Friday, January 29, 2016

The Power of the Senses



This morning, as I hovered over my kitchen counter getting my morning cup of coffee together, my eye fell on a can of tomato sauce I failed to put in the pantry the day before. I picked it up, looked at it, and unexpectedly, very old memories flooded over me at the sight of the old Del Monte label and pictures of red, perfect tomatoes! Bittersweet memories I had not relieved in years.

I was seven years old and a very precocious child. Tina, teenage daughter to our close neighbors, stood at the door.
     “My mother sent me to borrow a cup of sugar, please. Company showed up suddenly and we’re short of sugar for the coffee.” She even brought the cup to be filled.

    “No problem,” said my mother, smiling sweetly. Neighbors help each other.” She went to the kitchen and came back with the cupful of sugar. After Tina left, my mother remarked with a sigh, “That was very thoughtful of her, to bring her own cup.”

The following day, Tina once again stood at our door. 
    “Sorry to bother you again, but my mom sent me to ask if you can spare an onion. She’s making the sofrito, and we have no onions. Just one onion is all we need.”

My mother smiled sweetly. 
    “You are in luck. I think I have onions.” Off she went to the kitchen to find the precious onion. Now, you might be thinking that such things as borrowing a cup of sugar or an onion are just not done. Well, not today, no. 

Our society has changed so much that neighbors rarely are in such familiar terms today. When I was a child, it was very different. Why take a trip to the store for an onion or a cup of coffee? Everyone helped each other, and no one thought it strange or inconvenient.

The next day, Lily, Tina’s younger sister, came to the door. 
    “Momma wants to know if you have any garlic you can spare. She’ll replace it Friday when she goes to do groceries.”

    “I have a few bulbs. I may be able to spare one.” Now, my mother was as neighborly as any other, but we were far from comfortable. She watched every penny and found a dozen ways to stretch the minimum-wage dollar that my father earned with so much sweat. Mom knew when she was being used and abused, but she was always a lady first and always polite. “Here you are, Lily. I hope it solves the problem.” 

In private, she gave vent to her real thoughts. 
    “What does Doña Elisa, (sounds like ‘Donia’) think I am? Her keeper? Her welfare office? Doesn’t she go to the grocer like everyone else? It makes me so angry! Every day, every day for the last month, she has sent to me for something. Her husband is a carpenter and makes much more than mine. Can she not ask the other neighbors too? I swear, next time she asks for something, I am going to tell her off!”

I had seldom seen my mother so angry, and I understood. The next day, Doña Elisa herself came to the door. 
    “Hello, my dear. I am so embarrassed to have to once again bother you, but you are so kind and sweet, and I really feel like you are my own sister. I always tell Carlos that we are so lucky to have you as a neighbor. Class, that is what you have. It seeps from your pores, class does.” She gazed at my mom as if she was gazing at a statue of a Madonna in church.

My mother melted. Her anger of the previous day forgotten, she simpered and blushed and smiled. 
    “Of course it is no bother, Doña Elisa. Anything, anything you need, I will gladly share it if I have it. I do not mind at all.” 

Without thinking, I looked at my mom, eager to help. I needed to remind her because she’d obviously forgotten. 
    “But that is not true, Mom. Just yesterday you were angry and complaining, and you said that the next time Doña Elisa wanted something, you were going to tell her off.”

The world came to a stand still as both women turned to me. That was the first time I got a “whooping” from my usually gentle and loving mother. It was also a lesson in discretion I never forgot. Never forgot the lesson, but I’d forgotten the experience. This morning, the sight of a familiar can of tomato sauce, recalled it for me. How strange!

This brings to mind how objects, colors, images, smells, and sounds can transport the mind. A good author uses those things to appeal to your senses, your mental images, and take you somewhere. As an author, I endeavor to do that. 

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