Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Lollipop Garden


By Joel Haas

Well, I couldn’t go on eating only Spam and fried sliced weenies forever.

I would not eat lettuce, string beans, brussel sprouts, peas, salads, carrots, radishes, or anything that came out of the ground.

“You need to eat your vegetables,” my parents would say. Children hear this and wonder “why?” “So you’ll grow up tall and strong,” was always the answer.

Not a good enough answer for a three year old.

My parents were at wits’ end, convinced I would never grow taller than 3 ft and haunt them forever as a public example of their parental failure to make me eat my vegetables.

“There’s Joel Haas,” people would say as a wizen Munchkin passed them--“He’s 55 years old and still no bigger than the day he turned three!--all because his parents were too lazy to make him eat his vegetables!” Determined to avoid this shame in their dotage, long nightly battles were fought with me at the supper table.

As with so many parents trying to find a high minded way along the path to raising their first child, they eventually hit upon the solution favored by generations preceding them—bribery and lies.

As always with my parents, the genius was in the presentation.

“We’ll plant a lollipop garden, if you eat your vegetables.” My father promised one night.

“A lollipop garden?” I was intrigued.

“Yes,” my father went on to explain. “I discovered we have magic dirt in a secret part of the backyard. If I say the right magic words over it, it will grow lollipops for you every night you eat your vegetables.”

“Let’s see it,” I demanded.

“No,” Dad was determined to squeeze this for all he could. “You eat your vegetables tonight and we’ll go get some dirt for a lollipop garden tomorrow night when I come home from work.”

This was sufficient bribe for that night. Looking forward to a lollipop garden, I ate my vegetables without further objection.

The next day, Dad was home a little later than usual. I could hardly wait to get started on the lollipop garden. I remember it was nearly dark. Together, we went into the farthest corner of the backyard.

Envisioning agribusiness farming vast acres of lollipops, I offered the use of my toy bulldozer and trowel to gather up huge piles of dirt for a lollipop garden. Dad said he didn’t think there was that much magic dirt around and that we would only need the chipped plate Momma had given us and the neighbor’s shovel.

While I was ready and willing to haul right in to digging anywhere, Dad made a great show of looking for just the right place to find magic dirt (probably to avoid dog poop and tree roots.)

A shovelful of dirt was soon heaped on the plate. Dad waved a hand over it several times muttering some “magic words.” and we were ready to go inside for supper.

With great ceremony, the plate of magic dirt was placed on one end of the kitchen counter. After supper, my parents explained, if I ate all my vegetables, one of them would come in and check the lollipop garden to see if any lollipops had grown.

It all worked as predicted. I ate my vegetables and one of my parents would go into the kitchen to check the lollipop garden. The dirt plate would be brought out to me, a half dozen or so lollipops stuck into the tightly packed dirt. I could choose one—two maybe if I had been very good or had volunteered to eat a second helping of peas—and the rest were harvested and put away to bribe me with the following day. Momma placed them in a small bowl out of my reach on top of the old refrigerator they’d nicknamed “Wheezy” because of the sound the compressor motor mounted on top made.

Amazingly, the lollipop garden grew exactly the flavors and brands I liked best and could see in the stores. An additional benefit to my parents was I quit whining for those lollipops when in the grocery store. We could grow them at home for free!

I wanted to go out with more plates and the neighbor’s shovel to find more magic dirt. We could have a huge farm of lollipops in the kitchen and even sell some to the grocery store. (This is only the first of many impractical business models I was to pursue in later life.)

There was no more magic dirt, it was explained to me. We were very lucky to have found this much and I should be careful not to mess with it or mistreat it, or even this small pile might lose its ability to sprout candy.

All went well. I was eating my vegetables. I would grow up to be “tall and strong” (at least enough so, people wouldn’t talk that my parents had not made me eat right.) I did not whine for lollipops at the grocery store. All was right with the world.

All was right, that is, until “Aunt Wat” came to visit.

MaryFran Watson was one of my mother’s high school and college friends. Only child of a well to do and prominent Raleigh family, she had gone to New York City to theater school and had pursued a career on the stage. In later years, when she had returned to Raleigh, I recall “Aunt Wat” telling me to “save your voice for the stage, dear,” rather than the “will you kids be quiet?!” we were more likely to hear from other adults. That was all in the future. I was only three and had never met her before.

She arrived for a visit to have lunch with my mother. Immaculately turned out in a dark blue suit with matching hat and heels, her outfit was the perfect compliment to her naturally red hair and fair skin.

I was fed beforehand and sent to play quietly in the living room where they could still watch me and have a light, elegant lunch, while catching up on gossip and news.

I played quietly with my toy cars and bulldozer. From the living room, --this is important-- I could see into both the dining room and the kitchen.

Lunch was finished and my mother excused herself for a moment—probably to go to check the mailbox and go to the bathroom. “Aunt Wat,” ever the good guest, called after, “I’ll just take the dishes on into the kitchen.”

I watched her place the dishes on the counter, the silverware in the sink and wipe off the counter top. She paused a moment, a puzzled look on her face. Then, to my three year old horror, and with as traumatic effect today as when it happen over a half century ago, I watch her pick up the lollipop garden plate, press the trashcan pedal with one elegant blue high heel shoe.

When the trash can lid popped up, she summarily dumped the entire plate of dirt into the trash can.

I went into a complete meltdown.

No professional actor has ever chewed a rug or scenery with the intense hysteria I showed that day.

Aunt Wat, of course had not the faintest idea what had happened. She rushed into the living room expecting to find me mortally injured. There was no mark on me and, it was obvious, choking was not my problem. My incoherent screaming about lollipops probably deepened her concern.

Momma returned but I was inconsolable. The two of them could not jolly me back to good humor. The lollipop garden was gone, abused and blasphemed so much I was sure it would never return.

I howled bloody murder on through the afternoon and I am sure my mother and MaryFran’s visit was cut short by my grief.

Mom and Dad must have agreed this was a great time to cut the candy budget and my dental bills, because I do not recall the lollipop garden being restored. Its magic dirt went out with the trash and, somewhere in the landfill, fallow and untended, still awaits a new young farmer.

I didn’t know it then, but there was yet one more spectacular harvest to be had from the lollipop garden. For my fortieth birthday party, the centerpiece present was a huge platter presented by “Aunt Wat,” forty, expensive, gourmet lollipops stuck in a heap of packed dirt.

I am here to tell you, I ate every one of them over the following month and half—and I did so without always eating my vegetables!


Heather C. said...

Hi Joel:
This story is WONDERFUL! Your story should be made into a children's book with bright, colorful illustrations. As a kindergarten teacher, I KNOW my students would LOVE to hear about a "Lollipop Garden" (minus the part about your aunt throwing the magic dirt away).
You are not only a gifted sculptor, but a talented writer.
Thank you!

Loretto said...

Joel, I told your story (with slight modifications) to a group of 200 children aged 4-7. I used props to bring it alive for them. They were spellbound! As far as I am concerned, the blue high-heeled shoe on the pedal of the bin and the throwing away of the soil was the best bit of the whole story. Wide eyes and gasps said it all. When you find an illustrator to produce the book, don't change a thing!