Originally posted October 8th, 2007
This time last year, I was driving through Kansas. It was our fifth day on the road en route from Virginia to California: the five kids and me. If you’d like to read about our trip, I’ve pulled all the posts together into one big page, here.
It’s hard to believe it has been a year. Hard to believe we are West Coasters now, decorating for autumn by plopping pumpkins alongside our portulaca. (This year I’ll know to keep watch against pumpkin mush.) We’re planting sunflowers in the back yard at the same time that we’re planning Halloween costumes. It’s a bit surreal.
We went to Balboa Park again today. This time we visited the Museum of Man, lingering particularly long in the Egyptian wing. The kids were fascinated by the mummies, but I was a little bothered by the sad remains of the Lemon Grove Mummy, the body of a girl around fifteen years of age, possibly pregnant, curled into a fetal position. Her skin sags loosely around her old, old bones. She was found in a cave near Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers, who stole her and smuggled her home to Lemon Grove, California. Apparently she sat in a garage for 14 years because the boys didn’t want their parents to find out what they’d done. Eventually she was discovered and donated to the Museum of Man. She’s a special part of the mummy display, but I felt uncomfortable gawking at her in her glass case: it seems like a violation of her humanity for her to be cached there in public view next to the interactive media display about how scientists determined her age and origin. She’s one of several mummies there, and all the others had struck me as simply fascinating until we got to the Lemon Grove girl. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t wrapped up in linens like the Egyptian mummies. She reminded me of the Irish Bog People, and Seamus Heaney’s poems about them.
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach…
(—from “Tollund Man” by Seamus Heaney.)
And that made me think of grad school, where I first read Heaney’s poems, back in the early ’90s when I had no inkling that one day I would stand in a Southern California museum, recalling those lines while watching four blonde heads peer at a long Mexican teenager in a glass case, another golden-haired child perched on my hip in a sling. I didn’t see today coming even two years ago, even 18 months ago.
Rilla was born in April of ’06 and Scott got the job offer in June. I planted a cherry tree in our yard that spring, a gift from my mother. I wonder if the new homeowners got cherries this summer?
This day last year we rolled into Kansas, where the prairie “slices the big sun at evening,” to quote Heaney’s “Bogland.” Today we watched the frothy spray of the big Balboa Park fountain paint a rainbow on the blue canvas of the sky. We counted koi in the long lily pond outside the Botanical Building, their splotched orange-and-cream bodies undulating beneath spiky, ladylike blossoms and the notched round leaves that reminded us of Thumbelina’s prison and Mr. Jeremy Fisher’s raft. We peered inside the deep wells of pitcher-plant blossoms, angling to see if any hapless insects lay dissolving inside. How surreal, this eager scrutiny of death, the children chattering and lively in the moist green air of this palatial greenhouse, just as they had been in the domed, echoing hush of the museum.
How surreal to be pondering corpses while the children are laughing. Pondering the human bodies, preserved; the insects, acid-eaten, their final resting place the polar opposite of Heaney’s peat bog, where hastily buried bodies remained clothed and well-manicured for centuries, and
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
Sometimes I think about how life is like the very DNA it’s made of, a set of intertwined spirals full of small stories. A girl dies in Mexico and centuries later is brought to another country, where a woman stares at her empty skin and remembers an Irishman with a rope round his neck, preserved through the long march of years by the tannic acid in the peat and the ripe syllables of a bristle-browed poet. A child leans out over a reflecting pool and joyously points at a fish the same color as the pumpkins she begged her mother to buy that morning. A man in Virginia wanders, perhaps, out into his yard, and plucks a withered, mummified cherry he missed during the summer harvest, while the hands that planted the tree are pushing sunflower seeds into gritty soil a continent away.