Elizabeth Harmatys Park
Back when winter was its deepest and darkest, she would sometimes see it on the shelf when she put the clean laundry away. It was very bright. It was very lush. The smells of hot sunshine, piney breezes, and sweet coconut oil still lingered in its folds. It was her watermelon towel.
Nearly forty years ago, a posh Texas department store sent her a catalogue of items totally unnecessary for a young Minnesota wife and mother. She had dreamed her way through that glossy book, looking for something she could afford, looking for something unique, glamorous, and new. She wanted something to make her feel special and valuable. There was little in that catalogue that she really could afford to buy. But there was something that looked like it might meet the rest of her needs: a watermelon towel! To her it seemed cheap at any price, but that towel cost more than forty toddler tee-shirts from the Nearly New Thrift Store. It cost more than twenty sticky sweets from Bob’s Corner Dairy Dip. It cost more than ten of the small recipe magazines she thumbed through at the grocery store. It was twenty dollars.
Yet, despite the cost, the towel was ordered, it came in the mail, and it was huge! It was a bold graphic print of a slice of juicy hot pink and cool green watermelon. It felt like velvet. It was hers and no one else could touch it!
Not much of anything else was all hers in those years of new marriage, old house, and young kids. Her children climbed in the bathtub with her because it was so much fun. When she closed the door and sat down on the toilet they cried because they were lonesome. They scribbled in her books. They tried on her shoes. They played with her car keys and lost them. They pulled on her arm when she talked on the phone because they were impatient. They ate from her plate because they were hungry. If she was sleeping, they woke her up when they were awake and ready to start their day. In general, her children invaded her body, occupied her mind, and stole her heart. Mostly it was normal and natural. It made her happy. But her life was often tiring, even exhausting. And then she felt used, and used up.
One cold Minnesota morning, she watched her five year old daughter and three year old son playing in the snow outside while she folded laundry near the window. Suddenly the back door flew open and both of them rushed toward her, red-cheeked and wet. They smiled at her and she beamed back at them. Then one put her icy hands under her mother’s shirt, on her warm stomach, to thaw them. The other leaned forward affectionately, she thought, and then wiped his runny nose on her shoulder. Out they ran. She sighed and pulled the watermelon towel from the wash basket. Because her children couldn’t have it, the watermelon towel was very attractive to them. After a bath, or after a swim in the lake, they asked for it. Later, going to a sleepover or away to camp, they pleaded for it. When all the other towels in the house were dirty, they demanded it. But she never shared her watermelon towel.
Politely but firmly, she refused all requests for it, no matter what the circumstances. She would simply state, “This towel is mine and it is very special to me. I like it very much. It is just not something I want to share.” That answer eventually satisfied them. Little by little they came to accept, to respect, and to understand her need for the watermelon towel. She was reasonable and generous. She knew that. They knew that. She would not be moved and she never felt guilty, not when it came to the watermelon towel.
The watermelon towel was carefully packed and moved with the family from Minnesota to Massachusetts to Wisconsin. It moved with the woman through forty years of change and growth in a marriage, in a family, in a community. Sometimes the watermelon towel was used often, sometimes hardly at all. It became a little worn, a little stiff, and perhaps just a little less colorful. It acquired blotches and bleach spots in the laundry room during the years when teenagers were alternately dyeing or fading their clothes. It went to the bottom of a big raggedy stack of beach towels.
Once when her son and daughter were in college and her husband was working, the woman treated herself to a professional conference before beginning a new job. She sat by herself at the hotel pool after the business part of the day was over. She sat by herself on her watermelon towel, watching and thinking about the young families all around her.
“This watermelon towel has stood for an important part of who and what I am, and what it means to me to live in a family,” she thought. “It has stood for that part of myself which is uniquely mine. In a warm, close, and loving family, especially when children are young, it can be hard not to give all of yourself away,” she thought. “It can be desperately hard to see and to hang on to what you need for yourself when others need so much from you.”
When children are growing up they have to see and to separate what is uniquely their own and what belongs to everyone else. They need some of what everyone needs. If parents can hold them close and still keep a little distance, children will learn to do this, too. The woman’s children grew up able to respect who they were and what they must do with their lives. Her son and her daughter married and each had four children of their own. They both have kept their own “watermelon towels”: his is the old tenderly cared for Jeep he fusses with; hers is the quiet yoga classes she never misses.
The woman’s days are mostly peaceful now, and she doesn’t need to protect her space, her belongings, or even her time. That doesn’t feel strange or unsettling to her; it feels comfortable. She’s not sure where the towel is these days and thinks she might have given it to a young neighbor who was expecting twins. The woman is glad she has had some preparation and practice for this stage of her life, and that she has learned to be generous to herself as well as to others. Her days are full of both contentment and anticipation. She is looking forward to the next visit of her grandchildren and thinks she must remember to tell them about the watermelon towel.