Originally posted February 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
Their spines were bound firmly in green and red fabric, and from the time that you gave them to me, stroking that fine weave became my secret addiction. The truth was that the robust orange marigold and the lithe-stalked blue pansies on the hardcover of the second in the two-part series about medicinal plants, burst my nine-year-old heart each time that I looked at them. They reminded me of you: of your broad, durable shoulders - from farming stock, you said - juxtaposed with your long, elegant fingers when they poured morning coffee, your addiction, into a gold-rimmed porcelain cup perched on a matching saucer. All of my longing aspired to reproduce something equally as beautiful with my sketching pencils and paint brushes, but equal always falls short in art. It was just as impossible as to believe that I could ever know you; a Sisyphean task that I knew I would never give up to the end of my days.
“Our healing plants are of very special beauty,” declared the German introduction on the first page. It satisfied me that the plants in this collection were ours – yours and mine – despite the fact that we came from different worlds that intersected because I was your granddaughter. At the tender age of nine, my plant kingdom was a jumble of palms, pines, orchids and roses that whizzed past me like a slide show in the quick succession of countries and continents I had lived in with my family. It was an ephemeral experience without a lasting sensual imprint, so that when I came to those illustrations where the stringy roots of the plants had been drawn in detail, I saw myself dangling above the ground, uprooted on the page.
This was a clear contrast to you and your plant kingdom which was the same as in this series, not because you hadn’t experienced anything else, but because you were deeply, inextricably rooted in it. In 1918, your parents, farming gentry from Lower Saxony who were devoted to the abdicated Kaiser, sent you to the German rather than the Latin school in the small town near their estate. It was one of the last morsels of pride for them to pass onto you in a nation humiliated in the aftermath of the Great War. These medicinal plants would heal not only because of the miraculous powers of nature in general, but also because they were German and therefore possessed strength and quality. Pride masked the more practical explanations, including that when the antiseptic for tending to the stumps of veterans had run out, there was still the marigold salve. One could never yield to the betrayers of the nation.
Despite or because of the distance of time and place between us, I turned the pages avidly and checked in pencil those plants I thought I had seen. Each check was an affirmation of our common interest and our affection for one another that I hoped could bridge any difference. To make the point, I noted in my best child’s print under Monarda didyma or bergamot that, “I have this flower in a flower pot.” Whether I did or didn’t wasn’t the point. It meant that we had shared experiences, and therefore I could open another of the closed doors between us.