Micro-version: Pretend tea is served in tiny cups to children sitting on a perfect lawn. Cherries fall, while frills and ribbons sadly give way to realization. Ants and wasps go about their insect business.
My grandfather had a perfect lawn, emerald green and soft like the fur of a cool animal. As children, we were to avoid playing on the lawn. We had the alleyway, and the scrubby grass that laid along the railroad tracks that cut behind the alley between my grandparent’s house and the slightly larger, finer houses up on the rise behind the tracks.
We had my grandmother’s kitchen, too. A gleaming place, filled with biscuits and cookies, tarts and currant buns, juice for the children, and endless pots of tea for the grownups. My grandmother died at 62, just my age now. I remember her as a soft woman, old even before she became sick, in her mid-fifties already a granny.
She wore slippery silk print dresses with elbow length sleeves, covered buttons and narrow belts, subdued dresses worn with sensible shoes and hose. Her arms are what I see when I look at my own arms now, fleshy, pale and freckled. Her nails were always clean and short, faint half-moons of her cuticles shining pinkly. She was a cleanly scrubbed woman, whose kitchen smelled like bleach with an undercurrent of tobacco from my grandfather’s endless cigarettes.
It is July circa 1962, and the fine light of memory shines into that summer. There are two small girls on a blue blanket on the grass under the big cherry tree in the back yard. The cherries hang in fat bunches from the branches overhead, and bees hum in the leaves. The speckled dark brown bark on the tree is sticky and ripe with ants.
It is sunny and hot. The girls, cousins, are crisp and clean, both blonde-headed. Their dresses are frilly, white and yellow. They have ribbons in their pale hair. There is an unexpected tea party going on, and grandmother moves back and forth along the cement walkway, from kitchen to blanket with a tray of oatmeal cookies and apple juice in tiny china cups. The screen door bangs behind her as she serves. The girls are warned not to pick the cherries, to mind the bees.
The kitchen sits in serene cleanliness behind the door, and beyond that, in the dim interior is the living room. The children rarely enter there. It is a place of tiny china figurines - painted collie dogs, terriers and poodles, cherubic ballerinas and elves - all displayed precariously on polished wooden tables. The living room is home to big black glass ashtrays on brass stands, easily tipped, and lacy white doilies on the arms and backs of soft furniture, meant only for company. Also, there is grandpa.
Grandpa, on his sick days, alone in the dark parlour, a blanket hung cleverly by twine and clothespins in the doorway between the shining kitchen and the gloom of that waxed and polished room. The blanket keeps the light from getting in and the darkness from getting out.
The two girls do not trespass beyond the edge of the blanket. They sit, in their patch of shade, legs folded over white ankle socks and shoes with buckles, playing quiet games, astonished to be on the forbidden grass at all. They ignore the fat red cherries that fall from the tree onto the blue blanket, darkly staining.
They are deaf to the bellows and growls that float from the interior of the house through the screen door, over the crowns of dahlias and gladiolas, and into the garden. They keep their beribboned heads bent over their teacups through the crash of ashtrays and the splintering of china dogs. They watch the ants. Grandmother stands, framed in the doorway, white handkerchief to her mouth. The words she has swallowed have already started eating her alive.
Some day, in the future, these cousins will abandon their ribbons and white dresses for pop-tops and pedal pushers, pleated skirts and knee socks, pantsuits and ponchos, leather and fringe. Eventually, mouths sewn shut, they will abandon each other.
The wasps will gorge on cherries until the tree itself is chopped away, and summer will turn to winter, again and again.