Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Surprises on the Half Shell

One Saturday evening earlier this fall Marc and I were standing beside a platter heaped with crushed ice on which nestled over two dozen oysters on the half shell. It was a surprise birthday party organized by a younger colleague of mine for his partner, and the catering team had been diligently shucking oysters to keep this platter replenished. It was a delightful and unexpected luxury amid all the other appetizers that passed among the guests as we waited the arrival of the birthday couple from a nearby restaurant.

I had a martini in hand, Tanquerey with olives, and Marc was enjoying a deep glass of Sauvignon Blanc. We were delightfully enmeshed in a conversation on books with a friend in the publishing business, a man over twenty years our junior, the husband of a former student of mine. The book conversation is a regular occurrence whenever we run into Drew, and the enthusiasm with which we three booklovers run through titles and authors and editions can momentarily distract us from platters of oysters and trays of finger food.

“Only you would talk about bestsellers in the nineteenth century!” Drew addressed me in good-natured amazement after I spoke about a summertime purchase of my third copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snow-Bound.” None of these editions has been an expensive purchase, but each has taken me back to the experience of reading the opening lines of the poem in my American literature textbook in junior year of high school. A stranger to snow and to the cold that could produce snow, I had read Whittier in my humid New Orleans classroom with wonder:

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.

Composed in 1865, “Snow-Bound” had made Whittier’s career. Printings abounded in the decades that followed its first appearance. It seems eventually to have become a standard as a prize book at school graduations and as a gift book for teachers. The vintage copies – each less than fifty pages – that I have purchased are all inscribed.

A Southerner transplanted to New England, I was intrigued this summer to learn from the website of Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, Massachusetts, that special commemorations were scheduled this December in honor of the 200th birthday of the poet. Something called a “Snow-Bound Weekend” was advertised for the first weekend of the month. I toyed with the idea of talking to Marc and getting to Haverhill for some part of the celebration until I read a description online about the historic homestead:

Snow-Bound Weekend is a dramatic re-creation of life in early 19th century Haverhill, as depicted in John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous poem, “Snow-Bound.” Experience the warmth emanating from the poet’s own farmhouse hearth and savor the scent of apples roasting by the fire. Watch the snow-bound Quaker family and friends, in full period dress, play the scenes from the famous poem. Enjoy some hot apple cider as you listen to music and poetry, all in the warmth of the shoe shop. Outside, the whole family will enjoy a sleigh/hay ride, and view the farm animals. The gift shop will be open for you to make your holiday selections.

The description of the event sent a disappointing chill through me. I was not ready, I realized, to share with so many revelers and play-actors my first visit to the site of some of my earliest New England images. I didn’t need holiday merrymaking – I wanted stark lines, I wanted the simplicity that Whittier himself had tried to capture in his poem.

With the passage of years I have returned to “Snow-Bound” and discovered that the poem is more about that very passage of years than it is about a snowstorm:

O Time and Change! -- with hair as gray
As was my sire's that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!

Marc and I looked around us at one point early that evening of the birthday party. Threading my fingers through his, I commented to Marc that we were likely the oldest people on the guest list. The realization was a brief one as we put down our glasses to drizzle more fresh lemon over the oysters and dip the pearly meat into the mignonette. The tang of vinegary shallots was a treat on our tongues.

We soon got the signal to join Drew and his wife and the other guests and raise the ritual chorus of “Surprise!”

We did so con brio.

Photo of Tomales Bay oysters from LA Times

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