“It’s okay if you call me Hazel,” my grandmother says, pushing half an orange savagely onto the point of a juicer atop a mason jar. The warm liquid sunshine cascades into the jar to join the blood of its brothers. She tells me that you should always squeeze oranges at room temperature, or they won’t let go of their juice. “Just not in front of your father. He cares very much about… being proper.” Later, when he leaves my mother and me and starts a new family, I will wonder at his sense of propriety. She adds the now-empty shell in her hand to the growing pile of discarded skins and slices another brilliantly-colored globe in half.
The sounds of Minnie the Moocher waft in from the living room, and she pauses in her labor to sing in French with Danny Kaye. “He was very handsome you know.” She looks out the window at her garden, the first of the summer tomatoes hanging green on their vines. “Danny Kaye, I mean. When he came to Korea and met Ed Wynn and I for the USO tour, I was surprised by how handsome he was in person. Such a gentleman too. Once I saw him take off his coat and lay it in a mud puddle so that a Korean girl with her baby could cross without getting mud on her shoes… ” She shakes her head and goes back to her fruit, the smell of Chanel no. 5 surrounding her like an expensive aura. “Some of those girls had it really hard,” she gathers up the peels and places them in a compost bucket, then rinses her hands before securing a square of cheesecloth to the top of the jar with a rubber band to catch the pulp when pouring. “Those boys would just leave when their time was up, never mind the families they left behind.” Her face tightens for a moment, and at five years old, I don’t understand. She pours each of us a glass of the Day-Glo liquid, puts on her white, cable-knit sweater with one pearl button at the throat, and sits down to join me until her friends arrive.
After we have eaten brunch (orangejuicebloodymarycoffeeeggsbenedictyougurtwithfruit), she sends me off to play while they chat, but instead, I hang around the doorway, fascinated by the glamorous people in my grandmother’s parlor. There is a tall, thin woman with freckled cocoa skin named Violet who has taken her name to heart. She wears what seems to me to be all of the shades of purple in the known universe.
Even her heels are lavender patent leather. Her laughter is like music and she speaks with a lilt I have never encountered before. The other guest, Daniel, is a short, stocky man who looks like a boxer but has a laugh like a child. Hazel hushes him a lot, casting meaningful glances in my direction every time he makes a joke. They laugh continuously for two hours and then exchange hugs and air kisses and they are gone. Later, when we are driving in her Cadillac to the farm where we will pick strawberries, she asks me not to tell my father that they have been there. “Especially Daniel. He is one of my oldest friends, but your father just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t approve of his… lifestyle.” It is often like this when she speaks of my father. There are always holes that I am not sure how to fill in. He has a talent for creating empty spaces.
At the farm, the sun-warmed berries grow in tidy rows and there are complimentary sun hats beside the picking baskets, but my grandmother has her own. It is made of bleached straw and there is a ribbon which ties under her chin to keep it from falling off when she leans over to gather fruit. In another field, figures move quickly along the rows, gathering fruit for sale to those who don’t want to pick their own. I take my shoes off and dig my toes into the warm soil, watching Hazel with her perfectly applied makeup as she kneels in the dirt and fills her basket with red treasures, occasionally stopping to pop one in her mouth. When she does, she closes her eyes and leans back, letting the sun warm her face until she swallows. I imitate her, and it doesn’t take long to become a habit.
“Hazel! Hello!” A voice like Camembert, rich with that Main Line accent which is so familiar, interrupts our work. As my grandmother registers the face of the person possessing that voice, her eyes narrow and her mouth grows white as it constricts. Anxiety clutches me, but she takes a breath and looks normal again as the woman approaches. “How are you? I didn’t know you were coming today. We could have come together.” The woman squints down at me. She has forgotten her hat. “Who is this?” She smiles at me in that way some adults have, as if I am a dog they don’t really like but feel obliged to pet anyway. My grandmother introduces me and tells me that the woman is Mrs. McCurdle, from St. Jude’s. My parents aren’t religious, but sometimes Hazel takes me to the thrift shop there where she volunteers and lets me pick small treasures to take home.
They exchange pleasantries, but there is a ladybug crawling on one of the plants, so I stop listening to them while I watch her walking busily along the jagged leaves of the strawberry plant. So when I feel my grandmother tense up beside me, I don’t know why. I look up at her face, which has gone red in the way that it does when she is angry or has had a couple of martinis. Mrs. McCurdle keeps talking, seemingly oblivious to the effect she is having.
“…I mean, it’s just a disgrace. Why aren’t they home with their children? They probably have a lot of them anyway, those people breed like cats. So who is watching their offspring while they stand around here, picking berries? Probably no one. I bet they are out running the streets, doing God knows what, probably robbing people. I just don’t know why they have to come here. Aren’t there berries to pick where they came from? I don’t know why they need them to do that anyway, we are doing a fine job of picking our own. And then they charge almost twice as much for those berries, as if having them picked by those people somehow made them better. Half the time they are still green. This farm should be ashamed. I may have to take my business elsewhere. Plus, they smell.” She keeps talking, loudly, and I look over at the nearby field, where women with jeans tucked into their boots who wear bandannas across their face pick strawberries with gloved hands that move so fast you can barely see them. Instead of quaint wicker baskets, they have large white buckets, and when they are full, they just leave them at the end of the row for a truck to pick up. They must hear the woman, she is talking loud enough that they can probably hear her in the next county, but they just keep filling their pails.
Suddenly, Hazel is in motion, taking my basket and hers and dumping the berries which we have picked into Mrs. McCurdle’s basket, and pulling me along by my hand. She speaks loudly back over her shoulder as we hurry away.
“You know what? I changed my mind. I don’t think I am in the mood for berry picking today. You take those, I think you need the sugar.” She pulls me along faster than I can really walk, her grip so tight it hurts a little. Almost jogging, we head directly into the next field, where Hazel stops in front of one of the women. She addresses her by name, Sofia, and begins speaking to her rapidly in Spanish. The woman pulls down her bandana and answers her in English. They shake hands and nod at one another, and my grandmother hands her a stack of cash. Then she hefts the five gallon bucket by its handle and we head for the car. It takes her a long time to stop shaking. We never pick strawberries again.
When my father picks me up that night, we drive home in a car laden with berries and orange juice.
“So, what did you do at Mom-Mom’s house?” He asks me.
“Nothing.” I reply, and we ride the rest of the way home in silence.