Let us begin with the lima beans. Ten maybe.
Does it matter?
I ask this question several times in The Novelist. And it is a good one, if I say so myself.
Ten lima beans is a nice, round number, not too big, not too small. Their quantity might have significance, or it might not. Middling numbers are like that.
I don’t remember if it was ten. It was probably more. How many times did I sit at my grandmother’s white linen-clothed table as child? My grandmother, with the double-D breasts she kept kempt in the kitchen, the dining room, under the morning sun while she combed her lake for invading water plants—but, when she came from the shower, she let their paleness bob and swing as she toweled them with a quick, strong hand, and I watched but did not watch.
“Come in, Liebchen,” she would say, while skinny dipping in the lake, her breasts floating and drifting like white lilies, barely tethered, which must have tempted the little fishes. I sat on the big, sand-colored rock and said “no thank you.” How many times? I cannot remember. Does it matter?
What if the rock had been purple? Someone might care. The way my friend Megan cared when she noted the repetition of purple, plum, amethyst in my story. Purple is the color of closeness, so The Tale of Genji tells us. If I had been sitting on a purple rock, while saying no to my grandmother, it might mean something. Or it might not. Repetition is key, isn’t it? We can’t hope to write meaning with a single occurrence of purple, unless it is set against something else. And this something else should have been repeated, so we would understand the meaning of a purple stain or a purple rock on hands, or in hands, or under hands that had always otherwise held something white or sand-colored. So perhaps quantity matters.
Take one, for instance. The one time I said no to my stepbrother when he wanted to play “the game” that, if I painted it now in terms of purple mulberries and a white dress, you might understand implicitly—you might, as it were, watch without watching, as I sat in his lap on the floor in that shadowy attic room. For we have already discussed the color purple, have we not? I am not dropping it in here without a history, hoping you’ll make your way. As for the number of no’s, the one time says I have a certain resilience, a decisiveness, even in the face of someone bigger and stronger. Compare the one to the ten.
It could have been ten lima beans or it could have been twenty-seven or maybe a hundred and four. I never counted. That is the measure of comfortable love—those numbers we cannot remember, because we were too busy smiling at our grandmother as she picked through the buttery pile of mixed vegetables, yet again, to extricate that which we were not game to eat and she was happy to make her own, for she did not mind lima beans and she loved our smile.
Let us find our way to the end with the cherry trees. Two. Planted in my front garden bed, ready to come into bloom for the first time this summer. I should tell you about the way my grandmother cared for her own cherry trees. She owned a sweet yellow, a weeping purple, a tall tart. I remember how she labored over these trees, spraying them, pruning them, surrounding them with protective nets to keep away the birds. How brave she was to harvest from the tall tart one, ladder against it, her breasts jammed behind denim overalls, now pressed to the rungs as she reached to pluck and pluck again, until her basket was teeming. I ate my fill. And every year she made me a cherry pie on my birthday. That’s how I remember it, whether or not it’s true.
So this summer, when a hired man pulled out my cherry trees while I was away for a weekend reunion, it might not be surprising that I shook and seethed when I found the two saplings dying in a pile of unnamed weeds beside my driveway. I did not know, at first, that the two were there. I did not see what I had already seen until I encountered the emptied garden bed at the top of the hill.
Does it matter that I suddenly thought of my grandmother’s cherry pies, and that I wanted one right then and there, almost as much as I wanted the trees themselves to have been left intact? Just one would do. My grandmother’s pies were the deepest red. Almost purple, if you closed your eyes and reached back to your birthday, to remember.