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Volume 38 Issue 3 • May 8 - 22, 2008
now in our 38th season

The Gate of Pleasant Folly

by Robert P. Barsanti

I visited my Uncle James last weekend.  Father Jim had recently resigned from the priesthood and was, unfortunately, taking the first part of his retirement double bunking in a nursing home.  The stay, he hoped, would be temporary.  He needed to get well enough so that the surgeons could replace both of his knees.  Then, he would be able to return to a world without nurses and sign-out sheets.

When I called him, he did not know my voice.  Instead, he identified me first as my father, then as my brother, then as my cousin.  When I cleared up the confusion, he claimed that he could hear the echo of those other voices in mine.   Nonetheless, he was interested, spirited, and energetic.

He had been six months in the nursing home.  I hadn’t known, but I hadn’t turned over many rocks trying to get in touch.  The world of my childhood has been stuffed into a set of shoeboxes in the top of my closet.    I look at them warily, as if they were bills I was trying to forget. 

James holds the mortgage on the man I am today.  When I was the age of my own children, he was the relative who showed up with the best presents.  My uncle could be counted on to bring in the most bizarre, the most fun, and the most challenging of toys.  The pastor of St. Stephen’s brought us Mad Magazine, the Pink Panther movies, and Doritos.  Later, as I advanced into middle school, we began an exchange of novels.  Both of us enjoyed reading mass market mystery/adventure stories.  So we would trade Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald, and others back and forth.  In sixth grade, he gave me a journal just for my writing.  While we were kids, he would orbit us with his camera and hunt out candid after candid for his collection.  Then, he would make us watch ourselves in a slide show.  He was my harbor during the storms of adolesence.  He took us to rock concerts, art galleries, museums of natural history, and restaurants that served snails.  Later in life, he married me and baptized my children.  My debt is profound.

More than anything, he taught me the pleasures of the table.  My mother was a wonderful woman, with great and wonderful gifts of wit, patience, and strength.  But she had the gift of the Irish in her kitchen:  she could boil meat to perfection.  For four years, my uncle would come out to our house on Wednesday with a selection of recipes from “Bon Appetit,” “Gourmet,” and The Blue Strawberry Cookbook.  He made G.I. Joe Chicken, Watermelon in Orange Juice and Beer, Steak au Poivre, and Seafood Lasagna.

At most of these dinners, the adults drank wine.  Wine drinking during the Carter years involved large gallon bottles from Carlo Rossi and the Gallo brothers.  My father would plunk two ice cubes into his glass.  Occasionally we would get a sip, but we weren’t terribly interested.  We had homework, TV to watch, or some other private bit of play that involved being outside of the adult’s prying eyes.

Away from their children’s prying eyes, the conversation grew convivial and boisterous.  Voices might grow heated, but more likely they would laugh long and loud.  I was far too busy banging the door shut on my cellar of adolescent rebellion to remember anything that was said.  But it was enjoyed.

Now that I have drunk my share (and then some) of wine, I know what some of that enjoyment must have been.  In the words of the poet, wine is a “useful key to unlock the storehouse of wit, the treasury of laughter, the front door of fellowship, and the gate of pleasant folly.”  For my uncle, who spent the other days of the week tottering around an empty rectory, or listening to the humdrum sins of his parishioners, or performing funeral mass after funeral mass, these evenings must have been a welcome respite from the dull knife of rectitude and responsibility.  He only passed through the gate of pleasant folly once a week, and that was with us.

The Nantucket Wine Festival opens our front door of summer and silliness.  For most of our visitors, the winters are full of morose calculation and stale sobriety.  They come to the island for the fellowship and the folly.  They surf, they sail, they swim, and they toast each other.  Our island is at its best when we all mellow under the influence of the wine dark sea.

I wish I could bring James to the wine festival.  He knows enough of the goblet and glass to appreciate all of the different flavors and textures of wine.  He would look, enviously, on those who were ordering cases of wine for the cellar, but would walk carefully before choosing the one wine that he would like and could afford.  More to the point, he would enjoy opening that front door of fellowship.

When I came to see him in the nursing home, he remained the same man.  He had lost enough weight to resemble his father.  His world had shrunk to the size of a bed and a window, but all of the surfaces were filled with books, completed crossword puzzles, prints, and New Yorkers.  His face jigged at the sight of the two boys.  I signed him out, then took him, his two Canadian crutches, and my two boys to a local Barnes and Noble’s.  True to form, he threatened to buy them the Complete Captain Underpants Collection and a Speed Racer Race Car before I stepped in with some parental sobriety.  Nonetheless, they were able to slip out with some valuable loot.  True to form, they buried themselves in their books once we hit the car.

I turned the car back up Route 9 and headed back to the nursing home, the roommate, and the silent golf match.  He offered to take us to Legal Seafoods, but there was too much tiredness and responsibility in the car.

Maybe next time, if we get lucky.
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