While reading last night I came upon a paragraph so arresting that I turned to Margie to share its fascination with her. As I turned, before I turned, I remembered that she is gone.
“Journeys, those magic carpets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories.” Claude Levi-Straus, Tristes Tropiques, 1955.
Who to blame for this “corruption” of the “pristine freshness of human beings”? Of course. the first Western explorers, the discoverers of these so-call primitive peoples; but these island societies were not static, not frozen in their “freshness.” The islanders themselves came from elsewhere, a hundred, a thousand years before, displacing(euphemistically), earlier “pristine” inhabitants. Anthropologists like Levi-Straus played a role in this “corruption.” Do his remarks reflect his pique in having lost a privileged status in which he reveled in ephemerally fresh encounters? Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson dealt with their encounters in the Pacific artistically, which is to say that they transformed them. All memories are contaminated. Their purity is irretrievable and we shape them to conform to our desires.
Our summertime journeys took Margie and me to rural New Hampshire where we’d take drives seeking pockets of silence among the disused dairy farms, some of them reverting to woodland. The old couples sat on their porches facing the forlorn empty barns. They have pared down their lives and, with their stingy speech, seem almost pristine.
We would look for Brian, a sixty-year old ex-dairy farmer who has reinvented himself. He is constantly on the run. He raises Black Angus beef cattle in some of his fields, in the others, he still grows hay. He is delighted with his new tether, which has a wingspan, unfolded, that is wider than an airstrip. It enables him to tether a field in half the time. He grows additional hay in the fields he leases around the county: forty thousand bales worth, which he sells to the surviving dairy farms and to a new breed of customers – horse owners.
In the fall and winter Brian tends hundreds of maple trees in his woods. He refines, bottles, and sells the syrup to passersby and to roadside stands.. He takes time off in season to hunt deer; only one day because he is a crack shot and he knows the woods so well. His freezers are filled with venison and choice cuts of Black Angus which he butchers himself. He is divorced and widowed. He has lady friends who are entranced by his vigor, by his utter devotion to the task at hand. In his energy and single- mindedness, in his total engagement with his environment, he seems unworldly, almost pristine.
I don’t think of Margie for hours at a time. At my CCRC – that’s short for Continuing Care Retirement Communities – I am distracted by chores, by encounters, by books, by long walks in the gardens surrounding my apartment. But abruptly, the sight and sound of a songbird she loved brings Margie back. Or the scent and sight of a flower. I get double pleasure from these moments, basking in the memory of the pleasure Margie got from her birds and flowers.
“What’s that bird?,” I’d ask. “A nuthatch.” she’d answer. The chickadees I knew. We loved that spunky little bird. “What’s that flower?” “An impatiens.” The begonias I knew. Other flowers we planted might falter, but the begonias never flinched. “They are bulletproof,” Margie used to say. We planted hundreds of annuals every year, but I remember few of their names. I’ve become like those primitive peoples who give specific names only to the plants and birds they can eat. The rest they merely call a bird, or a plant.
I grew up in a treeless neighborhood of row houses, but we had a tree in our backyard. Like some of our neighbors, my father had punched out a three feet by three feet hole in the center of our cemented-over backyard: in it he planted a fig tree. The shapes of the handsome, three-lobed leaves are imprinted on my brain. He also grew two or three basil plants around the base of the fig tree. He watered his little plantation with a garden hose every evening, soaking the entire cement surface of the yard to cool it off. He’d pick a basil leaf, crush it in his fist and bring his hand to his nose to breathe the pristine smell. Margie also planted basil among the tubs of flowers on our deck. Whenever I watered the deck plants, I’d pick a basil leaf and crush it in my fist.
I also planted a fig tree in our backyard. In September and October, I harvested dozens, hundreds of figs, some of which Margie would send to relatives and friends, on the platters she decorated with two or three overlapping fig tree leaves, making a stunning display of the sensuously mottled figs. Now you can buy figs in the supermarket where they are packaged in segmented boxes, like exotic jewels. Beware. They have sat for a week or two in an airtight warehouse somewhere, bathed in 1-MCP gas. Eat them only if you’ve never tasted a fresh fig. When no one is looking, I’ll pinch a basil leaf and crush it in my fist, leaving a fragrant trail as I continue my shopping tour through the store.
I seldom drive anymore, never attempting long trips because I don’t have the confidence to do it alone. No more journeys with egg salad sandwiches, fresh grapes, and iced tea, resting in the cooler on the back seat of the car. No more affectionate little pats on my thigh as I drive. No more her gentle hands resting on the road-map, our route neatly traced in magic-marker colors. I am adrift among vagrant memories.