I didn’t plant potatoes this year. I silently lament this as I slice up the less-than-stellar red bliss potatoes from the local market. Funny, we live here in Maine, one of the major potato-growing states, but California still ships us their potatoes.
I am thinking of my grandpa as I scrub a few more potatoes, returning to the cutting board to slice them into thin half-moons. I miss him and often wish he could have lived long enough to meet my children and to know the woman I’ve become. He was such a wonderful man, so spiritual yet so grounded in the Now. My favorite time of year was always autumn, not only because it welcomed my birthday, but because it marked my favorite family trip—when my parents would pack us up and drive deep into the Catskills to visit him. I sprinkle some olive oil over the potatoes and smile to myself, remembering.
The drive always seemed so long, but I would gaze out the window in awe of the growing beauty around me as we moved from the overcrowded east shore, through western Massachusetts, into that perfect place of rock, tree, and sky. As the trees increased in number, they became an endless wave of oranges, yellows, and reds, stretching off into hills broken only by the golden fields of grazing cows. Stone walls defined age-old property lines, pastures, and rough dirt roads. Peace would gradually creep into our car, stilling my sister’s chatter, softening my parent’s voices, and infusing my very body with its calm. It would start with the familiar warm feeling in my stomach, spreading slowly down my limbs, relaxing clenched hands and fidgety feet. By the time we finally pulled into the driveway of the parsonage house, darkness close on our heels, the peace would finally reach my head, and the seemingly endless chatter of my mind would stop as I tumbled out of the car and into the dry, crunchy air of my grandpa’s Now. He would hug me hard, all tough skin and long bones, and I would breathe deeply of his wool cardigan, smelling wood smoke, apples, and the dinner he was preparing.
Our visits were never long enough, but grandpa’s life continued at its normal pace while we were there. Chores were done with a reverence I longed to know, so I would follow him as he worked, helping, listening, and learning. He would bring me out to his garden to dig the potatoes left in the frost-hardened soil. He said they tasted better stored in the dirt, and always left them there until the first snowflakes began to fly and threatened to stay for good. As we dug through the dirt, I would breathe in the damp smell of the soil, feeling it seep into my very bones with its deeply primeval magic. I listened to the silence of the hills around me, smelled the smoke rising from a nearby chimney, and became one with the work, one with the earth beneath my knees. I knew my grandpa was doing the same.
I sprinkle some coarse sea salt over the tossed potato slices and spread them into a baking dish. How I long to recreate that feeling of peace and oneness with the earth, I think, as I scrape the thyme off its woody stem. I add a handful of chives and search for a sharp knife to chop the herbs. My drive to recreate those feelings is what motivated me to choose a more difficult path. I hone the blade and wipe it carefully with a towel. It would have been so much easier to follow the standard path of least resistance, the road America raises us to trod with confidence. I silently admonish myself for peering into that dark abyss of regrets, yet I can’t stop. Applying the knife to the herbs, I begin to mince and think.
My grandpa. I missed him so much. His death in 1986 was sudden and unfathomable. I was living in Virginia, working hard and singing a lot. I knew he was ill, yet I hadn’t gone to see him, mostly because my mom continued to warn me of his rapid decline due to the cancerous brain tumor that had invaded his mind. “He doesn’t make a lot of sense now,” she said on the phone. “He is a ghost of himself. Maybe it’s best if you remember him as he was, not as the person he’s becoming.” I took her words of advice to heart, holding him in my memories as the vigorous, vital man I knew.
Our last few visits before his illness had been troubled. I felt he was ashamed of me and my development into a free-spirited, independent young woman. Perhaps it was his impending illness speaking when he tried to take me aside in my parent’s home, and in a bizarre exhibit of evangelicalism demanded that I take jesus christ as my savior. I remember feeling fear in those words. My parents had always encouraged freedom of thought, and although I was raised a christian, we had never been told we were required to make any sacrifices for a dogma’s cause. For us, christianity was more about love, acceptance, and the goodness of all human beings.
His death overshadowed all this, though, and I continued to carry a piece of him with me. My road from Virginia to Georgia, Florida, Colorado, Kansas, Arizona, and finally into Oregon, was rocky, steep, and staggering in its disproportionate experiences. By the time I landed in Oregon, I was not only physically exhausted, but emotionally and spiritually drained as well. I craved silence, space, and a safe haven. Meeting my now ex husband seemed like a godsend. He carried himself with such calm austerity, his long brown hair and liquid eyes resembling the picture of Jesus that hung in my childhood church. When he sat still, legs crossed, hands folded upon his knee, cardigan buttoned to just below his sternum, he was the very image of…my grandpa.
I have completely destroyed these poor herbs, I think, as I scoop them up to scatter into the resting potatoes. I tuck pieces of sliced garlic in and around them, grind fresh black pepper over the entire dish, and slide it into the oven to roast. It is ridiculous how our histories, our experiences, form us. I feel used, shaped by the happenings of my youth into some kind of pitiful knot tied by a child’s fumbling fingers. Is this the way our histories are supposed to unfold? Does every person struggle with the tangles of familial and experiential relationships as they try to forge their own way through life? I have felt so isolated in my present self, alone in my regrets and pain. I think of the potatoes in the oven. Perhaps we are all just common potatoes, used by our own realities, depending upon the seasonings of our experiences to give us depth of flavor and interest. Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be. I wouldn’t be standing here now, listening to the sizzling of garlicky potatoes meeting the heat, awaiting the savory-sweet earthy scent to drift from the oven, if I hadn’t lived this life in particular to this exact point in time. I am my life, my choices, my history. It hurts right now but…yes, this is me.