Rosemary for remembrance

I pinched out the tips of my rosemary this morning to make the plant bush out, and now I’ll carry its fragrance through the day. This quality of lingering scent must be what Shakespeare was getting at when he wrote:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance … and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. (Hamlet, Act IV)

My commonplace book, which I’ve mentioned before, holds this idea alongside a picture of violet pansies I cut out from a magazine when I was young. Exactly how young I can’t say with certainty, but a nearby page in the book contains a Christmas card my first husband and I received from his grandmother, and I was stupidly young when I married him, so there’s a clue. The card has a picture of a red barn—lovely, but nothing like ours—under gently falling snow, with a snippet of Longfellow verse:

Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow,
Descends the snow.

Inside, penned with her shaky hand: From Gran ma Orr with Love. Hope to see you Boxing Day.

We did see her Boxing Day. I remember hanging out the window of her 20th or something-floor apartment in downtown Burnaby or elsewhere in Greater Vancouver smoking a cigarette, the city lights twinkling under the stars. Smoking out his granny’s window was an act that appalled my ex-husband, who came from a family of staunch nonsmokers, but Granny Orr was tolerant. “There’s room for smokers and nonsmokers both in this world,” she insisted.

One of the things I love about my commonplace book, even though a lot of it embarrasses me, is the window it offers into who I was in my early 20s. So serious. So sad. Such tiny handwriting reflecting someone afraid to take up space in the world. And yet, even then, wanting to rejoice, like Hagar in Margaret Laurence’s A Stone Angel, whose words I printed out in small, awkward letters:

I must always, always, have wanted that—simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? I know, I know. How long have I known? Or have I always known, in some crevice of my heart, some cave too deeply buried, too concealed? Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances—oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Part of the reason I was having so much trouble finding joy back then was I was looking for it in a man, still ruled by proper appearances. To continue with Shakespeare’s plant metaphors, I hadn’t yet entertained thoughts of being a pansy.

But the quotes I chose to copy into my book bear witness to my inner balkiness:

Let’s leave pretty women to men without imaginations. (Kay MacKenzie Gold)

Tell them the truth. Tell them that marriage institutionalizes inequality. Then we won’t betray our daughters the way our mothers betrayed us. (a 1950s Radcliffe graduate, 25 years later)

And this one, from Elaine Morgan in The Descent of Women:

I have considerable admiration for scientists in general, and evolutionists and ethologists in particular, and though I think they have sometimes gone astray, it has not been purely through prejudice. Partly it is due to sheer semantic accident—the fact that “man” is an ambiguous term. It means the species; it also means the male of the species. If you begin to write a book about man or conceive a theory about man you cannot avoid using this word. You cannot avoid using a pronoun as a substitute for the word, and you will use the pronoun “he” as a simple matter of linguistic convenience. But before you are halfway through the first chapter a mental image of this evolving creature begins to form in your mind. It will be a male image, and he will be the hero of the story: everything and everyone else in the story will relate to him.

I was studying anthropology then, my teacher and mentor the amazing Dr. Marjorie Mitchell, who wanted me to go to graduate school and get a PhD. I remember seeing Marjorie once in Hillside Mall in Victoria, me with a Snugli strapped to my chest and holding a toddler by the hand. I steered him behind a rack of winter coats to hide so she wouldn’t see I had chosen the “marriage and motherhood myths” she railed against in her classes. Years later she admitted she used me as an example to her subsequent students of what not to do with their lives.

Yet I wouldn’t change any of it.

Except maybe this:


The photo of rosemary on the commatology homepage is by Alekon pictures on Unsplash.




11 Responses to “Rosemary for remembrance”

  1. carin

    Smiling as I read those last lines.

    What a whirlwind of memory that rosemary pruning sent you on. And isn’t it just so bittersweet to find our ramblings in an old journal… heart breaks at times for who we used to be and yet, as you say, ‘wouldn’t change a thing’…

    • commatologist

      It always amazes me the way fragrance triggers memory. The other day a whiff of nasturtium instantly transported me to my grandmother’s backyard on Latham Road.

  2. theresa

    This is a beautiful essay, Leslie. And yes, rosemary has a bewitching power, I think — to summon, and remind.

    • commatologist

      Thank you, Theresa. According to Witchipedia (!!!) if you place a sprig of rosemary under your pillow, it’ll help you remember your dreams.

  3. Laurie Doctor

    There is the memory, and also the reclaiming of memory, of what you did choose, how it has led you to where you are, in spite of “marriage and motherhood myths”. It seems part of the joy is in claiming every wrong turn….This post is synchronistic with mine — the poignancy of bliss and the return to fleeting time brings back the phrase from William Blake: “He who binds to himself a Joy, Doth the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the Joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise. ”
    Thank you.

    • commatologist

      “Part of the joy is in claiming every wrong turn” – I love that idea, Laurie, thank you. And when I read the Blake I immediately thought of Neil Young, who said something similar less poetically – “Love is a rose, but you’d better not pick it. It only grows when it’s on the vine.” It’s good to hear from you.

  4. Sheila Peters

    Love this entry, Leslie. And one of the great advantages of life on the coast is the perennial nature of the rosemary. It’s planted as a decorative shrub around city hall!

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Sheila! I remember that. The first few years after we moved here from Victoria, I stubbornly tried to overwinter rosemary. I lost a few plants! I hope you and Lynn are enjoying life on the Sunshine Coast. You’re missed.


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