We are waiting, my wife and I, for our first child. It -- he or she -- is nine days overdue. Last night, Martha, looking down toward where her knees and feet once were, said, "I wonder what you will look like?" I cannot imagine. Even in this pitch of expectation, the future holds my thoughts less well than the past. "She will be beautiful," I said, "or he'll be." But as I spoke I saw in my mind's eye not the unimaginable new face, but two faces old and familiar -- my grandmothers, both of whom died as this child gestated.
One, also named Martha, has especially been in my thoughts. Last May, when she heard our good news, she began to crochet an afghan of white wool. By August, when she died of cancer, the afghan was only half-finished. The friend she asked to complete her work told us later that each panel my grandmother had done had been less tight than the last. She had been hurrying; she wanted badly to leave something tangible for the child whom she would not see. The afghan is in the nursery now, finished and waiting.
But all fall I have been thinking of something she left that was intangible: My grandmother loved beauty. It sounds odd, now that I've said it. Who doesn't love beauty? Perhaps I should say not that she loved it, but that she practiced it. She was always on the lookout for it, and thereby found it in the oddest places as well as in the usual ones; and she knew how to appreciate it, how to drink it in in great gulps. She was a glutton for it.
She was a student of beauty, and a teacher. Young people in her town would ask her advice about fabrics or architect's drawings or would take her with them to buy antiques. We, if we bought something without her, would be nervous until she told us what she thought of it and sometimes disappointed because she would damn with faint praise what she didn't like.
Her taste did not generally run to high art, although Italy, which she toured in her 78th year, made its impressions. For her, beauty lay in the apprehension of things closer to home: an old -- and battered -- Chippendale table with legs that tapered just so; a piece of brocade that she had bought but found no use for, other than draping it over a chair, to be admired; a log smoking in the fireplace. When my grandfather died, she moved to a smaller house. One afternoon we hung some prints for her in the living room. She couldn't take her eye off them all day, although she had been looking at them for 30 or 40 years.
Nature's furnishings worked on her in the conventional way. And yet it was disarming how she could look at a rose and say, as if it hadn't been said before, "Isn't that lovely?"
The last time she visited us, last May, she had gotten up early one morning and gone for a walk behind our house. We lived then by an old church with a graveyard that goes back 250 years. Growing there are walnuts and magnolias, crape myrtles and dogwoods, hickorys and persimmons. In that most unusual of springs, the narcissus and forsythia bloomed simultaneously with the dogwood and iris. Later that morning, she told me of her walk. "I stood out there for a long time, and I got the strangest feeling," she said. And then a shiver of delight went through her whole body, duplicating, I imagined, a shiver she must have felt in the presence of all that blooming nature.
This child, who is on his way tonight, or if not tonight then tomorrow night, or the next, will be beautiful, or won't; will be intelligent, or won't; will be happy, or won't. That is pretty much out of our hands. I hope not to encumber my son or daughter with too many expectations or with too many platitudes. Just one -- for now, anyway. I am speaking from up close, through flesh and fluid, only a few milimeters, really, but an illimitable distance: "Love beauty." Editor's note: Matthew Spencer Wilson was born two days after this was written.