The sisters ate lunch in the tiny garden every Sunday, if the day was sunny. In the hills above Hollywood, outside the gently declining villa, Luby and Ella spread one of Mama’s cloths over the rusting table, and dined on ladylike portions of chicken and potato salad, or soup with slabs of crusty bread and olives. Sometimes there was caviar, which they spread on rye crackers.
When Ella felt well, she’d bring out the voluptuous blue ginger jar that had adorned the foyer in the big house in China. It was the one beautiful thing left from their life in Shanghai, where Papa sold bootlegged cigarettes from his native Russia, and a chauffeur drove them to school. Back then, before the war, eighty years ago. How could it be? Now Ella kept her tarot cards in the jar, although she no longer did readings; instead, she shuffled through the deck, enjoying the romantic drawings like a child with a picture book.
When shadows in the tangled garden grew shorter, persimmons appeared on the trees. Winter lights, Ella called them. Luby always picked just two, one for her, and one for Ella, and placed them on the tablecloth to admire. After a few days of ripening, Luby would cut them up and serve them with sour cream and honey.
They were each other’s world now, the two sisters, and they spent their days trying to remember, or trying to forget. Sweetness and grief; Mama and Papa and the move to California; choosing stones for the villa walls, driving through open beanfields near Inglewood; the murmur of the ocean at dusk; falling in love.
Luby’s first husband Emil had tender green eyes and a dimpled smile. He played the violin, and he told Luby he loved her more than all the songs ever composed by every violin player who ever lived. He whispered this in her ear just before his boat left for Europe, where he was booked to perform for three months. Halfway through the tour, Emil died of a brain tumor, unknown until that moment. He was twenty three years old.
Much later, Luby married a surgeon and an artist, his talent also in his hands: another gift of fate who shared but never replaced her love for Emil. They had nearly thirty fine years, until John’s hands began shaking from dementia, and he shot himself. Luby locked the door to the downstairs studio where she had found him, and where all his bronze sculptures remained, covered in dust. She locked it up, and put the key in the blue flowered ginger jar. Ella never married. For her, life had been something of a dream. There were no children, no nieces and nephews or distant cousins. Only the two of them, Luby and Ella: the sisters on the hill. They dressed in silk caftans, or flowing skirts and blouses, their white hair in elegant knots -- aristocrats of time.
They were not unhappy.
after a watercolor by Sally Baker
To everyone but me, it’s a table,
a porcelain bottle –
today a tulip,
tomorrow a peony.
To everyone but me, your death
a release from
everyone’s shame with
your disease. Your leaving–
a welcome end
to everyone but me. Most of you
blown into the wind –
lodged in boulders—
bone teeth flesh crisp granules
poured in a Sonora stream
to mix with trout, hellgrammites.
No one but me tipped the box that day
draped wild roses in the rapids.
They don’t speak of you now—don’t know
I’ve kept some of you.
No one but me sees a bamboo table,
a Japanese bottle, a brother’s ashes—
today a tulip magnolia,
tomorrow a double peony.
Persimmons with Blue Ginger Jar
after a watercolor by Sally Baker
The persimmons in this watercolor
are blessed with unblemished skins
and bear the combustible glow of distant suns.
And the glacier-blue fish scales
of a camellia opened wide
float on the artic sea of the ginger jar, arguing
in their unrumpled, buoyant space
for a renewed significance of things, because
watercolors, like episodes in a life,
are unforgiving, each errant moment
lost and unrevisable.
On the slouched branches of the tree outside
and on the spackled walls of the living room
propped against a ginger jar, both
becoming an iconography of this
place we occupy, a record
of so many late Novembers together
in a house whose walls flare
with the fireball glow of persimmon trees, durable
and indispensable in the mind.