Finding true humanity

 

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Category: International 28 Jun 15
 

“A Jungian analyst recently told me we are all ages at the same time. We are two and eight and 20 and 40 and 80. So, no, there is no such thing as “grow up.” Delight can be the same in an 80-year-old as it is in a two-year-old. Different circumstances bring out different ages in us. Yes, bear with me, this is going somewhere.

When my father decided (after coaxing my mother into it) that he was going to come to Europe to look after my daughter while she studied for exams and secondly, to attend the reenactment of the battle of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo in Brussels and finally, hope to see me, I was alarmed.

The space between spending time with my daughter and the battle my father wanted to witness stretched to two months. What would they do here in the cold for this long? What I saw these two months with my 80-year-old father and my mother (whose age nobody knows, “a woman’s age is nobody’s business” she tells people who ask) took me by surprise.

I suddenly saw my parents, not as the people to whom I go to for approval and comfort, but as people who show the world how to live. Something about their bearing: My father’s straight military back, planning the next step, leading the way, and my mother’s noble but warm and vulnerable beauty that makes her hold both hands of each waitress who serves her to thank her, made them magnets to that human quality which I think is the greatest of all.

Kindness, followed by exuberance that comes from delight with the world—a warm sweater, relief from the cold into a cozy room, tea in pretty china, a rose garden, the slant of sun across a cleverly constructed suspension bridge, the mist, rain. They love it all.

In Bristol they sat, the two grandparents, while my daughter studied in silence, reading quietly or going on small forays to the grocery to tempt my daughter with meals. They went to museums and parks. My mother’s knees hurt, but she came on every outing. She walked slowly, uncomplaining, sitting down quietly when the pain got too much.

So my father planned. There was the week in Bristol, the week with me in London, the two weeks in a city I suggested casually— Dublin. “Why not” said my father, and my quiescent mother gamefully followed. The two stayed in the heart of the city centre for three weeks. They travel modestly with small suitcases, preferring to cook their own food, carrying spices across borders, spending time in museums, buildings of note, they love walking along cobbled streets and canals, through open markets and across squares. They avoid shopping centres and malls like the plague.

We do go back and back. After Dublin, they headed to Brussels. My children joined my father in Brussels over the weekend of June 19 and 20. We knew little of the battle of Waterloo, but my father’s enthusiasm infected us all.

We converged at different times, my son and nephew from Trinidad, my daughter from Bristol, in a chaotic flat in Brussels. I thought it would be impossible, thinking of privacy, space. But it was a space of much togetherness, adventure, we took trams with an uncertain destination, teased one another mercilessly over quirks and, doubling over with laughter, walked in the freezing cold, and rain.

My father said his life is divided into before and after. We witnessed the reenactment of the ultimate battle of the Napoleonic Wars at the actual battlefield of Waterloo, fought 200 years ago on June 18, 1815. The area in the countryside of Belgium had been turned into a massive arena—a time machine of the past.

My father, a walking encyclopedia of military history, told us as we watched the thousands of reenacters wearing period uniforms on the battlefields, “It was here,” that Napoleon’s French army of 93,000 soldiers was defeated on the battlefield by the 125,000 troops of the Seventh Coalition. To the sounds and smog of gunfire, he told us how thousands of men were killed by cannon fire, bullets, bayonets and swords in violent skirmishes.

“What’s happening now daddy?” I asked, feeling like I was eight. “It’s the fog of war.” That phrase became to me, an analogy of our inner and outer lives. The fog of war, how chaos in countries, in our hearts, destroys and disorients us to inaction.

We lined up to get on the buses and on trams in pouring rain watching the new international face of Europe, with the hijabs and many accents from Ghana to Poland. For every one abrupt person there were ten kind people who gave up their seats for my parents, helped with suitcases, and walked a quarter of mile with us to show us the way. The next day we went to Bruges, suddenly in hot sunshine, the oldest city in Europe, a fairy tale medieval town with cobbled lanes, went on a boat on the canals winding through squares, soaring towers, old whitewashed almshouses.

Before he left my father said, “we expect love from our family but it is in the kindness of strangers that we find true humanity.”

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur