- The Breathing Green of Judith Kitchen
For years the single drawer of my writing desk has carried a pouch of Paladin Black Cherry pipe tobacco, once the property of a man I loved. Every so often I pull out the pouch and pull in the fading scent of black cherry, and with it the awakening aroma of memory and all it holds and carries.
The man I loved who smoked the flue-cured Paladin tobacco has been dead now for 16 years. Bill was my second cousin, but we were far more friends than relatives. No picture I see of us reveals more of who were, in the past we shared, than does the aroma of that tobacco. He died of throat cancer at 48, a smoker to the end. But when I breathe deeply and inhale the scent from that pouch of Paladin, he appears in my memory as if the past breathes within me. He’s behind the wheel of his aging white Jeep, hurtling the two of us through the dark and down the deep decline from his log cabin atop a hill in western Pennsylvania. Or we’re sitting on the cabin’s porch playing music and drinking away all that lies below. Or we’re in Los Angeles months before his death because he wanted to dream one last time of a future he must have realized would never arrive. Or … or he’s just still here.
Perhaps no writer so understood the pull of memory and the way it abides in the physical world and in the world of story quite the way Judith Kitchen did. As she wrote in her astonishing essay “Breath,” “Who are we without the memories that make us individual. The things you carry: the present, along with an ever-present past.” Judith wrote this essay when she knew her own death was near. And as much as she loved life and appeared to live in the moment, she reveled in being able to summon the past. Her feel for [End Page 31] the past was no cheap nostalgia, but rather part of who she was, part of who we all are, the past living in us and around us as we exist in the present and prepare for the future. “A future that may or may not” be ours.
She asked this of a younger version of herself in “Breath”: “Who would she be if she did not know what, and when, and to whom? If she could not call up the hefty feel of a jackknife in her pocket, or the sound of that old maroon Dodge, or the purple of heather and the yellow of gorse?” When I read her words I want nothing more than to feel that jackknife in my pocket, hear the sound of the old Dodge, see the purple of heather and the yellow of gorse. Hell, I do feel the jackknife. And if I strain even slightly, I’m able to see the exhaust fumes rising from the tailpipe of that old Dodge, the driver behind the wheel, desperate to heat up a winter morning. These details, these objects, become literary artifacts, pieces of a life, parts of a story. Judith forces me to wonder who I’d be without the physical properties that gird my memories. Would I lose Bill forever if I could not see the Jeep we drove blindly through the dark? Would I lose him if I could not hear the strings of his guitar vibrating on a cabin night? How much less of who I am would I be? Would I be who I am? As Judith asks of her own memories: Who or what would she be “If she could not hear her sons still lifting their voices as they fished for crabs in Maine? If she could not hear her inner voice above the noise of the lungs? That inner voice that says yes, that was how it was.”
This is how it was: nearly 15 years ago, I picked up Judith from the Cleveland airport for a reading I’d invited her to give. By the time we’d driven the...