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How many times, in my dotage, had I recounted the childhood memory of grasping a stem of fresh rhubarb and driving it into a bowlful of sugar? ”There was nothing like it,” I’d proclaim, discounting every other culinary delight of my long-term memory. It was the epitome of sweet and sour. It was the explosion of bitter and beautiful. It was simplicity at its most delicious. But was it really?
After procrastinating over the harvest in my own garden, with its single rhubarb plant, I had finally grabbed the closest shears and hacked away at the reddened spears gallantly sporting elephant-ear leaves. They had swayed in the breeze every time I had gone outside, calling to my lost sense of agricultural stewardship. They could no longer be ignored, and when the carnage had passed, all that was missing from the ground was a number of chalk outlines, as if a rhubarb murder had occurred, with the remains destined for the stewing pot in the morgue.
They sat briefly in refrigerated water until I could bring myself to the chore, but as the lid was removed, a flicker of the past ignited my curiosity. Taking the reddest, most slender of the stems, I tightened my arthritic grip and plunged it into the nearest sugar bowl, marvelling briefly at the shimmer of sweet crystals coating the moistened flesh. Here it comes, I thought, my beloved childhood memory.
But sadly, the remembrance barely survived the time travel. In an effort to bring back everything that was good and sweet and fresh in the previous century, all I had tasted was sour and bitter and it was stringy, surprisingly difficult to chew. After all those years of proclaiming how wonderful it was, the reality was less than thrilling and the rhapsodized recollection was all but shattered.
Maybe it was me, I thought. Maybe it was my withered old taste buds, or my ancient teeth ground down by stressful aging. Perhaps, rhubarb plants had changed under the threat of global warming and were destined for culinary extinction. I searched for some logical explanation that would soften the blow. It was so disappointing to admit that my sacred memory was perhaps only tainted idealization or misinterpretation at best.
But then it suddenly hit me in an edible epiphany. What I wanted from that poor beleaguered moment was not so much a lost sense of taste, but a lost and fleeting feeling. What I hungered for so desperately was not so much the taste of my childhood, but the feeling that went with it. I wanted to once again be in that venerated space, enveloped by youthful and naive playmates, living in that nanosecond, oblivious to the past and ignorant of the future.
I craved the small-town playground, overrun by flattened and withered weeds, that pulsed with energetic kids unleashed and scantily supervised by an underpaid, teenage employee. I longed for the old wooden swing seats suspended by giant metal chains, the ones that had sent me bloody-nosed to the emergency room for stitches. I hankered for the old painted sewer tiles that doubled as playhouses and imaginary horses. I charmed myself with the memory of tin-can cricket. I wanted to flail around in a bathing suit with little concern for my anatomy, getting wet in sprinklers and plastic pools 10 times a day. I grasped for the illusion of the endless summer.
Maybe, like the rhubarb, the memory was better than the reality, but the feeling that went with it was undeniable. We were young and free and joyfully irresponsible. We didn’t worry about being abducted or bullied online. The phone was connected to the wall and emergencies were shared when the long-distance rates went down after 6 o’clock on Sundays. You’d have to be dead or dying to warrant the charge from Ma Bell and words weren’t minced or wasted.
Maybe what I wanted was to be young again, free of the physical and mental pains of aging. I wanted something to remind me that what I once had, had been as real and bittersweet and fresh as that little piece of rhubarb that had found its way into my sugar bowl. I wanted to know that I had actually existed in a miniature form and everything good about it still remained within me.
With every day of aging, I find myself hearkening back more and more to those moments of sensory bliss. Perhaps, it’s a bit of escapism from the constant barrage of the depressing evening news or maybe it’s a type of brief, inexpensive holiday from reality. I’m quite happy here in the 21st century, but there’s something in the past that keeps returning ever more frequently, to remind me of the years going by and the context of my life.
Now, I take my rhubarb stewed with loads of sugar, or baked into delicious muffins, or shared with apple in pies made by somebody else. I keep in mind that the passage of time, like the common eulogy, reflects only the best of our memories. I may not bother now to seize the day with a fresh stem of rhubarb and the fruit of the sugarcane, but I still cherish the moment of first realization, knowing that the worst of reality goes down better with something sweet.
Linda Webster lives in Duntroon, Ont.