It was the fragrance of a bar of soap called Bee & Flower Sandalwood that transported me back forty years, to childhood days spent at my Grandpa’s magical house at 3965 Sacramento Street in San Francisco. As I unwrapped the soap I wondered would it be earthy and orange in color like I remembered?
Yes, it was.
The orange soap contrasted the forest green porcelain pedestal sink in the house’s bathroom, so vivid in my memory. In front of the sink, a textured clear glass window faced a square light well— a narrow separation between this house and the one next door. A family of pigeons had chosen the sheltered light well to establish their home; thus, their rhythmic coo-ing could be heard through the window as could the voices of the neighbors whose window faced ours. Often I was startled by the sudden appearance of pigeons sputtering up out of the light well, batting their wings frantically, and making that funny squeaking sound as they rose up into the sky overhead.
My memory then moved beyond the special bathroom to the real adventure during one particular visit to Grandpa’s.
He had invited all of his five grandchildren—my three-year-old brother, me, and cousins Tes, Angie, and Lydia* to stay over at the house. We shared the bedroom located across the hall
from the bathroom. It was large enough to fit a four-poster double bed, a solid oak highboy chest of drawers next to the corner window; and next to the bed, a vanity of quarter sawn oak veneers, backed with a round mirror framed in round light bulbs. The large double-hung window in the far corner had sheer white curtains hanging half open. To its left, the narrow door to a closet cluttered with the belongings of Manong Sarmiento, a former renter, even contained a small shaving sink the size of a salad bowl. His razor, a can of shaving cream, and comb sat on a narrow wooden shelf above the sink waiting for his return in the summertime after picking strawberries in Delano. Cedar planks lay on top of the painted softwood floor, giving off a pungent odor. Imagine a mix of the wood and the residual pipe tobacco smell on Manong Sarmiento’s wool shirts hanging on silver hooks along the back of the closet; such was the aroma of this magical closet space in the bedroom the cousins were to share tonight.
“Dibs on the bed!” declared Tes. She grabbed on to one of the posts, and threw her leg over onto the bed set high off the ground on a stained pine frame. The deluxe Serta mattress stacked atop a squeaky box spring made the bed even higher. She motioned the next two eldest, Angie and me to follow. Lydia and my brother slept low to the ground, on narrow green army cots placed at the foot of the bed on the floor. A twenty-inch Zenith TV set, the largest one in the house, sat on top of the oak highboy. The antennas—called “rabbit ears” because of the way they sat in a “V” on top of the television, scraped against the chalk white ceiling, leaving gray scratch marks on the water-stained paint.
“Lydia, put it on Channel 5,” directed Tes. ‘Song of Bernadette’ is on tonight. We’re gonna see a miracle happen in the movie!”
“Oh, Angie, you’ll like this movie since you’re the nut in the family who wants to be a nun when she grows up,” I poked.
With lights off and just the glow of the black and white screen to illuminate the room, all the kids sat up in their beds watching “Song of Bernadette”. Angie, nestled between Tes and me, began to cry the first time Bernadette saw the vision of The Lady in the grotto.
“Oh-h, that’s the Virgin Mary. She’s so beautiful,” Angie whispered in wonder.
“Angie, your eyes are as wide as Bernadette’s. You’d think you’re the one seeing the miracle.”
“Yeah, ‘Sister’ Angie’,” added Tes. “The only thing that you have in common is that your feet probably smell as bad as that garbage grotto where Bernadette saw The Lady!”
“Sh-h-h. Let’s watch the movie now. Besides, we’d better not make fun. It’s a sin, isn’t it?” I warned, half joking, half concerned that the three older ones might have to go to confession before church on Sunday. Everyone became quiet and engrossed in “Song of Bernadette” as news of Bernadette’s vision spread throughout Lourdes. In the entire bedroom the only sound that could be heard was the occasional crackling of the picture tubes inside of the television.
Suddenly, my little brother screamed. He pointed to the eighteen-inch crucifix hanging on the wall over his head. “Look! Jesus’ face is all lit up!
“Hey, look at the Crown of Thorns on His head! Real blood is dripping from it. Touch it and see if you get blood on your finger,” Lydia added.
“No-o-o!” My brother leapt off his cot and climbed into the bed with me. Lydia laughed but she too moved away from the cross to the other side of the room. At this all the kids looked more intently toward the cross. Sure enough, there was a circle of light surrounding Jesus’ face.
“Is it a miracle? Is Jesus alive?” asked Angie in awe. She stuffed her fist into her mouth stifling her wailing like a cat on the fence. Tears welled up in her frightened eyes.
Tes called for calm. “Angie, shut up and stop that blubbering! Your stupid hysteria will make everyone panic. Gee whiz! Lisa, you’re eight-years-old, and the second oldest. Go turn on the light. There must be a logical explanation.”
I did not want to get out of bed, but I knew that if I didn’t, either Tes would smack Angie and there would be big drama, or the little ones would be scared all night from having to gaze at Jesus’ glowing face in the darkness. I turned on the light and everyone quieted down.
“Okay, we’ve seen enough miracles for tonight. Turn off the TV. Get to sleep you guys.”
A strange tension remained in the room. As we lay down in the beds and cots, Lydia pointed to the cross on the wall. “Look! The circle of light is still around the Savior’s face!”
“That’s enough, Lydia!” chastised Tes. “Close your eyes and stop looking at the crucifix, you understand? Or something really scary will happen to you!”
Pouting, Lydia puffed up the cushion under her head and pulled the blanket over herself as she lay down on the cot. My brother copied her and lay down too. He looked at me but I just smiled at him reassuringly, and comforted by that look, he stuck his thumb into his mouth.
I whispered, “What do you think’s going on, Tes? Maybe we should stay up and keep an eye on the crucifix tonight.”
“Okay, good. You go ahead and rest first, Lisa. Then, when I get sleepy, I’ll wake you up and you can take a shift.”
For a time, both of us sat up against the headboard of the huge bed, hugging our knees, eyes blinking sleepily as we watched the light shine onto Jesus’ body nailed to the simple oak cross.
“That’s a big ol’ cross,” said Tes, moving her hands apart from each other vertically until they matched the eighteen-inch length of the cross hanging on the wall above my brother’s cot. I nodded in agreement and lay down. In minutes, I was asleep, while Tes held vigil.
I was startled awake when Tes suddenly shook me, pointing to the Crucifix on the wall. I gasped. The light beam had moved. It was over to the right of Jesus’ face. Then, all at once we understood.
Tes looked toward the window opposite the wall. Now, high up in the sky, a full moon cast brightness against the wall where the crucifix hung. Gathering clouds floated in front of it every now and then, partially blocking its light. Earlier, when the sky had been clearer, the moon was in position to rest moonbeams right on the face of Jesus on the wall. The subdued but constant focus of light had seemed to appear from nowhere in particular.
Tes and I began to giggle in the quiet darkness, while the younger kids snored in deep slumber around them. Angie, in the bed between them, clasped her hands together in a prayer position. Tes rolled her eyes at the sight of her pious younger sister and jumped down from the bed to pull the window shade down.
“Well, cousin, let’s keep the mystery of tonight’s “miracle” to ourselves, shall we?” offered Tes.
“Amen to that, ‘Bernadette.’”