I appreciate your writing about persimmons. My mother made the best persimmon cookies, and before she died she copied her favorite recipes onto index cards and gave them to members of our family. Her persimmon cookie recipe was one of those.—adapted from the response Sharolyn Overton Herring made to the persimmon posting on “If you grow up in Terre Haute you remember…”
I grew up with Sharolyn Overton—although I didn’t know it at the time. She’s a year younger than I am, and we both lived as children and adolescents in the same hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. We never met each other until one day last October, but before I describe our meeting, let’s step back two months.
It was early in August when I learned about a new “community” that exists on the internet involving people with a common connection to Terre Haute. Individuals who join this website can post questions or comments about the city and what it was like for them to grow up there. Others among the almost 6800 members of the site can then offer responses.
At the time, I had just published a new essay about my childhood memories of encountering persimmon trees growing wild in my southern Indiana homeland, and of my fondness for a kind of pudding that is made from the persimmon fruit. I then posted a comment on “If you grow up in Terre Haute you remember…” calling attention to my essay and inviting others to offer their own recollections of persimmon trees and foods. The responses to my post were mostly pragmatic, such as folks offering suggestions about where to find good persimmon trees around Terre Haute and when to gather fruit. However, one comment was very different from the others, and it served as my initial introduction to Sharolyn Overton. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
Sharolyn simply recalled that her mother had made delicious cookies out of persimmon fruit. I hadn’t been aware of such cookies before so it piqued my interest. However, she didn’t stop there. Sharolyn explained that her mother had died of cancer ten years earlier, but that before she passed she had hand-written a number of copies of her favorite recipes onto index cards and given them to members of her family. One of the recipes in that collection was for her persimmon cookies.
I was touched by Sharolyn’s response to my persimmon query. It showed a sensitivity that was different than the other comments, and suggested that we were similarly connected to our family stories. I had a strong sense that I should try to contact this Sharolyn Overton, whoever she was, and explore other ways that our interests might overlap.
Through a networking feature associated with the Terre Haute site, I was able to send an e-mail note to Sharolyn introducing myself and thanking her for the contribution she had offered to my persimmon post. I gave some additional background about myself and my writing, about my connections to Indiana and to Terre Haute, and I also invited her to consider communicating further. Somewhat to my surprise, she responded favorably:
Steve, I’m honored to be your Facebook Friend, and pleased to meet a fellow writer. I’m a writer, artist, and marketing/public relations consultant and web content writer…I look forward to getting to know you and reading more of your writing…I think your writing and background will be inspirational to me, and hopefully vice versa. Perhaps it’s synchronicity that we met via persimmons!
Writer meets writer…and the synchronicity of persimmons. “How can I go wrong?” I thought to myself after reading Sharolyn’s note. “I guess this connection was meant to be.” She subsequently read my persimmons essay, as well as a number of others on my writings website. Then she wrote to me again:
I’m thrilled to meet someone who shares my passion for plants! You may change your mind as I start ‘picking your brain.’ For years I’ve been collecting various seeds, pods, burrs and other plant parts that capture my eye so that I can use them in my gourd art (I grow my own gourds and create art from them.) I have no idea what most of them are!
Sharolyn’s note about creating art from gourds brought back many childhood memories. In southern Indiana during the 1950s, gourds were often grown in gardens to be used for everything from birdhouses to bowls to drinking ladles. I also remember neighbors and relatives dripping colorful paints over gourds, letting them dry and then stringing the gourds together in clusters and hanging them as decorations on their porches. I’ve learned that gourds grow almost everywhere in the world and that almost every culture has found uses for them.
Through subsequent correspondences, Sharolyn and I explored our respective histories with Terre Haute and found we shared several friends in common. We also learned of our mutual affinity for the city’s principal park, Deming Park, which was a place where I formed many childhood memories. My favorite Aunt Matilda took me there to feed the ducks almost every time she was in town, plus the large hill near the park’s entrance was the only place I ever went sledding as a boy. Deming Park was also the place where a photographer for The American Magazine staged a mock scene of my father and me fishing together to embellish a 1951 article about our family as “the typical American family.” That photo always brings me a smile.
With respect to her own connectedness to Deming Park, Sharolyn shared in a note:
I just discovered last week that the pods I’ve been picking up over the last three years during my daily walks in Deming Park are from the Kentucky Coffee Tree.
I hadn’t thought about Kentucky Coffee Trees for years. They are native to southern Indiana, although I don’t remember ever seeing any in the forests on my Grandmother Christine’s farm where I learned most of what I knew about trees as a boy. I looked up the Kentucky Coffee Tree in the 1905 nature book that my grandmother and I often referenced whenever we wanted to learn more about trees we encountered on our outings together. It states that, despite the species’ wide geographical distribution, it is “one of the rarest of American forest trees.” It also notes that pioneer settlers in Kentucky and other areas of the Midwest made a hot drink from the seeds, which substituted at that time for unavailable and expensive true coffee, which is how these trees got their name. I learned that a Kentucky Coffee Tree’s pods can be five to ten inches long and up to two inches wide, which makes them ideal as a material for Sharolyn to use in her natural artistic creations.
Sharolyn’s and my improbable friendship continued to grow during the subsequent two months through our e-mail exchanges. Most of the notes I received from her contained some kind of information or lore about shared interests in nature and place. After my wife, Mary Ann, and I decided to take a trip to Indiana in early October, I wrote Sharolyn and suggested we might route ourselves through Terre Haute to meet her in person. She welcomed that idea. As the time for our visit to Indiana drew nearer, Sharolyn informed me that she was preparing several pieces of art for a fall show at a local gallery in downtown Terre Haute. I expressed interest in seeing that show, so we agreed to initially meet at the gallery.
It’s always an interesting experience for me to return to Terre Haute. I honestly can say that my first 18 years of life in that city were not my finest. In most ways during that time, I simply felt out-of-place. My parents moved away from Terre Haute after I graduated from high school, and I seldom returned again for the next twenty-five years. I finally came back for my 25th-anniversary high school reunion; that was a good experience for me. I’ve returned regularly ever since. I know few people there anymore, so my emerging friendship with Sharolyn was a welcome development and helped me to more favorably anticipate the coming visit to my old hometown.
Mary Ann and I arrived in Terre Haute a bit before we were scheduled to meet Sharolyn at the gallery. We took our time driving through the north side of the city, and passed through the area where my parents once lived near the hospital in which I was born. We passed the gymnasium where basketball teams of my high school played their games; that is a site of some good memories for me from that time of my life. We then drove into the downtown area, which is greatly changed from when I lived in Terre Haute, and we located the art gallery on the street level of one of the few remaining buildings I remembered.
Sharolyn was already there. As we greeted her, I felt I was meeting someone whom I already knew well even though we had never met. There was a comfort and authenticity in her manner that immediately appealed to me. It’s interesting to ponder whether the people with whom we have strong friendships today would have also been good friends had we know them when we were 10 or 15 years old? For me, I think most would have been, and I especially do with Sharolyn. I was interested in art and botany then, of course, and I expect she was as well. We would have shared then those same touchstones for forming a friendship that are present now.
After we talked for a short while in the gallery, Sharolyn showed us the pieces of art she had displayed in the gallery. I was impressed. Sharolyn is an accomplished painter. She uses a technique known as “pointillism,” which is an approach whereby the picture emerges from an array of distinct bright-colored dots of varying sizes. It is best known as the style of art used by certain Impressionist painters such as Georges Seurat during the 1880s. Interestingly, the name pointillism originally was used by critics whose intent was to disparage the art form. It’s a remarkable approach since the artist relies on a viewer’s eyes and mind to merge the colors into a blended whole. True to form, Sharolyn is one of only a few artists who still follow this school of artistic expression today. It is a precise, tedious technique requiring considerable skill.
After Mary Ann and I had viewed Sharolyn’s paintings hung in the gallery, she took out two additional paintings that were not part of the display. One of those portrays a solitary figure walking towards what appears to be a rising or setting sun and a distant body of water. The colors are brilliant. Taken by this painting, I was about to offer a positive comment when Sharolyn said, “Steve, I would like for you to have this painting as a gift.” I was stunned. I offered a feeble response: “Sharolyn, it’s beautiful…but I hardly know you. Are you sure you want to give it to me?” She assured me that she did, and that since she had gotten to know me and my love of nature through our correspondences, it had become clear to her that I should have this picture. I accepted her amazing gift and thanked her.
In all, Mary Ann and I spent about eight hours together with Sharolyn during our time in Terre Haute. We discovered other areas of common interest, and we even went together to Deming Park to look at her Kentucky Coffee Tree there. We didn’t see any gourd art during the visit, but that will come. As Mary Ann and I bid farewell to Sharolyn at the conclusion of our time in Terre Haute, I felt a gratitude for her that was palpable. I recognized her as a “kindred spirit”—and was thankful that our unlikely journey of friendship had only just begun.
There is a place you can go
where you are quiet,
a place of water and the light…
Trees are there,
leaves, and the light…
After leaving Terre Haute and continuing our trip, I sometimes took my painting from Sharolyn out of its carton and looked at it more closely. This continued even after we returned home and I had displayed the picture in a place where it could be easily seen. Whenever I view this picture, I still feel a strong sense of gratitude and peace. The painting comes to me in some ways that are larger than life, perhaps because I now realize even more the amazing path that has led to its being with me.
I’ve resisted trying to interpret much meaning and symbolism in the painting for now, although that will eventually come. I’ve mostly been content to live with its vitality of colors and intriguing principal elements—hills, trees, flowers, a place of water, and light. I am, of course, drawn to the figure walking through what is perhaps a flower-strewn meadow towards the sun and horizon. I have a hunch that, figuratively, that person is me.
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy… (from “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
The title of Sharolyn’s painting was taken from lyrics to a song by a popular 1970s folk-rock group. I’ve appreciated that song over the years, although its words, like Sharolyn’s painting, are still an enigma for me. I certainly wouldn’t say that everything in my life is easy, and I doubt Sharolyn would either. However, I’m at a point where accepting unknowns and mystery is easier for me and more appreciated than it might have been earlier. There’s a familiar quotation from writer Rainer Maria Rilke to which I have been drawn in recent years:
Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Sharolyn’s painting expresses this process—this passage—for me.
On the wings of hope and angels,
In the sounds of solitude
I’ve circled ever closer to the heart of something true…
–Carrie Newcomer from “Toward the Horizon” (2004)
All in my life is moving, it seems, towards what songwriter Carrie Newcomer has expressed as “the heart of something true.” I always appreciated and sought out the “sounds of solitude” even as a boy. I spent hours alone in natural places as I knew them then, and I still like to experience such times and places now. As a young adult, I began doing what I call “on the loose” retreats where I go away alone for the purpose of, as I see it, drawing nearer to the heart of truth. I also hike most days to a small nature preserve near my home where I can be alone with the native plants and animals that live there—river birches, bur oaks, cottonwoods, big bluestem, coneflower, owls, hawks and even an occasional eagle. When I am there, it is often the light and shadow of the place that impress me most, and I’m especially attracted to the interfaces where these two aspects come together. These lines of demarcation remind me that, as author Gunilla Norris describes it, life is “a continuous series of thresholds”—a series of concludings and beginnings. Sharolyn’s painting seems to embody this reality for me.
Life used to be so hard…but now I’m on the threshold.
And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which even I may step
forth from my self and be free.
–Wendell Berry from “Sabbaths 2000 (V)”
Let me cross into the present moment–
into wonder, into Your grace:
…where we all are,
unfolding as Your life moment by moment.
Let me live on the threshold as threshold.
–Gunilla Norris from Being Home
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.