Much in my life is small, on purpose. Small apartment, small kitchen, and a small book by the coffee pot for a moment’s read first thing in the morning. Space is tight, time is finite, and the budget is trim. The small book had been my father’s, carried in his pocket in WWII in Italy. On a midsummer Sunday morning, the day’s light streaming in my north-facing kitchen window, I read a string of adjectives—bold, dynamic, dangerous, expansive, optimistic, dedicated, satisfying, and glorious. Allegedly descriptors of a well-lived life, the words are unsettling, not because they are dissonant with a good life but because they are distant from my perception of the one I’ve been most recently living.
I close the book, shower and dress, run a few quick errands, and hop in the garage-baked, decade-old Honda for the quick drive up the Palisades for lunch.
“Magnitude,” says my friend. “As you know (I do not, but he is generous), color is all about magnitude.” With his hands, he frames a 6-inch square of green-painted wall below the mantle and then a much larger swath above. In the three years since my one previous visit to this house, walls have been painted, rooms furnished. My friend enjoys entertaining, cooking, and gathering around him people he likes; he has invited me today to help prepare a meal in honor of his friend and mentor’s eightieth birthday.
In the wide and high, full-of-light kitchen, I sit on the one stool and pull from my bag of veggies a tri-color squash. He pulls one from his. He sees my patty pan squash and raises me three Kirby’s. I counter with bacon, fresh ricotta and fresh rosemary; he, with arugula and fresh corn. I serve up blackberries, and he lobs back blueberries. To my round red onions, he proffers tiny roasted beets. The similarities and redundancies are a delight, as if we had been contemplating more or less the same meal. It would now be more diverse and more abundant.
The fragrance of knowledge. A fragment of a sentence I had read that morning has snagged in my head. A part of a whole persists, the rest of the sentence fallen away.
Mozzarella melts over sweet tomatoes on the hot plate in the sun, slides right into the squash medley. We taste and talk, taste and talk, a thing in the mouth, one in the mind, and again. People we have known, things we have read and want to, family, hilarity, losses, finances, perceived realities, watermelon, insecticide, naps, and Netflix.
On the veranda, near the table where we sit, the deep magenta phlox, so sweet its aroma is peppery, is redolent of complexity. Selecting, planting, tending, and attending can give rise—and not just in these blooms—to a perplexity, a quandary with potential.
“Are you allergic to anything?” I ask my friend, the man of the mansion.
“Only sanctimony,” he says.
When the guests arrive, we sit to eat, and the conversation ranges far and wide from that point high on a hill of granite and gneiss. We talk of plants and gardens, dramas and musicals, deaths and hopes, pursuits and detours, a few accomplishments, more deferrals, John Berryman and Wallace Stevens, and Emily Dickinson, and I wonder whether, even here, in this beautiful place on this spectacular day Berryman’s Henry would have sensed a different little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
Old catastrophes and heavy things are about, his mother’s death just past, my father’s dying continuing, but other things hold this day. We proceed with what comes from the ingredients in front of us, consider the options, and toss things in. The lunch guests leave, and we go for a walk, stop in and visit friends of his—a widower he has known for years and his grown sons, home for a long weekend.
He cooks again; I chop. Mint and ginger together act on the salmon and white beans in the sauté pan and on the now cooler evening dinner plate, lifting the flavor, lightening it, bringing to mind fennel.
When I worry that I’ve been too bedazzled by the beauty of the day and have wearied him with an excess of wows, he says he’s been known to use wowser on occasion.
The keeper of good company gives me a cup of chamomile and mint tea to take upstairs to bed. “No Worries” Tea, I read on the label hanging on the string outside the cup and consider the possibility that the whole day has been too good to be real, propaganda or wishful thinking or too much country air. Breezes off the lake blow up the hill, and the very different tomorrow mixes in my mind with today’s leftovers.
Some of the words from the morning’s read in my father’s small book run through my head again. From my friend’s country home to my 500 square foot studio apartment, the movement back to finite from expansive is obvious, and yet expansive is not infinite; limits and possibilities come into play in both settings, in most.
*Lines from John Berryman’s “Dream Song #29”