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Poetry, Old Lovers, and Watermelon Pickles


Janice and I were married at an age so young we should barely have been granted a driver’s license let alone a marriage license. But even at that obscenely young age, we found when we merged our belongings that we had duplicates. In addition to a couple embarrassingly naive records, we both owned a copy of Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, a poetry anthology published by Scholastic Books and assembled by Stephen Dunning.

The title poem of the collection was about nostalgia, as I recall, about the memories of summer preserved like a jar of watermelon pickle… whatever that was. I grew up around canning jars, around the involved late summer ritual of steaming pots and quart jars, the gentle “ping” as the lids sealed when they cooled. My relatives canned just about everything – tomatoes, cucumbers, even corn and beans– Everything except watermelon pickle. When I first read the poem, I suspected this “pickle” was a literary convention, a fabulation concocted because it fit the conceit.

Years later, Janice was able to take several classes with Stephen Dunning, the anthologist, who was a professor at the University of Michigan. Dunning was a kind and encouraging man, just as I’d suspected from the book I knew as an adolescent. Back in the 60’s, he was also responsible for creating a series of record albums where he got the rising stars of the poetry world to read their own poems. We have a couple of these vinyl treasures. Janice considered it a marvel — how could Dunning have known which poets would become important 10 to twenty years earlier.

There is a football quotation popular in these parts that I suspect relates: “If you stay, you will be champions.” The famous, “successful” poets are the ones who have kept at it, perhaps, though honestly that sounds a bit too Protestant-work-ethic. Keep at it; keep failing. Keep trying.

Earlier this summer Janice and I were in Atlanta for a writers’ convention, and we both had our first taste of actual, honest to goodness watermelon pickle. It did not taste like watermelon and did not, really, taste much like a pickle. This cube of skinless rind, translucent, a color near yellow as I recall with perhaps a blush of pink, was sweet, nearly candied with a hint of spice. It was indeed an experience to remember, worthy of encoding into a poem.

I have never, ever successfully grown a watermelon. Some years, they come off with all vine and no blossom, or they’ll blossom and not set fruit. Most years, I haven’t even bothered trying but this season apparently was set to break my streak. Our watermelon vines were healthy and took to a trellis with zeal. They got plenty of sunshine and the rains this year made sure they were well-watered. A month ago, Janice lifted a leaf to show me a small watermelon, the size of a baby’s fist. We were so excited we hugged each other but then, as the weeks wore on, these vines too withered and crumpled as if responding to some curse. The story was not over. Janice dug out a recipe and made our own watermelon pickles from the rinds of those failed melons. She supplemented them with rinds from a couple larger examples procured from the farmers’ market too.

Last weekend, Janice and celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, which is a wonder and somewhat a miracle. We fight, viciously at times. We bore each other at other times. We are not the role models, I suspect, for a “happily married couple” whatever that insipid phrase might mean. How did we ever stay together so long? We just didn’t split up.

“Those who stay…”

A half dozen precious jars. Thirty three precious years together.

Posted in • Cooking, • Sitting Still.

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