Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Family’s Bananas

In those days the family I knew best were: myself, my older brother and younger sister, my mom and my aunt Dorothy. My parents separated when I was young, leaving my father stranded in Ottawa. Summers, winter holidays, Thanksgiving, Easter break, were all spent in West Chester PA with my aunt and uncle when he was still alive. The pilgrimage to Cape May was made every June for as long as I can remember. My aunt Dorothy who was somewhat older than my great-aunt and had been going there every summer since she was a child.

Aunt Dorothy was my mom’s half-sister, that’s why she was so old. She used to ride horses and teach as well as being an accomplished sculptor. I only ever knew her as old and wrinkly with bowed legs. My brother and I joked that you could open an umbrella underneath her without touching either knee. My mom was always careful to encourage us to be nice to Dorothy, because she was so old. That’s just the way of things: parents teach kids to be nice to old people.

My aunt sat huddled in the passenger seat of the 1977 Chevy Nova, partly because her back was stooped, but mostly because my mom had piled everything under and around her. There she was: old and fussy, but barely able to see over the dashboard. My mom sat in the middle. It was one of those bench seats that you find in old cars. One of her feet was on Dorothy’s side of the floor and another one a little too close to the foot that was on the gas pedal. My brother had just got his license and was driving. I was about thirteen. My younger sister and I were stuffed into the back seat, surrounded by garbage bags filled with who knows what --- towels, flippers, sandals, flip-flops, a mask and snorkel, probably a plastic shovel as well --- packing is my mother’s specialty.

I don’t know if you know the summers in Pennsylvania, but they’re hot. A dry hot. The kind of hot that burns your fingers when you put your hand on the car door handle. You can’t wait to start driving so that some air, hot or cold, will start moving through the car. In that car on that hot, hot day, with my grumpy sister and my mother a bit nervous of my young brother’s driving, my aunt regaled us with a some of her senility which proved to be the antidote for all the forces against us.

The car was so full of junk, you could barely roll down the window for fear of ‘luggage’ falling out. One of my legs was trapped between the seat and a garbage bag, the other was at another location which momentarily escapes my memory. Grahnia my sister was sleeping. Only visible through the bags because of her long curly black hair and the occasional light-hearted snore. Most of us were asleep. Due to the unfortunate packing job that so often paralysed my mother’s organisational skills, some of the stuffing began to leak out. To clarify, I think that my mother had brought plates and cups with us, because we were renting a three-bedroom apartment for our three week stay.

Sometimes the stuffing was towels or newspaper that my mom had wrapped around the dishes. On this occasion, she used packing kernels: those little Styrofoam shapes that act as a cushion for valuables when shipped in boxes. Through a hole in the box and on a cushion of air, some of the packing kernels start floating around the inside of the car. I woke up to find my brother laughing as these Styrofoam shapes started getting caught on faster currents of air and whipped themselves out the window.

My brother’s laugh is very contagious. It starts as little giggles, and then he gets redder and redder until he makes a sound like he’s constipated and explodes in a paroxysm of tears and gusts of ha aah ha haha aaaaaaaahaahhhhhhhhh, followed by some high-pitched wheezing, repeated by the constipation sound and more hahhahahahaha. By this time, I found the cause of this uncontrollable force of noise. Dorothy had started to nibble on some of the floating pieces of Styrofoam, thinking (God knows what) that they were a free treat that had finally come her way. I could just imagine her pleased that little nibbles were now able to be plucked from the air, instead of having to open up a packet of food. My mother turned to her to make some concerned and helpful comment, as she would to a child, when my aunt blurted out “It tastes just like jam.” There was nothing to be done after that. There was no reason that could be applied to the situation. My mother, against all her maternal instincts to protect, roared with laughter. My brother in such a fit, his spasms of laughter making me laugh in my silent uncontrollable giggles, did his best to keep control of the car. I think we even woke up Grahnia. That was the first time I saw my mother laugh so openly, honestly and loudly. It was enough to wake us up from the tired heat and hot metal and remind us of what the situation really was, a family trip of young and old, and of how we were all slightly bonkers, just like everyone else. On our way to the beach.

As I sit and write this, tears of laughter come to my eyes again, though at the time being squashed against the seat, surrounded by plastic bags and cookie crumbs, it was the funniest thing in the world. I don’t know if Dorothy knew that her behaviour was the source of such merriment. She might have guessed that her actions were questionable in retrospect. Honestly, who knows what happened in her head. She was a direct person, kindly in some ways and partially bananas. Which we all had a fondness for.

The Secret Banana War
We used to stay at her home in Pennsylvania. An apartment in a vast community of old, decrepit, dying people. Pleasantly situated in the countryside, surrounded by forests and farmland. Her apartment was on the second floor of a small two-storey building. My mother did all the food shopping. She used to buy tons of vitamins, sometimes from hippies who lived in buses and owned health-food stores. And with every shopping purchase, she bought bananas. My sister, ate little else in those days: cheese, bread, plain pizza, egg milkshakes and bananas. Dorothy ate bananas too. So in order to keep some bananas for my sister’s queer diet, my mother hid the bananas. As it turned out, Dorothy did too. My mother once commented, in a state of incredulity, that she had found nine banana peels secreted in Dorothy’s room. I guess Dorothy was just fending for herself in the secret banana war.


At July 13, 2009 at 12:09 AM, Blogger spacemaurader said...

Everything you write makes me happy you exist.
Carry one.


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