Handle With Care

Plump, green-gold, Worcester’s pride,
transported through autumn skies
in a box marked “Handle With Care”

sleep eighteen Bartlett pears,
hand-picked and polished and packed
for deposit at my door . . .

—Stanley Kunitz, My Mother’s Pears

Each fall, on Columbus Day weekend, the trees in our neighborhood tip from green to golden, the sugar maples burnished bright, some flaming like torches, others revealing gray limbs, no longer cloaked. Ginger revels in our daily walk around the block, her reddish coat blending with the fallen leaves. Each curbside pile must be thoroughly investigated. And so we linger by the side of the road as she sniffs.

autumn treesGazing at boughs overhead, scarlet, orange, honey-gold, green, I realize that my mother would have been 91 this weekend. Her birthday was on the real Columbus Day, October 12. This comes as a surprise. It has been 14 years since she died, in the spring. I have lost track of her age.

Reminders surface throughout the weekend. I change the sheets and pause to straighten wrinkles, hearing my mother’s sing-song chant as we float a laundry-scented top-sheet up and down, up and down, until it settles onto my bed, “Nice and smooth, nice and smooth!” I am maybe four years old. This is a favorite game, and I sing along with her. Nice and smooth. Her philosophy of life.

Her death was not. In the winter of 1999, she brushed a hair from her neck and discovered a lump. Within a few weeks, it had grown as big as a grapefruit. Surgery left a long, Frankenstein-like scar from neck to shoulder. Soon the tumor returned and bloomed into a massive lump that would not heal, despite radiation and one round of chemo. Her oncologist begged me to explain to my parents the news they seemed not to comprehend—there was no use continuing treatment.

I sit in a doctor’s office Monday morning, answering questions about my family’s medical history. My mother died of anaplastic thyroid cancer, I explain. The physician’s assistant rapidly types at the computer, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Later, appointment nearly done, I sign up for online access to my chart and lab reports. I select a security question for my password: “What is your mother’s maiden name?”

In the afternoon, I nix my to-do list and drive to the boyhood home of the poet Stanley Kunitz. There is an open house today, an annual event sponsored by the Worcester County Poetry Association, honoring the memory of our hometown Poet Laureate.

I climb the steep front steps of this modest home decked with bunting and marigolds in a neighborhood of three-deckers. Nudging open the front door, I step into a Victorian time capsule of dark wood and velvet plush. Mounted deer heads stare from the walls. Glass globes on brass stands gleam from a side table. A stuffed peacock grasps a golden pear in its bill. The decorations reflect the owner’s tastes, but the details are period-true.

I meet local poets and hear some of their work, and Kunitz’s, on the back deck, surrounded by autumn flowers and a graceful pear tree, still holding all of its leaves, still green. I learn about his tragic childhood—a father who committed suicide before he was born, a step-father who died of a heart attack while hanging drapes in this very home, two weeks after they moved in.

We listen to a tape recording—a cassette from 1985, when Kunitz returned to Worcester for a celebration of his work—his voice booming, strong, even as an octogenarian. He reads “My Mother’s Pears,” a poem of thanks to the owners of this home who tend the backyard pear tree. They became close friends after his visit to the city, restoring his sense of belonging, healing his grief over lost fathers.

Each fall they would send a box of pears from the tree that still grows in the back yard, a tree that Kunitz helped his mother plant, as a boy. An ample crop of pears grew each year, the owner tells me, except the year that Kunitz died, just shy of his 101st birthday, in 2006. “That year, all the pears fell off the tree,” she says. “It was supernatural, as if the tree was mourning his death.”

The night my mother died, she sipped air, slowly, slowly, like a fish out of water, then slipped away. No tree shed its fruit, no flowers their blossoms. I just knew that her soul went elsewhere. I have not heard from her, since.

. . . I summon up all my strength
to set the pear tree in the ground,
unwinding its burlap shroud.

It is taller than I. “Make room
for the roots! my mother cries,
“Dig the hole deeper.”

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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