Monday, July 8, 2013

Elephants, Ice Cream, and Saris, Oh Best Beloved

In all but the very first of my blogs, I have had a little tradition of posting a story from an old blog into the new one. And I say, why stop now? So without further ado, a story about childhood and summer and memory:

Elephants, Ice Cream, and Saris, Oh Best Beloved

On the subway this morning, two Indian couples boarded the train a few stops after me, each with a toddler daughter in a stroller. The daughters were chattering away like magpies at each other, sharing raisins, and patting each other. They were incredibly cute. The mothers both had that long, thick, single braid in the way that some Indian women style their hair. When the daughters (who, by now, were out of their strollers and seated next to their mothers) weren't giggling with each other, one or the other of them would be trying to grasp one of the mothers' braids and tug on it. I remember feeling that way about braids when I was little. You just can't seem to help yourself.

When I finished first grade, in 1972, my entire classroom was invited to spend the last afternoon of school at the home of one of our classmates. We were allowed the run of the yard, we played games, we stuffed our faces full of treats, we took turns hand-cranking ice cream, and we sat mesmerized when our friend’s father (later one of my favorite college professors) read us selections from Just So Stories (oh best beloved!). It was quite the afternoon, for all of the aforementioned reasons, but also because our friend’s mother showed up in a sari.

She was a whip-smart woman with a serene bearing and the kindest of hearts, and she had recently been to India. She was in her 40's, ancient to a 7 year old, and was dressed in beautiful saffron sari, with her long, salt and pepper hair in one fat braid, hanging down her back to her waist. I followed her, mesmerized by that braid, for much of the afternoon.

Later, after achieving button-popping homemade ice cream satiation, someone teased me and hurt my feelings. Like many seven year olds, especially those high on sugar and in desperate need of a nap, I burst into tears and was inconsolable, until my classmate’s sari-clad mother took charge of the situation. She was sitting, on the bench beneath a shady elm in the middle of the back yard, with her braid thrown over her shoulder, her sari untouched by sweat or dust or little kid ice cream smudges, and with something clutched in her hand. She patted the seat next to her, and, hiccupping and sniffling with utter despair, I sat down next to her.

She unfurled her fingers to show a small, red seed in her palm. Shiny and red, with a small, ivory elephant on top. She leaned down and whispered to me: 'It's a magic seed of wishes. There are thousands of tiny elephants inside this tiny seed, and each elephant is worth one wish. And since you have stopped crying, I'll let you take three wishes for your very own.' And with that, she shook three teeny, tiny elephants out of the seed, and said, 'wish!'

At that moment, still so crystal clear, I truly believed that the seed held a thousand elephants, that each elephant had the power to grant me a wish, and that this mother was probably one of those angels I’d heard about in Sunday school, angels who masquerade as regular people, doing good in an understated way. An angel in a sari, with a graying braid and a seedpod full of tiny elephants.

I don't remember what I wished. Beyond that moment, of a kindness that sparked a little kid's already active imagination, I don't recall much of that afternoon. Later, when I was in college, I happened on one of those elephant-filled seeds in a funky little shop near the campus. I bought one, and, although I was an adult and now knew better, I was crushed to find that each seed held not a thousand but a dozen little carved elephants. I opted not to wish on them, but just to keep them for the memory. Somewhere in the past 11 or 12 moves, the elephants in their seed vanished.

I still think about them, though, sometimes. And about peach ice cream and saris and the far-reaching impact of gentle and kind woman, all in same, hot afternoon.

Edited from the original which was posted in my long defunct first blog, in the summer of 2002

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