Friday, January 11, 2013

Peaches: A Story

When I was about 7 years old, my grandfather passed away. At the time, I didn't really understand what that meant. He "passed away"--did that mean he went somewhere? Was it like passing another car on the street or another kid in line at school? You pass ahead and now are in a different place, going further then those behind you. That year had been full of many words I didn't understand--"radiation" "chemo-therapy" "cancer."  To a seven year old, those words meant keep quiet, don't jump around too much, don't bang your toys, hug Granddaddy gently, don't bounce on the couch. Some days, he didn't feel good, and the house remained dark and filled with tiptoe silence; other days, he danced with me to old country tunes spilling out of his radio box, waving his cane to get me to boogie. Somehow with all that, I never thought that "feeling bad today" led to death, to this state of passing. 

I figured it out tho, pretty quickly, what the ambiguous passing away meant. Not seeing someone anymore, no matter how much you miss them and call for them in your mind, a lot of tears from people you never see cry, and wearing Sunday clothes several days in a row.

Several weeks later I discovered that passing away also meant cleaning up and cleaning out. I found myself in my grandparent's crawl space attic, sorting through old boxes. My mom made it a game--like digging for treasure. Who knew what interesting things we would find hidden in the back rafters?

My dad pulled out a wilting cardboard box. The inside was a jumble of odds and ends--including an old fruit-candy box. He handed it to me. I pulled open the lid and found a pile of tiny cards. Postcards, curling inward and shaped now like little bridges. Handwriting flowed across the majority of them, a waving, looping penmanship, much prettier than any I had seen before. The postcards held pictures of places I had never seen. They were stamped France,Germany, Great Britain, and captured the hesitant, squinting smiles of young men in pants that ballooned out at the thighs. Soldiers from the earliest decades of the 20th century.

"These are from World War One," my dad said. He held the postcards to the light and gazed at them with something akin to reverence. Those tiny cards held several years worth of correspondence between Lee and Myrtle--my recently deceased grandfather's parents. I miss you. It's cold here. Can't wait to see you again. 

One photograph slipped out from the stack of postcards. It fluttered to the attic floor, twisting in the air like a little leaf. I picked it up. It was a simple little image: two elderly ladies, leaning against a ladder in an orchard. Confused, I flipped it over. On the back, the word peaches was written in ink faded now to pale yellow.

The word meant nothing to me.

"Who are these people?" I asked.

My parents took the photo, looked it over. "I don't know. Maybe Grandmama knows." We took the photo down to the kitchen, where she was packing up her dishes and cutlery, preparing to come live with us. She too did not recognize the two ladies in the photo.

"Maybe its two ladies your great-grandfather met in France during the war," she suggested. "Or probably just got stuck in the box somehow."

That pretty much ended the discussion. For some reason, however, I kept the little photo of the two smiling ladies. Slipped it into my little backpack of toys and books. I still have it to this day.

I don't know why I kept that photo. Why a seven year old girl felt the need to keep and protect a 70-something year old photograph of two strangers. But there was some pull in that image. Something that reached out to me, touched me, and held me the way nothing else had. Those two smiling, happy women, their baskets full of overripe fruit, represented a long-forgotten summer and sunshine. With my grandfather's death--the first touch of mortality I had known--fresh on my mind, there was something reassuring in  looking at photo of people from long ago. I knew those two ladies had long since passed away. But here I held in my hands proof that this passage did not necessarily mean total oblivion.

My grandfather--and all those other things that become lost, forgotten, or disappear--wasn't completely lost. Some things are intangible--things like memories. Even though we have such few years on this earth, we have the ability to collect this little moments. Moments and memories  of good times, summertime, easy smiles, and trees laden with ripe fruit dipping down into bright sunlight.

Someday I'll share with you what else
these two smiling ladies
hidden among the peach trees
have taught me,
what other lost things
they have come to represent. 

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