Joined: 11 Dec 2003
Location: Amherst County, Virginia
|Posted: Thu Oct 28, 2004 12:38 pm Post subject: 2004 Autumn SS: 1st - Hand Me Downs
|Daddy was killed in the war. I barely remembered him and Mama never talked much about him but she had to work because we had no daddy. Sue Ellen was born after he went overseas and he never saw her.
Even without a daddy, life seemed simple in 1948. I was in fifth grade that year, and Sue Ellen started school.
Thursdays were my favorite day because I had Girl Scouts. I liked Scout meetings even more than Sunday School at First Methodist but I never told Mama that. Sometimes I thought she suspected but she never said anything. I did wish that when there was a Scout outing or some other special occasion that I could have something new.
Mama always sighed in the way she had, and said, “We can’t afford it, Mary Jo. There is no money.” We usually had to pay extra for outings and Mama always found the money for the fee, but it could never be stretched for “extras.”
In the end, I had so much fun I would forget I didn’t have a new dress for a party or extra money for popcorn and candy at a movie. The other girls never noticed, or if they did, were too kind to comment. That fall we had a hayride and wiener roast at Nancy Whitlock’s. Out of habit, I asked Mama for a new flannel shirt but the answer was the same.
She gave me a quarter for raking leaves and suggested I might want a new bandanna. I went to the dime store and bought a bright red one to tie at my neck. My blue plaid shirt was faded almost to gray from its many washings but felt soft against my skin. Nancy had new jeans and a new shirt, but I noticed with some satisfaction, the stiff collar of her shirt made her neck red.
Nancy’s daddy loaded hay on a wagon and pulled us all over the farm and even out on the county road for a short stretch. I always thought if my daddy had lived, I would have liked him to be like Mr. Whitlock. It was great fun as we rode among the sweet-smelling hay and sang “Do Lord” and “Kookaburra” and “Little Brown Church in the Vale.”
Wednesdays I walked Sue Ellen to the Baptist Church and sat on a hard folding chair in the social hall while she played for Mrs. Fowler, her piano teacher. Mama ironed for Mrs. Fowler in exchange for the lessons but the teacher never mentioned it to Sue Ellen or me.
Sometimes I would find a discarded Sunday School paper and work the crossword and the Bible Quiz. The Baptists had much better papers than the Methodists. They also had colorful pictures decorating the social hall. If I did not disturb the lesson, I could walk around the room while Sue Ellen played songs from John Thompson’s Second Book. “The Spinning Song” was my favorite and even then, I recognized Sue Ellen’s talent.
The Baptists’ pictures were scenes from Jesus’ life: birth in a manger, speaking in the Temple, Sermon on the Mount, miracles performed, prayers in the garden and many of the Last Supper and Crucifixion. My favorite was the one showing him coming down the mountain with the lost lamb in his arms. I imagined the feel of the warmth and trembling of the lamb’s body and the slight oily texture of his wool. I thought it wonderful that the Baptists kept the entire life of Jesus surrounding them as they socialized. Our social hall had a single picture—the face of Jesus—a cross, and the American and Christian flags.
Sue Ellen and I walked home from her lesson through the early dusk of a winter afternoon the week before Christmas. Sue Ellen wouldn’t have another session until after the holidays.
“Why do you look at those pictures while I’m playing the piano, Mary Jo?”
“It’s something to do—forty minutes sitting is a long time.”
“What are those pictures? I can’t see them when I look up, the glass gets in the way.”
I laughed at Sue Ellen’s reason, but understood how glare on the glass would keep someone shorter from seeing the pictures. I wondered if the Baptists knew their younger members couldn’t see them.
“Most of them are pictures of Jesus and all the things he did in his life.”
“Like when he was born in the manger—you know the story—you were a sheep last year in the pageant.”
“Oh, yes, and the Wise Men came from Afar. Where’s Afar? Is it near Richmond?”
“No, goose, it’s a far. It means from far away.” I kicked leaves and realized the dust from the leaves was making last year’s saddle oxfords grimier than ever. I would have to polish them tonight—tomorrow was Scouts. Our leader graded us each week on how we looked. My uniform was a hand-me-down, but she didn’t take off for that—only if it needed pressing or a button was missing or my shoes were dirty.
If points were taken off for wearing second hand clothes, I would fail life before I finished fifth grade Spring and fall, we received huge boxes from Mama’s sister who lived in Richmond and was married to a doctor. Her only child, Cleo, was two years older than I and her discarded clothing provided my wardrobe each year. Fortunately, Cleo was in Scouts and grew too quickly to make a uniform stretch two years. I hated hand-me-downs It was all part of being poor.
As we neared home, a tiny frame bungalow set behind a boxwood hedge, we saw Mama’s car at the curb. Mama was the visiting nurse for the county and she drove an old black sedan. She could be called out at night, though seldom was, and the county let her keep the car at home. “No pleasure driving, Mrs. Tanner, the car is strictly business—county business.” I heard Mr. Melton, the head of the Health Department, as he handed the keys to her the night he brought the car. His little speech seemed to hold a dire warning—I heard of those in a book in school—of what I wasn’t sure.
Sue Ellen tugged on my coat when she saw the car and we hurried in, dried brown maple leaves blowing around our feet.
“Here’s my girls. What’s up, ducks?”
Sue Ellen laughed and crawled onto Mama’s lap.
“Quack, quack,” she said. It was their game, hers and Mama’s.
“I have a surprise for you.”
“Goody, goody.” Sue Ellen clapped her hands.
“Next Wednesday you’ll go to work with me. It’s the first day of your Christmas break and I have to make extra rounds to cover for Ruth Ann who's going to Charleston for Christmas.”
“Did Mr. Melton say we could ride in the county car?” I remembered the dire warning.
“No, but his assistant did. Mr. Melton is off till after Christmas. It’s the only way I can work the extra hours and cover Ruth Ann’s patients as well as my own. You’ll have to be up very early and it will be a long, long day. We’ll take sandwiches and hot chocolate.”
“Goody, goody,” Sue Ellen sang, “A picnic, a picnic.”
Mama laughed and I hurried to my Girl Scout Handbook to determine if any of the things I would be doing with Mama that day would help me get my Home Nursing badge.
* * *
Wednesday morning was very cold. A fine rain had fallen during the night and a thin layer of hard frost covered the car and the roads. Mama packed Sue Ellen into the back seat with extra blankets around her. She immediately fell back to sleep.
Mama drove with care as the old car slid on patches of ice and we were soon on North Hill. Many of the older homes had separate cottages on back lawns or apartments in old carriage houses. Some of Mama’s patients lived in those—mostly retired people with health problems who needed to be checked by a nurse several times a week. The silver light of the approaching day was breaking through as we made our first stop.
Sue Ellen slept, but I went in with Mama each time. Her patients greeted me with warmth; Mama said most of them had no families close and they all loved children. It was Mama’s last visit before Christmas, unless there was an emergency, and many of the patients had a gift ready for her: nut bread, fruit cake, a jar of honey, pints of pickles and relish, jams and jellies, quarts of tomatoes and green beans and corn She wrapped the many jars with newspaper before putting them in the trunk.
One lady gave her a whole ham, but Mama protested.
“Honey, I sure can’t use a whole Virginia ham. My son sends one every year—orders it special from Smithfield—and Joe, my mailman has to carry it way back here to me—it’s heavier than a load of bricks. Now, what would I do with all that ham? I shouldn’t eat it anyway—too salty, and me with high blood pressure.”
“If you’re sure, Mrs. Crawford.”
“I’m sure, Nurse Tanner. You take it. I’d rather have me a little baked hen for the holiday. Wish that son of mine would send me something I could use, or come see me, but he’ll never change.” Mrs. Crawford gave me a hug and slipped two wrapped peppermints in my pocket.
Mama placed the ham in the county car beside the Mason jars.
Sue Ellen woke and Mama’s calls continued out into the country as she started to make detours to include Ruth Ann’s patients with her own. Some of the farm people gave her bags of turnips or potatoes, greens, a few winter squash, but many of the houses were small and barren. Often the patients were dirty and the houses smelled. Sue Ellen and I would retreat to the outdoors. It was bitter cold outside, but smelled only of wood smoke and damp earth, not of cooked cabbage and pee. We played Ring-Around-the-Rosey and London Bridge to keep ourselves warm.
Before we finished it was dark, the black velvet of a moonless winter night. Sue Ellen again curled among the blankets on the back seat. My mouth watered thinking of the gifts in the trunk and the feast we’d have on Christmas Day.
“This is our last stop, Mary Jo, then we head home.” We had run out of paved road and were on a narrow path with bare locust trees on either side that scraped the county car from front to back. I wondered that Mr. Melton allowed the car to be driven here.
The patient was a man, not old like most, who lived alone. Mama told me he’d fallen from the roof of his cabin, injured his spine and could not walk but managed most things for himself. There was a goat with her two babies on his porch and they maa’d at our approach but did not run away. One of the kids nuzzled my hand.
“She’s looking for a handout, I expect. Jonah spoils all of them. He buys more groceries for his animals than he does for himself.”
We entered the tiny log house. It sounded like Herb’s Pet Store next to the IGA. Birds chirped. dogs barked and cats mewed. A one-legged hen ran around as though she still had both legs, and a rabbit with one ear missing hopped over my feet. I was enchanted.
I looked straight into Jonah’s eyes; in the wheelchair, he was on a level with me His eyes were warm and brown and he had a beard, like Jesus in the pictures. On his lap was a lamb. I wanted to cry but I didn’t know why.
Mama helped Jonah onto his narrow cot, bathed him and gave him a shot while I held the lamb. She checked his other medications and told him we must be going.
“When will you be back?”
“Tuesday, we’ll be a while catching up next week with Friday off for Christmas Eve. Unless you want me to come on Monday?”
“No, I’ll keep till Tuesday. You’ll have others who will need you more on Monday. You’re running late tonight.”
“Yes, I have half of Ruth Ann’s patients as well as my own. She’s gone home for Christmas.”
“Good she can be with family. I wish there was more for you.”
“I have my girls.”
“Yes, and I can see Mary Jo is a big help. Looks like you too—she’ll break hearts some day.”
Jonah swung himself back into his wheelchair using strong ropes fastened to the rough-hewn beams. He put his arms out and I placed the lamb back in his lap.
He rubbed her back with his large hand, “She has a broken leg. That’s why this piece of wood is taped to it. A few weeks and I hope she’ll be able to walk on her own.”
I couldn’t say anything. There was a huge knot in my chest and my throat hurt, like the time I swallowed an ice cube. Tears, never shed, burned my eyes and blurred my vision. The more I looked at Jonah, the more I saw the picture at the Baptist Church. I backed toward the door.
Jonah looked at Mama and said, in no more than a whisper, “Merry Christmas, Susan.” His eyes glistened like polished creek pebbles.
“Merry Christmas, Jonah.” Her eyes looked different somehow, but I couldn’t see very well. She grabbed her bag.
Mama drove too fast going back down the rutted path. Sometimes when I eat too much of a sweet thing, like S’mores at a wiener roast, I think I’m going to be sick. That’s how I felt.
Mama slowed the car. We were at the last house we’d visited before Jonah’s—one of the really poor ones. Mama pulled next to the dented mailbox nailed on its locust post, got out, opened the trunk and took out a bag of potatoes. She crammed it in the box.
Back in the car, she put it in gear and drove toward town. The ham and enough fixings for a great Christmas dinner went into the large mailbox in front of another house we’d visited earlier—the only one with children. There were six; their mama paralyzed by a stroke, their daddy a millworker.
Mama and I said nothing. With frequent stops the trunk was emptied and we continued our journey home.