Samuel Pickering is a Tennessee native who teaches English at the University of Connecticut. He has written 21 books, including academic studies, travel books, and collections of familiar essays. His most recent books are Edinburgh Days, an account of months spent in Scotland, and Autumn Spring, a collection of essays. He is now working on A Tramp's Wallet, an account of months spent wandering Australia and New Zealand. This will give him a trilogy on Australia, something, he says, sounds very high falutin.
At our age,” Jo wrote, “life is just patch, patch, patch.” Jo did not know it, but the next morning I was slated to have a hernia operation. “Ascertain,” Josh urged me the previous week, “whether or not the surgeon suffers from the creeping palsy. A slip of the hand down amid the Balkans could be calamitous even after granting that at your advanced time of life the nearby republics are primarily decorative, trotted out only on high ceremonial occasions.” The patching went well, the only sticky moment being when the nurse “barbered” me. She was a former student. In class I had impressed her mightily. Alas on the barber's bed my appearance was considerably less dramatic. After the operation, Vicki and I stopped at the Starbucks in Storrs where we swilled coffee and ate cinnamon buns, these last smuggled into the café as the sweets hawked by Starbucks are inedible, almost certain to cause hernias or plug “the pipes.” At the table to our left, a couple had an animated conversation. “I don't care about propriety,” the man said, raising his voice; “there is no reason to speak well of the dead. They can't help you.”
Words cannot mirror the melodious cacophony of daily life without sounding out of tune. People ache to believe their lives form organic wholes. In truth life consists of one patch atop another patch, most of which time peels from memory, thus enabling a person to imagine unity and meaning if he is inclined toward fiction or sublimity. University catalogues describe courses as being firmly rooted in theme or genre, the contents of which will be transplanted to and bloom in the classroom. In truth weeds flourish in class. “Here, professor, rub this on,” a girl said interrupting a lecture on Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. “I always carry Jergen's lotion in my purse,” she continued, standing then walking to the front of the class and handing me a small bottle. While lecturing, I had been scratching a cut on the back of my right hand. “Jergen's is good for itches,” she said. “Thank you,” I said and squirted lotion on my hand. The irritation stopped. Two weeks before the final examination, Evan who is left-handed broke his left arm. “What will I do? I can't write the exam,” he asked. “Read Jane Austen's Emma and forget the exam,” I said. The last day of class I asked students if anyone had a question about the final. Only Evan raised his hand, his right hand. “Evan,” I said; “this is asinine. You are not taking the test. Why do you have a question?” “I'm not sure,” Evan said, looking puzzled. “I suppose I'm just curious by nature.”
The patchy nature of my classes reflects my personality, or at least, my personality at this stage of life. Too readily habit and platitude stamp vitality into routine. In spring I taught a course on nature writers. The brightest student in the class did not take the same final exam as her classmates took. She had read four books for extra-credit and had written the best papers in the class. If she had absented herself from scribbling, I would still have given her an A. Dogs infatuated the girl, and on weekends she worked in an animal rescue center. “Read this,” I said when she came to the examination, handing her an essay I wrote describing the death of my dog George. “When you finish reading, you can go.” “That wasn't right,” Vicki said at dinner that evening. Everybody should take the same test? What were you thinking?” “I wanted to see if the essay would make her cry,” I said. “Did it,” Vicki said. “A gully washer of tears, down and across the floor,” I said. “A's,” Vicki said, “for both you and the girl. Still, you've gotten eccentric. Maybe you should think about retiring.”
Near the end of April, I bumped into Chuck at a meeting. I hadn't seen him in three years. On my asking how he was, he said “fine,” adding that he'd had both knees replaced and was retiring at the end of the semester. I responded conventionally, saying I knew he must be looking forward to shutting the classroom door and walking out of the room into a different life. “I don't know,” Chuck said, suddenly looking lost, “what will I do?” “What is left to say when one has come to the end of writing about one's life,” Edwin Muir wrote in his autobiography. “Some kind of development, I suppose, should be expected to emerge, but I am very doubtful of such things, for I cannot bring life into a neat pattern. If there is a development in my life — and that seems an idle supposition — then it has been brought about more by things outside than by any conscious intention of my own.”
Outside things color days. Classrooms are pastures rolling over the hill and far beyond school buildings, pastures in which a fellow with gimpy knees can kick up his heels and frolic. In retiring, Chuck hobbled himself. Still, if Chuck cultivates the seeing eye, he will notice much that startles, patches that will entertain and awaken. The sights will delight, but they won't form a magic carpet enabling him to soar and grow, if indeed growth is ever a possibility, not simply, as Muir implies, a self-serving fiction offering consolation to people at the short end of the their tethers, convincing them that their lives were real, earnest, and meaningful.
After chatting to Chuck, I walked to the university bookstore. At the entrance stood a boy wearing a brown shirt. Stamped in white across the front was the command, “Suffer Now and Live the Rest of Your Life as a Champion.” For a moment I pondered telling the boy to take a course with me so he would learn better, but I didn't. On a rack of new books inside the store was How to Pick a Peach. The book consisted of 16 pages of introductory matter followed by 412 pages of text. Angels in heaven don't care about souls, but they blow their post horns when paragraphs are saved, and I set about paring the book down to hunter-gatherer size. “Walk about until you spot a peach tree. Once you spot a tree, stop walking and study its branches. Find a peach hanging from a branch that is shoulder-high. Approach the tree slowly. You must avoid frightening the peach. Fear will cause the peach to behave irrationally, and it will snap its stem, fall to the ground, and roll out of sight. If you can hum a lullaby while approaching the tree, do so. Peaches enjoy lullabies. If you hum melodiously, you will notice that the hairs on the peach have ceased to bristle. Now step forward quickly. When you are a foot away from the limb [if you suffer from abnormally short arms, you will have to adjust the distance], lift your dominant arm, simultaneously opening the hand at the end of said arm so that the palm forms a cup. Extend the arm, so that the cup is directly under the peach. Raise your palm until it touches the peach as tenderly, say, as a mother powders a baby ass. At the same time wrap your fingers around the peach, grasping it reassuringly. Now rotate your hand counter-clockwise, in the process twisting the stem of the peach until it breaks. Lastly retract your arm holding the peach. Congratulations; you have picked a peach.” And, I should add, perhaps in a footnote of maybe on the book jacket itself, that the task was accomplished in 214 words, half a page, reducing the manuscript to .105 percent of its original obese length.
To the person young enough to hope he will eradicate some long-standing abuse, the matters that concern me would probably seem insignificant, or if the person were really young, a college student perhaps, the matters might seem absurd. In any case such patches constitute the fabric of living. The following afternoon as I jogged west along the Chaffeeville Road, a bicyclist steered into my path and asked if I had a cigarette. Few joggers smoke. Even fewer cram cigarettes into their jerseys or shorts, most of which lack pockets. That night I talked to a distant relative whose mother had died recently. After the cremation, the manager of the crematorium telephoned and asked my relative if he wanted his mother's artificial shoulder. “They don't burn,” the manager explained. “If a person amassed enough replaceable parts,” I mused that night at dinner, “he could build a titanium man.” “Or woman,” Vicki said.
Appreciation of the patchy nature of life frees one from the opiates of convention. Instead of acting in order to create an impression, one just acts. Rather than resembling dissectible corpses that can be parsed into meaning, actions become vital and self-contained. Oddity, for example, is only oddity, nothing more or less. Early one morning a month ago I strolled down Chapel Street in New Haven. An attractive woman stood in the window of a clothing store, dressing male mannequins in slatty trousers and jackets that were all elbow and shoulder blade. Later when I walked back along Chapel, the woman stood on the sidewalk outside the shop studying the mannequins. I stopped beside her. “You are beautiful,” I said. “Forget the mannequins. If you stood in the window, throngs of customers would buy clothes.” “Gosh,” she said blushing, “how nice.” “Good-by,” I said and ambled back up the street, the morning suddenly happy and blue.
Family history is patchwork, a mesh of truth, fiction, hearsay, fragments of paper and memory, the narrative always improved for morality or telling. This spring I searched the attic for an article I wrote thirty years ago. I did not unearth the article, but I found something better, The Bugle Sounds: Life in the Foreign Legion, a book written by Major Zinovi Pechkoff and published in 1926. In the book Pechkoff described campaigns against the Riffians in northern Morocco. When I was a child, the Riff was one of my Xanadus, a honeydewed, burnoused place that I dreamed of exploring. Pechkoff inscribed the book, writing, “To my dearest friend Grace McClure from Zina 28-11-1927.” Grace McClure was Vicki's great aunt, to whom, family story relates, Pechkoff had proposed. Pechkoff was the colorful sort of person who once he wanders into a family never escapes story. He was the son of a Jewish engraver in Novgorod, and his original name was Zinovi Sverdlov. In 1902 when Maxim Gorky the writer was in exile in Arzamas, Zinovi served as his secretary. To escape restrictions imposed upon Jews, Zinovi was baptized in the Eastern Orthodox Church and changed his name, adopting Pechkoff (Gorky's last name) as his own. In 1904 he emigrated to Canada, but after two years left and joined Gorky in Capri.
In 1914 he joined the French army. The next year he was wounded and lost his right arm. Family story has him visiting Vicki's family after the Second World War, describing him standing in the living room of Aunt Grace's house and one-handedly tossing Vicki's older brother Alex up to the ceiling and after catching him, exclaiming, “A boy the King of Egypt could be proud of.” In 1916 the French government sent Pechkoff to the United States to urge Americans to join the conflict in Europe. In 1916, Grace Jones was headmistress of the Columbus School for Girls in Columbus, Ohio, and that, I assume, is when she met Pechkoff and did not tumble head over books out of the pedagogical harness and marry.
Pechkoff's later life was as extraordinary as Aunt Grace's seems conventional, marrying a college professor and living in a big house in Princeton. On his return from the propaganda tour, Pechkoff accompanied French diplomatic missions to Romania and Russia. During the years 1921-26 and 1937-40, he was a member of the French Foreign Legion, rising to the rank of Major. At the outbreak of World War II, he fought the Germans in Morocco and Syria. In 1940 he joined de Gaulle's Free French and was sent to South Africa as ambassador. In 1943 he was promoted to Brigadier General and became French ambassador to the Republic of China. After the war he was ambassador to Japan. Pechkoff's brother Yakov Sverdlov was a leading Bolshevik and ally of Lenin. He has been called the first head of the Soviet Union, an inaccuracy since he died in the flu epidemic in 1918 and the Soviet Union did official come into existence until 1922. Still, he was a powerful shaper. In 1918, he ordered the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
In the preface to The Bugle Sounds, André Maurois declared that the Foreign Legion offered a refuge for Russians ruined by the Revolution and who could not accept Bolshevism, Germans so accustomed to military discipline that they could stomach no other governance, “The Insulted and Injured” in Dostoevsky's phrase, and the “protagonists of terrible dramas which they hope to forget.” The Legion, Maurois wrote, delivered such people “from themselves.” Family tales are rarely so extravagant. They deliver people only from a moment, not themselves. Stories in which characters like Pechkoff appear become the stuff of holiday conversation, or pages, enabling the teller to shape a self less conventional than he appears after long acquaintance.
“To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,” Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters. Ruskin overstated. Seeing clearly is only seeing clearly. Often that is difficult, seeing the shadowed or obscured as they are, not for what they might or might not be — poetry, prophecy, or religion. In spring I roam field and wood for hours, trying to stitch observations into season. I fail. What observation does, though, is fill days and clear, not an inward visionary eye, but the outward eye. Early in spring I hiked down Fifty-Foot Cliff. Trees were bare, and no birds sang. In seams between rocks in the trail, bouquets of small-leaved hepatica bloomed. Spring awakens dumpers, and trash appears at trail heads near roads, not just beer cans and boxes, but the contents of sheds: refrigerators, cavity-riddled bureaus, tires, freezers, thatches of clothes, rotting rugs, lawn mowers, and spindly deck chairs slumping into desuetude, slovenly as the people who once owned them.
Near the Moss Sanctuary the winter had skinned red pines, exposing the soiled bones of trunk and limb. An osprey beat the still air above the Ogushwitz Meadow. Black dash skippers clung thick to milkweed blossoms while cabbage whites huddled atop rough-fruited cinquefoil. At dusk a barred owl called sounding like a motor dying, its flywheel broken. Wood turtles big as teapots basked on sand banks along the Fenton River. This was the spring of water snakes, ebony jewelwing damselflies, and multiflora rose. While jewelwings flickered black and gold above royal ferns and roses tumbled over in thick trousseaus of blossoms, northern water snakes feathered waters and rippled sedges beside the beaver pond.
A female eastern pondhawk clung to a grapevine. The dragonfly's eyes and thorax were sunny green and its abdomen looked like that of a yellow jacket, rings of black binding the yellow. “The first female pondhawk I've seen,” I told Vicki as she stuck a bandaid on my back, patching a hole dug by a wood tick that had drunk deep and waxed fat. “A seasonal attack of the bucolic plague. What would spring be without fevers and enthusiasms?” she said. The next morning was sunny, and I set out early on a seven-mile jog. Dozing in the rising heat in the middle of Dog Lane was a young wood turtle, a late fall hatchling no bigger than the face of a wrist watch. I plucked the turtle off the road and cradling it in my left hand ran with it for half a mile. Off the shoulder of the road and down a rocky slope behind hedges of brambles shimmered a small pond. I jumped off the road and carried the turtle down the slope, freeing it amid the damp of last fall's leaves, ten yards from the pond. Brambles sliced my legs so badly that blood streamed down like water over a window pane during a cloudburst. “Vicki won't be able to patch these,” I thought as I reached the road and starting running again, the sun warm against my face.