Mar 28, 2009

Not Proust

A Remembrance of Childhood Past

I was only eight, perhaps nearing nine. Mother in hand, my hand in mother's hand. We tramped muddy back roads and rutted country lanes and mouldy woods in search of grasses. Me, diving eagerly beneath every brambly rabbity hedge or piney copse, scrambling up sandy banks held together by Hawthorn roots and blackberries, tiptoeing into fetid bull frog marshes awash with swamp-loving snakes, ready to grab every turgid green stem I saw. We searched on more than one day, or perhaps not, maybe it was only one long day. I recall we scoured the edges of pig pens and goat fields, sheep nibbled pastures and all the odd neglected cabbage, rutabaga and pea fields we could find. Toward the end of the day we climbed slowly up the Snipes, a balding hillock where a few years later my cousin David would find evidence of early Roman occupation and then use his discovery as the theme for a float in an annual school parade, but I don't think we discovered any Italian grasses to add to our collection.

But the collection of grasses. It was a school assignment, perhaps a science fair, with coloured ribbons to be awarded, and untold prestige heaped on the winner. I suppose the ribbons were Blue, Red, and White, what other colours could they be? Green? I worked hard. My mother worked harder, much harder, she always worked harder, but I think she was used to it. It was my mother who carefully carried the grassy stems I had plucked or clipped (with what I know not) in her billowing dress, or was it a paper bag? (Perhaps a bag that once carried hot chestnuts, or baked potatoes, or licorice allsorts) But, whatever the means we managed them home safely. The contest, as I remember, was to see who could collect the largest number of different grasses. We had worked hard, very hard. Then, after the sun had set my mother and I sat in the front parlor, or else in the kitchen beside the hob, and arranged what I had collected in a glass vase, or perhaps only a tin cup, but it was full, overflowing, crowded. I looked at it, how could anyone else have ferreted out so many different genera and species I thought, though I doubt I used those terms?

On the day of exhibition I confidently placed my collection of grasses on the display table beside the others. Glancing quickly at the other contenders I thought there was no possibility of my failing to take home the most important, brightest ribbon, whatever colour it might be.

After the judges had ooh'd, ahh'd and coo'd for a very long time they eventually chose a winner.

It wasn't me. I had been disqualified.

My collection of grasses, they said, would have easily been the undisputed winner, but, I had included a sedge.