~May Swenson from “October”
~May Swenson from “October”
“The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did… I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.”
Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow
Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing. A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.
It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, my parents who separated for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.
It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging. But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be. There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and hoped-for grandchildren to ponder.
The world as it is remembers the world that was. The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration.
All in good time.
Yesterday, we packed up the remnants of our sons’ childhood, boxing up their bedrooms to put away their school notebooks and artwork in garage storage next to the boxes containing their departed grandparents’ lives. The bedrooms are now pristine and less chaotic, ready for overnight visitors from faraway lands, but I lay awake troubled and tossing in the winds of my life’s changing.
What I know will be packed up in a box someday by my children, a simple portable box to be tucked away and reopened by some future generation who will puzzle over why this or that was saved. While time rushes forward, it is disorienting as everything else is unexplainable.
I can only stand and wait, breathless yet breathing, to know what is there beyond knowing.
It will come, I know. It is calling.
“The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells can transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel. One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode. I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, feels everything as it was before.
The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure. Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen, roasting turkey is my mother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during the years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training. Today it is the warmth of a slice of chocolate babka bread for breakfast.
Occasionally I have the privilege of babysitting infants whose skin smells of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvet of my own childrens’. The newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own. My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.
The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes past blossoms planted along the house, wafting through open bedroom windows. The fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell outside this morning.
I doubt any aromatherapy kit would include my most favorite–the farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding, the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.
Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever. Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer, I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then. It’ll take me back to a day like today with the best smells on earth in my own backyard.
They will simply speak to me with no uncertain voice.
Grandma grew flowers–lots of them. Her garden stretched along both sides of the sidewalk to her old two story farm house, in window boxes and beds around the perimeter, in little islands scattered about the yard anchored by a tree, or a piece of driftwood, a gold fish pond or a large rock. Wisteria hung like a thick curtain of purple braids from the roof of her chicken coop, and her greenhouse, far bigger than her home, smelled moist and mossy with hanging fuschia baskets. For her it was full time joy disguised as a job: she sold seedlings, and ready-to-display baskets, and fresh flower arrangements. She often said she was sure heaven would be full of flowers needing tending, and she was just practicing for the day when she could make herself useful as a gardener for God.
Visiting Grandma was often an overnight stay, and summer evenings in her yard were heavy with wafting flower perfume. She would also allow entry into her “fuschia house” to walk among hundreds of delicate dangling multi-colored blossoms. There was overwhelming temptation to audibly pop the bulbous unopened blossoms but she had a “no touch, just look” policy, reminding her grandchildren that each plant knew the precise instant when a flower should open, and it should not happen a moment sooner or nature’s rhythm would be disturbed.
One of her favorite rhythmic flowers –indeed it was so hardy and vigorous it really could be considered a weed–was the evening primrose. It was one of a few night blooming plants meant to attract pollinating moths. Its tall stems were adorned by lance shaped leaves, with multiple buds and blooms per stem. Each evening, and it was possible to set one’s watch by its punctual cycles, only one green wrapped bud per stem would open, revealing a bright yellow blossom with four delicate veined petals, a rosette of stamens and a cross-shaped stigma in the center, rising far above the blossom. The yellow was so vivid and lively, it seemed almost like a drop of sun had been left on earth to light the night. By morning, the bloom would begin to wither and wilt under the real sunlight, somehow overcome with the brightness, and would blush a pinkish orange as it folded upon itself, ready to die and drop from the plant in only a day or two, leaving a bulging seed pod behind.
I would settle down on the damp lawn at twilight, usually right before dusk fell, to watch the choreography of opening of blossoms on stem after stem of evening primrose. Whatever the trigger was for the process of unfolding, there would be a sudden loosening of the protective green calyces, in an almost audible pop. Then over the course of about a minute, the overlapping yellow petals would unfurl, slowly, gently, purposefully, revealing their pollen treasure trove inside. It was like watching time lapse cinematography, only this was an accelerated, real time flourish of beauty, happening right before my eyes. I always felt privileged to witness each unveiling as Grandma liked to remind me that few flowers actually allowed us to behold their birthing process. The evening primrose was not at all shy about sharing itself and it would enhance the show with a sweet lingering fragrance.
Grandma knew how much I enjoyed the evening primrose display, so she saved seeds from the seed pods for me, and helped me plant them at our house during one of her spring time visits. I remember scattering the seeds with her in a specially chosen spot, in anticipation of the “drops of sun” that would grace our yard come summertime. However, Grandma was more tired than usual on this particular visit, taking naps and not as eager to go for walks or eat the special meals cooked in honor of her visit. Her usually resonant laughing brown eyes appeared dull, almost muddy.
The day she was to return home she came into the kitchen at breakfast time, wearily setting down her packed bags. She gave me a hug and I looked at her, suddenly understanding what I had feared to believe. Something was dreadfully wrong. Grandma’s eyes were turning yellow.
Instead of returning home that day, she went to the hospital. Within a day, she had surgery and within two days, was told she had terminal pancreatic cancer. She did not last long, her skin becoming more jaundiced by the day, her eyes more icteric and far away. She soon left her earthly gardens to cultivate those in heaven.
I’ve kept hanging fuschia baskets on my porch and evening primrose has been in my garden ever since. Grandma is inside each bloom as it opens on its own schedule, according to its own rhythm, unfolding precipitously in the evening. She wafts across the yard in its perfume. Her spirit is a drop of sun coming to rest, luminous, for a brief stay upon the earth, only to die before we’re ready to let it go. But as the wilted bloom lets go, the seeds have already begun to form.
Surely Grandma is still growing flowers, lots of them. They blossom under her loving care, each bud opening on schedule, not a moment sooner than it should.
Evening Primrose by John Clare
When once the sun sinks in the west,
And dewdrops pearl the evening’s breast;
Almost as pale as moonbeams are,
Or its companionable star,
The evening primrose opes anew
Its delicate blossoms to the dew;
And, hermit-like, shunning the light,
Wastes its fair bloom upon the night,
Who, blindfold to its fond caresses,
Knows not the beauty it possesses;
Thus it blooms on while night is by;
When day looks out with open eye,
Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,
It faints and withers and is gone.