The Dry Mountain Air


Our Grandma Dahling arrived from the train station
In a limousine: an old Lincoln touring car
With immense, black, shiny, rounded fenders
And a silver ornament of Nike on the hood.
She wore a long black coat and pearl-gray gloves.
White hair, very soft white, and carefully curled.
Also rimless glasses with thin gold frames.
Once in the house, having presented ourselves
To be hugged completely, the important thing
Was to watch her take off her large, black,
Squarish, thatched, and feathered confection of a hat.
She raised both hands above her head, elbows akimbo,
Lifting the black scrim of a veil in the process,
Removed a pin from either side, and lifted it,
Gingerly, straight up, as if it were a saucer of water
That I must not spill, and then she set it down,
Carefully, solicitously even, as if it were a nest
Of fledgling birds (which it somewhat resembled),
And then there arrived, after she had looked at the hat
For a moment to see that it wasn't going to move,
The important thing. Well, she would say, well, now,
In a musical German-inflected English, touching together
Her two soft, white, ungloved hands from which emanated
The slightly spiced, floral scent of some hand lotion
That made the hands of great-grandmothers singularly soft,
And regard us, and shake her head just a little, but for a while,
To express her wonder at our palpable bodies before her,
And then turn to her suitcase on the sea chest in the hall,
Not having been transferred yet to her bedroom by my father
Who had hauled it up the long, precipitous front stairs;
She flipped open the brass clasps and the shield-shaped lock
She had not locked and opened the case to a lavender interior
From which rose the scent of chocolate, mingled faintly
With the smell of anise from the Christmas cookies
That she always baked. But first were the paper mats
From the dining car of the California Zephyr, adorned
With soft pastel images of what you might see
From the Vista Car: Grand Canyon, Mount Shasta,
A slightly wrinkled Bridal Veil Falls, and, serene, contemplative
Almost, a view of Lake Louise, intimate to me because,
Although it was Canadian, it bore my mother's name.
My brother and I each got two views. He, being the eldest,
Always took Grand Canyon, which I found obscurely terrifying
And so being second was always a relief. I took Lake Louise
And he took Half Dome and the waterfall, and she looked surprised
That we were down to one and handed me the brooding angel,
Shasta. And then from under layers of shimmery print dresses,
She produced, as if relieved that it wasn't lost, the largest chocolate bar
That either of us had ever seen. Wrapped in dignified brown paper,
On which ceremonial, silvery capital letters must have announced–
I couldn't read–the sort of thing it was. These were the war years.
Chocolate was rationed. The winey, dark scent rose like manna
In the air and filled the room. My brother, four years older,
Says this never happened. Not once. She never visited the house
On Jackson Street with its sea air and the sound of foghorns
At the Gate. I thought it might help to write it down here
That the truth of things might be easier to come to
On a quiet evening in the clear, dry, mountain air.


Robert Hass, The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, Ecco Press, 2010.