Our friends come over and we cook together, reaching across each other and bumping at the counter. Sweet potatoes and parsnips for mashing. Brussel sprouts for roasting. I fry chorizo to garnish the kale soup. M. cooks down the mire poix for tomatoes gratinée. The kitchen is loud and warm. The boys run through the house, shouting and giggling. I feel more at ease than I have in some time.
At work, I hear news of an engagement. The giddy, breathless way the story is told – the surprise of it, the bending of the knee – makes me think: The best thing I can do now is to stay out of the way of other people’s happiness. I smile and laugh and clasp my hands together in delight, but I am too old and cynical, I think, to participate in these rituals. It is not that I am unhappy; it is only that I see immediately now, the complexities of things, the complications, and like the woman who was in labor for forty hours and can’t wait to tell you about it in real time, I find it hard not to want to shout out all potential pitfalls. To broadcast the unseen dangers, to say: Look what I have lived to tell.
Our friend tells us about knots. About his father’s fascination with them. About the way he acquired the skills he has, passed on as they were from one generation to the next. I think about the things we teach our children – the lessons we intend to: to make soup, to tie knots, to check the air pressure in a car tire – and the ones that we do not. The ways in which they bear silent witness to our ambitions. To our joys and disappointments. The lessons they take from us – that they absorb without knowing.
“I could have gone to college,” I remember my mother saying. “I was a very good student. I got good marks.”
“What happened?” I ask, although I suspect I already know.
“Girls like us didn’t go to college. We could be secretaries or nurses. Or maybe, teachers. Before graduation, my high school counselor handed out flyers for Woods Secretarial School. I took one. And that’s where I went.”
My mother took us to Portugal when we were small. I remember San Miguel – the island that seemed frozen in time past. How we were something of a curiosity, my sister and me – how unlike our mother we looked. How unlike anyone they knew.
In the mornings, we’d walk to the mineral baths. Each in our own high-ceilinged stone-walled room, the deep white tub filled nearly to the top. Sitting in it, the water came up to my chin. The quiet hour, lost in reverie. I remember pink coneflowers. Dahlias. On the walk back, we were lightheaded and hungry. We’d unwrap the sweet rolls we had packed in our bags and arrive back at the house with sticky faces and hands.
I remember magical, mythical Cete Cidades – twin lakes, one blue, one green. The story of a love that could not be. A princess, forbidden by her father, the King, to be with the shepherd boy she falls in love with. They meet one last time, and she tells him that she has been promised to a prince. The tears they cry, in each other’s arms, fill the lakes.
When I first hear this story, I cry, too – my childish heart incapable of understanding such cruelty. “But they can still love each other, in secret – in their hearts,” I say. “They can,” my mother says, “but love is a funny thing.”
After the boy is in bed, M. and I stay up to wrap presents. We gather the rolls of paper and tape, spread our boxes out across the dining room table. We are mostly quiet as we go about our task. “I bought too much,” I say, as I pull items out of bags that I had already forgotten. “I always buy too much.”
“It’s ok,” he says. “It’s your thing, you know – excess. Abundance.”
The gifts pile up on the side table. The wrapping paper is gold and sparkly and by the time we are done, the dining table, the rug, our hands – are all covered in glitter.
The house is cold. We move through rooms, turning off lights. I head upstairs to bed. “I left those pots in the sink,” he calls up after me, “I’ll be up in a minute.”
Leave them, my love. They will still be there in the morning.