Sunday, February 26, 2006

Strawberry Cordial

by Sharmagne Leland-St. John

I was reading a story that Susan Stallings-Dobson wrote about her sadness during her childhood at finding spiders trapped or marooned in an empty, cold, white porcelain sink. I have always felt akin to Grandmother spider and set her free whenever I have come upon her.

This story takes me whistling back to my own childhood and evokes memories of my own long, brown, slender arms up to the elbows in hot soapy suds as I had the arduous and hated task of washing the dishes. I remember singing "Peg O' My Heart" and "My Wild Irish Rose" on those hot, sultry summer evenings while my sister dried the plates and cups and bowls and sang harmony.

There was nothing more distressing to me than to be trapped, a tiny prisoner, in the enormous kitchen on Olive Drive where we lived in an old converted church, wearing an oversized apron doubled over and tied at the waist, washing or drying dishes when the only place on earth I wanted to be, longed to be, was outside with my best friend Lark Nixon playing "Kick The Can" with the other neighbourhood children in the mounting dusk of a summer evening. Only too soon summer would end and it would be time to return to school. Darkness would fall earlier and I would be too busy with homework to be able to play outside in the autumn evenings.

It was one such evening when I discovered the bottle of strawberry cordial up in the cupboard above the ironing board closet. It was my turn to dry that night. My sister having washed the dishes very quickly and sadistically rinsed them in cold water so they would be harder to dry, was already out in the avocado orchards, behind the house with the other children calling out "Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free" in her high staccato voice. But there I was with a mountain of dishes to dry and put away.

I was feeling increasingly sorry for myself when I climbed up onto a metal kitchen chair to put away a heavy white, green and pink dogwood patterned platter and discovered a little bit of heaven in a brown bottle. I took the bottle down, unscrewed the black plastic cap and smelled it to see if I recognised the scent of the pinky coloured liquid, swirling inside the bottle. It held a sweet familiar scent but I couldn't quite place it, so being a somewhat adventurous child, I took a small sip and like Alice entered a world I had never known nor dreamed of.

It wasn't an unpleasant taste but I still couldn't quite place it. So I took another sip and then another. I knew it was some sort of fruit but what was that other stingy sort of taste? The one that made me feel funny when I inhaled? I couldn't quite put my finger on it, so I put the bottle back up, in what I instinctively knew was its hiding place. I went back to drying the dishes but that sweet sticky taste haunted me as it lingered somewhere around the roof of my mouth. So after a few minutes I climbed on those spindly, scrawny, wobbly legs back up that red and white metal stepping-stool chair and took another tiny sip from that brown slender necked bottle.

I believe it was then that I first invented the "game of rewards," which I still use to this day to get chores done around my house. For every 10 dishes I dried I got to climb up those red metal steps and take a small rewarding sip from the brown bottle with the black plastic screw on cap. Nowadays for every 20 pieces of clothing I put away I get to go on line, or make a phone call, or play a half hour of my favourite video game. But in those days it was strawberry cordial. I began to hate the days when it was my turn to wash the dishes but I would dawdle long enough scouring out the sink with Babbo or Dutch Cleanser, until my sister had hung up her ill fitting apron, and the embroidered linen dish towel that one or the other of us had been forced to painstakingly "sew" the day of the week onto and had gone outside to join the other children in the summer twilight as they played their childish games.

One night I discovered that I had sampled more than half of the bottle and I knew I would get caught so I began to refill the bottle a little at a time with watered down cranberry juice. Boy did that ever taste good! Finally I had the bottle back up to the level it was when I started, so I never was discovered imbibing, but I always wondered what my elderly, widowed Aunt Mary thought when she was offered strawberry cordial and served watered down cranberry juice instead.

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free! Hiccup!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

First Date
(by Sharmagne Leland-St.John)

The summer I turned 17 years old I worked as a carhop at a local drive-in at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. It was called "Johnnie's." I worked there nights and went to school in the daylight hours.

It was a fun job because it gave me plenty of opportunities to practice with the cute guys who came in, flirting skills I would need in later life! I got to work out in the open air and I got to wear roller skates which made me look much taller than my stunted 5'4."

After a while I had accrued what the older carhops and waitresses referred to as "regulars." One of my favourite regulars was a guy called Sonny. Sonny was so hip, slick and cool. He used to pull up in this hot souped up car. It was a metallic blue 57 Chevy with mag wheels, 327 engine, and 4 on the floor. He used to call me "Little Bit" because I was so thin and small. He made me blush just like a little girl.

He'd come in once or twice a week and start flirting and hitting on me to go out with him. I'd joke around with him but I held fast to my rule. I had three rules in life regarding dating. The first was don't date someone who lives in the same apartment building as you because if you break up one of you has to move. The second was don't date customers or coworkers. If you date customers and decide to stop seeing them it could become pretty uncomfortable if they continued to patronize the place where you work. I had seen a girl break up with a guy and after the breakup he'd come in and run her ragged just to get back at her. My third rule was don't date outside your species.

Sonny would wait off to the side in his car sometimes for over an hour just to be served by me. He'd just sit there in his souped up Chevy and wait. It was cute and all the other girls teased me about it. Finally just before summer vacation Sonny was coming in every single night.

I remember one night he asked me what my favourite songs were. I told him I liked "Sherry" by the Four Seasons, and "Telstar," "Al de La," "I Wanna Be Bobby's Girl," "Save The Last Dance For Me," all of The Beach Boys songs, and I named a couple of others. A few nights later Sonny pulled that souped up 57 Chevy into my station with music blaring out the windows. He had bought a 45 rpm battery powered record player and had gone down to Wallach's Music City at Sunset and Vine and purchased every single record I had named.

His next ploy was to bring a single red long stemmed rose to me every night. I would take that rose home every night to add it to the ones from the previous nights that I had placed in a cut crystal vase next to my bed. I'd pluck out the dead ones and freshen the water every couple of days. I always had at least a dozen long stemmed roses in that vase on my bedside table. The scent of roses weaving its way into my dreams. My dreams of slow dancing with Sonny.

With the beginning of vacation I switched my schedule to days. During those crazy dazzling nights I started heading over to Hollywood and frequenting the Sunset Strip with all of it's disco clubs. Gazzari's, The Whisky, Pandora's Box, The Trip, and my favourite P.J's. Sometimes if I had a date I'd go all the way into Beverly Hills to The Daisy which was a private club. It was an exciting summer.

Sonny meanwhile had stopped coming in at night and like a camp follower had begun to stop by for lunch on a daily basis. One day in early August he told me that the following Friday would be his 21st birthday and he wanted to invite me to share it with him. I was so deeply honoured that someone would want to spend such a momentous occasion with me, a little girl from the Valley, that I acquiesced. I broke rule number 2. I agreed to go out on the town with Sonny.

But somehow our signals got crossed. I thought we were going to go out dancing and he thought we were going to go to a movie. When he picked me up for our "big date" he met me at the curb which I knew my father would never have approved of. My dad always insisted that the boy come to the door. Sonny also didn't get out of the car to open the door for me which I didn't approve of.

I considered myself to be a lady and expected to be treated like one. He just sort of reached across and threw the metallic blue door open a bit. I got into the car and Sonny immediately made a comment about my disco outfit. So I said, "Well, we are going to P.J's aren't we?"

"No!" he replied, "I thought we'd catch a movie." I point blank told him that I really would rather go dancing. He point blank refused. Check mate! Well, it was his birthday so I guess it was his right to choose where we would go. The next thing I knew we were at the Van Nuys Drive-in Theater. When I found out that he had intended all along to take me to a drive-in movie I hit the roof of that 57 Chevy with the mag wheels.

In my dating survival guide if you break rule number 2, rule number 2a is don't go to a drive-in on a first date. Finally after heated discussion we agreed to a movie but I insisted on a walk-in. The only walk-in cinema that was playing the movie he wanted to see was at the Pan Pacific way over in Hollywood. Somehow I still had this fantasy that I could entice him to take me to P.J's dancing after the movie.

We started off over the hill snaking our way through Laurel Canyon with its twists and curves and it's fragrant Eucalyptus trees. A usually talkative Sonny had suddenly become deathly quiet. He didn't speak a word during the entire ride. He seemed to be brooding. When we pulled up in front of the theater Sonny suggested that I get out and buy the tickets while he parked the car. He then handed me a crisp ten dollar bill.

Every time I had ever seen Sonny he had never exited his 57 metallic blue chevy with the mag wheels, 327 engine, and 4 on the floor. So you can imagine my utter surprise and shock when, a few minutes later, Sonny came hobbling up to the ticket window on hand crutches and only one leg. His left leg had been amputated just below the knee from an injury he had sustained in Viet Nam. This explained why he didn't want to go dancing but it didn't explain why he stopped coming to Johnnie's or why I never saw or heard from him again.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

My Buddha Garden
(by Sharmagne Leland-St. John)

My mother's porcelain Buddha, clad in pink pyjama bottoms and an open yellow kimono, festooned with Chinese symbols, sits on a glass-topped end table out on my cedar deck, high above the pasture and overlooking the river beyond. The deck has become a garden of sorts, with its four large terra cotta pots, with various herbs planted in them, resting on the backs of strategically placed small red clay lions. Little "feet" to protect the smooth cedar from water damage. The hanging baskets of fuchsia, mint, pansies and other trailing blossoms attract humming birds. I have only had the Buddha since May. I found him out on my brother Jasper's patio, after he died. It was off in a corner behind tangles of Christmas tree lights and wobbly, broken chairs. We packed the porcelain Buddha carefully into a cardboard box, with towels, and placed it into the foot-well on the passenger side of the Land Cruiser. I cautioned everyone to be very careful of the Buddha. "It was my mother's," I told those who had come to help me pack out a dead brother's apartment. A brother who had died of pneumonia, the day before Mother's Day, because his girlfriend was too stupid to call 911. The girlfriend who wears my mother's clothes, even though they were not willed to her. My mother's elegant dresses, and hats, and gloves. My mother's silken lingerie. Her scarves, and shoes, and leather purses. Her perfume. A mother who died too young. A mother who left before I got a chance to know her.

Later, at home, as we unpacked the cars and moving van, Glenn with his round belly, hanging over his brass belt buckle, took one look at the Buddha and loudly announced, "This will look great in my room. I have just the place for it." I couldn't help but mouth the words, "Mini-Me,” as my eyes rolled heavenward. They looked like twins, Glenn and my mother’s Buddha.

When no one was looking, I took my mother's laughing, smiling Buddha, with the children crawling all over him, tickling him, to my studio. I locked the door behind me, climbed a flight of stairs, and took him out to the wooden deck. I placed him in the Southwest corner, below the rail, and watched the sun throw slanted shadows across his face and bare belly. Later, we brought my mother's glass topped dining table and two white wicker chairs up. They seemed, in a feng shui moment, to want to live in that same corner, so the Buddha, with his laughing belly, and red lips, was moved to the Northwest corner of the deck, with his yellow kimono clad back, to the spinney of Alder trees and the singing river beyond.

The next day, when we were arranging my mother's leather furniture, coffee table, and glass cabinets, in the living room, of my house, on the Stillaguamish River, the house my husband and I bought to retire to, the house we bought before we knew he also would die so soon; I found an iron and glass side table in the things we were unpacking, which I spirited away and secretly brought up to my deck. I placed it in the corner and carefully set the Buddha atop the fragile glass. The glass I had cleaned with vinegar and newspapers, the way my mother's mother had taught me, the glass that shone in the late afternoon sun.

I planted all the seeds I had brought with me, here to the Pacific Northwest from my home in Southern California. I sowed them in flats, and pots and Tupperware and anything that would hold the fragrant, crumbles of dark brown planting soil. I even placed a cosmos seed in a spice box full of earth, and set it like some special offering, in front of my mother's happy Buddha. Those red lips seemed to smile even broader.

The rains came, and the tiny seeds began to sprout. The herbs began to bloom and flower, and my deck came to be called "My Buddha Garden." Now, there are small terra cotta flowerpots all along the railings, overflowing with columbines, and cosmos and Canterbury bells, and nasturtiums and geraniums. The bees come to cross pollinate the flowers and the hummingbirds come daily to taste the nectar in a stained glass humming bird feeder, and to watch the porcelain children tickle the laughing, smiling Buddha. The scarlet runner beans grow up the bean pole tipi I erected in the wildflower garden below, they climb up the Alder poles, just to sneak a peek at the dancing eyes of the laughing, smiling, happy porcelain figure on the glass topped table in My Buddha Garden.

I thank my mother for this belated gift and for the joy she always brought me. Then I relax, in her white wicker chair, with the rose chintz cushions, at my glass-topped table, and feel her spirit all around me, as the bees hum and the river sings.

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