Friday, April 6, 2012

Gifts We Give Ourselves

Sunset in Denens, Switzerland

In the years following the war, Paris was a growing city. In spite of revolts and occupation, the city had escaped relatively unscathed. The brick streets were being re-manicured and the city was reclaiming itself, the business district was just opening up, boats were traveling up and down the rivers, women in low heels and a-line skirts were clacking over the bridges.

JP was a boy born during the war and growing up in its wake. In the high brick buildings of his Parisian arrondissements, the boys played together, hung out each other’s windows, rumpling the pressed short pants suits their mothers had made to stretch for another season. In the evenings they hollered at each other from their apartments while the staticky radio played Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey on low from their sitting rooms.

And before the sun went down, the organ grinder would rumble down the street, pushing the wooden instrument down the alley that was their home. The hooting whistles of his charge echoed off of the residential buildings and ricocheted in little pinwheels of music. JP would dash to his mother’s purse on the counter and withdraw a penny which he folded into a scrap of paper: an old envelope, a corner of butcher’s paper and then tossed the package out the window with as much force as he could muster to pay the organ grinder for his work. JP, with a wicked little boy’s smile would lob the payment aiming for cracks in the pavements, hard to reach fissures between bins, really making the wearied organ grinder search for the pennies that paid for his service, but still the man would turn the crank of the organ for the children in the neighborhood to make that calliope sound peal down their street.

For more than half a century, the pleasure of tossing pennies to hear the street organ has stayed with JP. He associates the sound with dancing, mischief, delight, his youth in Paris.

Spring in Denens
And if you know this, when you enter JP and D’s lovely countryside house in Denens, Switzerland, the beautiful, wood-worked street organ on its rolling cart in the living room, suddenly makes sense.

On his sixtieth birthday, JP decided to give himself the gift of a custom made street organ – decorated to his tastes, made to be able to play the old punch card tunes by crank as well as electronically capable of playing music from his iPod in three tiers of sound: flutes, trumpets, and other woodwinds. He had called D one afternoon and asked if they could put off replacing their old car for a little while longer in order to realize this dream.

And, as with most labors of love, long dreams, and whimsical impulses, JP (even years later) smiles like the six year old boy he once when I ask him if I can get a video of him playing the street organ.

“Nothing else makes him smile like that,” D tells me as JP goes to select a tune from his cupboard to play, “just the dog and the organ.”

At Alnwick Castle (from Harry Potter)
I am a fan of goofy-smile-inducing whimsy. In all its forms. We only get one shot at this life, after all, we must make room sometimes for nothing more than pleasure, delight, and play.

The other night, around the table with my new friends (“the Vicar,” her partner “Lady P” and their two foster kids) we all told ghost stories that we’d experienced or heard about. I told the one about my mother backpacking through Europe and sleeping in the house of a dead woman in a polka dot dress. And the Vicar and Lady P told me a story about a ghost that they once saw in the Lakes District – a place that we were to visit later that week.

A few years back the ladies stopped at Rydal Mount (where Wordsworth spent his latter years) – a large, bright, white-washed cottage with ivy crawling up its walls. They’d arrived early and parked in the car turnout in front of the fenced gate, Lady P wondering aloud if it was the type of place that used period costumes as part of their tours – she hated those.

Rydal Mount (Wordsworth's Home)
As they sat there talking, waiting for the ticket office to open, they looked into one of the top floor windows where a woman in a maid’s pinafore was donning her cap and gazing down the lane at the scattering of parked cars that were also waiting to tour Wordsworth’s old home, “Oh look,” Lady P said with a roll of her eyes, “it is one of those tours.” They got out of the car and they bought their tickets. They were led through the whole of the house, heard more about Wordsworth’s later years, his contributions to the Lakes region – about the yew tree that he planted in the town’s churchyard and how he is now buried underneath it (sidenote: Wordsworth’s grave sits just yards away from the famous Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread shop so that the site always smells of gingerbread with the lightest whiff of citrus from the lemon peel that they zest into the mix). On their way out of Rydal Mount, they stopped by the gate and asked the ticket attendant if the woman in the maid’s uniform that they’d seen in the window was part of a special program since they were wondering why they hadn’t seen her. The Rydal Mount employee looked puzzled for a few moments and then said “oh that woman doesn’t work here,” she shook her head, “what you saw is probably the ghost of Dorothy’s maid. Her room was right off of Dorothy’s (Wordsworth's sister) on the top floor there and she was always waiting for her son to come home from war.”

Bamburgh Castle
“A ghost?” they said (reasonably incredulous).

“It’s not unusual,” the bored Northerner drawled a bit, “we get a lot of ghosts around here. Sometimes even Wordsworth himself.”

The Vicar and Lady P told me all of this with an entirely straight face. “We both saw her,” Lady P said, “plain as you’re sitting before me right now,” she pointed at me in the chair across from her and then looked over the to the Vicar, “Didn’t we?”

The two nod and smile to each other, covering not just the day they saw a ghost, but the entire nearly two-decades worth of history that they’ve shared together. Here, in their quaint small town home, I get a taste of the Northern England hospitality, just 30 or so miles away from the Scottish border.

When the Vicar and I went to the Lakes District and dropped by Rydal Mount, I looked to that top window which stayed well-lit and vacant. Not all ghosts, it seems, are meant to be shared.

Me with the Duchess of Northumberland
Which doesn’t matter. While in the North of England, the Ladies took me on a whistle stop tour of the highlights of the area which was whimsical all on its own: five castles (including Alnwick Castle, used in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, where I came face to face with the Duchess of Northumberland and Bamburgh Castle – used in the opening scenes of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves). In the Lakes District we went to Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum, had tea and carrot cake at Beatrix Potter’s world, and walked a waterfall that caught an afternoon rainbow. On the edge of Lake Windermere, there are enormous (and I mean seriously, mutant-sized) swans waddling around waiting to snatch ice cream cones right out of your sticky fingers. As they waddle about the boardwalk totally unafraid, their cluck-quacking sounds strangely like a plot to take off one of my fingers, but still I can’t help but wander out into the middle of them anyways. They’re enormous breathing pillows wearing Batman masks – how could I stop myself?
I can't help myself...

The purpose driven life doesn’t always make room for ghosts, street organs, and threatening clouds of lakeside swans and sometimes I think it’s the poorer for it. Dreams don’t come with budgets and balance sheets, the equation doesn’t always make sense. Which also leads me to a decision I’ve made as a gift to myself. We'll call it my birthday present to me. Even though it’s not in the bank account, I’ve decided to give myself two days alone in the English countryside at a small inn just four miles away from Highclere Castle. What’s so special about Highclere, you might ask? It’s the setting for Downton Abbey. There’s no reason to go there other than to have a small break from company, to write, and to visit a landmark that I’ve only before seen on my TV. The only drawback of going on my own is that there will be no one there to snap a picture of my face as I first come up that drive.

Saying “yes” to yourself even (sometimes especially) when it doesn’t make any sense, allows you to smile like a six-year-old boy sixty years after the fact while playing “La Vie en Rose” for guests at your house in Switzerland.

And just for a little extra fun, here’s The Organ Man by Roy L. McCardell. Please especially enjoy the last stanza.

He often comes when I'm lone and sad -
The organ man, with his tunes so old;
And his presence always makes me glad,
Although other surly folk may scold.

I'm very fond of "popular airs,"
But best I like when the children troop
Out from alleys and tenement stairs,
And gather round him, a noisy group.

He makes them sing to the tunes he plays,
And these old, old children dance with glee;
Why, I know they'd forget their childish ways
Were it not for the organ man and me.

For a penny tossed brings a bow profound,
And a sunny smile to his sallow face;
Then he turns the handle faster round,
While the music quivers through the place.

For here downtown, where the factories
Wall in the tenements dark and grim,
And shut out the light, the air, the breeze,
There would be no children but for him.

So he comes to see me every day,
Starting his tunes at my welcoming glance;
And I'm but too glad to be able to pay
The little it costs, while the children dance.


  1. A little nonsense now and then / Treasured by the wisest men.

  2. A great one! You're reminding me of some of my favorite moments in France; The elderly man in his cap playing an accordion on the Metro, another gentleman singing while holding the door open for pilgrims and tourists entering Chartres Cathedral....

  3. Jessica, this was lovely -- the video and the poem and the description of your adventures. We are glad you have this opportunity. And, by the way, "A Cat's Invitation" was marvelous!

    Hugs to you,
    Linda & Charles