Paulist Press, Mahwah, N.J, 2011; $19.95
When Christopher de Vinck married Roe in 1977, the couple moved into their “little house” in Pompton Plains, N.J. In that house they “raised three children, two cats, a dog, some mice and a few goldfish.”
De Vinck says he has “done everything possible to make sure this house stayed warm, cool, bug-free, painted, nailed, windowed, screened, wired and safe.”
The main characters in ‘Moments of Grace,” De Vinck’s new book of brief, reflective essays, are the inhabitants of the couple’s home: the couple themselves and their children. Grandparents and other relatives, neighbors, friends and, even the family’s physical neighborhood also receive the writer’s careful, caring attention.
His book differs from other books I have reviewed offering helpful advice on marriage and the family or exploring their meaning. For me, nonetheless, “Moments of Grace” is inescapably a book about marriage and the family.
De Vinck gratefully contemplates the people, events and things of his daily life. He appears to appreciate his close-to-home world greatly, never diminishing it in favor of other life demands.
What De Vinck wants to do through his writing is “to celebrate the combination of joy and sorrow” in life in ways that are “neither sentimental nor harsh,” he tells us.
Readers are likely to come upon a few mirror images of themselves in this book’s pages. No two homes are alike, I am sure. But are there threads of home life that many families share?
“Moments of Grace” might serve well as a bedside-table book, since two or three chapters at a time might enjoyably be read within only a few minutes at day’s end.
The author attempts to put into words what, for him, a home is. He says that sometimes today he steps out of their house in the evening and then turns to gaze upon it. Revealing what goes through his mind as he looks “to the windows with the yellow lights pouring onto the grass like slabs of honey,” he writes:
“I know that Roe is sitting on the couch reading. The children are all adults and gone. The cat is dead, and yet there it is: home, the place where my wife tells me she loves me, the place where the walls hold pictures of the children when they were children, the place where the windows rattle and I am not afraid.”
Memories are invaluable to De Vinck’s writing. Like parents everywhere, he remembers long-ago events in his children’s lives.
He remembers helping their daughter learn to ride a bike, but finally needing — and not finding it easy — to “let go.” He remembers speaking by phone with an adult son, who, thankfully, was unharmed in a frightening auto accident.
De Vinck remembers the day he met Roe – his wife, the mother of their children and “the woman who has folded my underwear for thirty-three years, walked with me along the Roman roads in Belgium, swam with me in a beaver pond in Canada.”
The author concludes that while “birds select their mates in the early spring,” humans select mates “in the miracle of circumstances.”
Often, “when we are discouraged or filled with hopelessness,” memories come into play as a source of solace, De Vinck believes. He explains:
“What we discover are precious memories: times when we felt good, times when the summer lake was cool and soothing, days when a sister read aloud from the poetry of Carl Sandburg, an afternoon when a mother poured pea soup into the lunch bowl that sat, with a large, silver spoon, on the kitchen table before us.”
De Vinck’s memories of his family and home, and his capacity to gaze upon them contemplatively, finding what is good there, seem to be entwined with his understanding of happiness and life’s meaning. In an essay remembering that his father built a wooden fort for De Vinck’s toy soldiers and gave it to him at Christmas when he was 9, the author comments:
“We think that we are in pursuit of happiness when, in reality, it has already been found a long time ago when the pea soup was hot and the tin soldiers successfully protected the Christmas fort once again.”