Now a decade after her death, I’m still slowly sorting through my mother’s packed up possessions stored in one of our farm outbuildings. Some boxes I am not ready to open, such as the 30 months of letters written by my newlywed father and mother while he fought in several bloody island battles as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. Other boxes contain items from too distant an era to be practical in my kitchen, such as the ones labeled “decorative teacups” or “assorted tupperware bowls without lids”.
But I do open the boxes of books. My mother was a high school speech teacher during those war years, and she had a good sense of a classic book, so there are always treasures in those boxes.
Recently I found the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.
It was an amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over.
Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull out one to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.
Here were my perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the fifty-five-years-older me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.
I am so pressed for time, becoming more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father have blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside, a long ago far away summer afternoon of flower gathering to be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not so far off future.
… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching! ~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine
Late summer is a time to slow down and just watch, to stretch the days out as long as possible.
I have a tendency to race through the hours granted to me, heedless of the sun settling low behind me; I don’t want to surrender the day to the advancing march of darkness.
So I choose for now to be observer and recorder rather than runner and racer, each moment preserved like so many jars of sweet jam on a pantry shelf.
The sun may be setting, but I want it to take its time.
I planted an apple tree in memory of my mother, who is not gone, but whose memory has become so transparent that she remembers slicing apples with her grandmother
(yellow apples; blue bowl) better than the fruit that I hand her today. Still, she polishes the surface with her thumb, holds it to the light and says with no hesitation, Oh, Yellow Transparent . . .
they’re so fragile, you can almost see
to the core. She no longer remembers how to roll the crust, sweeten the sauce, but her desire is clear—it is pie that she wants. And so, I slice as close as I dare to the core— to that little cathedral to memory—where the seeds remember everything they need to know to become yellow and transparent. ~Catherine Essinger “Summer Apples” from What I Know About Innocence
A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible. ~Welsh Proverb
It is at late summer and harvest time when I most clearly remember my mother – she is standing for hours at the kitchen sink peeling yellow transparent apples, readying them for sauce, and always a pie.
The apples were only part of her daily work: she canned quarts and quarts of green beans, peeled the peaches and pears for canning, sauced the plums, pickled the cucumbers, jammed the strawberries and raspberries, syruped the blackberries, froze the blueberries, cut the kernels off the corn cobs, baked up the zucchini into breads and cakes, dried the filberts, dug and stored the potatoes, dehydrated the tomatoes.
Over the years I’ve stood by the sink and the stove and have done what my mother used to do, usually not as well but with the same mission of preserving what I can for another day. We have been fed from our summer labors.
I know well these trees and vines from which the fruit grows. I plant the seeds which somehow know to produce when tended and nurtured. I stand and peel and wash and boil and stir as this is what generations of my family’s women did before me.
I wish one could press snowflakes in a book like flowers. ~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”
More snow predicted before winter is done with us.
Despite my fervor for spring, lit by the appearance of a snow drop here and a crocus there, I still want to acknowledge this winter for the adventure it has been:
like a momento snowflake preserved between two pages, it fades quickly from memory but the damp spot remains behind. It is not lost — simply a mere wrinkle in time.
There is a desperation to these October days:
the leaves torn from branches by unrelenting gusts
with no thought to where they may land~
upon which patch of grass or gravel will be their final resting place
to wilt and wither in the rain,
buried by eventual peaceful snowbanks
until they return to dust.
Or in my need to hold on to what I can
of what was,
I preserve a few like precious treasure,
tucked between book pages
to remain forever neighbors
with the words they embrace.
The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched. ~Henry David Thoreau
Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page. The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created through startling combinations: “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.
I understand, as Thoreau does, how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words. Like grasping ephemeral star trails like our current Perseid meteor showers or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I hold on the page is intangible yet very real.
I will keep reaching for that rainbow moving target, searching for the best word pictures to preserve my days and nights forever, perhaps for my someday greatgrandchildren, or whoever, even today, might have the need to imagine what it is like to capture and clutch it fast in their mind’s eye.