Monday, July 27, 2009

The Fruit Salad (by Billy Coffey)

Those of you who have been reading this blog and/or What I Learned Today for awhile may have already read this post. Even if you have, it's certainly worth another look. This story is a special one because it introduced me to Billy's writing and, as it turns out a very dear friend. (Even if he did drop the F-bomb on his sweet grandmother.):

There were prunes in the fruit salad.

I peered down into the large bowl of Jell-O and fruit, unsure of what to do. I’d never been faced with this sort of situation before.

At six, I felt I was though I was well on my way to adulthood. I could tie my shoes, count to ten, and say most of my ABCs. I no longer slept with the night light on, and I no longer harbored any fanciful misgivings of monsters in my closet.

But more than that, more than all of that, I had been recently indoctrinated into a language used by adults only, the sort of words that were only bandied about far from innocent ears.

I’d learned to cuss. And very well, I might add.

I knew them all courtesy of my next door neighbor, a ten-year-old boy who as far as I can imagine is now either incarcerated or worse. But he was cool back then, cooler than anyone I knew, and I wanted to be just like him. Told him so, too. Cussing was part of my education, and it was powerful stuff.

I kept my secret knowledge safely tucked in the back of my brain until one of the words escaped my lips in the worst place possible: my grandparents’ house. There are a lot of things you don’t do when you’re in the company of your grandmother, and there are a lot more you don’t do when your grandmother happens to also be Amish. Cussing, I found, ranked just above killing kittens and just below denying the reality of an Almighty God.

The exact situation escapes me, though I remember it was an argument in which she told me to do something, I said I didn’t want to, she said she would tell my mother, and I said, to quote, “I don’t give a $@!#.”

To make matters worse, the word I had chosen to employ was the mother of all curse words, the one my next door neighbor had dubbed “the Big One.” Guaranteed to provoke a reaction.

And there was a reaction.

Grandma stood dumbstruck for three full seconds, upon which she bent down, grabbed my ear, and drug me across the kitchen floor and into the corner, where I remained for most of the day.

I dared not turn around, either. Not when the pots and pans were crashing, not when she began pleading for my eternal soul. Only when lunch was ready hours later did she tell me to sit.

“Enjoy your food,” she said, and nothing more.

Jell-O salad. Yes! My favorite. As smooth as glass on the top and bottom, with fruit defying gravity in the middle, suspended in an ocean of transparent red. Maybe she wasn’t so mad after all. Maybe she would let bygones be bygones and we could put the whole thing behind us.

But no.

Because there amidst the bananas and pears and pineapples, there were prunes. And everyone knew I hated prunes.

“Grandma?” I said.

“Why did you put prunes in there?”

“Oh my,” she said, feigning shock. “You don’t like prunes?”

“I don’t like prunes, Granmda.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ll tell you what. You can still eat it. Just take the prunes out.”

“It won’t do any good,” I answered, sniffing the bowl. “The whole bowl smells like prunes. Even if I took them all out, it would still stink.”

“Hmm. “You’re right. What a shame. I know how you like your Jell-O salad.”

We sat there, silent. Then she said, “Where did you learn that word?”

“From a friend.”

“Friends don’t teach you things like that,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know what you said was wrong?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know why?”

“No,” I said. “It’s just a word. What can be so bad about just a word?”

She tapped the bowl in front of us. “Because you’re like this Jell-O salad.”


“Whatever goes into your heart goes in there and settles. It stays. You can take good things into your heart, like the bananas and pears and pineapples. Or you can take bad things into it, like the prunes. The problem is, the good can’t make the bad better, but the bad can spoil the good. You can scoop out all the prunes, but the rest would still be messy.”

“And it would smell bad, too,” I said.


“Don’t forget it,” she said.

I did though, for a while. I said and did plenty of things I had no business in saying and doing. But I know better now. Grandma was right. Once you let something into your heart, it’s there for good. Whether that thing is destined to be a joyful remembrance or an unbearable regret, we commit our very souls to the choices we make every day. And there they will remain, for good or ill, as a record of the worthiness of our lives.

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at What I Learned Today, and be sure to catch Part Two of his interview with Lynn Rush tomorrow about the call that every writer dreams about.


Peter P said...

I love this story.

I think your Grandma may just be the coolest ever.

But don't you dare tell my Grandma I said that!

Candy said...

This was one of your first stories I read. Love it. My favorite is "Friends don't teach you things like that." The wisdom to discern "cool" from "friend" comes a little too late in life. Often after age 6.

Keystone said...

Apparently, the Scriptures are true:

"You will know them by their fruit".....suspended in Jello or not.

Fortunately, the Fruit of the Spirit is not prunes, though pruning back on the unsavory words was a wise move.

Denise said...

I love this, your grandma was a very wise lady.

Tana said...

Wonderful lesson! It's so true. Sorry about the prunes.

♥ Kathy said...

That was great Kat! I really enjoyed it :)

Annie K said...

Jon's Mennonite grandpa once got so made (not sure if it was at Jon or in general) he dropped the 'JP' bomb. Let out a big old 'Judas Priest!'.

Probably as close as he ever got to swearing.

And you're lucky my friend, that all your grandma did was put prunes in your jello.

Unknown said...

First things first...."NICE SHIRT!" (grin).

Loved the story, your grandma was a wise woman. yeah, I bet my Grammy would have hung out with her. (That's high praise.)

katdish said...

For the record, Kelly is the one who broke spades with the shirt comment, not me...

Sarah Salter said...

I can't pick on the shirt... It's much more stylish than some of the stuff my parents dressed me in back during the late 70's and early 80's... But I do have to say, "Aww! Look at freckle-face!"

This was one of my first stories, too.

I've never been much of a cusser. Yet somehow, when I got involved with boys ministries, the guys gave me a curious nickname. Little Cussin' Woman. Kinda ironic since none of 'em have ever heard me cuss. And the bishop thinks it's funny. Go figure.

Billy Coffey said...

Kelly - In my own defense, that picture was taken in 1976. My mother dressed me. And I thank the good Lord above that Katdish agreed to crop the pants out of the picture.

Beth said...

Love it. What a good grandma. Did everyone have that neighbor kid? Because we did, too.

April said...

I knew you weren't going to let me down...and you didn't! You never do! Bravo, Billy...BRAVO!

~*Michelle*~ said...

Powerful message from such a simple reference....awesome!

Lanette said...

What a wonderful story. You really have a gift with words.

Stephanie Wetzel said...

One of the first stories by Billy that I read too. Very cool.

My grandma cussed like a sailor. She also not only made me wear ugly 70s clothes; she sewed them for me.

Great post. Katdish, you are an excellent nasty pimp. We're all so proud.

jasonS said...

Yep, I remember this one. :) Good stuff.

Peter P said...

What's wrong with that shirt?

I think he's stylin'

Anonymous said...

OH yeah. I remember this one. LOVE it just as much now as I did then. Prunes in Jello. Way to go GRAMS!

Thanks for this.

Beth E. said...

Your grandma was a very wise woman...I like her style!

Helen said...

I, too, think you look adorable in that shirt, Billy.
Your grandma handled the situation very well. My momma handled cussing with a smack across the mouth. Don't be too hard on her. She didn't do that for just any offense....just cussing. As a matter of fact, I think the only time I remember being smacked was for taking God's name in vain (in my house, THAT was the big one...)

sherri said...

Wise grandma- good lesson for all of us.

Glad you later found your sense of style (ahem).

Rebecca said...

I love how your grandmother handled that! Mine would have gone with soap on the one side, a solid slap on the other. Somehow I think the fruit salad is a much better metaphor.

Unknown said...

This is the exact type of post that what goes in bad, comes out bad that I just wrote a product review on at my blog. Interesting. Good stuff I might add! Love your story. Wise woman your grandma is!! Very wise!

Stacey said...

Love that story, Billy. What a great life lesson to learn from your Grandma.

@Steph, I hear ya. Both of my grandmothers cuss WAY more than I would ever dream of doing!

Elaina M. Avalos said...

Oh wow. This is a fantastic story. Your Grandma was one smart cookie.