It's been a roller-coaster week what with the success of Lamont's Democratic victory and going over 100,000 registered users, so I thought I would throw in some extra pie tonight.
First up is another sensory-driven memory, this time of my Grandmother's place. You will understand why I call it PEPPERMINTS AND PRUNES when you read it.
The second story is about the unintended aspects of making a simple choice.
You will learn of infamous Canasta games, my grandfather's fine Irish temper, and one of my most cherished childhood tactics and how it backfired on me that day in CONNIE'S CHOICE.
PEPPERMINTS AND PRUNES
It was just a brief whiff of an old lady's perfume that brought it all back in a flash. Memories long forgotten flooded to the surface for a few minutes of wonder and enjoyment. I remembered the peppermints and the prunes.
My grandmother's home was the most intense sensory experience of my childhood. For one very brief year she and my grandfather lived in a neat, cozy apartment in the same complex with us. It was a grandchild's dream to have doting grandparents almost at arms length, but the relationship was not without its oddities. The first five years of my life I barely knew them as they lived on a small farm in another state so I didn't have much in the way of memories of them. I was aware enough to know that my father was not wildly fond of his in-laws. I never heard the story of how they suddenly came to live so close to us and I was well into adulthood before I made the connection that perhaps our abrupt move to another state a year later was somehow related. But I reveled in that year of being close to people who loved me. I tested and probed and consumed that love like the hungry, lonely child that I was.
The memory started on a hot, sun-drenched Oklahoma playground.
Thirsty and tired I walked in my sand-filled shoes to her front door to begin the ritual. First, my low-on-the-door, child-like knock. I would strain my ears to hear her approach from the other side. I could tell what she was wearing from the sound of the cloth and the weight of her footstep. I knew before the door was opened by the sound of her clothes if I was going to be able to stay awhile. If it was a quiet rustle and a soft step, she had on her housedress and slippers - I would be staying for a while.
If there was a scrouping sound and a delicate thud she would be dressed in her black crepe dress with a white lace collar and her Red Cross shoes, the old-fashioned kind - laced-up, heavy-heeled with an intricate design punched-out on the toe. She would be extra fragrant- soap-clean, lightly powdered, a hint of almond-scented Jergens hand cream and a tiny dab of perfume that you had to be real close to smell. Every blued gray-hair would be tightly curled and perfectly in place. Her serious face with its outrageous dimples would be subtly powdered, rouged and lipsticked. She didn't like to kiss and hug when she was so perfectly put together so she would keep me standing outside her door with an explanation of her schedule and a stiff request that I come back at a better time. I would walk away impatient and lonely for my other grandmother. When she opened the door the whole scenario had a different, but set script.
She would have on a crisp housedress and an apron that nearly covered the whole dress. I was always mesmerized by the prints and colors in her dresses and aprons, which fastidious as she was, seldom matched - it was the one contradiction in her very well organized and clean life. After looking me up and down examining all the dirt and debris that I had carried with me from the playground, she would start the conversation by exclaiming how she had just spent the morning cleaning and if she let me in I would just get everything dirty. I would hang my head and stare at the floor and wait her out. Next a reluctant sigh from her. I would counter by twisting my hands behind my back. She would break and demand that I march back outside and dump the sand out of my shoes and shake out my socks and "not on the porch where I just swept mind you, but in the grass." Then I was commanded to redress my feet after checking the bottom of my shoes for mud or worse. I sometimes had my little dog with me and that really added an element of tension to the decision. Invariably she wound up outside with her leash hooked over the doorknob. The only time she ever got to come in was if my grandfather was home. Come to think of it the only time I ever got in the door without the shoe ritual was if he was there because I would barge right past her and go jump in his lap. We would both giggle, as we understood what the look of consternation on her face meant.
He had his rituals with her too. My grandfather had the ability to smoke and entire cigarette with the ash intact. He would sit there in his chair and pretend to forget that he even had one in his hand and out of the corner of his eyes he would watch her fidget until she could no longer bear it and demand that he flick his ash. I once thought it might be easier to get into her good graces if I took over the job of telling him to flick his ash. So I made a game out of it with him. However, I lacked the wisdom to understand just how important the rituals were with her.
On the days when she was "at home" all of her smells were different. She smelled of furniture polish, clean linens, dish soap, and a slight hint of mothballs. The apartment was also a feast for my nose. The gold velvet chair (which I wasn't allowed to sit in because she had the feather pillows puffed up just right) had a rich old smell. Grandfather's chair smelled of unfiltered menthol cigarettes, aftershave and other odors peculiar to old men. In the dinning room you could smell starched linen, gleaming wood and freshly polished silver.
Her bedroom was another delight. Satin-covered down comforters graced twin cherry spool beds clothed in sun-dried linens. Her dressing table that held all of her special private smells was against a wall covered with paper of yellow roses and green ivy. I wasn't allowed to touch anything so I had to make my senses acute and experience the odors by bending over to smell the edges of the various bottles and containers. One round box held her loose face powder, another her dusting powder. Bottles of lotions and scents were all experienced from the edges.
The small den was mostly grandfather's smell - cigarettes and a more than occasional shot of bourbon. One corner was hers and held her wicker rocking chair, the only place that I was allowed to sit on her lap. On the wall behind the chair was and old oak clock with a loud tick and a mellow chime. Her matronly plumpness lent itself to a most delightful lap. As she rocked in time to the clock's ticking, I would lie in her arms feigning sleep, but too happy to really let go of the moment. I could inhale her sweet scents and listen to her steady heartbeat. She would soften just a bit and admit to my grandfather how mush she really did love me. On the wall beside her chair was a set of pictures of my mother at about my age. I could sometimes feel her head turn to look up at those pictures. She seemed to hold her breath for a short moment and then let out a quiet, sad-sounding sigh. On a table beside her chair was a rose-colored glass candy dish that always held cellophane-wrapped peppermints - the object of one half of our ritual.
One of the excuses that I often used to visit her was that I wanted a piece of candy. My grandmother was never one to give something for nothing - the other half of the ritual was her fresh stewed prunes.
After showing up unannounced at her door and going through the shoe thing I would add further insult by requesting candy. She would counter by inquiring about my regularity, which in turn forced me into one of the deepest deceptions of my childhood. I liked the peppermints, but I loved her prunes.
My child mind understood some of her complexities, one of which was thinking she had won when she could get someone to do something they didn't want to do. She would draw herself up to all 4'10" and cross her arms smugly across her ample bosom and smile until both dimples creased her round cheeks. It never mattered what my answer was about my regularity because she wouldn't believe me anyway and just to be sure she would grab my shoulder and march me into the bathroom where she watched me wash my grubby hands with the huge bar of bright red Lifebuoy soap. Then we would proceed to her immaculate kitchen and I would sit down at her green Formica table while she went to the refrigerator to get the large canning jar of stewed prunes that she made once a week. From the cupboard she would pull a small white china dish and place five prunes with lots of juice into the dish. The prunes always made a flower pattern in the dish, one in the center with four petals. She would place the dish in front of me and move to the other side of the table, sit down and watch me like a hawk to make sure I ate every single one. I would always attack the one in the middle first, I guess because I liked to watch the remaining four slide into each other. She would put a second dish on the table for me to discard the pits. I remember trying to be as lady-like as possible for a five-year old as I spit the pits back into the spoon. There never seemed to be much conversation during this time. She might inquire as to how my mother was that morning or ask how hot it was outside. I ate very slowly as once this was done she would start to fidget for something to do. I would finish the last prune and carefully drink the juice from the spoon trying not to slurp. As soon as I was done she would whisk the bowl away and announce that now I could have a peppermint. She would follow me back down the hall into the den and watch as I gently lifted the lid off the candy jar. If I paused and turned to look at her at this point and had performed all the rituals according to her satisfaction she would smile and tell me that I may take two. I would put the peppermints in my pocket to eat later after learning one day that peppermint does not taste very good after prunes. All the rituals completed, I was escorted to the front door. I liked to surprise her with a hug and kiss - she was never quite sure what to do about my attacks of affection. Marching out into the hot Oklahoma sun I assured her that I would come visit her tomorrow.
That year was all too brief for a child. We moved away in the middle of winter to a strange place where we had no connections and no roots. I never saw her again. Within a year my Grandmother had grown sick and died and my sense of loss was lost inside of my mother's overwhelming grief. The bits and pieces of my grandmother's life began arriving and were slowly unpacked. One day I came home from school to see her candy dish sitting on top of the TV. It looked so terribly out of place - just the way I felt. Gradually, it became known to everyone in the family what her candy dish meant to me and when my mother passed away it came to me.
I have always kept peppermints in her dish and shared them and the story with my children, and now that I have grandchildren the ritual is different, but the peppermints will always be the same.
I carefully washed the glass on a very old picture of my mother as a child. I turned it over and read the back, "Our baby, 4 yrs 5 mo." Below in a shakier hand, Connie's Choice."
I remember the day my grandmother wrote my name on the back of that picture, one of many spent in a small den of her apartment watching my mother and grandfather play one of their afternoon cut-throat Canasta games. Acting the oblivious child in a room full of adults came easily to me. I lulled them into the belief that I was too busy in my own world to pay attention to what was said and done. I learned some keen lessons in that room, one of which revolved around the pitfalls of taking risks.
My grandfather sat in his giant easy chair in the corner by the window. A massive carved walnut table with a gray marble top to his right held his ashtray, cigarettes and lighter. On the shelf below was a set of bone dominos in an alligator case. They were my favorite playthings. I would spread them across the rug and build designs, match dots, stack tiles and add the two sides.
All the while my mother and grandfather were either quietly playing or loudly losing their daily Canasta games. My grandmother usually stayed out of the game preferring to sit in her rocking chair and crochet or just watch the proceedings.
One of my jobs was to shuffle the next double deck in a mechanical card shuffler. Another one of my jobs was to crawl all over the floor and pick up the cards when my grandfather lost a round and threw his hand into the air. These were serious games and he did not like to lose, neither did my mother, but she was not allowed to throw her cards. From my side of the room I had watched my mother discard entire sets into the discard pile to lock my grandfather out. I also saw them try to bluff each other by throwing out most of a set then switching to another set to see if the other would take the bait.
Going out was the high point of the game. Both of them always liked to do it with the biggest hand possible risking that the other would not beat them to the punch and leave them holding huge penalty points. These were moments of high drama and grand passions for even though they loved each other dearly, they played cards like mortal enemies. All the while the ancient clock softly ticked the minutes and chimed the hours, which were soundly ignored in favor of one more hand.
When their fun was done I would beg my grandfather to play a hand of animal rummy with me and if he had won more than he had lost he would usually consent. I learned that just because he loved me he wouldn't necessarily let me win. He quickly caught on to my fondness for the raccoons.
One day my grandmother saw me looking at the pictures of my mother on the wall. I was close to the same age as my mother in some of those pictures. It was hard for me to believe my mother was ever that young with such a carefree smile. My grandmother asked me which one was my favorite. I pondered for a while and pointed to the hand-tinted one in the oval gold-colored frame. She took it off the wall and wrote Connie's Choice on the back. Then in a calm, level voice announced that I would be assured of getting that picture when she died.
It occurred to me that that was the first time I ever heard anyone mention death to me, although I vaguely understood the concept. It struck me a quite unbelievable to imagine my grandmother not ever being there for me. Terror filled my heart and I wanted her to remove my name so that awful thing would not happen. But the words were in ink and my throat was sealed by fear.
I lost something precious that day, I had played the oblivious child so well that they were completely unaware of my profound grief.