Collecting Heirlooms

By Robin Chotzinoff

My heirlooms are a mess -- the silver is black with tarnish; the photographs are damp and fragile, their subjects unrecognizable. That takes care of my ancestors. Artifacts pertaining only to me are worse, if they even exist. Whole decades of my life passed without proof. When I die, my kids will be able to infer only that I ignored the disco era (true), marched -- silently at the age of 10 -- down West End Avenue the day Martin Luther King died (true), and wore a power suit to work during the Me Years of the 1980s (false). Even my wedding pictures are out of focus.

Never mind my kids -- how will I know that once I was young, non-gray, with braces on my teeth? Through memories. But each of these is anchored not by a piece of paper, but by something that grows, or once grew. I connect my past to my present with bark, stems, seed heads, and fruit. How do you explain that to a child? You hit the high points, I guess.

It's 1963. My family owns a gray-shingled summer house approached by a driveway that ends in a circle. In the island formed by the circle grows a two-story willow. Its branches whip in heavy winds; the twigs slap my window as I sleep. Every hurricane that passes half destroys the tree. On one poststorm day, my mother photographs my 4-year-old sister standing in its droopy branches, holding a toilet plunger. She takes the same photograph every year until my sister leaves home. The pictures are gone and so is the tree, but a perennial pose, in my family, is called a "toilet plunger."

In 1969, I visit two aunts, from different sides of the family, who live less than 5 miles apart in the middle of Long Island. Both of them make beach plum jelly, a labor-intensive red substance that tastes more like pectin than fruit. Nevertheless, it is comforting to go with them on gathering expeditions or sit near them while they pit, strain, and sweat. Beach plums grow in lonely places that make me feel loved.

In 1971, on the first day of seventh grade, my English teacher says to write a paragraph about a common thing. At home, I snag a peach from a Long Island roadside stand. I sit down at my desk and look at it. It is merely a peach -- what my mom calls a healthy dessert. (Oxymoron!) Its skin is a sunset and very, very thin, especially if you peel it back slowly with a fingernail. A peach smells like the beach, like the summer that is closing, like the boy I have a crush on. The taste I couldn't describe. I still can't.

The years from 1975 to 1994 remind me of 'Beefsteak' tomatoes, old lilacs where the outhouse used to be, giant marigolds that smell awful in a good way, eucalyptus pod collars to keep the fleas off dogs, old roses.

In 1995, I move to a north-facing slope in the mountains west of Denver. On June 1, the snow has yet to melt. There is no flat place to grow a marigold, no warm place for a tomato, and there are too many elk to risk a peach. I buy a wildflowers-for-kids book as a way to look at what grows here without help. I am uninspired. In mid-June, a friend gives birth to a healthy son who dies suddenly three days later. At the funeral, the minister recites a poem: the flower that lives for a day, he says, is no less important than an ancient oak.

The next morning I return to my slope and see the week-long blooms of arnica, death camass, columbine. Every spring since then, I search them out and stand for a while against the cold bark of the big trees whose shade they grow beneath, briefly, and the baby's name floats, simple and alone, across my brain.

In 1996, on the Oregon coast in August, there is plenty for a kid to do. Arcades, cotton candy, bumper cars. But my 7-year-old daughter has settled on something I can truly understand -- picking huge quantities of wild blackberries. We pick as many as possible before they rot; we eat them till our teeth turn purple. We pick breakfast, lunch, dessert, and pre-breakfast. We range farther afield for better bushes. We are never bored. Our only companion is my daughter's yet-to-be-born sister, hauled along in my belly and awash in blackberries. All three of us are barefoot.

There, girls. That's the best I can do.

Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People with Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

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