07 October 2010

Another world

When I was five years old, my family moved into a tiny, two-bedroom brick house that was covered in stucco to make it look as though it was adobe. The house was painted bright pink. For some reason, Tucson was home to vast quantities of pink paint, leftovers, rumor had it, from World War II. My high school was covered in it as well.

The street was a quiet residential street with a mix of young families and retirees. Across the street from our house lived an elderly couple in a neat, low, brick house, painted sparkling white with cheerful turquoise trim. Mr. H. was friendly but quiet, while his energetic, fearfully thin wife was quite gregarious.

Early one autumn morning, about 18 months after we'd moved into our house, an ambulance sped into Mr. and Mrs. H's driveway. As we set off to walk to school, the attendants wheeled out a grey-faced Mr. H., still in his bathrobe, still dapper with his well-combed white hair. He died later that morning of a heart attack.

I was young, maybe 7, and I didn't detect any slowing in Mrs. H.'s busy behavior after his passing. She acquired a beagle and named him Poochie. We adored Poochie, who seemed to be somewhat less enamored of us.

At that time, Mrs. H. must have been in her late 60s. She very tall and rail thin, a product, she said mysteriously, of stomach surgery, and she habitually dressed in cotton house dresses that were soft and worn with use, and leather sandals. She kept her iron grey hair cropped short and smoked like the proverbial chimney. I never saw any hint of makeup on her face, though periodically she seemed to have her nails done. I remember staring--probably rudely, but truly I was fascinated--at the network of wrinkles on her face, and the roadmap they created. She spoke briskly of Clayton, her late husband, and fondly of Paco, her late son. It troubled me that her husband and only child were gone, but she had friends that she visited, and friends that visited her, and Poochie.

The low white house had a light and modern living room, while the kitchen was dark and cool, most of the light cut off by the screened porch that covered the back of the house. Nooks and crannies everywhere held treasures from the couple's travels and the time that they had lived in Mexico. Everything whispered of adventure and mystery in some obscure way that I'd later associate with Hemingway and The Maltese Falcon. Her back yard, large like ours, was actually landscaped: the entire yard had been raised about three feet, and it contained a lush miniature orchard, filled with Santa Rosa plum, peach, crab apple and apricot trees. Strawberry pots held succulents and larger clay pots sported other exotics. It was like a little paradise in the desert.

After Mr. H.'s death, my mother visited more frequently with his widow, and many were the hot summer nights spent sitting on Mrs. H.'s screened porch, drinking iced tea from beautifully painted glasses that were cold to the touch, but didn't weep at all with condensation because the air was so dry. We sat quietly in the leather chairs from Mexico, chairs that squeaked and groaned violently if you had the temerity to shift your weight. Mrs. H. would tell stories of this and that, of her husband and her son, of Poochie's antics, of her friends and of her life. She would speak with a certain glee of various surgeries. I tried to follow the thread of the conversation between sips of tea, watching the glowing tip of Mrs. H.'s cigarette moving through the dark like a firefly. The air was heavy with the scent of pink jasmine and mock orange, and to this day, I cannot smell pink jasmine without thinking of those nights, and Mrs. H.'s husky voice, and the sensation of running my finger gently along the sharp edges of the metal screen that kept the bugs out.

At one time, it transpired, Mrs. H. had the energy to can all the produce from her orchard and garden, and she pressed upon us jar after jar of spiced crab apples and watermelon pickle. When the fruit in her little orchard ripened, we were invited over to strip the trees, and we were carefully instructed how to pick the fruit so as not to damage the trees. Even now, I can't eat supermarket plums or apricots, not after tasting the rich, syrup-laden sweetness of fruit picked in the hot sun, fruit so full of sugar that I fought the wasps and bees for it. Afterward, we would go home with bags and bags of fruit that became plum butter and apricot jam, our own small kitchen a sweat bath filled with boiling jars and Sure-Jell.

At about the age of nine, I was deemed old enough to assist Mrs. H. with small chores. I would iron her handkerchiefs, and help her to polish her silver, receiving a quarter and a piece of candy for my trouble. But more, I discovered a sure serenity in her quiet kitchen, spritzing the clean cotton with water and running the hot iron over the white fabric until no wrinkles were left, while Mrs. H. hummed and smoked in the background. Neither of us felt it incumbent upon us to talk and we worked, child and old woman, quietly and companionably together.

Perhaps another year or two passed before Mrs. H. sold the house to a young couple, and moved to a trailer park at the base of the Catalina Mountains, taking the redoutable Poochie with her. The new people were calm and quiet, and when I was 12, they had a baby, and within six months, I'd graduated from old lady's handkerchief ironer to young couple's babysitter. The house lost its exotic charm with the absence of Mrs. H., and the little orchard died without her care.

Throughout high school, and once when I was in college, I would travel occasionally with my mother to visit Mrs. H., though more often my mother went alone. Mrs. H.'s iron grey hair became completely white and it curled a little with the addition of a permanent wave. She stopped traveling, remained thin, and lost some of her sparkle. As her little house had become simply an ordinary family home without her, so the trailer in which she lived had none of the charm of her house, even though I recognized many of the knick knacks, no longer in niches, now just stuff. Poochie went on to his eternal reward, and Mrs. H. became a bit more wizened, but she still told her stories of her escapades, still remembered that she had taught me how to iron properly.

Her health failed as she aged, and eventually she went to a nursing home. My mother called me when she died. It troubled me to think of her finally so alone, stout-hearted raconteur, so brusque on the exterior but with a soft heart. I could only hope that she'd gone on to a greater adventure.

Go listen to some music: "Another World" from the album Arrive Without Travelling by The Three O'Clock. Something that has occurred to me in the years that I've blogged is that I tend to take my memories for granted, which is shameful since these are the stories of those who have had a hand in shaping my life. I know I've written bits and pieces about Mrs. H. before but there seemed to be more to tell.

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