Sunday, November 6, 2011

There Be Method in My Madness


Mother enjoyed elocution lessons. She learned to enunciate and emote while reading the noble words of others. She never lost her ability to mesmerize her listeners until she lost the power of speech. Oh, she can still say words, but she rarely finishes a sentence and often introduces a letter that does not belong. For example, after the doctor put her on two medicines for Alzheimer’s, she complained of being dinzee rather than dizzy. When asked to write her own name, she has to be coaxed, and even then, she may skip a letter or be unable to form it on paper.

These deficits in her late 70s and early 80s do not detract from the formidable speaker she once was, prone to making pronouncements that proved memorable. For example, when questioned about her requirements or the process she expected me to complete, she turned politician. In other words, she changed the subjector so it seemed to me. She said curtly, There’s method in my madness, an answer that never failed to shut me up. Many years later, when I read Hamlet for the first time, I realized that Mother had read the same dialogue and integrated Polonius’ observation into her own perceptions, advising me and anyone else that what may appear to be nonsensical may prove to have a logic and order behind it.

I also remember her act when I grew suspicious about a new medicine or anything strange. She’d tease me, usually squinting to examine me as if I were a bug under glass. Then she’d set one finger into motion trying to entice me with Welcome to my parlor. Now I ask you: what would you think? I had no idea what a parlor was or what she had in mind. Her joke failed to reassure me, and I remain timid about many things.

But Mother continued, prone to spout advice in fine tones and high language, saying

·      You cannot pluck roses without fear of thorns.
·      No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious.
·      Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
·      I have to live with myself and so / I want to be fit for myself to know.

No one else, including my teachers, spoke as Mother did and so, for many years, I thought she was odd. Only later, when I became a reader of the same authors—Shakespeare, Howitt, Franklin, and Guest—did I realize how much Mother remembered from her elocution lessons and how she had applied the language of poetry to the ordinary, everyday business of living. I saw that adding beautiful expression illuminated the mundane.

Once, when I knelt beside a student’s desk to help her, I lost my balance and began to totter backward. She reached out her hand and grabbed mine as I flailed for support. From my mouth came Blanche Dubois by way of Tennessee Williams: I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers. Standing again, my feet firmly beneath me, I saw the look upon my students’ faces; it said, “Daft. She’s utterly daft,” and I smiled. I knew how Mother felt. There is great fun to be had in repeating great words and even more fun in befuddling young listeners who will, in the end, rise to the challenge and understand. Thanks, Mom.