Post #52: The Voice of Inanimate Things

IMG_0341 (1)It’s perfect.  Like a verdant, ruffled mop of hair, the green strands sweeping and swaying in the breeze, I am sitting in a bravely untended and dearly loved velvety nest of grass.   Even if every presharpened color in my box of 64 Crayolas was a different shade of green I couldn’t color it all right. I dig my toes into the damp coolness as my neck cranes up and up and up for my face to reach toward the warmth and light. I am expanding, growing, shifting—yet rooted to the spot—until I’m called in for lunch.

My sandwich is cut into four neat little quarters, the carrots sticks stacked in a pack, the tomato soup perfectly portioned into exactly a dozen mouthfuls. Tiny bite, tiny bite, tiny bite. And then finally, at last, I’m done.

I go back outside. But where is it? What happened? The screen door smacks shut behind me. I am mystified and then bereft. My phantasmagoria of tangled green has vanished. In its place is arrayed a precise and formal tightly clipped regiment. A moment of inattention and it’s gone! But is it?   I take a deep breath and the suddenly essence of grass caresses my nose, expands my lungs and delightfully coats my tongue.

***

It’s so early that if the sun had a face it would be rubbing the sleep out of its eyes. So early that the neighborhood seems to snore in unison, so early that the paper hasn’t yet been slapped onto the front porch.   Doesn’t matter, time to go. Drag open the car door and climb into the vastness of the front bench seat. Hand crank the windows all the way down, doesn’t matter the chill. Slide from side to side, bumping the door with every right turn.

We know where to go! Where else would we go? This is the only store with lights this early on a Sunday morning.

My mother pulls open the door and we are embraced by a whoosh of steam. The bagels are just coming out of the ovens. They tumble from their trays into the wire baskets, like giddy bunches of children released from school. The New Yorker Onion Rolls, the bialys, the flaky ones are already done, slabs of Russian Coffee cake, the Crumb cakes, the sprinkle cookies are proudly lining up in the glass cases.

Our brown paper bag is crammed full with our hot bakers dozen. I get to hold it. The open bag warms my lap as we ride home. A generous schmear of hot bagel scent fills me almost to bursting!

***

The cloud of gently floral spice wafts down the stairs, meanders through the living room, makes a short stop into the dining room before emerging full blown into the kitchen. My elegant and beautifully pressed father, not a hair out of place, arrives in the room a few minutes later. He has been announced.

A riffle through the mail, a bolted shot of orange juice, a quick flick of his wrist to check his watch, and he’s on his way for the day.

But the scent lingers…

Years later, I will buy his cologne and wear it myself, just to keep him near me.

***

What ho, to the great outdoors! Crack of dawn a winter Saturday morning, I am bundled beyond recognition and wedged on the Blizzard Ski Bus on my way to Pine Knob or Mount Holly or Brighton. As we pick up speed the rhythm of telephone poles blur into a Kandinsky. The roads are slick, the slopes sure to be slicker. The bus bounces over the pot holes, fishtails crazily when we turn…or don’t. Cool kids sit in the back. I sit in the front.

At last we careen into the parking lot, there are the mountains looming icy and distant in front of us. Our bus is parked with dozens of other buses disgorging hundreds of skiers on the mountain like ants spilling over a jelly sandwich. Clumping down the bus steps in my ski boots, I take a deep breath of good clean mountain air.   I am ready!

Years later I am walking the streets of New York on a hot summer day. I pass a city bus and am baffled as suddenly I get a jolt of good clean mountain air, just like that of the snowy ski mountains. How can this be? A bit more investigation proves, of course that the “good clean mountain air” I associated with skiing was actually the heady and intoxicating exhaust of bus fumes.

***

As I type this the smells of a good dinner caress the house, melding with the comforting, slightly musty scent of old, beloved books and cats warming at the windows. I can breathe in a soft hint of wild strawberries and wince, only slightly as I catch a whiff of slightly stale socks. It’s all here. Mary Webb says it best in her marvelous essay The Spring of Joy when she notes that “fragrance is the voice of inanimate things.”

I close my eyes to sniff the fragrances of memory, to remember and most of all to keep it all close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Post #51: Filmstrips

IMG_8678Filmstrips

A casual flick and the lights snap off. A thrilling zing pings through the darkened room, passing through each of us like jittery kernels hitting the hot oil. The machine whirrs, the sprockets spin, the audio crackles invitingly, black and white images flicker and blur on the screen in the front of the room. We are ready, so ready! The filmstrip is about to start. We are rapt and enraptured primed to sit tight and watch straight through from beginning to end.

Well of course. That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?

***

Scene 1: SRA

Brandishing jump ropes, the girls gather in tight little gaggles on the playground, their eyes hooded, arms folded identically tight. I circle like a hungry sparrow, swooping down by the teetertotters, sweeping around the swings, up to the monkey bars searching and searching for a few crumbs, a place to roost.   Finally I slip back to the empty classroom and take a seat. A deep breath and I dive right in: The SRA Reading Box. I am up to Silver, already, I am the only one! I start reading and in a moment the ugly florescent lights, the ridiculous yet scary duck and cover drills, the hardened faces of the girls fade away. Only one more level to the very top, on to Gold!

Scene 2: Nothing Revealed

Chalk clutched in her manicured fingers, Miss Borocks floats to the board, and with a flowing, florid script maps out the assignment:

“Write about your deepest fear.”

She smiles beatifically on the class, her eyes hovering on me as she mentions (again) that both she and I are left handed. We are the only ones.   She dots her “i” s with tiny hearts. I do not do that, I will not do that, I cannot believe anyone would do that. Ever.

I am not actually certain what my deepest fear is, but if I knew it I certainly was not about to write it in an essay for Miss Borocks.

So I return home and write an essay about fearing to write this essay, pouring over the dictionary to squeeze in as many obscure words as possible, sweating to make the essay unreadable in class. Please don’t read this in class.

Aha! I have revealed NOTHING! At least I don’t think I have.

Scene 3: Spring and Fall

I am curled up happily in hardbacked booth at Drake’s, Russian Caravan Tea unsipped and a grilled cinnamon roll untouched on my tray, my eyes prancing over the pages of poetry. I am reading Hopkins. Only the top of my mussed dark head is visible, but that’s enough:   I am spotted. Red-headed Mr. Kenworthy, my English professor, is hovering smilingly, tray in hand.

“May I join you?”

I nod nervously and my eyes dart back to my book but that’s it, I can’t read anything any more.

He squeezes into the booth and starts straighten his papers.   “You’re reading Hopkins,” he says, squinting at the title. Do you have a favorite?”

I do, of course. I love Spring and Fall.   I wonder if I’ve made a good choice.

 

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

“What do you think of it?” he asks. He is drinking Russian Caravan as well.

I catch my breath then speak in all a rush, “It’s not simply about a child missing the beauty of the fall leaves, or about the loss of innocence, it’s that devastating last line: ‘It is Margaret you mourn for,’ it feels selfish to me. The little girl is not innocent so much as selfish.”

He pauses, “That’s extraordinary. I never thought of that before. Never heard it mentioned. ” He looks at me with a new found respect.

“Well,” I continue quickly, “I studied the poem in high school.” And just as quickly, his eyes cloud over and his attention shifts elsewhere.

I cringe into my cooling cup of tea. I neglect to say that what I had noted about the Hopkins was my own insight from high school as well.

Oh, how could I?

Scene 4: Stacked

I’m here at last! Shelved on the 9th floor at 50th and Third, happily fenced in my cubicle by pile after pile of teetery first editions.   The boxes come to us, the lowly assistants, first. We see the finished books before the editors, before the writers, before everyone! Only after we’ve gorged ourselves, then do we share.

I am like voracious Saturn in the Goya, almost wishing I could greedily devour them all, page by delicious page. All for me, all for me, all for me!

Then my empty stomach rumbles—my slender wallet holds little more than subway fare.   What else to do? Oh right! Simply read and reread the cookbooks — Julia Child, Patricia Wells, Maida Heatter — ravenously, gluttonously, insatiably dreaming of dinners— paychecks—- to come.

Scene 5: The DK Pocket Books

Oh they loved them so very much. So small and compact they could hold them in their tiny hands. And so they did, carrying them everywhere, to their twin beds, to the car, to the bathtub, to the playroom, to the playground. Some pages were gritty from the sandbox, other warped from being accidentally left out in the rain. They carried them and they hugged them and they kissed them and they read them. The DK Pocket Books, from Insects to Volcanos, Dinosaurs to Earth Facts, Ancient Rome to Reptiles.

Tiny bursts of knowledge for very tiny boys. Watching them I learned more than I ever did from any book I had ever read.

***

We are primed to watch the filmstrips of our lives moving in a herky-jerky fashion forward progression, thing to thing to thing. And yet, when we flick the switch for the rewind, the film sometimes sticks. It’s blurry.   Where were we?

That’s okay. Look back more closely though and the scenes start to glow golden and gemlike as the segmented jewels of a Klimt. Refocus. Watch them again and again. Like a shaken tin box of fancy cookies, your scenes have left their frilly paper trappings and jumble together. Pick through them, taste them: they can still be sweet.   After all, they are yours to relive, rethink, reexperience, retell.