The first thing I remember about our old home in a small suburb of St. Louis is the back yard. My world began at the front yard, neat rectangles of grass framing the walk up to the front door which I don't ever remember using, with the driveway at one side sweeping around to the garage and the kitchen and the enclosed porch at the back. A crab-apple tree hung over the driveway, smothered in white blossoms in springtime, dropping little fruits in autumn. I would jump up and down on the fallen crab-apples, experiencing a profound thrill with each splat. Behind the house was a long sweep of lawn that ran all the way to a row of evergreen shrubs that marked the edge of our property, and my life was contained in that space between that far edge of our grounds (about an acre) and the street out front. In the back yard there was an herb garden, a round space bordered by a low wire fence meant to keep out the rabbits.
What I remember most about that herb garden is the towering (to my three-year-old eyes) stalks of dill, sprouting like pale-green fairy umbrellas, a forest of feathery fronds, with their cool scent. Now I buy it packed in plastic boxes at the supermarket, broil salmon with a crust of finely chopped dill and parsley, gently seasoned with salt and pepper and lemon juice, or toss a handful of fresh dill into egg salad for sandwiches. The smell takes me back to that backyard, to the feel of sun-warmed stems in my hand. If I close my eyes I can imagine being very small and lying on my back on the grass, looking up at the frothing herbs waving above my head.
Another city, another back yard, and the rosemary bush is rapidly choking out all the other herbs around it. I touch the dark needles lightly with my hand as I walk past, and the scent lingers on my hand like a memory. (There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, says Ophelia, in Hamlet). If the dog brushes against the leaves the fragrance clings to her fur for hours. When the flowers bloom, tiny and pale blue against the deep green leaves, I cut sprigs of the blossoming herb and place them in glass jars on the windowsill. Every night I take my dog for a walk and in the darkness the smells of the garden rise from the earth like a cloud. (I miss that time). When I roast a chicken I slip some of the rosemary under the skin, into the cavity of the bird, so that the herb will infuse everything with its flavor.
And then there is rosemary with lamb, one of my favorite things, the resinous intensity of the herb against the gaminess of the meat. For dinner tonight I mixed the finely chopped rosemary with some lemon juice and mustard and salt and pepper, spread it over the rack of lamb, let it rest overnight. Roasted it quickly in a hot oven until the fat crisped around the edges. It is everything I wanted it to be, and more, which is what happens when you make something you know will work. As we eat the fragrant lamb with steamed broccoli and toast made from the remains of a loaf of bread I bought during the weekend, I am in the garden again, a caress of the prickly rosemary bush leaving me with the memory of its scent.