Pentimento


          Shortly after Clare and I moved into our first house in Soddy-Daisy, TN, we began an extensive project to clean-up the yard of our rural home. We became so distressed at the number of ticks we found clinging to our bodies, that we called the county extension agent and asked for his help. Apparently it was a slow day, because he promptly came over and surveyed our yard. He announced that because it had been such a mild winter, many more tick larva than usual had survived and the problem we were experiencing was being repeated throughout the county.


          The county agent recommended that we purchase some Malathion poison and spray around our house in gradually increasing circles. Fortified by the untested optimism of a first-time home-owner, I marched off to the local hardware store and confidently purchased both a bottle of Malathion and a sprayer. I read the mixing instruction on the side of the bottle carefully and completely. But when I opened the bottle and actually began the mixing process, my confidence melted away like frost on a sunny spring morning. With each step of the mixing process, a dread from the pit of my stomach grew and grew. By the time I had finished mixing the Malathion and pouring it into the sprayer, I was so sure that I had committed some critical and catastrophic error that I re-read the instructions and mentally retraced my actions at least three times. From the deepest recesses of my mind, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.


          Finally, sitting in the cool darkness of my garage with the full sprayer sitting between my knees, a memory finally came flooding back and exposed the cause of my unease. The smell of the Malathion had triggered a long buried warning, but had only belatedly brought forth the accompanying memory. When I was a young boy of perhaps four or five, my grandfather, R. L. Cox, was an unadulterated and unblemished source of pleasure and joy. But one day my sister Mary and I finally placed him in a situation where he had to make an impression on us. In a small room adjoining his garage, my grandfather stored all the fertilizers, seeds, and poisons he used in his garden. There were poisons in that shed that would kill a young child before he had taken a dozen steps. That shed was forbidden territory and I had been repeatedly told to stay out. But despite the warnings, one afternoon my grandfather caught my sister and me playing there.


          The anger in my grandfather’s face was something that I had never seen before and never wanted to see again. My grandfather knew the peril we had both been in and also knew that unless he made an indelible impact on us, our lives would be in danger. He sat us down on a bench next to the poison shed. With the air thick with the overpowering smell of Malathion, he reached into the shed and pulled out the long, thick paddle he used mix his garden chemicals. Clearly, plainly, and directly, he explained in vivid detail what he was going to do with that paddle if he ever caught either of us in that shed again.


          I was terrified -- by my grandfather’s verbal message, by the expression on his face, and by the nonverbal impact of a stern scolding from someone who had never before even spoken a cross word to me. I don’t think I ever went into the poison shed unaccompanied again. Even when I helped my grandfather in the garden, I would linger outside the shed while he mixed up what ever fertilizer or poison he was using.


          On that spring day in Soddy-Daisy twenty-five years later, the smell of Malathion had triggered my grandfather’s warning and it in turn had stopped me cold and paralyzed me into inaction. But once armed with the full details of the memory, I was able to distinguish my present situation from the childhood warning. This done, I proceeded to spray around my house, working farther and farther out each day. And true to the county agent’s predictions, our tick problem was solved in less than two weeks.


          But each time I opened the bottle of Malathion and that smell hit me, the knot in my stomach reappeared and I had to take a few moments to calm myself and go through the complete memory to assure my unconscious that all was well. While this was a stern memory, it was also a useful one. The care and caution I employed with the Malathion were probably justified given my inexperience with poisons. Further, this one memory was accompanied by hundreds of other equally useful, but wonderful and inspiring memories from my grandfather.

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