The August summer heat would not relent as she defiantly arched her elderly frame to rise from the cracking concrete stoop in this ignored part of the city.
I walked up the block with a crumpled dollar bill for the ice – without the syrup. Sweat scattered from my hairline. My face and neck burned scarlet.
The makeshift plastic table was wobbly-arranged for quick sales anticipated from the two buses of people who visited for a mere afternoon, scheduled in to clean up the neighborhood through a service agency. All in the name of peace and solidarity.
A battered aluminum urn, dented from years of use, held ice that would shave pieces into a forbidden Styrofoam cup – a cheap fix. A neat row of glass bottles with plastic pumps each waited with their blaring color of sugar syrup attentively for its snow-cone debut – chartreuse mint, tangerine orange, bright violet grape – nothing known to Nature. My only wish was the frosty shavings to melt my dusty, gritty throat.
She rose from the stoop as I smiled deeply breathing in front of a torn plastic umbrella, offering some shade. Her cocoa-colored skin clenched hard onto muscles whose strength was all but gone from years of sacrifice. Her knotted, ebony hands buckled from years of toil…fields, factories, mills? I couldn’t imagine. This heat would not stop her today. Nope. No way.
“Just ice please.” I handed her the dollar bill.
She pulled the black plastic lever to shave the ice into slivers of cool relief. Gently she extended her arm giving me a cup filled with ice shavings and started to count out change – one worn quarter, one dime and three nickels. Her hand trembled as she counted and then my eyes rested on her wedding ring encircling the on her left hand.
The simple band was of thin gold, but the worn beveled edges reflected the mysteries of a previous life filled with more joy than today brought. The pattern of the bevel was exactly the same as the wedding ring belonging to my grandfather which I wore in the middle of my right hand. I had asked for it and wore it every day without fail since his death. Nonu’s hands were the worker’s hands of a turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant – massive, skilled and unfaltering. They could crush rock, melt brass or graft five different apples on to one tree for autumn pies Noni would make each year.
I reached for her left hand with my right so she would see my ring as I touched hers. She slowly lifted her eyes to meet mine. Her heavy blink under sagging eyelids gave way to a weakened smile as time and space held us united in some unexpected enigma made for this day.
“No change”, I said, “and God bless.”
After 9, before 10pm….cars rev their engines as they drive down the block, zooming by catapulted by some strange energy on a Sunday evening when most are usually winding down the weekend before Monday’s workday morning. Blood Moon Eclipse begins. An historic weekend ends. My prayers are stronger, more convincing and I feel I am witnessing part of a call like never before.
Lunch with a former student who just came back from Greece. I didn’t vacation this summer, so her stories of sun-drenched beaches, hot white sands and cool Greek personalities, drifting with the politics of the EU tingle my memories of when I lived in a very different Europe.
She offers me a bright red gift bag with a big smile before our sesame bread with tzatziki, Greek salad and Greek pizza in a Mediterranean restaurant whose decor of stucco walls and music of the tzouras and outi help me feel the warmth I miss in this too-harried world.
My afternoon is caressed by her young, energetic smile and kind words of encouragement. Meal dissipates like dreams into the Long Island humidity as we exit the restaurant and embrace with words of “see-you-soon.” I open the bag as I wrestle into my sweltering car and find a small bottle of genuine ouzo…the non-imported kind to quench a thirst for culture and a little magnet in the shape of a sailboat to bring my dreams back to me from the Aegean Sea. Efcharistó!
I slid in the hard plastic-padded chair ready for my pre-school hair-do. It’s been a summer of contemplation like no other full of finishing touches on a teaching life of 17 years, looking at 20 which systematically beats daily with a rhythm that leave many questioning, especially me.
“The usual? Cut, shaping, coloring,” smiled my hairdresser with a down-to-earth readiness I’ve grown to trust over the years. “I’m not sure,” I replied with a sigh. My mind ticked. I’m not sure about a lot of things. Not sure if I’m making a difference, not sure about insisting on games that are supposed to convince that learning is really taking place, but most of all, not sure if my maternal and grandmaternal instincts have a place in today’s world of “If You Got It Flaunt It” and “Just Do It”.
I watched a younger woman in the salon, fussing and flipping her hair, tossing her head from side to side and glancing out of the corner of each eye to get the best glimpse of her new “do”, smiling in the wall-to-wall mirror as if she were flirting with a sexy prospective beau. She was delightedly absorbed in her look, her new-found beauty…it was indeed all her.
“My hair goes whichever way it wants,” I grimaced, “especially in this weather.” The roller-coaster heat tightens ringlets at the nape of the neck while cowlicks and waves appear in a cut that is supposed to be straight and sleek. Go figure! Then I heard myself say, “No color. Is there a cut that can just let my hair go where it wants to?”
“Well, we can do layer and scrunch,” my hairdresser suggested pulling up several strands of hair. “The length is weighing it down.” I certainly understand being weighed down. ” Cut it to just shoulder – layered,” I ordered. For the first time in my life remembered, I had no attachment to the long length of hair I had preferred for a lifetime. I felt no grimace, fear or embarrassment in releasing inches of protective security fall on the grey linoleum floor. The shampoo girl arrived just as quickly to sweep bunches of highlighted growth into the refuse piles. My hair now revealed that mousy shade of light brown with wherever-it-pleases grey and remnants of blonde in random waves that looked like spring high tides on Jones Beach.
My hairdresser blew-dried and scrunched the layers of hair with her customary ease. I watched as the new-do waved into its own pattern and direction. Not bad, I thought. My skin paled even more so under the harsh lighting of the salon, but none of it mattered for the first time. It was me. And me is just fine.
It was a weekend of looking back into a past I had lived with others – bittersweet, remote yet familiar. Another life passed in time in which random molecules of myself still reside. As I drive South on Sunday, this time the traffic flows freely compared with the double-time it took to return to my past on Friday. The lesson? Live Life in our present in our gratitude for all that It offers. Emerge from the shadows of our past with Life in the present and Love as Much as We Can Forever. Thank you Mary.