Image from the Internet
My childhood friend Gloria lived in a creaky-board old house, around-a-block-and-down-the-block from Mammaw’s house---in exactly the same place on that block. But it could have been in another town or another country, compared to Mammaw’s neat yard full of flowers and brick edgings and that huge, bountiful garden out back which supplied three families’ freezers.
Gloria’s house was a ratty old thing, much bigger than Mammaw’s---good thing, for Mammaw’s three-room shotgun did well to house the four of them (and I STILL don’t know where they all slept). And Gloria had five brothers, to whom could have been laid the broken windows, the hangy-down screendoors, the screens like rump-sprung skirts, flappy-cornered on the big three-sides porch, and the absolutely naked yard all around---foot-stomped and body-slammed every day of the week.
In the Summer, the boys all slept on pallets on that porch, under those huge old trees for the cool of the night, and I don’t know how they lived through it---the screens were dark-rust blankety things, so stretched and so clogged with grime that they sucked in and out like old curtains whenever the wind blew. They were certainly not attached to the rims in enough places to foil the hordes of mosquitoes which inhabited that yard from dusk til dawn.
They lived just down the street from the “flowin’ well” and we loved to go down there and let the coldcold water run over our bare feet after we’d sorta rinsed our hands enough to cup them full of that wonderful water and get a good long drink. The “well” was an artesian flow, from a big curved red pipe, gushing out onto an area of flat pavers laid so you could walk up and fill a jug or a bucket. And in my childhood, quite a few people still did “go get water” every morning and night, up to and including for dishwashing and their baths.
The flat stones were slick and mossy in places, with the onslaught of the water making the little growth of green wave and sway like the face-fur of a dog in a car window. I’d sit on the low brick wall, watching the hypnotic dance of the green stuff, thinking how it looked like the seaweed in movies we’d seen, trancing myself into being underwater, swimming down deep.
We’d dare each other to walk the bricks, clinging tight with our toes to the slick surfaces, trying to make it past the slippery outskirts, treacherous with moss, to take one quick leap without our feet sliding out from under us, and to land in the drier grass past the ledge.
One year Gloria had a party on her birthday. I was nine, and the day is marked for me, for I never knew her to have one before, and I was the only guest. I was at Mammaw’s for the weekend, having arrived on Friday after school, and she came over and invited me on Saturday morning. Like a kid, I thought nothing of the short notice, and Mammaw got out her pocketbook and gave me a little money out of her old black snap-top change-purse.. My heart lifted when she pulled several dollars out of that tiny stronghold, but she fished around down in there and handed me four quarters, one by one.
I went to Aunt Lou’s store and pondered my choices; socks were a possibility, as were underwear in those days---we thought nothing of wrapping up a pretty pair of panties for a girlfriend’s present, and since the boxes almost always looked the same as handkerchief boxes, a discreet word to the honoree, and she’d hold up the box, say who it was from with a smile, and to the laughter of all boys present, and then slide the unopened box under her chair.
A little glass bottle, much like those in the big grocery spice-racks today, with a foil-wrapped stick of Zia cologne inside was a popular gift---I can still smell the acrid-sweet of those, as well as hear the little muffled cloomp as you shook the bottle in your hand. There was also the choice of a nylon “neck-scarf”—a foot-square scrap of nylon, mostly solid, but sometimes in checks; we all had several colors, and wore them tied off to the side of our necks, kinda like cowboys, but WAY chic.
I finally settled on a little year-diary with a tiny lock and a poodle-charm on the keychain. I appeared at the appointed time, expecting to see a table with the crinkly white paper tablecloth with HAPPY BIRTHDAY around the edges, and a balloon or two flanking the cake-with-pink-roses, which was all I had ever seen for a girl’s birthday. (Except, of course, for the cakes made and decorated at home with a set of grocery-store letters in those hanging packages, those squeezed-out-tiny-points of rock-hard icing, spelling out Happy Birthday, with a few matching candle-holders which didn’t fit any candle known to man). Those were mostly for boys, in awful color combinations like yellow and brown, and featuring rocket ships or lassos.
The cake sat on the same old bird-spattered, faded-to-gray wood picnic table we sat at most afternoons (well-scrubbed and hosed down earlier, with the dirt still damp beneath our feet). It was a “bought cake” all right, but it was an odd little thing.
Aunt Lou’s shelves always held a half-dozen or so of those---white cake, which you could plainly see through the cellophane, for they were like you’d made a LONG loaf cake,with frosting between the two layers and all around top and sides, and cut it into six-inch sections, with two cut sides naked.
There were no games or contests, unless you counted her brothers’ whooping dashes around the yard, or their swinging all up into the trees, or wrestling each other in that damp dirt.We just talked for a while at the table, sitting on those splintery planks attached to the X of the table-legs. There were no candles, but we sang, and then she took the cellophane off the cake, cut it lengthwise in half, and those each into four slices. She deftly placed the slices on eight plates, DARED her brothers to touch them, and opened the two little square cartons of “ice milk” with their dark green cardboard sides. It was fifteen cents a carton, I remember, for Mammaw might send me around the block for one now and then, to divide amongst us three for an after-supper treat.
She cut the cartons open, then sliced each little block into four. When she’d placed the first block on a plate, she directed one of the boys to “take that to Mama,” and he disappeared into the house with it. We all then ate our cake and ice cream and talked a bit around the table before the boys dived back into yelling fists-and-elbows action, I suppose showing off for the party guest.
I remember every moment of that party, as if it’s a movie I’ve watched so many times I can repeat the dialogue. My most vivid memory of it, though, is when Gloria’s Mama finally came outside; she’d stood holding the screendoor open for a moment, just framed there in her faded loose dress, then came gingerly down the steps toward us.
She collapsed into the big faded-red lawn chair, and said she hoped I’d enjoyed Gloria’s party. I said I really had, and was glad I was there that weekend. She sat, feet outstretched, regarding her immensely-swollen feet and ankles, and said, “She just told me about it this mornin’ and I wish she’d have give me more notice. I coulda cooked up some chicken-backs or somethin’.”
The simple resignation and acceptance and open-handed generosity in those words have haunted me for decades.