Rare and Beautiful

If you like oysters, I’ve got a holiday for you: The 25th of July brings St. James’s Day, and oysters are the traditional meal. Me, I am not an oyster fan, and so I will pass on the oysters tonight, even though legend has it that those who eat oysters for St. James’s Day will never want for money for the rest of the year. I’ll just take my chances, thank you. In Galicia in Spain, where St. James is the patron saint, the evening meal might include scallops, too.

In England, St. James’s Day was in the past a day when apples were blessed by the parish priest, and this interests me more, for I love apples. I am my father’s son, after all, and he, too, was an avid apple eater. The apples on the trees, I imagine, are still quite green, even now as we inch our way toward autumn. And this is happening, of course, even as we melt daily through summer. Autumn is on the horizon.

Back when we were kids, it was always right about now, as July began to give way to August, that an annual warm weather melancholy would set in. School for us here in ended in late May, and there was still a bit of shock to May and the sudden end of school. It didn’t feel much more exciting than a long weekend. June was different: it was all ours. We were free and the days were long. There was the beach and then after there were TV shows and riding bikes with the other neighborhood kids. There were books, too––paperbacks that you could slip into your back pocket; one summer I read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Most of all, there was no homework. When I was really young, when we lived in New York, we could stay up late and we could sleep late, although we never did, because Mom had us at the beach before 8, before the gates opened for the day and before the admission charge went into effect. I watched for dune buggies on the drive to the beach and then I’d eat my breakfast there once we arrived. Usually it was Cheerios in milk in a wide mouth Thermos. And coffee, even for us kids. The coffee, too, would come out of a Thermos, and there is nothing quite like coffee on the beach, early in the morning, with the scent of Bain de Soleil lingering in the salty air.

But it was right about this time, the end of July, that the realization crept in that summer was quickly fading. I know Northern schools start up after Labor Day, but here in South Florida, Labor Day was a school holiday. We’d be back at school by late August. August, we knew, was not ours. It was the month, already, of school supplies and homework and early rising of a not-so-good sort. Early July was as fine as June, but late July was the harbinger of August. By St. James’s Day, we understood that summer was almost done. Our ancestors had a grasp of this, too, for we are coming up soon on another of their major festivals: Lammas, which begins with the evening of July 31, is the first of the harvest festivals. It celebrates bread and John Barleycorn… and it brings with it the subtle transition toward autumn. For with Lammas, we’ll find ourselves midway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox. The wheel of the year shifts again.

But Lammas is days away, and today, it is the Feast of St. James. The oysters for St. James’s Day and the never wanting for money remind me of the story of a couple, right here in Downtown Lake Worth, who were sharing a platter of steamed clams at Dave’s Last Resort & Raw Bar. It was just about Christmas time, some ten years ago, and in one of the clams on their platter, they found a purple pearl. Rare and beautiful… and worth thousands of dollars. Some folks don’t believe half my Lake Worth stories (and I’m not sure I do, either), but this one’s documented as fact. I don’t know what became of them, or their purple pearl, but perhaps pearls, purple or not, were a more common find in clams and oysters in earlier days, making the legend of never wanting for money after eating your St. James’s Day oysters perhaps not so legendary at all. Perhaps it is the stuff of truth and just a matter of fact.


Image: Detail from “Pearl Oyster Fruits” by Anton Seder. Lithograph, 1890 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Wash the Pavements with Incessant Rain

And now this 15th of July comes St. Swithin’s Day. It is a traditional weather marker concerning rain, based on the old story of St. Swithin, the weeping saint. St. Swithin was a 9th century Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester. The source of the weeping comes from after his earthly life, for it was the good bishop’s wish to be buried in the churchyard and not in the chancel of the church, as was the custom for bishops. His wishes were followed when he died, but after his canonization, the monks decided the open churchyard was a rather disgraceful place for a saint to be buried, and so on the 15th of July in 971, they planned to move the relics of St. Swithin indoors to the choir, in a solemn procession. A great downpour began during the procession, though, and continued for forty days. The monks took this is a sign from St. Swithin himself, and so they let him be there in the churchyard, although they did eventually erect a chapel over his grave.

Now, the story goes, that “St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain; St. Swithin’s Day if thou be fair, For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.” There is, as well, an old saying that when it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, the saint is blessing the apples. Here are a few lines from Poor Robin’s Almanack, July 1697:

In this month is St Swithin’s Day;
On which, if that it rain, they say
Full forty days after it will,
Or more or less, some rain distill.
This Swithin was a Saint, I trow,
And Winchester’s Bishop also.
Who in his time did many a feat,
As Popish legends do repeat:
A woman having broke her eggs
By stumbling at another’s legs,
For which she made a wofull cry,
St Swithin chanc’d for to come by,
Who made them all as sound, or more
Than ever that they were before.
But whether this were so or no
‘Tis more than you or I do know:
Better it is to rise betime,
And to make hay while sun doth shine,
Than to believe in tales and lies
Which idle monks and friars devise.

Poor Robin was not a fan of the monks and friars (or the Catholics), to be sure, and obviously valued hard work more than a good story. One last mention of the legend: John Gay, in his poem “Trivia,” gives a few lines to our weeping saint:

How, if on Swithin’s Feast the welkin hours,
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain,
And wash the pavements with incessant rain.

In Britain, the land of Swithin, and here in Lake Worth, too, chances are good this time of year that if it indeed doth rain on St. Swithin’s Day then we will have forty days more of the same. Here it is our rainy season. It does not rain incessantly, but it is pretty consistent this time of year, and most of our summer days include at least a bit of water falling from the sky, typically in the form of early morning coastal showers or afternoon thunderstorms that build over the Everglades and rush toward the coast. We are well aware of our pal Swithin. Weep as you will, good bishop. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry every now and then.


Image: Hochbahnhof Bülowstraße bei Nacht by Ury. Oil on canvas, 1922 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.



Somewhere in the Stars

We are in the midst of summer and a period ruled by stars: Sirius, Altair, and Vega. Sirius, the Dog Star, entered onto the scene a few days ago: by July 3rd, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, began rising with the sun. The sun occupies the same part of the sky as Sirius through the middle of August. It just so happens to be the hottest time of the year while all this is going on… and so we call these hottest days of the year, ruled by Sirius, the Dog Days of Summer.

That’s our story about Sirius in Canis Major. Meanwhile, here is an old story from Japan that relates to our other summer stars, Altair and Vega: It is the story of Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, and Orihime, the beautiful daughter of the Sky King, Tentei. Orihime wove beautiful cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way. Her father loved the cloth she wove, and so she worked very hard to make enough for him so that he would always have plenty of it. But Orihime worked so hard at her weaving that she never had time for anything else. And as much as Tentei loved the cloth Orihime wove, he knew she needed some balance, some time away from her work, and so he arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa.

And so Orihime and Hikoboshi met. They fell in love right then and there. The two soon married, and that was wonderful, but they became so enamored with each other that all else fell by the wayside. Orihime pretty much gave up her work at the loom, and as for Hikoboshi’s cattle, well, they were soon roaming all over Heaven. Tentei grew angrier and angrier over all this, until finally he had enough. He separated the two lovers on either side of the Amanogawa and forbade them to see each other. Orihime despaired over the loss of her husband and pleaded with her father. Moved by his daughter’s tears, Tentei relented. But he allowed the two lovers to meet only once each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And so the story goes each year, and here we are today: the seventh day of the seventh month. It is the Japanese star festival, Tanabata.

As stars, the lovers are Vega and Altair: Vega, the Weaver Star, is Orihime, and Altair, the Cowherd Star, is Hikoboshi, separated always by the Milky Way, except, as legend has it, for this one night each year when they are reunited. Beneath the stars, here on Earth, we honor Orihime and Hikoboshi by writing wishes on strips of paper and tying them to the trees. Bamboo is traditional, and that’s what I tied my wishes to last year, but I would think any tree would do. Heaven and the stars, I am sure, grant us a bit of leeway in these matters.

Two or three of my wishes from last year remain still on the bamboo outside our back door. The ink is long faded. I know I wished for protection, and for good health for us all, and especially for my father. His health gradually faded over the seven months that followed, until his death in February. But I am grateful he did not suffer terribly, and so perhaps that was the best manifestation of my wishes for good health and protection. Will I write some wishes on paper and tie them to the bamboo this year? Probably, though it most likely won’t be until after dark. There are no rules about that, either, and if there are, well, again: Heaven and the stars surely can be flexible with us mortals.

Perhaps it is all these thoughts of stars, but there is a song that popped into my head last night, a song I’ve not thought of in years. In 1982, when my grandpa Arturo died, Rosanne Cash released a record called “Somewhere in the Stars.” I know the title track is a sappy love song, but even so, I was able to reinterpret it for my own situation. It meant a lot to me then when I was missing Grandpa, and it suddenly means a lot to me tonight, too, missing him again, and my dad, and everyone else who is somewhere other than where I’d like them to be (like right here in front of me). If it’s a little sappy, so be it. I’m a little sappy sometimes, too, and there are nights when we need stories about dog stars and star-crossed lovers and reminders of all the ones we love.



Top Image: A very particular Somewhere in the Stars. This is a Hubble Telescope wide field image showing the “Summer Triangle,” a giant triangle in the sky composed of three bright summer stars: Vega (top left), Altair (lower middle), and Deneb (far left). Can you make out the triangle? [Public domain] via NASA, 2009.



Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: