My first memory is of my mother stepping out of a bakers shop, me in one arm, a bag of cinnamon buns in the other. I was four years old. It was looking to be a fine day, as I had earned one of those buns for my good behaviour that morning. I was stuffing it into my mouth, nestled there in the cradle of my mothers arm, when she suddenly turned on her heel and swung her shopping bag at a man who was entering the shop just as we were leaving. The man fellhe must have been old, certainly caught unawaresand as my mother stood over him I munched away happily, thinking this was some sort of pantomime enacted for my amusement. The baker came out from behind his counter and stepped into the game. His apron was white. He was a large man and wore a pleated hat. I remember thinking that it looked like a mushroom. More, I said, and the baker with the mushroom hat raised the man by the collar and threw him out the door.
This early memory, though I include it here, is not typical of your grandmother, for she was, in faith and in deed, a woman devoted to the Lord and to the improvement of His world. She was a warm and loving mother, gentle as a lamb, but a fighter, too, who wouldnt turn the other cheek when confronted by the ugliness of disrespectful men. It was your grandmother who taught me and my brother and sister that things could be made better by virtue of regular Bible study and a calm spiritual persistence, and that our highest calling was to commit ourselves to the betterment of our small corner of the world. This was a first lesson in life and one I carry with me to this day, greying sinner that I am. She instilled within me the impulse to make the most of what I had been given. We are all given talents, she would say. Each of us to our own abilities.
Every Sunday in the parlour, she told us one of Jesuss parables. I remember my mothers soft hand on my head as she read through Matthew. The Parable of the Talents has stayed with me. You might know it. One man hoards his gifts while others bring them out into the world to gain strength and knowledge. Her hand lifted from my head and gently touched the open Bible.
And what does this mean? she asked softly.
That it is Gods will for us to make the most of what were given, I said.
Yes, and that what youre given belongs not to you, Norman, but to the Lord, who has favoured us all with a special gift, each of us in our own way. You are now the keeper of these talents, Norman, and you have many of them. You must not bury your gifts but share them with others.
I told your mother about these Bible lessons, more than forty years after the fact. I told your mother that I had taken my Presbyterian upbringing very seriously. That I saw life as a series of lessons, of morally correct or incorrect choices. That the decision to lead a good life was yours. I still feel it in me, I told her, even now. She sat on a stool before me. We were in Madrid. The war there was on then, and still is.
Turn your shoulder toward me, please, I said. I thought of myself as something of a weekend painter, if thats the right expression. It was a quiet night at the Hotel Santander.
Your mother said, Yes, I know that about you, Norman. I can see how you are. Move the shoulder a little more, please.
She said, Theres no other place Id rather be than here, at this very moment, with you.
I was silent for a moment, then said, I dont know if Ill ever get your skin right. Youre like a snowflake. Youre the whitest thing Ive ever seen.
I am your Swedish princess. She shifted the blanket on her shoulder and tossed her hair. She spoke English very well. Did you ever believe youd find someone here? In the middle of this stupid war?
Excerpted from The Communist's Daughter by Dennis Bock Copyright © 2007 by Dennis Bock. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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