Bookkeeper for a small firm that made dyes,
She boarded at my grandparents’ and loved
But had an allergy to strawberries.
Strawberry imagery adorned her note cards;
On her wall hung a still life of a dish
With strawberries, three apples, and a lemon;
Her teacups had a strawberry motif,
Red fruits and green stems twining round their bowls.
Such was her predilection and good nature
That she seized chances to help others savor
What fate and her physician had denied her;
And on snow-muffled evenings when I shoveled
My grandparents’ front walk, she’d have me in
And serve me strawberry preserves on toast;
Or in the summer when I mowed the lawn
She’d hull fresh berries for me and present them
With shortcake and great dollops of whipped cream.

Having no relatives except a brother,
A railway mail clerk over in New Hampshire,
She shared her birthdays and her holidays
With our extended family and attended
With friends subscription-series plays, recitals,
And concerts at the university.
Whether from pre-lapsarian innocence
Or post-lapsarian calculation, she
Had found and filled a niche that suited her;
And though that time was hard on single women,
She never seemed to rue her lot or wish
That she had had a family of her own.
She wasn’t Robinson’s Aunt Imogen,
Nor was I a Young George, whose boyish charms
Could pierce a spinster with her childlessness.
However patiently she lent herself
To news of school and church-league basketball,
My volubility sometimes fatigued her;
And, following one garrulous report,
She set her cup back coolly on its saucer
And said, “Aren’t we a chatterbox today”—
Making a blush spring hotly to my face

For having, in my vanity, imagined
That I’d been entertaining, when I’d merely
Been spraying words about, much in the way
That an untended hose, flopping and thrashing,
Jets water here and there at everyone
And everything in its vicinity.
The only sign that lack might haunt her life
Came when her company moved to Brattleboro:
She went with them, but, the next year, retired
Abruptly and returned to Burlington
And the familiar second-floor apartment
My grandparents kept set aside for her.
In retrospect, I realize how attached
She was to them and Burlington itself—
Its Church Street shops, its hillside situation
By Lake Champlain, and its broad views across
The water to the Adirondack Mountains.

Even four decades later, I can still
Picture her sitting room—the overstuffed
Armchair and sofa with lace doilies draped
Upon their arms and back; the ottoman,
Which proved the safest place for me to perch
Because remote from her framed, standing photos,
Her table lamps, and porcelain figurines;
The corner cupboard, which, designed to fit
The space where two walls met, enchanted me
With cleverly triangular shelves and drawers;
The Persian carpet upon which a sun beam,
Dispersed in passing through the windowpane,
Might print a watery-prismed patch of rainbow;
The elm that overhung the roof and spattered,
After a rain, a second storm of drops
Down from its drenched and gust-swept foliage.
And thinking of these things, I feel a certain
Affectionate responsibility
Since, having been among the very youngest
Of her acquaintances, I may one day
Be the last person who remembers her.

In any case, whenever, in the summer,
I pick fresh strawberries and gently crush one
Against my palate with my tongue, and taste
The sunny warmth of the sweet pulp and juice,
I see her standing in her kitchenette
Some cricket-throbbing evening in July,
Neatly extracting, with a paring knife,
The calyxes from berries, or removing
The beaters from her mixer and suggesting
That I lick clean the whipped cream on their blades.
And of the duties that a lifetime gives us,
One of the happiest of mine has been
To listen as she chatted of her brother
Or of canoe-and-camp trips she went on
When young—this woman I did not know well,
But for whom, for a time, I served as proxy
In the enjoyment of forbidden fruit.

 

 

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 28
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