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.”
Last summer, I planted one Lemon Verbena in a hopeful butterfly garden without design along with three rose bushes. Of the three rose bushes, one had totally died and only one is still left without blight. This summer that one rose bush produces now for the second time copious, colorful blooms. The verbena, without any intervention from my questionable green thumbs, have multiplied into an army of purple buds, attracting butterflies and bees. Our wishes often arrive, not as we may have projected, but with work and desire, rewards can be just as satisfying.
The assignment was focus on a family tradition connected with the holidays, with something that your mother or grandmother or family member brings to the table to share during celebrations. From all ethnicities, from our past come offerings of goodness with genuine ingredients from which sweet and savory memories are made. In evoking greats like Proust, an attempt was made to connect something from heritage to the smiles, peace and goodness that are produced around human relationships. Bring that tradition in the form of a recipe with your investigative story to class and share. The results were amazing stories of grandmothers, European and Latin traditions, the present gift of memory-making shared in the experiences of real day-dreaming with classmates and treats. The lesson was deliciously profound with students bringing away much more than just satisfied tastebuds on a Friday in December!
I met a gentle man at the U.N. Conference on August 28th who made me cry. This excerpt from his blog and his book confirm that his journey can be no less painful than any others…especially those who sustain all the hate in the world…and efforts of peace as futile..
“At the age of eight, I buried my Father, Mother and four other family members. As a war orphan, I searched garbage cans to survive in Japan’s family-centric society. I was a reminder that Japan lost the War, and I grew up in an atmosphere of contempt, shame and guilt, fighting an icy society that shunned me, a fatherless child. A proud Number One Son of a samurai family, I vowed to avenge the death of my Father and I came to America to fulfill that vow.”
October 19, 2013. (AFP Photo / Jaafar Ashtiyeh)