How Sweet It Is
by Sydney Bender
“I remember a house like a lot of houses, a yard like a lot of yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. I remember how hard it was growing up among people and places I loved. Most of all, I remember how hard it was to leave. And the thing is, after all these years I still look back in wonder.” –Kevin Arnold, The Wonder Years
Drinking punch is kind of like taking a trip back in time to your parents’ house when they were teenagers. Pink and yellow flower-power wallpaper, the Monkees playing Daydream Believer, bellbottoms just barely skimming above the polychromatic shag carpet.
Or at least this is how it plays out in my head. “You watch too much television,” my parents used to say, and they were right, but TV is where this idea came from.
Let’s start at the beginning. In one of my favorite childhood memories I am propped up in my parents’ bed watching the Wonder Years, my generation’s first exposure to the turbulent sixties. When the show premiered, it was 1968 and Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) was 12 years old. Through osmosis I learned what being a teenager was like. Like my love for the show, Kevin’s love for Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) was infectious, but never in an outrageous way.
In the first episode I watched (Episode 16 from Season 5, “Double Date”), Kevin and Winnie go to a school dance, but not with one another, just together, with separate dates. It’s awkward. They walk into the gymnasium, balloons and chaperones bouncing about, and Kevin offers his date a cup of punch. Four naïve tweens drink punch together, the only thing between them is the punch bowl, and their true feelings about one another. The character’s facial expressions may not telegraph this, but even the most uncomfortable teenage situations on the Wonder Years teach the audience something, and it’s the punchbowl itself that preserved this relic of the high school years.
Kevin and Winnie, like my parents, grew up in a different time when things were less complicated. But through all the decades, kids always appreciate and remember the little things, like punchbowls at school dances. The more I watch the Wonder Years, the more I remember loving that proverbial punchbowl. My favorite episodes are the ones that were set at a school dance with baby-faced Fred Savage trying to “get by with a little help from his friends.” A bowl of pink punch with orange accents was never out of reach.
Even a decade and a half later, when I see a groovy punch bowl, my eyes, the color of milk chocolate, begin to melt.
Punch to me represents an age of innocence that’s been lost, a time when playing in the street and coming home after dark didn’t warrant any worry, because cellphones were unheard of and constant communication was unneeded.
The High School Years
Teenage years move like dog years, and by the time I reached high school we didn’t have school dances in gymnasiums, and we didn’t have punchbowls. But we did have punch, which is more than the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students can say, although they don’t seem to mind.
“We’re not serving punch at the prom,” Mary Ollen, junior class president at the MVRHS, casually tells me. “I just think it’s something that’s never crossed our minds.”
Mary, the leader of the junior class in many things, including planning the prom, is 17 years old. “When you think of prom now you don’t really think of kids gathering around a punch bowl,” says Mary, and that’s really all she has to say about punch.
Mary has no interest of why I’m asking about punch, and doesn’t understand my reference to the Wonder Years. To her what’s important is that everything runs safely and smoothly. The refreshments are far down on their list of priorities (they’ll be serving water and soda).
Instead, Mary tells me of other plans she and a committee of 30 students have been planning: a Vineyard beach theme, with white twinkle lights and mason jars of sand with seashells and candles inside for decoration. She tells me how hard it was booking a venue, how girls go dress shopping off-Island, and how party buses have taken the place of limos.
And I can’t blame Mary for not knowing about the proverbial punch bowl. Changes to rights of passages like prom have been made to ensure safety, and punch might be prone to tampering. Many MVRHS graduates don’t even remember whether there was a punch bowl at their prom.
On June 11, 2011, Karen Achille, vice president of the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living and the Oak Bluffs Senior Counsel on Aging, proved the old axiom “age ain’t nothing but a number” true. She held the “Seniors Prom” at the Oak Bluffs Senior Center. There was music, dancing, laughter, and, of course, a punch bowl.
“I was the one who made the punch,” Karen says. She tells me about replenishing the punchbowl as the night went on and doesn’t remember whether there was any left over at the end. But I doubt it. Karen’s punch is sweet and delicious. It reminds me of the wallpaper in the Wonder Years, it’s got foam and fizz, and fruit floating in a kaleidoscope fashion. If Karen is any indication, nostalgia plays a part in punch recipes.
Someone once told me if you want to get to know a person better, meet their parents. But perhaps sharing a glass of punch together will equalize you better, or at least get you closer to saying hello for the first time. Asking a sweet girl from science class to dance will teach you something you can’t learn in the classroom. Maybe making punch for your friends to share memories with will spark up a good conversation. Or maybe just remembering your favorite TV show and daydreaming about what growing up will be like, will suffice just as well.