Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Lush Life

Phragmites. Common, roadside reeds. Beautiful, undulant banks of them filling hollows by the highway. A single one flowered by the river this past summer, surrounded by smaller ones that did not sprout seedheads. The big one disappeared in a gusty, early winter rainstorm. The little ones remain, their leaves extended like stiff, spare banners.

I once spent a long stretch of a road trip fishing for the word "phragmites." It was on a particularly blighted stretch of highway skirting little ocean inlets and salt marshes just outside Boston. Some other "ph" word kept coming up and shoving "phragmites" aside. My brain felt like some kind of jammed, deranged file cabinet. Finally, probably while I was looking the other way, out popped "phragmites."

Now I can't remember the other word. Pharoah. Phalanges.


Bittersweet. I was enamoured of this pretty vine, once, and desired to obtain some to decorate my house. It was years ago, maybe even during my first marriage. I'd pass masses of it by the highway and dream of bringing armloads of the beautiful red and orange-studded branches home. I'd imagine where I'd place it, and how beautiful the elaborate little red and yellow berries would look in our apartment. I'd picture myself in the woods gathering it up, harvesting the beautiful vine with the beautiful name. I was always on the lookout for it, and could spot the brightly studded tangles instantly. Did I ever actualize my bittersweet fantasies ? No.

This may (or may not) be a parable of my spiritual life.

Is it that it's so close to dinnertime and that I'm hungry that the shiny, brown clustered seeds in the heart of this involuted, snowbound Queen Anne's Lace remind me of pecan pie ? I never much liked nuts as a child, but I loved the dark, dense, thickly sweet filling of pecan pie. It was restaurant food, of course, far too exotic for my Mother's rotation of desserts (Jello, harlequin ice-cream, butterscotch pudding).

My Aunt's glamorous friend, Helen T., ate pecan pie. She had flaming red hair, and wore green chiffon dresses. She had "perfect teeth," mink stoles, and was brassy and loud. She had a round bed. Her husband, a weasly little clothier, slept around. And around. And around. And around. I loved Helen. Her taste in pie seemed extraordinarily sophisticated. She'd stir spoonsful of vanilla ice cream into her coffee instead of milk. This, too, I found cosmopolitan, even sexy. And, of course, there were cigarettes and endless rounds of drinks. Cocktails. There are pictures of Anne Sexton that have always reminded me of Helen. They both had a long-limbed, cool, wounded elegance. Helen died of lymphoma more than thirty years ago. There is a snapshot of her at a New Year's Eve gala, head thrown back, cardboard-and-spangles party tiara in her glorious hair, perfect teeth bared in a wide smile, bright green chiffon swirling Sufi-like around her legs. Her neck bulged with lymph nodes big as eggs.

She looked ecstatic.

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