When I was eleven, my father handed me a book by Ray Bradbury called Dandelion Wine and asked me to read it. These were the days when kids read books and didn’t consider it an affront on their texting time; these were days when if your folks asked you to do something, you did it. Not only was the book about a boy my age, so astonished was I by the prose—the lyrical constructions, the singularity of the imaginings, the sheer magic percolating between the covers—that I determined I would find a way to write like that once I’d banked enough life experience to actually have something to say.
That same summer, I sent Ray Bradbury a childish but heartfelt fan letter, and my sincerity must have been obvious because he took the time to write me back, and with such interest and encouragement that it was obvious that he not only read my note, but thought about it before responding.
Twice a lifetime later, when I was 22, I published a silly novel. In the intervening years I’d read the masters and studied the legends, Thackeray to Tolstoy, and had concluded that to write like that, you needed to be born with as much intellect as heart. Which, evidently, I wasn’t: I’ve read what Charles Dickens wrote when he was twenty-two.
In any case, my book may have been silly, but it was driven by instinct and mood and seasonal sensuality and I knew which author I’d learned that from—and it wasn’t Ayn Rand. So I sent Bradbury a copy of the book, thanking him for stylistic direction and the security that writers can be nostalgic and visionary without paradox, and again, I received a long, handwritten letter promising me that my ridiculous cowboy paperback would occupy a permanent spot on his bookshelf with my note tucked between the pages.
In 2012, Bradbury’s star finally spent its energy, but like the ones that died in the distance before any of us were born, his light will be visible to me for the rest of my life. Thanks, Mr. Bradbury. To me, your death was more than sad—it was monumental.
A year or so after reading Dandelion Wine—and everything else Bradbury that I could get my hands on in the meantime—I set out to… wait for it… make wine from dandelions. I was too young to drink it, of course, but the project seemed wholesome nonetheless. I was fortunate to have parents who understood that the value in creating is not necessarily in the final product, but in the learning trek required to get there, and this wisdom held doubly true considering the first batch was undrinkable even to them, despite the fact—or maybe because of it—that they were wine lovers. So I tried again the next year, and the year after that, and gradually figured out how to make a potable plonk, but one that was extremely prone to oxidization.
I was still making it when I started having kids; the last time, I enlisted my oldest daughter Erica—then four or five years old—to help with the unfathomable drudgery of picking hundreds and hundreds of dandelion flowers. Those were the days that you could force slave labor onto your kids and not worry about the neighbors called Protective Services. As soon as she turned eleven, I turned her on to a copy of Dandelion Wine, which I hope meant as much to her as it did to me.
Anyway, Erica is now thirty-one, the delight of my life, the jewel in my crown, the apple of my pie-eye, and this year (without mentioning it) she made wine from dandelions picked from one of the endless open lots in downtown Detroit. And allowed me to sample it with some trepidation, because I (moi??) tend to be somewhat anal about wine quality.
I am overjoyed to pronounce her first batch the best dandelion wine I have ever tasted, far better than anything I ever cribbed together. Balanced, filled with beautiful citrus notes, but many subtle floral notes like jasmine and apple blossom and a light, but distinct dandelion bite. Somehow, through some strange osmosis, she learned from mistakes made before she was an eye glint; I like to live in the fantasy that this is a way that Ray Bradbury can speak to us softly but distinctly through generations.
A bunch of Haight-Ashbury hippies usurped the catchphrase ‘Summer of Love’ a whole lot of years ago and it’s time to take it back. Because, under the spell of quiet times, simple thoughts, measured wants and the gentle potency of touchable, tasteable, useable literature, they all sort of end up that way.
And of all the life experience I’ve banked since age eleven, that still seems to be the only one worth writing about.