Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Book


For the life of me, I can’t remember what a quince tastes like. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a quince tree. Later, about 1969, my grandfather planted one. In 1975 or 1976, I ate a quince from that tree. I can remember thinking it wasn’t too bad, and that it was, in fact, almost good. I can also remember pretending I loved it for my grandfather’s benefit. It was certainly a pleasure to be standing there with him in his backyard. I didn’t have to pretend I was enjoying that. But I would rather have been eating a bunch of grapes, or a pomegranate.

My grandfather had an olive tree, an apricot tree, and an apple tree. He had several kinds of grapes. He had a big whiskey barrel full of purple basil. He planted the seeds one by one, in perfect little rows. At the age of eighty, he was still rugged and strong. He could have planted forty acres of basil, or vines, or cucumbers, and then cultivated the field with a horse or mule.

The sun baked down on his hairy arms. He wore a straw hat to shade his bald head and his long thin white hair that he combed over from one side to the other.

I climbed a ladder and picked olives from his tree. This time, he wanted only the black ones, which he was going to cure in rock salt in burlap bags. Green olives he cured in big crocks, changing the water frequently in the beginning, checking with a knife occasionally the penetration of the lye in one of the olives. Jars and jars of olives we ate, Grandpa’s olives.

This is history, of a peculiar, particular kind: In 1968, my grandmother’s cousin, the writer William Saroyan, stopped by my grandparents’ house, but found they weren’t at home. He left a copy of the British edition of his 1961 autobiography, Here Comes There Goes You Know Who. Inside, scrawled at an angle on the first page inside the cover, was the following inscription:

For Roxie
and Harry
— sorry the U.S. edition
with photographs is out
of print — also sorry
I missed you 4PM Monday
Oct 21 1968 with a
box of olives
for fixing
Bill

Willie had olive trees too, you see. In fact, just a few years later, when he was not at home, my grandfather, brother, and I went to his house and picked the olives from his tree.

Now Willie is gone. My grandparents are gone. And the olives. But the book is still here. The book, the book, the book. It is enough to drive a mad person sane.

From Songs and Letters, originally published October 2, 2005.


Update:
As the Conversation continues, we pay a visit to the Poets’ Corner at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

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