This is a remembrance of a time on the eve of World War II, and a tribute to my mother, who pushed and prodded five children through the hardest of times. She did it with love, and was reasonably satisfied with her efforts. As she said to me not long before she died, “At least none of you was ever in jail.”
Three of us survive and I’m happy to say, we are still at large.
“White Petunias” was published in the RED DIRT BOOK FESTIVAL ANTHOLOGY,
CHARACTER, Winter 2009. OKLAHOMA
By Pat Browning
In the gloaming … my mother sang in harmony with remembered voices … oh, my darling ...
In that long blue shadow left by the retreating day a bird fusses in the
Shifting to a more comfortable position on the chaise lounge I let my gaze settle on a red clay pot filled with white petunias. They gleam in the fading light and the years fall away.
Summer, a rural community in
, before the big
war … a real place, a pause in time, with some names changed for the privacy of
the living and the dead. Hughes
It was a Sunday night ritual, girls marching self-consciously into the rickety little crossroads church, boys watching from a stand of hickory trees across the road. Shadows hid their sunburned faces. Their white shirts gleamed, open at the throat, sleeves turned back at the wrists. Here and there a cigarette glowed.
Outside, muffled voices and laughter mingled with the creak of wagon wheels and the soft snuffling of horses. The smell of dust and dung, fresh hay and old leather hung on the air.
Inside, the crowded pews were fragrant with shoe polish, starched cotton and talcum powder. Cardboard hand fans whispered to Brother Henry’s hypnotic cadences as he herded us on a long trip through several books of the Bible. His breath came in long bursts when he finally emerged from a Hell peopled with murderers, whoremongers, idolaters and liars.
My sister Carolyn gave me the elbow and I looked around. Orvie, the boy of my occasional dreams, peered through a side window, nose pressed to the screen, hands cupping his soulful blue eyes. It was a sure sign that he was working up nerve to walk me home after church. I gave him the full benefit of my classic profile.
The pianist struck a thunderous chord. A baby squalled. Someone dropped a songbook as we stood to sing. I gave silent thanks for the close of the sermon and a chance to let a little air get at my sweaty limbs. Squall. Cough.
“Amazing grace!” Brother Henry shouted. “How sweet the sound!”
That was the cue for the saved to line up onstage in front of the pulpit. The preacher never closed a service without lining up the saved to shame the sinners. A gaunt and faded old woman known as Aunt Perlie led the reluctant shuffle toward the stage. Her dress had stuck to her bottom and she tugged at it as she moved forward.
I shuffled along with the others, mainly because my mother would not want me to stay in my seat. I knew that for a fact. God, I could bargain with. Mother had certain expectations. Assembled, we stared down at the miserable few still stuck to the pews.
“Rock of Ages!” the preacher shouted. “If you want our prayers, raise your hands now. Every head bowed, every eye closed … God bless you, brother … God bless you, sister … God bless you ...” We were dismissed with an “Amen!” that echoed and shook the rafters.
Carolyn and I had barely cleared the front steps of the church when Orvie came alongside, slipped his hand under my elbow and said, “Walk you home?”
I might have fainted except for his firm grip on my arm and the bracing smell of his clothes—starched cotton, line-dried in fresh air, dampened and ironed. And so we started off, walking through moonlight and shadow, past the graveyard, here and there a darkened house or barn, with Carolyn tagging along behind.
We made the kind of useless talk only 12-year-olds could make. If
After a while a familiar pasture came into view and I could see my own house just ahead. We stopped there in the middle of the road. Orvie made a move to kiss me and missed my face completely. Then he wheeled around and loped off back the way we had come.
Carolyn and I crossed the big grassy yard at a half-run, slowing down as we approached the front porch where my father dozed in a rocking chair. He opened his eyes, closed them again. No lights burned in the living room or bedroom. The little ones—Beth, Frankie, Tommy—were down for the night.
I stepped onto the porch, and through the screen door I saw my mother. She stood at the ironing board in the kitchen, lifting a flat iron from the top of the wood stove, testing it with her fingertip, and I heard her singing.
Memories come in bits and pieces.
We were seven people living in a three-room house, sleeping two or three to a bed. Sometimes after supper we lay on pallets in the front yard, breathing the cool, green smell of grass while Daddy talked about the stars in the sky, the places he had been, the sights he had seen. Some days we picked dewberries or smashed hickory nuts with a rock, digging out the meats with a hairpin. On Sundays we polished our black patent leather shoes with biscuits.
In those hard times Mother lived on hopes and dreams and found a way to make most of them come true. Her father was an old-time fiddler who played for dances almost until the day he died. She and her sisters sang like angels. Surely, she reasoned, her children had inherited musical talent.
She went into Holdenville and bought a Hallett-Davis spinet for $300, to be paid in installments, plus $10 for the bench. Spinets were new, a stretch for the budget but just right for a small living room. When I could ripple through the scales with relative ease I was assigned the thankless task of teaching Tommy to play the piano, either by persuasion or coercion.
Freckle-faced, tow-headed Tommy spent his days outside in the dirt and heat, chasing chickens, climbing trees, running up and down the road, sweating like a pig. If he could be coaxed inside he climbed onto the piano bench and scooted his bony little bottom next to mine, smelling to high heaven, kicking at the bench with his dirty little feet, plinking the piano keys with his grimy little fingers. As it turned out, neither of us had a lick of musical talent.
Too soon, those years passed into the deepest recesses of memory, taking everything with them: My parents and the old house, the barn, the smokehouse, the outhouse, even the ruts in the road. Carolyn went back not long ago and found nothing left to suggest that we were ever there. We might as well have dreamed it, and perhaps we did.
Only a piano proves otherwise. The little Hallett-Davis spinet survived. It went down the family tree to Beth, who hauled it with her through several states, and eventually deposited it with her daughter in
. It’s an heirloom, an artifact from
the old days, tangible proof that we didn’t dream them after all. Alaska
Like Emily in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” I sometimes wish to go back again, just for a day, any ordinary summer day with the sun shining and the wind blowing and puffs of white cloud drifting across a blazing blue sky. I might nab a piece of cold fried chicken and spend the afternoon sitting under a pear tree, reading A Tale of Two Cities.
It wouldn’t work, even if it were possible. Like Emily, I would be heartbroken by the carelessness of love, the transience of youth. There’s an invisible line between past and present. Memory is the only bridge where we can cross in safety.
The world seems to pause before a cataclysmic event, as if gathering itself for what is to come. So it was that summer, in that small rural community, before the boys in their Sunday clothes scattered to fight a global war in places they had never heard of.
The Sunday nights are gone, and everything with them, the church, the friends and neighbors, even the hickory trees. All gone, except for that pause in time and the boys in the shadows, where white shirts gleam and laughter lingers, brought back to me now in the twilight of a summer day, by a pot of white petunias.
© Pat Browning 2009