The ties that bind always seem to be about other things

ALICE STEINBACH

October 25, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

For the last 20 minutes I've been trying to remember whether it was the philosopher Kierkegaard or my Aunt Claire who made this profound observation: "Everything is always about something else."

But regardless of who said it, the idea conveyed in that short, simple sentence is as relevant to our lives as any I can think of. A relevant idea but, perhaps because such a view implies chaos, an idea not often examined.

Now, however, there is a movie that portrays the sharp truth behind the assumption that "Everything is about something else." Based on Norman Maclean's autobiographical story, "A River Runs Through It" is a film that reminds us of how seldom we recognize what really binds a family together and shapes its memories. And of how important it is not to miss the meaning present in the moment of transaction between us and our children.

Indeed, moviegoers will leave this film understanding, in ways deeper than words, that verbal communication is often a poor vehicle for conveying one's truest and most essential nature.

On the surface, "A River Runs Through It" is a film about a Presbyterian minister who is able to express his feelings only through teaching his sons the art of fly-fishing. Norman Maclean, who died in 1990, was one of the minister's sons. In his acknowledgment to the book, he suggests that one reason for writing it was to let children know what kind of people their parents are or hope they are or think they are.

His own son, John Maclean, listened to many of his father's stories before they were written. Writing them down, however, "was very, very hard for him," said John Maclean in a recent radio interview about his father. "He spent 40 years telling a book that was about 104 pages long when he finished with it."

Hearing this, it struck me that we are all, in the way we live our lives, telling a book. Most of us will never write it down but we will "tell" it to our children: in the way we spend time with them and in the way we allow them, or not, to share with us what we most value.

Words, of course, are capable of conjuring up childhood memories. I, for example, think of the thousands of stories my own grandmother told me over the first 10 years of my life: of growing up in Scotland; of having her own pony; of living on the grounds of a castle; of losing a sister to scarlet fever.

I remember them all. But, really, the memory of such spoken stories never summons up my grandmother in quite the way that standing in my garden does.

Words have no dominion here among the snowdrops and lily-of-the-valley. Like a genie from a bottle, the smell of rich, damp earth releases my grandmother's essence, and she appears before me: a small, determined woman wearing sturdy shoes and gardening gloves.

Her father, my great-grandfather, had been head gardener to the Royal Family at a castle in Scotland. And it was clear from my grandmother's stories that the only closeness she ever shared with her strict father came when he allowed her to walk the gardens with him.

Gardening, I suppose you could say, became my grandmother's equivalent of fly-fishing. And at a very early age I became her willing disciple.

Remembering my grandmother in the garden, I have no doubt that Norman Maclean could not have loved the feel of a 2-pound rainbow on the end of his line any more than my grandmother loved the feel of the earth opening up beneath her fingers.

But like Norman's father, she never conveyed in words her reverence for all this meant to her. As a child I understood, without knowing I understood, that gardening was not something my grandmother did, it was what my grandmother was. When my grandmother knelt among the flowers, she was assuming her place in nature; she was affirming that there was order in the world, if one could only find the right river to stand in.

And over the many seasons of standing next to her in that river of rich earth and fragrant nature, I like to think some sense of her order, in what is essentially a chaotic world, passed into me.

And into one of my sons. I know this is true because I never pass by the yellow azalea or the blue hydrangea or the mountain laurel without thinking of the seasons he and I worked side by side in the garden.

Once we ran out of daylight before we ran out of plants. So my son and I finished the job by flashlight. I remember we talked very little in the fading light. But I also remember it as a night when more was said than I could ever say.

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