Monday, February 1, 2010

The Pansies

When I told Dr. Mars (as clearly I had to) about my adventure with Mom’s gaslit chives, he suggested she might have had what’s known in the biz as a “borderline personality.” My remaining sister, the esteemed and fiercely well read Mrs. Pep, told me she already knew about that and gave me the book that would help me catch up: “Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship.” The subtitle should give you a hint as to whether you have a borderline mother yourself. That, and the number of Xanax you can pop in a day and still look forward to a martini.

“The chives were scary,” I told Dr. Mars. “But the pansies were a million times worse.”

“You ate pansies too?” said Dr. Mars, puzzled.

He hadn’t meant to amuse me but I chortled regardless. A food mental might grill a pansy today, but back in the ‘fifties—perhaps not so much. No, I assured him, these were pansies that flourished in our carefully landscaped back yard, that set the stage for the roses behind them, that grew in a row to make a, well, border. While practicing handstands out on our lawn, I’d collapsed like a spaz right on top of them. Pansies are easy to smash, and while I instantly saw that I’d pulverized two, I also saw that a third one endured. And that, I realized when I saw the tag that said MADE IN JAPAN, was only because it was made out of plastic.

A quick and paranoid investigation revealed every third pansy to be made in Japan. Since Mom and I were the only ones who used the backyard (I’m not sure my dad ever noticed we had one, and Mrs. Pep, at that time, detested all nature) and since I couldn’t picture our Mexican gardener going insane enough to stick fake flowers in with his real ones, I figured it was either me or my mom who had done it.

“You actually thought that you might have done it?” asked Dr. Mars.

“Sure,” I said. “At night, in my sleep.”

“In your sleep?”

“Exactly!” I said. “I never slept. That’s how I knew I hadn’t done it.”

Talk about your not sleeping ever. Now I had to worry that someone else would discover the pansies and send my mom directly to Napa. Before Napa became shorthand for wine, it was shorthand for the Napa State Loony Bin. I had a friend whose dad was such a flavorless Fascist he wouldn’t let his family use pepper and insisted his wife fill both shakers with salt. I guess she forgot once because eventually he sent her to Napa and when she got back, he promptly divorced her, turning her into a penniless leper. As mental as my mom ever seemed, I couldn’t allow this to happen to her, let alone to my own selfish self.

While I lay in my bed completely not sleeping, I worked, as a lawyer might, on her defense: The pansies, I’d explain to the men in the white coats, did not indicate that my mom was a mental. They meant that she was an artist. So there!

“Would that have worked?” I asked Dr. Mars.

Words from a ten year old? In 1960? Not very likely, Dr. Mars seemed to say with a rueful shake of his leonine head. Not that I expected “yes” for an answer. But sometimes you just have to ask anyway.


  1. marvelous, horrible, hilarious!

  2. I grew up in Napa. Still live here in Napa. As a kid we would never tell people where we were from when we went out of town, because Napa was only known for the loony bin. It is much better now.

  3. Jean, thanks so much for keeping me on your list. We had a lunch a few times when I lived in Burlingame. Now back in Atlanta and love reading your grand mals. As wonderful as ever. All the best,
    Vicki Baxter Palefsky

  4. Karen--Napa IS better now, thanks for backing me up!

    Vicki--I remember you fondly. Thanks for dropping in!

  5. Jeannie- Just caught up on the blogs- LOVE them! So glad You're writing "Failing" again!
    I remember your back yard, but I never noticed the plastic flowers.
    Your barrel buddy,

  6. Thanks so much, Gaylie, and roll out the barrel!

  7. You have such genius lurking in your writing.
    It nevers fails to conjure up the most amusing visuals in my mind. Napa stirred up Playland for me.
    On May 31, 2008 sf chron Carolyn Jones wrote:
    "Laughing Sal is cackling once more.

    The gap-toothed, red-haired, plaster icon who terrified generations of kids at San Francisco's defunct Playland-at-the-Beach has resurfaced - maniacal laugh and all - in El Cerrito."

    As I recall, they got her laugh by recording a patient from Napa.

    I too remember Napa as the looney town.

  8. Thanks, Rick. Laughing Sal was a horror for sure! Something out of Faulkner. Or Dante. Possibly designed by H. Bosch?

  9. I'm getting tired of waiting for a new post.

  10. It was her head. The head jerked about as if insanely disembodied. I lived in the Avenues, coasted down to Playland on my bike a zillion times. Didn't even have to pedal.
    Then someone stole my cool 3-speed Indian Scout bike right under Sal's nose.
    So I in turn stole
    someone else's bike. Got about 10 feet away and
    felt the punch to the side of my head that sent me sprawling... laid there bleeding, staring up at the maniacal Sal cackling at my hubris.
    The huge mean kid then awarded me a black eye
    amid spit flyin' curses and several kicks.
    I yelped: I quit. I quit. I quit. Then trudged home 20 blocks up to 28th Ave. crying all the way.

    Beat up, no bike... so what happened to you says Pop, peering over his Call-Bulletin. Nuthin, says me. Stormed to my room. Stared at the Farralones till dark. Can still hear mad Sal's laugh. Ouch. Lesson learned. Fogman