The Empty Lot and Bernard of Clairvaux

Photo: © Stephane Cocke. All rights reserved.

For some reason I have lately been thinking about my mother and her style of parenting—or non-parenting. You know how the Greek mystic theologians of the early Middle Ages used to use the via negativa to talk about God, namely saying what he was not, instead of what he was? They did that to show that human words could not encompass the other-worldliness of the Supreme Being. When you said that God was non-life, it meant that he was beyond life and as such we could not comprehend his essence. In some ways my mother was a non-mother and therefore more than a mother. I am not saying she was god-like in any way. She just existed outside of any kind of normal definition. She cracked whatever construct you might believe in. For the record, I have never been the sort of non-mother that she was. I guess I am coming to the conclusion that she mothered with recklessness, even lack of judgment. My older sister, Margo, has often said to me, “What mother does such a thing?” In other words: no mother, other than ours, would do such a thing. However, both Margo and I love my mother. This is an undeniable fact. And her risk-taking ideology served us both well in life. She urged Margo to take her chances at age twenty-three, to quit her excellent teaching job, to go and settle in a country where she did not know the language and basically only knew the boy with whom she was in love. Play it by ear. See what happens. It was the most momentous decision of my sister’s life and she acknowledges our mother’s role in the happy outcome of her daring act.

When I was little more than a baby, we moved out of the downtown area of the city to an exclusively residential neighbourhood. It was still lower middle-class but less busy, maybe less dangerous. We remained in that small house until I turned six and my sister thirteen. Each house on our block contained four dwellings, two on the ground floor, two on the second floor. Except that next to ours there was an empty lot, which took on greater significance as time went on, and as I matured into a freewheeling child, unregulated on the streets but fairly constrained in the home.

Exploration was my thing, and since my mother sent me out to play in the “fresh” air in every kind of weather—even a blizzard—I had plenty of opportunity to do just that. When I was much older she even told me that when I was about three, she bundled me up in my snowsuit and plunked me down on the snow-covered balcony to play there, while she went off to do some shopping. It was way below zero and since I fell asleep on the balcony, I could have frozen to death, or so she recounted to me. I only have her side of the story. You have to understand that there was no apology in the telling. It was not a mea culpa moment in the least. She was just offering up the adventures of my childhood before a time when my own memories could start to play havoc with my psyche.

The empty lot tells a great deal about her and her “outdoors at all costs” attitude to child-rearing, but so does one other regular occurrence. At ages four and five I played quite often with a boy called Billy, who lived on the other side of the houseless plot of land. As soon as we got together, and with no parent in sight, either he or I asked the other: “Do you want to run away from home?” Eventually the question became unnecessary. There was a look and a nod and we were off. The question really meant: “Do you want to go exploring until we get lost?” We were obviously very confident that a kind stranger would either walk or drive us home. I knew my address by heart. That my mother drummed into me. I can’t remember if Billy got that same lesson about his address, but he probably did, since getting lost was a weekly event. Could it be that my mother is not that unusual, in that Billy’s mother seemed just as unconcerned about what her son and I got up to? The admonition about not talking to strangers certainly did not get delivered to either Billy or me. Depend on strangers, instead, seemed to be the watchword of our families.

So where did we go when we went off to seek our fortune in the big bad world? Hand-in-hand we walked up our street, made a few turns, until we reached the biggest and longest street in our tiny universe. Bernard Avenue was immense from our perspective. It went on and on in either direction. If I remember correctly we usually went right. When looking to the right the vista before us was endless—infinite. We would just go until nothing seemed familiar. Sometimes we turned down a side street whose name was unknown to us, although I could read the street sign and pronounce it aloud. Sometimes we just kept crossing street after street. We never turned around and went back the same way we came. It was usually the bewildered look on our faces that stopped a passerby who would ask if we were lost. We came home with all kinds of people, male and female, of varying ages. In the summer we often got an ice-cream cone for our exertions. I remember a man with an extravagant moustache who brought us home in his convertible car. Billy and I sat up front on the other side of the stick shift, a long skinny metal tube with a black ball on top. My very first car had a stick shift like that and it always reminded me of the one I sat next to on that trip home from our expedition into the wilds. Subsequent cars of mine always had what looked like a miniature upside-down punching bag on top of the stick—never as good as the perfectly round ball.

I wonder which Bernard that long thoroughfare was named after. Our city is one in which half the streets are named after saints, some very familiar, such as Matthew, Mark, or Catherine, some absolutely alien, such as Emilie, Cuthbert, or Viateur. And why is there no Saint in front of his name? Even if the street had been named after a species of dog, there would still be that prefix to honour it. To my mature mind, the only Bernard worthy of such a dignified street would be the twelfth-century Cistercian monk, abbot, and theologian Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard may not be a household name, but he has pride of place at the very end of Dante’s Paradise in the Divine Comedy. He is the one who entreats the Virgin to allow Dante’s vision to ultimately “penetrate the final blessedness.” Who else but Bernard of Clairvaux could be so highly positioned in Dante’s hierarchy of justified greatness? And what about Filippino Lippi’s fifteenth-century panel of the Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard, housed in the Badia Fiorentina in Florence—one of my favourite paintings of the Italian Renaissance? Historians talk about all kinds of things when referring to Lippi’s masterpiece—the influence of Botticelli and the differences between their styles, the outdoor setting, what Bernard is writing at his lectern, the devils to Bernard’s right, the motto “Substine et abstine” (Carry on and abstain) written just above the saint’s head, and all of its possible symbolic meanings. No one talks much about the face of Bernard, but it is the one thing that absolutely catches my eye every time I ponder the painting. What a face! He may be the intercessor supreme to the Virgin but he is just so human. The veins stand out on his forehead in his concentration. His ear is elongated above the tonsure. He is not just looking at her. This man knew how to listen! He has beautiful lips, slightly open, a justly proportioned nose, and the eye that we see is totally engrossed in the apparition before him. He is smooth-skinned and there is a lightness to his head that gives him a grace that matches Mary’s. What a shiveringly sublime communion we are allowed to witness. Of course, this male figure is a portrait of some model. If only I could have met the true man in the white robe lovingly rendered by Lippi! A conversation is all I would ask for. Would he be as intelligent as he looks?

I have often speculated about the models in these Renaissance paintings. Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have left his considerable fortune to two of his favourite boy models, demonstrating how important they were in his life. There is a large Gabriel, in annunciation pose, by Sandro Botticelli, on view in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I love this angel, but it is the real boy depicted here who has prompted my imagination to go into hyperdrive. He looks sleep-starved. He also looks like he has arrived late to this appointment. He has come flying in without a single moment to calm himself and prepare for this historic responsibility, that of imitating the preeminent bearer of mystifying news. With his swollen eyes and fluttering hair, he is absolutely enchanting. Needless to say, at the time of my early obsession with Bernard Avenue, I had absolutely no knowledge of saints or mystics. I lived in an absolutely non-saint-inspired and mysticism-free household.

The other thing that Billy and I liked to do, besides getting lost, was to trespass onto territory that was forbidden. And why would an empty lot be forbidden? At some point it seemed that construction was about to begin. Backhoes, cement mixers, and trucks were showing up. A cement foundation had been laid and in back of it, a huge two-metre-square black hole into oblivion had been dug. After this exciting flurry of activity, all work stopped, and the hole was left as it was. You knew it was there because wooden posts, easily pushed aside by small hands, were set up about a half-metre apart around its perimeter. Some sort of wire was strung between the posts with little diamond-shaped flags hanging from it. The orange and yellow pieces of plastic swung in the breeze, beckoning all and sundry under the age of about twelve to scope the depths of the gaping pit they surrounded. What could be more attractive than the darkness within? No amount of “You’ll fall in and break your bones” could keep us from peering into that cavernous crater right on our very doorstep.

The older school-age children on our block had often told Billy and me that they had managed to jump inside the pit, explore its emptiness, and then climb out. We were way too small to do that. Jumping in was a possibility but coming out impossible. We had to be satisfied with lying on our stomachs, looking down, throwing pebbles inside, and listening to their thump as they hit the bottom. The shadowy mystery of the place was mesmerizing and the desire to explore difficult to contain.

Despite the warnings about falling in, we were not afraid. Though there was something—actually someone—that did terrify us. Is there always a childhood figure in everyone’s life that is simply so intimidating and menacing that they can never be forgotten? Or is it something else altogether that is forever remembered, some stealthily lurking shame that lives inside of us?

In our neighbourhood, on our street, in fact, lived a giant of a boy. He was probably no older than twelve, but he towered above everyone in the elementary school. He had had a mysterious disease and it left him unable to run or hold himself straight. He wore an oversized ugly boot on one foot. His being misshapen certainly did not enhance a sense of harmlessness. He barely spoke, but he was mean, especially to Billy and me, and since I was outside almost all of my waking hours, often alone, I was sure to run into him. Since he was actually often sick, he did not go to school as regularly as the other kids. He was behind quite a few grades and so he did not register on my sister’s radar at all. As well, his parents were friends of my parents, and therefore it did not do to say anything about his terrorizing ways. For the adults he was just “poor Saul,” and we were supposed to feel sorry for him. It was difficult, however, to feel sorry for someone who inspired such fear. I think you could say that he stalked Billy and me, because sometimes he just appeared miraculously behind or beside us. Would he actually have done anything to us? Probably not. He would speak gruffly and off we shot to a safe zone. As long as we got far enough away from him, about half a block, he could not actually catch up, not being able to move with any amount of dexterity. Yes, we were faster, but what if he came upon us and caught us by our collars, before we would even know to run away? His furtiveness and his lumbering physique plagued our childish minds. Perhaps we had been exposed to too many stories about ogres. Perhaps we should have just told our parents. But we didn’t, and so we dreaded his materialization from out of nowhere. Of course that trepidation, continuously fed by our fantasies of what he could do to us, made the situation even worse. He didn’t have to verbally bully us. He didn’t even have to lunge in our direction. He didn’t have to do anything. The weighty fact of his existence, a face that glared, and his monosyllabic grunting—all of this was enough for us to imagine untold horrors.

Saul could often be found staring into the pit at the back of the lot next door. He seemed more fixated on it than we were. If he noticed us around he would make the motions of pushing us into the hole and smile cruelly. Did he actually intend to hurl us into it? We thought so. His malice seemed to know no bounds.

During the winter, the black hole turned to white. Even the flapping flags got covered by all the snow. The admonitions about playing back there got more vociferous. Little people like us could get totally submerged. Billy and I imagined drowning with snow filling our noses and mouths. It sent shivers down our spines, but we felt pretty confident that we knew exactly where the hole was because there was a slight square-like dip in the snow where it would have been. Besides, the snow was quite soft, and although we did not weigh very much, our boots sank enough for us to be waylaid by the wire on top of the fence. Every now and then, we took a slow walk around the perimeter with our little shovels and dug up the flags, but eventually more snow would fall and they would get buried again. Still we soldiered forward with our plans to make the fence as visible as possible, despite the repeated parental caveat. We did not heed our parents. We had everything under control.

One winter day when I was alone, I stood, concealed by a tree, behind our house, and watched Saul following our footsteps around the fence. It looked like he was mumbling to himself, his head hanging down, his eyes on his boots. What was he doing? I did not linger. I hated being alone when he was about. He made me feel all cold inside. So I ran to the front of my house and banged on the door. When I told my mother that I was freezing, she did let me in, after her usual, “What do you want now?” as if I interrupted her on a regular basis, which was definitely not true. I did not stay inside long. She allowed me to warm up for a bit and then she took me food shopping with her. I felt uneasy all that day, thinking about Saul hovering over the puny fence around the snow-covered hole. What was he doing there? What fascination did it hold for him? He had somehow communicated to others that he had been inside, but Billy and I did not believe him. He wasn’t agile enough to pull himself up from its depths, though he must have been very strong. But strong enough to pull up his total mass from that gargantuan grave? It is strange to think it now, but I have some recollection of calling it a grave when discussing its dimensions with Billy. Perhaps I am remembering it wrong. It is more likely that I only began to think of it in those terms after Billy and I noticed that Saul was nowhere to be seen for weeks on end. I did not dare mention his disappearance to my parents. However, his absence from the neighbourhood began to weigh on my conscience. In fact, from that day forward, the day in which I had seen him perusing the perimeter of the pit, I was filled with the dread that he had somehow fallen into the snow, had flailed helplessly around, but not knowing which way was up or down, had not managed to crawl to the surface and call for help. Had Saul drowned? Had he actually jumped in to prove to all and sundry that he was capable of extricating himself from its snowy grip? The day after the aforementioned trip to the grocery store with my mother, there was a huge blizzard and new snow tumbled down on the lot next door, covering completely the fence that Billy and I had so carefully unearthed. Had it covered the dead body of our neighbourhood stalker just as completely?

I lived with this sense of unease for days and days until I could no longer contain it. I blurted out my fears to Billy one springlike afternoon. I was terrified that we would stare down into the melting snow and lo and behold we would see the meaty hand of our tormentor, stretching toward some kind of unattainable salvation. Billy’s face grew as white as the snow itself. He had never thought that Saul could have done himself in, by mistake or on purpose. But I had seen him lurking around that hole, looking as if he desperately wanted something from it. The more practical Billy said that it was time to ask the grownups if they knew anything of what had happened to Saul. If they told us that Saul had disappeared and his parents were anxious to find him, then I would have to admit that I had withheld my suspicions from them. Billy’s conclusion terrified me almost as much as if I had killed Saul myself. After all, I could have saved him had I immediately spoken up, and revealed that oaf of a boy had been in the vicinity of the very danger the adults had cautioned us about. I had visions of myself being hauled off to jail for my negligence. And why had I not said anything in the first place? Was I afraid that my parents would have thought me a fool, or worse, a stupid little girl, for having such anxieties? Was guilt preferable to humiliation?

We decided to ask my mother. Billy’s mother had had something important to do downtown, and my mother had agreed to take care of him—that is, allow me to play with him, unsupervised as usual, outside in the fresh air. Again I banged on the door as I had done on that fateful day. When she came to the door, I did not hesitate or stammer. I immediately asked her what had become of Saul. Where was he?

My mother was more than a little surprised at my question. I had never shown any interest in doing anything with Saul. Why all of a sudden this curiosity as to his whereabouts? After her initial shock, she responded, “I am sorry to say, but Saul and his parents have moved away. His father got a better job in Toronto. And apparently there is a specialist in that city that may be able to help Saul overcome his medical problems.”

I heard Billy breathe a sigh of relief. I could barely keep myself from falling into my mother’s arms. “Now would you like to come in and have some milk and chocolate cake? I have just taken it out of the oven.” Billy nodded forcefully and was already inside before I had time to take in the magnitude of my mother’s statement. Saul had moved away! Billy and I were free! How amazing was that?

As I removed my wet boots, I don’t think that I felt any kind of joy, although it was quite apparent that Billy was in a celebratory mood. I had done something very wrong. I don’t think I knew exactly what it was that I had done wrong. Saul had always behaved strangely. His movements on that particular afternoon were part and parcel of who he was. And yet I had feared for his life and I had not given voice to these fears. Why not?

To this day I ponder my sin of omission. When I have succeeded in doing something particularly good or noble, I often wonder if I have finally atoned. I also try to fathom what had motivated Bernard’s choice of becoming a Cistercian monk and living a life of absolute poverty and deprivation. Had he committed some terrible sin, one that had forced him to denounce the joys of profane pleasures? Did he ever feel that his physical and mental exertions, his self-denial, and his withdrawal from the world ultimately merited redemption? Despite my interest in theological discourse, I am healthy enough to know that I do not inhabit a universe that spins according to such rigorous standards of right and wrong. Where do I live exactly? I have come to believe that I live in a world that spins according to my mother’s laws of physics, a world at once scary, bewildering, exciting, and fantastical, one in which I am utterly left to my own devices—my rampant imagination—without a trace of adult supervision.

Joyce Myerson is a well-published literary and academic translator from Italian. She has also taught Italian Studies at McGill University. Most of her childhood was spent in Montreal, but some of it was spent in Florence, Italy.

Appears In

Issue 5

Browse Issues

Appears In

Issue 5

Browse Issues