Sitting in Cleveland, waiting for a plane, I reached in my pocket for scrap paper to write a phone number on and found the epistle for last Sunday. St. Paul said, “As for those who in the present day are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,” which makes sense as the dollar falls and the price of oil rises and the auto business heads south and the housing market shudders and suddenly nobody is quite sure how much the house is worth and the slow-motion disaster of Iraq grinds on and on, the Arctic ice cap has shrunk by a million square miles, so we’d better start learning to enjoy long walks in the woods, apples and flirting, all the God-given pleasures. We face uncertain times.
Those of us brought up on the Bible remember the parable of the rich man in hell and the beggar Lazarus in paradise, and yet we still do enjoy fine restaurants and four-star hotels — though we see flames licking at the windows — because it takes a hardscrabble upbringing to truly appreciate the home beautiful, the exquisite salad, the bison rib-eye in mushroom sauce, the braised tomatoes. As Emily Dickinson said, “To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need.”
More than hotels and restaurants, I love the Sunday real estate ads, my favorite pornography — the big frame house overlooking Puget Sound, the penthouse at 72nd and Broadway, the beach cottage on Antigua, the stone house on the Isle of Harris — I look at them and imagine how happy at last I would be, if I could only take one more leap.
I grew up north of Minneapolis, in a white frame house my dad built. 3BR, LR, DR, EIK, with a large picture window that looked south across a cornfield. I looked beyond the corn and imagined my true mother, the Broadway actress Eileen Flambeau, before her unfortunate car crash that resulted in the amnesia that led her to give me up for adoption by Midwestern Protestants, sweeping through the door in a red dress, humming Gershwin, nibbling a shrimp, crying, “Dahling!”
She was fabulously rich, of course, and would have packed me off to Exeter and Yale, and I wouldn’t have had to ride the yellow bus to Anoka High School and suffer through phys-ed class where Coach stalked the gym, a short bald man with hair on his back, and made me run and dive over the horse and do a forward roll, though I was 6-foot-2 and weighed 138 and was nearsighted and timid, but that’s life, it’s just one thing after another.
We did not lead elegant lives in our 3BR home. You could find orange rinds behind the sofa cushions and socks on the floor. And if company dropped in, unexpected, we raced around, hurling stuff into closets, and opened the door and pretended to be happily surprised. We apologized for the mess and offered them coffee. “Oh, don’t go to any trouble,” they said.
If people knew the truth about us — if they saw where we live when it’s not cleaned up — would they still like us? I have never resolved this terrible question. It’s what makes a man restless, always running away from people who know him too well and looking for friendly strangers. And rich people are freer to travel and they are so much more attractive, are they not? Yes, indeed. They dwell in marble halls and some of that marbliness rubs off on them and lifts them above the tawdry struggle for fame and lucre and free upgrades that occupies us peasants. And they have people to pick up their orange peels and socks.
But it dawned on me the other day that I am not reading the real estate ads anymore. The seaside manse in Connecticut with tennis court and separate servants’ quarters ($12.4 million) is lovely, dark and deep, but it doesn’t call to me.
I live in a home where people miss me when I’m gone, even though they know me very well. My cellphone rings and a little girl asks in a plaintive orphan’s voice, “What time do you get home?” A God-given pleasure, afforded to rich and poor alike. Without that, there would be no “here” or “there,” you wouldn’t be gone at all, you’d just be wherever you are, which, in my case, is Cleveland. Heading for Milwaukee in minutes. Home tomorrow, dahling.
(Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.