I grew up in Kansas, just where the paved roads ended outside of Kansas City. Our house was in a new tract development in the middle of a cornfield. The nearest store, a five and dime called Katz Drugstore, was about a mile away. When we were eight or nine, my brother and I would tramp the distance through the furnace of summer. I remember the heat.
Katz’s was big and air-conditioned. When we finally got there, it was such a relief. We each had a quarter and hours to spend and we usually surveyed the candy first. The clerk hovered inside an island of glass candy bins. It smelled delicious, but we were just looking. We’d come back if we had money left over.
Next, we trekked over to the toys. We carefully inventoried the aisle devoted to cheap plastic cars and trucks, dolls and games. We knew exactly which items had arrived since our last visit. My brother read the comic books. I scrutinized the paper dolls.
After we were done there, we visited the pet department. We focused on parakeets and canaries in cages, admired hamsters and guinea pigs and stared down schools of goldfish in their bubbling aquariums. Finally, we visited our favorite: a tank of baby turtles. To us, it was a zoo.
Eventually we’d meander to the soda fountain and climbed on the stools at the lunch counter. We’d spin around on our stools while we waited to order our cokes. The teenage counter help, always dressed in a starched pink uniform, was usually busy snapping her gum and chatting with friends. She always ignored us. We were too shy to ask for help and so we’d just sit and sit (and spin and spin) for what seemed like hours before anyone would ask for our order.
Ordinarily, when we finished our cokes we’d head back to the candy counter and buy something delicious. The decisions were always difficult, but once we had the little white bag with Pez or Snickers inside, we’d begin the long, hot trek.
One particular trip was different than the usual. My brother and I stopped at a nursery greenhouse. We’d walked past it many times without finding it very interesting. This time was special though. Our grandmother was visiting and we thought it would be nice to buy her some flowers.
We were surprised at how large it was inside the nursery. The air was aromatic and humid. There were rows and rows of potted plants; lots to choose from but we only had a quarter left to buy her gift. We finally found a row of tiny begonias in little clay pots for only a quarter. They were covered with tiny pink blossoms and we could afford one. We looked very carefully to find the best one for her.
Our grandmother must have loved us very much. She carried the tiny begonia in her lap on the bus trip home to Wichita, over three hundred and fifty miles away.
Thirty years later I was visiting my grandmother in her airy home full of needlepoint and puzzles. I asked her if she remembered the little pink begonia my brother and I had given her. “Not only do I remember it,” she said, pointing to a plant sitting on a table nearby. “In fact, there it is!” Astoundingly, there the gift begonia sat, now grown immense with lush green foliage covered with tiny pink blossoms.
My grandmother took my arm and led me on a tour of her house, inside and out. Everywhere we looked she showed me beautiful pink begonias. They sat on windowsills, in large pots on the floors, on glass shelves next to her beloved violets and in window boxes outside. “And all of those are from your little plant too,” she said, explaining that it had provided the cuttings for all of them. “And that isn’t all. I’ve given cuttings to dozens of friends and neighbors over the years. I don’t know what it is about that plant, but people ask me for cuttings all the time. And from what I’ve heard, my friends have given lots of cuttings to their friends too. Your tiny begonia has children and grandchildren all over Wichita by now. There must be thousands of them.”
I love the idea of a thriving colony of pink begonias blanketing Wichita. I can see, in my mind’s eye, the repeated ritual of friends carefully cutting a fresh shoot from a main stem and together wrapping it, like a delicate newborn, in a damp paper towel for the trip home. It makes me feel good to know that two hot and dusty kids, from a simple act of love and generosity, could generate, with the help of a tiny plant, a garden of friendship festooned in pink and alive today.
© 2009, Monica Rix Paxson
all rights reserved
There was no way around it. My daughter had been accepted into a unique language immersion school and my office was on the other side of the city. Between the two points lay the vast and dangerous wasteland, the neighborhood known as Chicago’s “West Side.” The only reasonable route between dropping my child off at school and getting to work involved driving through the ghetto twice a day.
The first six months my commute was done with great trepidation. I could feel the fear in my body and arrived home exhausted from the stress of heightened vigilance. I was always ready to speed through an intersection to avoid being approached by gangs and I kept the windows rolled up to avoid purse-snatchers. I knew better than to take a side street or stop for gas. I was driving through a war zone.
Eventually I relaxed when nothing happened, but it took a long time before I noticed what was really there to see: kids going to school, people waiting at bus stops, mothers shopping, people moving about doing the sorts of things we all do in life. “Where are all the street gangs?” I wonder, “Where is all the violence?”
That’s when I realized where most of it was: on television.
I cried in my car when it dawned on me how I’d been spoon fed a nightly dose of terror in the name of keeping me informed. The people of the West Side had been demonized and I’d been manipulated. Worse yet, the people presenting the “news” probably didn’t even know the damage they were inflicting on us.
I know there probably are gangs and violence on the West Side, but truthfully I think that the news exploits this fact for their own purposes. It causes huge damage, generating horrible visions that make it difficult to see each other as humans.
After driving through the West Side for many weeks I began to notice something: on Friday nights the air was full of wood smoke. “Why?” I wondered.” I knew it smelled divinely, pungently, deliciously hickory-scented, but where was the smoke coming from mile after mile? Everywhere, I discovered. On Friday night storefront barbeques materialized all up and down Chicago Avenue and Division St. and if you’re lucky, you get to feast on tangy ribs. It is a different world on Friday nights. By Monday they had vanished.
One day while doing the zombie forced march of my daily commute, I happened to be staring at a brick industrial building I’d passed twice a day for months. It was so ordinary it was nearly invisible to me. But for some reason, that particular day, I noticed that the unimposing sign in front announced that it was the West Side Preparatory School.
I was dumbfounded. Could this be the famous Mecca of education run by the legendary Marva Collins, someone who is revered for her teaching methods? I couldn’t believe it. I immediately pulled over, parked my car and headed to the doorway. I was greeted by the most amazing being: a completely articulate, self-confident seven-year-old. She introduced herself and helped arrange for me to visit a classroom. This wasn’t some job she had been assigned. She was just on her way to her next class to discuss Plato’s Republic and had intercepted me in transit. I was in the presence of a conscious, fully aware child unlike any seven-year-old I’d ever met and the school was full of them.
What happened in that classroom visit during my spontaneous drop-by deserves it’s own essay, it’s own book, it’s own encyclopedia. The experience of being there for a mere two hours, sitting at a tiny desk along with the other children and seeing what is possible for education (and how it contrasted so sharply with my own education), utterly changed my life. And because the teachers there demonstrated so powerfully how education should be, it made me a better mother and changed my daughter’s life as well.
There is a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago where decent, hardworking, intelligent people live rich, complex lives full of surprises.
For myself, I turned off my television permanently and opened a book.
©2009, Monica Rix Paxson
All rights reserved