“The Smokebush”

A short time ago I published this on Facebook as a short memory…but then thought it worthy of Keithstories.com….With a re-write it is yours…For those who haven’t read it, please enjoy and for those who may have, what the hell, have another round… Love, Keith

I watch the landscapers trim the bushy, overgrown shrubs in my yard. Landscape, in life and landownership, are ever changing. Overgrown shrubbery was a sight never seen, no, never allowed, when my parents ruled our home on Orchard Road. Today there’s a return to order and curb appeal. Now, in fairness, during their reign, Sundays and weekends were less frenetic. More time was given to household chores and family dinners rather than precious social engagements and frighteningly rare afternoons of simple relaxation. One can speculate this is all due to my partner Rob’s and my work schedules.

Watching  the nimble, hard working and tanned men,  I think of the border plantings which used to divide the yards in my youth. Our neighbors had put in an array of plantings. Spirea, Rhododendron and Mock Orange separated the yards. But the stand out, for me, was the Smokebush. The Smokebush is a bushy shrub, clothed in deep purple foliage during the spring and summer turning rich crimson in fall. As it matures, a profusion of fluffy, feather like flowers, rounded in shape and delicately woven, like fine Belgian lace, dress it, as if sewn by Marchesa to walk the red carpet. And it’s the memory and lesson taught by the Smokebush which brought me to the keypad.

Perhaps it was 1974, perhaps 1975. The price of gasoline was “on the rise”. My father would lament, “We’re not wasting ‘one red cent’ on frivolous driving. Gas is up to fifty-three cents a gallon…can you believe it? You need to figure everything out and  make errands happen in one trip.”

 “One trip”. This from a man who bought toilet paper at Stop and Shop, toothpaste at Shop Rite,  because the coupon saved him 2 cents, then “picked up” Mylanta at The Racebrook Pharmacy to support the Casella family business. This all in one trip. Henry Proto was a man of conviction.

My parents belonged to a club. They were among good company and paid no dues, well, no financial dues, to speak of.   “The Generation Gap”.  In certain ways my mother, only by virtue of her fashion sense, was validated slightly.  We were dressed in “au courant” clothing, wore modern jewelry and were allowed longer, but always “clean” hair to flop loosely on our heads. My Aunt Marion looked the other way, dare I say even liked it, when my cousin Jimmy covered his handsome face with a thick, black beard, but our mother had her limits.

“I don’t get it, he’s so handsome. I’d climb into your bed while you were sleeping and shave it off. No kid of mine is going to look like Charles Manson.” And she would have too. But still, we had some freedom provided it reflected favorably back on her.

Across the street, our neighbors the Donovans, were light years ahead of us. Joe and Janie Donovan  took a more modern, laid back approach to raising their children, Betsy and Joe Jr.  When cigarettes found their way into the house no one batted an eye. The rumor among the neighborhood kids was that Mr Donovan kept Lucky Strikes on the counter,  like our parents might keep a bag of Oreos. Of course it was never proven but still Mr Donovan seemed the coolest of dads. In the morning, while my mother packed Fig Newtons in my lunch bag, I imagined Janie Donovan threw a few cigarettes in Betsy’s bag for a snack.  Their finished, knotty pine paneled basement, complete with jukebox and diner style booths, allowed neighborhood teens to blossom, party and find their way.

Mustiness was typical of the basements in our town. With its high water table their was no choice but it made no difference at the Donovan’s, the tar and nicotine drowned out the odor. It seemed adult, almost dangerous, to be in their midst. At any given moment one might fantasize Bob Dylan or Grace Slick could drop by, shoot some heroine or do lines of coke. After, someone may strum a guitar and sing a song or partake in an orgy. It was exactly how the times should be lived. In our house, on the other hand,  the “coolness barometer” struggled to rise one point.

“Mom, can I have some more potatoes, and some gravy too.” I noticed Randy kept his head straight as if he’d pulled a muscle in his neck as he asked the question.

“Sure…how was the party last night?” She was referring to the “bash” at Joey’s house  the night before.

“Yeah, it was ok.”

His rigid movement was intriguing. It reminded me of the girl at school who wore the neck brace and couldn’t take gym class. I had to delve deeper. “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you moving your neck? Did you fall down the basement stairs?” It was unnerving.

“I am moving dick weed. Shut up.”

My mother took note. “Wait, Chip’s right. Wait, why are you wearing a collared shirt? Did you get hurt? What happened?” I’d opened a can of worms.

The light went on as her brain illuminated. “Open that collar. Now. ” He punched me then popped the top button exposing the black and blue bruise on his neck.

 I couldn’t help but ask the stupidest question I could think of. “Oh my God, did a squirrel bite you?” The pot was mine to stir.

Her eyes zeroed in, knowing exactly what it was. She sat upright in her chair and turned to my father who was lovingly buttering his Italian bread.

“Look….look at your son’s neck.” She pointed at the bruise as he glanced over. “He’s got a hickey.” My father turned to my brother.

“A squirrel bit you?” My mother stared at him in disbelief.

“It’s a hickey. Your son has a hickey.” She waited. There was no recognition or response. “A hickey Henry…”

“From what? What’s a hickey”

“He got it from a vacuum cleaner….Were you in the Army or not? A girl gave it to him…” Still nothing. “Eat your bread….just eat your bread.” My dad was a great man but clearly not worldly. When we old enough, for his birthday, we all chipped in and bought him a subscription to Playboy. For our mothers sake.

Of course in the Modern Era there was the “name game”.  Betsy and Joe Jr. were allowed to call their parents by their first names.  It was only a matter of time before social pressure would build and Randy would attempt to use our parents first names. One day after school, he walked in, dropped his books on the counter and said, “Hey Edie, fix me a little snack.” Drop shot. This was the US Open and luckily I’d  scored court side seating. The Oscar Mayer bologna sandwich lay on the plate as my head in my hands, my eyes darting back and forth between the players. It was Billie Jean King vs. Jimmy Connors. Billie Jean stared at him as she tossed the ball and served.

“Excuse me? Did you ask me something?” Another drop shot by King.

“Yeah, Edie, I asked if you could fix me a sandwich.” Passing shot by Connors.

“Sure,” she said, slathering the mustard on the hard roll and layering the Genoa salami on top. “Here. I like how you feel adult enough to attempt calling me by my first name. Once. You’d think you’d know better than to try it twice.” She brought the knife directly in front of him and sliced through the sandwich showing him the blade again. “But..nope…imagine that…takes a lot of courage kid….I’ll give you that…” I was grinning from ear to ear.

“Yeah, uh, thanks…”

“Thanks, who?” She looked directly into his eyes. Ace by King. I was grinning from ear to ear.

“Thanks, ma….” Connors said as King put down her racquet, but not before, “And go get a haircut.” Well played, well played indeed Billie Jean.

Mo-peds were gaining popularity among city dwellers so Joe and Janie purchased one. It seemed to me they were always one step ahead, you know, the family that was a little “cooler” than the rest.

“Joe Donovan says that MoPeds gets over 40 miles to the gallon,” my father said as my mother served dinner. “Janie is going to drive it to work every day.” My mother put the plate of rigatoni and meatballs in front of him and balked.

“I don’t ride a bike and I’m certainly not riding one of those. Janie Donovan is insane. Get the idea out of your mind. If you want to ride one be my guest. They’re dangerous…I could hit a tree” His point was that cutbacks should come whoever possible, besides, he drove a company vehicle.

“Don’t be absurd. It’s like a bike. Who could hit a tree? It’s just something to think about, that’s all I’m saying.” The fact of the matter was she had a point. My mother couldn’t swim, didn’t ski or ice skate and she couldn’t ride a bike. Hell, she couldn’t even throw a ball. It was a warm summer day when the orange MoPed was delivered right to their front door.

The entire family collected at the top of their steep driveway as Janie donned the not so fashionable helmet over her red hair, her freckled face peeking out. Eventually she’d wear it to and from work and while running errands on her 5 horsepower bike.  This was it. Today was her maiden voyage. Randy and his girlfriend, Diane  were across the street  while my mother, Tracy ( Diane’s sister) and I watched from our front porch, eating ice cream as the Titanic set sail.

Janie gave the whirling engine some gas.  It took off slowly, then flew down the driveway and across Orchard Road. Her tiny body clung to the motorized bike as it traversed our next door neighbor’s driveway, between two oak trees and into the shrubs dividing our properties. She made a direct hit inside a Smokebush, causing a burst of smoke-flowers,  like an atomic blast. The delicate fluff rained everywhere like snow. Tracy and I spit our  ice cream from our mouths, laughing so hard we choked. In a knee-jerk response my mother slapped me. Why? I have no clue. Poor Janie did not come through, the bush that is. We could hear the motor roaring. Was she dead? Statistically, no.

“My God!” my mother yelled, “My God, Janie! Jesus Christ are you okay?” We heard a faint, “Yes,” and knew she was alive. Then, “Edie, it felt like it was going one hundred.”

Tracy yelled, “Relax honey, you looked like you were going ten.” I started to simultaneously laugh and cry.

Joe came running as she emerged from the ashes, smokebush flowers dotting all parts of her being. She was, by all accounts, the Orchard Road version of Lucille Ball in the episode of “I Love Lucy” when the lawnmower runs amuck. My mother helped pull smokebush from her as the Donovan kids dragged the Mo-Ped home. Tracy and I ran inside, our sides splitting, painful from reliving the moment of impact over and over again. Two hours later my mother served dinner to my family.

“Ohh mister, you’re never getting me on one of those things. I’m not hitting a Smokebush…no how, no way. You can just forget it. We can well afford gasoline.”

“What are you talking about”

“Janie Donovan almost got killed today. You scoffed…it couldn’t happen.”

My father looked at her and at me as if the world made no sense.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s true Dad, Janie hit the Smokebush. Could’ve gotten killed,” Randy said, ” Big day on the street.”

“Killed might be an exaggeration, Pa….but she did blow up the Smokebush…it was everywhere.”

“What the heck goes on around here when I’m not home?”  My father was confused. My mother was not, actually quite the opposite.

“Listen Henry, I don’t give a good Goddamn about the cost of gasoline. I’m not going to be found dead under a Smokebush or have flowers or fluff stuck in my hair and eyelashes. You get the notion of me riding one of those things out of your head. Now, pass the salad.”

My mother could care less if her Oldsmobile only got 14 miles per gallon. It made no difference if a smokebush, or ISIS for that matter, got in her way. She would mow it down to the ground if meant coming out on the other side unscathed, with no scars or scrapes, unlike Janie Donovan. But I think the real lesson wasn’t to come out unscathed or unbruised but resilient. The Smokebush did. Janie did. For my 1950s parents the world was changing quickly, much like it is today. My brothers would give my parents challenges but those were conventional and expected. The greatest challenge in the landscape of life would come from me, their youngest, which was unforeseen.

Janie mounted her MoPed and drove off once again, this time facing left rather than right and wisely so. You see, that neighbor had no landscape shrubs diving his yard from the next. Each morning she rode off, down the steep driveway and into her future. She did it, time and again, for as many years as I can remember….and the Smokebush, wounded but resilient, blossomed and turned crimson, season after season. Wow….so cool, so very, very cool.

3 thoughts on ““The Smokebush”

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