Writer in Residence · 02/12/2011

Translating Christina

Translation is the art of failure
                                              — Umberto Eco


The old man put on a fresh shirt. The girls would be arriving in time for lunch. It was sunny and he opened the curtains in the kitchen to give the room more light. This was March, and spring was just beginning its war with the end of winter.

He covered the old table with a blue cloth, set out three plates and the silverware. He put wine glasses out, thinking the girls might enjoy pretending with their water. They were nine and twelve years-old. He rubbed at a limescale stain near the stem of one glass, then put the glass where Elise would sit and another by Debora’s plate.

He put on his scarf and his hat and walked to the end of the drive. They would not arrive for another fifteen minutes or so. He walked back, noting the holes in the gravel he would have to fill in as soon as the weather became stable. He sat on the bench near the door and wondered if the girls would have changed since December.

At Christmas, he’d entered Sara and Evan’s dining room, kissed Sara on the cheek, and handed over a bag with gifts for the girls. Then he’d spotted Elise, his youngest granddaughter, talking by the fire with her sister and two cousins from Evan’s side. Her hands were up in front of her face, moving, darting, framing her words. Her eyes were wide with excitement and when she’d finished her story, whatever it was, she lifted her chin, measuring her audience’s response. The subtle tilt of her head and satisfied smile brought Christina to him unexpectedly. Christina had looked like that when she was proud of herself—at sixteen, at sixty-seven—the same expression. He’d had to look away, find himself again in the correct moment.

“Dad?” Sara had said, putting a hand on his arm.

He pressed the moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand and shook his head toward the snowy garden beyond the window. “It’s the cold.”

It was a gift. Seeing Christina’s ghost in his nine year-old granddaughter. He embraced the idea of her for a short moment, remembered her, loved her, then he took a glass of champagne and joined a conversation with Evan’s elderly maiden aunts.

In the distance, across the low hills, he noted the white snake of the train approaching. He checked his watch, absent-mindedly winding the crown while the train slowed for the village station. The girls had a ten minute walk once they were off the train. When she’d called to ask him about this afternoon, Sara had told him not to bother meeting them at the station; she’d said they would feel more grown up walking over on their own since they were never allowed to walk home in the city.

He got up from the bench and went inside to check the table and the oven. He washed and dried the pan he’d used to prepare the sauce. He went to the window, then back to the door. Finally, he went outside.

There they were at the end of the drive. He started forward, then stopped himself. He waved. Debora waved back and Elise skipped a few steps. But they were deep in discussion. He smiled. These city girls talked a lot.

They each gave him a hug at the doorstep. Elise sniffed at the open doorway, “You cooked, Grandpa?”

“Chicken. Come in, come in.”

The girls sat on the couch with glasses of seltzer water and lemon. They were too formal, afraid to touch anything. He didn’t see them enough, he thought. He pushed a basket of crackers closer to them on the low table. Debora started telling him about school. About a girl named Marjorie who was apparently very bossy. He nodded, said that must be difficult. Debora told him that Marjorie was always getting in trouble.

Elise interrupted her sister to tell him about a woman on the train. “A nun. In a dark blue dress that covered her head.”

“It’s called a habit, Lissey,” Debora corrected.

“She was young,” Elise said, wistful. “But not at all pretty. And she was wearing the biggest cross I’ve ever seen.”

Debora nodded, eyebrows furrowed. “It was bigger than her head. Totally creepy.”

“She didn’t get off in the village, did she?” he asked. There was a cloister near the Hentner’s farm, but its numbers had dwindled over the years. He would be surprised to hear of a new nun.

The girls shook their heads. Elise gripped the sofa armrest in concentration, “I heard her tell someone she was starting a mission.” She repeated the word mission.

Debora explained that a mission was when a person went somewhere to help other people.

“Oh, we do that at school all the time,” Elise sighed. “We’re always on a mission.”

He got up to check the chicken and then invited the girls to take a seat at the table. Debora wanted to sit near the window. Elise argued that it was her turn. He moved the table across the room so they each had a window. The girls giggled.

“You know the weirdest thing, Grandpa?” Elisa said, moving her napkin to her lap. “She was talking to herself. For the entire train ride.”

Debora rolled her eyes, “She was praying. Didn’t you notice her waving her hands in front of her face.”

“Ah, she was crossing herself,” he said, “Making the points of the cross in front of her face and chest.”

Elise nodded.

Then Debora took a quick breath and said, “I bet Grandma Christina did that. All the time.”

His glass of water stopped in mid-air, halfway toward his mouth. He put it back on the table and looked at the two girls. He could tell Elise was wondering whether Debora was about to get in trouble. He picked up his water glass and drank the whole thing down.

When he’d finished, he said, “Well, yes, your Grandmother loved God.”

Debora said, “Mom says Grandma used to put holy water on her before she went to school.”

He couldn’t help laughing, “She told you that? Christina never did that.”

“Mom said it to Dad once. I heard them.”

He tapped the tines of his fork against his napkin, considering. Then he said, “Your mother was joking, I’m sure. But the idea isn’t exactly wrong.” He sighed at what his daughter had let her children believe. Yet he knew Sara’s misunderstanding was mostly his own fault. He looked at the girls. “First of all, your grandmother wasn’t Catholic; only Catholics have much to do with Holy Water.”

Debora shrugged and picked up an oven fry with her fingers. She dipped it in gravy and stuffed it in her mouth. Elise was still watching him. He winked to show her he wasn’t upset.

Elise tipped her head, “Are you Catholic?”

He shook his head. Could he tell them? Would Sara be angry? Typical of her generation Sara was unwilling to settle on a system of belief. She rejected her mother’s faith but remained uncomfortable with her father’s atheism. He felt sure she wouldn’t want him giving her daughters this word.

“I’m not, dearest,” he said. “Your grandmother and I had different ideas about some things.”

“Oh, my friends and I are like that,” she said proudly. “I’m a free thinker.”

Debora ate another fry. “Why isn’t the idea of holy water exactly wrong?”

“Your grandmother was…well, she liked to speak her mind.” He raised his eyebrows at Elise. “A free thinker.” Elise giggled and he continued. “She felt very strongly about God, so she told people how she felt. She was a devout person.” The girls were beginning to fiddle with their silverware. He would lose them soon. “I wonder, has your Mom ever embarrassed you?”

Debora looked up, nodding her head emphatically.

Then Elise said, “All the time. She’s too goofy.”

“Well,” he said. “Imagine she wasn’t goofy, but very serious sometimes. Imagine she talked to you about her prayers. Or about God, as if he was someone in the room listening.”

Debora looked over her shoulder, then turned back to the table, eyes wide. “Isn’t He?” The two girls burst out laughing.

He smiled, cleared his throat but said nothing.

The girls were smiling into their napkins as they asked for seconds. He served them. He let Elise finish the gravy, telling her he preferred his chicken without. They ate in silence until Elise started absentmindedly tapping her knife against her dessert spoon. Gently at first, until suddenly she clanged the metal together and her knife dropped, by accident, to the floor. Debora scolded her.

Christina would have taken the knife and started singing, or gotten on her chair to mimic a stand-up comedian. She would have had the girls giggling so hard their bellies would hurt. How many of Sara’s childhood dinners had ended with the three of them in danger of snorting their water across the table? Why didn’t Sara remember that about her mother?

She never tried to convert him. Christina took this great difference between them as naturally as she took his preference for red wine versus hers for white. There was no way to explain it, and a person didn’t change tastes. But that wasn’t how he saw things. He had judged her. She was one of the most intelligent women he had ever known, but he believed a part of her was ignorant, or wanted to remain ignorant. Once, he had even told her that her faith was nothing more than superstition.

“So I’m a witch, am I?” she had said, continuing to fold a pile of Sara’s diapers. “Men have been calling women witches for centuries, my love, you will have to do better than that.”

He was so angry he didn’t speak to her again that evening. And he didn’t think he had even hurt her until the next morning when he overheard her playing with Sara. In between the playful phrases of the games, she was carrying on their conversation from last night, whispering fiercely to convince him that religion had nothing to do with sorcery, with witchcraft.

The conversation between the girls had shifted while he wasn’t paying attention. They were now talking about a teacher at school, or maybe it was the parent of a friend. Their plates were clear. A shiver of pride shimmied through him; he was getting older, yes, but he still managed to take care of them. Sara needn’t worry.

The girls helped him clear the table and he asked if they wanted dessert right away.

“Let’s walk to the barn. Can we?”

He smiled and shooed them out of the house to wait for him while he started the dishwasher. When he got outside, the sun was high in the sky. They headed across the field and the smell of new leaves came upon him with each breath. Elise skipped along in front of her sister. Debora stayed beside him. She would be tall, he realized. She was already nearly taller than him. That must come from Evan.

The barn stood back away from the house a good 200 feet. It had been empty for so long, he didn’t know why he didn’t just knock it down. They’d had cows and sheep when he was a boy, but then his father had gone to work at the new factory in the village and there was no reason to keep farming, at least not more than one cow and some chickens for their family needs.

He opened the big door with its rusted hinges, and warned the girls to watch their step. “It’s getting rickety.”

The girls entered the barn slowly, holding themselves still in anticipation and delight. City kids, he thought again. The kids from the village would never consider this old building any kind of adventure.

There were three windows high up on the wall near the roof beam and the sunlight fell in a steep, hard-edged shaft down onto the floor. He watched Elise stretch her arms toward the ceiling and practice a few dance steps, cutting in and out of the rectangle of light; each time she passed beneath it the sun lit her hair and the outline of her upturned face. Debora was snooping at the far end of the great room, asking him the names of the tools which still hung on the wall. The barn had not contained hay for over fifty years but the odor still lingered. He breathed deep.

“Hey!” Debora yelled.

Elise raced across the room to find her sister.

“Be careful, girls. Wait for me.”

He found them in one of the old milking stalls. Elise was seated on a small wooden rocking chair while Deborah held a tin cigar box in her hand. He started. How could he have forgotten? Christina had passed away almost six years ago; he thought he’d cleaned out or put away all of her things.

Their faces were hushed. Expectant. Debora especially was waiting for permission, her fingers tracing the latch on the cigar box.

“This was your Grandmother’s quiet place. Go on, open the box.”

Inside were photographs. He had the girls guess at each one. They were surprised to find their own baby photos, another of their mother. They giggled at the serious face he wore in his wedding picture.

“This was all Grandma’s?” asked Elise, touching the edge of the box.

“She liked to come here. To think of everyone she loved.” He did not say this was her prayer room. That she had to go somewhere outside because he had made it uncomfortable for her to do this in their home.

“I miss her,” said Elise. “She always had peppermints.”

Debora tapped her sister’s foot with the toe of her own sneaker. “Shhh.”

He wanted to smile at them, to give them permission for such thoughts, but he could not speak. Someday they would understand, would know what it meant to wake in the night and for a moment, in the blur of waking, be certain that beloved person was in the room. And then the blur would sharpen and that not-so-recent death would wound as deeply as the first day.

Elise pulled a little plastic pouch from the box, inside was a cross. She held it up in front of her sister’s face. “Look, pretty!”

Debora took the cross from its pouch and held it out in front of her. With mock-seriousness, she attempted the sign of the cross. Elise started laughing, which only fueled her sister’s charade. Thanks to her earlier model on the train that afternoon, each gesture was executed faithfully, if just a bit grotesque.

He watched his granddaughters, aware that they weren’t making fun of Christina. Not exactly. They had never really known her. He felt for the sturdy wood backbone of the rocking chair. His father had made it, had presented it to him and Christina for their wedding. Christina had sat in it every day, first with Sara as an infant, then later to read, and eventually she’d carried it out to the barn some afternoon when he’d been at work. He’d never gone to see her in her prayer room, but he could picture her in the dusty barn, in every season, quietly rocking and touching the soft wood of her pocket cross. The gentle pressure of her fingers trying to make sense of the troubles of the world.

“Faith isn’t necessarily about God, girls,” he found himself saying abruptly, his voice cutting through the silence of the barn. The girls froze. “Your grandmother had this idea of what it meant to be a good person. She worked very hard. She felt…” he began to stumble over the words, “…she felt there was a way to do things correctly. Only one way. And…she wasn’t wrong. Not for her.”

Elise and Debora stood silent. Watching him. But maybe they weren’t really listening. They were good kids, he knew, they might only be pretending to listen to him.

“She believed in a certain way of living one’s life. Like…a set of rules. Gentle ones. Kind rules. She remembered these rules every morning when she woke up, and every evening when she went to sleep. It made her happy. It made her safe.”

“We have rules at school,” Elise said seriously.

Debora clucked at her sister, “Not like that, dummy. He means the Bible. Big rules.”

He shook his head. How would he do this? Why should they care? He saw that Debora was already edging toward the door, her young body turning instinctively toward the sunshine and the freshness of the field.

“Girls,” he began. “It’s like…”

He motioned for them to leave the milking stall, led them back through the dark, still room toward the door. It didn’t matter that he would never believe in God, that this difference had separated them, because he had known her, could still see her. He saw her at the table in the morning, her hair in curlers under a scarf, joking about the neighbor she’d caught peeing against the barn on her way to buy bread a few minutes earlier. He saw her at the hospital the day she gave birth to Sara, how she’d told each of the mothers in her room that she would pray for them and their babies. He saw her carrying all of Sara’s outgrown clothing to the family who squatted in the Anderson’s back field.

These were the images he began to put into words as the girls walked and skipped and laughed about him, images which he hoped would render Christina’s faith tangible to her granddaughters. He talked and talked while the tree limbs above them were busy preparing perfect little flower buds, while the evening light stole away westward with the setting sun. He told them stories about Christina during dessert and until their mother came to pick them up and only when they’d gone did he return to the barn, to Christina’s rocking chair, and then he sat down in that space and told her for the first time that he was sorry.


posted by Michelle Bailat-Jones