Friday, May 4, 2007


As I mentioned in my previous post, my lilacs are slower to bloom than others in the neighborhood. My dwarf iris are behind too, but some dwarfs are blooming in a warmer spot - against a south-facing cement retaining wall located at a house around the corner from me.
Whenever I see these smooth, velvety, deep purple iris, I am instantly carried back to my Grandma's garden. Proust had his madeleines, I have my dwarf iris. If you haven't read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," in it he recounts a transformative moment of tasting madeleine crumbs soaked in tea. A madeleine is just a plain little cake molded in the shape of a scallop shell, but eating it transported him back to his childhood days and gave him a feeling of all-powerful joy. True memory, he theorized, arises from smelling or tasting a once-familiar object. The sight and especially scent of dwarf purple irises is one of my sense memories, and I feel that all-powerful joy too.
I love all flowers, but I think I love the ones that Grandma Julia grew the most: lilacs, of course, the dwarf irises planted in a big tractor tire, the big blowzy peonies, the delicate moss roses planted in the bed in front of the garage.
Seeing Grandma's garden flowers in my mind carries me back to the days when I slid down her cellar door, made mud pies decorated with cotoneaster berries, collected green banana bunches (actually tree seeds) and helped Grandma feed the birds. I remember the days when my Mom, Aunt Mary and Grandma sat of an evening on the bench beside the garage with the weeping willow tree anchoring one end and the cotoneaster bush the other. I would sit and listen to their conversation, go run and play for a while, then return to the sanctuary of one lap or another.
Those were the evenings when we chanted "Starlight Starbright" and played statue on Grandma's big lawn. When we sat in the front porch at night and watched the breeze slowly billow the sheer white curtains in and out, in and out, lit only by the light of the streetlights. Or, we would sit on the back steps where the hum from the grain elevators acted as background music to the murmured conversation.
Those were the days when Grandma would have ladies over for lunch (the Norwegian equivalent of afternoon tea) and they would drink their coffee and speak their lilting Norwegian. Their singsong accents wafting from the dining room would lull me to sleep as I napped on the living room couch. Those were the days when Grandma and I would take walks through the quiet dark neighborhood. I always felt safe on those night walks, as long as her hand was in mine.
Sometimes Grandma and I would make afternoon visits to Mrs. Hanmer, a genteel and polished lady who served us a proper afternoon tea. Or, more impolitely at Grandma's house, I could dip sugar lumps into her coffee heavily laced with half and half.
We labor in vain to attempt to recapture the past, Proust wrote. "The effects of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect."
He adds, "But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken, scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection."
"So," says Proust, once he had recognized the taste of the madeleine crumbs soaked in his aunt's special tea, "in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's Park, and the water lilies in the Vionne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, towns and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea."
My Grandma is gone, as are Mom and Aunt Mary. The house was sold to strangers, ripped out of our hands. It's been 50 years since I was a child in Grandma's garden, but I still have my "Remembrance of Things Past," especially at this time when the dwarf purple iris bloom.
Note added Friday evening: Many people who have read Proust's story of the madeleines have tried to track down the perfect madeleine recipe; perhaps the very one that his aunt baked. But it is not about re-creating the perfect madeleine, which is really a very bland and innocuous dessert. Like Lance Armstrong wrote, "It's Not About The Bike." And I add, "It's Not About The Madeleines."


Lila Rostenberg said...

What a rich childhood!

Daisy Lupin said...

What a beautiful posting all about childhood memories. It is so interesting to read of different childhoods, but also amazing how much similarities there are to each other's experiences.