Christina Brockett and Uma Gowrishankar

Uma Gowrishankar –Slant of the Sun

Inspiration Piece

Christina Brockett- The Collector

Response Piece


The pink lady stood, her perfectly manicured cotton candy colored clapboards stretched between arms of white trim and gingerbread. The sun reflected off of the metal, standing seam roof while the salt filled wind blew the rocking chair on the lower of the porches which extended across the front.

She was empty now.

News of Bessie’s passing traveled quickly within the Key West community. Years ago she stopped cooking, preferring to eat instead at the different cafés in town. She said that eating in the cafés was like eating with family. It wasn’t just that she knew all of the owners and waiters; it was as if this was her town, and we were all guests at some grand dinner party of hers.

If you were a tourist lucky enough to eat near Bessie one morning, afternoon or evening, you would leave Key West just a little richer. See, Bessie was a true Salt Water Conch—the name given to inhabitants whose families came from Europe, to the Bahamas and then settled in Key West. And although she was ninety-five, her sharp mind could recount the history and events of the Keys in incredible detail. These stories she shared vividly with anyone close enough to listen.

Standing here, in front of the Bessie’s house brought me back to the morning when I first met her twenty years ago.

The first day, after I settled into my house on Caroline Street, I sat on my porch holding a hot mug of coffee. Across the street, I watched this sprite of a woman with white hair, flit around the impeccable garden in front of her pink house. Not even five feet tall, the thin boned woman looked incredibly frail to me, but I soon realized that Bessie was anything but.

I watched as this elderly lady carefully pruned and weeded her garden beds. I’m sure it was just my imagination, or maybe just the way the light changed with the slant of the sun that morning, but it seemed that her presence among her flowers caused the pinks, purples and yellows to explode with color.

Entranced with her flowers, I was startled when I heard this voice yelling at me from across the street.

“This isn’t some show. If you’re going to watch, you might as well come over and introduce yourself, so I know who it is I’m entertaining.”

There Bessie stood with one hand on her hip, the other shielding her eyes from the mid-morning sun. A broad smile extended across her face. A smile which turned into a belly laugh as she soon realized that she had startled me, and I was now covered in coffee and cream.

Although she was smiling, something in her tone indicated that this wasn’t a request, but rather an order. This command I obeyed as soon as I could wipe up the pool of coffee that was spreading across the white boards of my porch and dripping from my arms and down my legs.

“I’m Bessie Johnson. And son, who might you be?” She said, her steel grey eyes staring up at me.

“I’m Gregory, ma’am.”

The words tumbled from my mouth and all of my Manhattan sophistication disappeared. Suddenly I was that eleven-year-old boy in standing in front of his new headmistress in his boarding school in Upstate New York.

“Well Gregory, it’s nice to meet you. Since we’re neighbors, we might as well get to know each other. Follow me and we’ll have some iced tea.”

Again, it wasn’t a request but a command. I felt like a giant following this little woman as we wound our way through the stone path leading to her back yard.

The back yard opened up and was even more spectacular than the front. Here, the traditional house gave way to a tiled patio and a garden full of flower beds and clay pots filled with more tropical flowers. While waiting for Bessie to return, I studied the pots flanking the seating area that were filled with red and yellow blossoms.

The abundance of color found in the gardens and homes of this town was in such a sharp contrast to the coldness of the concrete and stone that permeated much of New York. Looking back, I really think that it was this warmth that drew me to relocate to Key West.

Balancing a tray between curled, arthritic fingers, Bessie had returned with our iced tea. She placed the tray down on a small table between two high-backed rattan chairs and motioned for me to take a seat.

Breaking the silence I asked, “Ms. Johnson, your gardens are beautiful, what are those flowers?”

“Well first off, it’s Bessie, just Bessie.” Leaning towards the two potted plants closest to her, she pointed first to the red one. “This one is a hibiscus, and the yellow one over here is a form a primrose.”

She paused. With her head cocked slightly to the side, I felt her eyes studying me.

“You don’t know much about gardens do you son?”

It was a statement really, not a question. Before I could answer her, she added, “Well, that’s okay. I can teach you all about the flowers and plants around here.”

And she did.

I learned not only about the flora and fauna of southern Florida, but about everything associated with the Keys, and most specifically Key West.

Over the course of the last twenty years, as I would accompany her around town, or we would have afternoon or morning tea in her garden, she recounted story upon story. She told me why most of the houses in Key West have metal roofs. She told me about Sam Filer, her grandfather, who was a lumber merchant and shipbuilder who built the historic house on Eaton Street. She showed me the conch that was left on her parent’s front porch when she was born–a tradition among the natives of Key West. She told me all about the 1935 hurricane that came through when she was just a little girl and cut Key West off from the mainland. She told me of her memories of Earnest Hemingway. She told me about living here during World War II and about losing friends to polio. She taught me about the history of cigar making and of all things Key West.

Bessie was a collector. Not of things, but of memories and history. She felt that the world was richer when people understood more than just what appears on the surface. Having come from a world where daily life moved faster than most of the country, and where people kept to themselves, this idea initially was strange to me. People I knew didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting, and they certainly didn’t make an effort to share their memories.

But Bessie did.

Bessie knew that she was one of the few true natives and one of the oldest residents of Key West.  Somewhere along the way, she turned it into her mission to make sure that these memories and stories lived on beyond her. And as any visitor or local could tell you, Bessie’s stories did—including the story of the little woman with the shock of white hair, one of the last remaining Salt Water Conchs.

And so on this day, the restaurants will all leave an empty table and chair out for Bessie and I will bid her a final goodbye.