Essay: An Exquisite Harmony by Chris Carbaugh




Spring signals the time for the annual flower show in Greenville involving all of the local garden clubs. There are several categories within the flower arrangement division: traditional, whimsical, all-American, and Japanese. That year, my mother, MamaLu, representing the University Park Garden Club, decided to do something that is considered exotic – Japanese. Her knowledge of Japanese flower arranging came solely from the occasional example in the Family Circle magazine that she bought at the grocery store checkout every Saturday afternoon. She needed other sources of information; hence, she asked for two of her five boys to venture to the library and to check out as many books as possible on the subject. My twin, Curt, and I volunteered.

We put our coins for the bus fare and a snack in our pockets along with our library cards and off we went. We stepped aboard the bus and put our change in the receptacle, arriving after several stops. Sitting on a hill, the building appeared gigantic, with numerous steps to climb in order to reach the massive front doors. In truth, it was an old school long-converted into the county library. It had both the authentic old books’ smell and the authentic too-perfumed librarians’ smell to go with it.

“What do you boys want?” demanded the taller of the two librarians as we enter. I was taken aback by both her terse questioning and her gruff tone of delivery. There was no – “Oh, I am so delighted to see two young men wanting to read. How can I help you?” or, “Can I help you find anything in particular?”

“We’re here to check out books on Japanese flower arranging,” I responded. The librarian looked at us in disbelief, as if we had no clue what a Japanese flower arrangement is – and she was, in fact, correct.

“And why do you want these books?” she shot back with a snarl. I became alarmed, unhappy, and somewhat perplexed very quickly into this encounter. I felt that there was no difference in checking out books from the Hardy Boys’ collection, most of which I had read, and checking out books on Japanese flower arrangements. Therefore, I decided that the librarian’s question did not warrant an answer.

I replied: “If you will just point me in the right direction, I’ll get them; or, otherwise, I will use the card catalog.”

I was proud that I learned the Dewey Decimal System and that I knew it well. However, my response evidently bordered on “insolence,” a favorite term at the time to use to describe children when they appeared to blatantly question “authority.” I didn’t feel that I was insolent; I merely wanted to help my MamaLu.

I received an immediate, and emphatic, rebuke: “Children are not to use the card catalog.”

I responded instantaneously: “Then why do we learn all the numbers at school?” – I rattled off several of them (“400 – language; 700 – arts; 900 – history and geography”). Unintentionally, and definitely without malice, I forced the librarian to cross her ultimate threshold of tolerance. She identified me, perhaps not Curt, as a danger to the institution, one that she alone directed on her own terms and with an iron hand.

Astounded, she gasped for breath and then snapped: “What is your telephone number, that is, if you have one?”

I interpreted the second part of her response as an indication of her assessment of our economic status. It seemed to be an improper request as far as checking out books and I almost said, “Is our telephone number a requirement for using the library?” but, instead, out of respect for her position and age, and perhaps a dose of some Presbyterian guilt, I responded:

“Yes, we have a telephone,” and I reluctantly supplied the number. The librarian called MamaLu and directly indicated that I (the “one in the brown pants and blue shirt”), in particular, as chief speaker, was being rude to her and her assistant. From what I hear of the conversation I gather that MamaLu apologizes for any perception of such behavior and assures her that our request for books on Japanese flower arrangements was legitimate – and that we will take appropriate care of the books on our way home.

Evidently our mother had passed the “is she genteel enough?” test, and the custodian of materials and manners reluctantly showed us a section of books. She then selected several, as if to get rid of us as quickly as possible. I thanked her and said:  “Oh, I see others,” as I put my hands on additional books. The now reddened-face librarian almost became apoplectic:

“You know that you can only check out two books,” she said, as if to warn us.

“Yes, I know – I will check out two and my brother Curt will check out two.”

“You both have to have individual cards,” she added, with her head trembling almost violently.

We both produce our cards. At this point, if this self-appointed CEO, CFO, and COO had access to a teleportation chamber, she would have sent me to parts unknown, maybe giving Curt a break since his only communication consisted of several nods. She wasn’t aware that MamaLu had vision problems; therefore, we had two distinct criteria for books: (1) large print, and (2) lots of photographs. But I did not deem it necessary to provide the grand inquisitrix with that information. With an indignant huff and jolting turn of her body, she stormed off as fast as her girdle would allow her to move across the room – either searching for a bull whip or some other weapon to use on us, or deciding that perhaps we are not worth her time.

We looked through several books and chose the four that had the most interesting pictures. With accuracy, precision, and a heightened fear of reprisal, we re-shelved in perfect order the books that we didn’t select. We approached the massive checkout desk where the warden of words had her perch.

“You know that you must return the books within two weeks and you will pay a fine if they are not back here in perfect condition.”

Was this a threat? Did everyone receive it? Were we enemies of the state? Did we plan to destroy the sanctity of her institution?  Did we have too much of an “urchin” look? Why was this person treating us with such disdain as if we were the enemies of knowledge and all things bright and beautiful? Is it because we didn’t have a parent with us?

I couldn’t hold my tongue: “I know what the check-out policy is and I see it written there on that column. It is the same for children’s books.” She proceeded to stamp the due date at the back of each book with an intense and belligerent vigor – bang! bang! bang! bang! – each stamp louder than the previous one. As we left the library, this baroness of books with her permanent snarl and constipated disposition seemed to be saying something disparaging about us. All I hear is:

“Well, you know they . . . blah, blah, blah . . .” as she lowered her voice. What “they” means or refers to is puzzling to Curt and me. Little did the library lieutenants know that I had strategic plan B if they continued to give us any more trouble. First, Curt would go ahead and leave the premises while I meandered to a different part of the library, out of anyone’s sight. Then I would toss the four books out of the window, where he would retrieve them and then we both would run as fast as we could. Thankfully, we did not have to bypass normal protocol. We remained legitimate but perplexed about how we so quickly became enemies of the recalcitrant jailors of the Corinthian-columned repository of books and magazines, dust, bad manners, and hateful words.

We took a direct walking route home since we used most of our bus fare for popsicles; however, we have enough change to buy MamaLu her favorites – a Dr. Pepper and a Hershey bar. We arrive at home with the contentiously acquired books, the threats, two very sweaty shirts and bodies, and two acquired enemies. MamaLu was happy that we are home and had already fashioned chopsticks out of some stripped-down yellow bell branches for an improvised lunch of Japanese rice and chicken. Initially, it was very difficult to use the chopsticks, but we eventually become somewhat successful and proud of our efforts.

While sipping on her Dr. Pepper, MamaLu looked through the books. Her assessment was that they were very helpful and that we selected just the right ones. Over the next two weeks she experimented with different vases, flowers, and branches. Every aspect of the arrangement has to be simple, she explained. She couldn’t find the style of vase she wants so she put a coat of black paint on a narrow syrup jar and used it. It looked very sleek and modern.

She placed one blossom of a beautiful pinkish-red Reverend John Drayton camellia in the center with three branches of a sweet gum tree, one pointed upward, one downward, and the other one almost even. Each branch represents an important part of the universe. The upper one represents heaven; the middle one represents man; and the lower one represents earth. It is all a part of Ikebana, or the art of Japanese flower arranging. We were proud of our MamaLu. For us, her arrangement was more beautiful than any photograph in the books. The only aspect that we wanted to change was the addition of another branch, even lower, to represent the destination of the unkind librarian.

I knew, however, that I was not through with our nemesis,that  I would complete our conversation when Curt and I returned to the library. We gathered the four books, shake off any hint of dust, and then return them to the quasi-proprietors within the two-week period. The second librarian, the silent witness to the previous encounter, pointed to the place where we were to deposit the books. I ignored her and proceeded to the long table where the disapproving librarian sat. I presented the books to her, demonstrated that they are in perfect condition, and thanked her before she told me to return them to the proper receptacle. Then I pulled out two ribbons, one blue and the other red, and told her that our MamaLu won first place in the Japanese division, and second place overall.

Then I added: “Your help is one of the reasons for our mother’s success and I want to thank you.”

The seemingly permanent enemy to children, at least to Curt and me, was completely silent, stoic, unable to utter a word. Her face softened, and she looked as if she might cry. She never spoke, but the emotion on her face and her general demeanor seemed to indicate some unknown story of sorrow.

I didn’t know how to react; I was equally taken aback as she. I merely repeated, “thank you” again, and then Curt and I leaft. Perhaps her silence was the truce we sought.

After we recounted the story to MamaLu, she told us that we should always be kind because we never know the troubles that someone else might be experiencing.

“The librarian may have many concerns weighing on her mind. I will wait a day or two and telephone her and give her a personal thank you,” she decided. Most importantly, MamaLu told us something that she learned from Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging. It was something very spiritual – that we should always have a goal of maintaining harmony – “an exquisite harmony among heaven, man, and earth.”

I ponder this truth often.

Chris Carbaugh encouraged his high school students to write and publish their best work in the literary journals they created, Possum Kingdom and Sekaishugi. Both journals were recognized with highest awards by scholastic press associations. Now retired, Chris is writing the short stories that his children and grandchildren have asked him to recount numerous times. They are the adventures of five boys, him and his four brothers, as well as their incomparable mother, MamaLu. As a new writer, he is honored to be published, or soon to be published by THEMA, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Valley Voices, The Bitter Southerner, Kestrel, Broad Street Review, New Southerner, Colere, The South Carolina Review, and Broad River Review



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