Getting to the Heart


One day, in the hubbub of the Oaxaca City bus station, we pointed at sentences in our book of important phrases and, with great difficulty, bought round-trip tickets to San Martín Tilcajete. The Oaxaca guidebook had told us we would love this town, known for its whimsical, carved animals.

Once on the bus we relaxed until we realized we had no idea when to get off. Each time the bus stopped, we stood up. “San Martín?” we asked in nervous voices. Over and over, the locals gestured us back into our seats. Half an hour later, they whooshed us out the door, leaving us to stand by the side of the road. The person who had gotten off with us, pointed west.

We walked the dirt road into town where pastel houses lined the main street. We stepped in and out of little shops, each one a room at the front of someone’s home. We were looking for the perfect alebrije – the wooden creature we would take back to Oregon. We said buenos dias to shopkeepers, then browsed among the animals, large and small, each one ornately painted. We were soon overwhelmed. Should we buy the wonderful, strange giraffe we had seen a few shops back? Surely an iguana was more Mexican.

We agreed we’d seen too many. While we liked some very much, we loved none. Across the street, a building caught our attention with its door of glowing beautiful colors.

“I vote for the giraffe,” Jerry said.

But I crossed the street and he, being a good sport, followed. As soon as we walked through that colorful door, we forgot our tired feet. This gallery was cool, a bit dark after the bright street, but as our eyes adjusted we saw art. Long-finned fish swam among psychedelic turtles and feisty chameleons. Animals posed wearing the horns of another species, or they pranced on fins, or they reached new heights on improbable tails. Jerry stroked the shoulders of an armadillo holding a saxophone. I drifted toward a horse-gazelle, electric blue, that appeared to be leaping into space.

Buenas tardes, a soft voice said, breaking into the cathedral-like silence. A little girl smiled up at me and held out a business card. I looked beyond her into the shadows of the tree-filled courtyard where a young man stood. He waved and said something in Spanish before resuming his carving. The child ran back to her mother who also waved and then turned to rock her baby in a cradle swing. The baby’s sweet dusky face drew me from the gallery to the courtyard. I cooed and spoke soft words – in English, of course. The mother smiled and nodded. Baby talk is a universal language.

Jerry, who works with wood at home, drew closer to the carver. He studied the handmade tools with admiration. “What kind of wood?” he asked. “What tree?” “His mind,” Jerry whispered to me, “is so interesting. I wish I could ask if he just picked this up. Did he study with someone? Did it take years? Does he sell in other galleries?”

The gazelle called out to both of us. We carried it to the table in the courtyard and hugged it to show how much we loved it. We paid and shook hands. Gracias, we said, but the word vibrated with sadness. We had found our alebrije, but we had lost a chance to get to know its creators.

Those final minutes in San Martín had tugged me back into childhood. Jerry’s face reflected mine – we both understood the frustration of being voiceless. We had grown up in families that did not let us speak.

 

* * * *

The first thing my new friend did that was different, she rang her own doorbell. We waited, hugging heavy book bags and shivering in the January chill. It was 1955, and after lonely months in this new high school, I finally had a friend.

“A minute,” someone called from the other side of the door.

“It’s just me,” Joan called back.

“Oh, just you.” The door swung inward. The woman facing us had been trying to pin a maid’s cap onto her flyaway orange hair. Her blouse needed tucking. She glowered.

“This is Miss Murray,” Joan said as we hastened into the warmth.

“And this is the famous Anne.” Miss Murray gave up on the hat and placed her hands on her hips. “Now, when you see her room, remember it’s never looked so nice. She finally cleaned it.”

“Don’t tell on me, Miss Murray,” Joan said.

Joan could say “don’t” to an adult. My stomach lurched.

“Ah, and you’re a quiet one,” Miss Murray said.

“A relief from me,” Joan said. “I never stop talking.” She led the way toward a room that held square furniture in chrome and plastic, wall-to-wall carpeting, and modern canvases on white walls. The view beyond the living room windows caught me – a lake! A complete, sweet, ice-covered lake!

Joan put her hand on my arm before I could speak. “Where is she?” she whispered to Miss Murray.

Miss Murray put her fingers to her lips and pointed at a closed door.

Joan turned abruptly. She pulled me away from the living room and up carpeted stairs, narrow and winding. Framed watercolors of tilted buildings and sharp flowers filled the staircase walls. “My mother painted all these,” she said as we climbed.

I stopped to look at a picture of a face – all angles and three slanted eyes.

 

At the top of the stairs, Joan opened the door to her room and shrugged out of her coat. She dropped her book bag and her coat onto the plush blue carpet. “Look here.” She opened the closet door and exposed a mountain of clothes, shoes, papers, and books. “I really did clean up my room. Here it all is.”

I had to grin.

Joan and I curled up on the twin beds with our schoolbooks, and resumed our conversation about her current heartthrob. Chatting with a friend – how sweet. Happiness poured into me. At this new school close to New York City, where the kids seemed so articulate – so opinionated about everything – I hardly opened my mouth. Of course, at home, nothing had changed. There, my silence was expected.

A few minutes later, a crackle and a tinny voice came out of a box next to the door. Joan ran to it and pushed a button.

“Ask Anne, does she like artichokes.”

Fruits and vegetables tumbled through my head until I settled on one. Mother, making a special salad, had showed us something that looked like a dark green egg. We had nibbled at chunks of buttery soft flesh as she cut it away from the brown pit.

“Oh, yes,” I said.

“She adores artichokes,” Joan told the intercom.

Adores. A Hollywood word. I drew in my breath.

“What does she like with it?” the metallic voice asked.

My heart stopped beating. Long silence.

“Mayo, mustard, lemon juice, or butter,” Joan prompted.

None of these suited the artichoke in my mind. “Mayonnaise?” I ventured.

 

Later, at Joan’s dinner table, classical music wafted out of hidden speakers. Ice sparkled in water glasses. Lighted candles stood in silver holders.

The mother—the artist!—patted the chair beside her and asked me to sit down. Dark-haired and pretty, she wore a scarlet silk blouse and a heavy string of pearls with her long black skirt. Only three buttons held her blouse together. She was my first mother with cleavage.

“So this is the Anne I’ve been hearing about,” she said in a Bette Davis voice.

Joan’s father made a little bow. “Velcome to our house,” he said. Joan had told me that he had designed this house. Pictures of it had been in Architectural Digest.

Joan’s brother scowled and muttered hi. He was the studious one. He planned to be a doctor.

Joan grabbed her napkin and tossed it across her lap. I did the same as Miss Murray brought in a basket of warm bread and went around the table offering it like a waitress. When she got to me, she winked.

A small plate to the north of my forks held a thing that reminded me of a little Christmas tree. Everyone had one; this tree was mine. Surely this wasn’t something to eat! I quickly decided I had not seen it. Later I would say I was too full.

As Miss Murray brought in lamb and roasted potatoes, I struggled through shyness to answer their questions. “My dad works for International Paper in the city.” “Yes, he takes the seven-forty train.” “We moved here from Ticonderoga. I was born there. I lived there sixteen years.” I sipped my water and set the glass down on the white cloth with shaking fingers.

“She’s way ahead in French class,” Joan said. “My French is so bad,” she continued, “I had to go to French camp last summer. I had to miss tennis camp.”

Did summer camp come in more flavors than Girl Scout? That was news to me, but the green thing on the little plate kept drawing my attention. Steam rose from its pointed top. The others were doing things to theirs. They had tipped them on their sides and scattered or stacked their leaves beside them.

Somehow, they could eat and talk, too. They discussed a collection of Italian art at the museum. They talked about someone called Leonard Bernstein who taught music at Tanglewood. Joan’s brother mentioned the rabbi and temple.

My bite of lamb lost its flavor. Joan’s family was Jewish! My mother was going to tighten her lips and sigh. She and Dad would talk in low voices. They would try to take away my only friend!

 

They were all looking at me. “College applications,” someone repeated. “Where will you apply?”

I set down my fork. I drew a long breath. “I want to go to Middlebury to study languages.”

“But even if they accept her, she can’t go there,” Joan said. “She has to go to Cornell.”

“Cornell is a fine university.” Her father cut a piece of lamb and took a bite.

“Has to go there?” As her mother leaned toward me I forced my eyes away from her low-cut blouse.

I looked down at my hands, now twisting in my lap. “My brother’s at Cornell. My parents went there. My mother says I will go there to take Home Economics.”

Joan thumped her fist on the table. “So she can be the perfect wife!” Her voice grew louder. “She should be studying languages. She should follow her passion.”

My lungs filled with excitement. Passion! Another star-studded word.

They got me to tell them about the recent field trip to the United Nations. How, through the headphones I had heard the translators instantly turn a speech into Chinese, German, French, and more. “They have to be so good,” I said.

Joan’s mother nodded. “The future of the world could depend on how well they translate. Nations talking to each other could lead us to world peace.”

They said I had high standards. Vision. They said Joan was fortunate to have a friend like me! They thought I was something!

At that moment Joan nudged my arm. “You forgot your artichoke.”

The music from the stereo was the only sound in the room. Everyone looked at my plate.

“Just see the way Joan puts her leaves,” her mother finally said. “Her dresser drawers look like that plate.”

“And your plate shows that you’re an artist.” Joan said. It was true. The leaves on her mother’s plate swirled in graceful patterns. Joan pulled my plate closer and showed me how to get started. “This part is slow,” she said. “But it’s all worth it when you get to the heart.”

“We’re delighted to introduce you to something new.” Joan’s mother offered bread to everyone, and the conversation rushed on to other matters.

Joan and I took turns finishing my artichoke. She was right about the heart.

Home from school the next day, I walked through my family’s unlocked front door into a room filled with antique china cabinets and chairs upholstered in velvet. Beveled mirrors hung in heavy wooden frames next to white silk lampshades. Mother’s collection of Dresden figurines and Italian glass paperweights filled every table. Ladies Home Journal and Woman’s Day were heaped on the stool beside Mother’s chair.

At dinner, Dad talked about office politics. Mother described a shopping trip to find drapery fabric. My voice had no place at this table. Did all the other dinner tables in Westchester County bubble with ideas and opinions and discussions? Did all the other kids get to talk?

When my parents asked about my visit to Joan, I swallowed any words about Leonard Bernstein or rabbis. I didn’t mention the lake or the maid. But I had to let them know that I had feasted at a different kind of table.

I drew a long breath and dove in. “I learned how to eat an artichoke.”

Mother clicked her tongue in dismay. “I should have served them before now.”

“We talked about all kinds of things,” I continued. “They thought it was great that I like French so much.” I looked away from my parents and down at my fork. “I told them I want to be a UN interpreter. They liked the idea.”

Mother’s polished nails tapped the tabletop. “They were just being polite.”

I tried one more time. “They think it’s good to do what you love …”

“You’ll take home economics,” she said. “It worked for me.”

 

* * * *

Back home in Oregon, Jerry and I are eating artichokes. I settle mine onto the black plate and dollop mayonnaise beside it.

Our beautiful alebrije balances on a nearby table, its gazelle-like body brilliant blue against the white bricks behind it. I raise a leaf in toast to the Mexican woodcarver and to his young wife. Will we ever go back to see them? And if we do, will we carry more words?

Perhaps we will. We have moved beyond si, and no, and dónde està el baño?, and we are both in love with Irma, our pretty Spanish teacher. Last night in front of twenty classmates, after I stumbled through, “I live in Corvallis. I am a teacher for writers,” Irma clapped her hands and sang out, “Magnifico! Estupendo!

Irma works hard to hear the meaning behind our halting speech. I’ve decided that she and I have that in common as teachers. We are both translators – helping to turn a stumbling phrase into meaningful communication. She is the latest of those who over the years have helped me break through silence to speak out, to reach out, to others. But, of course, Joan and her family did it first.

Jerry’s voice pulls me back to the present. “I have this idea for building a cabinet.”

I should ask where on earth we will put this cabinet, but instead, I watch his pencil move across scratch paper. He says the slender walnut cabinet will hold wine glasses. The doors will be quilted maple, coopered, and unusual. He wants it to have long, graceful legs. I understand that it will be beautiful. Of course, we’ll find a place for it.

As we progress with our artichokes, the discarded leaves reveal our personalities: Jerry’s are helter-skelter; mine form tight lines with each leaf nestled into the one before it. We touch each meaty leaf to the mayo, scrape off the good stuff with our teeth, and return the tooth-marked leaf to the plate. We practice Spanish sentences for next week’s class, correcting ourselves in mid-word, taking forever to say the simplest things.

“I am writing a story,” I say in Spanish. “Escribo de mi madre.”

“About what?” Jerry asks.

“About my mother.”

He knows exactly how important my story will be. “Magnifico!” he exclaims.

“Estupendo!” I grin at him, and the dog who thinks our giddiness is about her, rushes to us for patting.

Eating an artichoke creates spaces in our conversation. We tip over the words as we tip over the leaves, looking for what is inside. Savory moments later, when we get there, we gently scrape away the choke. This part is slow, my friend Joan said years ago. But it’s all worth it when you get to the heart. 

Anne Warren Smith grew up in upstate New York, attended Cornell University, and finally settled in Corvallis, Oregon, where she has taught creative writing classes to all ages for more than twenty years. Finding a voice plays a large role in essays that have appeared in Calyx, Memoir Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as in several novels for young children. She blogs about writing and reading and surviving ovarian cancer at http://annewarrensmith.wordpress.com

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7 thoughts on “Getting to the Heart

  1. Linda

    I love the way the first two pieces come together so beautifully in the third. The detail is vivid and evocative, and your embarrassment at your first encounter with an artichoke made me chuckle at an old memory of mine.

    1. Anne

      The story of dinner at Joan’s house was written long before the Mexico sections. For years, I didn’t know that communication was even the theme here. It takes me forever to understand what it is I’m really writing about.

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