This One Time, 72

This one time I was visiting my grandmother in the apartment we rented for her by the park with all the cherry trees. Sakura trees, actually, having been bred to flower but to not produce fruit.

I thought that was bizarre and wasteful once, deliberately selecting for trees that would leave people and wildlife hungry. But experience has taught me that not all cherries are edible. Some are flavorless or perpetually sour and only attract the bees and wasps when they fall. And as beautiful as cherry trees are, with the amazing smell when they are blooming, they are shady fragrant havens of buzzing, stinging death once there is fruit — unless they’re in a tame orchard, tended by professionals. A city park is a poor place for a fruiting cherries unless you want to feed the homeless one week and sting them to death the next.

And then my grandmother taught me appreciate the sakura by showing me how to make tea from the blossoms, just like she was taught by her grandfather what must seem like a thousand years ago to her, as well as to me. Cherry blossom petals are edible, too, offering subtle flavor as a garnish to anything bland. Oatmeal, rice — anything with mild flavors, for which a tiny hint of blossom brings the texture to life. When the sakuras were blooming, grandmother would serve us cups of milk in her best tea china, each blessed with a thimbleful of green tea and a whole sakura blossom floating on top.

A gulp of ordinary milk, the same stuff we chugged in a hurry while getting ready for school every morning of our childhood, unappreciated, became a handful of joy and peace, something to be savored in the moment and mourned when it was past. We were never so ungracious as to ask for seconds, as that would show we missed the depth of meaning in the blossom itself — abundant joy in the moment, soon to be gone, then a treasured memory that would be spoiled by gluttony.

The blossoms always return when it is time.

Grandmother was seated at her kitchen table, Western style, in a chair she could easily get into and out of. The tea was brewed from a kettle heated over her gas burner, resting in a pot to steep and cool. I retrieved four china cups and brought them to the table. One for her, one for mother, who had demanded that I come in previous years and now could not keep me away, one for grandfather, who had not sat in his chair for six years now, and one for myself. I poured milk for the three of us who were present and living. I brought over the tea pot and sat it briefly on a trivet on the table, then poured a dollop into our three cups. I put a handful of blossoms into grandfather’s cup, then after a brief moment, pulled out three blossoms. One went into grandmother’s cup, one into mother’s, and finally, one went into my own.

Before I sat down, I splashed hot tea over the remaining blossoms in grandfather’s cup to release their scent.

Incense would have been appropriate under other circumstances, but today, a cupful of sakura blossoms was a perfect offering.

We all sat a moment, then grandmother picked up her cup and took a sip. Mother sniffed back tears and picked up her own cup, and after another moment, I picked up my own. I inhaled deeply and drank, not just the scented milk, but a steady sip of thirty years of memories.

I had visited their home in Japan one spring and summer when I was very young, prior to starting school. I remember bright pictures of landscapes, each with their associated smell — diesel buses, the fish market, a grassy field for sports where we caught grasshoppers and stick insects and hand-fed them torn blades of grass. We all regretted the proximity to the silk factory and the paper mill when the wind blew from the wrong direction. The smell of the sea. The clean smell of the flank of a tame deer at a historic park in the oldest capitol. The smell of lacquered paper in my hands, for folding. The smell of my own arm unexpectedly covered in giraffe saliva from a lick at the zoo. The smell of wood and asphalt and stone washed down by a typhoon. The smell of a ceramics kiln fired with charcoal and prunings from the local tangerine orchard, with the unmistakable scent trapped in the glazes. The chlorinated smell of an indoor wave pool at a water park.

This one tiny sip never ends. It lasts throughout the rest of the spring, through the brutally hot summer, an autumn crisp with fallen leaves, and every snowy winter to follow.

The blossoms always return when it is time.


March 13, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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