Memphis, once known as the hardwood capital of the world, was built on a bluff, the Chickasaw Bluff, along the eastern side of the Mississippi River. The soil on the bluff, according to my limited understanding of it, is an interesting mix of loess (windblown silt), glacial gravel and alluvial deposits, good for filtering water into a vast underground aquifer and perfect for giving rise to majestic, leafy, long-lived trees.
The first time I saw Memphis as a city of trees, I was living in Omaha and came back home for a short trip, two years after my father died. My stepmother was throwing a party for a friend’s daughter who lived in Paris and who was visiting Memphis for a month. The real reason behind the party, of course, was to put on public display that everything was fine and festive, that life carried on after ICUs and coffins.
So, as the plane approached the Bluff City in its final descent before landing, I was looking out the window, lost in thoughts about how things would be different in my family. And I was suddenly struck by the seamless canopy of trees, a thick, green, unending blanket, vividly clear from a distance. Having been away for several years, and having traveled by car when I did visit, I’d forgotten what the city looked like from the sky. Or perhaps I’d never looked at it for what it was: an eternal forest.
Like any other forest, ours has been marked by the forces of nature, and of man. Cutting and paving and development and drought have prompted the tree roots to creep toward the surface for water. With shallower root structures, the trees sometimes have trouble standing up.
There have been two major, tree-felling storms since I returned to Memphis in 1999, the most recent of which blew through the Saturday before Memorial Day, not quite a week before I was scheduled to board a plane and head to my 30th college reunion. As storms go, this one was epic, a true test of the forest: 100+ mile-per-hour straight-line winds, pressure so powerful that the glass in our attic windows, which were fastened shut, burst out onto the overhangs below. Scores of trees were toppled or broken in half, twisted by the wind. Birds were slammed to the ground. Power lines downed. Streetlights ravaged. A few cars crushed.
Our house, thankfully, was spared damage other than the windows, and my office was offline only a few days. But time got mixed up, the calendar out of whack, and I couldn’t get back in sync with the week. So I almost decided to sacrifice the ticket and stay home. Almost.
I hadn’t been on campus since 1997, our 10th reunion, when, at the youthful age of 31, drinking until 4 a.m. and sleeping on a dorm room bunk bed still seemed, if never comfortable, almost normal. Even then, when I was young, the idea of being in a large, crowded tent, drowning in loud music, wasn’t something I preferred. Now that I am old, or at least older, I actively dislike it. Which is to say, a part of me, at 51, very much did not want to go, anyway; and the storm would have provided a perfect excuse to avoid the hoopla.
Princeton Reunions is hard to describe, a lively, comical, slightly obscene event, enjoyed by a sea of 25,000+ alumni dressed in orange and black for three straight days, all moving to the sounds of a hundred different bands and playlists and choruses, but somehow still in unison. It’s the stuff of beer-forged friendships and deep endowments, lovely but at the same time the tiniest bit unsavory, like childbirth or an oversized serving of ice cream.
Costumes, or at least school-color-coordinated articles of clothing, are expected and provided. At the end of senior year, in a tradition dating back almost 100 years, soon-to-be graduates receive what’s called a beer jacket, a sturdy, practical covering to protect one’s clothing from spills during graduation celebrations. At 5, 10, 15 and 20 year marks, each class designs a costume for all classmates to wear. For our 10th, as an example, we wore orange, nylon spacesuits that were ridiculous in the best, most festive way.
At the 25 year mark, the point by which one (theoretically) should have arrived at one’s highest station in life, classmates purchase a class jacket, a more dignified and stately (if still ridiculous) item to replace the beer jacket of old. Designed by and for that one class, and the 25th reunion jacket becomes the main “costume” for every gathering thereafter.
Some 25th jackets are simple, others flamboyant. Our class jacket could be described as a blend of Lilly and Liberty, executed in orange and black – pretty in its swirling, Asian influence, but loud enough to prompt the comment, from a male classmate’s non-Tiger friend upon seeing his picture: “Dude, did you fall into Liberace’s wardrobe?”
I don’t own a 25th jacket, having foregone those festivities in favor of staying home to start what I originally conceived of as photo blog that instead became a ramble of essays about children and marriage, dogs and fishing, cooking and my mother. Apparently, there are subsequent manufacturing runs at 5-year intervals, and I could have ordered a jacket in time for our 30th. But I wasn’t paying close enough attention to realize it, soon enough, mostly because I wasn’t fully committed to going. The storm, and lack of proper attire, would have been perfectly good reasons to stay home.
The long and short of it, though (as you already know), is that I did go, urged in small part by a couple of very persistent friends, and in larger part by the fact that, a week after our 25th gathering, a classmate I’d know since childhood dropped dead of a heart attack. So, still discombobulated from the storm and not fully excited to leave town and without the proper clothes, I headed out the door anyway, toting a weekend’s worth of unofficial orange and black, a book for the plane (Miss Jane – can’t really recommend it), a single pair of sandals, a toothbrush, and my beer jacket, which has been hanging in my hall closet (moved from one hall closet to the next) for 30 years and which, never having been washed, still carries its inaugural stains.
I could, though I won’t, share a hundred funny, poignant, absurd details about the weekend. Life is short, and we’re all busy. I’ll instead tell you the only part worth knowing: people don’t change. They – we – remain, in essence, the same at 50 as at 20. Softer in some ways, perhaps. Harder in others. But fundamentally unaltered, though clearly marked by the passing of years, time offering up wisdom and regret, along with silver temples. Time tempering immature slights and youthful indiscretions. Time, that arbitrary dispenser of honesty, forgiveness, well-earned wrinkles, and widening midsections.
But even with the markings of time, true is simply true, without effort and despite disguise. No one – not one single man or woman – was different from the person I knew 30 years ago, Liberace jackets and orange spacesuits notwithstanding.
I came; I saw; I hugged; I laughed. And, satisfied that things were as they should be, I left.
By the time I returned home, tired, at the end of the weekend, most, though not all, of the storm damage had been cleared. Neighbors were helping neighbors; food drives were underway to replace what was lost in the days without power; friends were reminding friends to support small businesses, to go out and have dinner and make up for lost time. All to say, my home city, the place where I feel reasonably at home, was largely back to normal, and we were, for the most part, back on schedule.
Over Sunday night dinner (take-out pizza) at our kitchen table, we compared notes of our weekend adventures, reviewed our plans for the coming week.
Monday morning I went for a walk to clear my head before going in to my office. The weather was pleasant for early June, the daylilies starting to bloom, gardenias and hydrangeas still showing off. The light was different here and there, altered by a few missing trees and branches. But, overall, things felt exactly the way they had before the recent wind storm, and the storm before that. Birds singing their morning songs, thick canopy sheltering the ground. The way it has always been, and, in some form, will always be.
Food | Week of June 12, 2017