I held a jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep
The day was warm, and winds were prosy
I said, "Twill keep"
I am sitting in the dining room of my house on Esplanade Avenue, having an exceptionally inspirational glass of wine and watching the changing light and long shadows swarm possessively across the walls in the silky late afternoon gloaming of a November evening in New Orleans.
The color on the walls is a very particular shade, it is called “Lady Honoria Dedlock Peony”, the same pinky
peach hue as my Grandmother had in hers for years, it is also a color that I admired on the walls while
having a rousing romp in the Gothic revival library with the new head gardener
in Arley Hall, a divine English country house owned by Viscount
Ashbrook, but that is another story for another time... perhaps.
This exceptional shade is also the exact color of walls in the
grottoes of Markus Sittikus von Hohenems summer palace Hellbrunn in Salsburg,
the color of a particularly memorable piece of salmon I had at the house of
Edward Albee and Jonathan Thomas in Montauk in 1978, and a
dead ringer for the color in the diadem of Empress Theodora in the
mosaic on the right apsidal wall in the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.
I digress, oh how I ramble, I could listen to me for hours... But it's the details, you know, that really matter. Their memory serves you later, they almost ripen with age, like a bundle of love letters does, only having reached a desired or final condition much later after the fact.
The spirit of the wine casts a long shadow itself, carrying my mind easily into the past, and I remember this was also the color of a certain child's fancy party dress, the memory of that time slowly drifting to rest in it's proper place for my perusal, and suddenly like a familiar perfume, it is sharp to the brain and unmistakable.
When I was seven, my half sister married a rancher in the Midwest, and until they could save enough to build a place of their own on his family's land outside of the town, they moved into a snug little bungalow that was across the street from a lush park where I would spend several summers in my youth to escape the humidity of the deep South.
As an inquisitive seven year old, I befriended a few of the children who would come to the park, one of them was a girl my age who would prove to be the first of what would be a long line of fascinating and stimulating people who one meets that have qualities that delight the senses that seem to balance out those who dull the shine off of life, like some family members for instance, that tend to be confusing, adhering, and of an annoying and bad repetitive pattern,
like trance music or Finnish wallpaper.
Afabit was a little girl from what was referred to as “back
of town”, a striking tall cocoa skinned girl who inevitably got her moniker from the fact that she was called so many names by
so many people, a literal alphabet of nicknames.
Sister Monica called her
"Sunshine", Mrs. Russo called her “Ladybug”, the corner grocer Cookie called
her “Candy Cane” -because she always would save her pennies to buy as many as
she could after Christmas at a deep discount- Mr. Jackson called her “Peaches"
and Mrs. Legendre called her "Tee-Lilou"…. the list goes on.
Afabit and I
were friends ever since the infamous “My name ain't Cat Food” debacle, when I accidentally-on-purpose inferred that Martha Martine liked cat food after she took me up on a dare to eat some pâté in the kitchen pantry when my sister was having a party. The other children called her Cat Food for the rest of that summer and I ended up giving her my favorite board game to make amends.
Afabit and I
would meet at the city park and play on the playground rockers we called “The
Duckies”- they were over-sized animals on large springs that were set into the
ground, there was a duck, a chicken, a horse, a cow, a sheep and inexplicably
yet marvelously thrown into the barnyard theme, a pink dinosaur. She would always take the duck
and I would sit on the pink Tyrannosaurus, talking and wobbling to and fro for hours,
telling each other fantastic tales until it started getting late, as we both had
to be “On the front steps when the street lights came on."
were both about seven, Mrs. Giacomo, a nice lady we knew, lost her daughter in
to one of those childhood disease that were spoken of only in hushed tones among
the grownups, German measles maybe. In a lovely act of charity she gave Afabit
some of her daughters clothes, including a perfect silk taffeta dress with a
deep portrait collar that sat slightly off the shoulder with a wide sash. The
intense color of the dress more than complimented Afabit’s café au lait skin and
when she wore it, which was often, she was the image of perfection.
used to flounce around in that dress with an air of divinity mingled with a
touch of superiority. I loved it because when she wore that dress it would
assure that she would invariably sit me down like the student to her teacher and
teach me some old sayings that her Grandpa used to tell her, things like ,
“Without the fur you can't tell the difference between a mink and a coon hide.” and
“Don’t be tryin’ to dry today’s cloths with tomorrows sun.” she also taught me words to some old jazz songs
and how to braid hair, we were the king and queen of laughter.
One evening when the summer light was still shining late and the sky was full of thunderclouds that promised rain, we were walking by the baseball field where some boys were playing and some were watching, and for the first time in my life I encountered people who he believe that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
I also saw for the first time in my young life what grace and dignity under duress looked like when later, Afabit told me a revised version of The Ugly Duckling, where the Swan comes back and forgives those ducks that were mean to her.
From that day forward, we avoided the baseball field and I respected her wish to never speak about the incident again.
After many of those Summer suns swam across the sky, that same fancy
party dress that hung on her like a costume toga at seven, became quite
scandalous in its fit by age ten, when Aphabit began blossoming, quite early,
into who we all knew would be a stunningly beautiful woman.
Coinciding with the beginning of my annual sojourn one year, Afabit up and moved away with her mother, to Mississippi I heard, and I never
saw her again.
But the day after I heard she left, I went down to the city
park to look for her, around the duck's neck was the sash to her fancy party dress,
neatly tied in a bow.
I kept it with me for years, but it has long since disintegrated into just so many threads, like the echo of an echo.
A strategically yet lovingly placed cold dog nose wakes me from my temporary abstraction and I reach for my laptop.
I search Google Earth Street View and that park is still there lush as ever; The Duckies are sadly long gone, now a parking lot, but I see that the baseball field is now a lovely garden, planted with tall oleanders, in a pinky peach hue.
I woke - and chide my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own