The berries have been there for months. First hidden behind a flush of summer green, they began small green and hard. But with leaves now gone, my Possumhaw Holly stands alone in silent splendor, within a winter garden gone dormant and brown.
With a male holly near by to play his role in creation, only females set fruit. The birds love her bright red berries as much as me. While I enjoy the mere sight of her from my kitchen window, I especially like to bring a few cuttings indoors. The trimming improves her form while the trimmings form effortlessly into a nice table centerpiece — like the one I put together Sunday with sprigs of French Lavender, in honor of my mother-in-law’s birthday supper.
The post could stop here but for that word, “mother-in-law,” which carries with it such common connotations. Most are unflattering; and they hurt and belittle with a big bite. I wish to remove its tarnish and soften the sharp edges with my own small words. But try as I write, words evade. I search for phrases and images to honor, to tell of the many ways my mother-in-law has enriched my life. And I come up empty.
So I begin with a confession: Janice and I have come a long way, since the first time we met thirty-eight years ago; because I’m positive she didn’t like me. Or if not me in particular, then at least the general idea of her son dating anyone exclusively. At seventeen, he was too young to narrow the field. And when considering her son’s girlfriend as a prospective daughter-in-law, perhaps Janice felt her son could do better. Having greater appreciation for her wisdom these days, I’m inclined to agree — though I’m very glad that son of hers believes otherwise. And she as well — now that we know each other better.
Janice is infinitely interesting. Unlike me, she can comfortably converse with anyone anywhere. She is well-read and borrows many books each week from her local library. She especially enjoys a good mystery. She’s a fine cook, though she cooks less these days — nine years of living with cancer and chemotherapy cocktails takes its toll — though she lives everyday grateful.
Her grandmother raised Janice because her mother wasn’t up to the task. As a new widow with two toddlers at home, having lost her husband in a tragic train accident, Janice’s mother knew her limits. So Janice grew up calling her grandmother “Mother,” and her mother she called “Mammy”, same as all her mother’s grandchildren.
Janice married young. Ironically, at sixteen. But thanks to her Mother, she married for love. Because her Mother wanted for Janice what she herself had been denied, when forced to marry a man she did not love.
When time drew near for delivery of my oldest son, Janice put aside her fear of flying and came to Texas to help out. But it’s not the help I’m remembering today but all our good visits. During one lovely afternoon chat, in my final days of that third pregnancy, Janice fondly recounted how she had “a thing” for a man in uniform when young. I suppose her future husband looked fine in his crisp Marine khakis, walking down the streets of the small town where Janice lived. It wasn’t long before they married. Then not much longer before Janice and a new daughter were on their way to France. And a year or so later and a very long way from home, with no family nearby save for her young husband, Janice gave birth to her second child: My husband.
To this day, Janice cannot resist the hard crusty french bread she came to love as a young French housewife. Enough so, that I created her birthday menu around loaves of hard crusty bread, ensuring I acquired the finest Oklahoma City offers. With them, I served a side of my best spaghetti and meatballs. And a fresh tossed salad and home-made vinaigrette and croutons — made with french bread, of course. And because I make pies and cobblers better than cakes, Janice had birthday candles planted into a big dish of apple cobbler.
But as I look back on Sunday night’s supper table, it’s not the food or the beloved people seated there which grab at my attention but that lovely mix of winter flora: Those silvery sprigs of French Lavender which I have adored for so long — whose scent fills my home and my soap dispensers and lingers above my pillow at night — reminds me of Janice and the gift of a French-born husband whose love we share; and those spacious berries remind me of Janice too, since she always has space and time to visit.
These wintertime berries invite me to make my own space — for visits with those I love — with time ripe for picking.
Lovely berries and a lovely tribute. The simplest celebrations are always the best, don’t you think?
I fell in love with “possumhaw holly”. What a name! But you can have the lavender – I just can’t quite make myself like it. Lemon Verbena – that’s my love.
I think birthday cakes are highly overrated, so cheers for that cobbler, too. Isn’t freedom grand?
After I finished this writing yesterday morning, I read something I found so freeing, written by Annie Dillard — contained in William Zinsser’s book, “Inventing the Truth — The Art and Craft of Memoir.”
Because the writing on Janice and the berries was so fresh, I knew exactly what Dillard was talking about. So many of her points hit home — but the one I wish to share here is her advice to not write memoir in hope of preserving memories. Which of course, with Dad’s dementia ever in mind, is part of what I hope to do in my writing. But here, in her own words,
“After you’ve written, you can no longer remember anything but the writing. However true you make that writing, you’ve created a monster. This has happened to me many, many times, because I’m willing to turn events into pieces of paper. After I’ve written about any experience, my memories — those elusive, fragmentary patches of color and feeling – are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work. The work is a sort of changeling on the doorstep — not your baby but someone else’s baby rather like it, different in some way that you can’t pinpoint, and yours has vanished.”
These words of Dillard’s were, for me, very much like having cobbler rather than cake for a birthday dessert. Dillard served up just what I need to savor on my tongue, as I write on everyday life; while realizing that I may always attach the thought of “spaciousness and making time for visits” to the berries of a Possumhaw Holly,” I know they are much more than these words of mine, and that in reality, I have not limited their true beauty one iota. And it follows that it must be the same with Janice’s true beauty as well.
Nevertheless, I’m glad you found the patchy tribute lovely “as is”. Throughout my writing on Janice, I felt as if I were making a messy quilt out of the fabric of shared lives — and since I’m no seamstress, there were several times I wanted to quit and put it away forever.