Oddments

In search of story


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Stop sign

I moved from Indiana to southern California, where people would ask me, with a certain air that suggested they knew the answer, if I missed snow. My yes stunted the conversation. Lest they think I was dangerous, I amended with how I didn’t miss driving in it. But, yes, I missed snow. Those poor deprived people in California could visit snow, but that was not the same as seeing their home and neighborhood transformed by it, not the same as watching from a snug childhood bed, peeking through the Venetian blinds, as snow meandered — or streaked — in the beam of a streetlight, not the same as poking their fingers through the stormwindow slot into the drift on the windowsill by way of morning ablution. And it isn’t the same as arguing with their siblings 50 years later about who shoveled it.

Now I am back in Indiana and this morning I awoke to the first snow of the season. A mere dusting, transient as breath, but there it was. I wonder how many others looked at it and were still for a moment.

Doesn’t the first snow always make us stop?

Yes, we stop partly because of sudden visions of heating bills. But there is also, in that first white, a stirring of childhood awe, a memory: footprints, leafprints, windprints, all left for us to read in a sparkling, velvety silence; a landscape other-worldly, confectionary, phantasmal. There is a blink in which we revisit that, and we stop. First Snow allows it, requires it.

Then the blink is over. Time resumes.

Now the day has turned to night, the snow to mud. First Snow will come again next year. And I will stop again.

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The primal screen

I read of home trends, of what’s “hot,” of “dated” and “fresh.” “Pfau,” I say to all those housefashion police, as I step through my sliding back door. Don’t bother me with trends; I have a screened porch. It is the classic: the Parthenon, the Sphinx, that thing to be marveled at for all time. It is at once inside and outside, liberating and protecting, open and enclosed. Miraculous.

More’s the miracle, it takes me back to my grandma’s screened porch, the portal to bliss. A big swing hung there, covered with a worn woven blanket; I would sit next to Grandma for as long as she could stand it, and she scratched my back as we floated back and forth. Now, when the dentist comes at me, and I’d rather be somewhere else, I put myself on that porch, on that swing.

Grandma would sit on her porch when the chores of the day were done and the evening breeze rearranged the summer dust on the leaves. Sometimes a storm would blast through, and the porch would suddenly be the coolest place in the world, lightning-scented, drippy. And the summer dust would be washed away.

My porch has mere chairs, but I sit there when my chores are done (and when they aren’t). The summer evening performs. “Bolero”-like, it layers its after-dinner sounds and slowly swells with voices and trimmers, the pit-pat of joggers, the under-buzz of bikes, the rhythms of bouncing. Then just crickets. And doors, like eyes, closing dreamily on the day as the sun bows low and takes its leave.

Cycles of life, light and dark, the busy and the still, in theater before us, Grandma and me.


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Bertrand

I do not know how it is that I know his name is Bertrand, but I do. He visits my garden, feigning indifference, but I know he wants me to notice him. He labors mid-air and mid-stalk, single-minded and resonant. I have heard snatches of song about his ladylove, Bea. She is the reason he toils.

One scorching summer day I watched Bertrand coolly waft from pale gallardia to waned marigold. “Silly bee,” I said. “Sour juice! Why would you drink it?”

“Silly human,” I heard. “I do not drink the juice. I drink the color. Do you see how the flowers fade? Where did the color go? In me! I take it for the winter. You think blankets are warm? You should try orange and red.”

Summer aged. Bertrand became the lone buzz in the garden. “Silly bee!” I said. “Can’t you read? It says ‘Butterfly Bush’! You aren’t a butterfly!”

“Silly human!” I heard. “Do you see any butterflies? They’re gone. This is mine. This purple is the real color of the Valentine, and Bea will have it in February when you have only flimsy reds in a world of grey and beige. I will feel sorry for you.”

Then October. With charred tips and spikey seedpods, the garden remnants bowed to the winter gods, whose fiat had already inflamed the trees. A few fragile lavender stalks rose over the tired lot, and Bertrand clambored over them; they arched with his weight. “Silly bee,” I said. “There’s little there. Why such effort?”

“Silly human,” I heard. “Do you know nothing? There is fragrance here. Transcendence. Bea will have it when all you have is the scent of the furnace.”

When the snow dances in the windowlight, I will wonder.

Getting a buzz from purple.

Getting a buzz from purple.


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Home plates

It took me forever to find this house. Because I’m insufferably picky? Of course not. Rather because I have such bulky — not to be confused with valuable — possessions, including my parents’ dining room furniture, the stolidly 50s Duncan Phyfe set which requires a real dining room, one, in deference to logic, with a direct path to the kitchen.

In your dreams, Maureen. It ain’t happenin’. The dining room is the dinosaur: extinct, kaput.

But its vestige was there; I saw large closets called dining rooms. They held symbolic, skeletal tables and chairs and an occasional dining-room-ish piece but had no room for people. This conceptual remnant seemed a hopeful sign. So I kept looking.

Why?

Because I have three generations of dining finery. A formal table was once a part of life’s cycles, marking milestones, celebrating holidays. Polishing the silver, placing fragile plates, smoothing linen tablecloths were family ritual. When I set my dining room table, I mark those same cycles; the ritual lives, breathes, wordlessly inviting relatives long gone — and invisibly they come, teasing, huffing, sniping. (They never change.)

The first Thanksgiving here, my two very young grandchildren stopped mid-dash, their eyes latched to the table. I was thrilled to see their thrill. The table shone, not just with color and glint, but with memories. They didn’t know it, but they were seeing the ancestors who had preserved it all with the salt of good times and bad times.

That covered dish? Your great-great-grandmother’s. The stuffing in it? Your great-grandmother’s recipe. This armed chair? Your great-grandfather’s place, where he pronounced himself pater familias: the verbal selfie. My chair now.

My dining room is a family history museum with stains. Ghosts and grandchildren raise their goblets. L’chaim, dinosaur!