Friday, February 01, 2008

Eulogy

In my family whenever someone dies I always have to write the eulogy, but this time no one asked and I did it on my own.

I've been obviously depressed and cranky lately, stressed out, pissed off and sick of everything. Part of that is because of the death of my biological father's wife. I'm not mourning her. It's not that. It's that she was, to me at least, a horrible person who did terrible things and who allowed terrible things to happen that she could have at least tried to stop. She divided and alienated and hurt people, but yet I felt I wanted to make some sort of peace or resolve something. Maybe I wanted that "closure" that you always hear about. I have no idea what that means. I used to spend a lot of time as I was growing up wishing the very death on her that she suffered, though as an adult I wouldn't have wished what she went through on anyone. I never got to make any kind of peace. I had no resolution. I think I may have wanted an apology from her which I didn't get. I may have seen too many movies and been too optimistic about how things would all turn out in the end. They turned out badly. I wasn't even allowed to be in her obituary and it's not that I would have wanted to be, but knowing that I was willfully, purposely banned from it, made me feel rejected and hurt all over again. I wouldn't have been welcome at her funeral and I wouldn't have wanted to go anyway, maybe. Her death just brought up all sorts of things I wish I could forget. She is, I believe, why I am such a perfectionist to this day. I could never live up to her standards.

And so I wrote my own eulogy in my own way. It's nothing like what you're used to reading from me on here at all. It is about how once, for a few seconds I saw her as pretty and how I have a memory of her that is at least not that bad. This is as close to good as I could get.


Someone let my stepmother in on the secret that there was a persimmon tree east of town, further east than where we lived in a rented, hundred year old farm house where the porch screens sagged and tore and the roof shingles flipped and skipped away with every summer thunder shower, so she drove me out to see it.

I was in the fifth grade and had a school project where I had been instructed to gather and identify the leaves of as many trees as possible. I was to then paste the leaves onto construction paper, cover them with Contact paper, label accordingly and then bind the pages into a leaf book. I had waited until the last minute as usual because I was a bad student of the sort where teachers sent home notes saying “does not work up to potential”, “doesn’t try”, “needs to make more of an effort” and “stares dreamily out the window, refusing absolutely to pay attention to lectures.” Just that week Mrs. T. had sent a note home, excerpts of which read “does not complete homework” and “is in danger of receiving an F this marking period.” I was grounded until my grades improved. Locked in a tower, my hair wasn’t growing quickly enough for anyone to climb up and save me. I was too young for a prince so I waited and sought some sort of redemption in leaves.

I thought about the leaf book project for a long time. I wanted it to be perfect, to look like a real book on leaves that might be thumbed through while displayed on a coffee table. I would have the best leaf book. I would try, make an effort. I would focus, paying attention to the leaf book so that I would complete it and receive an A. My stepmother would show off my leaf book to her friends. My detached, disappointed father would be proud of me again.

We lived far from town. Our narrow farmhouse and a few rusted silos were the only objects lending vertical interest to a flat, not even rolling, landscape of soy bean fields. We had only a silver maple in the front yard which lazily turned its leaves to their softer silver sides, when coaxed by heavy humidity. On the side yard a thorned, flowering quince spiked up around the spigot so whoever went to twist the hose on or off got scratched. We also had two pear trees, between which she had strung a hammock they received as a gift. After the wedding when we all moved into the farmhouse I had been excited at the idea of having fruit trees, but although they flowered, the trees failed to produce the sticky, butter-plump pears I hoped for and instead spit out little more than hard, green pellets, that even the starlings left to fall, not even drawing flies when they decayed. I had only three leaves. Students were required to collect at least ten different varieties of leaves. There were no other trees by the farmhouse.

I waited because in September, October seemed so far away. I felt like I had a lifetime before the leaf book was due and I ignored the nights which grew drier and more chilly each week, bringing winds to push away the Indian Summer. The cool sharp winds whispered almost silent signals telling the leaves to change and fall. I couldn’t hear them.

A week before the leaf book was due I panicked. Desperate to complete the project I told my stepmother of my situation and braced for the inevitable punishment. At dinner she told my father and together they chided my procrastination and disorganization. In the end she promised to drive me around town that Saturday to look for leaves because as a teacher at my school it simply would not do to have her stepdaughter failing and unprepared. It would make her look bad too. It already had.

“An old man at church told me there’s a persimmon tree east of here that nobody knows about. We’ll go and find it. No one else will have a persimmon leaf,” she said.

She drove me to look for leaves in a rust colored Subaru that her parents bought her a few years before when she was in college, and she wore one of the Fair Isle sweaters she thought was sophisticated because her aunt, who had married a Dartmouth professor, sent her the pullovers each Christmas. The aunt claimed to have bought the sweaters on trips to places like Wales and Cork. No one in our town had been to places like Wales or Cork, including my stepmother. She merely wore the sweaters, many a little dingy and moth-nibbled, and pretended.

We wound through the cul-de-sacs in the residential parts of town. Most of the leaves in the yards we passed had turned to red, yellow and the brown of grocery bags. Having borrowed a Field Guide to Trees from the library she called out names of the varieties she could identify.

“There’s a sycamore. Everyone’ll have that of course, but you can’t have a leaf book without a sycamore,” she said.

Sheet ghosts hung from the branches of trees in the yards of happy families. Flies circled in and out of the eye holes and mouths of front step jack ‘o’ lanterns because it was almost Halloween. She called out the names of trees with a frightening ambition and pulled over so that I could pluck their leaves. In a short time I had a handful which I fanned out like cards.

“You need to stop rushing,” she told me, “Choose the best leaves. Don’t just pick up the first one you see. Pick a green leaf next time. Those colored leaves are dead you know. They’re red because the chlorophyll is gone.”

When I had collected the commonplace oak, maples (sugar and Japanese), elm, ash, crape and rigid, deep green magnolia, she wasn’t satisfied. By the elementary school someone had a fig tree with filigree leaves. Several homes had chinaberry trees, so we chose the house that looked like it had been abandoned. This home also had a chestnut tree and the front steps were littered with burrs. We found an Osage orange by the cemetery and it was bent and warped, heavy with fruit that looked like fragrant brains. Its leaves were fallen, so I swept one up from where the roots reached up from underground. It was dry as tissue.

“The Murrays have a gingko.”

I felt as if the leaf book no longer belonged to me, as if it couldn’t be my redeeming A and she and my father couldn’t be proud of me now because they would both know that she had done most of it. It had become her project and would be her A. She sought the rare trees, drove and spotted the less likely varieties, telling me which to collect, those to pull from the branch and which ones to let flutter out the rolled-down car window.

As we drove away from the gingko she went on about how, since these trees were in town, most of the other students would probably find them too. My leaf book would be the same as everyone else’s.

“But no one knows about the persimmon tree,” she claimed, “We’ll be the only ones who have a persimmon leaf.”

I didn’t know what a persimmon was. I had no idea that it was a fruit, so on the way she told me how the Indians ate them and how maybe the trees had been brought over from China thousands of years ago.

“Not many people eat them,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“They’re bitter. It’s just the skin though. Inside they’re sweet.”

The persimmon tree stood alone on a hill amid a tangle of yellowing brush, kudzu and grasses gone to straw in a windblown spiral around the trunk, looking like an unzipped gown crumpled at the tree’s feet, and the tree was naked. It was not what I had expected at all, having imagined something along the lines of a stately oak arustle with a million shivering leaves in the process of exchanging green for gold. Instead the tree was small, dark and gnarled without a single leaf and it was covered with warty clusters of red-orange fruits which seemed to fester out of the black branches, rather than dangle ornamentally from them. Having survived decades of neglect and solitude, the persimmon tree was the only survivor of what had once been a productive orchard on the grounds of a farmhouse, long since left behind. One wall of the house still stood with its chimney in tact. Jimson weed grew in the hearth.

“There’re no leaves,” I lamented, “What are we going to do now?”

I stood on the verge of tears, the tree before me suddenly becoming blurred as if in a watercolor.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I see one at the top. It’s just hidden by the persimmons.”

She climbed in her Keds and her dingy Fair Isle, with her hair in her face, to the top branch of the persimmon tree, and although it was not really very high, to me at ten, it was a great and dangerous distance. Three overripe fruits fell to the ground, roiling a storm of yellow jackets. She paused for a moment and brushed her hair away before she looked around and up at the sky.

It was one of those perfect autumn days that people envision when remembering the Octobers of idealized childhoods spent in pumpkin patches. The air was chilled and because we had driven so far east, the nipping wind carried the smell of brine in from the bay. Late afternoon light slanted low and long shadowed, spinning all the straw to gold. The angled rays reflected off her hair, transforming dishwater to lion and she seemed to me briefly beautiful, blue eyed and full of sun. We watched a slow mobile of buzzards turning on a spiraling descent towards dead things hidden in the field beyond the old farmhouse, but then she remembered her intent and ripped the last leaf from stem. The force of her pull caused several more persimmons to plummet and split.

“I got it,” she called down.

She waved the slight and rather unexceptional leaf, and clamored down, bringing a persimmon with her, which she wiped on her sweater and bit into.

“Try it,” my stepmother said, offering it to me.

I refused. I knew better.

“Just taste it, you’ll like it.”

I would not taste the odd, fleshy and unfamiliar fruit, which frustrated her. She didn’t understand. The sun set quickly and my stubbornness made her mad, so we left and rode home in silence. She only handed me the persimmon leaf when the rust colored Subaru crunched over our oyster shell driveway. By the time we got inside she had become sullen and colorless again.

“You have your leaves now.”

I don’t remember my leaf book at all. I don’t know what happened to it, the grade I received or how other leaf books compared. I don’t recall if anyone was impressed by the persimmon leaf. My stepmother never mentioned the leaf book again, except perhaps to offer some criticism like that I had not taken the care I should have in assembling it, but I don’t even remember that. Later that year I would leave their home and move out of state to live with my mother and new father. I would never hear from my biological father or stepmother again.

The other day while grocery shopping, I remembered that I had still, more than twenty years since my stepmother drove me east of town in search of the rarest leaf, never tried a persimmon. A small display of about five persimmons stacked in a pyramid in the produce department beside some lady apples and muscadines reminded me of this fact. I bought one, not knowing how to choose a ripe fruit or even how to eat it or if there were poisonous parts best avoided.

At home, I took a tentative bite of the persimmon. I had sliced it, noting that it reminded me of meat and I had carved out the small black seeds. As I chewed, my mouth dried and my jaws ached from the sour, bitter burn which brought tears to my eyes as if I had bitten into a raw lemon. My tongue stung. I spit the persimmon into the sink, cut up the rest of the fruit and scraped it into the garbage. For the rest of the night nothing could cover the terrible bitterness I could not untaste.

29 comments:

Fianna said...

This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

redb said...

Sad and wonderful, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say the very same thing "absolutely beautiful." You're writing is very lyrical, colorful and endearing, so much like another Southern writer, Kate Chopin.

Anonymous said...

Haunting writing.

On the subject of persimmons-- they're terribly bitter if you eat them before they're ready, which seems oddly apropos.

Green said...

I'm sorry for your loss - the loss of any hope of resolution with your stepmother.

There were a few times I got so much help with tests that i wrote the names of the people who gave me the answers rather than my name on the top.

the Bag Lady said...

An evocative and somehow fitting tribute to your stepmother. How sad that she will never read it. Very eloquent, and beautifully written.

misha said...

we were the same kind of student, but you became an excellent writer. Thank you for sharing.

PamelaJ said...

So touching, perfect, heart-wrenching. If only she had done anything similar for you.

Lana Wood said...

Good job.

wowzer said...

Touching narrative.

Re the persimmons, I doubt you will recover from that experience but just in case, there are two types, the pointy ones and the ones that look like a hamburger bun. The pointy ones stay bitter longer and must be ripe like mush to be tasty and then they are great. The bun-like ones ripen in taste much sooner and are not so likely to be bitter. I fell in love with them while touring in China in persimmon season.

FirstNations said...

awesome. that last sentence was a masterstroke, too.

karindira said...

I'ts hard to tell what's ripe and ready if no one ever told you. They are sickeningly sweet when they're ripe and I bet you'd have hated that even more than all the bitter.

luvpumpkns said...

thank you. this is one of your best posts yet.

drawer queen said...

That was truly beautiful. Beautiful. I grew up with a persimmon tree, one heartily loved by my mother who used the fruit (and ten lbs of sugar) to make jam once in awhile.
I wish you could have had my mother instead of your stepmother, but then we would not have you and your beautiful writing as every experience shapes us. That woman, despite her many shortcomings, would be moved, impressed and proud of you now.

Amy said...

Nice work. Lovely peice. Will you be submitting this one to anything?

Reb said...

How very sad that she will never read this and realize (perhaps) the impact both positive and negative that she had on your life and had she only allowed it, the impact you could have had on hers.

Manda said...

I am so sorry. My heart aches for you. Thank you for the link the other day. I've actually never told anyone that I blog - not even my Mom. You've inspired me to write more. I think part of our healing can come from the flashes of the past we receive while going about our daily routines. I just wrote a short post about "who do I honor as my father?". Hope you are feeling better.

Mamacita Chilena said...

beautifully written. after reading this post, I thought, I'd read a book written by this woman.

NeekoalinAZ said...

Great symbolism. I hope it gave you some peace.

Hugs...

GoingWiddershins said...

You know what strikes me from your post? You go to great lengths to describe how avid and enthused she became as she hunted the special leaves with you, but yet you still harbour bitterness about this event. Obviously I don't know the full backstory, but what if instead of your stepmother, it had been your Aunt Kiki or your awesome and off-the-wall mother or father - the same events would have been this wonderful adventure, going from house to house, finding the special leaves, only to have the piece-de-resistance, the persimmon. From this little moment, you really got a chance to see your stepmother as a human being, who, from my interpretation, didn't quite know how to reach you, where everything either she or you did went wrong. It's a shame she never kept in touch - but what if it wasn't simply because she was a mean old biddy, but she thought that it wouldn't have been welcome anyways. Again, I didn't live with her, nor know her. But it's lovely that you at the very least wrote her a eulogy - more than she seemed to have done for you in the end.

Whiskeymarie said...

Someday, when my stepmother is no longer here, I hope I can find a way to see the good in her like you did here.
But right now...

Kandace said...

I've been away too long. That was beautiful!

Wide Lawns said...

Going Widdershins - Oh you have no idea as to this woman's evil. There's much of the story untold in this little piece. This woman was so vile and cruel that many people said she deserved the aggressive cancer she got. I didn't though. I didn't say that, but how tragic is it that someone was so hated that people would say that? It sadly, was far more than a few misunderstandings. She was a plotting, conniving, vicious and manipulative person. I tried to make excuses for her and those who still knew her actually said - no, there was no excuse. She was worse than you even remember. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

This is your most elegant writing yet. I am very impressed. Congratulations.

On another note, thank you again for your rant on bad eating habits. I have really made an effort to not buy any crap and am instead eating fruit for dessert. I am even getting my husband to do it. One step at a time and eventually I'll be eating healthy all the time.

Anonymous said...

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/odd_secured_beer;_ylt=AtjsFm8RxWIGrDOhuo1ulX3tiBIF

completely unrelated. but a beautiful post nonetheless, very similar to how I felt when my grandmoter passed.

Merry said...

Beautifully written, but sadly a topic that a lot of us can relate to.

Strangely enough, right before I read this I had been thinking of my vicious aunt. I'd been wondering if there was any positive way I could get through to her. The woman has driven off all of her family with her bitterness, but I don't think being alone makes her happy either. I don't think she'd be comfortable being happy. Maybe your stepmother wouldn't have been happy being liked.

Jane the Sane said...

Very compelling. Thank you for sharing it.

Miss Kitty said...

WL, this is the first time I've read this, and it brought tears to my eyes. A perfect tribute to a really bad woman.

You've really inspired me. You've been through a lot of hell, too, and you're making your writing/teaching dream come true. I can do it, too.

And my word verification is "pastst." Significant? Maybe so.

Mythopoeia said...

I was directed here by a good friend, Andromanche.

I am glad she did send me here. It's a truly haunting, beautiful piece of work. Very much worth my while . . . made me think, and nearly made me cry. Beautiful.

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