Through a Glass Darkly
Memory and Windfall Pears
part of peace and all of ear. Pressure, and release, a life in one word: pear. Speak again, green god, in Adam’s vowels; I hear, and it is sweet. —from “To a Pear” by Jim Richards
My least favorite spring-cleaning assignment was picking up the pears—soggy, rotten, winter-logged pears that had fallen off our tree just before the first autumn freeze. The tree was unpruned, the pears bitter, so we didn’t pick them when they were ripe; we just let them pile up on the ground and gathered them up every Saturday before mowing the lawn. Usually, we got most of them before they were covered with snow, but there were always soft, darkened exceptions to be found the next March.
One spring cleaning, however, my four younger brothers and I had been granted an occasion to procrastinate. Instead of gathering pears, we eagerly crowded around in a circle in the basement, watching my dad remove the glittering relics of his childhood from a dusty cardboard box. I suspect that my mother had encouraged my father to sort through his old keepsakes and identify any that were no longer meaningful repositories of memory so that they could be discarded. To be honest, I cannot remember any of the thrilling knickknacks my father produced from that magical old box—except for one.
“Oh . . . my . . . gosh!” my father exclaimed, laughing in shock and surprise. He gently pulled his hand from the box to display a tiny green and yellow feather, no bigger than a tie clip. Still laughing, my father struggled to articulate an explanation through gasps for air.
“This . . . is a feather . . . from my pet parakeet . . . Tommy!” His eyes were wild with excitement, nostalgia, and wonder.
The memory ends. This is all that remains. I remember the box. I remember exactly where we were on the carpet in the basement. I remember my dad’s constant laughter, the tiny feather, and I even have some semblance of why this moment became so permanently impressed upon my mind. You see, when I saw this material remnant from my dad’s childhood pet, the feather became a kind of forbidden fruit—it opened my eyes to a new level of consciousness. Though I was a child, my sense of time, memory, and aging had been heightened. I had glimpsed a shadow of my father’s former life. The feather was like a talisman, a symbol of death, a token of love, and a time capsule all at once. Seeing it, or rather, seeing my father’s reaction to it, broke some kind of innocent spell within me. Perhaps I was just growing up, but in hindsight this archaeology of my father’s past, this discovered treasure, marked a point of no return.
Memory features prominently in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. In it, Socrates recounts the legend of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, who created hieroglyphs to improve the memories of the Egyptian people. King Thamus disagrees with Thoth and accuses him of ascribing to words a benefit that is the opposite of what writing really does. For King Thamus, writing produces forgetfulness rather than memory—for who needs to remember something that has been written down? While Thoth saw the hieroglyphs as a repository of memory, King Thamus saw writing as a vacuum of forgetfulness.
To my surprise, Tommy the Parakeet made a reappearance in my life more than a decade after my father rediscovered that feather. I had graduated high school, served a mission, and was now married and attending BYU. My wife and I had just made the four-hour drive from Provo to Rexburg for the Christmas break. It was late on a Sunday night, and everyone had gone to bed except for my father and me, who stayed up talking. Through the living room windows—dark panes of glass—I could see ten inches of new-fallen snow sparkling underneath the porch light, which was just bright enough to illuminate the railing of the deck before vanishing into darkness.
Somehow, we began talking about poetry, publications, and graduate school. I was considering getting a master’s degree in English at BYU, like my dad. I was probably asking for some advice on where to begin with this whole writing thing. As a result, my father went into his study and brought out a stack of old literary magazines and poetry journals—places he had published in. We began perusing them together and talking about which outlets were more competitive than others. This part of the memory is crystal clear: I was holding a copy of BYU Studies Quarterly, volume 38, issue 3, when I came across my father’s poem, “Adam’s Song,” that won first place in the BYU Studies 1999 poetry contest. This time, I was the one who was laughing, as I read, incredulously:
Tommy was the first pet I had in Eden, par'a·keet'' seemed to fit—small parrot with long tail, the color of apple, new leaf, and lemon; harsh, irritating song.
As I read those words, bending the spine of the journal between my hands, touching the faded paper, whatever magic spell that had been broken all those years before was humming gently in the air again. My notions of time, memory, and aging resurfaced. It was as though the poem was a portal through which I fell headfirst into that memory of a decade before. Once again, my father and I laughed together, and I asked as to the whereabouts of the little feather.
“Gone,” he said with a shrug.
I gathered the windfall pears each spring with rawhide gloves and a black garbage bag. If you ever need to gather windfall pears, you should remember to hold them gingerly, so they do not squish and slush into moldy mush in your palm. I know from experience that winter-rotten pears hold enough juice to soak through Walmart gardening gloves, even leather ones. Once, I accidentally stepped on a pear that was syrupy slick, hidden beneath a pile of thawed leaves. The oblong orb squirted paper-thin in an instant, sending my foot sliding across the grass. I fell smack on my rear, jeans smeared with oozing, sugary pulp.
The encounter with Tommy in “Adam’s Song” launched my reading of my father’s poetry. This process was a journey all its own. Whatever faint understandings I had of time, memory, aging, and the father-son relationship were no match for the magic of the written word.
Nephi said, “I desire to behold the things which my father saw” (1 Nephi 11:3). That scripture gradually took on new meaning for me, especially as the parallels between my father’s life and my own grew stronger each passing year. I felt a natural affinity for my father. I often confused pictures of him as a child for pictures of myself. Same blond hair, same glasses. Growing up, the refrain from my relatives was: “You must be Jimmy’s boy!”
To be sure, there were plenty of differences. He played hockey while I played tennis. He was the fourth child of ten, I was the oldest of five. Still, we had many interests in common. I went to the BYU Jerusalem Center like my dad, and the night before I left, he pulled out a box of old Jerusalem souvenirs. That box must have escaped the spring cleaning, for inside was a yarmulke, his old Jerusalem Center nametag, and other mementos. We peered inside that box together on the exact same spot of carpet as before, right outside the storage room in the basement.
By the time I was a graduate student and PhD-bound, I had taken to saying, “I’m just trying to see the things my father saw!” whenever I recognized another point of connection between our lives. This sentiment was taken to its limits when my great-aunt invited my wife and me to stay in her basement apartment, on Apache Lane in Provo, after our wedding. That same basement apartment was where my father and mother lived when they were first married. In fact, it was where I was born, and the apartment my father would have been living in when he wrote “Adam’s Song” and other poems during his master’s degree. It wasn’t until I began reading his poetry, however, that the phrase “see the things my father saw” took on a whole new meaning.
Look! There I am, tasting my first breath of air from the womb. Look! There I am, crying in the crib, gripping my father’s pinky. Look! There I am, riding happily on the back of a horse. Look! There I am again, pretending to be asleep so my father will carry me in to bed from the car after a long road trip. Look again, I’m the Boy Scout laden with badges, the boy exploring a beachside cave while my mother frantically screams my name, the boy waking his father with notes of piano practice on an early Saturday morning.
Of course, I know that I might not be the main character in all these poems. Some of them may be about my brothers. Some of them I am more certain about than others. Some, as my father has gently reminded me, are just fiction. There are some, however, which are sure. For example, “A Few Questions—Involving Pears—For My Newborn Son,” was published in BYU Studies Quarterly in the year 2000, before any of my younger brothers were born. It begins:
So how do you like the air? The way it hums on your skin, moves through your nose in quick shots, or cools the lungs with the scent of fresh pears.
The unpublished poem “Pacifier” uses my name as it recounts my dad trying to wean me off that plastic comfort: “with scissors I cut / the nipple off.” Then there’s “Kissing Boys,” which begins:
When was the last time I kissed him, my eldest son, on the mouth? I can’t remember.
Here my father’s poetry is an anti-memory; he uses words to describe a transition that he cannot remember.
Pears recur throughout my father’s poems, but even before I read them, pears were my favorite fruit. This is probably because my grandmother would send us two boxes of Harry & David “Royal Riviera” Pears every autumn. Those pears are a memory all their own. They would arrive like costly emeralds, gently packaged in a sturdy cardboard box marbled with pine-green designs. Those treasured pears were padded with olive-green foam, wrapped in golden foil, and cushioned in sage-colored tissue paper. Those pears were so sweet, your tongue could feel the grains of sugar in their slushy flesh. Those pears were better than candy, white gold like platinum, priceless.
My dad told me that he remembers drafting the poem “To a Pear” as part of a graduate school exercise at the University of Houston. He placed a pear on the table and freewrote for one hour, later shaping the best stuff together into a final draft. In Plato’s Phaedrus, there are etymological connections between poetry and memory. The word for poetry, poeisis, has a general meaning of making something—specifically making a composition of words. Similarly, the word mneia means to make or compose reminders, and it is almost a fusion of the words mneme (memory) and poeisis (to make or compose poetry). Think of the phrase “making memories” as an act of creativity or composition.
Besides reminding me of those delicious autumn pears, I like “To a Pear” because of its insights about memory. Speaking of a pear, my father writes that “To cup you / is to pray” and “To pray is to remember / life before this life.” Similarly, for Plato, things perceived in mortality are mere forms of a prior existence, and recognition of truth or beauty is simply a remembrance of former contact with ideal forms. My father adds, “I have not forgotten, / pear, you are a universe.” In this worldview, memory is tantamount to the ability to recognize or discern truth. According to both Plato and “To a Pear,” memory is recognizing, in the imperfection of this world, a shadow of a perfect and former ideal.
We know God is a Father, and many have said that God is a poet. All I can say is that having had a poet for a father, I have a new relationship with scripture. After all, the earliest scriptures were simply writings from parent to child, like Adam’s “book of remembrance” (Moses 6:5). The difference of course between reading my father’s poems and reading scripture is that the former is particular and uncanonized, the latter general and canonized. Since God’s scripture is for all his children, it is hard to remember that they are also “just for me.” I find it interesting that some of people’s most meaningful interactions with scripture are described precisely as those types of moments, moments when they did feel that it was written just for them—about them.
Reading my father’s poems, I can feel this individualized love so strongly, as well as the pain of his sacrifices on my behalf. In “Petrology,” my father writes:
You can only lie at night on the floor beside his crib, hold a finger out for him to grasp until his crying ends and yours begins.
These poems by my father do a variety of things to my memory. In some cases, I remember the events of the poem vividly, like when my brother cast his line into the lake and caught an old sock full of sand instead of a fish. Other times, the poem may bring to my remembrance something I had entirely forgotten. Then there are poems like the one just quoted, where I could never have had a memory of being in a crib but reading about those words makes the scene a part of my life’s fabric in the form of a faux memory. In the poems where I am but an infant, I often view the scenes in third person—not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of some omniscient onlooker who can see my father and myself in the same frame.
Now, when I read God’s poems—his psalms, aphorisms, verses, stories, and songs—I read them as if he wrote them just for me, about me. Of course, my memories with Heavenly Father are among the haziest of all. I can see myself in the premortal life only in the way that I can see my baby self in my dad’s poems—by conjuring the scenes from the words. In this life, we see only “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But one day, of course, “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). With the perspective of eternity, however, perhaps our faux memories are not false at all, and words can help us glimpse beyond the veil. I wish I could remember what it felt like to grasp my father’s finger between the bars of a crib. That memory is somewhere. Perhaps it will come back to me.
The mouth has always longed to taste this true and primal paradox— Take, eat. Only you are sin and virtue, as Eve knew. Like her, fruit, make me wise. Give me a swallow of cold knowledge. Bright temple, I have fasted and confessed. Now let me in. —from “To a Pear”
Which metaphor shall I use for this mysterious thing called memory? Is memory a box, like the boxes that held Tommy’s feather, the pears, and Jerusalem souvenirs? Is memory the feather itself? Is memory like poetry or scripture, helping us see the things our Father saw, helping us see the way He sees? What image could capture simultaneously the materiality and yet the ephemeral nature of memory? How does one describe the way a memory transforms and is transformed? Ah, I’ve always admired the stubborn materiality of those pears, hiding underneath soggy leaves and piles of snow. Some memories, despite the passing of time, like windfall pears after harshest freeze, refuse to disappear. Others, like a poem or the dripping white flesh of an overripe pear, dissolve on the tongue and vanish, leaving only an aftertaste. And when I try with gloved hands to gather my memories into a plastic bag, I can feel them squishing and changing shape as I go, as I put them down on paper. There they are—my memories, shadows of true forms—strewn across my mind like so many misshapen and deteriorating pears scattered about the lawn. I have tasted the sweetness of a fresh pear and desire others to partake also. Here, you should try one. There, now you can see.
Isaac James Richards is an award-winning poet, essayist, and scholar of rhetoric currently doing graduate work at Brigham Young University.
Art by Carly White.