Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tonsor #n -- An Azalea Blooms in Winter

One mid-February day after class, Tonsor invited me to walk back to the house and enjoy lunch with him and Caroline. The weather was fine and he was in good spirits when we reached 1505 Morton Avenue. "It's wonderful to see the sun shining through our south windows again. Earlier this morning it was so very cold and gloomy." Pointing to a table in front of the large living room window, he drew my attention to an unexpected sight: "Look at that azalea. Last Saturday it was in bud, and now it has bloomed. I like the way the sun is pouring through its purple splendor. The Germans would call that color rosarot."[1]

"Yes, rosarot," I said, impressed by his poetic expression and by the precision of his German. I added, "I grew up in that azalea's natural habitat -- in Houston and New Orleans. In fact, every March Houston hosts the Azalea Trail through the River Oaks neighborhood. It's one of the most pleasant ways to explore the city."

Tonsor did not respond, but his tenderness toward the azalea blossom prompted me to ask if he missed the rural life.

"Good Lord, no," he bellowed. "Growing up in southern Illinois in the 1920s and '30s, I know the rural life. It is not the pastoral scene that you people from the city think it is. The rural life can be brutal. It can be stultifying. It can cause one's mind to become slow and dull. That said, I have always liked to garden, even as a child pulling weeds for my grandmother.[2] Usually by the end of May I will have spaded and planted until I am quite pleasantly tired. If we are having a good spring with plenty of rain, then by Memorial Day there is already enough spinach, shallots, bib lettuce, and Romaine for the whole family. It is a beautiful thing -- the seeds come up fast, the plants thrive, and there is such a large quantity of salad coming in that we must use it as quickly as possible.[3] Today's bright sun is making me look very forward to spring. 'O Sonne! O Gl├╝ck, o Lust!' as Goethe would say."[4]

Caroline emerged from the kitchen with a greeting and a plate, saying, "Stephen does need his garden. I think it's therapeutic for him after the cold winter and hectic academic schedule. His spirits can get down if a long winter or rainy weather keeps him from his plot of earth."[5]

Tonsor moved a book off the dining room table and said, in a more wistful register: "I do find myself thinking back on my childhood in southern Illinois from time to time. A few years ago I was reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my grandson, Alex, and we enjoyed the experience very much. It's a book about her husband's childhood on a New York farm. What a distant and strange world it was to him, and yet how familiar most of it was to me. Every once in a while I would stop and explain what was happening on the farm."[6]

The azalea blossom and the talk of gardening and farming made me think of warmer months ahead. I said that I looked forward to my first Art Fair next summer, to which Tonsor protested:

"Huh! For a whole week in July, Caroline and I cannot even use our city because it is taken over by that misnamed Bacchanalia! There is nothing 'fair' about it. As for the art, don't even bother trying to see it, what with the milling throngs of sweating people in the streets, more than 500,000 of them. They have the manners and sanitary habits of Italians -- or at least of Neapolitans. They leave behind mountains of stinking garbage and refuse. Worse, for three consecutive nights last summer, drunken celebrants rioted by the campus. The whole thing is sick and disgusting. But," he added with mock appreciation, "the merchants love it!"[7]

Caroline frowned: "It's not as bad as Stephen says it is. You can meet the most interesting people -- people you'd never expect to be artists -- and talk with them about their work and --"

"No, they are not interesting at all," he interrupted. "Art Fair is just a carnival for over-aged hippies with long fingernails and bad breath."

Caroline and I laughed at his rant. "I hope," she said, "that Stephen will tell us what he really thinks of Art Fair!"

Tonsor looked backed over at the azalea in the sunny front window, as though wishing to be tending his garden.

[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[2] Bernard Tonsor interviews with GW, Jerseyville, IL, July 1, 2014; and June 26, 2015.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 31, 1985, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[4] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Mailied"; at URL https://www.staff.uni-mainz.de/pommeren/Gedichte/mailied.html. The line means, "O sun, O joy, O delight!"
[5] Caroline Tonsor's observation of a tendency to "get down" is backed by much evidence. In letters to his close friend Henry Regnery, written in the 1980s, Tonsor frequently confessed that he was either tired, overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed (e.g., in Tonsor to Regnery, May 31, 1985, p. 4; Tonsor to Regnery, May 19, 1986, pp. 1-3; both letters in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery). The latter letter begins, "It is difficult to write a letter when one's life is engulfed in constant commotion and uncertainty.... My depression was deepened by the wet, cold weather. I cannot work in the garden and as the days pass I am becoming quite desperate." On May 18, 1985, he wrote Regnery: "... I felt disappointed that I could not get into the garden" (p. 1). On August 18, 1984, he began a recap of a list of scholarly chores with, "Most of last week I led a dog's life" (p. 2). Additionally, his oldest daughter, in a moving Veterans' Day tribute to her father, has provided sympathetic insight into his struggles stemming from the years he served in World War II's Pacific Theater and won three Bronze Medals: "He was in the [Army] Signal Corps, made the Leyte landing with MacArthur, and heard the first reports of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It changed his life, enabling a poor boy from a small farm town to attend universities, travel the world, and make use of his tremendous intelligence. It also made him wake up screaming for many years. He had to listen to the radio all night to be able to sleep. I don't really know what he did in the war, but I will always remember the man he became" [Ann Tonsor Zeddies, Facebook post, November 11, 2015].
[6] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[7] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

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