Mama didn't buy Jell-O. Not even to adorn with a can of fruit cocktail and call it salad. The only time Keith and I got Jell-O was at school, cut into a square and plopped into a perfectly sized compartment on one of those indestructible oblong trays.
I was probably 11 or 12 when I saw the first commercial about Jell-O 1-2-3. I was absolutely mesmerized by the assertion that one could mix the contents of the handy packet with water, put it in the refrigerator in a tall glass (preferably, it would appear, one with a long stem), and come back later to a lovely and delicious parfait, a three-layered delicacy that included “creamy topping, fluffy chiffon and cool, clear gelatin.” I somehow convinced my frugal mother to buy this amazing product and proceeded to create what I was sure would be a food so sophisticated that it would somehow enable me to overcome all the impediments (too tall, too smart, too religious) that stood between me and popularity.
The end result was not as amazing as the marketing. The top layer — which I expected to be a lighter version of the meringue Mama whipped up from egg whites for Sunday’s lemon pie — tasted like much of nothing. It collapsed in my mouth leaving behind the faintest hint of artificial strawberry flavor.
The second layer, “fluffy chiffon” for which I had such high hopes, was OK. It reminded me a lot of pudding except without the richness of pudding and the thick feel of milk and eggs heated and stirred so slowly that the result was neither solid nor liquid, but a simply heavy presence of deliciousness dissolving in your mouth.
And the bottom layer, well, it was just Jell-O.
This is what I am thinking of when I walk out onto the porch in the early morning, look across the field and see the first indication that summer is packing its bags in anticipation of its departure. The sky is layered. Like a Jell-O 1-2-3 parfait.
The clouds are white like cotton batting, like cotton candy, like cotton balls glued to construction paper to look like clouds. They start at the top of the pine trees at the property line, stretching straight up to wherever the top of the sky might be. Underneath the clouds is a layer of fog, dull silver like a tray in need of polishing. It hovers between the treetops and head-height of a good-sized man. And under that is the mist, the damp translucent mist that makes the domed rows of peanut vines glisten in the morning light.
It is hard not to laugh at myself, laugh out loud. Where do these thoughts come from?
It is 7:30 in the morning. I am standing on the porch catching my breath before leaving for work. I am looking at a peanut field shrouded by clouds. An image from nearly 50 years ago jumps to the front of my mind, an image I did not know existed. What does it mean?
I don’t know. Yet.
There is no offering of regrets to memory’s RSVP. It will — without permission or the necessity of a token — transport you faster than any time machine to a moment, a breath, a blink that changed everything. Or didn’t.
It can tickle or scald, bless or scold. It is simultaneously seductive and frightening, luring and repelling, even as you realize that it can be none of those things without your acquiescence. It is, after all, yours.
The Jell-O parfait, sophisticated though it may have been, did not make me popular. Nor particularly sated. What it did do was give me a template to lay over a morning sky some 50 years later, a way to see differently something I see every day, and a realization that what the quantum physicists say is true: past, present and future are all right here, right now. We haven’t lost a thing.