Sentimental Journeys

Laurence Sterne was dying of consumption, the polite yet dramatic term that people used to employ for pulmonary diseases, especially tuberculosis. He had contracted it by 1740, when he was still in his 20s, and he fought for his every breath for his remaining three decades of life.

In 1765, he left England in search of better breathing, and he traveled abroad to France and Italy. He was a surprise best-selling author by this point, a clergyman who had decided on a whim to start telling the life story of a character but by not telling it in a straightforward manner, to comically digress his way through The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One of the earliest novels in English or any language, “Shandy” was an instant success when its first two volumes started appearing in 1759.

The genre we call “travel writing” was not as common in the 1760s as it is now, and most works in that genre at that time were quite unsentimental: verbal pictures of natural phenomena and wonders of the man-made world and warnings-slash-complaints about the foreignness of foreigners on their strange home turf. In his 1765 journey, Sterne encountered fellow novelist Tobias Smollett, and the stern, dry Smollett left such an impression on the always amused Sterne that in his book, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, he based a character named “Smelfungus” on Smollett. Nice revenge.
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An Artist of the Surprise Gesture

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 2 requests that one’s post includes three random items. “Write a post about any topic you want, in whatever form or genre, but make sure it features a slice of cake, a pair of flip-flops, and someone old and wise.” I chose to write flash fiction.

“I don’t know why she makes such a production out of everything,” Aunt Helen said to no one and everyone, shaking her head.

“She likes making the effort,” I offered. She looked directly at me with that. When I continued, “Maybe the reward is in the doing,” it ended as a drifting-off question.

“Not only am I going to look at you like I think you have three heads, I think you have three heads,” the aunt said. She looked out the window. Victoria was digging for something in her car, so far in that her feet were off the ground. “If it’s that far in, shouldn’t she just go around to the other side?”

“I think she is grabbing it by the base.” I hadn’t even walked over to the window to see for myself. It was a Christmas tree, fake, but already decorated with ornaments, and thus unstable no matter which method Victoria employed to retrieve it from the car. She had had her son hold it steady from his position in his car seat.

“Well, if you know what she’s doing, why didn’t you know I just wanted to cook dinner for myself, watch my stories, and go to bed?” Helen’s jowls were in constant motion as she clenched and unclenched her jaw, pursed her lips and forced her mouth to relax. We were bringing her some Christmas on her 89th birthday, and the visit was unannounced. It was unannounced because it was unplanned. Not an hour before, Victoria had remembered that she had a tree “somewhere” and that her aunt did not have a tree anywhere. Thirty minutes later, my legs were the ones off the ground as I grabbed it by its base and attempted to gently remove the tree from its storage box on a forgotten high shelf in the basement. It was still decorated from a Christmas in the ’70s. Fifteen minutes before that, I was failing to find it in a shed behind her house. I awoke that morning to her telling me her plan as if it had already happened, as if it was an anecdote.

Choosing to decide that I indeed hoped that this was an anecdote about something that had already happened—me searching for her childhood Christmas tree and us driving to Aunt Helen’s—I asked “This (story) is from last year?” If the answer was yes, we were then going to make our plans for the rest of the day, plans that I would have been happy to learn included shopping for next summer’s flip-flops or cleaning the house. Anything but one of Victoria’s adventures. Of course, deep down I actually wanted to be a part of one of her adventures, and I knew how to play very well my role of “grudging friend who gets won over.”

Whatever planning that might have been required for the day with her aunt had happened in Victoria’s head during the night before, without her consulting anyone who might be capable of implementing her plan to show love: neither me, the “muscle,” nor Aunt Helen, the recipient. It was up to us to live up to her scheme, a desire to do something so spontaneous and loving and generous that everyone involved would enjoy the spontaneity, embrace the love, and participate in the generosity. But if we failed to live up to the plan in her head, well, life is a challenge with an artist of the surprise gesture.

But something was different about this adventure: Helen was having none of it. “I didn’t ask for a tree! You should have just brought me some cake.” Victoria moved the tree to her kitchen, and while she was out of earshot, Helen whispered something I can not forget: “I don’t know why she tries so hard. It would be easier if she just said ‘I love you.'”