by Sandy Shallerbathroom-490781_960_720

She sat on the toilet and stared at the blue and white tiles on the wall across from her.  She wondered who had made the tiles and whether the patterns of milky blue and white, unique on each tile, had been designed by someone or randomly embedded by a machine.  Years before she had spent one complete bowel movement trying to see if there was a repetition to the tile patterns.  If there was, she hadn’t been able to find it.  It had hurt her eyes and made her slightly dizzy.  She didn’t have good eyesight and her tracking was weak.  She’d had lazy eye when she was eight, and her mother had taken her to an ophthalmologist.  The doctor had given her a patch and eye exercises to do and tried to impress upon her the importance of doing them every day.

“Your eye needs strengthening, Sylvia,” Doctor Bernstein had said.  “If you don’t do these exercises every day you’re going to have trouble with your vision when you get older.”

“Do you hear him, Sylvia?” her mother had said.  “Do you hear what he said?  Every day!”

Sylvia had been irritated by how her mother scolded her in front of the doctor under the guise of caring.

The eye exercises had consisted of wearing the patch over her good eye and doing small jigsaw puzzles.  Sylvia hated puzzles.  She had a hard time seeing the color patterns and decided that they were boringThe eye patch was irritating and made her stumble on stairwells.  She had never been very coordinated, and the eye patch only made it worse.  The miserable bastids who made fun of her at school now had fresh material.  Sylvia had thought that the eye patch would make her mysterious or at least win her some sympathetic attention, but it hadn’t happened.

For three days Sylvia’s mother pushed her to wear the patch and do the puzzles.  Sylvia argued, whined, and fought against it.  On the fourth day, after two screaming episodes, her mother had slapped her and said, “Don’t wear the patch!  Don’t do the puzzles! Be as stupid as you want!  It’s your eye. I don’t care anymore.”

Liar, you didn’t care before.

When her father came home from work, and saw Sylvia without her patch, he asked his wife what had happened.  Sylvia’s mother told her husband how much aggravation Sylvia had given her over the patch and the exercises.

“She’s being a stupid mule, and I want you to tell her something.”

Sylvia started bellowing about how her mother was mean and how the patch made her fall and the puzzles made her dizzy. Her father had cajoled and then argued and finally wheeled off his belt and chased Sylvia into the bedroom.  He let the belt carry on the rest of the conversation, but although Sylvia bawled loudly and swore that she would wear the patch and do the exercises, she didn’t.  When he heard that his daughter remained stubborn, he got red in the face but only shrugged.  It had been a hard day at the office, and he had no energy to give Sylvia another beating.

When Sylvia and her mother went back to the ophthalmologist, and he examined Sylvia, he frowned and asked if she’d been doing the exercises and wearing the patch; her mother had folded her arms and said nothing.  Sylvia complained that the patch made her nauseous and the exercises gave her a headache.  Dr. Bernstein repeated his warning and said that he wanted to see her again in a month.

“Sylvia! Are you still alive in there? How about dinner?”

Sylvia ignored her husband’s voice.  Norman knew where she was. She stared at the tiles again. When she tilted her head a bit, she thought that the pattern on one tile looked just like one of the African masks that hung in the living room. The one little corner that’s mine.  She was surprised to see that the white and blue swirls in the tile just to the left of the African mask, looked exactly like her father.  A dip of the white perfectly created his moustache. She sneered at the tile and then chuckled. A tile just above her father’s face had a blue streak that looked like a vulva.  Sylvia laughed. The pussy and the prick, she thought.


She sighed and spun the toilet paper roll, just in case Norman was outside the door listening.  It made a dry rattling noise, but she didn’t peel off any paper.  There was no need; she’d only gone into the bathroom to have a little privacy and to look at the tiles. Oh, that one’s interesting, she thought; it was a tile to the left of the toilet paper dispenser.  The way the white and blue roll together. It looks just like the stew I’m making for dinnah!

She stood up and pulled up her panties, noticing that she hadn’t wiped carefully the last time.  She’d throw them in the washing machine when she went to bed.


“I’m coming, Norman! For god’s sake.  I’m in the bathroom.”

Her voice was high but not very loud.  It only got loud when she was really excited and lost her temper.  Then it’s plenty loud. If he calls me one more time, I’ll give him something to hear.

She flushed the toilet and then turned on the water in the sink.  She didn’t wash her hands. Instead, she used the time to look around at the blue and white tiles again. No matter how many times she studied them, they tricked her.  The patterns couldn’t change, of course.  Yet even when she was certain that she was looking at the same tile on two different days, the pattern seemed to change and what she glimpsed in it was different.  There, the one over the toilet paper roll.  It had looked just like a howling ghost when she first sat down, but now it looked exactly like her daughter Mitzi with her mouth opened wide.  Sylvia wondered if she would still see Mitzi when she came into the bathroom next time. Then she turned to the bathroom door, pressed her lips together, opened it and stepped out.

Norman was in the kitchen, Taking over.

“What were you shouting like that for?” Sylvia said from the kitchen doorway.  “There are five rooms in this apahtment.  Where did you think I was?”

Norman ignored the question.  He often ignored what she said, God forbid you ignore what he says!

“What is this?” He lifted the cover off a pot on the stove and stared at the contents.

“Dinner! It’s a recipe I saw in Light Cuisine.” The colorful picture floated in her mind for a moment.  She looked at the contents of the pot. Somehow it had looked better in the book. “It’s meatless stew with tomatahs, red peppehs, potatoes, green cab…”

Norman looked around the kitchen.  “Is this it?” he asked in horror. “This is the whole dinner.”

“It’s very filling,” Sylvia said.

“What are you talking about?  It’s just a bunch of vegetables in hot water. Who the hell wants to eat this?” He picked up the wooden spoon and stirred the pot frowning at its contents.  “It smells like a wet garden.”

“It’s delicious, and it’s good for you.” Her voice got a little louder.  “You don’t need meat with every meal.”  Her lips curled away from the offending word.  He’s only satisfied if there’s a chunk of cooked flesh on his plate.  It’s revolting, and then I have to eat it, and how can I lose weight when I have to eat all that disgusting meat.

“Alright,” she said.  “I’ll make some chicken for you.  You can have it with the stew.” She stepped into the kitchen and moved toward the refrigerator.

He waved an arm to keep her back.  “Naw! I’ll do it.” He shook his head in a gesture of disgust and frustration that was familiar to her. “It probably took you all day to throw the goddamn vegetables into the pot and add water.  You think I can wait another six hours for my dinner?”

One thing about Norman was that he could move quickly.  Even as he spoke, he had fished some chicken out of the refrigerator and was cutting it up.

“You’re impossible.” Sylvia sighed and moved to the silverware drawer.  “I’ll set the table.”

Norman looked over at the table. His head shook again. “It’s six thirty, Sylvia!  You couldn’t set the table before I got home?  Never mind.  I have a good idea. Why don’t you go back into the bathroom, and I’ll do it.”

“No, I’ll set…”

Norman had already moved to the silverware drawer blocking her.

She pressed her lips together and planted her feet.  This was one of those moments, and she knew it. Either she could back off and let the bastid do what he wanted, or she could explode.  She put her hands on her hips so that Norman would know that she was considering exploding, but then she exhaled and deflated.  I won’t give him the satisfaction, she decided.

“Alright,” she said.  “I wanted to make you a nice dinner, but you have no appreciation for what’s good.”

“Don’t worry, Sylvia.  I know what’s good.” Norman seasoned the chicken and put it into a frying pan where it immediately started to fill the kitchen with a pleasing smell.

Sylvia looked at the chicken in the frying pan and, as she turned to go into the living room, she said, “Put another piece in for me.  I’ll have some too.”

She moved into the living room and scanned it with her poorly tracking eyes.  Ugly.  Everything in this apahtment is ugly.

Sylvia fell into the old yellow armchair that her mother and father had given them when her parents had moved to Scarsdale.  Who wanted their filthy cast-off furniture?  Norman made me take it. 

“What’s the matter with you?” Norman had said. “It’s a nice chair. It has almost no wear!  Do you work for the money? No!  Take the damn chair and say thank you to your father.”

He’d made her take the chair, but she hadn’t said thank you.

The couch had come from some second-hand warehouse on the Lower East Side.  Norman had gotten the coffee table from someone at the Con Edison plant he worked at.  The little bar under the window had been an anniversary present from the kids. Only the African masks had been chosen by Sylvia.  She had taken a course in African art at the Met and then purchased the masks from the gift shop. Norman hadn’t appreciated them. “What the hell are these? What’re you into now…voodoo?  They don’t match anything in the room. How much did they cost?”

            “They’re aht.  Do you know what aht is? These are fine works of aht.”

Of course he didn’t know what aht was, he worked for fucking Con Edison. My asshole father knows more about aht than Norman.  She had taken the course, not him.  Norman repaired faulty circuit breakers and transformers. He goes out in a truck for nine hours a day.  He doesn’t know anything about aht.

At one point she had taken up painting, but she had difficulty controlling a paintbrush. Sylvia decided that she had an arthritic thumb and gave it up.  Before that she had taken up macramé, and before that she’d taken a pottery class.  In the apartment there were four ashtrays that Sylvia had made in the days when she and Norman still smoked cigarettes.  Her older son, Glenn had once said, “Ma, why don’t you get rid of the ashtrays.  You and dad don’t smoke anymore do you?”

“They’re aht, Glenn.”

“Ma, they’re not art. They’re ashtrays.  Kids make them at summer camp, before they graduate to bird houses.”

Sylvia sighed in remembering.  It was hopeless.  Glenn knew as much about art as his father. She looked around the living room again. Then she remembered the tile with Mitzi’s face on it.  Her daughter hated the apartment. She’d never come back to it once she finished college.  She’d gotten her own place with her boyfriend, Ira.  Now they were married and living in Malibu. Ira was a lawyer, and Mitzi was in real estate.  Mitzi came to visit twice a year.  Ira only came with her once. During her last visit, Mitzi and her mother had fought about the apartment.  “You need a decorator,” Mitzi had said.  “Let me get you a decorator to fix this place up.  Really, ma, it’s atrocious.”

Sylvia had been irate.  “Your father and I sacrificed so you and your brother could go to college and have whatever you wanted.  Don’t be such a little bitch,” she spat.

“You’re the bitch,” Mitzi had retaliated.

That had been a bad fight.  Norman, as usual, had nothing to say to his daughter.  Instead, he’d yelled at her.  “Twice a year she comes in and you have to start up! She’s right. The place looks terrible. Try cleaning it once in a while, Sylvia. Give the Met a break and pick up a sponge!”

“She called me a bitch!”

Oh, she’d exploded that time.  Oh yes, she’d exploded big time.  She’d slapped Mitzi good and hard and shoved her out of the apartment.

Then she’d turned on Norman.  He’d called her father to come down from Scarsdale and deal with her, and she’d wound up in the Emergency Room at Mt. Sinai.  A stupid young Asian doctor had said that she’d had a slight nervous breakdown.  What did he know?  She was just angry.  I’m surrounded by constant stupidity! she’d told herself.  They’re all so goddamned selfish.

Sylvia reached into the magazine holder next to the yellow chair and picked up the latest issue of Psychology Today. She turned back to the article she had read that morning, “How To Deal With Narcissistic People?” by Dr. Jason Masterson.  Dr. Masterson’s article, alerted the reader to the seven signs of narcissism.  Sylvia had devoured the article and had paid particular attention to Dr. Masterson’s closing comments, “It is important to remember, when you deal with the narcissistic personality, that it is that person who has the problem, not you.”

It’s just amazing how many out and out nahcissists are walking around out there, Sylvia thought.  Norman and her parents were right at the top of the list, and Mitzi and Glenn took after their father.  Mitzi had the “Grandiose Sense of Self-worth” that Dr. Masterson said was the fourth sign of the narcissistic personality, and Glenn had always been “Entitled,” sign two.  Her father had adored her son and had practically stolen him away. She remembered the many weekends he had taken Glenn fishing and camping, and whenever Sylvia had a fight with her son, he threatened to tell his grandfather.

One night she’d exploded about it to Norman.  “I don’t want my fucking fathah taking my son away from me.  Don’t you care!  He’s more of a fathah to Glenn than you are.  What’s the matter with you?  Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”

“He’s taking him away from you and your craziness, Sylvia,” was Norman’s response, but she knew that wasn’t the reason.  Norman did nothing with the kids.  She did everything.  She had to fight every inch of the way to give them a descent home and get them through school.  Norman always claimed that he was too tired after work to do anything.  “I feed them and put clothes on their back.  That’s what fathers do!” he’d said. Norman has zero empathy and, on top of that, he’s freaking cheap and stingy. He’d refused to finance her going to France to study French History at the Sorbonne.

“You read Madame Bovary and you want to go to France?  Take a course at NYU.”

Her thoughts returned to her son. Her father had spoiled Glenn.  He’d made the boy entitled.  Now Glenn lived in Chicago with his wife who was expecting; he was a successful CPA. When they flew to New York, they never stayed at the apartment; they always stayed in Scarsdale.  Last time they had stayed for a week and she and Norman had seen them exactly twice.

Occasionally Glenn called Norman, but when she tried to get Norman to share the contents of the conversation he always said, “He called to say ‘Hello.’”

Narcissistic. All of them.

Sylvia got up and headed to the bathroom.  This time she really needed to go, but first she poked her head into the kitchen.  The smell of the chicken was making her mouth water. Norman was wearing the old white chef’s apron he had worn when he was a cook in the army.  He was thin-slicing onions and dropping them into the frying pan with the chicken.  They sizzled and the good smell in the kitchen got even better.  He enjoyed cooking.  Good, let him do it.  Sylvia saw that Norman was humming as he moved about the kitchen, and he had made himself a martini.  He held the glass in one hand.  Selfish.  Did he ask me if I wanted one? Sylvia hated martinis, but maybe she would have taken a beer.

“How soon?”

“Another ten minutes or so,” Norman replied.  “Do you want some wine with dinner?”

“Yes. I’ll take a glass of wine.  I’m going to the bathroom.”

“Don’t fall in.” He laughed.

Sylvia cringed.  He always said that.  It was an old and corny joke, but it must have felt fresh and new to Norman the narcissist.

Sylvia went into the bathroom and closed the door.  The familiar, enigmatic, blue and white tiles surrounded her.

She unbuttoned her pants, pulled down the zipper and let them fall to her ankles.  Then she peeled down her panties and noticed, once again, the slight streak at the back.  So what.  It’s human.  I don’t have to impress anyone with pristine underpants.

Sylvia settled herself on the toilet seat and bent forward.  She moaned and made sounds as nature took over.  Her mother had once screamed at her about making sounds in the toilet.  Another one with no empathy.

She looked up at the tiles and sighed. Directly across from her Sylvia saw a cluster of four tiles that seemed to form a pattern.  The white swirls on one flowed into the white swirls on the tile to its left.  The blue swirls below that tile seemed to merge with the blue swirls in the tile to its right and the one just above.

I never noticed that before, Sylvia thought.  She stared at the tiles with great interest.  There was something soothing about the way they seemed connected.  She remembered when they’d had the tiling done.  Those thin men with the moustaches and boxes of tiles. Itinerant workers, she thought at the time.  Sylvia had thought that they were Mexicans and wondered how they’d found their way to New York.  Certainly, those men hadn’t purposely made the pattern of the four tiles.  The tiles had arrived in eight large boxes.  They were randomly placed on the wall.  Yet here were four tiles that had a relationship.

Sylvia looked at the four tiles and watched the white flow into the white and the blue flow into the blue.  She forgot to accompany her body’s peristalsis with sounds.  She forgot about the bastards at schools and her selfish parents. She forgot about Glenn and Mitzi, and Norman who took over in the kitchen.

The harmony of the four tiles soothed her. I’ve got my own center, she


Sylvia peeled away some toilet paper and remembered the tile that had Mitzi’s face on it.  Where is it? None of the tiles looked like Mitzi now, but one just to the right of the toilet paper roll looked exactly like a chicken with its wings raised in panic. There was something disturbing about the frenzied chicken made of white and blue swirls. Sylvia felt her center wobble. She absentmindedly tore off some more paper and swiped at her bottom with it.  She did it again, and decided it was probably good enough.  I only have to please myself. It was a mantra she had adopted ages ago.

She flushed and pulled up her clothes and fastened them. As she reached for the bathroom door, she twisted her head to have another look at the four tiles that had calmed her.  Sylvia frowned.  She scanned the wall opposite the toilet and squinted.  She couldn’t find the four tiles, and her poor vision and the strain of trying to locate them, made her eyes blurry for a moment.  She rubbed her eyes and looked again.  She still couldn’t see the unified cluster, but with a little grunt of discomfiture, she found the tile that looked like her father.  She hadn’t noticed before, but a part of the blue swirl made it look like he was smiling.  Sylvia showed her teeth to the tile.  One day I’ll bring in a magic marker and wipe that smile off your face.

In the kitchen, the table was set and Norman was putting the dinner down.  It smelled wonderful and looked good too.  He had sliced up some bread and slathered butter and garlic on it.  A bottle of red wine was uncorked and two little glasses were half filled with the liquid.

She sat down and drank her wine before Norman was seated.  “I’ll take some more,” she said as he sat down.



If Not for Honey and Chili

by Norma Armon

When the stork didwoman+dreaming+of+babyn’t bring me the sister I yearned for, I announced to the world I would find a way to make sure to bring children to everyone who wanted them. And when I was old enough to know what reproductive specialists did, I knewexactly what I would be when I grew up. But sometimes, as the head physician at the infertility clinic, when I watch dejected patients slump down upon hearing the most recent negative results, I wish I’d chosen another way to earn a living.

I share their disappointment, and know I’ll need to find a way to provide the amount of encouragement and hand-holding they’ll need before deciding to take another step in a calvary of continual doctor’s appointments, costly prescriptions and painful injections, ultrasounds and minor surgical tweaks. My primary role is that of chief-dispenser-of-hope and my most successful tool over the years has been the example of Nadine and Jonothan, long-time husband and wife volunteers at the clinic.

Jon helps clients become realistic about the multiple steps involved in their quest for a baby and describes the embarrassment and discomfort they may have to live through – whether they eventually succeed or not. Nadine helps our clients clarify their reasons for wanting children. She knows all about that, having tried for over ten years to become pregnant, before having her first child. While Nadine went through fertility treatments, she satisfied her yearning for offspring as a kindergarten teacher, caring for other people’s children and continuing to hanker after her own.

A born teacher and caregiver since childhood, Nadine was the “sandwich child” who’s road to family acknowledgement in a highly intellectual, competitive household had been to become the nurturer of younger siblings and cousins. She grew up to become an early childhood development specialist and originally volunteered at the clinic to research would-be parent’s attitudes on the healthy development of their babies.

Nadine’s mother, the well-known writer Nanna, was instrumental in the establishment of the fertility clinic, being one of the principal donors.  She is a favorite of mine, and I have spent countless hours, as I help her ready her home for another fundraiser for the clinic, listening to her stories of family lore come alive with the color and precision of her language while she makes sure the decorations and the food are as artistic, precise and carefully selected as the words in her novels. It was on one of those occasions that Nanna told me, under strict confidence, that Nadine had been impregnated once, but it was the wrong time and the wrong partner, so she terminated the pregnancy. Then, once she married Jonothon, they tried for years to have a baby.

“My daughter suffered in teeth-gritting, lip-pursing, sorrowful silence, the indignities, pain and disappointment that fecundity treatments volley upon infertile couples. During her years of barrenness, Nadine believed it was punishment for the abortion before her marriage,” Nanna said. She looked up from the flower arrangements to see my response.  I was all ears, hoping she would tell me more.

Nanna described the half-serious competition with her sisters – including a long-established wager – about who would end up with the greatest number of grandchildren. Nanna’s children had produced only one child each so when her youngest sister announced both of her daughters were having twins, she knew she had to do something to help Nadine become pregnant.

“I was about to lose my bet,” Nanna continued, “and I don’t forfeit bets easily. So I decided to take the project on, scouring the medical literature, reading advice columns, joining support groups and contacting my cronies…. I must have collected every remedy to overcome infertility known to mankind.

A Persian friend of hers recounted an anecdote of her distant cousin, Mariah, who consulted a shaman to help save her marriage: her beloved husband’s family was demanding he divorce her because she hadn’t produced an heir.

The shaman summarily asks, “Do you serve your husband spicy food before you come together? Do you seduce your husbands’ seed with sweets so they make a home in your womb?”

The woman doesn’t respond and hangs her head.

“Have you strayed so far from the wisdom of the sages that you don’t know of this?  Go home, offer your husband a dish in a sauce made with chili pepper, introduce honey into your womb and then lie with him.”

A year after this encounter, Mariah gave birth to triplets. “I must have looked askance at that,” Nanna said, “because my friend swore the anecdote was true and offered to introduce me to Mariah.”

Nanna incorporated the anecdote into her best-selling book about arranged marriages. As she developed the book’s plot she thought of passing on this prescription to her daughter; it seemed innocuous and Nadine had tried everything else without success. Yet Nanna agonized about how to broach the subject to her daughter. She didn’t want to be thought a meddling mama or to be laughed at for recommending superstitious hogwash. It was a bit out-of-character for this modern educated woman to recommend anything without being asked, and certainly to suggest anti-scientific remedies.

“Still, one never knows…” Nanna said. “The doctors hadn’t found any physical impediment to Nadine and Jon becoming pregnant. I thought following the shaman’s instructions might be just the placebo to unlock Nadine’s mysterious psychological blocks.”

Nanna decided to break her rule never to show work in progress before publication, and brought the story to Nadine and Jon.  “I allegedly sought Jon’s feedback to flesh out the character of the husband in the novel,” Nanna explained. “To get his opinion on how a male would response to such circumstances. Nadine must have read the draft of the book as well,”

In the support sessions Jon leads at the clinic, he recommends that couples develop non-verbal hints of the moment in the cycle considered optimal for successful impregnation. “It’ll make both of you feel less embarrassed about sex on the clock. For example, my wife didn’t flirt or send coy looks my way to announce the time was ripe for baby making. I was simply served some delectable concoction in a hot chili sauce.”

And I’ve overheard a red-faced Nadine advise the women to insert a tampon smeared with honey before intercourse. If any of them question the value of doing that, Nadine murmurs, “Oh, it’s just an old wives’ tale which can’t hurt.”

And when the clients shamefacedly consult me, asking for a medical opinion that might debunk such perplexing advice, I concur, answering, “No, it can’t do any harm.”

If Nadine happens to be about, I smile and add, “But then, who knows, it might just work,” with a knowing wink at my mother.

The Orchard

by Kathy Oldham

Apricot+harvest+2++2009Every spring day was filled with the subtle scent of white blossoms, blushing pink on the fruit trees.  The petals would later carpet the ground like snowfall when they dropped.  The soft hum of the bees at work pollinating, their legs fat and yellow, filled the air.  The electric buzz of the cicadas I could hear but never see.

Oozing sap formed nubby amber balls, about the size of a grape, on the apricot and cherry branches.  When the outside of the ball had hardened, I would pull it off the branch, careful to keep the goopy interior away from my play clothes.   I was dumb enough to taste it, something you only do once, unless you like turpentine.

I loved when the miles of irrigation pipes lay between the rows of trees, like icy veins pumping water to the dry soil.  The joints often leaked, making cool mud, smooth as melted chocolate, squishy between my toes, and a slippery wet feeling on a warm day.  Later, I would find an undisturbed puddle of mud which had dried and cracked.  I could pick up the pieces, and pretend it was a map of an unknown country waiting to be discovered.

Every year, it was hard to be patient and wait for the fruit to ripen.  Oranges, apricots, prunes, loquats and cherries still taste best to me if a little green.  The cherries were the first fruit of the summer season.  As soon as the clusters started ripen, I convinced myself, and my younger brother and sister, the shiny red globes were ready to eat.   Oxblood red, nearly black, was the Bing cherry’s real sign of peak ripeness.  For an impatient little girl, it was much too long to wait.  By the time the Bing’s were ripe, the only fruit left was on the topmost canopy, too high for me to reach.  The trees had either been picked for sale or were stripped by the starlings that trilled by the hundreds, flapping and fighting for space on the branches up amongst the leaves.

In late summer, the air hung heavily with the sweet scent of stewing tomatoes, wafting over the valley from the nearby Del Monte canneries.  To me, August always smells of stewed tomatoes.  We had our own vegetable patch where my mother grew green beans, cucumbers, okra, lettuce, radishes, corn, squash and tomatoes.  When friends came over to visit in the summer, dad would give everyone a salt shaker on their way to stand in the tomato patch to eat tomatoes, ripe off the vine, as if they were apples.

Between the vegetable patch and the side of the garage, behind the old farm house we lived in, sat the chicken coop.  The little banty hens were reliable layers of small toffee colored eggs.  The sole rooster was an arrogant and stupid bird.  He produced nothing but ruffled feathers and noise.  I was sorry the hens had to tolerate him.  Our hens were a hive of activity and egg production–laying, brooding, scratching for worms and eating grass.  They didn’t cluck much, but made soothing almost cooing sounds as they went about the business of chicken life.

One summer as the migrant families arrived to pick prunes, I decided I wanted to earn money and work like the Mexican kids too.  To have a job was very grown up and important to my six year old eyes, and I wasn’t to be outdone by the other little kids.  The first day on the job I was handed a wooden box, one of many piled up and waiting to be filled.  The box was called a lug, and for each prune-filled lug I would earn 50 cents.  The prunes were really plums which we picked up from the ground after they had been shaken off the tree.  In the August heat, the sweat ran down my back and arms making streaks in the fine dust that coated my skin.  The fruit was squishy-ripe and warm and sticky when I accidentally stepped on it.

The children were fast as they worked alongside each other, and their boxes soon filled.  They would then quietly move to the next empty lug, and I knew they were watching me.  The adults carried the heavy fruit-filled lugs away, sometimes talking, but usually quiet in their work.  I didn’t understand what was said, but thought the job was tiring and wondered how they had the energy to continue day after day.  Now, I think they were probably laughing at me, the slow pasty tenderfoot who complained about getting dirty and having sticky hands.  What they didn’t know was how I observed their proficiency and camaraderie, the rhythm of their language and occasional laughter in the heat and sweat, among the prune trees.

I only picked one box of prunes that day.  When it was time to get paid I got 50 cents from Mr. DeRose, even though the box wasn’t filled to the top as it should have been.  By the end of the day I was sorry the other children had to work so hard and pick up prunes out of the dirt, but I was kind of glad not to pick prunes again.  Every harvest time until we moved away from the orchard, I looked for the families to come from a place I imagined was exotic and far away.

From an early age I knew an education, a disaster, or a new job motivated a big life change.  The newly college-educated generation of the Italian family who owned the orchard we lived in, didn’t see a future as orchardists.  None of younger generation wanted the family fruit business.  There was a development boom in the area and the new graduates convinced their fathers, three brothers who were business partners, to sell the property.  The day came when we had to move out of the old farm house.  The orchard property sale signaled the end of my idyllic country life when we moved into a suburban neighborhood nearby.  It was the beginning of the Silicon Valley with housing being built for the employees of IBM, Food Machinery, Lockheed and the new technology businesses that gobbled up the orchards.

The seeds of desire to know another culture and place were established for me during those early orchard days through my exposure to the immigrant families who owned and worked in the orchard.  The lure of places unknown to me was later reinforced every time a postcard arrived with a foreign postmark, a new charm was added to the bracelet of a traveling friend, or a present was brought to me from distant lands.  My feet itched to go too.   I was a young tow-head who couldn’t wait to grow up to see what else the world had to offer.

Once childhood was behind me, I shared with a friend what I thought was an unattainable dream, to experience other cultures.  He was a free spirit, who encouraged my desire for adventure.

“It will be the regret of your life if you don’t make your dream happen.  Find a way to make it happen.”

He was killed on a motorcycle, on the way home from Yosemite, the summer we both were twenty.  I was bereft, but his advice to me was embedded in my mind.

The impact of his young life, cut off before he had a chance to fulfill its promise, gave me a deep sense of urgency to act before it was too late.  Suddenly, tomorrow did not feel like a sure thing.  I made a plan, but it wasn’t travel I wanted, it was to live in another country.  To travel wasn’t enough.  I wanted to immerse myself completely wherever I went.

In the years after I first left California, Paris and London were where I made my home.  Eventually a new job brought me back to the Golden State.    Always with me is the little girl who dreamed of having a foot in more than one place, and, the encouragement of a dear friend long gone.

The Blenheim apricot tree I planted in my garden has set its fruit for the year.  Always impatient, when the fruit is almost ripe, I will pull one off the limb, twist it into halves and eat it fresh from the tree, throwing the brown stone-hard pit on the ground, just as I had done when I was little.  When enough cots have ripened, I will make pies and the jewel-colored jam which recaptures the flavor of summer and my orchard childhood in the months to come.

Indian Attack at Charles Lindbergh Grammar School

by Webb Johnson

A noted children’s author named Chief Hail Storm came indians-1143584_960_720to our school sometime during the spring of 1945.

I don’t recall where I was when  I learned that President Roosevelt died, or that World War II had come to a victorious end.  The atomic bomb is just a muddled memory, but I remember the day Chief Hail Storm showed up in my Kindergarten classroom as though it were yesterday.

”The Chief” had written and illustrated one of the books Mrs. Syminger, used to teach the alphabet.  Using iconic images of American Indian kids going about their daily routine he illustrated how letters are used for words.  For example, “T” is for “Tomahawk” showed a kid dressed in a head band and loin cloth holding what looked like a hatchet. “R” is for “Rabbit” showed the same kid holding a recent kill by the ears with a caption, “Ready for Supper.”  “D” is for “Deer” had an Indian brave taking a bead on Bambi’s dad with a bow and arrow, and so on all the way to “Z is for Zoo” which was accompanied by a drawing of a monkey wearing a feather head dress; an image that frequently re-appeared in my childhood nightmares.

The announcement came about a week before the famous Indian was to make his appearance, and all our classroom activities revolved around the upcoming “pow wow,” as Mrs. Syminger called it.

Everyone else was excited but the approaching day only brought me rising fears and apprehensions.  I asked my mom if there was any chance that the previous autumn’s Scarlet Fever quarantine might re-occur any time soon.  Giving me a big hug, she promised that the doctors would make sure that nothing like that would ever happen again.

She had no way of knowing that her intended reassurance only caused me to lose all hope.  When my dad asked, “Why isn’t the boy eating?” Mom answered, “He seems worried about something.”  I was afraid to say I was worried about being scalped because I knew they would scoff and repeat some version of, “But that’s just silly,” which was the stock response to the sum of all my worries and fears during that stage of my life.

D-Day arrived.  It was deathly quiet when Chief Hail Storm entered the room in full bleached buckskins, tomahawk, lance, feathers, moccasins, fur pelts with the flattened heads still on, and a serious scowl on his war-painted face.

I recall the smell of stale milk as he raised a feathered signal coup and howled “HEY YAAAAAAHHH!”

I came back with; “BLLLEEEHCCHHH” blowing the soggy Corn Flakes my mom had forced me to eat across the front of my Roy Rogers tee shirt.

I was shuffled off to the school nurse, humiliated and sodden, but safe – out of harm’s way – where neither arrows nor tomahawks could find me.


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