I believe we all have touchstones in our lives; ordinary, simple objects and occurrences that resonant deeply in the individual for simple, non-mystical but extremely personal and sometimes – oftentimes – unknown and unknowable reasons. Grape vines appear to be one of those touchstones for me. They’ve held a powerful sway over my adult imagination; in ordinary situations they have evoked very strong emotional and sensorial responses in me, unsullied by the passage of time. This short essay captures one of the first times I became aware of how much the vitality and tenacity of grape vines affected my moods and my outlook on life.
Lament for the Grape Vines, Now Gone
The new landlord cut down our grape vines yesterday. Well, they weren’t ours, of course, but when we first moved into our apartment, they were the one aspect that welcomed us to our new home. The old brick building had a lot of character expressed in sharp corners and rough surfaces, but that utilitarian harshness was framed and softened by the downrush of cascading vines, green and growing.
In the winter, when the wind would chase down the urban street by our front door, the now bare yet still flowing tangle of stems and branches would be pulled over to scratch softly against our window. The sound of twiggish fingers drawing across the glass was lonesome; a Jack Frost sort of invasion which fit with the melancholy mood of someone too old for sleds and too poor for skis. The stark, gnarled vines were a companion for us when we were holed up in blankets to keep warm, a reminder of softer winds to come.
The vines also grew in the back of the building, coming from a dark tangle of weeds in an indented courtyard, growing spread-eagled across the face of the brick. Our little back entrance was shaded in the summer by a heavy green canopy, adorned by butterflies and bees, serenaded by birds and chirping insects above our heads. The sun never beat down too hard on our little world.
When we moved to the second floor where we had a back porch overlooking cramped parking spaces, we strung twine and watched as the vines spread, daily adding inches to their length, stretching, clinging, reaching out to whatever they could find. Holding on, hard! The new leaves would unfurl, delicate as any babies, as the tendrils would curl and secure around wire and string, fasten to brick and wood. New, fresh green would mingle with deep, mature green, overlapping, flashing in the sun, reflecting the heat of summer. Little clusters would form and then explode into flowers, fragrance hovering in the air. The growth would be so thick that it would dull the sound of speeding cars on the nearby interstate, would halt the public stares of transient neighbors. We felt protected and private – a rare commodity.
During a thunderstorm we could safely sit on the porch and watch the lightning flash and the rain pound. Even in the wildest storm we would merely feel misty sprays from deflected raindrops, moistening rather than flooding. Yet the breezes would wander through, unhindered. The air was always sweet on the porch and the sunlight always dappled.
A few minutes on the porch, tucked in to my hammock with the fresh green dancing and the newest tendrils tickling my toes, would make the most difficult and depressing day bearable. Those vines were the earth to my Antaeus, from which I drew strength. Wounds were healed, hurts were soothed, tears were eased, by touching the tender growth.
Now they are gone, snatched away, torn down, not a single branch left. Now they are a wilting, dusty pile in the parking lot, waiting for the garbage trucks to haul away with the rest of the refuse.
I’m not angry with the new landlord, not really. After all, he has his own vision of what should be. However, I do feel violated, because he promised that the vines would not be touched – I asked about that the first day I met the man. But more than that, I feel lost. When I walk out on the porch, open now to the wide expanse of the back yard, the alley, the neighbor’s broken house, I feel lost. When I sit in my hammock, the sun hammers down on me. The building has become squat, angular, old. The air is hot.
If only I had known. If only I had some inkling that when I came home the vines would be gone, I would have taken some time, I would have spent one last night out on the porch, just one more hour on the sweet porch which is now merely another urban hole with a door to leave by and paint that is peeling.