My father called me while I was on vacation. He recounted news stories and the recent demolition of a neighbor’s house. “Farmers won’t cut the trees down. They don’t want them, but it’s not worth the effort. Past harvest.” The shredded paper no longer holding a valued idea. The tree was not, but the words were, past harvest. My father was speaking about the age, but he really meant the value.
The image of the neighbor’s house across the field emerged in my mind. The imagined rot behind sad eyes in the dark. That had been this house. Now the scraggly fur clinging to almost limp animal bones was exposed in each red paint scraped raw window frame and broken plank.
Despite being worth nothing, the time had still come for harvest. Each tree, each farm building, each old tire, tractor and car long abandoned. So much past. So much past to harvest to make space for seeds with artificial memories.
There was something about the lighting in my brother’s apartment. The spare room. The bathroom. Any room with a mirror. So much brown in gray’s shadow. Blonde unmistakable for white.
I don’t write on vacation, but I read. I had finished the first of two novels, remembering why I both loved and doubted the writer. That reason was the endings, the complicated almost final pages that skipped to the fully resolved happy. This most recent example narrated three siblings restitching their scattered stories. Picking and plucking, theirs was an attempt to save and destroy chapters. Happy meant understanding their parents’ choices’ best endings alongside their situation’s threats. In Franco’s Spain, threats were obvious. Happy meant survival.
I don’t write on vacation, but in my head I counted. Seven novels. I wrote the happy endings seven times. I attempted to share the research behind several to which my brother said, “It’s not a romantic movie.” In movies there is no past because there’s always a next, a feeling, an analysis.
“Not a romantic movie. No,” I repeated to myself, knees tucked in at the kitchen table. Not the baby’s but my own cries pressed outward. What’s viable romance at 42 for a woman? There would be no seeds planted. Past due, like the books in my bag at best, with extensions still possible. Past harvest, at worst, my father’s words returned.
What would we do with the land to do better, to not become past, to not become irrelevant, the barrier to someone else’s harvest? The baby tugged a pant leg. The toddler demanded his exact instructions followed. So, did his grandfather. Which request for growth was too late? Both stood still. Both fell back into the familiar. Neither had yet to take real steps.
The second novel was another intergenerational tangle, but without the benefit of a clear enemy, a shared identity, an understanding of happy. Don’t take too long, I was reminded, to choose what to grow, what to keep, what to sell. A never planned harvest becomes its own unlived past, and yet cannot preserve any past, if the seed memories are manufactured and not its own. Harvest required selection. Within the context of planted seeds, the novel embodied the reality of soil that holds all the necessary richness but remains too cold to see growth.
I told myself that timed my vacation reading so that I could finish the second book during my layover. It was the lighter of the two books I had carried with me, so I would be relieved to slip the paperback into my carry on. I only barely acknowledged I was afraid of the story and the ending. I clicked into my library account to renew both books for the final days of vacation. Of the two, it was the story with the happy ending, but without the details to get there, that had holds. I could not renew it. It would remain past due, but fines were the least of my worries.
I woke up the next morning in the pause between the vacation passed and the unavoidable string of sameness that awaited at Monday’s breakfast table. Movement nearby at my own kitchen table came with a dog, instead of a baby, crawling underneath. The hard curve of the wood chairs cut into my calf, and I sipped on coffee somehow not as smooth as I remembered.
“Could you see yourself living there? Not living there?” my brother had asked. Like my dad describing the to be torn down house and the trees that might remain, my brother, too, was assessing value.
“Yes.” To both questions. “No.” To both questions. Each answer was as bitter a taste as the coffee he sipped, as frustrating as the brewing of that coffee I was not accustomed to nor had no control over its improvement. Bitter was the flavor of a harvest, past. The books were, but the conversations were not yet, past due.
Vacation Reading List
The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson