My friend Katie recently became manager (that is probably not her official title) at the Little Rockies Center here in Harlem. The Little Rockies
Center houses the Sweet Medical Clinic in several rooms, a number of apartments for senior residents, and a gathering place for senior citizens and other community members. The facility includes a well-stocked kitchen and large dining room with comfortable chairs around huge tables.
Although Katie had insisted that I am welcome to come to lunch any time, and several others had invited me, I never thought of going until Saturday. That morning Katie’s son Trent came by to help me with some heavy garden work. Trent is a husky sophomore at Harlem High. He is a good worker and has done odd jobs for me since he was in sixth grade.
Together we pruned my raspberry jungle. The raspberry bushes had sneaked across the enclosing path and invaded the southeastern corner of my yard. I think they did this in the dead of night. One day I had an orderly grouping of raspberries along the eastern wall of my garden cabin. The next day I had a plantation. ’Tis the season and they desperately needed pruning. Trent began whacking at one end, and I attacked from the other. We met in the middle. Without Trent’s help, the job would have been overwhelming.
Next we tackled the hollyhocks. Without hesitation I claim to grow the most beautiful hollyhocks in town. They flourish around the house in several groupings. They tower eight, nine and ten feet high with elephant-ear leaves. The flowers bloom in a profusion of colors I have seen nowhere else. In the fall the pithy stalks bow to the ground heavy with seed. By this time of the year they are unsightly and benefit from a thorough chopping.
We finished the hollyhocks. It was nearly noon. Trent had worked hard, but we were not done with my list for the day. First though, I needed to feed the young man to keep up his strength. I had nothing prepared. No restaurants are open on Saturday in Harlem. “Want to eat lunch at the Center?” I asked.
“Good,” Trent replied. “Want to know what is on the menu today?”
“No. I’m sure it will be good. Let’s go. You drive.”
“I’ll give you a clue,” he said. “I was there early this morning and smelled cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven.”
The dining room was packed. Trent led me to the sign-in book. Next to it sat a coffee can with a slot in the lid for donations for the meal. Had I been unable to pay, no matter, they would have fed me anyway. I knew many of the people there, and they greeted me. Some diners come regularly for the lunch and also volunteer their help with serving and cleanup afterward, just like at home.
I spotted an empty chair between Mary O’Bryan and Mary Calvert, women I have known since my childhood, when they owned and operated the Merry Market where we bought groceries. We were eight women at the table. Our talk was cheerful and lively. I knew all but one of the gals. Everybody assumed I had met Ellen, the new pastor at the Lutheran Church. By mid-meal I felt like she was an old friend. She made that easy for me by wearing a T-shirt which proclaimed her to be a fellow bibliophile. In keeping with her profession it read “Lead me not into Temptation — especially bookstores.”
We feasted on roast beef, potatoes and gravy, peas, a salad, fresh dinner rolls and grapes. Sure enough, Mrs. Herndon plunked a huge platter of enormous fresh-baked cinnamon rolls on each table. I groaned. I was too full to eat another bite. Evelyn insisted I take a cinnamon roll home with me for later.
Lunch was a treat but best of all was the camaraderie. I had not realized our little community had such a wonderful gathering place. When Trent and I left the Center to return to garden work, a dozen people called after me, “You be sure and come back now.” I know I will.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)