Been away from Empires, Cannibals and Magic Fish Bones longer than I anticipated, but I’m back for the last day of 2017 as a pork belly marinated in honey and molasses smokes outside and I listen to King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man on the Live in Chicago CD (a Christmas gift from my daughter Kelsey and her husband Matt). I’m about to pour a Delirium Tremens from Brouwerij Huyghe, but before I do here’s a death and food essay I published in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of The Carolina Quarterly. Bon Appétit!
The Indiana Book of The Dead
By John Harvey
One scene inside another; one memory inside another, and over forty years later if I’m going to cross the distance between the living and the dead, I must offer thoughts, words and food.
I’m nine years old and kneeling on a stool in my grandmother’s kitchen in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Outside tall pine trees face a perennial bed of bluebells, geraniums, goldenrod all bordered by clusters of basil, sage, and sweet marjoram. St. Augustine grass covers an acre while an asphalt drive slides down to a dirt road. On the front porch my grandfather sits in a green cushioned chair reading The Wall Street Journal. My grandmother dices an onion, her nose testing butter bubbling in a cast iron pan as she tells stories about eating raw cauliflower on her parents’ farm outside Hebron, Indiana.
Watch as my eleven-year old grandmother bends down, grabs a cauliflower head with her hands, pulling it out of the ground. Reaching past thick green leaves she presses, wriggles her fingers until a white, thin-rivered, pockmarked piece breaks off, then quickly as she can she digs into the front pocket of her overalls, grasping fingertips full of salt, and sprinkles white flakes all over the cauliflower, finishing with a toss into her mouth—firm crack and pop as she chews and smiles a nutty, slightly bitter taste accented by the bright salt. Taste of sun and soil out of which grows a world of colors, tastes and textures rising into her and her brother’s hands as they walk the farm, pulling apart cauliflower and broccoli, spading into rich darkness for radishes, as he tells her that he wants to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, as she says she’ll play piano in Carnegie Hall–he promises her he’ll leave Indiana, as she says take me with you, and he says he will.
Years pass, I grow into my life and no longer sit in my grandmother’s house listening to stories. My grandmother ages into my grandfather’s strokes, his death, then the loss of their house, and finally the loss of her memories, when she no longer recognizes my face or remembers what she once cooked in a kitchen in Bloomfield Hills. When her eyes widen and she smiles and knows who I am, she wants to pull me closer, to pull me in, to promise to never leave her. This is her dying, this is her trying to hold onto life. I walk out of a retirement home on the shores of Lake Michigan. I don’t enter a hospice where she stays until the cancer eats her from the inside out. I don’t want to see a shell lowered in a sterile, silver casket and so I turn away, I cast her aside. I’m not there when she dies and I don’t visit her grave.
Odysseus leaves his family for glory, for war and the sacking of a city; leaves only to lose all his comrades, only to lose anyone he loves, and then he has to return home. Circe tells him he must bring milk, honey, wine and water to the House of Death. He walks to the Flood of Grief and the River of Fire, he digs a pit where the River of Tears meets the Stream of Hate and sprinkles “glistening barley,” slaughters a ram and black ewe, and calls upon the nations of the dead to come forward and drink. He hears the voice of a comrade lost, heroes of a great war, he listens to the words from a blind seer directing him home, and he will try three times to embrace the ghost of his mother. 1
I didn’t go to war, didn’t sack a city, but one day on my journey away from home I thought of my grandmother and found I couldn’t remember anything to hold. I’d become like her house when she left and the door closed behind her forever—seasons wearing down paint and siding, rain gutters split and hanging down across windows lightless and without movement. Rooms one by one closed off, dust gathering on old, yellowing photographs. Then a truck arrives, couches and lamps, pots and cobalt blue plates loaded, and then drives away. Emptiness has settled upon me, a hunger has grown in me, and I need to make amends, I need to eat, to share a meal.
I will bring my grandmother roots, flowers and leaves, bring her a meal which returns her to a beloved farm, a loved moment in time. In the following recipe, I’ll raise her from the dead, I’ll remember and put back together who I was as a child, and I’ll discover her brother who disappeared into his death and call him forward as well to eat what comes from the earth, dug out of a farm field in Hebron.
Hebron Farm Salad with Cider Dressing
1 head white cauliflower, core removed, broken into pieces, larger sliced in half.
1 head broccoli, stem removed and broken into pieces.
1 red onion, quartered lengthwise and cut into thin slices.
5 radishes, trimmed, halved and sliced.
1 pound Heirloom tomatoes, core removed, cut into halves or quarters depending on size of tomatoes.
1 cucumber, halved then quartered.
1 pound sweet apples, stem and seeds removed, halved then quartered.
I’m nine years old and all I see is my grandmother cooking. She’s with me and I with her. Time does not move for me then, it remains the only present I’ve ever known, the only awareness I’ve ever known. Loss is not yet part of my days, death is something happening in another world where people age, where veils are worn, shovels dig down into the earth, and a casket lowered into darkness. I don’t know about Hades. I don’t know you can wrap your arms three times around you mother’s shade and still not hold her.
And now, years later, I’m fifty-three years old with children of my own, they’re out in the yard running fence to fence as I watch them from a window in my kitchen. My wife and children never knew her, and with parents and aunts and uncles no longer here, I’m the only one who can tell my story about her, who can bring my grandmother back to life.
The worst life in the Iliad and the Odyssey is one of oblivion: of no funeral, of no story left to sing–life without a body to show for it, life as forgotten. Patroclus fears this so much that his ghost beseeches Achilles to give him his due, to build a pyre, to take fire to his corpse, to prepare a feast and games; so he can properly travel to the underworld, so his name will be marked and remembered with the living and he can complete his journey and dwell amongst shades. This fear of being a name unrecorded, a corpse that does not receive a funeral, spins like a black hole in the Odyssey swallowing Odysseus’ shipmates one by one. Even the great hero thinks that his time will end this way as he struggles in the ocean.
Three, four time blessed, my friends-in-arms / who died on the plains of Troy those years ago, / serving the sons of Atreus to the end. Would to god / I’d died there too and met my fate that day the Trojans, / swarms of them, hurled at me with bronze spears, / fighting over the corpse of proud Achilles! / A hero’s funeral then, my glory spread by comrades— / now what a wretched death I’m doomed to die. 2
But he doesn’t die, he lifts himself out of the ocean, he meets a young girl who takes him to her parents who promise to sail him home, and so the story continues, his life accrues words and lines, and nothingness, for now, disappears. So I’ve lifted my grandmother and her brother picking cauliflower from a room I haven’t opened in years; I’ve washed and cut all the vegetables, and now it’s time for apple cider and hazelnut oil.
3 tablespoons Curled Parsley, minced.
3 tablespoons Spearmint, minced.
6 fluid ounces Apple-Cider Vinegar.
16 fluid ounces Apple Cider.
24 fluid ounces Hazelnut oil.
1⁄4 teaspoon White pepper, ground.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Hebron, Indiana: I heard its name, saw it on envelopes mailed by my great-aunt and uncle, but never walked its earth. I’ll have to invent it out of rock, water, air and light; shale and limestone, sugar maple and American beech, silt and dark-colored humus, the Grand Calumet River and Salt Creek. Like dragon scale, tooth of wolf and witch’s mummy, I conjure a world to place my grandmother picking cauliflower on her family’s farm. I imagine 41 degrees North and 87 degrees West, Blue Star Willows and Shooting Stars, Wild Bergamot and Sundrops, pole beans and row after row of sweet corn. I charm plants to root themselves in place, while taking in all around them—light that travels 92.96 millions miles to reach their leaves and flowers, winds tossing and turning round the globe, rivers flowing cross state lines dispersing nutrients in the soil, enriching an underground world where seeds, roots and then stretch through darkness for light—life feeding death, and death returning the favor.
Let’s go back further. Before Indiana, before René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, before glaciers melt into Michigan, Superior and Huron. Before Abraham and Sarah, before Noah, before the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden. Out of void, darkness and wind named day and night, water and fruit, let’s sculpt two great lights, a familiar blue that wraps the world mirroring back to the great ocean its color, while threads and balls of white clouds roll across the sky, darkening now and then into ash-colored underbellies breaking apart into wind and rain; continents colliding and drifting apart, horsetails, ferns, conifers and flowering plants blanketing the land–all for my grandmother as she throws salt on a piece of cauliflower and tosses it in her mouth.
In a small saucepan, simmer the cider until it reduces to six fluid ounces.
Barbara Ann Keightley wanted me to be hers. I knew this as a child. Not just that she loved me so much she wished she could take me from her daughter, no she believed that more than my mother, I belonged to her, rightfully I should have been born to her. She had lost two babies to miscarriages, and even though she had my mother, I don’t believe she ever recovered from those deaths, her children still inside her and then delivered to the world for burial. My grandmother had a break down after the second, went to a psychiatrist, and then never spoke of it again.
I don’t know how she could have survived it all, other than having a child to replace what was taken away. A changeling. In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, William Butler Yeats writes,
Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried. Most commonly they steal children. 3
My grandmother and mother often battled, and often over me. I was allergic to most of God’s green earth and routinely suffered asthmatic attacks and endured a regimen of adrenalin shots, inhalers and tetracycline. My mother wanted to keep me inside, away from nature, she saw our house as a fortress, windows and doors and filters as guards against ragweed and Johnson grass. Yet, my grandparents took me on trips, across the Mackinaw Bridge, through the Blue Ridge Mountains and to Monticello; into meadows where I’d come home breathing with great difficulty, then set into a hot shower and before a vaporizer, until I calmed down and my breathing steadied. My mother resented my grandmother for this intrusion, and yet when I misbehaved, when she could not control nor understand me, I’m sent to my grandparents where they show disapproval at first, but then all that pretense would fall away and I’d be in the kitchen watching my grandmother cook, or sitting on the front porch with my grandfather as he read The Wall Street Journal and she played a Beethoven Sonata on the upright Kimball piano.
Yeats’ early poem The Stolen Child tells of a child taken from a world of human sorrow and brought into a land of flapping herons, moonlight glosses, and slumbering trout. The refrain concludes in the last stanza with,
For he comes, the human child, To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, From a world more full of weeping that he can understand. 4
Here the “wild” does not burn eyes or irritate skin, here “the hills above Glen-Car” glow and ring to dance and drink, a world far away from anxious sleep. Was it here my mother and grandmother wanted to nestle me, to take me out of weeping? Each in their own story of a faery world, each in their own world away from weeping? There’s something threatening in both—after all, the child is stolen, no one asks what he wants. If I had been asked? Well, I’d probably have said, “Why can’t I have both, why can’t I belong to both of you?
Combine parsley, spearmint, cider, vinegar, white pepper, salt and black pepper; gradually whisk in oil.
My grandmother’s parents Harry and Ana are buried together in Lowell Memorial Cemetery in Lake County, Indiana. My grandmother is buried with my grandfather Earl Keightley in White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan. My parents, Will and Ann Harvey are buried in Lakeview Cemetery outside Harbor Springs, Michigan. My family’s dead quietly steer their small boats through the afterlife under stones, plaques, as well as in stories told by my sister’s family in North Carolina, and my own in St. Clair Shores, Michigan and Houston, Texas. Every year one of us visits White Chapel or Lakeview Cemetery, a pilgrimage to pay homage, to put us in front of our parents and grandparents as though we’re still young and standing before them to make amends for touching a rabid cat, tearing up a rug with a belt, for wrecking the car.
But no one has been to Hebron where my grandmother buried her brother Harry Dale Knarr. He worked at a steel mill in town, took care of the family farm when his father was no longer able to, and finally on a night in 1966 shot himself in the chest, dying two weeks later. I have the letters he wrote to my grandmother, admitting “there’s something wrong with your brother.” In his words I can see a shape hunting him down, a figure on the inside that won’t let him sleep, demanding all his time and thoughts. Was he a failure because he never escaped Hebron? Did chemicals in his brain conspire against him? Was there something he had left undone? He never played baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, he never left Hebron, Indiana but stayed and worked in the steel mill. My grandmother never played Carnegie Hall, though she left Indiana and played piano in her home, giving lessons to children in the neighborhood. She never allowed anyone in the family to say her brother had shot himself, that he was a suicide though the death certificate states exactly that; she insisted it was an accident, she insisted he didn’t want to die. And because I loved her, turned away, remembered, then loved again, because she wanted me to be hers, I agreed with my grandmother’s lie.
What is Hebron? A piece of real estate, series of underground chambers, field of shrubs and small trees, grasses and bellflowers, a City of Refuge, the village of Abraham al- Khalil, of Ottomans and British, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and the Tomb of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs in Genesis, Chapter 23, verse 19-20.
And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machphelah, facing Mamre–now Hebron–in the land of Canaan. Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site. 5
If the myths of the first eleven books of Genesis create our world through sky and land, Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel, then the second half gives us our heroes and their burials. How else to begin a story of the universal family, of my family, of your family? We look up at the sky, we find a partner, we bury our dead. We continue through our days of highways, cubicles and late-night dinners at home because the dead lie under us. As much as we read constellations and dream of far-distant galaxies, we make ourselves out of our ancestors’ humus. Herodotus and Seneca in their homes had altars burning for those who had come before, family idols to be worshipped, living in a home with wife and children possible because a tomb centers it all. 6
And the city? Abraham travels from Ur to Haran, south to Shechem and then through Palestine and Egypt, wandering without permanent place until he buries Sarah in Hebron. Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, and thereafter the rock and soil of Hebron cover Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. Abraham’s death establishes a house of the living, which defines a people, which is part of the promise to found a “great nation.” 7
Combine the dressing with the cauliflower, broccoli, red onion, radishes, tomatoes, cucumber and apples in a large bowl and toss. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
My children are playing upstairs. They’ve spilled Legos out, working piece upon piece into some strange, forgotten city. I’ve said nothing of my own cave where I want to be buried, what rites I want performed. I understand my heart will seize shut as I sit in an economy seat flying thirty-five thousand feet above the earth or maybe a slow, lingering fade into nothingness in a bed near a lake carved out by glaciers so long ago. Each of us has a Cave of Matriarchs and Patriarchs, each of us has a Hebron in our minds. Consider it a sanctuary to protect our past, which though we may avoid and forget, protects who we are and who our children will be after we’re dead. I think when my grandmother talked of Hebron, of her family, she wanted me to know a place that I’d never been, but someday might go, someday might visit in order to find her brother, the one she lost and whose loss she could never admit. I think that’s how I learned to love her again; I saw and felt her hurt, her vulnerability and I did not look away.
Serve. Eat. Remember.
My children have snuck downstairs, listening in the hallway just off the kitchen. I’ve been talking my memories and thoughts out loud and they’ve gathered to see what all the noise is about. Once upon on time, I would have crowded with them to catch a glance of a strange adult, once when I was nine I would have listened to stories from another place and time. They’re my audience now as I once was for my grandmother, which means they won’t be able to forget and one or two of them will pick up the threads and weave my death shroud and begin to stitch upon stitch their life. But that’s their story, a story up ahead and which I won’t know, and it will carry my grandmother and me forward into their times–even when my children think they have forgotten. But now, the task is mine.
And then they come. Great armies of the battle dead, brides and unwed youths, farmhands, ministers, elementary school teachers, lovely Ariadne daughter of Minos, doctors and nurses, children of many faces and ages, all footfall by footfall making their way toward the pit, the blood and their voices. 8 All the dead from Champaign-Urbana, Kankakee, Valparaiso, from Hebron who once they’ve tasted, talk on and on about the southeast quarter containing forty acres more or less, about farm repairs, seed and fertilizer, removal of dead trees, gravel for the drive, a terrific snow storm in Chicago.
And there’s my grandmother’s shade walking with a man I recognize from photographs as her brother, as my Great-Uncle Dale—a large, rugged, clean-cut face, work shirt and pants, boots caked in mud. No bullet hole, no despair only expectation. And at my grandmother’s side, my nine-year old self, the little boy I was who holds tightly his grandmother’s hand, who still walks with her now. She looks as I remember her: hair colored like goldenrod in the woods behind her house, her large, pinkish sunglasses on the edge of her nose. She’s wearing her gardening clothes, an old shirt of my grandfather’s and bright yellow pants, and a pair of old slippers she likes to wear out in the yard. It’s lunchtime and she’s walking into the kitchen to make her grandson, her son, something to eat. I look at him and paint dark circles around his eyes, sculpt a razor thin coat hanger that’s his body, which a Detroit Tiger’s t-shirt and jeans hang awkwardly on, he’s humming to himself and there’s a smile on his face.
I left him behind years ago, his allergies and asthma, fear of his father, fear of the fights between his parents often ending with his mother sobbing, his father leaving the house, somewhere away from them and then later coming back and the door to their bedroom closing. I set aside his love for his mother and grandmother, his guilt when they argued about him; a long time ago I buried him. Now, looking at this boy walking toward me, I don’t know who’s real, who’s the changeling, the recipe allows me to do this—fixing a mistake between me and myself, not just grandmother and me. My grandmother, great-uncle and me stand and wait to speak. We all have such a hunger to say all that’s been withheld, all that’s hurt, all that’s forgiven. I need to share this meal with them, join the living with the dead. I haven’t brought wine and a ram, barley and a heifer, but I do have cauliflower, a red onion, radishes, broccoli, tomatoes, a cucumber, herbs and a dressing. I take out a knife, wood board and a bowl to begin my offering so that they may speak, I remember, and we all make our way back home.
1 In Book 11 of The Odyssey, Odysseus travels to the underworld to speak with the blind seer Tiresias and try to find his way back home. The ingredients of his offering make for a delicious blood pudding.
2 Robert Fagles, trans., The Odyssey (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 162. In Book 5, between his stay on Calypso’s island and his washing ashore on Scheria where the Phaeacians rule, Odysseus suffers Poseidon’s curse for blinding his son the Cyclops Polyphemus. Death by drowning without the body being recovered is a constant fear in the Odyssey.
3 William Butler Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1888), 47. In his section on “Changelings” in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, and in poems and essays, W.B. Yeats gathers lore and stories of the Sidhe kidnapping human children, and sometimes leaving one of their own.
4 William Butler Yeats, The Poems of W.B.Yeats (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983), 18.
5 Gen. 23: 19-20 New JPS. After Sarah’s death, Abraham buys land from Ephron the Hittite, he opens with a statement of his status, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” This man of wandering, like Odysseus, finally finds a resting place for his family.
6 I chose a Greek and Roman to specify Robert Pogue Harrison’s statement in The Dominion of the Dead, page 38. “The Greek and Roman house typically featured an altar on which burned the sacred fire of the so-called lares. The lares were ancestral spirits associated with the hearth, just as the mores were spirits linked to the ancestral graves.” Think of this altar as similar to a hearth–spirits and food.
7 Gen.12: 2 New JPS. This passage highlights the necessary equation of leaving home in order to journey and then found a lineage. For Abraham this will be grounded through burial in Hebron. For Odysseus it is the peaceful death at home if he carries out the necessary rituals.
8 “I took the victims, over the trench I cut their throats / and the dark blood flowed in—and up out of Erebus they came, / flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone . . . Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much / and girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow / and great armies of battle dead . . . .” The Odyssey.11:34-39.