There are times when her words seem to echo a meditation or prayer,
something that might have been spoken best in Latin,
in the convent, at mass.
Act I, A Beginning. University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975. We discovered that both of us loved to walk…together. I was thirty-two, Catherine was twenty-seven. We had met a year earlier while employed in the same department.
We walked through the numbing winter cold, in the spring when everything bloomed and all seemed possible, and in the early summer when we lingered under catalpa trees late at night as the flower petals fell around us in a soft, white veil. In the hot, mid-summer days and cooler evenings, we walked in the arboretum where, years earlier, Catherine had recorded the habits of Arboretum wildlife, while remaining silent for hours. She had demonstrated this patience early in her life, and nurtured it later, during her years in the convent as an aspirant.
With each walk, we grew more comfortable in our shared silences. I learned from her to honor those times when what is most important is listening to the sounds of the heart. And we held hands. And began to fall in love.
On an early summer morning, before Madison became busy in its way, we set out with no destination in mind. We stopped for breakfast at a diner, then walked until we stopped somewhere else for lunch, and continued walking until we ate dinner at a third place. By then, the sun was setting; we decided our dessert would be a walk in the nearby arboretum at the end of what had been a perfect day.
As twilight faded to early night, our secluded path entered a thick stand of trees that blocked what was left of the dim glow of the summer sky. Alone in the silence and darkness, we felt safe. It was startling the first time we heard the sound of something invisible in the dark, swooping close to our heads. It swooped again. And then again, stopping only as we emerged from the stand of trees and entered a small field where the trail widened. In quiet voices, unsure of what had happened, we acknowledged we had been frightened. Talking in the dark in this intimate way, we realized what had frightened us was nothing else but a large owl, protecting its nest and its young. We imagined it was the mother.
Act II, A Decision. St. Louis, Missouri, fall 1987. Twelve years passed, and we were still a couple, sharing our lives and our household, but not yet married. One morning, we talked again of how vexatious, maybe impossible, it would be to find a rabbi and a priest to officiate at the wedding of this Jewish man and this Catholic woman. And we worried about something more important: what would we teach our children about religion, and could all of this become so overwhelming we might never move forward.
Silent once again, we stood close to each other as the sun streamed through the large window and appeared as a rectangle of sunlight on an unadorned white wall of our bedroom. Catherine was the first to speak. There are times–and this would be one of them–when her words seem to echo a meditation or a prayer, something that might have been spoken best in Latin, in the convent, at mass.
“It’s upon us to understand how God manifests Himself.”
Two small birds flew past the window, revealed only by their fleeting shadows crossing the sunlight on the wall.
“That's how God manifests Himself to me,” I said.
“That’s how He manifests Himself to me, too,” Catherine said. “Let’s go ahead and get married.”
We eloped. Members of our families had wanted us to marry, but the idea of putting together a wedding with parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends seemed overwhelming and unnecessary. A Unitarian minister officiated in the chapel of his church. Our only guests were another couple, good friends who fulfilled the requirement of two witnesses. Afterwards, the four of us enjoyed an elegant lunch at their home. The dining room table had been prepared for a wedding celebration: white embroidered table cloth, fine crystal and china, and delectable salads and wine. Their newborn son slept peacefully in the next room.
A cold November rain began as Catherine and I drove toward the airport to leave for a brief honeymoon on Sanibel Island. My father had died two years before, and we decided to stop at the cemetery to tell him we were married, and to imagine his blessing. The cemetery gate was locked. I had forgotten it was one of the Jewish holidays; tradition demands that the cemetery should not be visited during any of those days. We climbed over the low stone wall, told my father we had married, and knew he would be pleased. We placed a small rock on his headstone, and climbed back over the fence. In our car, we laughed about how wet, muddy, and contented we were on our wedding day.
Act III, A Wedding Gift. Sanibel Island. One afternoon of our three days on the island, we purchased a belated wedding cake. In a small park, we shared a slice of key lime pie that we ate with plastic forks from a fine china paper plate, our shoulders touching as we sat on a sun-bleached, wooden bench under a shading palm tree. We took small bites to make the feast last longer, then used our forefingers to capture the last crumbs of graham cracker crust and the last traces of whipping cream. We fed these morsels of treasure to each other in an act of sharing that evoked the words from the Song of Solomon, often recited by brides and grooms: “I am my beloved’s; my beloved is mine.” This moment, on a wooden bench under a palm tree, served to consecrate our commitment.
It was the slow season, and we encountered only small number of people, especially on the beach. The island is known for its abundant array of sea shells, always at their greatest number following a storm like the one that had preceded our visit. We held hands as we walked the long beach a few steps from our door, letting go when either of us spotted a special shell that called for close examination. At the ever-shifting margin of water and sand, new shells were exposed with each soft ebb and flow of a now calm sea.
Our search for shells was interrupted by a dorsal fin emerging from the water fifteen feet from us. A few seconds later, a much smaller fin emerged. Two dolphins surfaced enough for us to see much of their shiny, grey and black, rounded backs, one large and one very small. The mother dolphin–we again imagined–and her baby, began to accompany us as we continued down the beach.
Our new friends disappeared at short intervals of no more than a minute or two, then reappeared next to us. A few times, we stopped to see if they would stop with us. They did. When we resumed, they resumed. Our isolation on a remote part of the beach contributed why we shared a feeling that this was more than just a walk with nearby dolphins.
“Catherine, are you feeling what I’m feeling?”
“Actually, what I’m feeling is like we’re communing with them.”
The four of us continued down the beach, but at an isolated point of land, where the storm had deposited a large pile of driftwood that blocked our path, we decided to turn back. We hoped the dolphins would turn with us, which they did. After another half-hour together, our companions returned to the depths.
Catherine and I slowed our pace for about a quarter mile more, before we accepted they had left us. Our elation became more like serenity. It became the kind of feeling that can happen while witnessing a spectacular sunset and painted sky, and realizing, as the crest of our star slips below the horizon, a wondrous day is gone forever, but more are sure to come.
Curtain call. Milwaukee, 2016. After thirty years, when we reminisce about how we fell in love and married, our experiences on the Sanibel beach and the secluded path in the arboretum are inseparable. Anyone might think, as once we had, that in the arboretum we were given nothing more than a warning not to approach the owl’s nest and its young. But in matters of the heart–our two hearts–thoughts give way to feelings, reality is blurred by imagination and illusion, and ordinary shadows of birds racing across rectangles of sunlight become revelations.
Having given life to our own son and daughter, having reared them in our own nest, we can not help but imagine, perhaps believe, that Mother Owl had offered her beating wings to carry us to Mother Dolphin and the child she would show two lovers, walking hand in hand, listening to the sounds of the heart.