Perfect Moments

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In the sixties, when I used to sit down cross-legged on the floor to watch the escapades of the Starship Enterprise and her crew, I was a fan of Captain James T. Kirk.  We raised Doberman Pinschers and William Shatner had Doberman Pinschers and he was a charismatic figure.

Mr. Spock inspired less feeling for me. He always seemed something of a cold fish, and since I was a girl of many passionate opinions, I just didn’t care that much for unflappable logic of the half-Vulcan half-human man with the pointy ears.

So I never became a Trekkie (or “Trekker” as apparently they prefer) but I did, in time, get to be a huge fan of Leonard Nimoy. That started at a party, where someone had a copy of The New World of Leonard Nimoy, which contains gems like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “Proud Mary,” “I Walk the Line” and “Let It Be Me.”

Nimoy was clearly a man of many gifts. Singing wasn’t one of them. This record was dreadful. And it wasn’t his first, he’d had at least three others before this one, I was told. We didn’t know if he was so tone-deaf that he didn’t know that he couldn’t sing, or if he just didn’t care. There was something appealing about that. Clearly, he enjoyed making records, his ego didn’t need for them to be good records.

Each time I saw Leonard Nimoy doing something other than Star Trek, I was charmed. He was an educated, intelligent, gracious man. He had a strange relationship with Mr. Spock, evidenced by the title of his 1975 memoir “I Am Not Spock” and also by his second one twenty years later “I Am Spock.”

Nimoy was a kind of Renaissance man for Hollywood. He wrote books of poetry, was an avid and accomplished photographer, recorded those awful records, and did film and television work that had nothing to do with Vulcans.

Like a television movie about Golda Meir. And he directed Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby and Diane Keaton in The Good Mother. He wrote and starred in a one man play about Vincent Van Gogh. He appeared in a mini-series of The Sun Also Rises. (As Count Mippipopolous. He was versatile, but Jake Barnes might have been a stretch.)

He was not a one-trick pony, certainly, but that one defining role was the one he was never able to shake.

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock eat pie.

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock eat pie.

 

He was gentle with his Star Trek fans though, and made frequent appearances in regards to the beloved character. He often appeared with his old friend, William Shatner, including a few cameos on Shatner’s gig for Priceline. There were talk shows, conventions, the role reprised on both television and the large screen.

He provided voice-overs for “Spock” on the Simpsons, Futurama, Big Bang Theory. When Leonard Nimoy’s death was announced this morning someone wrote “Who will tell Sheldon?”

Leonard Nimoy’s stepson signed Bruno Mars to the Warner Brothers. That might have been the extent of it, but no, there’s Leonard playing an fictive self in a ratty bathrobe in an alternate version to “The Lazy Song.” The character is really pretty scurrilous– what Leonard Nimoy might have been if he was bitter and lonely and living in the San Fernando Valley. It’s amazing he was able to keep a straight face, but I guess he had practice.

Because of course, he was neither bitter nor lonely.

In a taped interview included in the New York Times obituary, he explained how the Vulcan Salute came to be. It turns out the that the now iconic gesture– with which almost everyone greeted Leonard Nimoy (including President Obama) was one he observed during a Kohanic blessing at temple when he was a child in Boston.

Though his father instructed him to turn away, to avert his eyes, he peeked. He saw the Jewish priests’ outstretched hands in blessing and he thought it “magical.” He suggested the V-shape hand signal (it is actually the sign for the Hebrew Shin)  to Gene Roddenberry many years later, and a chapter in popular culture was born. But watch the video at the link. To hear him tell the story is lovely.

Just over a year ago, Leonard Nimoy was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a ghastly way to die.

“I quit smoking 30 yrs ago,” he tweeted to his fans. “Not soon enough. I have COPD. Grandpa says, quit now!! LLAP.”

LLAP. “Live Long and Prosper. ”

“Smokers, please understand,” the messages continued. “If you quit after you’re diagnosed with lung damage it’s too late. Grandpa says learn my lesson. Quit now. LLAP. I’m doing OK. Just can’t walk distances. Love my life, family, friends and followers.”

On the 23rd of February, his last tweet was posted.

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.

He probably didn’t come up with his last message on Monday. He’s had a little time to think about how to say goodbye to all those people who loved him and his character so much. It doesn’t matter when he came up with it, it is his last, most beautiful, gift to his fans.

My friend David Weinstock wrote today  “Hail Spock, who made the 1970s a better place for Jewish boys with strange ears.”

It must be a very difficult time for Leonard Nimoy’s family and for his friends and for his colleagues and all of the people who knew him so well and enjoyed him so much. I know this to be true because of how his death this morning, at the age of 83, has affected the rest of us.

I admit it, I have wept.

Highly illogical.

 

 

 

 

 

To a Former Student of My Father’s

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A few weeks ago, an email arrived out of the blue from a former student of my father’s. My father, dead now nine years next week. In this unexpected missive were recollections of my father’s enthusiasm for 18th century poetry and the way he laughed. He did have a wonderful manner of laughing. It’s said that you die two deaths. One when you draw your last breath, the other when someone speaks your name for the last time– and thus my father, Larry Vonalt (January 10, 1937 – December 26, 2005) lives on.

Dear David,

Thanks for your note. I’ve been meaning to answer it since it arrived, but time has a way of zipping past regardless of one’s intentions. I can’t imagine what you found on Google– but I haven’t been 40 for some time. I went to Florence O. Stillman and Wilbert Snow Schools in Middletown and have vivid and mostly happy memories of living in Connecticut.

Though I know well his enthusiasm for 18th c. poetry, Dad’s interests later tilted more towards the Moderns and after– Eliot and Pound, and then Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman. I sat in his senior seminar in poetry the summer of 1972– and remember some 40 years later that two poems covered that day were Anne Sexton’s “Woman with a Girdle” and “Flee on Your Donkey.”

Dad spent 1971 (’72? one of those) — on sabbatical trying to write a book about John Berryman. It was the same year that Berryman died– but he didn’t finish it and as a result didn’t apply for tenure at Wesleyan. My mother fell in love with a British physician and she and I left the country in the autumn of 1972.

When he was dying of laryngeal cancer in 2005, Dad asked me to clean out his office at the University of Missouri at Rolla and I found drawer after drawer of material on Berryman– each poem had a file an inch thick. When I asked him what to do with it, he wrote (having been robbed of speech by that time) “Pitch it.”
I didn’t, of course, I couldn’t– and instead carted it home like a very heavy cautionary tale.

The way he let me know that the cancer treatment had failed was to ask me, by email, if I wanted his poetry books. (Because of course, I already had copies all my own.) When we buried his ashes at a cemetery in New Harmony, Indiana I read aloud at graveside the last stanza of “Little Gidding” from a first edition of Four Quartets, (“We shall not cease from exploration . . . .”) and then I carefully tore the page from the book and placed it in the little vault (bigger than a bread box? barely) with what remained of him.

He would be very pleased to know that you turned out to be a poet. I tried for years to not be a writer. I mean, I worked at not being a writer, even going so far as to take a degree in art. But I allowed myself a few poems, and then somehow I became the protege of Howard Nemerov. After my shoebox filled up with rejection slips from all the best houses and journals, I gave it up in entirety. (Marriage and children and a career in journalism contributed to the fall, I’m sure.)

I still miss my father every single day.

Thanks for writing. Enjoyed the couplet.

Larkin

 

Burial of the Dead

Batman beneath the rose bush.
Batman beneath the rose bush.

We’re dog people. And as all dog people know, the only fault of a dog is that they don’t live long enough. When one reaches the end of her too-short life we are faced with the question of what to do next. In Montana, on our little farm, we buried them in the orchard. But the most heart-renching thing about selling the place was driving away and leaving behind the bones of Delia and Mattie, Chumley and Maude, Gus, Elinor, Sophie, Jonah.

My husband was considerably younger then, and anyway here in urban Ohio, digging a grave for a large dog will earn you some strange looks or perhaps even a visit from law enforcement. So when we lost our two elderly hounds we chose cremation, and their ashes are in handsome wooden boxes on the bookcase, with a bronze of a hound, and photographs.

It’s different for cats.  As I said, we’re dog people, but this doesn’t mean we hate cats. (I think my husband might secretly be a cat person, but he denies it.) We have had a house cat or two or three, and in Montana, a plurality of barn cats. And despite being Dog People, since we’ve been here we have somehow become custodians of a colony of semi-feral cats.

This clowder of cats is not discarded or stray. They are cats that have grown up essentially without human interference. Because they see people frequently, and because we are kind to them and provide kibble and water and shelter in the garage, some of the individuals have permitted us to speak to them, or scratch behind their ears.

Though it changes slowly, the colony does not grow. I think some of the younger males strike out to find their own way in the world, and the mortality rate for kittens is high. Raccoons can be hell on cats, and coyotes doubly so. (Yes, coyotes in downtown Dayton.) You’d think cars would be troublesome, but they seem to steer clear of those, hanging mostly in the alley that bisects our block. On the other side of the block is a large creek, a hunter’s paradise for cats.

We name them. We don’t think of them as “ours”, but naming them makes it easier to differentiate from cat to cat while talking with each other. Snippy, a cat in a Tuxedo, is the oldest. He was born in the garage about five years ago. There’s Eng who looks Siamese, her brother Chang long disappeared. Her gray tabby littermate Shadow remains and two of our own elderly spayed cats, Ariel and Jesminda like to kibbutz with the cats. Others come and stay for a year or two and simply disappear: Fat Boy and Willow, Chin, Fuzzy, GiGi, Satchmo.

We buried the calico cat “Cousin Betty” when we found her lifeless at the edge of the garage. We think probably it was anti-freeze or perhaps a poisoned mouse; there was not a mark on her. Then there was a litter born to GiGi, who we realized later must have had active toxoplasmosis. The kittens got to be about three weeks old and then each of them seized and died; first Clytemnestra, then Castor and his twin brother Pollux, and finally Helen, the tiniest and most fierce and the one that fought so hard to live. I sobbed when she died. We wrapped each one in a linen dinner napkin and buried the kindle of kittens together. Next to them is Mouse, a tiny grey kitten, doomed from the start.

Mouse’s brother, Tuukka, he of the white feet, lives in the house now.

Eisbar, having recently been rescued.

Eisbar, having recently been rescued.

Then came Eisbar. He was from the second litter his mother Eng had last spring. We placed the first two kittens with friends, and we’re glad to say that Yin and Yang are out of the colony and on someone’s couch. Eng looks Siamese and Eisbar did too.  His name is German for Polar Bear. His littermate only lived a few days, and then Eisbar disappeared. Who knows what Eng thought– maybe she thought she could save him if she took him away. We searched and searched for him and were so pleased when Julian found him under rusty steel shelves where we stacked empty garden pots. But when Eng hid him she must have punctured his neck. The skin began to slough off there. I consulted with the vet. She was kind, but we both knew the score. Day by day, hour by hour, the kitten slipped away and then died cupped in my hands.

After burying a whole litter of kittens, and Mouse, I couldn’t bear to put this one in the earth. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not squeamish about these things, but I’d reached my limit. So he too was wrapped gently in a linen tea towel, placed in a ziploc bag and nestled carefully in the freezer. I know, it seems grotesque.  I inquired about cremation for kittens who weigh only a few ounces. That much ash probably just floats away.  Then, as time went on, I grew accustomed to the idea of laying him to rest under the maple tree, another in the little line of pavers. “They were here. They drew breath. They staggered around clumsy on kitten paws. Someone cared about them.”  There’s nothing written on the pavers, but that’s what they stand for.

Of course, by then, it was the dead of winter and nobody was digging anything.

For three years we’ve watched a very careful, very handsome giant black and white cat watching us. We know that he would come to the garage to eat, but he would bolt if we surprised him at the dish. We called him Batman, but he was unlikely hero. It took him more than a year to linger at the bowl as we passed. Eventually, as we talked to him, he settled. We would say “Hello, Batman” and he would say, in a tiny voice, “Wenh.” By last summer, he had grown comfortable enough to greet us. “Wenh” said Batman.

“Hello, Batman,” we would say. The other cats made room for him at the dish. Sometimes we’d spot him sleeping on top of the toboggan in the rafters. When we say Batman was a big cat, picture a cat the size of a fox terrier. The black cape from his mask to his tail glistened with good health. A magnificent cat. Occasionally, he’d disappear for a few days and we’d say “I wonder where Batman is.”

And then we’d come home from someplace and he’d be sitting there waiting for us. “Wenh.”

One evening in February, he allowed me to rub his chin, and to run my hand along his neck. “Wenh-wenh,” he said. I commented to my husband that he’d let me pet him a little and my husband confessed that he’d snuck in a pat or two when Batman was eating.

The next afternoon on our way out to the meeting, the garage door wouldn’t swing open. Something was up against it. The something turned out to be the body of Batman.  We were utterly shocked, and so very sad. How could it be that the splendid Batman was dead? He had not seemed sick. He was not injured. He had been the picture of health. And like Cousin Betty, we are left to think perhaps he was tempted by the sweetness of antifreeze, or maybe he’d dined on a rodent laced with d-con. At least he came home to a place he felt safe. We bundled up his glorious earthly form in a sturdy box and set it aside.  Perhaps cremation, I thought, though it seemed that Batman belonged only to himself and to claim him that way presumptuous.

Weeks pass and my husband says “Soon it will warm up and we will have to do something about Batman”, and I agree.

The day arrives. A glorious spring day, after a long, long winter. The air is soft, the sun is warm, the earth can be dug.

With a pick axe and a shovel, we set about the task.

For Eisbar, a tidy pocket under the Maple tree, next to cousin kittens. I set the tiny bundle in blue linen in the grave. “Goodbye, Babushka,” says my son. I take the shovel and gently cover the kitten in earth. When I can no longer see the blue fabric, I hand the shovel to my son and he finishes the burial.

Batman is a different story. His favorite place to sit in the yard was under the rosebush, watching for whomever walked up the garden path to the house. We can’t plant him there exactly, there’s not enough room to dig. But just below that, where the lilies used to grow, there’s space there. It will take a sizable hole for such a large cat. My husband starts out with the shovel, and occasionally Julian spells him with the pick-axe, breaking up the dirt still frozen from the winter. When they take a break, I dig.

We open the box with trepidation, dreading what decomposition we might find. But it’s okay. He is diminished in death, but that’s all. We wrap him in an old and delicate white linen tablecloth. Each corner is cut away, and inset from the cut work is embroidery, each with one of the four cardinal directions, and the Chinese symbol for the same. In China, they mourn in white.

Julian and I hum the “Batman theme.” You know the one; a three-chord blues progression, punctuated with the exclamation “Batman!”. We gently fill up the grave with earth, and tamp it down as if we were tamping down a nest of eggs. It was the place where Batman liked to hang out. Now a concrete cat wearing concrete sunglasses will sit there in his stead. And I will think of Batman each time I see him, coming and going down the walk.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world with. out end. Amen.

Where the Day Goes

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Here it is, after midnight again. Where is it that the day goes? Earlier today I thought I had plenty of time for all that I wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t a long list, and yet here I am again, with so many things still undone.

This is more than a metaphor for my life, and for yours. It is the very model of it.  In the weeks before Christmas or as summer ends, we comment to each other, to the people standing next to us in the grocery line, to our friends on the telephone, that we can’t believe how fast the time is passing. We marvel at children who should somehow still be six or seven years old are instead graduating from college, getting married, having a baby.

My grandmother, who lived to be 96, told me that the older you got, the faster time flew by and I see that she spoke the truth. A deeply devout woman, in the last years of her life, she was eager for it to come to a close. Her husband and her oldest son long dead, her parents, most of her brothers and sisters, the one child stillborn: all of them awaited her in heaven, and she was perplexed that she was still here among the living. Like everything eagerly anticipated, death made her wait, and wait, and wait.

The other side of that story is of my other grandmother, my Nana, who also lived nearly to her 96th birthday. Though she was not well the last few days of her life, she went right on living up to the very end. Blessed to still have her eyesight, she was a keen reader and plunged each day into whatever book had caught her fancy: lurid romances and murder mysteries and serial novels. Even if she wasn’t getting out as much, her mind was busy traveling into other worlds and when she died she left a stack of books she hadn’t gotten to yet.

When I married my husband I was 30 years old. He was 48. He was (and still is) boyish and charming and active. I was surprised that he was as old as he was; he is Chinese-American and they are graced with the kindest of aging. We laughed about what our lives would be like when we were 80, 100, 120. Our son was born when my husband was 50. Before I knew it the Beatles song “When I’m 64” didn’t seem like something so abstract. (I guess it must be pretty ironic to Paul McCartney too.)

Now he is 70. He’s an athletic, active, unbelievably young-looking 70, but 70 all the same. My mother, who is ageless, said “So what?” I have to be careful in my answer, because it applies to her too, and to myself. It’s like having a hundred dollars in your wallet, and realizing that you’ve already spent most of it. Except that with time, you can’t ever get it back again. I’ve been married 21 years. In another 21 years, with the best luck possible, my husband will be 91, and I will be 73. Shit.

What happened to that girl in the combat boots? The one of the all-night Chinese restaurants, bands nobody had ever heard of, poetry readings and Balkan Sobranies? What happened to being 26 and thinking I knew all that there was there to know? What happened to feeling like I had a pocket full of cash and the night was young? So rich with possibilities.

I went to dinner with my friend Rita on Tuesday night. We ate sushi and lingered over tea, talking about her mother who is just beginning to not always distinguish between Rita and her sister. We talked about how she used to be. I talked about not being able to shake my sadness at the sense that we are running out of time, and that the people we love are running out of time too.

One of my very closest friends sat with her husband on a cold Friday morning this January as he died. He had been seriously ill and his death was expected, but not expected so soon. Its suddenness left everyone reeling,  most especially his wife and daughters. The day before I’d been with her as she bought him a book of crossword puzzles. She bought a  Word Find book too, but he told her as she gave it to him that he really didn’t care for Word Find books. Earlier in the day, he’d reminded her of a bill in a drawer that still needed to be taken care of. And then he was gone.

It’s a parlor game to speculate what you would do if you knew you only had a short time to live. The truth of it is that when people discover this, they mostly just go on living their lives, bucket lists notwithstanding. Suddenly going to Morocco or driving in the Paris-Dakkar rally or meeting a dancing bear doesn’t mean a damn thing. You breathe in, you breathe out, you gather your children. Perhaps you gather your thoughts.

If I am lucky I will still be trying to finish before that one last deadline.

But I am selfish. I want every last-minute that I can grab hold of, and I want the people I love there beside me; and even as I wish it and want it, I know that I will be denied. I will lose some of them along the way and that breaks my heart.
Where does the day go?

Sounding the Depth

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Is this the bottom? It feels like the bottom. Not the bottom of the stairs, with a clear path to get up and climb forward. Not the bottom of the ocean, its many fathoms, full of light and life and music. No, this is more like the bottom of deep well.

I do not feel sorry for myself.

How could I feel sorry for myself? I see around me people who are suffering more than I am. Not just “people” like amorphous children starving in far-off nations, no I mean real people. They’re dealing with terrible losses, or life-threatening illness, real crises. Not this kind of selfish malaise that keeps me from getting out of bed.

Or going to bed.

I started out nine months ago, chipper and whatnot, ready to get myself together. It went well for awhile. I stumbled, often, but I got back up again. I came to terms with living in a much reduced circumstance. I clipped coupons. I stopped going out for lunch. I figured out thirty-five ways to cook potatoes.

And then I stopped writing. And started arm-wrestling demons. I know what depression is. I did my five-years-with-a-therapist stint in college. One of the great reliefs of leaving the artistic community in New England is that I discovered that the rest of the world does not assume you have a therapist.

I could probably use a therapist now, but I can’t afford it. Hell, I can’t afford to go to lunch.

I’ve been sick since my birthday, January 16. Most of the time since then I’ve spent in bed. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store with my husband chiming in my ear about how we can’t afford anything. I bought it anyway, spending a hundred dollars on groceries that are supposed to last us until March 1st. They won’t. When we got home I was so exhausted I had to lie down. Later, I found a slip of paper on the counter where he had worked out  how much milk we would need, how much dog food, how much gasoline. He doesn’t understand how much that inspires my despair.

There is so little  joy in my life and that makes me cranky. Even the things I used to love ring hollow. When I’m cranky I alienate people and then I feel lonely and unloved and more cranky.

We’ve been waiting for our old dog to die. For months we’ve thought he was on death’s door. But not yet. And just as well, because we can’t afford that either. It may be a race to the pearly gates between my old coonhound and my grandmother. Don’t be offended, she’s eager for her heavenly reward and I don’t begrudge her that. I’d like to go and see her, but I have to measure the cost of gasoline against all the other financial considerations.

It’s exhausting, this constant weighing of importance.

So I sit, here, at the bottom of the well and look up and think it’s really not worth bothering, trying to climb out. I feel like just when my hands reach the warm grass, someone will step on them.

Counting in the Rain

Monday is the day to take count. So how could I let it pass without remembering Jerry Nelson, the voice and puppeteer of Sesame Street’s Count von Count, who taught so many of our children to count? Nelson died Thursday at his home in Cape Cod, after a lengthy struggle with emphysema. He was “the Count” on Sesame Street for forty years, along with voicing Mr. Snuffleupagus, Dr. Julius Strangepork (from Pigs in Space) the boomerang-tossing “Lew Zealand” and Kermit’s nephew, Robin. Sadly, his passing got little notice, and was completely eclipsed on Saturday by the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

I hope that Sesame Street will retire the Count, and not just try to replace Jerry Nelson with a sound-alike.  There are other characters who can count, but there will always be only one true Count von Count. The video is a clip of the Count as a tyrannical director eliciting a fabulous performance from Liam Neeson, “Counting to Twenty.”  Godspeed, Mr. Nelson, and thanks for all the great numbers.

Target today 72 Steps 2737

Breakfast: yogurt with granola. Lunch: two hard-boiled eggs, one serving of “Bugles” Dinner: hot and sour soup, 4 sardines, one Chinese meatball, quarter cup Napa cabbage, half a cup of lo mein, fortune cookie. 

– This Week –

Number of pounds to lose this week: 1

Number of pounds lost this week: 3

Cumulative number to have lost by this point: 26

Actual cumulative number lost: 28

Number of steps to have walked: 30,000

Actual number of steps walked: 29,184

Cumulative number to have walked: 500,000

Cumulative number walked: 638,658 (241 miles!)

Cumin Tastes Like Dirty Socks

And Other Musings on Spice from the Sunshine Fairy.

Generally, I am a fan of cumin. I use it in marinades for things like London broil. (Oh, we should have had that with the Olympics. Maybe tomorrow.)  It is an important ingredient in one of my favorite broths for mussels.  But you know it’s a tricky one, you have to be a little careful about ratio to other spice and well, don’t be too heavy handed.

So I should have read the ingredient list on the package of spices for grilling peaches. There’s a voice inside my head that tells me grilling a fresh South Carolina peach is a sinful waste of a good peach. Or maybe that’s my mother on the telephone.  At any rate, we’ve enjoyed lots of wonderful fresh peaches in this house this summer. All except my dear husband.

Because he once ate a gallon of cherries in a single sitting, he can no longer eat certain fruits unless they’re cooked. This includes cherries (of course), peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots and to a lesser extent, apples and pears.  (Of course it was before I knew him, you don’t think I’d encourage that kind of gluttony, do you?)

So I thought we’d grill some peaches tonight to go with our wonderful summer dinner of grilled filet and grilled corn and mashed sweet potato. I’d picked up a spice packet somewhere for grilling peaches, and it looked liked we were good to go.

Except I should have read the ingredient list which included, along with demarara sugar and cinnamon, cumin and coriander. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, a herb which, like cumin, has its fans and its critics. A friend of mine once gave me her entire harvest of cilantro, telling me it made her think of cat urine. Nevertheless, I love fresh cilantro. I would probably even love fresh cilantro on grilled peaches, maybe with a little fresh mozzarella? Coriander, though, is a different thing completely, and in this instance, only enhanced the “dirty sock” quality imparted by the cumin.

We soldiered through two peach halves, then I skinned and rinsed the remaining grilled peaches. I think they’ll be palatable enough chopped up and mixed with yogurt, or in a salsa. What should have tipped me off about the list of ingredients (had I read it closely) was the absence of nutmeg. If you’ve read many of these blog entries, you will know already that I adore nutmeg. I like it so much that in our house, nutmeg has it’s own grinder. (A coffee grinder bought specially for the purpose, which has “NOT FOR GRINDING COFFEE BEANS” written in several places on the box and on a label on the body of the machine.) I buy the nutmegs whole and grind them as needed.

Nutmeg was used in medieval Europe as a flavoring, medicinal agent and preservative, and during the Elizabethan age, it was believed to ward off the black plague, so it became immensely popular and the price skyrocketed. It’s also said to be effective in the treatment of strep throat. The covering of the nutmeg is the source of Mace, (the spice, not the stuff in the canister sprayed in the eyes of Wall Street protesters) – which is a lot like nutmeg, except not quite as delicate and as a result, not quite so exquisite. Historically, there was a lot of turmoil (including all out war) over the production of nutmeg, and I am glad to say  that this a thing of the past because I would really be sad if I couldn’t get nutmeg for my rice pudding.

In very large quantities, fresh ground nutmeg is both a hallucinogen and a toxin. It contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which seems to be contraindicated to every known prescription medication– so don’t consume huge amounts of nutmeg if you’re on a course of something. Perhaps in response to nutmeg’s long history as a powerful medicinal and hallucinogenic substance, what I remember most about it from my childhood was what tiny little quantities were called for in cookie recipes. There might be a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of vanilla and half a teaspoon of ginger and a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg. A quarter teaspoon! That must be some dangerous stuff.

Now I use nutmeg everywhere I think it would work, in savory dry rubs and marinades as well as with sweet things, and in quantities many times that stipulated by the old Betty Crocker cookbook. Of course, there were herbs (more so than spices) used in such enormous quantity during my childhood that I never use them now. It was the seventies, and Tarragon was King. Or maybe that was Oregano. In either case, if I never have them again that will be just fine. I’m getting that way about Rosemary too, enough already.

But the spice most associated with my childhood was tumeric. Not that we consumed a lot of tumeric. I’m not even sure why we had it in the house. Back then, people bought spices (or received them as wedding gifts) and they kept them for decades. I kid you not. I recently threw out a container of Allspice that I pilfered from my mother’s kitchen (taking rather too literally its name) when I was leaving for college in 1979. It had been her kitchen for as long as I could remember. Tumeric is used widely in Indian and south Asian dishes, neither of which we were eating in Prince Edward Island in 1973.

However, the End-of-the-School-Year program was upon us and my mother had a day to produce a costume, that of the Sunshine Fairy. (Stop laughing, I hear that.) There was no yellow RIT dye to be had on our end of the Island. A trip to Summerside, which might have produced some — but no guarantee– would have eaten up most of the day. So she took some old lacy sheer curtains and boiled them up in a vat with an entire container of tumeric.

And it did make the most glorious yellow-gold lacy curtain fabric, from which she fashioned a very clever costume for a Sunshine Fairy. It took a long time for that tumeric smell to wear off in the house. Even now (because I do have some for Indian and south Asian dishes) when I open the jar and breathe in, I am transported to the kitchen of the old Presbyterian manse in Tyne Valley, a bubbling pot of yellow curtains on the cast iron stove.

That evening I was presented with a book for being the student with the greatest achievement in 6th grade English. (It was the Writing and Drawings of Bob Dylan, presented by the Tyne Valley Women’s Auxilary. This still strikes me as hilarious, even though my mother suggested the title, which also is a bit weird. Well, it was the seventies.) I spun and leapt and curtsied my way across the stage in the cafetorium, putting my all into the sunshine of the Sunshine Fairy. After the curtain calls, the snapping of the instamatic cameras, the little blue explosions of flashcubes, I arrived first back in the dressing room. Right behind me was Perry Fry, my classmate and co-star. He grabbed my hand and kissed me on the mouth and then fled from the room.

I never saw him again. His family moved to the mainland over the summer. Maybe they left the next day. I remember standing there touching my lips, a little stunned, as the rest of the cast tumbled in, followed by parents and brothers and sisters. My mother was there alone, which was unusual, my stepfather wouldn’t miss a school production, unless- as the area doctor– he’d been called away.

“There’s been an accident,” my mother said by way of explanation and we drove home. He didn’t get home until very late. He stepped in to my room to say he was sorry he’d missed the debut of the the Sunshine Fairy, and I said it was okay, I understood.  In the morning my mother told me that he’d pulled four dead teenagers out of a car that failed to make a turn, and when that was done, he had to go with the RCMP and tell their parents.

So much tied up in the memories that rise from a spice jar.