Lessons

“I’m done,” I said to Mrs. Oldfield, my second grade art teacher at The Hamlin School.

I waved my watercolor picture of a fruit bowl in the air like a member of the winning team at Capture the Flag.

Mrs. Oldfield, had short cropped silver hair, cheeks lined like meandering country roads, eyes the color of blue agates and always wore a gray smock. She sauntered over to my table.

“Never say done,” she glowered, as I shrunk to the size of a grape in my painting. “You’re not a roast beef.”

After that I was finished.

Letter Writing

Long before email there was letter writing which highlighted news, made requests or showed insight. Plus, there were opportunities to be creative with stationery.

“I’m going to try out for cheerleading,” I wrote my parents on a canary yellow card from my first year at Santa Catalina, a Catholic all girls boarding school.

While I thought I had much more rhythm than Janie or Alice, and I could perform a real— not half-assed—cartwheel, I didn’t get picked. Perhaps my bow legs disqualified me. On the other hand, it would have seemed only fair to allow an equal opportunity spot to the only Jewish boarder.

I took my rejection out by leaving a fake dog turd that I had gotten for Christmas—my family didn’t celebrate Hanukah—for Sister Humbert.

I omitted any mention of my cheerleading tryout in my next letter to my parents Instead, the multi- colored leftover stapled construction paper note focused on a more pressing issue.

“Please send my stuffed skunk,” I wrote. “It’s either under one of the beds in my room, or between them. Please also renew my subscription to Seventeen.”

I was always polite.

During the summer, I kept in touch with some of my new classmates on personal stationery that my mother had made for me as a tenth-birthday present so I could write thank you notes to grandparents. I had a lot of leftovers.

“How do you spell Sacramento?” I once asked my father.

“Look it up in the encyclopedia,” he said.

That was his answer to a lot of questions.

“How can I look it up if I don’t know how to spell it?” I asked. I ended up guessing.

As a junior counselor at Forest Farm Camps, I wrote letters to my best friend about lusting after boys who only saw me as ping pong game competition. “I really like Matt, but he likes Amy,” I wrote. Or, “I slept next to Jon on the overnight, but he only touched my elbow.” If those boys had known that I wrote letters on blue and white McGovern for President letterhead they might have been more interested.

Reformed Christmas

When my husband and I first got married I pushed for a wreath during the holidays—just a plain one.

“Forget it,” Jim had said.

While I have long given up on any thoughts of greenery, a similar conversation between us repeats itself annually.

“When’s Hanukkah?” he asked this year.

“I have no idea.”

“I still don’t understand why your family celebrated Christmas when you were growing up,” Jim said, foraging through the Lazy Susan for the menorah. “You’re Jewish.”

“All the Jews I knew celebrated Christmas,” I said. “With trees.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Two weeks before Christmas my father carried up boxes of ornaments from the basement,” I added. “I was responsible for the decorations. Dad was in charge of the lights and replacement bulbs.”

While I knew Jim wouldn’t be interested in the specifics, I loved rediscovering metallic silver, gold, blue, green and yellow glass orbs, dumping the ones that had gotten crushed from the prior year’s packing. I remember the year I found a long-forgotten instant paper maché acrylic-painted red stocking with a green wreath that I made. I untangled silver tinsel, a string of dried cranberries that smelled like citrus-flavored mildew and a stale popcorn string. I dragged out gold and silver plastic snowflakes, and a gold glass star for the tree-topper. I found a turquoise, yellow and red yarn God’s eye left over from camp two year’s earlier. From a large toilet paper carton, I dug out the four-inch-tall blonde, brunette and red-haired angels in pink, blue or red skirts, a few trumpet players and the hooks. Finally, I pulled out the squirt gun to spray the cats when they tried to climb the tree.

“The tree came from the Guardsman’s lot,” I said to Jim. “Everybody got their trees there.”

“That’s fascinating,” he responded.

I didn’t bother telling him about the additional holiday decor. A procession of ceramic angels, heralds with bent tin foil horns, a drummer boy or two and a few sheep, sat on the mantle. A giant wreath with shellacked dried apples and oranges decorated the front door. I believe it was sent by one of my father’s fellow UC Regents with whom he usually disagreed. A Poinsettia sat on the entry table next to some waxy red-leaf plant from Hawaii that arrived each year.

I floated in my memories. Jim found the menorah behind the olive fork set and holder, from a decade-old holiday gift basket. While he picked the wax off the menorah, I wandered  into the backyard and found the errant piece of holly that annually appears underneath one of the Manzanita bushes.

Blind Date

Sign Up for Date by Wednesday for Saturday Fall Festivities Mixer

Escorts Posted on Friday Afternoon

On Wednesday morning I stood in front of the bulletin board reading the announcement about the upcoming dance and reached for a pen attached by a thumb-tacked string.  As a freshman at Santa Catalina School, I knew zero Robert Louis Stevenson boys and no “townie” prospects.  I  shifted from one foot to the other as I signed my name.

Friday afternoon I drifted over to the same bulletin board. Wendy Coblentz  – Escort: Preston M. Fielding, Jr.

I envisioned my escort as average height for a fourteen-year-old, with wavy blond hair parted on the side and a curl draped over his right eyebrow.  His braces had been removed the summer prior and his bite was perfect.  I wondered if he played tennis, and if so, singles or doubles.  I hoped he didn’t sail. I get seasick.

That evening I dampened my shoulder-length hair and rolled it around an empty Minute Maid orange juice container on top of my head, securing any loose strands with bobby pins.  I wish I could have said I almost dreamt of Preston, but my sleep was interrupted by a shifting aluminum and cardboard can.

The next morning I unwound my tilted orange juice can which had produced  luscious curls. They would last only until the fog rolled in.

Late afternoon I pulled out my dress which my mother had purchased from Saks two weeks prior, and held it up to the mirror. The blood orange velveteen empire-waist gown fell to my ankles.  The elastic-seamed capped sleeves clutched my bony upper arms which were slightly buffed from tennis. The neckline was low, not daring.  Although I knew I might receive a demerit for going braless, I was willing to take the chance.  Black patent shoes and opaque hose completed the ensemble.

At 7:00 p.m., after a dinner of beef stroganoff, boiled green beans and greasy rice, I donned my dress. I pushed the now big curls behind my ears and hoped the weather wouldn’t change.  I walked over with the other solo girls to the second floor entry balcony pretending I was a Jewish Juliet.

While the girls preened at the top of the stairs, the nun-crier called out names as the blind date boys clomped through the door.   When I heard my name, I peered over the railing at Preston M. Fielding, Jr., in a gray suit and blue paisley tie, his straight dark hair parted on one side and smoothed down.  He was tall, thin and athletic looking, with more of a fresh-out-of-the- shower post-tennis match look—perhaps a young Roy Emerson—than someone who might wear deck shoes. My date and I could discuss backhands.

I sashayed down the stairs as best I could without losing a shoe, and shook his hand the way we were trained—the right amount of firmness, not too limp, and not holding on for more than a second since that might have been construed as inappropriate. His return handshake was firm, albeit clammy.  He smiled.  No braces. We entered the converted study hall, now darkened except for the side lights and the spotlight on the band, and danced to the hits of 1969 like Bad Moon Rising, Get Back and others.

Preston, or Press as he preferred, and I slow danced to one song, although I’m sure it wasn’t the Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.  Neither of us stepped on each other’s feet.   Our conversation was limited because of the deafening music.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Atherton.”

“Where do you like to go on vacation?”

“Catalina Island. We have a sailboat.”

Damn. Still, never having any sort of boyfriend except for the boy I traded Hostess Ding Dongs with from day camp years earlier, I willed Press to like me.

The band took a break and we stood facing each other like members of an opposing tribe. Press placed his damp hand on my mid-back, halfway between skin and fabric, and led me to the outside deck.  We sat down side by side on the cement bench.  He leaned in and kissed me —softly at first, then harder—our lips pushed together by fate or at least the blind date sign-up list.

We meandered back into the last twenty minutes of the dance, our arms ricocheting off of each other like snapping rubber bands. I was in love or at least in-like. As the music ended we mumbled our goodbyes.

“I’ll give you a call sometime,” Press said, as he dashed towards the idling school bus.

“Sure,” I answered, not wanting to appear too forward.

Later  I filled my friends in on how I had lucked out with my blind date.

“Send him a thank you note,” said Allison.

“I’m sure you’ll hear from him,” Jennifer said, with authority.

The week passed without a call or reciprocal note.  I commiserated with my friends, hoping they would offer guidance.

After two weeks with thoughts of Press fading like a passing shadow, my friend Michelle, who lived in the area, caught my arm after English class.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said. “But, I’ve been seeing Press for the last two weeks.  I hope you’re not too upset.”

“It’s okay,” I said, clutching my books to my chest. “I gotta to run to English class.”

On the walk to the next building I reminded myself that there was a dance next semester and another blind date sign-up sheet.  At least I didn’t have to worry about a romantic sailing jaunt and throwing up over the side of the boat.

My Warm and Fuzzy Grandmother

 

Each summer when I was young, my grandmother, Mimi, took my cousin, Sally and me to Reno to visit her sister, Tinker, our great aunt, in the house built by their father, William Levy.

In the attic,  Sally and I picked out pink-cheeked dolls made out of real china and played hide-and-seek in the old walk-in ice box. We cranked up the Victor phonograph and howled with Caruso.  We pasted S&H Green Stamps in books and argued about the prizes.

“Tinker should get a waffle iron,” I said.

“No,” Sally said. “A new toaster.”

I walked over to the omnipresent See’s candy box and pulled out a chocolate-covered mound.

Even from the other room Mimi must have had radar vision.

“What are you doing?” she asked as I poked my finger nail in the bottom of the candy.

“Checking to see the filling,”  I said. “Dad taught me.”

“Knock it off. We’re going out.”

Mimi dragged us downtown to J.C. Penny. “You have to get matching outfits,” she said.

As we tried on jeans and t-shirts, she made further pronouncements. “Tuck your shirt in.  Stand up straight. Don’t touch the walls. Watch out for germs.”

She pushed us over to the shoe department.  “Both the girls want blue gym shoes,”

Can I get red?” I asked, and was silenced with an icicle-dagger glare.

“This is the only thing we have in her size,” the salesman said, pointing to me and opening a box.

I was blinded by a pair of white Keds as bright as a solar eclipse.

Sally skipped all the way back home in her sapphire-colored P.F. Flyers while I scraped my feet on the cement, and willed the shoes to self-destruct. When we entered the kitchen, Mimi turned to both of us.

“Sally, tie your laces,” she snapped.  “Wendy, how did you get the toes so dirty already?”

“Dunno,” I said.  I wanted to grab the smoked tongue off the table and smack her across the face.   By the time we returned to San Francisco, I had drawn pink-and-orange flowers all over my sneakers.

The line of P.F. Flyers died in the 1970s, only to be resurrected in the 21st century.  After my great aunt and grandmother died, the house was reputed to be haunted despite it having become the Metro Day Spa. Moving white smoke was reported in the skin care suite, formerly the Blue Room, where we once played with our Ouija board.   Mimi’s ghost having a facial must be floating around.