The power of understatement

by Pari

With the heat rising and the rain a distant memory, I’ve been spending my non-work, non-parent hours thinking about understatement . . . subtlety. The subject came up the other day when I was taking one of my long weekend walks. There’s a house in a neighborhood near mine that has the most marvelous garden. Whenever I can, I try to walk by to see what’s blooming. The place is magical, glorious, especially in our drought-ridden, high-desert city.

That’s me in the corner taking the photoLast Sunday when I passed the house, I finally spied an elderly gentleman bent over a rose bush and inspecting a perfect lavender bud.

“Excuse me, Sir,” I said, not wanting to startle him.


When he stood, the man towered over me. A white shirt and khaki pants hung loosely over loose, wrinkled flesh. He used a crinkled handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his flushed, sun-spotted face and looked at me with filmy blue-green eyes that still managed to show curiosity.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said, suddenly self-conscious. “This garden is a work of art.”

“It’s her garden,” he said, pointing to a wrought iron sign at the top of a trellis covered in climbing pink and yellow roses. The sign had the words Peggy’s Garden on it. “She died two years ago.” The man stared at the sign for a moment before speaking again, his voice soft. “She loved this place.”

His attention returned to our conversation. “That’s why I promised myself I’d take care of it for as long as I’m able.” 

The way he said that last sentence really got to me. The man was already old, tired. He seemed so sad, as if the pain of his wife’s death hadn’t diminished from the day she’d left him. The fact that he had decided to dedicate himself to a garden that had brought her so much joy, as a quiet tribute, moved me tremendously. 

Often acts of love — or of other strong emotions  — are portrayed in literature, movies  and television with garish brushstrokes. They demand attention!!!

In the case of the gentleman I met, I didn’t get the sense that his was a loud action at all. He goes into that garden daily to honor his wife and to be near her, near to something that made her happy. And in doing so, he finds meaning and satisfaction.

So my question today is:

Can you share with us an example of a whispered action — real or fictional — that moves you more than a shouted one ever could?

I’m looking forward to a fascinating conversation.

12 thoughts on “The power of understatement

  1. Alaina

    My parents have that. I've thought, more and more these past few years, that when one dies the other had better go, too; it'd be harder for me, but…

    My mother is a high-school music teacher. A few years back, on Valentine's Day, my father sent her a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed animal, delivered to her at work. Signed 'from a secret admirer'. He got out of his own job early, went there to surprise her, saw the 'competition', and 'demanded' to take her to dinner before someone stole her away.

    Last year, he was away for their anniversary in August, second week of a three-week trip. I had to confiscate the flowers he sent because Mom was crying/in a rage at him being gone so much she wanted to destroy them. The announcement he was back was the sound of a motorcycle being turned off, the front door closing, and a peek out the window to see them embracing for dear life.

    In the movies, it would be the house filled with flowers, her favorite band flown in from– well, the dead, in this case– for her, a surprise trip for her to see him where he was… something involving planes and redecorating half the set. I think the small ones are nicer.

  2. Pari Noskin

    Thank you so much for those descriptions . . . your parents' relationship sounds wonderful. I love those small things too and agree wholeheartedly about them being nicer.

  3. Reine

    I'm still thinking. Maybe it's so rare, that beauty in simple relationship, I haven't had the opportunity to witness it. Or it could be my mind is simple overcome with bad shit, the miserable present taking over past pleasant. I'd rather not think that, but there you are.

  4. Sarah W

    My Dad never tells me he loves me when we end our weekly calls–I say, "Love you, Dad," and he says, "God bless." This used to bother me terribly when I first left home.

    But then I noticed that whenever I mention something I wrote a long time ago–a college paper, an article that ended up in a newspaper, or even a poem or story I wrote in a unicorn notebook with sparkle ink in my best loopy cursive–more often than not, I receive a photocopy of it in the mail a week later. And sometimes he'll ask if I remember writing something–one of my drawer novels or a third grade nativity play with angels and a talking turkey–as if he'd just finished reading it.

    It turns out the man has most of a file cabinet full of stuff I've written, including some things he must have pulled out of garbage cans and smoothed out or taped back together (I'm not exaggerating by much). Mom says he reads through a file every once in a while and tells her how good I was and how much better I am now.

    About five years ago, he started bringing up a few of my favorite childhood stuffed animals and dolls at Thanksgiving, for my own kids. Mom told me he'd kept everything (she might have rolled her eyes here) I'd left behind, and that he'd teared up when he'd put them away. Last time I visited, I found my favorite little teddy bear in his office, on a high shelf where my nephew can't reach it.

    So, it really doesn't bother me any more what he doesn't say out loud.

  5. Karen, NZ

    Thank you Pari for this post, and that you took the time to ask, and appreciate.

    – it reminds me of why some books speak to me and stay with me – little things like someone taking the time to say something, not big not flashy just really getting to the heart of things. I remember those books over many others, simply because that moment being written the way it was touched something in me, even if the rest of the book may not have the best story or writing. For me it often involves a character who is outcast/different being accepted or let known just through a word or small action that they are ok.

    If it's a great book and it has one or more of those moments, even better:)

    For myself what comes to mind is my partner (now ex) carefully putting my socks on for me when I was exhausted and in pain. I remember the care he took, and it's more memorable for me because I'm so ferociously independent…

  6. Pari Noskin

    I was getting worried about you and then read that Karen's comment resonated with you. I'm glad for that.

    Wow. I wish I'd had a father like that. His love for you — as shown in those beautifully quiet ways — is just awe-inspiring. I'm sorry to say I'm truly envious.

    Your comments made me want to start searching books for those moments . . . and to put more in my own stories as well. And your personal example is so lovely in its power. I know those moments in my own life and how they stay with you forever. Thank you for sharing one with us.

  7. Reine

    Pari, I am so sorry to have worried you… not my intent. It's a depressing time with daughter in ICU these past couple of weeks, now in isolation for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection. Colors everything.

  8. PD Martin

    What a beautiful post, Pari. You had me tearing up 🙂 Sometimes I wonder if you get that sort of lifelong devotion these days. Having said, that, my hubby is very good. Surprising me with a visit to my favourite restaurant, buying me chocolates (yum!) that sort of thing.

    Reine, it's good to see you back here, but I'm very sorry to hear about your daughter and I hope her health picks up soon.


  9. Lisa Alber

    Shades of Reine, at first, trying to think of something subtly loving in my family, but, then, thankfully I remembered something. During my childhood, my dad owned a couple of restaurants, and he worked all the time. Also, he wasn't the kind of dad to say "I love you" and show much affection. After he died, my mom showed us some papers that he'd saved–various editions of the menus, newspapers reviews and other articles about the restaurants. This wasn't so surprising. What was surprising was that he'd saved three copies of each item, one copy for each of us daughters. I was so touched; all those years ago he had been thinking about us as he worked himself to the bone.

  10. Pari Noskin

    I'm so sorry to hear about your daughter. If you don't mind, she — and you — are in my prayers.

    Thank you. I think that kind of love does exist today, it's just rarer somehow. I dislike saying this, but I do think we've become a more crass and unpleasantly selfish world than, say, 50-60 years ago.
    And I'm glad your husband does those things for you. They're lovely, aren't they?

    Oh, what a beautiful and sad story. Your father's consideration of the three of you (and your mother) came out every day through his work — but somehow the fact that he held you in his heart with those multiple copies is even more poignant, isn't it? Wow.

  11. Reine

    Pari, thank you. That is the one thing she asks for, from those who do such things as pray. She is out of ICU but still in isolation. She looks a little improved, so we are hopeful that the new antibiotics are working.

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