Glimpses of Poverty–I

15 12 2006

Recently a friend gave me a box of Whitman’s Sampler. The yellow box with its vintage embroidered look triggered the following memory.

There lived a woman, many years ago, who was old when I was young. I met her briefly, never knew her name and never saw her again but she permanently changed my perception of the world. Greed, poverty, truth, passing judgement, compassion and reality, were all experienced in one vivid moment that I can never forget.

My parents and I were traveling on Grace Lines Santa Maria and had gone for a walk on the dock in Cartagena, Colombia. The Second Steward, a charming man named Sal Renzi, had offered to accompany us for safety sake when we decided to hand out candy to the young boys who’d been diving off the pier for quarters in the hot tropic sunshine. The children gathered quickly as soon as they saw us.

In the midst of this lively crowd, she appeared, black as tar, bent and withered from age, stretching forth knobby fingers and begging silently for candy.

“Children first,” my father told her.

The sea of waving, grasping hands, at first charming, quickly frightened me, as though Medusa had taken on the form of innocence. There’s a moment of fear when you are surrounded by people who have nothing and want desperately what you have. The climax arrives when you know your generosity will be exhausted before their needs are met.

Dad was trying to distribute the candy fairly and blocked the woman’s hand several times, but despite her age and frailty, she held her ground and remained insistent.

“Just wait!” he said, clearly annoyed.

“She only wants one of the brown papers,” Renzi told him and I saw Dad glance at him in confusion. “She’ll save it to smell.”

At the end, Renzi told the boys to move on and Dad gave the woman the two chocolates that remained, along with the crinkly cups and the box. She never said thank you, but her face declared it and, clutching her treasure protectively, she walked out of our lives.


Preparing for the Big Day

5 12 2006

As a young woman I travelled with my parents nearly every year at Christmas. For six months we’d relive the excitement and fun of the previous trip but by the time summer arrived, waiting for the winter cruise listings became almost unbearable. So, one fine Sunday, usually at my mother’s suggestion, we’d get in the car, buy a box of donuts at a local shop, and head to Hoboken to see if any ships were berthed at the Holland America pier.

Sometimes we were lucky, the Nieuw Amsterdam, Rotterdam, or Statendam would be tied up and we’d watch as provisions were loaded, handsome Dutch officers hung over the rails or bounded down the gangways, and the ship swayed gently at the rising tide. Sailings were usually on Saturdays, so we rarely saw the ships leave. One time we arrived shortly before dusk and were treated to a beautiful sight. Sitting in the car, we watched as the sun set and lights began to twinkle on the Nieuw Amsterdam. “She’s as beautiful as a Christmas tree,” someone said and, at that moment, we knew that no matter what her itinerary, we’d be sailing on her for the holidays.

If the piers were deserted we’d drive over to the dry dock area to munch our donuts and gaze at rusty old freighters. It was a poor substitute, but just the sound of waves smacking the pilings and the smell of river water would conjure up images of foreign ports and exotic locales. We’d spend most of the time sitting in silence, each lost in a private daydream.

By mid-August or early September, Cruise Lines began to advertise their winter schedules. Again, Sunday was our day and we’d pour over the NY Times travel section searching for a trip we could afford, with just the right number of days, and ports that would set our hearts pounding, at first in the Carribean and later in South America and Europe.

There was also a little yellow book that could be gotten from a travel agency. What a precious thing it was! Every cruise on every line was listed along with days of departure and return, ports, and minimum to maximum prices. Whichever system we used, the next step was to call either the travel agent or the cruise line direct to get brochures and deck plans. By the time we chose our trip these would be limp from unfolding and refolding.

So many decisions! Excitement built as we discussed and researched the different ports of call. Staterooms were color coded for price. Could we afford the red or blue? Port hole or window? Although the roll of the ship was felt less on lower decks and midship, because of my walking disability, we chose high up–Sundeck or Prom–and toward the stern for easier access to the outside decks. Then, hold that room! send in a deposit!

If possible, we made arrangements to visit “our” ship on a sailing day. We’d catch our breath at the beauty of the public rooms, peek into the dining room, and wonder who the lucky people were sailing in our cabin. The sound of chimes and a loud speaker announcement informed visitors it was time to go, but we lingered until the urgency of the final call and the sound of the ship’s horn vibrated the soles of our feet. Standing on the dock as the ship departed, we’d wave farewell and shout “Bon Voyage,” knowing our turn would soon come.

Did I say soon? How was it possible for three months to drag by so slowly? A few weeks before the sailing date tickets arrived in the mail and (be still my heart) baggage tags! Now it became real and a sudden panic would grip us. Our business demanded we work until the very last minute, but cruise wear had to be looked for in closets or purchased, (a long bamboo pole spanned the living room from one door jamb to the other to hold carefully ironed dresses). Matching jewelry had to be cleaned, shoes polished. Appointments for haircuts and permanents had to be made and kept. For some odd reason, my mother always felt compelled to leave the house spotless. Dad cleaned the garage. What was all that about? Maybe because he needed to unearth a ladder to get the luggage down from the attic.

Suitcases were open in every room of the house. Our two cats, Little Guy and Barry, padded from one to the other searching for a comfy bed only to be dumped and shooed to make room for bathing suits and shorts, underwear, and pajamas. Last of all, the cocktail dresses and evening shirts went in and the cases were closed and locked, tags attached. Where was I? Tidying up the last of the work–I loathed packing.

The night before I barely slept. Sailing day came and all of us were dead tired, convinced we’d forgotten something vital. Finally, bathed, dressed, shod, perfumed, coiffed, gloved and coated, we locked the door behind us (after checking that the gas was off–how many times?) and got into the car for the trip to manhattan. Half-way through the Lincoln Tunnel I’d spot the sign that says New Jersey/New York and Mom would ask Dad if he had the tickets. He always did.

No Suitcases for Me

25 11 2006

I need a vacation.

I need a world tour. But, I do not need to pack for this trip.

I am, (in the real world) gearing up (slimming down?) for an eventual move from the seven-room house I’ve lived in since I was five, to an apartment in a senior citizen building. Every day I throw away moth and dust corrupted items once deemed useful, cute, important and needed, whether: purchased, gifted, acquired, rescued, handed down, bought on impulse, or saved just in case. Dusty books, yellowed with age, read and unread, pages curling, sit in shopping bags next to cartons of rusty paint cans and cleaning supplies that will be taken to a hazardous waste site.

Bags and boxes of size six gloves, belts for someone else’s still girlish waist, used VCR tapes, old greeting cards, a Kitchen Aide mixer, a sewing machine, old clothing and a bag of potting soil have already been picked up, or crowd the hall waiting for local Freecyclers to cart away to their loving homes (God bless them!)

Giving, bestowing, blessing, (I hope) and offering to others the still useful or otherwise lovely accumulation of a lifetime–here and now while I live and breathe–makes me feel like I’m playing Santa to friends and relatives who have given me so much in love, help, and affection in the past. Post-it notes help to remind me who admired what.

So, Soul Food friends, forgive me if I am in no mood to pack suitcases of clothing, toiletries, and jewelry for the Advent Tour.

Journals and pens, I have, along with my Baby Dell, and a brain chock full of travel memories from the past eager to be turned into stories tweaked and embellished to fit this exciting occasion.

Porchsitter: Barbara Banta