Belatedly, maybe half-way through the meal, upon the roof of this old hotel, I was struck by the gestalt’s undeniable gravity as it approached.
Physically and aesthetically surrendered to its great alchemic mass, and momentarily intoxicated by surreal presence, I literally pushed myself away from the table in an act of reverent submission, witnessing an entire lifetime within the span of seconds.
In humbled awe, I watched the tableau subsume all component elements — clouds, roiling and pregnant, heavily irritable with coming storms; the conifer forests’ deep lethal greens; deciduous flashes of savage hue; her hair’ painted in tones of warm auburn; pupils dilated, profound in their and endless black depths — coalescing into something at once newborn and treacherous.
And then it was gone.
The echoes of this moment have reverberated magnificently within the cathedral of my mind in the decades, and the lifetimes since.
The transformation imprinted upon my mental landscape both a texture and a gravity that I will never forget, and if I’m not careful, may destroy me.
Would that be so bad?
My grandmother baked blackberry pies, and as a child I would sit sore upon knobby knees at the base of her oven, watching the crust pop and flake, the sugar melting, becoming something entirely new.
I’ve thought a great deal about it. It can’t be as simple as “candy,” really, but there’s not much to it. Blackberry juices, some sort of oil, probably leached from the crust. Salt, to be sure, but sugar. Ice-thin, but delicious. Perfect. Candy!
But absolutely not candy.
A bite would span the entire spectrum of possible experiences. Salt and just enough blackberry bitterness activates saliva, sugars flood the sensory experience. The crust in itself a masterpiece in isolation, but inconceivably so.
As is always the case, she died too soon (at 69!), too early for us to tease out her many deeply Texan/Scandinavian secrets, passed mother to daughter through generations, almost distilled oral tradition, yet incorporating uniquely native varieties, the creation of grandma’s pie nearly an impenetrable mystery, and yet still a distinctly familial muscle memory.
Growing up in the wake of the economically devastated coastal-range hamlet of Astoria, Oregon, we were treated as children to the delights of abandoned Victorian homes in various phases of being reclaimed by the forest’s inevitable shadow.
Dispatched to collect blackberries, my brothers, cousins, and I would screech in delight, and rushing into the burnt husks of abandoned domiciles, would pick absurdly huge blackberries from thorny vines choking and ripping the stately old homes asunder.
Blackberries are fascinating in their deadly and yet insidious biological inevitability. As children we’d climb into arid crawlspaces and while in hiding from enraged adults, would marvel at the near-alien tenacity of a juvenile shoot, nearly white as the organism puts aside all extraneous resources as it reaches towards the light.
Of course, once adequate light is accessible, and we’re not talking about a lot of light here, the vines grow at alarming velocity, soon reaching nearly an inch in thickness, the thorns capable of cutting flesh and tearing to shreds protective clothing.
As the vines age, they become brown, seemingly dead, but only fire will remove their grasp upon the land. The soil beneath leeched of nearly all nutrients, which is probably why the berries are so fucking good: an explosion of richly sweet and sour juices in each bite.
If ever there were an ideal fruit for nature’s scorched earth policy, it’s the blackberry.
Again, I don’t know Grandma Ruth’s recipe.
I have racked my brain trying to remember the ingredients and their portions, and there’s always something missing, but the result was always incredible, considering the source.
I’ve very nearly reverted to fetishism in pursuit of ideally-perfect ingredients, and for what? A recreation of that which departed from this world with the death of my grandmother? Why do we do that? She’s gone.
I sat as an adult on my knees, at the side of her death bed, and cried. And I’m not a crier. But I complained that I’m not ready. I hadn’t yet gleaned from her all of her great secrets. She pet my head, and laughed. She said “no, you’re ready.”
In any case, she was right. I was ready. It wasn’t easy, but she was right, which leads me to ask why do we screw with it in the first place?
Why not just embrace the alchemy, in all its attendant simplicity? Why not just pause and appreciate that the gestalt will only occur once? Why kill ourselves aspiring to recreate that which will never again exist?
Why avoid that which is deadly, when we know that’s how the story ends?
Don’t be a coward.
Go to this place. Sit on the roof in the rain, and allow yourself to be surprised by each chilled drop as it strikes your lips and nose.
Lean forward, and get closer to the person who trembles in flushed anxiety.
Say the words.
Look about you. Live it now. Don’t be a coward!