Saturday, April 16, 2011

Next Spring, If I’m Alive
Original draft April 5, 2003; latest revision 2009

Outside the living room window, there is a pussy willow tree that is just beginning to bud. It is now encased in a coating of ice, as is everything else. It looks like it might be January out there, except that in January there were two feet of snow.

Ten years can seem like a long time ago, or a moment. On this day in 1993, my maternal grandmother, Mimmie died. When I think of the things that have happened in the past decade: graduate school, job changes, building a weekend house, the growing up of nieces and nephews, adopting pets, getting published for the first, second, tenth time, it seems like a lifetime. But when I think of Mimmie, of the other people who have passed on, and the animals who have gone over the trail, it seems like yesterday. "Next spring, if I'm alive," she would say every year, when she talked about gardening plans. So I guess her leaving in the spring was somehow appropriate.

One of my most prized possessions is a gorgeous antique bookcase that was Mimmie's. In my lifetime she used it to store utility items on the back porch. It was painted green and sat next to the springy wooden screen door that creaked when you opened it. The porch at the old place had the fragrance of mildew mingled with cats. It may seem strange to choose the word "fragrance" to describe the odor but in my memory it wasn't unpleasant. My front porch here in Castleton smells much the same way, which could be another reason I like this funny little house. But open my front door and the scent of "hound" may knock you down; this wasn't the case at Mimmie's.

Ma remembers that Mimmie cut the bookcase in half during the 1940s, so that it would fit in the living room at the house in West Shokan where they lived at that time. The woodstove may be what happened to its other half, sacrificed for an apple pie and a pot of baked beans. In the 1970s, a couple of years before Mimmie moved from the old place to her trailer, my mother stripped the green paint away and revealed solid oak. My growing collection of novels replaced the paint cans on its four shelves.

It sits now in my living room, and holds my finest books. The top two shelves are devoted to Mark Twain, and should he need more space, the others will be gradually evicted. There is one shelf for a set of his complete works, and one shelf for miscellaneous copies of his books. I've never formally studied Mark Twain. His books were not assigned in high school, and I never took a college class that included his work either. Regardless, you might say I'm enamored with the subject. Just some examples of my collection: I have six copies of various editions of Life on the Mississippi and four copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; one of those copies of Huck Finn is from 1948. I have A Horse's Tale from 1907, A five volume set of his more popular works from 1917, A 2001 copy of A Murder, a Mystery and A Marriage, and two versions of his two volume set autobiography from 1925.

The bottom shelf houses The International Cyclopaedia (1892); the third shelf contains various hardcover books, including Lincoln by Gore Vidal, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, some Georgette Heyer novels that were gifts from Aunt Jean and have been worthy of a place in the oak bookcase since it became mine in high school, several dictionaries, and books about Mark Twain written by different scholars.

From my later studies I know this handsome furniture is Federal-style. Sometimes I notice the still-rough end and I lament that Mimmie sawed this piece in two. Then I assess the size of the room and realize that it wouldn't fit anywhere if it was still intact.

I suppose the cold weather will be gone soon enough, the pussy willow will thaw, and my thoughts will go from reading and books to outdoor pursuits. Looking ahead to late spring and early summer, I eagerly anticipate strawberry season. Mimmie didn’t like to go many places, but she did enjoy strawberries picking; in fact, she even liked it more than she feared snakes. In my mind’s eye I can see her, wearing sneakers and a house dress, carefully navigating the rows, carting quarts of perfect berries, making sure that she didn’t step on any plants. She looked frail, but somehow strong at the same time. Mimmie never gave into temptation as the rest of us did, by sampling the berries while out in the field. That was due more to the fact that insects may have been on them at some point, than to a concern about pesticides. And if she discovered later that a bug had gotten into one of her quarts, she’s have to throw the whole thing out.

“Next spring, if I’m alive,” she’d say afterwards, her blue eyes sparkling as she looked off into the distance, as if she could see all the way until the following June, “I’m only going to pick medium sized red-orange ones, instead of ripe ones. They’re rotten by the time you get them home.  And the big ones look nice but they’re tasteless.” In my memory, no matter what berries she used, Mimmie’s strawberry jam was never tasteless.

Added 2011: Recently my mother acquired a chair of Mimmie's that had been stored in a barn since the 1940s. Nearby items had been damaged by the passing of time and a leaky roof, but this chair is still sturdy. It's also quite plain; my mother and her brother called it "the electric chair," and that's a pretty good description. They would sit in it and act out getting fried. This is probably because Mimmie was fascinated by true crime, and told them about cases where the perpetrator, such as Chester Gillette, got the death penalty. The electric chair is painted the same green that my bookcase was!

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