Remember getting assigned a research project when you were a kid? In the 1970’s, this meant heading downtown to the Westerly Public Library, a setting more awe-inspiring to me than any cathedral. Despite the library’s grandeur, it’s circular children’s room with windows that looked out onto Wilcox Park, its glass-floored fiction shelves, its winding staircase that led who-knows-where, the reference room was a dingy place full of thick-spined volumes on metal shelves. The reverence I felt for this institution took a serious hit as I considered the work ahead. We’d unpack our backpacks onto solid oak tables, flick through the card catalog and return with some barely totable tome from which we’d completely plagiarize our material until our hands cramped so much, it was time to head to BeeBee’s dairy for a hotdog on a buttered roll.
Then, Christ have mercy, it was time to go home and type. On the way, you prayed you had an ancient, water-stained box of onion skin and that the ink ribbon had not dried out since you last attempted to hunt and peck your way through this particular brand of misery. And if the gods were with you and everything worked out just fine, there were still those moments when, clicking along at secretarial pool speed, you looked up only to realize you had long ago run out of paper and had committed several lines to the typewriter rollbar. This, of course, meant you had left no space for those bottom-of-the-page footnotes. So you sobbed hysterically and considered dropping out of school. You imagined your teacher with his feet up eating out of a big bag of Lays and watching Wide World of Sports (and then you imagined him as an Agony of Defeat example) and finally, tragically, hopelessly, you began again — only to realize you’d run out of onion skin. No worries. The store at Clark’s Paper Mill, which was the only place within a four hour radius that stocked the stuff, would be open on Monday. Same day the paper was due.
This crisis would fire my mother up considerably. Why had I waited so long to start? Why hadn’t I checked to see what I needed to complete the work days ago? She’d proceed to tear up the spare room where we kept a desk and a blizzard of papers in the world’s worst filing system. When that turned up no supplies, she’d start calling her sisters, her cousins, her friends, her friends’ sisters, her friends’ cousins, until finally, at the home of one of the people you felt least comfortable with in the world, someone coughed up a sheet or two of onionskin.
“Okay, goddamnit,” she’d say. “Now go get it.”
Did I mention I was paralyzingly shy? Social awkwardness was something I longed to attain one day as it would have been a step in the right direction.
After a few more hours of me pleading with her to come with me and then, worse yet, my mother’s chilling Silent Treatment, we would climb into one the old Impalas or another and she would peel out of our laneway, hellbent on a mission to get the goddamn paper or kill us both trying.
Anyway, I guess it all got done. I graduated high school. I never turned an assignment in late.
All of this is to say, however, that I wish I had known then how fun research could be. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend Brian requested a poem about Dutch landscapes. This led to me doing several Google image searches and discovering a world of bleaching fields and tulip trading. It also led me, not to the stuffiest room in a library, but to the Museum of Fine Arts on a Friday night before a long weekend in the company of a real-live landscape painter. We were among the last visitors to the Museum’s special exhibit, Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.
I brought along a notebook and scribbled some of the following:
- Dutch scientists discovered Saturn’s rings
- Dutch women had much in common with Nantucket women; wives of merchants and wives of whalers were often left to run things at home
- In Haarlem you would have smelled the breweries
- Bleacheries soaked linens in buttermilk for three weeks!
- A Herring Buss = a ship on which you can gut and salt the catch
- Fishmongers were mostly women who kept baskets floating in rivers to keep the fish fresh
- In Salomon Van Ruysdael’s River Landscape with Riders on a Ferry, one cow is scratching her neck
I have no idea which of these details, if any, will make it into Brian’s poem. But I have been immersed in a world that will surely lend itself to some inspiration for a poem. I aspire to paint life-sized portraits of my loved ones in poses that will make them laugh. I can’t get the image of Rembrandt’s illuminated ruffles out of my mind, nor do I ever hope to. Also, my hands aren’t shaking. No deadline looms. I didn’t cry once. Somewhere nearby, my mother is donning her Steelers sweatshirt and awaiting today’s game, her love for me blissfully unconditional.
My research ended, not with a real-life model for a summer blockbuster chase scene, but with a root vegetable torte and a glass of pinot grigio that I raised to evolution, and to the utter extinction of onion skin.