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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Rose and Briar

Updated: Jul 23, 2022


The Soldier and the Girl and the Briar Rose 1/20/2019

Two wooden cookie presses, each about the size of a deck of cards, have just been joined by a third, smaller one, on my kitchen window sill, the domestic shrine at which one contemplates, while doing the dishes, the view of the field and woods. There are several totemic items on the window sill: a rattlesnake rattle in a homemade copper box, a tiny tin cookie cutter of an animal, a mole I think. There's a golden glass banana slug, a small blue and white ceramic bud vase, and the cookie presses.

I got them from my mother but not as gifts, more as things she was abandoning and cleaning out of her own kitchen. They are a couple: a soldier playing a drum, and a girl with long curly hair jumping rope. Delicately carved with a very small chisel, they have the look of a previous century, of an old style of decoration, German perhaps. I never use them to make cookies, although I remember my mother making some out of a sort of tough floury dough and hanging them on the Christmas tree one year, back in the 1960's when we lived in Brooklyn.

The only time they have been used while I've owned them was in a short lived money making scheme indulged in by my partner and myself when we lived hand to mouth and he was trying to find options other than the grueling physical work of carpentry while I was having children right and left and was ill equipped to join the paid work force.

We lived in an area well known for clay soils and hence for ceramics. We were in our artisanal phase at the time, decades before the current iteration of that periodic societal trend. We gathered clay, refined it and worked it and decorated cookie sized slabs of clay with the cookie molds, and then fired them somehow in a makeshift kiln. They turned a satisfying brick red and were fitted with strings so they could be hung on the wall, and we made a couple of dozen.

The idea was to sell them to gift stores and craft stores, and my partner set off one wintry day, with our toddler along to aid in the sales pitch, to see if he could hawk them anywhere. Hours passed and they did not return or call, and my catastrophic thinking kicked into gear with wild imaginings of all sorts of terrible things happening to them while I languished at home, powerless to help or even, pre cell phone, to know where they were. A snowstorm had developed and the roads were getting bad. In the evening I even, pathetically, called the local state troopers to see if there had been any accidents reported. The officer reassured me. He was sure that my family was fine.

They were; they got home eventually, not too late in the evening. They hadn't sold many clay ornaments but had spent a day on the road and out of the grip of cabin fever, unlike me. I had played the classic role of the helpless woman waiting.

We soon abandoned the project and just gave everyone clay ornaments for Christmas that year. Dave returned to his labors. The cookie molds stayed in the kitchen, where they remained even through a purge of all of my possessions which occurred when our relationship split apart, and most of my things were boxed up unceremoniously and put out on the front porch for me to collect. I'm back in this kitchen now and the drummer boy and skip-roping girl are still here. Their wood is dark and stained now but if you look closely the rather blank, innocent features of the young couple can be seen, serene and oblivious to the changes in the territories and boundaries of histories large and small.

The new cookie press, a recent gift brought back from Vienna, is of a small blooming rose, now resting atop the 19th century couple. It doesn't appear to have any thorns on it, but it reminds me of the centuries old ballad of Barbry Allen, a tragic story of love unreturned, love offered, refused, regretted. In the end both lovers die and a rose and briar grow out of their graves [the song does not always specify which grows out of whose] and twine together. I've sung the song, not often, but Pete Seeger thought my voice well suited to singing it in the Appalachian style and recorded me singing just a phrase or two on the tutorial recording for his autobiographical book "Where Have All the Flowers Gone". Another song in that book is the adapted version of the Christmas carol "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming", renamed "Of Time and Rivers Flowing". Flowers, rivers, thorns, time. Humming tunes, I contemplate these matters, doing dishes and looking out the kitchen window.

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