Lysa Heslov, English 28
Instructor: Patrick Hunter.
Krupnick Essay Contest Winner, 2007
Coming of Age
A first kiss: wet, luscious, and inelegant. Falling in love for the very first time, convinced the entire universe can hear the uncontrollable pounding of the heart. Struggling to maintain composure while listening to parents casually inform of their impending divorce. The incalculable horror of sitting across from the love of a life, watching twenty-three years of marriage disintegrate, at In-N-Out Burger, of all places. Sitting innocently in French class at Norris Hall, when suddenly a classmate shoots the student seated to the right in the face, and the immediate realization that the smell of death has permanently permeated. Sensing a shift, imperceptible to anyone else, then asking a spouse if they are having an affair, knowing in an instant that the momentary awkward silence has revealed the answer. These experiences, this cluster of characters, share a common bond along with Perfecto Flores from Under the Feet of Jesus and Ray Falke from Hawk: the definitive coming of age moment. A coming of age experience can happen any time during one’s life, most often when it is least expected. It does not discriminate. It is the thread that sews humanity together, a phenomenon, which is undeniable. Convention tells us, it is a defining moment in a child’s life, when the world somehow becomes his or her own. Why then is “Coming of Age” simply relegated to the young? We are all experiencing this phenomenon, from the tender age of four till the ripe old age of ninety-four. It is not an experience based solely on chronological milestones. Coming of age is a defining moment when a person’s wide-eyed innocence is replaced with something deeper and at times something darker and more sinister, a snapshot in life when one realizes the answer rests inside us, not relying completely on God, Allah, Buddha or some other heavenly presence. Consequently, in that way, we are always coming of age, always-losing innocence, gaining understanding, and always discovering new truths about ourselves, emotionally, intellectually, and sexually. Coming of age is the act of experiencing a definitive shift in one’s perspective, a greater realization of one’s place in the world, and a further understanding of how personal actions and reactions are integrally linked.
Sweeping, picturesque, luminescent California landscapes starkly contrast the oppressive life of Perfecto Flores in Helena Maria Viramontes’ captivating novel Under the Feet of Jesus. Perfecto Flores lives the unfortunate existence of a migrant worker. His entire life has been painstakingly dedicated to “picking the food for other people to eat,” (Helena Maria Viramontes, quote). Pefecto, in his late sixties, has also taken on much more than his younger lover Petra. He has accepted her five children as well, including the eldest Estrella, our beautiful and moving protagonist. Although Estrella’s journey is the core of the story, it is Perfecto, longing for a life lived many years ago, which captured my attention. He reluctantly becomes the head of a physically and emotionally abandoned family and it seems oddly some form of poetic justice for Perfecto Flores:
Perfecto lived a travesty of laws. He knew nothing of their source but it seemed his very existence contradicted the laws of others, so that everything he did like eat and sleep and work and love was prohibited. (83)
He had never truly felt worthy or appreciated and longed to go back to a life and lost love in his native Mexico. “The desire to return home was now a tumor lodged under the muscle of Perfecto’s heart.” (82). Perfecto’s coming of age moment comes surprisingly from his thirteen year old stepdaughter, Estrella. After a confrontation, in a less than adequate medical clinic, Estrella makes a dramatic, violent yet understandable, choice to save her dying boyfriend, Alejo. Pefecto plays a crucial role in getting Alejo to a hospital. After this dramatic event, Estrella has a brief encounter with Perfecto and this synapse changes his life forever. “Thank you,” Estrella says to Perfecto. Not hearing correctly, Pefecto asks Estrella to repeat the words, “ thanks” (155). “Perfecto had given his country his all, and in this land that used his bones for kindling, in this land that never once… said thank you,” (155) Perfecto was so touched by Estrella’s utterances. Perfecto, for the first time in his difficult existence, felt validated. One can only hope, Perfecto, toolbox in hand, decided to remain with this newfound family. We hope his memories of what was and could have been became less frequent and not as painful; his present and future now held a special place in his heart.
In William Wallis’s novel Hawk, Ray Falke is quite a different creature. Perfecto and Ray are similar only in the dual suffering of extreme adversity and abuse. Ray Falke, a flawed, seemingly cruel, father of four, cannot let go of his painful past. Unfortunately, Ray’s haunting past holds his entire family hostage, as everyone suffers enormously from his raging demons. During Ray’s tumultuous childhood, a machine on which he toiled “tore away all of his… fingers, all but one.” (38). Ray’s seven year old son Will was sadly cursed with the loss of an eye, and whenever Ray looked at Will, he saw a mirror image of himself, imperfect and permanently scared, with “no fortitude,” (37). Ray was constantly abused as a child and subconsciously chose to continue the cycle of brutality, thrusting it like a tornado upon his own flesh and blood. “His dreams were mostly painful, the meanness of the past, his own meanness and the hardness of his own life.” (62). Ray seems as well to have been a product of the stereotypical behavior that was unfortunately the norm for too many fathers in the Southern fifties. It is not until the last act of this beautifully crafted gothic novel that Ray has a coming of age, when he finds himself on the precipice of good and evil. He finally realizes he is about to cross the line into the dark side, from which he will never be able to return. After an abusive and incredibly powerful confrontation with his young son Will, Ray is able to finally come to terms with the past and we hope move towards a more peaceful life. “Ray glimpsed an austere beauty in his son’s face. And from the distance between them, marked by the oak posts and barbed wire of their time together thus far, each knew the other as much as was allowed their willing hearts.” (141). Ray experienced an extraordinarily powerful coming of age moment, and although life would probably never be ideal or perfect for the Falke clan, one can only assume and pray the worst was over. A coming of age moment can come at any given moment in one’s life. It is forever, does not discriminate and is irrefutable.
Similar to Ray Falke and Perfecto Flores, I too had my most profound coming of age experience as an adult. It was a chilly grey Monday morning and I was in my kitchen, frying chicken. I had been cooking all morning, pot roast, butter beans, biscuits, key lime pie, and of course, my famous apple crisp. I was preparing these southern culinary delights because my brother-in-law Steven had called the night before to let me know that my best friend, his wife Candy, was not feeling well. I phoned Candy and told her that I would come over the following day with enough food and tons of hugs to last a week. She sounded tired, but compos mentis. Before she hung up, she said, “I love you” and I remember telling her I loved her more. Candy had stage four cancer and we had learned that it had just spread to her liver. As grave as the prognosis was, Candy’s fierce will and unbreakable spirit convinced me that we had many years ahead of us. I had never had anyone die in my life who was less than ninety-four, so I naively thought everything would be fine. At noon on that grey Monday, my brother-in-law called to tell me they were on their way to the hospital; Candy was vomiting blood. I drove the thirty-seven minutes to St. Johns Hospital. That drive marked the start of what would become the most difficult, painful, life-changing week of my life. Two days later, a very solemn, slightly balding, overweight, and overly professional doctor called us into a cold and cheerless waiting room. He carelessly informed us that Candy would not be leaving the hospital, ever. Then he added, as if giving us directions to the children’s nursery, she only had a few days left. How could this happen? Candy and Steven were both competent successful physicians; doctors aren’t supposed to die, especially the young ones. They are supposed to possess some special secret potion that keeps them healthy and alive forever. After the doctor’s grave news, I screamed so loud that I had to leave the room, crying and convulsing with gut wrenching agony. From that moment on, I spent every waking hour at the hospital, taking care of relatives, decorating Candy’s room, acting as deejay, hairdresser, make-up artist, nurse, chef and confidant. A quiet strength was emanating from me and I know not from where it came. Candy never fully regained consciousness but when I spoke to her she opened her eyes and looked me squarely in the face. She looked at no one else. She knew. She knew I was going to make sure she died with grace and dignity. It was Sunday afternoon, scarcely a week had passed, November twentieth, approximately 4:45 pm., when for no reason whatsoever I got up and started brushing Candy’s hair. I applied rose-colored lipstick and lavender body lotion to her jaundiced skin. Twenty-five minutes later Candy took her last breath! The nurse casually walked in, took Candy’s pulse then, looked over at me, inquiring gently, “I’m going to call time of death at 5:12 p.m., is that okay?” I nodded quietly, hearing the sound of my heart beating while Candy’s no longer could. My life had changed in that sacred moment and I knew it would never be the same. My coming of age moment: Sunday, November twentieth, 5:12 p.m. The mark of time between what was and what would never be again. Life was now to be savored, treasured, lived fully and passionately and most importantly never in any fashion to be taken for granted. It has been nearly two years, and with each new day the pain gets duller and slightly more bearable. I have re-entered college after twenty years away, am getting my degree in medical social work, with hopes of becoming a grief counselor. I know Candy would be proud of me; she is dancing in heaven and singing Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” loudly and seriously off-key. A coming of age experience can happen any time during life, most often when it is least expected. It does not discriminate. It is the thread that sews humanity together. And it is a phenomenon that is undeniable.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1995
Wallis, William George. Hawk. Stone and Scott. 2005