This Great Society - Arts



Illustration: Alicia Gonzalez


Lauren Thompson: Like Origami
Illustration: Alicia_Gonzalez



The first thing I ever folded, properly that is, was an origami box. Until that time, every wayward paper that found its way into my hands was promptly shredded, rolled, or crinkled beyond recognition due to unconscious fidgety tendencies which have plagued me my whole life. The box gave a hint of direction and creation to my chaotic fingertips, which still possess the memory of each fold required to create it.
          I learned this on a sunny fall afternoon from my neighbour Kristine: “the garden lady,” we called her. Kristine lived across the cul-de-sac from us in the corner lot, and had a long skinny lawn lined with a jungle of planter boxes. Orange-red nasturtiums that tasted like pepper, a caged square of pungent cat-nip, and woolly lamb’s ears that I would sit and stroke, over and over and over tumbled over their wooden entrapments into lawn greened only by the incessant watering of rain-deprived Californians. The side of her house was wallpapered with trumpet-flower vines which blossomed into yellow gramophones in the spring and hung like a browned, discarded fisherman’s net in the winter.
          When I was young, the garden and lawn stood out as the pride of the neighbourhood children: “Have you seen the garden lady’s house? I live right next to her. Sometimes she gives me a quarter for every hornworm I remove from her tomato plants. Last week I made seventy-five cents!” and so on. Later on it was not so pristine. But as a child, Kristine’s garden had the same effectual qualities of more prestigious grounds. Why go to Buckingham palace when you could go across the cul-de-sac?
          Kristine herself took on the general characteristics of her garden: sun-burnt but healthy, a round, sunflower face with tangled vines of hair pulled back into an unruly braid that lay against her denim gardener’s shirt. She was robust, friendly, but common. I didn’t know much about Kristine when I was 9, but I knew that I loved her. I would work for hours with her after school in her garden, weeding, pruning, collecting snails, likely less helpful than I thought I was. She even helped me establish my own garden on the side of my house, anchored by a choir of tiger-striped alstroemerias which became end-of-school teachers’ gifts until I graduated.
          Once, she took me to the university arboretum in the neighbouring community, just Kristine and I. We walked around the lake and fed the ducks, looked at the flowers that begged to be picked, and read the signs that forbade us to do so. On the ride home, Kristine drove us into the parking lot of a ramshackle fall-coloured apartment complex located on the road to our own houses: Autumn Run.
          “I just want to see if Mike’s truck is here,” she told me.
          I knew Mike was her ex-husband, but I had no idea why he should be living in this apartment complex, and even less of an idea why Kristine needed to know if his truck was there. The rest of the way down the street to our shared development seemed to stretch longer than usual. I commented on this to Kristine. I don’t remember if she answered.

On the day I learned how to fold the origami box, Kristine had invited my twin brother Nathan and I to try out some crafts from a new book she had recently bought. We rarely went into Kristine’s house – why would we with such a tantalizing garden outside? – but my mom said it was okay, so we trotted across the street to acquire our new skill. Her house was smaller than ours, just one living room instead of two, and covered with loose leaf papers and trinkets. The light turned blue in her only-one living room, filtered through an almost tangible veil of loneliness that I couldn’t articulate when I was a child; I only knew it lacked the sensations of comfort and reassurance my own house possessed. Her big oak table, large enough to seat six comfortably, eight if necessary, was covered in a variety of papers: half an obviously growing mess of “adult” pages that looked like something my dad would read after I went to bed, with his glasses pushed to the end of his nose, the others a jumble of multi-coloured shiny-smooth rectangles waiting to be transformed into whatever shape or object I desired. We sifted through the more compelling pile until Kristine stopped us and showed us her book. This too we rifled through until we found an appropriate challenge for our nine-year-old minds.
          I chose the box. It looked easy. Nathan chose an airplane made from two different colors of paper, which looked substantially cool enough to fly missions in any war my brother chose to fight between his tan army men and green army men on our big brick hearth. Both crafts required us to cut rectangular pieces of paper into perfect squares before we proceeded, folding one side on the diagonal until it was flush with the other, then cutting off the excess with Kristine’s heavy silver “grown-up” scissors, which excited us both greatly. Tongues bit in concentration, we set to work. My brother, though by far the more mechanical twin, had difficulty manoeuvring the blades, and ended up with a shape more haphazard than geometric.
          Kristine looked over disapprovingly. “You’d better let me do that,” she said, in a tone as sharp as her adult scissors, seizing the craft from my brother’s hands.
          I was shocked. Never had I heard a mature woman speak with such intonation to a child who had not done something behaviourally wrong. Nathan looked hurt, and I felt the pain of compassion for my beloved twin and confusion for an attitude I could not comprehend in my world of potluck preacher’s wives and PTA parents. My own mom spoke to us only in safety-scissor tones, guarded with plastic, unable to harm, unless an actual moral blunder had occurred.
          I asked Nathan recently if he remembered the incident; he did not, except the finished paper airplane, which did end up meeting all boyhood standards of coolness. I have never forgotten it. Kristine was my introduction to a world I didn’t know existed: a world where lonely women had ex-husbands and kitchen tables that were not eaten on and a beautiful garden tended for one.
          As I got older, Kristine’s garden slowly melted into disrepair, losing its former glory in tandem with its owner due to a series of events that I was never told about. The lush grass became tangled with dandelions and wheat seedlings and one enticing weed that looked like a television antenna, while the planter boxes sagged until they became wild and mulchy, merging into the lawn. After she moved away in my mid-teens, new neighbours took over the garden. All I remember is that it lacked the colour and vivaciousness of the previous space, becoming just an indistinguishable mass of green, greener and less green foliage.
          My nine-year-old views are similarly melting away, being replaced with more accurate assessments of human nature. But Kristine’s garden at its most beautiful still stays with me: how she didn’t fit into my childish conceptions of adulthood, and how I loved her in spite of it. It is these organic memories in her garden that will always remain in my mind, like the folds of an origami box.


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