Hope Like a Fiddlehead
As a child, the sighting of the emerald-green fiddlehead was like the aligning of the planets as it chiseled its way through the hard soil to announce winter had passed and spring had sprung. The fern on my porch reminds me of the relentless Maine winters, where the snow would fall as early as October and stay as late as June, where the true sing of spring was not a day marked on the calendar, but the true sign of spring was and is the emerald-green fiddlehead. All ferns have fiddleheads. The fiddlehead is not a fern, but it is the unfurled from of a fern, before the leaf unfolds, and lasts only a few days.
I can almost taste the fiddlehead sautéed with bacon, an earthy mix of mushrooms and asparagus, and I remember as if it was yesterday, the pack my dad found in the freezer when my sisters and I were small. That memory goes something like this…
Pauline, Charlene, and I gather on the striped carpet to retrieve the Christmas decorations from the attic. My white fog breath mixes with their white fog breath, and our teeth clatter in chorus. I close my eyes to imagine warmth and heat, and when it fails, I throw on a sweatshirt and a knitted pair of yarn socks before returning to the shelf-cloud of breath in the hallway.
I happily yank the rope dangling from the ceiling. The drop-down staircase unfolds and pummels Mom in the forehead, knocking her backward and into the paneled wall.
“You tryin’ to kill me?” She wobbles slightly and reaches for her forehead.
I stare at my thick yarn socks. “Sorry, I forgot the springs were broke—"
“That’s not all you forgot! You’d forget your damn head if it wasn’t attached.” A stream of white breath rolls off her lips like a party favor. “I see birds…tweet…tweet…tweet.” Her face turns red and her cheeks pucker with the giggle she releases.
Pauline’s belly and breasts bob with laughter beneath the sweater and her cheeks turn a warm rouge to match the color of Mom’s one-piece longjohns with a flap in the back “for easy access” as Mom likes to say.
Mom’s slippers scuff across the worn striped carpet and into her bedroom. She leans over the dresser and peers in the antique three-way mirror at the egg on her forehead. “Darn, that smarts…If it wasn’t for bad luck, you wouldn’t have any at all.”
With my teeth clenched, I give Pauline an eye narrowing glare and a sharp elbow to her ribs. “Stop laughing! It was an accident, fatso.”
Mom returns to the hall and climbs the stairs of the drop-down staircase. “Let’s get these decorations down, before you do kill someone—"
Dad yells from the front stoop. “Somebody get the door.”
I dash down the hall through the hanging blanket, which divides the front of the house from the back and open the door. An icy blast of Arctic air whips the hanging blanket around. Dad’s mustache is white with ice and he’s nearly as frozen as the six-foot snowman with the black-button mouth smiling at me in the yard.
He shakes the freshly chopped long-needled pine over the stoop. The snow falls from the branches like white sawdust and he drags it over the curled linoleum and across the colorful carpet with his pant legs full of packed snow and boots leaving snowy footprints.
My eyes follow the snowy trail to the tree stand. It’s a five-gallon bucket with rocks and wooden wedges to hold the tree in place.
“Someone get me a cup of coffee and light me a cigarette,” he says. His thin lips shiver and he picks the frozen clumps of snow from his cuffs. When he’s done, he looks up. “What the hell happened to you?”
Mom scowls and massages the egg, again. “Your damn daughter tried to kill me. That’s what!”
Dad’s neck rotates my way.
My head snaps back. “Hey! What makes you think it was me?”
His hand holsters his hip as he frowns up at me from the divan. “Who else would it be, nim rod?”
I toss my hands in the air. “It was an accident…Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”
“Why don’t you use your head for something other than a hat rack, gal. Now move it and get me my coffee.”
I mutter under my breath and fill Dad’s cup. Steam rises from his cup and I walk it slowly across the mish-mash of carpet samples to him.
Dad takes the cup and eyeballs me. “Help your Mother like I told you.”
“Whatcha’ think I was doin’?”
Pauline throws a box of ornaments at me and slams me in the gut. “Sort these, will yah?” Her one-eye pleads with me to be quiet and not ruin the holiday spirit.
I scrimmage through the box. Some ornaments need repair while others need the garbage bin. I separate the stars from the wreathes, and the Santa heads Mom made and painted with meticulous detail using a fine brush, while Charlene sorts the wooden ornaments we girls painted.
Mom is artistic and resourceful and at times volunteers on art day at school to help the art teacher. Once for Valentine’s Day, Mom hand-drew and colored cards for all our class-mates with Goofy, Pluto, Mickey and Minnie on them. She wrote greetings inside bubbles that said: “Be my Valentine” and “You’re the best, Valentine.”
From the sad old chair, Mom untangles the strings of lights and replaces the blown bulbs with working ones. When she finishes wrapping the tree with the lights and hanging the gold garland, she pillages through the box for her favorite ornament to place on the branch, a battery-operated sparrow. She pushes the button and the sparrow chirps loudly and sharply.
Mom crawls under the tree in her rouge one piece longjohn with the sagging flap in the back and spreads the white sparkly tree skirt out before arranging her prized Kincaid village around the base of the tree, and then piecing together the train tracks to put the red and black train on.
Her frizzy ponytail catches in the branch as she backs out from under the tree and she chuckles about the draft her sagging flap provides.
She holds the cord up and plugs in the Kincaid village.
“It’s beautiful,” I say as I press the button on the sparrow and listen to it chirp.
Mom sits up straight and winces. She rubs her kneecap. “One of these days I’m gonna get down here and get stuck.”
We giggle at the sound she makes as Dad helps her up.
“The star…I almost forgot the star.” Mom searches the Christmas box. “I couldah sworn it was in here.”
She looks around to find the star with multi-colored lights and trimmed in gold garland beneath the Christmas stockings tossed on the divan.
The movie Miracle on 34th Street plays on the television, and a cigarette hangs from Mom’s lips as she holds the star and stretches on her tippie-toes to reach the top of the tree.
When the attempt fails, she grunts and stretches again. The cigarette recedes, and the grey ash breaks like shale rock dusting the tree branch in gray soot. Her grunt turns into a chortle and she stretches to the sound of little Susan Walker, saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Mom releases a snicker. Her face turns as red as her longjohns. “Try, try again, my ass. My arms are too damn short just like the rest of me.”
Dad’s thin lips smile. “Hell, I couldah told you that. Give it, before you hurt yourself.”
With a cigarette wedged between Dad’s fingers he places the star on the tree. His face radiates with a smile more priceless than finding a pack of fiddleheads in the freezer. (An excerpt from my memoir coming in 2021).
The word hope in the Hebrew is the word tikvah, which means, cord, measuring line, expectation, and outcome. It is the act of combining multiple strands and coiling those into a single, much stronger cable. It means to gather or collect, but also in the sense of to hope or eagerly await.
There’s a story in the Bible I love about a harlot, named Rahab, who’s house was built upon the town wall. The scripture tells us that Joshua sent two spies into all the country, even Jericho, to spy out the land the LORD had promised. The spies went, and came into Rahab’s house, and lodged there. When the king of Jericho had heard about the spies, he commanded Rahab to turn them over, but she hid them on the rooftop, and told the king that they had left by night and she didn’t know which way they had gone.
After saving them, Rahab asks the spies when they return to save her, and her family. The spies agree, and in Joshua chapter 2 and verse 15, she lets them down by a scarlet cord through the window. Three verses later, the spies tell her that when they come into the land, to bind the line of scarlet thread in the window which she let them down by, and they would save her, and her house, when they return. The first verse calls it a cord, while the second verse calls it a line of scarlet thread. Why is this important? Because hope is the act of combining multiple strands and coiling those hopes into a single, much stronger cable.
Rahab’s scarlet thread was a tikvak. It represented her hope! She had not physically been delivered, but she was eagerly awaiting the day she would be.
That story about a harlot, a cord, and a wall takes me to another story about an angel, a cord, and a wall. This time, the cord is used as a measuring line to measure the walls of Jerusalem. In this story, a second angel appears, and the first angel tells the second angel to run and tell Zechariah that Jerusalem shall be a city without walls.
The measuring line was also a tikvah.
The definition of Jerusalem is “city of peace.” A vast contrast to Jericho, which is “a fenced city.”
Isn’t this what hope is? The expectation that the future will be different. It was hope that caused Rahab to wait in the window with the scarlet cord ready to drop.
Hope is the opposite of despair, which says, tomorrow will be an endless repeat of today.
Paul writes in Romans, “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?”
Hope is the collecting or gathering of multiple strands and coiling those strands into a single, much stronger cable, and also, it is waiting with expectancy. To Rahab, it was the scarlet cord she kept in the window. To Zechariah, it was the vision of an unwalled Jerusalem. To Mom, it was the cord she held up to light the Kincaid village. To Dad it was the pack of fiddleheads in the freezer. To the Jew, it is the tzitzit. To the Christian, it is peace without walls. To humanity, it is the tightly coiled fiddlehead that chisels through the still frozen soil and patches of snow left in the woods to announce winter has passed, and spring has sprung, even when there is still residue from the last season present. To the Church, it is Christ in us the hope of glory.