The Bones on the Wall

capuchin-chapel

A few years back, my wife and I took a trip to Scotland with my brothers and their spouses.  We travelled back to the land of our birth to scatter the ashes of my mother and father over the waters of their beloved homeland.  After fulfilling our parent’s wishes, my younger brother and his wife drove north to explore the ruins of castles, while my older sibling and his wife joined and me and mine heading south for a cruise of the Mediterranean.  We ported in Niece, Monte Carlo, Sicily and my favorite destination Rome.

I had long been fascinated by the eternal city, the history of the empire, the accomplishments, conquests and abuses of the emperors, the rise and fall of one of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world.  Upon arrival in Rome, through the brilliant foresight of my sister-in-law, we were not limited to a crowded ship sponsored excursion.  She had arranged for our party to be picked up dockside by our own personal driver who escorted us for the entire day on a private tour of the city and its many sights.

Instead of just one or two locations, we visited all the places most favored by tourists, The Colosseum, Circus Maximus, The Trevy Fountain, The Pantheon and Vatican City to name but a few.  But for me by far, the most fascinating stop in our long day was not to be found on any cruise line brochure.

The Capuchin Crypt is a collection of six small chapels beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto.  The walls of the chapels are adorned with the skeletal remains of friars who have been buried in and exhumed from the holy soil (carted by the friars from Jerusalem) beneath the church. Macabre does not begin to describe it.

Despite what has been written about the place, both by the Catholic Church and its detractors, I find it still to be a curiosity, not only historically, but for what it reveals about human nature and our desire for immortality.

On average, a friar could expect to rest for thirty years or so before being dug up to make room for the next newly departed. I recall in amazement the dark bones decorating the walls in each of the small rooms, and it occurs to me how much like memories are the remains of those holy men, buried, almost forgotten, then dug up and exposed by some unforeseen event.  Those bones speak to me as I write.

I rediscovered writing in a Life Story class at my local library.  I always regretted not having recorded the remembrances of my parents.  After their passing, I had only the shadows of the stories they imparted to me as a child.  At first I thought writing my story was about sparing my own children the same sense of disappointment, but I came to realize it was more about telling my own journey in my own voice.  It was about telling it for me, more than anyone else.  I want to write down what I recall, while I still recall it.  My father died of complications of Alzheimer’s and the ghost of his infliction haunts me still.

And so I started digging up the bones.  Like the Capuchin friars, I sift the sacred ground of my memories, unsure of what I might discover, recovering pieces buried for decades, one fragment leading to another.  I pull them out and arrange them on the wall, the pages of my journal.  It’s not a popular tourist stop, just an obscure little place stumbled upon occasionally by people looking for something else entirely, known perhaps only by the locals or a few invited guests.

So far I have only dug in familiar ground, focusing in one or two rooms where the light is good and the floor soft and shallow.  But I know there are other rooms where greater force will be required to break the surface, where the shadows cling not so closely to the corners.  But whatever I uncover in those dark places, the bones on the walls will be my own.

A Walk With My Father

old-man-and-young-man-walkingOne evening in the summer of 1999, I was walking with my father. We were returning home from The Swan, a local pub in the coastal town of Stranraer, Scotland.  My brother and I had come with our families to visit my parents.  It was the first time we had seen them in the three  years since they had returned to Scotland from the United States.  

A chill air surrounded us as we walked through the close streets of the town.  It was June, but the weather was still cool and damp, and as we made our way past darkened store fronts I told him of my impending divorce and my concerns about moving out of my home and setting up a new household. I was worried about my ability to care for my children on a diminished income and how to provide stability, despite their changing environment?   We walked for a few moments in silence and then he uttered the words that haunt me still.  

In his thick Scottish brogue he said, “My father died when I was 14.  He never gave me anything but the back of his hand!  And I was happy to have it.”

In 1969, by the time I was 12 years old, I had watched nearly every episode of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith and My Three Sons.  With research conducted via after school re-runs and prime-time family viewing, I considered myself an expert on the structure and function of the American Nuclear Family.  Of course the head of the household was always male, a sober white-collared engineer or architect, strong but kind, firm but fair. Mothers, if there were one, for mothers could often be replaced by curmudgeonly old uncles, maids or a trusted man-servant, were always of the beautifully coiffed, perfectly appointed, stay at home, and supper on the table variety.  Children, one to three were an acceptable number, were handsome, respectful, and constantly getting into the type of problems that could be resolved within 30 minutes allowing ample time for commercials.

No childhood indiscretion was so calamitous that an appropriate solution could not be found within the bounds of a good firm talking to. There were no spankings, no angry fathers yelling, no children made to feel terrified or inadequate for their ignorance of the far-flung consequences of an un-made bed or a bad report card.  No standing stiffly with an outstretched hand in anticipation of the quick snap of a leather belt and the steel resolve not to flinch and suffer the consequence of another.

I cannot remember an incident for which my father apologized.  It wasn’t in his nature.  And how can we learn to avoid mistakes unless we learn to recognize them for what they are?  We are after all, nothing more than the sum of our experience.  We learn from what we observe and choose to imitate or ignore the example of those that hold influence over us.

My father mellowed with time, especially in his later years. I had long ago forgiven him for any perceived injustices when on that long walk home he told me of the loss of his father at such an early age and of their broken relationship.  But in 1969 without the benefit of foresight and with the dauntless indignation that is the dominion of all 12 year old boys, I thought my father had simply grown up without a T.V.

 

Monkey Love

monkey-treeYungpin, of the Juju clan, clung to a thin branch at the top of the Home Tree. The young Macaque looked out over the tribe’s territory, running from the big water by the mangroves, to the rocky outcroppings where the hills began. On one side ran the wide river, swift and murky in the rainy season, and on the other, the territory of the Bobo tribe.  Yungpin was Muladee; three summers from his birthing.  Tonight he and all his siblings, those born in the same year, would stand still beneath the half-moon, in the clearing below, and become full members of the clan. All but two.

There were twelve in Yungpin’s season.  They had come to know each other, clinging each to their mother during grooming sessions, or jumping madly from branch to branch, playing tag in the dry billowy summer dirt, flinging mud and rain-soaked leaves in the fall, tumbling, chasing, and biting, in rituals of dominance and hierarchy. They were twelve, but there was only one of any real interest to Yungpin.  Her name was Juputin.

Yungpin longed to pair with her.  But union was forbidden for Muladee.  Pairing was a privilege reserved only for full members of the clan.  The bloodline must be protected.  Tonight, as he and the other initiates stood still in the clearing, two of them would be chosen, donated to the strengthening of the bloodline. The pair would be given to the Bobo tribe, taken from the home of the Juju, passing into the unknown.

Dewal, the dominant male, had conveyed the tradition. The bloodline grows weak without donation.  Each summer, beneath the half-moon, two Muladee are selected from each clan.  Before dawn they are exchanged at the boundary of our range.  The half-moon, the demi-light of the night sky, is the brightness of the bloodline and the darkness of the failure to honor the ways of the ancestors. Yungpin hoped he and Juputin would not be chosen.

The afternoon passed slowly. The clan lounged lazily in the shaded branches, seeking shelter from the hot summer sun beneath the broad leaves of their sanctuary.  Yungpin lay across a high limb, his long spidery legs dangling on either side, tail twitching nervously.  Juputin sat with her family unit, nimble fingers combing through her mother’s hair, searching the briefly visible skin beneath for unwelcome parasites. The two young Macaques exchanged occasional brief glances, but neither moved to engage the other.  The moment that would decide the future of their lives was fast approaching.

In the evening the clan crowded into the clearing beneath Home Tree. Through gaps in the canopy the cloudless sky was pierced with uncountable points of light outshone only by the semi-luminescence of the half-moon.  Bright future – faded past. Dewal stood in the center of the gathering and called the Muladee before him. Stand still.

Welcome, new blood of the Juju, strength of the clan.  Within you flows life or death for all the tribes. Tonight you will be Muladee no longer.  Beneath the half-moon you will join a clan and be allowed to pair and keep the bloodline strong.  But this night also, our bloodline is shared with that of the Bobo.  We both donate our strength so each of our tribes does not grow weak and die. Through donation we live forever.

Dewal rose to his full height and threw wide his arms, showing his face to the half-mooned sky. The clan waited without chatter, surrounded only by the sound of rustling leaves above, swaying gently in the warm breeze brushing the forest canopy

It was decided.

Dewal lowered his arms and extended one towards the line of Muladee before him.  A flick of his wrist indicated Juputin and a male, Jameet.

Come! Dewal turned from the gathering, away from Home Tree, toward the Bobo. The chosen two fell in behind.

Yungpin couldn’t breathe.  He had thought he had been prepared, and he had been.  But now the moment had come and he was unable to contain himself.  He couldn’t lose her.  He had waited four seasons. Without clear intention to protest, Yungpin began swaying from side to side.  Small chirps of alarm emanated from his mouth.  His lips pursed as his frustration grew and found voice.  Soon he was hopping in place and slapping the ground with open palms.

Dewal stopped, turning slowly to face Yungpin, astonished. What was this new thing? He was more amazed than annoyed.

Explain yourself.

Yungpin raised his arms to the night sky where the half-moon hung silently mocking him and his altered destiny.  He pointed to the chosen and back to himself.

Dewal frowned.  Juputin is not for you.  She has been chosen.  Jameet has been chosen.  They are for the Bobo.  They are chosen together, they are Bobo now.

Yungpin would not be consoled. He was still Muladee, still young, he didn’t care about tradition or blood lines or even the future, not a future without Juputin.  He didn’t care what they did with the other but he couldn’t lose the one he loved.  The only one he had ever loved.

Dewal made his way back into the center of the gathering and stood before the one who had challenged the way of the clan.

They are the chosen.  These are one. He gestured to the two timid and bewildered Muladee beside him. Together they are our donation, to the future of the clan, to the strength of the bloodline. It is our way. They are together for the Bobo, for the Bobo to decide…not you!

Yungpin was not cowered.   Juputin is for me.  She is mine.  Do what you will with Jameet.

Dewal flew into a rage. His hair bristled and the dominant male puffed his chest and raised himself threateningly over Yungpin, screaming, his yellow teeth bared.

Stand still Muladee. How can you have Juputin if you donate Jameet?

Yungpin fell to the ground in the face of Dewal’s onslaught, limp, numb, uncomfortably so.  Submissively, he turned away and stared up at the dark side of the moon.