A Cottage in a Cornfield, oil on canvas, John Constable 1776-1837
An Indelicate Incident
The parade of people who march into and out of Sister Alma Rose’s little world is endlessly fascinating. I know why they come, at least some of them: You cannot help feeling safe with Sister Alma Rose. She just sends out these vibes: “Everything will be okay,” or, rather, “everything is fine, as it should be, right now.” She inoculates people with serenity.
The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821
Sister Alma Rose does not expend energy needlessly, by which I mean, (a) she never worries, though occasionally she catches herself “fretting,” but she snaps right out of it, and (b) she is absolutely unconcerned about what people think of her— not in an in-your-face sort of way; it would just never occur to her to try to crawl into someone else’s brain.
There’s a book I have not read (there are still a few of them out there) called What You Think of Me Is None of My Business (which is one of those books, like Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, for which the title is so instructive that you almost feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth without actually reading the book)…. Where was I? Oh, I think that Sister Alma Rose could have written that book, because she doesn’t ever speculate about what people think of her, like, does my hair look okay, or, I wonder if she likes me.
Terry Cole-Whittaker earned a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1973 and was ordained as a minister of the United Church of Religious Science in 1975. She left that denomination to found an independent New Thought church in San Diego
That being the case, she is never embarrassed. Here is something that happened, which, if it had happened to me then, I was in fourth grade at the time, would have sent me bolting to my room vowing never to emerge, picturing myself at age 73, that eccentric McElroy spinster who hadn’t been seen since the Embarrassing Incident sixty-four years earlier:
Let me start out by saying that Sister Alma Rose never, ever naps. She is almost never “poorly” with a cold or the flu or aches and pains. I asked her once if she had always been so healthy, in her past lives, and she laughed and said that she had been an invalid during the Renaissance but that in each successive life she gets healthier and happier, which led me to wonder if people are always reincarnated forward in time, and she said that usually, when you die in one life, you are born into another at the same moment, and that she had always lived in this universe, on Planet Earth, which is usual but there are exceptions. I will have to remember to ask Henry about that, and about whether you are simultaneously a fetus and an independently living, breathing human being who is about to die.
It was about six weeks after Daddy’s accident, a breathtakingly beautiful September afternoon, and Daddy wanted to walk across the road to see Sister Alma Rose.
PICTURE OF SERENITY. Girl in the Garden at Bellevue, Édouard Manet 1832-1883. Manet, a French painter, was one of the first nineteenth-century artists to approach modern-life subjects and represent the transition from Realism to Impressionism (Manet article, Wikipedia)
This was something Daddy and I traditionally did on those rare afternoons when he came in early from the fields, although of course he hadn’t been working since the accident; his brothers were taking care of the farm.
The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826
I held Daddy’s hand protectively and we walked across the road, which is still brick as it winds out of Hilltop and climbs and curves to Sister Alma Rose’s farm and then on to La Mesa. We were a little surprised not to see Sister Alma Rose on the porch, shelling peas or whatever it is she does— her hands are always busy— but Mr. Truman LaFollette was washing the grass-green wicker furniture with soapy water, and he looked up at us and almost smiled, he is in general very grave, and said in his deep voice that always sounds rusty from disuse that Sister Alma Rose was in the kitchen.
So we went around to the side door that opens into the pantry and the kitchen is just beyond, and she wasn’t there. I said, “Maybe she’s in the chapel,” which was on the other side of the parlor, so we turned into the parlor, and there she was, lying on that big old scratchy brown sofa with her back to us, and my first thought was that she was dead because I had never in my life seen Sister Alma Rose lying down.
Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802
Daddy whispered, “I think she’s sleeping,” but I went closer to make sure she was breathing, and just then she woke up and turned her head toward us and started to smile, but the smile was interrupted by a violent sneeze, maybe you have experienced one of those, where the sneeze just takes possession of your entire body, so it wasn’t just an ordinary sneeze, it was one of those HONK fart-sneezes that is impossible to ignore or pretend you didn’t hear, especially since Sister Alma Rose’s backside was still turned inelegantly toward us and also, within a few seconds, something I can describe only as green swamp fog pervaded the atmosphere in the room.
Peppermint, Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897— Peppermint is effective in treating certain stomach ailments; discuss with your doctor before using
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I didn’t dare look at Daddy. But Sister Alma Rose just chuckled and said, “Well, for pity’s sake,” she said, “pardon me,” and she stood up gracefully and glided across the room and gently herded Daddy and me onto the porch, saying, “Let’s just go out here where the air’s a bit fresher,” chuckling again, and then, obviously not giving it another thought, she expressed great pleasure at seeing Daddy looking so well, and we all temporarily forgot about the HONK fart-sneeze, although I tucked the incident away in my head to tell Mama and maybe Pablo.
We didn’t stay long, because Sister Alma Rose did indeed have a cold and she said that she thought that she would treat herself and spend the rest of the afternoon in bed, reading or napping and letting Mr. Truman LaFollette fuss over her and bring her chicken soup and peppermint tea with honey.
Sister Alma Rose recovered quickly, but “the incident” was never to be forgotten, despite Sister Alma Rose’s aplomb. Just the other night, after my brothers, Yo and Angelo, were in bed, Mama and Daddy and I were waiting for Henry so that we could play Scrabble, and I recalled “the incident,” and Daddy blushed like a teenager, and Mama laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.
Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow; John Constable, 1821
“I read recently that people ‘break wind’ an average of fifteen times a day,” I said to Mama and Daddy. “I’m actually surprised that people don’t fart… you know, audibly… more often, especially when they eat broccoli or something.”
“God is merciful,” Daddy said piously, and then grinned and confessed that he’d wondered the same thing.
“Well, even if Sister Alma Rose weren’t who she is,” Mama said, “and I can’t believe we’re having this conversation— even if Sister Alma Rose weren’t the most gracious and self-possessed human being on this earth, I guess if you’ve lived as long as she has, and so many times, you’ve seen— and heard— it all, and you grow up beyond embarrassment.”
“I can vouch for that,” Henry said, letting himself in through the screen door and making disgusting fart sounds with his mouth— which I can’t do, it’s mostly a guy thing— and cracking everyone up.
Clearing the air
I still can hardly believe I actually got these Scrabble letters (“tiles,” I think, is the proper word for them)— maybe Henry switched letters on me with this sleight-of-hand thing he does— but Daddy had made the word L-A-T-E-R and I was able to add F-L-A-T-U to the front of it. Mama and Daddy burst out laughing, but Henry narrowed his eyes at me and said, “It would be O-R, not E-R, if there were even such a word, which there is NOT,” and of course he was right.
Henry and Daddy have discovered that, by bizarre coincidence, of which, Sister Alma Rose claims, there is no such thing, they both like to smoke a particular blend of perique pipe tobacco. Since perique is grown only in Saint James Parish, Louisiana, it’s not available at your 24-hour convenience store, or, for that matter, anywhere in Hilltop. Daddy was getting it by mail order from a company in Vermont until Henry showed up with an apparently inexhaustible supply, but they still smoke it sparingly, as if it were gold dust. It smells wonderful.
Lake District Scene, John Constable
So they were out on the porch sharing a testosterone moment, and Mama and I were tidying up as we womenfolk have done since we all lived in caves.
Something was off, though. Mama had been unusually quiet since Henry got there, and Henry and Daddy were outside longer than usual, and there was an uneasiness growing in me that I couldn’t explain away. And then Henry and Daddy came inside and we all sat down, and that’s when I learned that Henry and Sister Alma Rose and I would be going “up the mountain” to Daylight on the first of May.
The Road to Daylight
John Constable, 1776-1837, English Romantic painter
John Constable (11 June 1776 – 31 March 1837) was an English Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home – now known as “Constable Country”- which he invested with an intensity of affection. “I should paint my own places best”, he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling”.
His most famous paintings include Dedham Vale of 1802 and The Hay Wain of 1821. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in British art, he was never financially successful and did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. He sold more paintings in France than in his native England. —John Constable: The Complete Works
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