How I cast a spell on some proper ladies

Even before "Sesame Street," kids called out letters and asked, "What does that spell?" Until the little darling finished, the adult was held spellbound by this activity. In this story, I am the aforementioned little darling.

It was a lovely, sunny day - a veritable jewel of a day - on which the ladies of my family gathered in Laguna Beach, Calif. Laguna was famous for artists who splashed paint around in organized motifs or with complete abandon and made a healthy living doing it.

At the time, Laguna's artists ranged from Impressionists to realists and everything in between. And artists' models, or the Laguna Painted Ladies, gathered there in great numbers as well.

Since the Laguna Painted Ladies were known for their "party ways," the churchgoing ladies of my family were not eager to join their ranks. (To digress a moment. My three great aunts, grandmother, and mother were simply called "The Ladies" in our family.)

Wonder of wonders, on this lovely day we found a parking space in Laguna at one of the main bluffs overlooking the beach. This grassy park meandered along the cliffs, split by an ambling, white concrete path.

There, one could sit and watch the sea - and all manner of beach costumes.

So The Ladies sat upon a park bench. I, a precocious preschool sprite, ran around looking for signs to spell out.

"What does this spell?" I would ask. Then I'd carefully call out each letter. Patiently, The Ladies listened. Patiently, they took turns announcing each completed word. When I reached the last letter of the last word, they read the whole sign to me.

They would explain that a particular sign told about all the renovations the city was doing for the park: new grass, new lights, new benches, and new paint.

I ran around some more, circling around the bench where The Ladies sat. Then I came to a screeching halt behind them.

A child who has stopped to read a sign on the back of a park bench is guaranteed to get the full attention of anyone - particularly any adults - seated on that bench. Several pairs of grown-up eyebrows knit together in concern.

As you know, only two types of signs appear on park benches.

One is a dedication plaque placed by the city on a bench that has been donated in memory of someone who particularly liked the view and watched the sun set there every afternoon from 1919 to 1996.

The other is a warning to weary wanderers that the bench has been recently refreshed with a new coat of paint that may not be completely dry yet.

The Ladies of my family were suddenly extremely interested in which type of park-bench sign I had encountered.

"Hmm," I mused, as the the ladies on the bench sat frozen and silent. "What does this spell?"

Now the ladies looked at one another, not daring to peer over the back of the bench and look for themselves.

According to my mother, the time between my identifying the first letter and identifying the second stretched agonizingly long. Five minutes, she insisted; the verbal equivalent of a slowly plodding tortoise. I'm sure it wasn't that long. Three minutes - tops.

From their side of the bench, The Ladies heard: "What does this spell? W...." They were concerned.

"E...." They were worried.

"T...." They were very worried. I inhaled, and, according to Great Aunt Ruth, took in enough air for a California gray whale preparing for a 20-minute deep-sea dive.

"P...." Beads of sweat began to emerge as thoughts of wet paint on nice clothes in a good car all the way home began to darken their thoughts.

"A...." But these were all very optimistic, moral church ladies, so they reassured themselves that all would be well.

"I...." My mother touched her index finger to the bench. When it came back tacky but mostly color-free, The Ladies began to breathe again.

"N...." According to the Ladies, endless minutes elapsed. It was like a really bad movie shot in slow motion, they claimed.

"T!" I was gleeful. The Ladies were not. But one of them informed me rather matter-of-factly that the sign said, "Wet Paint."

As one, The Ladies slowly rose from the bench, peeling themselves carefully away. As one, they slowly stepped away from the bench and turned back to look at it. Now they were aware that they had made an impression in the paint. (Later, I found out this was not the same as an Impressionist painting.) Each lady pivoted so that she could be inspected, and each was found paint-free.

A collective sigh of relief was heard the length and breadth of Laguna. They were happy indeed not to be among the Painted Ladies of Laguna Beach.

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