Frozen Moments: A Memory

Impressionist-like landscape

Leaving work last Friday afternoon, and even a couple of moments earlier in the week, I paused to drink in the landscape around our office campus, so eerily quiet just now. It always possesses a bucolic beauty, even on the bleakest winter days. But at some point when I was too preoccupied with workaday life, plus everything else, tender new foliage started popping. I at least recognized it before it exploded, a thing that has happened this weekend, and it gobsmacked me—took me back to a moment in time standing in the Clark Art Institute down in Williamstown and studying impressionist paintings by the great masters. On Friday afternoon I surveyed the landscape and imagined the leaves as minuscule dots on a canvas; were it not for a little breeze, they might have been. And there is a vibrant green in the spring that is all but gone by early summer. Oh, to hang on to that moment and relish it for just a while longer. Soon enough the poison parsnip will sprout along the rural highways, first green, then yellow-green, and finally brown, which is another, sadder moment that harkens the arrival of fall a short time later.

Too short. In the considerable whining and bellyaching about living in New England The Chef tolerates in me week to week, I admit much is groundless, but the summers here are too short, the winters far too long; I know a few seasoned residents up this way who would agree. If there is wisdom to be gained from this truth, I believe it is to appreciate each beautiful moment when it unfolds.

Our window air conditioners have come out of storage one by one over this long holiday weekend. On Saturday, The Chef installed the most powerful one in a kitchen window where it takes the edge off the heat that builds up in that room, but also blasts cool air directly through an open doorway and into the living room. On Sunday I kept it running while I put rice on to boil, and then chopped fresh asparagus and red pepper, minced some fresh garlic and fragrant ginger, which would go into my wok later on with chicken, water chestnuts, and dried hot pepper flakes. It’s an old fried rice recipe I love making and will be my lunch at work every day this week.

While I stood there at the chopping board, the sound of the air conditioner compressor cycling on and off, on and off, took me back decades to my family’s annual summer pilgrimage from Memphis to Knoxville to visit our extended family, where we stayed in my great-grandmother Gracie’s little cottage. The house had been built as a servant’s quarters to a much larger house in the early 20th century; the approach to it was impressive, up a long, curvilinear drive lined in boxwood hedge, past the main house that looked rather more impressive from the other side, the one facing the main channel of the Tennessee River, then on past the little gardening shed that was also the water pump house, and a sweet little groomed sitting garden next to it, finally reaching its terminus at a fencerow covered in what Gracie called her “rambler”—a fragrant pink rosebush—that separated the gravel parking area from her lawn. For all we knew, that rosebush had been there for as long as a half century, or longer.

When you got out of the car on a steamy summer afternoon, and stretched your legs that had been folded up under you for all those miles, you yearned simply to stay outside and explore the lush property, a solid couple of acres of it, to pluck a pear from the tree out back and feel the sticky juice trickle down your chin the moment your teeth sank into its white flesh, while the perfume of over-ripe or rotted pears scattered on the ground wafted up to greet you; or to trot down the steep hill behind the cottage that led to the river and pick ripe blackberries from the ragtag bushes growing along the property line, and that sometimes caught your clothing or scraped your skin. But the aromatic boxwood hedge that met you when you climbed out of the car and into the humidity was the most memorable, so clean and fresh smelling, and so unlike anything growing in your suburban back yard on the other side of the state.

Inside the cottage a collision of cigarette smoke, bacon grease, and soap always hung in the air. In the winter, Granny Grace heated that little place with space heaters of the sort that could send up a house in flames; we worried about them no less than we worried about her falling asleep with a lit cigarette between her fingers—her sheets and night clothes, and the carpeting and linoleum flooring throughout the house were all dotted with little telltale brown, oval-shaped burn marks. (Remarkably, a glass end table that belonged to her bears one of those marks forever etched into its surface; it’s my nightstand now, a constant reminder of her.) But in the summer, she cooled the place with window air conditioners like the ones The Chef and I have in our home now, though hers were far less efficient to be sure. Still, her house felt wonderfully cool on hot summer days.

So when I flipped on the air conditioner in the kitchen yesterday, I was transported right to the little basement room in that East Tennessee cottage where Granny put me and my younger brother when we visited, our cots separated by a nightstand of the sort that had a built-in magazine bin on the front; a single lamp stood on the tabletop. The cots would have been made up ahead of time in clean, white cotton sheets like you can’t find anywhere now, thick and soft with age, smelling of starch, pressed free of wrinkles with a hot iron; the bedspreads were printed in rose blossoms, almost like a toile—something you imagine might appeal to an aged matron. The walls were dark with paneling, but the room itself, in spite of being in the basement, was on the back side of the house where the property began its long incline towards the river, and would have been awash in sunlight in the afternoon, with a pair of large plate glass windows more or less opposite the cots, and a sliding glass door to one side; Gracie’s collection of African violets completely covered a round oak table in front of it, with not so much as a single square inch of tabletop showing through for all the plants. She kept heavy curtains with rubberized backing on the windows for extra insulation against the cold in the winter, but most of the time in the summer I recall them drawn open.

Some grownup or other would have beckoned me and my brother to come inside and settle down in the cool basement during the heat of the afternoon, to nap, or to read or work a puzzle—basically to lay low and stay out of everybody’s hair for a while before family supper down at the big house, where my great uncle and aunt lived. So there we’d be, stretched out on those little cots, with the sun streaming through the windows and the calming white noise of the air conditioner. I discovered the writing of Dorothy Parker in that cool basement room, and also any number of lewd articles in back issues of Mad Magazine one would almost certainly have considered age-inappropriate, left there by older cousins and clearly not censored by anybody in the intervening weeks or months. I wasn’t about to let on.

All those thoughts came bubbling up while I stood there zesting my orange and chopping asparagus yesterday, so many memories tied to a single sensorial appliance. Today The Chef and I enjoy final moments of down time before we each return to work tomorrow. I’m a little grumpy and out of sorts because of persistent pain from my torn meniscus; The Chef is unsatisfied with the outcome of a vexing building project outside (although what he has achieved along the fencerow is most impressive, and the project he started two years ago is nearly finished). We’re still lucky to be alive and well and employed on this sunny, summery Memorial Day weekend during a pandemic that has stolen away enough already from our causes for celebration. Sometime in the future, some sound or smell or landscape will take us back to this weekend, maybe, to this time when we should be drinking in the beauty of our lives as they are now, and it will make us yearn again for a single moment to stand still.

One thought on “Frozen Moments: A Memory

  1. Our memories are so interwoven with smell! Much more so than sight. I guess that’s why food plays such a big part in making memories… Your description of your Grandmother’s place was so vivid, I could see it clearly!!

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