By Joyce Carol Oates
Orignally published in the New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996. Reprinted in I‘ve Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers. edited by Constance Warloe.
The backfields shimmering in sunshine, humming with summer insects, iridescent dragonflies’ wings. The countryside, farm region of western New York State, northern Erie County near the Niagara County border, near the Tonawanda Creek and the Erie Barge Canal. Waking to such days, a succession of days—what happiness! To a child, eternity is this morning, this hour. Forever is now. Permanent.
Into the pear orchard: a harvest of greeny-yellow Bartlett pears. How hard they have seemed, like stone, green stone, for weeks. And now ripe, ready to be picked. That ripe sun-warmed smell. Picking pears by hand, a single pear, a single gesture. Placing, not dropping, the pear in the bushel-basket. You taught me patience: Like this! Daddy was the one who used the ladder. A harvest of pears—so many. Some of the pears were for us to eat then, some were for canning; most were sold by the roadside, in quart baskets, pecks, bushels. We sold apples, too—not so many, since we had only a few apple trees. And black cherries (sweet) and red cherries (sour). And tomatoes—those juicy, plump red First Lady tomatoes, pole climbers, with their strong tart smell. And sweet corn, peppers, onions.
Those long summer days. Cicadas screaming out of the trees. Listen to those crazy things! you’d say, laughing. The very music of the country, of deep intransigent summer; like crickets at dusk, the cries of owls in the near distance, a faint, dry rustling of leaves. Flashes of lightning—”heat lightning”—silent nervous rippling veins of flame rending the sky and disappearing in seemingly the same instant. You look, it’s already gone. How nature, how the world surrounding us, is us; yet shrouded in mystery. You and I are in the backfield picking corn, tomatoes. We’re in the barn, we’re feeding chickens in the mottled pecked-at dirt surrounding the coop, tossing grain, and the chickens come clucking, fretting, plumping their wings, and the big rooster, his lurid-red comb, his mad yellow eye, that look of male impatience to all roosters, and I’m squealing, shrinking back to avoid the rooster who pecks at feet when he’s in a bad mood, and where is my own chicken?—my pet chicken—Happy Chicken, so-called? A reddish-brown bird, with a bad limp. If you pet a chicken the right way, if you show you’re not going to hurt it, it will go very still and crouch down. We’re in the kitchen, upstairs in the farmhouse, you’re cooking tomatoes, simmering them slowly into a thick ripe sauce in a large pan on the stove beneath the bright yellow General Electric clock (bought with stamps from Loblaw’s, pasted assiduously into a booklet, the accumulation of months) with its shiny black numerals and red hands moving slowly, imperially, unswerving through the days. Those long summer days I believed, as a child, would never end.
The old farmhouse was razed years ago, the very site of its foundation filled with earth, all trace of its existence obliterated. Yet I see it clearly, and the lilac tree that grew close beside the back door, a child-size tree into which I climbed, a dreamy child given to solitude in places near the house, near you. Within the sound of your raised voice. Joyce! Joy-ce! Why is it always a misty-hazy summer day, that peculiar translucence to the light that means the air is heavy with moisture though the sky is cloudless, the sun prominent overhead? The house of my childhood is the house of recurring dreams yet subtly altered, the rooms mysterious, their dimensions uncertain—always there is a promise, alarming yet tantalizing, of rooms yet undiscovered, rooms beckoning, yet to be explored. Your presence permeates the house—you are the house, its infinite rooms. I see you pushing me on the swing, your hair reddish brown, you’re wearing a shirt and pale blue pedal pushers—I’m a lanky child of 9 or 10 on the swing Daddy made for me, the swing I loved, hemp rope hanging from a metal pipe secured between the branches of two tall trees in the backyard.
In the snapshots, the house appears about to dissolve in light; in my memory, and in other snapshots, the house is sided with a gritty practicable gray, “simulated brick” made of asphalt. Did Daddy put the siding on the house? I suspect he did. And there’s the outside cellar door, at an angle against the rear of the house.
If I could slip back into that instant, as the shutter clicks!
But I can’t, of course. This species of time travel is wholly imaginary. Our lives are time travel, moving in one direction only. We accompany one another as long as we can; as long as time grants us.