by Ivy Pittman
Whenever I think of a park bench I am reminded of an old soul. Steady and strong. That is where I go when I need to think. On one of twelve ninety-degree days in August, I went to the park to think. I let my thoughts float with the urgency of a damn on the brinks of bursting.
I was rounding out one of several musings running through my mind when I spotted an elderly woman a few benches down. I left my own thoughts hanging in limbo to watch her. I had an empty, unsettling feeling. I looked at my watch. Thirty minutes and lunch would be over. Time was always running. It was like a fleeting enemy taking all that is precious with it.
A heavy tapping in my soul made me wonder what was going on. I thought about the dreams I once had. I wondered when a dream becomes too old to thrive. I could no longer tell the difference. But I still had many. I looked around and wondered how many others struggled with a withered, withering dream. I thought about the stories that never got told, that were held inside the bearer’s soul. I hoped mine would not be one of them. My thoughts spiraled to a calm place. I took a deep breath and allowed my mind permission to be vacant. I turned to look at the old woman. She sat regal, almost as if she were waiting for someone. But for no reason at all I didn’t think she was. The more I stared at her the more inclined I became to create a story about her. Maybe it was the heat or a gush of sentimentality for old folks. But I sat watching her, not wanting to take my eyes off of her.
I watched her watch mothers with babies walk pass her with out so much as a glance. I wondered how a young man could sit across from her eating an apple and not even acknowledge her. I wondered if this was what it would be like when I got old. To be alive but invisible. It was a wearying thought.
I glanced at my watch again. Twenty-six minutes. Just about an eight-minute walk back to my office. That left eighteen minutes. I started memorizing what the woman looked like. I wanted to be able to say, "She was caramel complexion with a mole just above her right eyebrow, and she wore a faded blue dress trimmed with yellow pansies, and wore white gloves and sensible-looking white shoes." I didn’t know why I felt like I needed to know these details. But it felt good to store them in my memory.
As I rose from the bench I felt like I was forgetting something. I started walking and glanced back to look at the woman. Just then I felt something fall on my shirt. I laughed. It was bird crap. It made me think about what awaited me back at the office. I turned around and walked back in her direction. When I was inches from her I said, "Hello!"
At first I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then she said, "Hello sweetie. How are you today?"
I said, "Hello", again. She looked at me with very big eyes.
"Very hot day."
"It sure is. You should be careful in this heat." She looked around as if she hadn’t heard me.
Then she said, "I manage." I nodded. With nothing else to say I started to leave.
Then she said, "Would you like to sit with me for a spell?"
There was a plea in her eyes. I glanced at my watch. I had ten minutes to get back to work.
"Okay," I said. I sat down.
She held out her hand. "My name is Ruth Thurman."
I smiled. "And I am Corona Brown. Nice to meet you."
She studied me and said, "What an interesting name. Are you named after someone?"
It was the first time anyone had ever asked me that. I said, "No. My mother just wanted me to have a name that was different."
She laughed. I laughed. I told her that I always thought that Ruth was a strong sounding name.
She said, "Well thank you. I was named after my aunt. You could say she was strong. She certainly raised enough hell while she was living. And it sure takes strength to raise hell."
We laughed and I watched her eyes light up at what I imagined was a memory. "Oh it is such a lovely day." She took off her gloves and shoved them in her bag. I thought, ‘when was the last time I saw a woman wearing white gloves in the
She smiled and said, "Yes, it is. But I could enjoy this heat better on a beach."
"Ah, yes, the beach. I used to love the beach."
I glanced at my watch. I had about two minutes to get back to the office. I didn’t need to be late. But I had already crossed the threshold into Miss Thurman’s world. My curiosity had rooted me to her.
"I remember when. . ."
She appeared to be gathering her thoughts. "What was I saying? Oh yes, I remember when I was about your age."
I remember thinking that I didn’t care that her story was going to be long.
"Oh before I start, would you like to share a sandwich with me?"
Before I could decline she had reached into another bag and pulled out a sandwich.
"Well, no, I don’t want to . . . “
"Oh please have this half. I can’t eat all of it. And in this heat it will go bad. Here take it", forcing it into my hand.
I took it, wondering how long she may have been carrying it around. The first small bite was tasty.
"This is good. Thank you."
“It’s turkey and cheese. It might be a little dry. Didn’t want to put mayonnaise on it. You know because of the heat."
"You were about to tell me a story."
She held up a finger, reached into the same bag, and brought out a small thermos. "Here you need something to wash it down."
I studied the dark substance wondering if I should take a sip.
“Its iced tea. I made it last night.”
I took a pigeon sip and realized it was loaded with sugar and lemons. It was the best iced tea I had had in a while.
"Oh, honey what were we talking about?"
"I was telling you that I liked the beach and you said . . ."
"Oh yes! Now I remember. Well it’s not exactly about the beach."
She smiled as if she were remembering something. I chewed and sipped and waited. She stood up and looked around the park.
"Some fifty years ago I lived in Paris, France. Yes I did."
I wondered why she went from the beach to Paris, but figured that was what old people did, jump from one story to another. She sat down and looked at me as if I was supposed to say something. But instead I smiled and nodded.
"Many colored folks, as we were called back then, had decent-paying jobs. Many of us even owned our own homes."
She leaned into me and whispered, "Even had our own clubs and societies. But it was easier to live over there than it was here."
Again, she looked at me as if to emphasize the importance of what she had just said. I nodded. Then she said, "I went to visit some friends in Milan. Milan, Italy. I was restless here."
I wanted to let her know how interesting I was finding her story so I said, "Really!"
"Sure ‘nough!" she said. But you still needed some resources! You needed friends, good friends with morals, moxie and money who were going to stick by you.”
She stopped talking and I wondered where the story was going. Then as if she was reading my mind, she said, "I guess you’re wondering how I managed to get to Italy, huh?”"
I agreed with a nod, wondering how much she would embellish. She lit up.
"I was always good at saving a few dollars here and there doing days’ work for well-to-do white folks. One particular couple I worked for were pretty good to me. I often wonder about them. Anyway, I was living with my cousin, Altruna. It was about that time that that colored woman had become big in Paris. What was her name?"
Before I could speak she said, "Yes, Josephine Baker! I set it in my mind to go to Europe. But when I shared my dream with my cousin she told me, ‘Ain’t no such thing as a colored woman making it in Europe. The only reason that Josephine woman is doing alright is 'cause she dancing naked all over the place.' I laughed 'cause Altruna was short sighted. Do you know what that is?"
I knew she was going to tell me whether I knew what it was or not. So I just said, “No. Not exactly.”
She went on to tell me that short-sighted folks had no imagination and no dreams. I considered what she was saying and thought about the many people I knew who were in fact short-sighted and laughed. I eased back on the bench and listened to Ruth tell me more about her cousin and her life in Europe.
"Well Altruna felt that it would be worse for me over there than in the United States. I was hurt that she was stomping all over my dream. But I was more hurt for her because she didn’t have a dream. You ever know anyone like that?"
Before I could say yes she said, "It was like Altruna’s mind was stuck in a dark place where only a bottle of whiskey and maybe a quick date let some light in. Now I’m not saying that that is all bad. But everybody should own a dream. So I
packed mine and brought me a ticket to Milan. The white family I worked for knew a family over there that I could work for. Oh, I didn’t mind. I figured I’d rather be a housekeeper over there than here. By day I could work and by night I could enjoy Italy."
"Altruna was very mad with me. I think she was drunk the day I left. She cussed me right up until the time I was getting ready to walk out the door! But I just grabbed her and hugged her real tight, cause I knew she couldn’t help how she
felt. She smelled of liquor. I told her I loved her, and to take care of herself and to find a dream. The tears were falling down her face and she said to me, 'You be careful and come back home soon!' I winked at her and left. I was treated pretty well in Milan. I imagine some folks would argue with that. But my experience was that the white folks treated me nice. I was speaking a little I-talian."
"Then I made friends with some folks who suggested that we go to Paris. I got a job working in one of the clubs, running errands and dressing folks. Got to see Josephine Baker! She had a lot of style about her. She was witty and
funny! She just had a heart that was a little too good. Adopting all those children only to be kicked out of her home. Evil will always try to tear down good. I drank with that writer fellow, Richard Wright. All of us sort of took on one another as family. I even fell in love over there! But that’s personal. I wasn’t looking to get married. Learned me some French though. Parlez vous something. Every now and then I try to speak a bit of it . . . when I can remember. I made pretty good money too. I remember the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower. All my life I had looked at pictures of it. I even sent Altruna a post card of it. I think I wrote something like, 'I’m here! Isn’t it lovely? If you want to come on over, write me back and I’ll make a way for you to come.' Of course she didn’t write back. When I came back to the United States it was
two years later . . . for her funeral."
Up until then I had been flying high listening to her story. Then with a thump I found myself holding back tears. I suspected the memory had caught up with Ruth. She wiped at her eyes and I tried not to let her see me wiping at mine.
Then I saw it coming. Her shoulders began to shake and she tried to hold it back. But she started groaning and crying. I slid over and put my arms around her shoulder. I didn’t know what to say so I just held her.
We sat quiet for a minute. Then she sat up and said, "I’m okay. I’m okay. I can’t remember the last time I shared that story with someone. So many years ago. It’s like you get old, but if you’re lucky you can still remember what it was like
to be young. The sad part is when there is no one around that can remember with you."
I glanced at my watch. I was twenty-five minutes late. But it didn’t matter, I was going to sit with Ruth for as long as she wanted to talk. We sat quietly for a few minutes before she began talking again.
"Before I left to come back for Altruna’s funeral my friends gave me a big party. They sent me off with some lovely presents, embroidered linen napkins, and crystal glasses. I even have a picture of all of us. Here, look!" She reached
inside her pocketbook and pulled out a black and white photo in an old gilded frame. I wondered why she would be carrying it around with her.
"That’s me in the hat. I was something else, wasn’t I?"
I had to admit Ruth Thurman had been a gorgeous woman.
"Wow Ms. Thurman. You were really stunning! Well you still are a good-looking woman." I couldn’t take my eyes off of the picture.
"One of the best presents my friend, Martine gave me was this."
Again, she dug down in her pocketbook and held up a key.
I said, "That key must be special."
"Yes, my dear, it is. You see Martine didn’t have any family. She had been orphaned when she was very young. The family that had adopted her had died and left everything to her, so she didn’t want for much. She gave me this key and said, 'Ruth, you’re like the family I don’t have. If you ever get back to Paris whether its next month, next year or twenty years from now I want you to know that you have a place to live.’ I couldn’t believe it. Here was this sophisticated French woman giving me the key to her home!”
I asked her, "Did you ever go back?"
She looked off and said, "Well, no. I could have had her send me money to get back over there. But times got a little hard and I kind of lost my way, got a little lost in my mind."
I let those last words penetrate. She looked at me as if I could tell her what happened to her so many years ago. I wished I knew. Then in a weak, almost childlike voice she said, "I got a little lost in my mind."
I took her hand in mine and said, "We all do from time to time Ms. Thurman." I’ve been lost plenty of times and I am much younger than you." We started laughing.
Then she wet her lips and took my other hand and held it real tight and said, "Honey, do you know where you’re going? I mean, do you know how to take off? It’s important to know when and how to take off. You have to know the race you’re in if you’re ever gonna have any peace. If you don’t like the race get out of it!"
I felt a chill go through me. I understood what she was saying. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes looking around the park. I decided to change the direction of the conversation and said, "Ms. Thurman, where do you live?"
She must have been one hell of a dancer when she was young because she knew just when and how to sidestep. She never answered my question but instead said, "I figure as long as I have this here key I always have some place to go.
You know Martine was about fifteen years younger than me. That would make her about….oh sixty or so. She could still be alive. And I could still go back to Paris, if I. . . " She hung her head and let the words hang in mid sentence. I hoped she wouldn’t start crying. But then her head shot up and she said, "Honey, I may be old, but I am still able."
"Of course you are Ms. Thurman. I can see that you are . . . well, very able. I am so glad that I stopped to talk with you. Thank you."
"No, thank you for listening. You have given my story an eternal life. Maybe one day you’ll tell it to someone and they’ll tell it and so on and so forth."
I knew one day I would.
She sighed and nodded, as if to say, "I’m done."
It was an awkward moment. I knew that I needed to leave. But I felt like I was in the middle of a good book. I wanted to keep reading. Ruth picked up a rock and started rubbing it between her hands and said, "Let me tell you something
Corona dear. I don’t have children or grandchildren to share this with so I guess I am destined to give what I know to you. Old is not bad, it just is. Nothing is better than having lived by your own rules and convictions for as long as I have.
I come and sit on one of these benches and watch life. I look at the young folks and remember what it felt like yesterday to be young. Who knows? I could still take off, because I am still building my landscape. Remember I may be old, but I am still able."
"I understand what you’re saying. I came today to think and well, figure out some of my own stuff. I’m just so . . . "
Ruth cut in before I could finish and said, "Confused? Frustrated? It’ll pass if you want it to. And I can tell you do." She winked at me and I felt as if Ruth Thurman knew more about me than I knew about myself. I felt like I needed to leave before the mystique faded.
"Miss Thurman, I should go now even though I feel like I could sit with you for hours. I’d love to hear more of your stories." She laughed a wicked sort of laugh and nodded.
"Well that’s all you get today! You want more, then you have to come back."
I was glad to hear that I could place a bookmark between the pages of Miss Thurman’s life and return to the same place. Then she said, “As a matter of fact I have a birthday coming up. You can come and celebrate it with me right here on this bench.”
I asked her, "When is your birthday?" She sat up straighter and said, "November fifth. I’ll be seventy-five." I thought what the weather is typically like in November and said, "It might be cold then. Maybe we could plan on meeting
She shook her head as if that was not an option. Wherever Ruth lived—if she lived anywhere—she was not going to bring me into that part of her life. I would have to accept the bits and pieces she chose to share.
"We can meet right here at one-o’clock."
"Okay. But I get to bring a small cake and something to drink."
She leaned into me and said, "Bring something with a little kick."
I laughed and agreed as I wrote down the date. I stood up to go. But I had to make one more attempt.
"Ms. Thurman, I have one more thing to ask you. This may seem odd, but . . . well, it’s a nice day. I have to get back to work. But when I get off if you’re still here, would you like to join me at this little French bistro a few blocks from here?"
As I rambled she looked at me but her mind was some place else. I sensed what she was going to say even before she said it. But I continued anyway.
"The owner is a riot! He is so funny. They have a great pianist who plays and sings songs in French, like Autumn Leaves and La Vie en Rose. When was the last time you heard La Vie en Rose? It’ll be fun. Please join me." I watched her eyes for a sign.
She looked away and said, "You know I haven’t been in a bar or a club in probably fifteen years. Oh when I was your age I used to go to all the big time places. The Cotton Club. Now that was a club!" I waited her to say yes. But instead she said, "No honey, I am going to pass on your invitation. Oh but I truly appreciate it."
I realized that I was trying to build something that couldn’t be built. Miss Thurman studied me and said, "Corona honey, let me tell you something about life. Life is like being in a big, big picture. Sometimes it’s so big it can take your breath away. It’s like you get swallowed up in its glory. It can feel so good. You know it’s not going to last forever, but it sure feels like it. And that is the way the Divine created life to feel. Then one day, one day you notice that the picture has begun to age, pieces of it start disappearing and falling off into unknown places. Sometimes you feel like the colors have faded on you or that you been robbed of something. But you haven’t. It’s just that yesterday is gone and you’ve been a part of the minutes that make up the hours that make up the months that make up the years that make up the end."
The tears rolled down my face. Ruth Thurman knew how to tell and turn a story till it dripped with joy and pain. I wanted to probe deeper, but I knew it was time to go.
She stood up, cleared her throat and said, "Corona, you go on now. I’ll see you on my birthday or whenever."
She placed her hands on both of my shoulders and kissed me on both of my cheeks, and said, "Just like they do in Paris."
I hugged her and said, "See you later Ms. Thurman. Take care of yourself"
"Yes dear. Take care of yourself too. Try not to get lost. Remember it is easy to get lost."
I walked quickly, refusing to turn back. I dug in my bag for my Walkman and put on my earphones and listened to the Theme for Monterey. It always reminded me of a sunset in the Caribbean. I trotted back in the office prepared for an ambush of questions as to where I had been. To my surprise nothing happened. For a few days I thought about Ruth Thurman and the things she had shared with me. Whenever I walked through the park I looked for her. It occurred to me that maybe she was a transient who was good at telling stories. It really didn’t matter. Ruth Thurman had amazed me with her wit and charm.
A couple of months later I decided to go sit in the park. An elderly man was sitting on the bench I had occupied with Ruth Thurman. I found another empty bench. It was breezy but comfortable. A young man, probably in his thirties, was sitting on the bench where Ruth and I had sat. He was balancing what looked like a cake box on his lap and seemed to be looking for someone. Eventually he stood up and scanned the perimeter of the park, sat back down, stood up again,
then slowly walked away looking around him as he left. Ruth came to mind and it dawned on me that her birthday was about a month away. I made a mental note to pick up a little cake and small bottle of bubbly. It would be fun. Although I wondered what the weather would be like.
On November fifth I set off for the park at about one-o’clock. It was a windy, cloudy day. I was bundled in a hat, scarf and gloves. I picked up a small chocolate cake, and had them write ‘Happy Birthday Chere Ruth’. Armed with plates, cups, forks, a small bottle of champagne, and a card I hurried to the park. I braved the wind as I glanced around for Ruth. I could almost count the number of people rushing through. I sat on the bench and tried to appear comfortable while I waited and my face took a beating from the wind. After forty minutes or so I realized that Ruth was probably not coming. I felt that same weird sadness I had experienced some months ago when I first saw her. An empty indescribable angst. I laughed at my gullibility. I took it a step further and imagined Ruth back in Paris at her friend Martine’s house, stretched out on a chaise-longue sipping champagne for her seventy-fifth birthday. Like she had said, she was still able. I sat there starting to shiver and realized that it was probably unlikely that Ruth would take off for Paris after so many years. But who knows?
I uncorked the champagne, sat one glass on the bench, next to a slice of cake, gulped down my champagne and wished Ruth Thurman a happy birthday wherever she was. As I was running out of the park I noticed the same man from a couple of months ago entering the park. We exchanged hellos and kept moving. For no reason in particular I wondered who he might be meeting.