Tag Archives: memory

Lilac time

May is the month of beginnings, and beauty, and beatitude. It has always been this way. The obvious reason unfolds outside the window: fresh leaves, plum blossoms, grass stretching toward the sun. May’s attributes are too long to list – the lilac, with its heady fragrance; bobbing red tulips; rhododendrons and apple blossoms and flowering pear, on and on, but May rests in the simple and subtle as well. The unfolding of a petal; the maple leaf that, unfurled, hangs low in its newness, as though weighted down by dew.

I remember discovering Emerson and Whitman in May, their birth months, but maybe I am exaggerating. I read them in June and July and August too, but nothing quite compared to lying on the grass with Leaves of Grass in my lap, or leafing through Emerson’s essays under a canopy of new leaves.

I have been considering my life as a sort of natural history. To that end I recently combed through my journals and transcribed all the natural description, hoping to find some magical moment when the atmospheric became symbolic, when I saw the world as metaphor, as Thoreau did in Walden. And I found some Mays that were dark and rainy, and some even stormy; but mostly May overpowered me with her perfume, her explosions of color, her possibility.

Dusky sky is heavy with overpowering scents of apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythias, I wrote one year, noting the soft, syrupy air, a few days later finding springtime lushness, fragile, delicate flowers, the cherry, dogwood and elm. Finally, I decided, Moderation is heady enough.

May has many meanings. It is a word of permission. Yes, you may walk out into the world now, feel grass on your bare feet, follow the bees’ buzz. My old Webster’s describes the verb as “liberty; opportunity; permission; possibility.” May is a door ajar, a reopened ice-cream stand, a forest path.

In its most archaic meaning, May was a substitute for maiden. It is a woman’s name, and I gave it to the grandmother in my first novel, Roberta’s Woods: May, so like Mary, my real grandmother’s name, and a tribute to her.

The name derives from the Roman goddess Maia, who fathered a son by Zeus. One of the seven sisters (the Pleiades that appear in May’s night sky), she is Arcadian, a mountain nymph, which is why May seems like a sylvan month, of forest glades and dirt paths and greening meadows; not a month of the sea, it is more green than blue, more earth than water.

June was cluttered with holidays, bookended by my sister Andi’s birthday on the fifth and my grandmother’s on the 30th, with Father’s Day in between. June was graduations and end-of-year picnics and trips to the beach. Summer already seemed too short, demanding lists and plans to capture it all.

But May had only Memorial Day. I would accompany my grandmother to the cemetery, bringing our potted plants of geranium and pansy and petunia. Along the grassy lanes, she would stop at my sister Mary Jane’s grave, weeping for the granddaughter gone too soon, and that of her own daughter Sylvia, the baby who never grew up. I would feel tugged between the pull of Mays past and the lush explosion of the present, with its intoxicating lilacs and fresh-cut grass, my attention divided between my grandmother’s gentle sniffling and the shirtless boy pushing a lawn mower.

Let April be cruel, with Eliot’s evocative rains, and October stun us with fruitful Keatsian displays, but May in her quiet way always gets to me. May is the anticipation of summer, rather than its sandy, gritty, sun-blistering reality. May is the reality of spring, which never disappoints, even under cloud. May is the romantic poets of England – Wordsworth’s “splendor in the grass” – and their transgressive American counterparts – Whitman’s “spear of summer grass,” what the child demanded to be defined, what the poet could only guess at.

Like moderation, each May is heady enough, more than enough, for one soul to experience in a lifetime.


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Days that persist in invisible ink


These are the ghost days.

You know them, if you don’t call them that. They are the days that are so layered with the past it’s hard to see that you’re living in the present. But they aren’t national holidays or official anniversaries.

They are personal. We call them ghosts because the people they honor are gone.

My parents’ anniversary was last week, for example. They were married on July 12, 1947. In a black and white snapshot, there’s my father, in his fedora hat and suit, and my mother in a blue suit and a hat with a floppy flower. Seventy-one years ago – of course, they are both dead, so there’s no one to send an anniversary card to.

July is full of these dates. My father’s birthday was July 16 – he would be 95. My sister Mary Jane, and my father-in-law, were both born on July 2. Their birthdays pass with a Facebook post of remembrance, maybe. But there are no gifts to purchase, no candles to blow out, no song to sing.

It’s nice that we can mark these days on social media, but Facebook also makes no distinction between the trivial and the elemental. Its algorithms ask me to celebrate friendships with casual acquaintances, while making no note of other, deeper days to remember.

I imagine ghost dates written on a calendar in fading pencil, so only those who know their significance can read them. And when the last person who remembers is gone, the ink will fade away forever.

The one place we can visualize this impermancy is the beach. No sooner do we make footprints in the sand than a wave comes along – first, to soften the impression, then to erase it altogether.

Yet as we walk along the shore, we still look back reflexively, as though to make sure our footprints are still there. Some even make grand castles in the sand, a universal human metaphor for the folly of big dreams.

These dates are like that: long-ago footprints on the palimpsest of sand. From the Latin palimpsestos, “rubbed again,” palimpsest means a medium on which original text has been erased to make way for new.

I like that “rubbed again” (some dictionaries have it as  “scraped”), because it evokes not only the vigorous action of an eraser turning marks into dust, but the irritation it causes to the paper. Think of a child erasing a test answer until a hole appears on the page. Now imagine such a vigorous erasure on our skin, and the pain each time a date has to be scrubbed off forever.

The “again” also implies the repetitive nature of change and grief. How many times do occasions vanish from our lives, and how long does it take our mind to forget them? The answer, of course, is that dates may be erased but the mind imagines them still there. So we rub, and rub again, trying to retrain the heart, to stop squinting at our emotional calendars, to cease looking back at our own footprints.

Ultimately, ghost dates may make us sad, but they are also testimony to the human spirit. Each June 30 I remember my grandmother. Born in 1903, died in 1994, she was a woman of another century, gone 24 years now. Yet in my heart her boundless affection lives on. Written in permanent marker, my memories of her attest to the power of love, to the persistence of the intangible.


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