Happy “Sweethearts’ Day!”

Crônicas do Cotidiano > Happy “Sweethearts’ Day!”

Translated/Adapted from the original in Portuguese.

My husband and I returned from Chile a few days ago, after spending four days in its capital, Santiago. Those were our first real “free” holidays in a number of years—during which we went away without any commitment whatsoever to job, schedules, ministry or family—and we had a very special time together.

One thing that we noticed there is that Chileans celebrate “Sweethearts’ Day” (or Valentine’s Day) on the same date as North Americans celebrate it—on February 14 (in contrast to Brazilians who celebrate the “Dia dos Namorados” on June 12). We thus were surrounded by heart-covered signs and advertisements promoting “el dia de los enamorados” and offering “regalos” of flowers, chocolates, perfumes, electronic gadgets, cards and other objects.

I went searching on the Internet and discovered that it is only Brazil that commemorates June 12, which is on the eve of Saint Anthony’s Day (St. Anthony is here known as the matrimonial saint). Some say that it started because the country’s storeowners wanted something to stimulate sales in a very quiet month and that Valentine’s Day never really took hold here because Carnival is always close to February 14. (It is actually going on during the very same weekend in 2010). Its sexual and sensual excesses are not consistent with the gentle romance and the sentimental declarations of eternal tenderness and faithfulness that are traditionally linked to the celebration in other places.

So how does that leave us—my husband and me—originating from countries with different practices? In the end, we don’t really pay attention to either one. If we would have to choose, we’d probably prefer the Brazilian date, but it so happens that our wedding anniversary is three days earlier, so celebrating on the 12th too becomes rather redundant. Besides, he manages to surprise and please me on other occasions and I too try to make him feel loved—on the special days and on the normal ones.

I’ve been thinking about the possibility, preciousness and profoundness of true and enduring marital love (and, simultaneously, about its precariousness) since I recently re-read a story written by one of my favourite authors. The book is one of a series read and reread by me and by my father (when alive)—when we have sought relief while dealing with suffering or difficulties. They were written by a veterinary in England and became best sellers in the United Kingdom and North America during the seventies and eighties, selling millions of copies. For some reason, Portuguese is not among the many languages to which they were translated (they even exist in Chinese and Icelandic!) Many of his stories were adapted for TV and I remember seeing parts of one or two televised programs when I visited my great-aunt and uncle in Holland in the seventies.

Herriot’s stories were written when he was over 50 years old. They blend extraordinary sensitivity and wisdom, acquired in dozens of years of interacting with animals and their owners in a rural area of England—Yorkshire. In a world where the wellbeing, and even the survival, of humans is always linked to animals—be they companions or the source of food or income (did you ever realize that?)—he manages to bring to mind details and elements that make us both laugh and cry (sort of like the book/film Marley and Me). Very few human beings fail to identify or recall special beings or moments, in their past or present, in the semi-autobiographical writings of James Herriot.

Besides caring for and about small and large animals, Herriot got along well with their owners. In spite of the vexations, discomforts and irritations caused by some difficult personages and personalities, he (almost always) managed to perceive and understand them in a larger context. He, therefore, cultivated patience and worked on identifying their possible good traits, even as he tried to make allowances for their bad ones.

I have always credited some of Herriot’s joie de vivre (joy in life) to the fact that he was happy in his marriage. This is what comes through in his stories and is also confirmed by his son in his biography, James Herriot: A Memoir of my Father. Every time I read Herriot’s stories, his “Helen” serves as a stimulus and a model of wifehood to me. What is interesting is that I grew up in a rural setting very similar to that which he describes as being hers. But, ever since I married, I have not been able to identify with his details of her daily life. After all, as a dweller of South America’s largest city, I find myself experiencing almost the exact opposite of what would life would be like at the side of a veterinary living in a rural area. Thus, I cannot mirror the details but, rather, the attitudes of her life.

In order to communicate what these attitudes were, I will copy a few portions of the book All Things Bright and Beautiful.

Chapter 40: I had never been married before so there was nothing in my past experience to go by but it was beginning to dawn on me that I was very nicely fixed… It would have been enough for me or anybody else to be paired with a beautiful girl whom I loved and who loved me. I hadn’t reckoned on the other aspects.

This business of studying my comfort, for instance. I thought such things had gone out of fashion, but not so with Helen. It was brought home to me again as I walked in to breakfast this morning. We had a last acquired a table—I had bought it at a farm sale and brought it home in triumph tied to the roof of my car—and now Helen had vacated the chair on which she used to sit at the bench and had take over the high stool. She was perched away up there now, transiting her food from far below, while I was expected to sit comfortably in the chair. I don’t think I am a selfish swine by nature but there was nothing I could do about it.

And there were other little things. The neat pile of clothing laid out for me each morning; the clean, folded shirt and handkerchief and socks so different from the jumble of my bachelor days. And when I was late for meals, which was often, she served me with my food but instead of going off and doing something else she would down tools and sit watching me while I ate. It made me feel like a sultan.

It was this last trait which gave me a clue to her behaviour. I suddenly remembered that I had seen her sitting by Mr. Alderson while he had a late meal; sitting in the same pose, one arm on the table, quietly watching him. And I realized I was reaping the benefit of her lifetime attitude to her father. Mild little man though he was she had catered gladly to his every wish in the happy acceptance that the man of the house was number one; and the whole pattern was rubbing off on me now.

In fact it set me thinking about the big question of how girls might be expected to behave after marriage. One old farmer giving me advice about choosing a wife once said: ‘Have a bloody good look at the mother first, lad,’ and I am sure he had a point. But if I may throw in my own little word of counsel it would be to have a passing glance at how she acts towards her father.

Watching her now as she got down and started to serve my breakfast the warm knowledge flowed through me as it did so often that my wife was the sort who just liked looking after a man and that I was so very lucky.

And I was certainly blooming under the treatment…. Driving away, I marvelled at the way she indulged my little whims, too.

The book itself begins in this way (Chapter One):

As I crawled into bed and put my arm around Helen it occurred to me, not for the first time, that there are few pleasures in this world to compare with snuggling up to a nice woman when you are half frozen.

There weren’t any electric blankets in the thirties. Which was a pity because nobody needed the things more than country vets. It is surprising how deeply bone-marrow cold a man can get when he is dragged from his bed in the small hours and made to strip off in farm buildings when his metabolism is at a low ebb. Often the worst part was coming back to bed; I often lay exhausted for over an hour, longing for sleep but kept awake until my icy limbs and feet had thawed out.

But since my marriage such things were but a dark memory. Helen stirred in her sleep—she had got used to her husband leaving her in the night and returning like a blast from the North Pole—and instinctively moved nearer to me. With a sigh of thankfulness I felt the blissful warmth envelop me and almost immediately the events of the last two hours began to recede into unreality… (There follows a description of a difficult midnight visit to an open field, and a farmer who cared more about his animal than about the wellbeing of his vet.)

… A realization of my blessings began to return when I slid into bed and Helen, instead of shrinking away from me, as it would have been natural to do, deliberately draped her feet and legs over the human ice block that was her husband. The bliss was unbelievable. It was worth getting out just to come back to this.

I’ve been having another look at Herriot’s biography, searching for more details. There are several instances that reveal his wife’s dedication in this book that I have already mentioned, by their son, Jim Wight. Respectfully and carefully, he also refers to the other woman in his dad’s life—his mother—an industrious and indefatigable lady, but with a difficult personality. She didn’t perceive her daughter-in-law as a complement to her son’s wellbeing, but rather as a competitor for his affections. She was so jealous that she refused to please him by going to his wedding! That was sad, because both of them loved him with all their heart, but each in her own way. The situation improved over time, especially with the arrival of the grandchildren, but it seems to me that the harmony they eventually achieved was greatly facilitated by the considerable geographical distance between them. I am also under the impression that Herriot was so surprised by the way that Helen “pampered” him (as described above, and in the sense of “indulging with every attention, comfort and kindness”, as my computer dictionary defines it) because he had not perceived these demonstrations of affection in his parents’ relationship (at least not to the same degree).

Herriot valued both of these women. But it is plain that there was a definite difference in the way that they dealt with him, because they resulted in distinct responses. Reading the books, I notice that:

In the case of his wife, he spent his life trying to gratefully compensate her voluntary demonstrations of affection convinced that, although he could never match them, she was not keeping score.

In the case of his mom, he spent his life trying to apprehensively win/regain/earn/deserve demonstrations of her affection, convinced that she was definitely keeping score.

Perhaps the love of his wife can be defined as affection linked to expectation.  And that of his mother as affection bound to prerequisites or requirements. Helen cannot be described as a wishy-washy person or as a foolish housewife that allowed herself to be enslaved in a time of “female oppression.” She was an articulate person that expressed her opinions and had positions, tastes, preferences and expectations. But she seemed to understand that true love does not daily weigh the attitudes and actions of the beloved person in a balance in order to, then, pay back in kind, recompensing or retaliating.

She did not limit the demonstrations of her love only to the occasions in which he did something which pleasured her. Instead of being a grumbler, she learned how to enjoy and value their times together, exactly because they were few and, often, unexpected. Hers was not a love that demanded regular reciprocity, neither in kind nor in extent. She was, thus, capable of repeated sacrifice—something so well illustrated by the simple act of always snuggling up to her frozen husband.

How many of us might not use such a moment to punish our husband for some previous hurt or to impress upon him that he should respect our own need for rest or comfort? We all have some notion of what it would be like to have an ideal marital relationship or a perfect companion. But do we really need to demand this from God (or from fate) in order to be happy? Or might it be that true happiness consists in being a person dedicated to creating a cheerful, comfortable and loving environment for those around us and, especially, for our companion—until “death do us part.”

Their son Jim described his father’s death from prostate cancer (soon after they had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary) and said about his mom that she of course, was the person who helped him more than any other. She bore the distress of watching him slowly but surely deteriorate, managing the vast majority of the work in tending to his needs. From their first days together, she had supported him through good times and bad—most of them good—but never would her devotion to her husband shine more brightly than during those final, dark months of his life. (Page 352).

As I said before, I am moved by these descriptions (some times, mere incidental allusions in the stories) about the way that Helen related to her husband, Jim—“studying his comfort”—trying to meet his needs, seeking to satisfy his likings, tolerating his idiosyncrasies, completing him in his deficiencies and “indulging his little whims.” I am moved because God has allowed me to also discover several of the ingredients of this recipe for fulfilment and for joy.

I pray to God that I myself, in the midst of my many other activities, legitimate, necessary or pleasant as they may be, may be someone more and more like this for my husband. May the demonstrations of my affection appear and continue with good will, going beyond seeing and meeting those that I already know to be my “obligations,” in order to discover and employ new ways to make him feel special, loved and precious.

May my continued commitment to this goal be my “Sweethearts’ Day” present for you, my loving companion for almost four decades. I thank God because you, from the start, have taken on the role that is outlined in the Bible for husbands. You always find numerous ways to demonstrate your dedication and affection. You have taken the loving sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ (and his continued endeavour to make his “bride” continually happier, more beautiful and more perfect), as a continuous example for yourself.

I know that, although I am imperfect, aging and, at times, cranky, you have sought to value and love me, keeping bitterness from growing or multiplying, neither on your side nor mine. You have made yourself into my best friend and I love our chats, when you ask for my opinion and treat my feelings with consideration.  I don’t deserve all of this. I am touched as I write—extremely grateful for the security and comfort of our relationship, as our “halves” unite and, more and more, fit together in a pleasant and peaceful relationship. I love you!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Abs, Betty

P.S. Some biblical references as to the manner in which husbands and wives may please God and be happy together, can be found in the Bible, in the New Testament, in Chapter 5 of Ephesians and 3 of Colossians.

Um Comentário a “Happy “Sweethearts’ Day!””

  1. Eunice disse:

    Well done. I enjoyed reading about Valentine’s Day. It was nice meeting you Sunday.

Deixe o seu comentário

Crônicas do Cotidiano > Happy “Sweethearts’ Day!”