In a summer of loss and love, rhubarb plays a symbolic role.
By Jennifer Brennock
I lost my job today. I mean, I have five jobs, most of them meaningless and labor-oriented, but this was the one that made me feel like something. It floated me when the tide was low and kept a roof over my kid’s head no matter what. It woke me predawn for a red eye ferry for six years. I walked into it and said “Good morning, class” with a genuine smile every session without fail. It tested my brain’s capacity and asked me to be better because what they learned was important. Yeah, that one.
I’m a little freaked out. In response, I’m harvesting rhubarb. I should be trimming the mean girl tomatoes, but all I care about is the emo rhubarb.
My child is already in bed this summer evening, so I’m being liberal with the wine bottle. From my view, no structure nor person can be seen, only pasture, birch, and evergreen—a Cascadian ideal. I am solo under an expanse of easy sky, but clouds lurk atop the treeline. The moon wants to be seen and the swallows dive for insects inches above my head. I can hear their wings back and forth in a spasm of feeding. There is a Brett Dennen song on the radio. Not my favorite, but he insists “It’s the life you made.”
The rhubarb is a mistake I made. I planted this blushing, awkward teen in the center of the very best bed in the garden. Inside the deer fence. Deer don’t eat rhubarb. I could have planted it anywhere else, making room for sensible broccoli, more delicate lettuce, and cheerful, knobby Brussels sprout. Instead, I am protecting something that no longer needs it. Even so, there is primordial, fantastical growth on these dogs. It’s like science fiction out here.
The music floats over the berm to the narrowing valley and pasture below. I wonder how far this sound travels at night. I turn it up.
“Who do you think you are?”
Tonight, I feel the full power of middle age. I select a stalk, grip it at the base, and twist. The decisive choice makes the most satisfying staccato of fiber breaking under force. Rhubarb harvest is imbued with more “fuck you” than any other fruit picking. With a middle finger, I tell life to do its worst. I’ve already been here. There’s nothing you can do to me that I will not survive. This is just another day. There have been worse. Days when I could not get out of fetal. The days I hiccuped from crying too much. The days I fell farther. The days I fed myself with nonfood that I will never confess to. Still, every time I got up with Invictus, not because I believed I deserved to live, and certainly not because I believed I deserved to be happy. I got up because someone smaller needed me.
Jennifer Brennock: badass writer, artist, mother on Orcas Island. (Photograph by Melanie Masson)
Tonight, I remove the yellowed, limp, snail-trodden leaves at the base. They were the front line months ago before the plant knew it would survive new earth. The clouds are approaching slowly, as if I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. My nose fills with the fresh and bitter fruit, an olfactory stab. The wine buzz and unyielding song makes this night a syrupy date.
Rhubarb is obnoxious. Who does it think it is with those gargantuan leaves of poison? We know what you’re up to; you’re not impressing anyone, rhubarb. You are not the umbrellas you think you are.
This rhubarb summer, I am in love after rejecting him over and over for years. I managed to fabricate reasons. His desire to provide my soul with daily tenderness and my life with strong shoulders was, you know, over the top. I had to save myself; I believed these were separate things.
“Don’t be afraid of the hands you play.”
I give sun space to the stalks that need the light by pulling out the four-foot charmers. The new ones—curly, insecure entering the world, virginal—are wearing the wrong green. If a stalk is thick but short, I pardon it, ask it to grow taller with girth and confidence. Confidence begets confidence they tell me. Hot pink root tips peek through, small flames, genital-like, solidly in place and keeping steadfast to center.
I’m in love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower and once said the words “I concur” while we were fucking. His heart has been broken in the worst way it can be, and he is still willing to go all in. You know the guy who taught you to ski? Remember how he leaned down to your cold-rosy five year-old face on the verge of tears and asked with perfect enthusiasm and a smile, “We gonna have fun today?” Remember how just then you forgot you were scared to death and how you let go of your mother’s hand without thinking and took his? That’s him. He enters sleep just like a tree falls, calls climbing Rainier “going for a walk,” and is not afraid of carrying heavy things. I am a heavy thing.
“Who do you think you are?”
“I’m in a love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower…”
I’m the chick who writes about being alone while being a parent. These are the stories I tell. I write about falling down. I write about sex, and I write about pain. To separate things, juxtaposed, rarely intersecting, but close enough that the possibility is there. That’s my schtick. I make weird art by destroying 1950s gynecology textbooks and sticking their diagrams next to poems describing fellatio. To remind you—haunt you—that love and body are not one, and they are not to be trusted together. It’s all going to hell once you’re happy and spooning. But what happens when the sex is actually leagues away from any pain, and he loves you enough to correct you when you call it fucking? He’s not leaving tonight, and not tomorrow either, and if he’s right, I may die at his side. What happens? Will I still have words? Will I still have night gardens and disturbing poems and breaking rhubarb at the neck? Will I still come out to see the moon at 2 A.M. alone?
All good stories must be universal, and, dear reader, for you to trust me, you have to get something out of the read. So here it is: you deserve it. We all do. Each of us deserves to be loved and supported regardless of our failures and voids, past and present. You’ve said things you regret. You’ve neglected someone who was counting on you. You failed her. You couldn’t deny wanting someone else. You did not forgive him in time. No matter how hard you try, you are not enough for her. You made him into someone he didn’t like. Okay. That happened. Still, there isn’t some huge karmic punishment coming for you because of it. When the song points at you and says, “Who do you think you are? This is the life you made,” you can just say, um, yeah? So? My head is unbowed. So you planted the rhubarb in the wrong spot. You gave attention to the wrong thing. You made bad choices. You still deserve to be loved, supported, adored, and saved. You do.
The rhubarb is crowding the artichokes. I shouldn’t’ve planted those there either. The trees are blowing now and the birds have become bats. The bird-murdered strawberries won’t be moved tonight, but these fruit-stalks look like an armload of ugly miracles. I’ll make cardamom sugar for the jam this time, I think. Best go inside now. The rain is coming, and I gotta find a job before summer’s end.
Jennifer Brennock lives on Orcas Island in a cabin nicknamed “Slaughterhouse” for some reason that she’s not asking too many questions about. This is an excerpt from Real, a memoir-in-progress about adoption and single motherhood with conversations with the Velveteen Rabbit. Contact her for organic rhubarb $2/lb.
Editor’s note: I met Jennifer seven years ago when she was leading a creative writing workshop at the Orcas Island Public Library. She is a dazzling writer — fierce, fearless and unfailingly honest — and someone I’m proud to call my friend.
Tomorrow: Taylor Smith, I’m desperate