August 19, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Is eccentricity a sign of divinity?

Beautiful women attract masculine attention. Charming people attract everyone. The wealthy and powerful attract wannabees, sycophants and hangers-on. And I attract eccentrics.

This came to my attention in a big way once when I was accompanying my husband to Shrews­bury, England, on a business trip. The drill was that I would spend the day with his British business associate’s wife at her home while the men were at the plant. Fine.

Never having met this woman before, I was prepared for a day of pleasant small talk, getting-to-know-you stuff, how many kids we had, etc., etc. At first, everything was as I expected. But, as the day progressed, this lady’s eccentricity, if that is the word, became more and more apparent.

Without warning, she launched into a lengthy and excruciatingly detailed account of her husband’s infidelities over a long stretch of their marriage, with a hint that they might still be going on. Especially galling to her was the respect this man received from his superiors and peers at work, his children, and even quasi-strangers like my husband and me.

I felt embarrassed because the man she was describing didn’t seem anything like the man we knew. Our guy was an older gentleman, sweet and courtly. The thought of him as a womanizer seemed preposterous.

Even the Queen must have thought he was OK because she awarded him the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in a public ceremony in her garden a few years back. Surely, an adulterous rascal couldn’t have managed that. By the time our husbands arrived that evening, ­getting-to-know-you had become what-an-imagination!

My affinity for eccentrics began early on. There was a boy in my class who chewed lead pencils down to the eraser. His mouth was always black from graphite. However, he was also a wonderful artist who spent class time doodling funny cartoons and caricatures. I’m sure he went far—not well-educated, but far.

Then there was my high school biology teacher. He’d been associated earlier with the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, N.M. So it probably was a big letdown to be teaching lowly high school science in Minnesota. At least it appeared that way because between dissections and chlorophyll he talked constantly about his work at Los Alamos, all lost on us. Poor guy.

Perhaps my liking for eccentrics is in the genes. One of my great-grandfathers was a much-beloved, but genuine oddball. He and his only son spent their days hunting and fishing while great-grandma and 10 daughters worked the farm.

Great-grandpa carved elaborate wooden church pulpits and a large picture frame for railroad tycoon James J. Hill, and even built a bridge over Minnehaha Falls, which later was swept away in a flood. He sometimes lived in a cabin in Wisconsin, where he carved scenes all over the walls and made wooden furniture, then carved decorations, all over them.

The thing about eccentrics is, they’re usually interesting, funny, unconcerned about status or power, creators of beauty and totally surprising. Maybe I like them so much because they reflect a God who is all those and more.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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