PEACHES ARE RIPE

The day is too pretty for a funeral. We file in and nod to everyone we know, which is everyone, slide into a pew next to my father. I’m glad he’s here. In the middle of the front row – exactly where I was sitting six months ago – is a grieving son. A neighbor. I wonder if he’s memorizing the weave of his suit trousers. I know the threads of my grey dress slacks by heart. But then the minister’s saying something about Uncle Harry’s hands. Was she inspired by my own sort of ode to my mother’s? Or is this something people always remark on at funerals? I look at my own hands; small, square, simple. I see no secrets in them.

Harry and Pauline owned the little market at the center of my world. I remember Harry’s big, rough hands counting out penny candy for me into tiny brown paper sacks. Years later I went to the store to interview him for a book. We sat across from one another, two shy people looking anywhere but up. I felt like a little girl again with my mother nudging me ahead of her and forcing me to speak. He beat me to it. “I don’t have anything to say.” Not exactly the lively interview I’d hoped for. He told me Pauline was the cook and I wondered how many years ago Pauline had died, if she’d make a better interviewee at this point. The man was known for his baking. People swooned before his strawberry pie. He must be able to at least contribute a recipe for the book.

When I said that he stood abruptly and walked away. I thought I’d made him mad. It occurred to me I might be asking for the family secrets. But he came back with Pauline’s recipe book – an old photo album with those plastic covered sticky pages filled with hand-written recipes and pages torn from magazines. “I miss her every day.” We went through the book together, with me asking about recipes, trying to draw the area’s culinary history out of him, and him making noncommittal grunts. I put my finger on a yellowed index card labeled Fried Catfish. “Aw, you don’t want that.” Yes, I did. People here don’t cook like that anymore. I asked if he’d ever eaten eels. He looked directly at me, narrowed his eyes. My grandfather used to catch eels for his mother. Granddad told me she hated them because they seemed to come back to life, wriggling in the fry pan, but she never turned away anything they caught.

“People ate what they had. Catfish, eels, rabbits…”

“Groundhogs?”

“Wouldn’t you like a pie recipe? Everyone likes pie.” Everyone does like pie. At least here, they do. I copied Pauline’s recipe for pecan cream. Brief and to the point, it was a recipe for those who already know how to make a pie and just need an ingredient list. It reminded me of him. So much left unsaid.

“So much was left unsaid” the girl at the podium is saying of her grandfather. I think of my own. The conversation about the eels comes back with his descriptions of when they were easiest to find – the morning after a heavy rain – commingling with stories of rabbit hunting and plucking chickens. “People used what they had. They didn’t talk a lot. They worked.” This was said as we chatted comfortably on his front porch, sharing a peach pie. As an advantage of either hauling produce for decades or being good friends with the owners of the orchard or both, a trailer full of peaches was left down in the drive every summer. Granddad picked up the phone and shouted at us all. The first call was gruff, but generous. “Peaches are ripe. Come get ‘em.” Click. With eight children and umpteen grandchildren I don’t know how he knew which of us had come and which hadn’t but believe me, he knew. He’d say your name like it hurt. “Get down here and get these damn peaches!” I always got that second call and sometimes a third, the fire of which would burn your eyes if I were to write it here. Now these were not first-quality peaches. They’d been dropped, bruised, were found flawed or inferior. They were unsellable. Then they sat in the sun a few days. Soft peach flesh turned to hot molten goo. The bees loved it. So, days late, I’d climb into the trailer to pick through damaged peaches, fending off gnats and angry wasps. I earned a sting for every peach wrested from the bees. From the porch Granddad made a disappointed clucking sound and called to the kitchen for my grandmother. She’d have a paring knife in her apron pocket and, impervious to bees, take a knick or a slice off this one and that until I had a bushel of the best second-rate peaches a body ever saw. She knew how to make the most of what she had.

Is it wrong to sit at a man’s funeral and wish he’d left you his strawberry pie recipe? After my grandmother’s we all stood around at the grave unsure what to do next. Her death had been unexpected; there were things left unsaid. We took the only comfort we could in doing what we knew she would have done. We gathered the flowers off her grave into bouquets. She wouldn’t have let those blooms go to waste.

The young girl at the podium takes her seat. She has neat little hands and I wonder how much she has of Pauline and of Harry in her. Leaving the Gothic lines and dark sanctity of the church, we step into sunlight. In the parking lot a truck from the orchard has PEACHES ARE RIPE painted on its sides. Life goes on. Make the most of it.

The Talk

 

Driving home, we were talking about… I don’t know…. everything… when he said “It seems like adults hide a lot of things from kids.” I felt the sting of accusation.

“It’s not that they want to hide anything good from you. It’s to protect you.”

“Protect us from what?”

“Bad things. Hurtful things. Sad things. We remember the carefree happiness of childhood and want the same for you.” He gave me a funny look. “Or some of us had short childhoods and want our kids to have more than we did.”

“I never used to think adults could feel like kids do. I didn’t think they could be sad.” I glanced at his face, so serious.

“All adults were kids once. Every one of them. Some things you don’t lose. We feel – just like you; just as irrationally (smile) and deeply. Most of us learn to hide it as we get older. This is what I mean. This is what changes. The sadness – it eats away at childhood, at innocence, and we have to protect ourselves. We try to protect you, too.”

“So you cover up your feelings?”

“It’s like putting on armor, I guess.”

“Oh.” He stared out the window and I wondered what was on his mind. Death? Divorce? Sex?

“You can always ask me anything. I’ll tell you the… I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

I stopped the car and he turned to me. “Is Santa real?”

Growing Up

 

Yesterday was Mom’s birthday. I spent some of it feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t know how to order flowers to take to the cemetery. I didn’t know what  to take to the cemetery. A wreath? A spray? A simple bouquet? My mother was competent. She knew these things.

When I was young – a teenager, really – embarrassingly old – Mom sent me to the grocery. She wrote a list. This was a necessity. I am a daydreamer. I wander off. So she wrote out a list. At the store I pulled it out. On the top in large letters she’d printed: ROAST. We were in trouble already. I looked at the meats. (Yes, I know – I couldn’t believe I’d found them on my own either!) They looked bloody and gross and disturbingly identical in their grossness. I picked gingerly through, trying to find a roast while not actually coming in contact with a roast. I thought I might be a vegetarian. I was surely not a cook. What the heck was a roast? I had no idea. Seriously. Chuck… Sirloin…. Brisket… Rump… Rump?  Finally I went outside and found a pay phone. Apparently “What is a roast?” is a stupid question to ask. A roast is a roast, I was told. Roast meat. “But none of it is roasted. It’s all raw.” I kept the “and bloody” to myself. She told me to just get a roast. But what kind??? There was ham, chicken, Lebanon bologna… My mother screamed into the phone.

“Just get a !@#$ roast!”

Okay.

Sheesh.

I imagined my mother saying the same thing about the flowers. “Just order flowers.” And I phoned the florist down the road. The day she died a huge bouquet arrived almost immediately, arranged and delivered by them. The simple beauty of it struck a chord in me when I walked through the door that night. Green-white hydrangea, white daisies, and deep green boxwood; it filled the entire table. White daisies were Mom’s favorite. How did he know?

“At the customer’s request, this number has been temporarily disconnected.”

Florists take vacations? I dialed the florist we’d used for the funeral. Then I started crying again and making incomprehensible noises at the poor man on the other end. I blew my nose. He asked me how much I wanted to spend. “It doesn’t matter. They’re for my mother. I want something nice.”

I phoned back. “Maybe not quite that nice. It does matter, a little.”

I phoned back. “White daisies. Did I say white daisies?”

I phoned back. “No lilies. More demure. De-mmm-your. Modest. Unpretentious. Un-pre- yeah, that’d be great. Whatever you think.”

I phoned back. “It’s me. Nothing garish. Only white daisies, no yellow or red. Stock, bells of Ireland, statice, viburnum, something pink…”

Someone told me recently it’s only when you lose your parents that you truly grow up and I think that’s right. There is, finally, no other choice.

Reading, Revisited

 

I’ve been given a writing assignment. I like those. Especially when the ability to concentrate is at low ebb. I find myself wandering off lately. Physically wandering off has always been a habit of mine (apologies to everyone who has ever waited for me). Daydreaming, too, is a kind of wandering off (guilty). I mean wandering off mid-thought though. Mid-sentence, even. Nothing sticks in my head for long.

At the bookstore I found Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or it found me. It’s “the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of democracy and revolution.”  Honestly? This description did NOT excite me. It had been so highly praised by a friend though that I thought someday I should read it. I told this to myself repeatedly, the way I remind myself to eat salad. Someday. Now, my writing assignment was to begin: “I went to the bookstore because I wanted to read The Leopard.”  – and it does. But it’s not true and this is not my writing assignment.

I’d gone to the bookstore because I’d gone to the pet store because I was supposed to be grocery shopping. Obviously. I needed escape. The bookstore is almost in sight of the pet store and it is a near perfect place to escape for an hour or two. I rode the escalator just for the view and wandered through the stationery and journals. I looked for Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, knowing full well they didn’t have it but unable to think what else to want. Walking alone in the woods clears my head so that I can pick out a thought like a string and follow it to its end. It’s productive. Losing myself in a busy bookstore is just that: losing myself. And sometimes I need that, too. Hearing a hundred other voices I’m unable to hear my own. I am free to forget.

The phone in my pocket rang. So much for forgetting. I leaned my head against the shelves and closed my eyes. It occurred to me I must have looked prayerful and so I opened them. There was The Leopard,  directly in front of me. In my head I heard my friend’s voice proclaiming it “absolutely astonishing” and I plucked it off the shelf.

Since Mom died, I haven’t been able to immerse myself in a book. My mind skims over things and refuses to focus. But The Leopard,  lush and lyrical, drew me in. For four days I was in Italy with the Salina family, watching revolution take place on battlefields and in ballrooms. The blurb at the back of the book begins: Set in the 1860s, The Leopard tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time.

“Absolutely astonishing” is absolutely right. It was good to be engrossed in a book again. Reading, for me, is both the escape of losing myself in a crowd and the clarity of mind I find walking in the woods alone. A dichotomy, and yet there are few more perfect pleasures.

Fat Tuesday

 

Fat Tuesday and we’re feeling fortunate. I’ve made too much pancake batter, throwing in frozen blueberries by handfuls, the Fashionista cracking the eggs and pouring in half the bottle of vanilla. I sprinkle cinnamon until the batter is splotched with brown. We rub the griddle down with butter and the pancakes start to pile onto the platter. The syrup is lumberjack sized and there’s an audible “whump” when it makes contact with the table and a sweet relief when the strain is gone from your arms – that’s how big it is.

Fat Tuesday and we’re talking about how much we have and how little we’re willing to do without. They’re talking. I’m listening. The Boy says he’ll give up pancakes for Lent and I take another bite, wondering what’s wrong with them. But they taste great and I remind myself that this child means what he says. He’s enjoying them so much right now it’s hedonistic. He’s become a gourmand and he knows it’s wrong. He’s a good kid. I don’t know where he came from. The Pixie – who gave up triangles last year – swithers. “Flowers. Actually, not flowers. Cats.” Someone points out the fact that we have three cats and she can’t pet them for forty days. “Forty days!” she cries, and I’m right there with her. Forty days without the bristly feel of Huck’s head or Tom’s soft, furry belly? “Purple,” she says “or maybe pink.”

Pink? I see my beloved pink tartan handbag, the pink scarf I wove for myself, remember the favorite pink pearls. Pink? Maybe. It’s only forty days.

Thursday and I’m sliding into a booth seat in a diner, shedding my coat and scarf. It’s late and we’re giggling. The waiter comes to take our order. I ask for a Coke, no ice. “I thought you quit drinking soda.” I say I did. I know they’re bad for me. “What was that – yesterday??” and we laugh. It’s good to be out late. It’s good to be laughing with a friend. It’s good to be alive and I don’t want to give up anything. Not for a day, not for forty days, not forever.

Last Week

 

After breakfast the table was cleared and supplies laid out: cardstock, colored pencils, glitter, glue… it was valentines day.

I struggle against the store-bought ones. I don’t know why. They’re adorable and so alluringly easy; just fill in the blanks. But I remember too well the red hearts on white paper doilies, carefully cut and lovingly (if sloppily) pasted in place. The red and pink ovals folded and woven together – over, under – into one heart. It just doesn’t get more poetic than that.

I read the first name on the list of the pixie’s classmates. “No” she said. Excuse me? Everyone gets a valentine. Forget all that stuff about love or even his cousin, like. I’m not about to let her hurt anyone’s feelings. Everyone gets a valentine. “NO. I’m going to make mine first.”

(Yours? They’re ALL yours! You’re the one making them! Who else’s could they be?)

Biting my lip hard, I looked up. She was writing her name across an envelope in red. She was making herself a valentine! And she was making it first. What a strange and wonderful creature she is.

This was not, of course, my first thought. I started Catholic school at a very impressionable age. My first inclination was horror. “Vanity!” I heard Sister Mary Something cry. But she is not vain. Precocious, but not conceited. She simply knows enough to love herself.

Politics

 

My five-year-old is a Republican. “Obama is a bad President.” she says. Of course I tell her he is not. It’s a hard job and I wouldn’t want it. “Yes he is,” she insists. “Grandma said.” I laugh a little at this and she gives me a stern look. “He makes bad rolls.”

Rolls? She must mean rules. She clearly thinks I should be taking this more seriously and so I ask why his rolls are bad.

She shrugs. “They’re probably moldy. Are you going to make lunch?”

Yes, but I hope Mr Obama hasn’t made the bread.

Hands

 

My mother had beautiful hands. Images of them are woven through my childhood memories. Even then I noticed them. Elegantly shaped and graceful, they seemed to me like birds moving through the air.

I remember her swimming, and then I thought they were like fish; strong and supple – agile. They were capable hands. Not just pretty to look at, but useful: cooking or cleaning, gardening, creating…

She painted faces on rocks and put them under the apple tree and in the flower beds to make people smile. She taught me to hold the broom with authority and sweep like I meant it. She combed my hair with her fingers and massaged my scalp. I remember her hands resting easily on the steering wheel; the pressure of her palm turning the wheel and her fingers out straight, floating in the air. Self-assured, unafraid.

But most of the time her hands appeared in continuous motion, busy with whatever needed to be done. They were dependable.

To me, the effortless grace of her hands made the work seem light. But I’m grown now and I know it wasn’t always. I know it was hard and I know she wasn’t perfect, that she faltered at times like anyone else. I also know what she sacrificed for me. I know the work her hands did for me. To make my work lighter, to give me opportunities, to offer me happiness.

When I needed them most, her hands were soothing. Hers would find mine and hold it. There was no need for words. Under the table at lunch, she’d squeeze mine and I’d know she loved me. She understood. There was comfort and relief and rest in her hands. I believe that she has those things in God’s hands now. Comfort and relief. And rest.

I miss her. I’ll remember her hands and what they taught me. I’ll remember their beauty and fearlessness. I’ll remember their love.

Forever

 

“Where are we going?”

A direct question that should have an easy answer, but nothing’s been easy lately.

“Grandpa’s.” A glance in the rear-view mirror at her wrinkly brow makes me explain. She has two Grandpas. “Mom Mom’s Grandpa. We’re going to Mom Mom and Grandpa’s house.”

Silence. I may be off the hook. She is only three.

“Ellie and Evie and I know Mom Mom died.”

Deep breath. Breathe again. The anger and hurt – the grief – wells up suddenly and I ease it back down the way I survived childbirth. Only deep breaths and let them out one at a time.

“Do you remember Mom Mom?”

“Yes.” I wonder if she does. She’s only three and saw her so seldom. Mom called her Baby when she forgot her name. “She brought me candy.” Yes.

She is only three. How long will that memory hold? The tears are running free now, but she needs me to talk. Passing my mother’s house, I ask if she knows what it means to be dead.

“Can she open her eyes?” I picture them as I saw them that day.

“No.”

“Well then what does she do all day?”

I want to say she sings and she dances. I want to say she’s with the angels. I want to be reassuring and motherly and all that comes out are tears and shallow, gasping breaths.

“She loves you.”

“All day?”

“Forever.”

Is that enough?

Sensible

 

We have a dark and quiet hour together every morning before my son goes off to school. I don’t wake the girls till he’s gone and we have the chance to talk, just the two of us, or not talk and sit in companionable silence instead. I set his plate before him this morning with eggs, bacon, bagel, and the directive: Drink your juice.

“Mom! You sound just like Dad. I don’t want—“

“And I don’t want to get bitched at because you didn’t drink it!”

Oops. Things can get a little heated over the orange juice at our house. I fought the urge to cover my mouth. I am adult. I keep telling myself.

“You owe me a nickel.”

“I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll drink your juice.”

“Plus the nickel?”

“Don’t push it.”

He downed the juice in one long swallow. I laid a quarter by his plate. Why isn’t everything this simple?

An hour later I’m serving the same meal to the girls. It is not quiet. The Pixie complains she can’t eat her bagel because of her snaggletooth. Her front tooth is dangling crookedly and she looks like Nanny McPhee. I sit by her and tear the bagel into bites she can chew on the side. “Better?” She nods her head. It’s a good morning and I decide to try the juice bribe. As if anything involving girls could be simple.

“Why do I have to drink orange juice?”

“It’s important to your dad.”

“Why? What does he care? Why’s he always yelling about it?”

Beats me, but he is and someone is drinking this juice. (probably me, after she leaves)

“Scurvy” I say instead.

After a discussion of Scurvy: Causes and Effects, the oldest daughter looks frightened and drinks her juice. Her younger sister is still dubious. “My teeth are already loose – SEE?” and she bares her teeth at me, the front one jutting out drunkenly as if to prove her point. I tell her about Captain Cook circumnavigating the globe (“What?”) and staving off scurvy with a steady diet of sauerkraut and Tropicana orange juice (“So?”), hoping to distract and take her by surprise when I swing the conversation back to the glass on the table. I pretend to be a brilliant military strategist but, as you probably guessed, I’m not. I get lost in my own story and the girls are gone. Finishing the Pixie’s orange juice I consider Captain Cook. He explored the South Pacific – Can you imagine? Leaving England and finding Tahiti?  – and went home. Went home! How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull. 

A friend once told me she hadn’t had a hot meal or her own plate in years. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner – even in a restaurant – consisted of whatever her boys hadn’t eaten. At the time I didn’t have kids of my own. I couldn’t imagine. It made me angry. Not so much allowing others to invalidate your needs, your very existence as a person, but to do it to yourself! I would never!

And yet, here I am. The kids have gone off to learn, to explore, to circumnavigate the globe, and I sit drinking leftover juice, nibbling the crust of cold toast from someone else’s plate.

How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull.

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