On balancing peaches and grief

My dad and I enjoyed our customary hilarity by phone Monday night. Mom was hosting a bunch of women for a Dining for Women event, so my introverted, non-female dad retreated to the lower level of their house, where he takes up his usual historian manly-man things, like working on manuscripts and building shelves by the gazillions with loud power tools. When I suggested that he marshal some other husbands of the women and launch a panty raid on the gathering, he chortled and put on his best macho bluster, “Aw, to heck with those guys! I don’t need any help!”

During our conversation, Mom came down to bring Dad some dessert, and he warned her of the panty raid plan. She retorted that it was too late, everyone was gone except some people who were staying behind to play cards.

Believe me, I know how lucky I am to have both my parents still alive and as vital and funny as ever. Every time I talk with them, I hear about a funeral they have been to, or the funeral they’re planning (they’re both retired ministers, as much as any minister is ever retired), or the time they’ve spent with a friend of theirs who is in the twilight of life, having struggled for x number of years with some horrific disease.

Monday night was no exception. The conversation shifted as Dad talked about having visited on Sunday night a “young” friend of theirs who has been battling multiple myeloma for 10 years or so. Dad talked softly about the feeling of powerlessness, of being able to offer only the simple gift of showing up, holding the woman’s hand, and sitting with her and her family.

I opened Facebook Tuesday morning to find several posts from friends of my parents saying goodbye to the woman, who died shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning. All day long there was a steady beat of remembrances and tributes to her on Facebook, from people of all ages.

Fun fact: the peach blossom is the Delaware state flower.

Fun fact: the peach blossom is the Delaware state flower.

This unfolded in the wake of the recent death of my friend E, who was a big fan of my dog Lucy. And it unfolded on a day when my office building shook and swayed during a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia that was felt by people from Toronto to New England to Ohio to South Carolina. And it unfolded on my first day back at work after our annual week-long pilgrimage to sit by the ocean on the Delaware shore. It has all combined to remind me yet again that the world teems with both life and death, all at once. Grief is always there, like the tide. Coming in, going out. Ebbing and flowing. Dragging stuff up onto the shore, and pulling it back under.

So here’s a poem for my many friends and family who are grieving, for whatever reason. At my 30th college reunion this past June, one of my classmates read this so evocatively and tenderly, all you could hear was the intense suspended animation of a couple hundred people not breathing.

From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

The exercise of balancing the grief of losing someone we love with the gratitude at having known that person at all is a little like trying to keep “From Blossoms” in your mind while feeling like this song from Kris Delmhorst’s masterful “Strange Conversation” album. Delmhorst added her own plaintive, simple melody to lyrics she adapted from James Weldon Johnson’s, “Sence You Went Away.”

I hope you find ways to enjoy the waning summer. Hold on to your life’s peaches as long as you can. Admire them. Savor them. Drink in their textures and smells. Above all, eat them, in all their round jubilance.

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30 responses to “On balancing peaches and grief

  1. Joy, having just returned from your area after a visit with my three dearest friends from graduate school, one of whom was diagnosed with a terribly aggressive glioblastoma brain tumor in January, and having eaten a few wonderful peaches with them during what was possibly our last time together as a foursome, your post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for your ever-present deep thoughtfulness about the intersection of sweetness and dust in this life of ours. You always manage to remind me that we must be in each blessed moment we are given in order to be in the presence of the Eternal, something all too easy to forget.

  2. Joy: Having sat at your table at reunion listening to Lauretta read “From Blossoms” so beautifully, and having just this minute finished a late breakfast of croissant with bourbon-and-brown-sugar peach preserves, we felt the power of this one particularly acutely. Sometimes I think that life is nothing but an apparently endless series of reminders to clasp those people and things we love ever more tightly, and then to let them go.

  3. Joy,
    What a perfect reading for me this morning. A reminder that grief doesn’t just happen. It continues and helps us remember life is a gift and that gift involves all those we love and have loved.

  4. Susie Martin-Wilson

    Joy, love your writing!!

  5. Marcia Bird-Werntz

    Thanks, Joy! As usual, I needed to ‘hear and taste’ this latest nugget of
    truth! Blessings!

  6. Thank you, Joy. On behalf of Lesa, especially, but for all of us who bear the title “human” and “creature.” We grieve and weep. We savor life and maybe a tang of death in peaches. We smile and laugh.

    • David, thank you for your imagery, and for your companionship of Lesa and her family. I’m savoring a life that has you in it. Lots of love to you and yours.

  7. Joy….thank you for this post, and especially this song, which I’d never heard. You are a gift to me.

    • Brett, the blessing is mutual. And I think you’d enjoy the entire album, where she adapts poems from a wide variety of sources and turns them into songs: Rumi, Walt Whitman, George Herbert. Good stuff.

  8. Peaches! Yesss! I cannot forget how your perky mom strode from the hospital delivery room carrying you in her arms, and beaming to me, “Look, honey, here’s our daughter, our Joy!” She passed you to me (gently, not football style) and in awe I beheld your tiny, peachy face and the slumbering mystery of a new future there in my hands.
    Ever since that moment, I have gratefully beheld your powers of expression, which seem to have exploded beyond measure this past half-century-plus, and, especially since early 2010. You are one of the seven wonders of my world, for sure!

  9. Your dad’s memory reminded me of the first moments with you. Harry Jonas was beaming when he said as he handed you to me, “You have your girl.” Harry and Connie had two boys, also, and were privileged to have a duaghter a couple of years later. He helped me off teh delivery table, put you in my arms and we walked down the hall to show you to your dad. You and I stayed in the hospital for a week! (Imagine that happening today) We had rooming-in, an arragement where the baby was with the mother the entire time, and since the maternity ward was being remodeled, we had this gorgeous (4-bed) room for the entire time. There were seldom interuptions the entire time. Food was brought up, your dad came at visiting hours, and we had those days of just being together. I sometimes wish for a week with you all by myself now. Think of all we’d have to share! But, I’ll take the moments we have and cherish them. You have helped me deal with my grief about Lesa more than you could ever know. Blessings beloved daughter.

  10. I can’t believe all the spelling errors. I couldn’t figure out how to get to the written material without posting it. I am terribly sorry, . when we see you in a couple of weeks, show me how to delete a comment so that I can be certain the spelling is correct.

  11. I love this collage of music and poetry and ideas. A lovely post.

  12. Lauretta Clough

    Dear Joy,

    I can’t figure out how to write to only you, so I’ll just join the moderns. Lovely piece, for which I join my thanks to those of the others. Maybe I knew you were like this inside, without ever asking. Lauretta

    • Dear Lauretta,
      One of my favorite things about the reunions is the opportunity to learn again and again what people are like. Your rendering of that poem was both searingly beautiful and tenderly comforting. Thank you for that gift, and for giving me a whole new appreciation for what it means to belong to the family of the class of 1981.

      I’ll send you my email address. I’d love to stay in touch.
      Joy

  13. Joy, thank you so much for the beautiful healing words so needed by many of our mutual friends and others unknown to you. You are such a blessing to a community that ripples beyond what you can ever imagine. In part this is because your mother has brought casseroles to 78,354 people when they were birthing, marrying, recovering, and dying. As a result they have all heard of you–beyond that you probably don’t want to know.
    So, dear friend, thanks for gifting us once again with words that matter at times like this. And an additional thanks for introducing me to the music of Kris Delmhorst. Wonderful!

  14. Once again I have no words for just how beautiful the sentiment is in your post. What I can express is that every time I come here, I find something that brings tears to my eyes or makes me laugh out loud.

  15. Thank you so much for this. It takes me from the baskets of Delaware whites and yellows my great-aunt brought on her New England trek every summer of my youth to a recent 15-year-old houseguest who guzzled peaches over our kitchen sink, nearly swooning with the sweet delight of them. And of course to E, whom we all miss and for whose life we cannot be grateful enough. Write on! XOX, JO

  16. Gratitude – for your gift of words, your willingness to share, your reminder to savor what is with us today… and for your musical finds. I will always think of song when I think of you.

  17. Thank you, Joy. I’m one of those that Grant speaks of….a person who knows of you, reads your lovely writing, and appreciates you immensely due to your parents’ adoration of and introduction to you. Since my dad’s death a few years back I’ve struggled to put words on the twin emotions of grief and gratitude that I felt with overwhelming intensity then. i know I’ll come back to this post to savor and learn from in the future. Also, I can’t tell you the relief I felt when the clause following Barb’s statement that “it was too late” had to do with folks leaving. I was anticipating that it might be too late because the panties were already off and cast aside, something not entirely out of the realm of possibility with those Dining for Women women.

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