Monday, March 23, 2009

More toddler snippets

My grandparents' neighbor, Helen K., had lived in their block about as long as they had, though she was younger. I guess she was born about 1910. Here she is standing in front of the house that my parents had rented till I was over 3 years old, with her own house in the background, taken in 1990. By sheer luck she came out to take a very short walk with her granddaughter, and I recognized her. By this time, though (it is typical), she called me by my mother's name. Fine. Time does fly, and I've already proven (to myself if to no one else) that the earliest memories stick best, formed when one not only had a growing brain but, so far, had less to store in it. The orange flowers are California poppies, not related to opium poppies. On Helen's front porch, stick-style, wisteria (or was it bougainvillea?—purple, though) bloomed. Just behind the chimney's position is her kitchen door and porch, the one used every day, especially for children, her son Mike being about 18 months younger than me. She always called my grandfather Teacher. Her husband was older and a traveling man, but I remember him smoking a cigar. Fascinating. Helen was inexhaustibly kind to me. She had a cookie tube (that is a tube like that used for cake decorating and similarly with different nipples to make different shapes of cookies: stars, flowers, snowflakes, and the like, and I never tired of watching her use it. In vain I begged my mother to make that kind of cookie. Mike had a play pen which Helen set out in the open shade in the driveway beside the kitchen door. I was too big to be allowed in with him (and, now that I think of it, my shoes had been all over the out of doors), so I tried to entertain him through the bars. Once, when the sprinkler was on, watering the backyard grass, and some trickled down into the hollow under the gate to the back yard, I very much enjoyed making mud pies, and gravy, so to speak, in it. I can still feel that smooth, cool, dark gray adobe mud. Helen took me in and used a fingernail brush (I think you'd call it) to clean my white shoes. My mother came and took me home.
I think that what I felt when my grandmother fished me out of the surf was the adults' shocked fear and relief. What I sensed when Helen had to save my shoes, and my mother had to thank her, was what I might now call humiliation. I don't remember what they said. I did understand that playing in undesignated mud with shoes on was not to be done.
Later I noticed that my mother tended to 'put down' Helen, for example by deploring her 'old man.' I never knew why, if indeed there was any reason at all. But when one woman has to clean up after another's vaunted child, she does, for that day at least, have the upper hand.