. And as I said before, “benediction” was the theme for last summer’s issue, and it seems that the magazine itself has become a continuous search expedition for good words.
But what about the things you search to remember? I say.
Perhaps remembrance is more about absorbing the old pages in order to create anew, rather than simply creating ex nihlio. We are not God. Is this a life-long kind of chant? Old absorbed into new. Old absorbed into new. Old absorbed into new. There are so many things that can be held, cupped.
I have decided. I will eat the floundering fractions, their fidelity—fifty holding four. 4/50. I open my mouth, chewing, ruminating.
My story circles around the line breaks / kneeling / counting all eighteen vertebrae / creating the benediction / healing / shivering. And now, as if the circling has finally found its center, and because I have been reading the histories of Levertov and Dillard and Berry, I find myself uttering new words, like inexhaustible, and near by. And because I am eating my own dead inheritance, I whisper pink and planets. I wonder if this is what it means to couch-kiss the atmosphere. Our husbands. Our sons. Our souls.
--From Ruminate (Summer 2008; http://www.ruminatemagazine.org