Thursday, May 6, 2010

Time after Thyme...

Cyndi Lauper still haunts me on occasion…not in any negative way (memories of skipping over to the Hudson River; “Time after Time,” various Madonna songs, and some Pet Shop Boys for spirited measure mixed in, blaring on my headset; a bright yellow shirt—extra large and therefore billowing in the breeze off my skeletal high school frame notwithstanding), but a mystical kind of haunting that propels me back in time.  Just listen to the lyrics, which evoke a haunting sadness, a haunting by and of time, a haunting by memories.

Most anything I suppose can serve as our particular haunting. We are susceptible, at any given moment, to envelopment by the past, to a haunting by time and its personages and events, whether triggered by a sight, a sound, or, a smell. For Marcel Proust, it was the mixture of tea with the crumbs of a madeleine that unleashed a flood of memories—the result being his monumental autobiographical work, À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU (Remembrance of Things Past).

"I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal…And suddenly the memory revealed itself: The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane."

To be overcome, to intuit, to feel the rush of time within one’s body…well, these are the unexpected pleasures of life. We cannot will such moments into existence; they simple come.  

Plants evoke their own kind of haunting, and, it seems to me, so many memories are constructed around the botanical. Recently, for instance, I excitedly showcased my new Carolina Allspice bush (Calycanthus floridus) to our neighborly and eminently gracious postal carrier, Karen. No sooner did I speak its name when time suddenly haunted her. She began to speak excitedly about the times she, as a child, would spend at her grandmother's house. A large Carolina Allspice dominated the backyard, and she would dance around it and use it for hide and seek shelter. 

Likewise, my Aunt Annie and cousin Arianna wax eloquently about the sprawling iris beds my Grandfather Weinert cultivated at his upstate New York home. Ancestral callings, I suppose; I’ve become addicted to irises, though unlike many addictions, only certain kinds of irises satisfy my desires.

Yet one plant in particular serves as the key to an inestimable moment in time: the scent of thyme always hurtles me back to 1987. On 21 June (my Grandmother Weinert's birthday who, in the same year, succumbed to brain cancer), my dear high school friend Nikki Quay died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Her family held a private funeral several days later. But at the funeral home prior to the graveside service, Nikki’s parents asked a few of Nikki’s close friends to attend. We gathered at the plot in a cemetery surrounded by lovely woods. And the scent of sweet, wild thyme wafted around us mourners, bereft, clutching each other, trembling, weeping, feeling as if the world had come to an end—because a part of it had. Thyme has since been my most poignant madeleine; its scent transports me decades back, and I feel for a moment a consuming grief, which quickly gives way to a deep appreciation for Nikki’s presence in my life, and then a smile…and then a delicious new dish.   

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