Saturday, September 19, 2009
Stories Around the Fire
I took a lover when I was thirty-nine, fresh out of a marriage. He was twenty years older than me. I felt the crush of my upcoming fortieth birthday bearing down on me like a boulder, whooshing all the air out of me as if trying to flatten me. He slowed it all down.
He had a soothing patience and a kind of bemused detachment that allowed me a lot of freedom. He was an ex-priest and in the seminaries he was taught well: he learned about not being a servant to the flesh.
I’d never been with such an old man, as he appeared to me then. An ascetic old man. But given that he was never a servant to the body he carried it to the extreme in that he never walked anywhere, it was as if his car was an extension of him. A greyhound, my mother would have called him. He ate carelessly and inattentively as if food was mere fuel for his intellectual life and if he could have gotten away with not eating he would.
His story had an interesting feature. He’d been a priest for twenty years and only left when he fell hopelessly in love with an orphaned baby on a reservation in Northern Ontario and couldn’t abandon her. Her parents had died together in a fire, triggered by drunken smoking. None of her relatives wanted her, there was some degree of fetal alcohol syndrome and her periodic rages and tantrums were intimidating to most. But not to him, he told me. He would gather her up and rock her and comfort her and he’d stop her pain instantly.
He wanted to adopt her, which was ridiculous, him being a parish priest, you see. At first I found his story a little creepy as it was an alien thing to me, this older man taking a non-prurient interest in a girl-child as I had been a victim of the other kind. But I met her and she was limited but charming and my overly suspicious eyes didn’t pick up on anything untoward. An extraordinary thing in 1973 – to leave the priesthood to parent a strange child.
After he abandoned the priesthood and set up house with the child, he proceeded to take his PhD in Theology and that’s how I met him; when he was teaching an exploration of world religions course. I was teetering on the edge of agnosticism, not quite into full fledged atheism and had yet to string the words patriarchy and religion together in the same thought stream.
We got into a discussion on Buddhism after class one night. And he was patient in explaining to me how it and Catholicism were interconnected and he could recommend some interesting books, in fact he had some at home which was near the school and he could lend them to me. Would I care for a coffee and continue the discussion in his house, he had a baby sitter who needed to get home.
Flattered, intrigued, I followed him home in my car. An old, old house on the edge of High Park. The baby sitter was leaving as I slowly pulled up outside while he stood in the open doorway, the amber light of the hall behind him, silhouetting his lanky frame, his curly grey hair like a halo.
He took me into his ground floor study-den-parlour, a room that was jammed floor to ceiling with books and small tables and three wing chairs. It even had a fancy library ladder for accessing the high shelves and a working fireplace that he’d freshly lit.
He was extraordinarily attentive, his head inclined towards mine as he weighed each of my words as if they were precious gems. And nodding slowly and carefully once he had absorbed them, as if into his very bones. I was flattered. I blossomed further under such focussed devotion, expressing more of my opinion, more of my quest. He got up and began to pile books on the table beside me.
He then spoke of his own faith and shared his personal story of the leaving of the priesthood and the child, Mee-waa, now known as Maria, who was then nine.
He went off to make the coffee and I fingered the books, all by Anthony DeMelo, a Jesuit priest who had lectured on Buddhism.
When he came back with a tray with the coffee on it, I didn’t hesitate for one second. I was surprised at myself as I didn’t have wine in me to loosen me up. Stone cold sober, I slowly ground out my cigarette in the ashtray and got up and went over to him as he was just about to ask the cream and sugar question and put my arms around him in a way that would not be misconstrued. Tightly. And threw my face up at him. Boldly.
And I said, I can still hear myself, all these years later, laughing I was, so confident, so sure of the outcome. And oh, so clear.