Thursday, August 19, 2010


Peaches and our Mothers

Peeling fresh peaches. They’ve been exceptional this summer. I say this as one who lived thirty years in Georgia and never had a good peach there, except one basketful I bought in the mountains. But here, in New York, the peaches come from Pennsylvania, ripe from the tree, not picked green. They arrive in stores in August or late July, glorious in their fuzzy skins, colored from deep dried blood red to pale yellow. In the past I have made jam, but, unlike strawberry jam, peach doesn’t hold its flavor. I think I should freeze some, though, for winter. My mother would have canned them.
At least until reliable canned peaches appeared on the market, women canned their own.<> And even after. Early cans were made of tin and people worried about the food. We had jars of canned peaches and green beans lined up in the fruit cellar(later a catch-all place) when I was small. My mother didn’t do tomatoes. Butulism, she said Obviously she was confused in some way. When I was older commercially canned peaches were what we got in winter. Freestone peaches in thick, gooey syrup. They were sweet. Not peachy. Sweet. Okay, sugar is a good preservative. The peaches it preserved were only passable and the syrup didn’t help. Drained and set on a lettuce leaf with a blob of cottage cheese, they passed for salad. I think I liked it, actually, being one of two children in the history of the world who liked cottage cheese. But more often it was a pear half on the lettuce. A canned pear half. And by mid-winter in upstate New York, almost anything that looks or tastes like summer is good enough. Still the wonder and convenience of commercially canned food was more than my mother’s generation could resist. They didn’t entirely trust it, but they did consume it, grateful to be freed from the work. I think of that at the end of the summer, when I never want to see another tomato, but the freezer is stocked with little cubes of paste and sauce full of summer. And I swear not to plant tomatoes ever again. Of course I do, because by the end of winter the sauces is gone and the seed catalogs have filled the mailbox.
But this morning, peeling ripe peaches, their fragrance all over the kitchen, juice running down my hands, I thought about commercially canned peaches. We never have them. We try to eat seasonally. We aren’t real foodies, more like chow hounds--a little less fussy perhaps, but we eat fast food. But seriously, canned peaches? Nope I’d rather go all winter with out them, pig out in summer when they are fresh and ripe, eat them until I can’t face another one and move on to apples, next fruit to ripen here. I might freeze some, for peach upside down cake (Moosewood Desserts has a killer recipe), but I am content to anticipate, to think in winter of the peach as a color or a fragrance, to dream of fuzzy, warm deliciousness. Virtue. Eating locally. All that is good, but hedonism drives my virtue here. No peach from a can or a freezer EVER tastes like those of late summer.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Missing Henry

So it is morning and everyone is at last in their new homes and spaces. Even Gidget, the new dog on the block. Sad to think of Henry 3,000 miles away. I miss him or miss the idea of the dailiness of him. We want him next door to watch him grow. Pictures and updates are good, but lack immediacy: every new word, every edge toward walking, each turn of the growing mind. We won’t see it. We will be strangers to him and he will be a beloved child, far away to us.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Old photos

My parents owned a Kodak brownie camera. They took terrible pictures by today's standards, my parents that is, not the cameras. The camera shot black and white. I have some of those photos because my mother saved every one, unless she was in it. When my Aunt Mattie died and I moved into her house, I found boxes of old photos, some going back to the daguerreotype. The boxes were full of old faces and people in fancy clothes, fat babies in bonnets and hard shoes and a few mysteries. There was a photo clearly set in the Pacific, but the people were unknown. There was one of an elegant man in a white wicker porch chair, signed "Thanks Winnie. It was wonderful.'
Winnie? My uncle's sister was named Winnie. Had she had a secret life? A lover? What was wonderful? I'll never know and if I had some ambition, I'd write a novel about it and solve the mystery my own way. I keep those pictures. I've lugged them to Florida, to Georgia, and now I've brought them back to Syracuse where they started out. Some day soon I will scan the ones I want and keep the photos. The rest I'll give to the historical society. I want to keep the physical photos because they are things Mattie owned and touched, a connection. Most of my photos now exist as pixels.
I like digital. I like being able to shoot lots of pictures and only keep the best one. Part of me enjoys discarding bad pictures. But I worry that some thing is lost here. Don't the bad pictures tell stories too? The shooter couldn't focus, was an amateur. The baby moved. The grandmother in her best black dress couldn't even smile, pictures were too serious. All those get thrown away or if the photographer can't do that, they are stored but never printed. Printing is expensive. My parents often shot one roll of film over a year or more. The printed pictures made an odd album--Christmas and summer all in one go.
I take lots of pictures. I use my phone sometimes--imagining my old rotary phone stuck in the broom closet, trying to explain to my dad who died in 1960 that I can now take pictures with a telephone. Mostly I shoot with a Canon SLR. I got tired of trying to hold up one of those little cameras and guess what I was seeing. My pictures with the Canon probably aren't any better than those with the other digitals. I am not what I would call a photographer, and I am too lazy to learn.
Every once and awhile I get a good shot. That pleases me, though I honestly don't know what I did to accomplish "good shot." It doesn't matter though. When I die the kids will clean off my hard drive and discard the pictures. They may save a few, not many. The good ones I will have all ready given them. No one keeps pictures. I have realized that.They get thrown away with the dead person's clothes. And I think now that we have them digitally the discarding will be easier.
So many pictures. Everyone takes them. Cameras are on the table at weddings. Kids have them. What for?
Why do we take pictures? To remember? To compete in some unspoken art show--my photos are better than yours?
Photos are like miracles: they mean for the person who took them or who owns them, for the duration of that life. Ephemeral, they live for a lifetime. I'm not talking Matthew Brady here or art photos. I am talking about the ones we compulsively take to hold onto the passage of our lives, hoping, not that they will take our souls as some tribal peoples believed, but that they will save our lives.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you
Bookends, Simon and Garfunckle

Photos. I can no longer imagine what I will do with them.I give some away hoping friends like them. What happens to them after that matters not. Gifts no longer belong to the giver. But I wonder, now that everyone has a camera, what pictures mean. They meant a lot to my parents and grandparents. They were a kind of magic, valued for their rarity and their cost. Now? Do they matter or are they as impermanent as the newspaper? Worse really, since looking at photos on line lacks the tactile reality of looking at albums, pasted and labelled by hand. Touching creates reality. Looking at pixels adds a layer to the experience, forces us back a step, undoes the experience. The photos on Picassa could be anyone's. In some way they are anyone's to look at, losing the magic of intimacy and meaning.

This ends nowhere, really. I think I need to print pictures and make albums and not think of them as anything beyond a moment of history, going wherever it is going to go.