Monday, August 31, 2009

Purple Blossoms and Thoughts of Childhood

There is not much I remember from junior high school. I was a day dreamer and a social misfit with unpopular political opinions and a less than endearing personality. I focused on what interested me and barely got by in my subjects. One day, in 9th grade English class, the teacher was discussing "Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare. My mind was focused on a map that had been rolled down from a previous class. It was an old map of Europe and Asia. I noticed that China was coloured purple, which indicated that China was under Japanese occupation. I was focused on World War Two and the bloody Japanese occupation of Manchuria that preceded it. I couldn't bring myself to open "Julius Caesar". That was fairly typical of my educational experience. I was focused intensely on matters that interested me.

There was a crowd I fit in with. It was the "hippie crowd." Even though I didn't do drugs, I sort of found my place with them. The school building I went to was huge. It was shaped like a "U" and had in it about 1600 students. In the middle of the "U" was a flagpole and a lawn along with beautifully arranged flower beds and trees. It is only in retrospect that I realise how much work must have gone into maintaining it.

There was one tree which sprouted beautiful purple flowers every spring. By May, the blossoms were in full flower. One day, I decided to "stop and smell the flowers. I walked under some of the lower hanging branches, expecting a floral fragrance. Instead, I recoiled at the scent. It smelled like something had spoiled, as though the flowers had gone bad. I called one of my friends over.

"Smell these beautiful flowers." I said with an edge of cunning to my voice.

The expression on her face showed me that I was not mistaken. The beautiful purple flowers indeed smelled foul.

Word spread. The beautiful but stinky flowers became a joke. How could such beautiful blossoms smell so awful? As the school year advanced, the smell became milder. Towards the end of school, the blossoms had little scent of any sort. If anything, they took on an agreeable scent as they started to wilt and fade.

The memory of the purple flowers came back in Brooklyn's China Town when I bought a melon sized fruit with a hard spiked shell called a mornthawng. I was looking forward to eating it with my family on Friday night, when we would all be there to enjoy it. When the time came to cut it open at our dinner table, the inside of the fruit had what looked like vanilla custard. As we looked with curiosity at the inside of the fruit, the room filled up with the scent of what smelled like a dead animal. Some of us were literally gagging. I was the only one who took a brave taste of it. The taste was sweet and conventional. It bore no relationship to the foul scent that assailed us. I found out only later that public parks in the orderly island nation of Singapore had outlawed the consumption of the mornthawng in city parks.

The mornthawng and the purple flowers linger in my memory as a source of amusement and inspiration. How many people, and ideas have an allure and a beauty that upon closer inspection turns out to be something other than it seems? On the other hand, the mornthawng, which smelled truly awful was a sweet tasting nutritious fruit. The purple flowers that smelled so badly mellowed out and took on a more agreeable scent as the season advanced.

Years later, I was stuck at a dinner next to some people who were gossiping about a child with behavioral issues. He had been kicked out of school, and his parents were at a loss what to do with him. Out of desperation, I told a truly tasteless joke to shift the discussion away from the child. The conversation shifted back to juvenile delinquency and toxic levels of sanctimony. My thoughts drifted to the purple flowers, that had their stinky season and became agreeable with time.

" The book isn't closed on that kid. He will probably turn out OK." I said. What better time to be obnoxious than when you are young? And in the meantime, what good is this discussion to him and his family?"

True to my expectations, the boy settled down. He has been married for several years. He is doing well both professionally and personally. His mother is now a proud grandmother. When I see the family walking down the street, I think of purple flowers in late May that have become estranged from a once disagreeable scent. I remember little of junior high school classes. But the tree with purple blossoms to the left of the flagpole taught me a valuable lesson about being a father. To this day, I count the gardener who planted that tree well before I was born as one of my as one of my best teachers. Sphere: Related Content

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