"Now, keep your eye's closed -- and don't you peek." Gramma's voice, a muffled high note lingering from inside the kitchen.
I sat on the edge of the old flowery couch, my palms pressed up tight against my eyes, seeing stars slightly, from pressing too hard. The living room was filled with afternoon shadows, the air felt stale. My breath was heavy with excitement jumping around inside of me, almost too much to keep to myself.
My little brother's were on the couch too. One of them was bouncing up and down. I kept wishing he would stop, but he didn't for very long at a time.
"Jeremy, sweetie, now you sit still. This is Beth's special day and don't you be spoilin' it!" Mamma demanded softly, so Gramma couldn't hear her.
Shifting himself closer to me, I could feel his soft, chubby little leg against the back of my arm, and his plastic pants that covered his diaper sticking to me as he stood up to the back of the couch next to me. Then - his sweet, warm milk breath on my face and a fresh washed baby smell in the air. I could feel him leaning down closer to me; his little face in mine.
Making sure I kept my eyes closed, I suppose, his own little game. My stomach jumped up and down. It was just too much excitement to have to hold on to, waiting for my surprise.
"I'm coming! Keep those eyes closed!" Gramma's muffled voice drifted sharply from the kitchen and around all of us as we waited in the living room.
Daddy got up from his chair, and walked toward the door; I knew that because I could hear his heavy boots on the wooden floor, smooth but solid. He pulled the door open. "We need some of that nice air in here, don't you think?" He spoke directly to Mamma.
She didn't answer, silence everywhere. Then, . . . smack! Not loud, but a quiet, sharp smacking sound. It was Mamma. She slapped my little brother, Ethan. I knew that because she did it often. "You sit!" A mean sound through her teeth and her lips. I couldn't see it happening, but I knew. And daddy was pretending it didn't happen.
"These kids need that fresh summer air inside here if they ain't gonna be out in it."Daddy had a soft caring sound in his voice for us. "I donno why we can't have this party out in the sunshine, Jo."
"Cuz I'm not having a house full of dirty kids this early in the day, Don! Not before this party, that is. Now, just don't you worry about it."She spoke with a sharpness toward daddy. I could 'see' it in her eyes even though I had mine covered. It was too familiar, her treatment of both Daddy and my little brother. This huge, cloud of mystery always weaving its way in and out and around and through our lives.
The warm afternoon air spilled suddenly into the room with the triangle of light from the open door. I could hear the bees buzzing at the mounds of four?o?clocks that tangled through Mamma's flowerbed and onto the porch. Teddy, our collie dog was just outside the door, whining ? begging for attention. Excitement in his panting at the hope that someone would come out and play, a sharp thud-thud of his tail on the wooden porch. "Get off the porch, Ted!" Daddy grumbled. "Go on now!" Daddy's voice had a sudden change in it. He was upset with Mamma. I knew it.
The warm air felt good on my brown, bare legs. It made me wish I could be out in the yard playing with Teddy or my little brothers. It was hard sitting there, waiting for my surprise. I tried to imagine what Gramma had for my Birthday this year; she always gave me the best gifts She had walked this afternoon the half mile down the gravel road between our house and hers, two brown paper bags tucked under her thin arms. She announced that we were going to have a Birthday party, right now! Mine! It was my 6th birthday!
I was so grown up, I could feel the smartness getting bigger and bigger inside me by the minute! As she walked up the long path between the road and the house, a small lopsided smile spread across her face, directed just at me. I could see it; she held it there the whole way as she walked from the mail box, to me. I knew that she had something special planned! I bit my lip in anticipation as she hugged me.
When I woke up this morning, the first thing I thought of was this is a great day, it's my birthday and I'm six and I'm older than any other kid I know! Gramma will do something special. She always does. I loved the mystery in it. I could remember that Daddy had said that when I turn six I get to drive the tractor for him in the field when he bucks the hay onto the wagon. That is, of course, if Mamma or my Uncle Lou can't be here to help.
I've waited and waited for what has seemed like forever until this day would get here! I wonder if I get to learn to drive it today! That would be all too wonderful, to turn six and to get to learn such a grown up thing -- all in the same day!
I bounced down the creaky, narrow stairs from my bedroom into the kitchen where Mamma was cooking eggs and bacon for breakfast. Daddy wasn't sitting in his chair yet with his hands curled around his coffee cup, warm and cozy, waiting for his breakfast to appear in front of him. I was early this morning with all my excitement.
The sizzle of the bacon and the smells of big round, yellow runny eggs all too familiar. Inside of me I wished that maybe it would be different on this day; maybe just for once! But that seemed like too much to wish for.
Just then, Daddy came through the back door, directly into the kitchen. He wiped his big boots on the rug next to the pump, took off his cap in a long swosh and plopped it over the back of his chair. It swung back and forth. I watched it. Three swings and then it stopped. The heavy sweat around the edge of the band made the cap two shades of red, the bill frayed in a way that it reminded me of the fraying edges of the sunflowers in the field - after the petals had dropped. Daddy should have a new one, I thought to myself. The thought tugged at my heart.
"Daddy . . . " A question in my voice.
"Don't bother me now, sweetie. Let's sit down and eat this good breakfast your Mamma's cooked us. He readied himself to get washed up.
"But daddy, I just wanna . . ."
"What did I tell you young lady?" His voice was sharp and direct. It startled me some, even though I was used to it. It being my birthday, I think I secretly wished for all the familiar things to be different on this day He had a gentle face, calm and nice, but his voice got sharp from time to time. I didn't like it but I knew it wouldn't last long. He was a serious man with a lot to do and time was a waistin'. That's what he always said. Daddy was usually in a very big hurry to get things done. It was like something really big was always chasing him and he had to get things done before it caught up to him.
He rolled his sleeves in neat cuffs just above his elbow, pushed the bright red pump handle up and down. A loud, creaking sound filled the little kitchen and then, the sudden gush of cool, clean water falling into the wash basin. I watched him as if I'd never seen him do it before: he gathered the water up in the bottom of the basin with his hands cupped and then threw the water with his right hand up onto his other lean, tan arm. Then with his left hand, he did the same before mooshing the big bar of soap between his hands and rubbing it up both arms. Then he splashed more water all over his arms. He dried himself off with a soft towel that hung behind the door, then picked up the basin, opened the screen door and threw the dirty water, black with farm dirt and flecks of hay, out to the side of the porch, onto Mamma's waiting flowers.
"Never waste anything!" he always said. "Those flowers, they'll like that water . . . dirty or not." He said it like he was saying it to a crowd of people waiting outside the door, proud that he was the way he was.
Daddy pushed the door shut, hung the empty basin on the pump handle and slid into his chair. He folded his clean, brown arms and gently lay them on the table where his plate would soon be, waiting with an impatient look on his face. Mamma brought the big silver coffee pot from the stove and poured the steamy coffee into Daddy's big wide open cup. He stuck a spoon deep into a jar of sticky honey, pulled it out, stirred the honey into the coffee; a sharp clink-clink against the cup. Today I noticed things in a different way than usual; paid more attention to everything. Maybe because today I was old and life was different when you get old. You see everything; take notice of it all.
Daddy touched the coffee cup to his lips gently, like he was giving it gentle kisses, then slurped it; made it sound like I wanted some too, the cozy smell drifting around and into my nose along with the smell of Daddy's lava soap hands sitting in front of me.
I put my hands in my lap with my paper napkin and looked down at it. I wondered if I dare spit my bacon in it today, a little whisper inside my head. After all, today is a special day; maybe it would be OK to do it this time. Even better, just maybe I could leave it lying right there on my plate, not eaten and Mamma and Daddy wouldn't even care! It was just a dream. Birthday or no birthday, it was too much to wish for, I was sure of it!
Just then, Mamma slid my plate in front of me. I could hardly believe what I saw! I squeezed my eyes closed tight, then back open again, quickly. There was NO bacon on my plate! Not even one piece all by itself staring up at me! Just a big pile of fluffy scrambled eggs on my plate, no big, yellow runny eggs touching and soaking into my bacon and toast, the way it usually was. I looked up at Mamma. I could feel a smile ready to come to my lips, still inside my throat and in my heart. I felt so happy that I could feel big tears welling up in my eyes. I blinked them away. Mamma winked a sweet, gentle wink. Quiet, and private just to me, so
Daddy wouldn't know. This was my birthday and she knows I hate bacon and runny eggs. So today, because I'm grown up more and get to eat them scrambled instead and with no bacon! This was going to be the best day ever! I just knew it!
Daniel and Ethan rushed into the kitchen just then -- loudness all around to disturb this gentle moment, this happy thing that just happened. I wanted to show the world my plate sitting in front of me, to show everyone what a wonderful breakfast this was! Tell everyone how much I loved my Mamma because she understood and she was being nice, in a quiet way.
The boys still wrapped up in sleep all over them, their little pajama's warm and wrinkled as they each slid into their big chair at the table. Daniel rubbed his eyes. Ethan whined because he wanted something but wasn't sure what. He was just hungry, that's all; I knew that. Grown?up people know these things.
Daddy's mouth was full of bacon and eggs, his cheeks fat and round. I put a fork full of fluffy eggs in my mouth, slow and gentle, a celebration here between me and Mamma. There were no balloons or pretty presents sitting on the table, but a really good, really big birthday surprise just for me, and I was going to make it last as long as I could.
I didn't even need that napkin laying on my lap - not today, because I was going to eat everything on my plate. No spitting anything out THIS morning!
My Daddy chewed his food like he'd never eaten before, washing each mouthful down with warm, brown coffee and he didn't even know about my surprise.
"OK! Get ready!"Gramma announced, as she walked through the kitchen door and into the living room. Her voice trailed in circles around my head, the excitement humming in my ears.
Daniel giggled and Mamma shushed him. Jeremy pushed into my shoulder with
his baby hands. "Hap-pay day, happy da-ay!" He sang, soft and quiet and slow, just to me, trying to be big like everyone else. I could hear a pink gummy grin spreading across his little face. He understood what this was all about.
"Here Mom . . . just put it down here on the table."
Daddy directed Gramma to the big heavy, round dining room table. "Ethan! Get yourself over there by your Mamma!"Daddy grumbled, a stern arm stretched out toward Mamma.
"OK, Beth Ann . . . Ge . . . eet ready." A song in Gramma's voice.
"Can I look Gramma?" I pleaded.
"Of course you can sweetie! Take a look!" "HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you! HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you!" Gramma's old voice singing alone to me, drifting high pitched and cool all around us. No one interrupting her until little Ethan squealed his little 'Hap-pay day . . . Happy da-ay!" just as before, all grown up and part of the party too.
I pulled my hands away from my face, opened my eyes and saw nothing but a big blur! Blurry Gramma with a big, wide smile, her gray hair parted neatly at one side and fluffy to the other. Her wrinkled, tan skin was brown and warm, but kind of fuzzy as I blinked my eyes to see clearly. She pulled me close. Her thin, willowy arms wrapped around me in a tight hug, my
head smashed up hard in the middle of her chest, a musty smell about her, the rich black dirt smell of her flower beds mixed with a smell of sweet white frosting. I felt a tiny smile on my face at the thought of a cake I knew she must have baked. The smell gave it away. When she unfolded me from her arms, I blinked my eyes hard, trying to focus on everything around me, trying to get rid of the blurriness.
Mamma was sitting at the other side of the table with Ethan sitting solid on her lap, his little round body tucked between her arms, she was holding him hard so he wouldn't move; his eyes big and round, darting from side to side. Daniel and Jeremy both sat on the couch with me. I stood and walked toward the table to inspect my birthday surprise from Gramma.
I glanced over at daddy. He had a big side?ways smile that looked like the kind Gramma gives, lots of love in his eyes. His white forehead looked brand new from no sun on it. His dark hair all smashed in a funny wrinkle from where his cap had been. He stopped smiling and closed his lips together, the love still in his bright blue eyes. I could tell he was trying to keep tears from spilling out. I looked at the prize that Gramma had placed on the table. My excitement settled into my stomach and pulled all bouncy and jittery; my heart felt warm inside. Gramma's eyes looked like big blue diamonds on her face.
"Happy Birthday to my sweet granddaughter. I hope you like it; there's a package to open over there next to it too. It's from your Mamma." She pointed her long bony finger toward a small white box wrapped in a pink ribbon, her lop?sided smile, soft and sweet. I glanced over at Mamma, still wrestling to keep Ethan in her arms. "Open it when you're ready honey. Just take your time." Way too much excitement to hold inside of me and so much love swirling around.
I walked to the edge of the table, touched the platter that the beautiful cake sat on. It was silver and cold on my finger tips; I rubbed it with the edge of my thumbs as I examined every inch of the cake.
It was a doll standing beautiful and tall in the center of a big mound of cake, decorated with fluffy, sweet, white frosting to look like a dress with tiny, delicate rosebuds of pink frosting all over it! Gramma had baked it and then I could just imagine her taking the beautiful blonde haired, slender doll with no clothes on and shoving her, feet first, into the warm, newly baked cake. She probably stood back to eye her to make sure she was standing straight and then proceeded to smooth the frosting all over the cake to create this beautiful dress she was wearing.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing! I had never in my life seen anything so beautiful or more precious! There was no way we could eat this cake!
"Look ? look!" Jeremy tugged at the edge of my shorts, pointing toward Daddy. It was so hard to pull my eyes away from this lovely sight. Daddy sat next to mamma and Ethan, a brown box on his lap. No pretty paper, no ribbon ?- just a box all simple and pure. Daddy gathered himself tall and gave me a big wink.
I looked back at the cake on the table; Mamma called my name and flashed a picture of me. The brightness blinding my eyes, to go along with the blurriness.
My head hummed with all of the excitement. The breath inside me felt like I'd swallowed a balloon. I swallowed hard and blinked. Mamma snapped another picture, announced that I should smile big and pretty. I tried to; I pulled at my pony?tail, wishing I didn't have it. I didn't like to see pictures of me with my hair in a pony?tail. But it was done. I was happy all the same;
a happiness that made me feel like I just might burst. And a picture of the most lovely cake I'd ever seen!
"What do you think, sweetie? Isn't she just precious?" Gramma's voice with a catch in it; proud of her creation, proud of her gift to me.
"Gramma, she's so-oo beautiful!" I knew there was no other six-year-old girl who had such a special gift. I just knew that the tiny box lying on the table or the brown box on Daddy's lap couldn't begin to compare to how beautiful this cake was that my Gramma had made just for me!
"Open some more! Open some more!" Ethan's little voice squealed. He sat on the couch in between Daddy and Mamma now. Mamma pressed her hand over his little mouth, soft but firm.
"Shush!" Mamma scolded through her thin lips. Ethan's little head shook under her hand, his eyes still full of wonder.
"Go ahead baby?girl; open the one from me." Mamma always called me that. I wasn't a baby anymore, that was for sure! How could you possibly still be a baby when you were six and knew all the things I did? But she liked it, so I went along with it.
Daniel stepped over close to the table; pulled his little hand out of his overall pocket and pushed the tiny box toward me. "Here. Mamma got it for you and I know what it is." His voice soft and low, his little grin a straight line like the ones on his shirt. He raised his sparkling eyes toward mine. "You'll like it."His voice was quiet in such a gentle way. He sat his little boy body down on the big couch, his fists in his lap. You would never know he was around if you didn't see him. He was way too quiet for a boy, a sweetness running completely through him.
Someone you wanted to pick up and hug, just because he was there. Daddy tousled the top of Daniel's curly, blonde head with his big hand, made a clicking sound out of the corner of his mouth.
I picked up the tiny box. It was a light as a feather; I shook it, inspected it from side
to side. There was no sound, no jingling, no clinking inside. I looked toward Mamma with a question in my face. It was a wonderment. I pulled the end of the tiny pink ribbon. The miniature bow unfolded itself. Running my finger between a piece of clear tape and the edge of the paper, I pulled the tape loose, watched the paper fall from around the box into my hands. After laying the paper on the table I gently lifted the tiny lid. Inside, a flat piece of cotton, a faint, sweet smell drifting out. I pulled the cotton up and out of the box gingerly and peeked underneath it. A tiny, silver ring lay sweetly on another piece of cotton, the sweet smell stronger in my nose now. It was so dainty, so sweet that I felt afraid to touch it.
"Try it on baby . . . see if it fits." Mamma's voice was sweet when she wanted it to be that way. "See the hearts on it." She made a circle with her fingers.
I picked it up between my finger and thumb. It glistened in the shimmering light that spilled in through the doorway. Three little hearts which stood out slightly, the one in the middle bigger than the other ones. Teddy whined at the front door again; Daddy ignored him this time.
"Which finger Mamma?" I didn't know; I'd never had a ring before. I glanced over in Daniel's direction. His little lips bunched up round and his eyes bright; proud of himself that he was involved in knowing about the ring.
Mamma moved close to me; took the tiny ring from my hand and pulled my ring finger
out straight on my right hand. "This is the one. See, it's beautiful and it fits just perfect too!" She pushed the ring onto my finger in a way that spoiled the sweetness I was feeling. "See the hearts? They are for me and your Daddy and you! And the ring . . . in a circle . . . means that the love that we have for you will go on forever and ever and ever." She gathered me in her arms again. A soft, warm hug all around me and then a smooth, wet kiss on my forehead.
"Happy birthday to my big girl!" She smiled so big this time that her teeth sparkled. Mamma didn't smile very often so you could see her teeth even when she was really happy.
"OK! I wonder what's in this box over here!" Daddy's words spilled out of his mouth all at once. He had more work yet to do out in the fields and I knew it was hard for him to sit and be so patient. "I want you to sit down to open this one." He gently pushed on my shoulder, guiding me towards the couch.
I sat down, pushed myself back into the back of the couch and got myself comfortable. Dancing shadows through the sheer curtains on the window played games on my face. A harsh brightness in my eyes and then out. I cocked my head to my shoulder to keep the light from my eyes. Daddy plopped the package on my lap.
"I hope you like it. It's been under our bed long enough. Time you got to enjoy it." His gentleness made me want to hug him. Too many possibilities running through my head. It wasn't heavy, it wasn't light either and it didn't move inside the brown box when I shook it ever so slightly from side to side. A simple brown box, no paper to unwrap, no tape to pull off. I lifted
the lid slowly, laid it next to me. Pulled crinkly white tissue paper to the side. There, staring up at me, straight and blank was a fancy doll - too fancy for me. Her skin was pale and creamy like the milk in the milk bucket when I watched daddy milk the cows, her eyes dark brown that opened and closed when I tilted the box. I lifted her up, the bright blue dress silky and smooth in my hands, a hat to match on her head with small, delicate lace around the edges. My little brothers oohed and aahed at the sight of her.
"Oh, ain't she just bee-u-tiful?" Gramma whispered in a delicate voice.
"Well, she's been needin' a little girl to love her; ain't right she's been havin' ta hide under our bed all these months. Hopefully you'll enjoy her like we thought you would." Daddy walked close to me, squeezed my shoulder. "Your Mamma saw her down at the Co-op a few months back when we was in there sellin' the soy beans."
I fingered her dress, lifted the edge and peeked at the bright white slip underneath, the little pink shoes on her feet. She was beautiful but seemed too fancy for me to play with.
"Can I put her up on the shelf in my room, Mamma? She's too nice to play with." I just wanted to look at her mostly and pretend I knew someone as beautiful and worldly as she. I didn't know there were dolls like her. I felt a special feeling tug at my heart for my Daddy. I knew that he wanted me to have something more special and nice than anything I'd even known about. I was used to playing on the farm with my little brothers and the dog and doing things that kids on farms do; I honestly didn't know how to play with a pretty doll in such pretty clothes.
Daddy's eyes twinkled. "You do what you want with her darlin'. She's yours and I just hope you enjoy her. I hope you enjoy everything. Now Gramma's got us some homemade ice cream makin' in the kitchen. And, you're gonna share some of that birthday cake with the rest of us, aren't you?" A sideways look out of his eye, toward me. He knew I didn't want to ruin that beautiful cake.
"If you wanna look at it for a few days, it's just fine sweetie." Gramma winked and reached over and smoothed my pony tail between her crooked fingers.
"It's OK . . . 'cause I got another one in the kitchen with chocolate frosting, nuts and marshmallows all over the top! Let's go eat some, what do you say?"
Gramma knew how special the doll cake was to me. She thought ahead and she planned for it all. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world -- six and grown?up and with surprises everywhere I looked all day, just spilling out everywhere around me.
Gramma led us into the kitchen, my little brothers squealing with excitement over ice cream and gooey chocolate cake. Gramma stuck six pink candles into the cake and Mamma announced that we could go out on the lawn to eat it. Daddy glanced at her; a sort of amazement in his look.
With happy birthdays echoing through the yard, I felt chills on my skin with all of the love that I felt around me.
Daddy sat next to me on a bench on the lawn, put his big, strong arm around me. He pulled me close to him and whispered in my ear: "I need help with the tractor when we're all done here." I looked up into his sweet face, noticed the little stubbles on his chin. He remembered! He drew me close into his chest and winked at me, slow and sure. His smile made a dimple in his cheek and he kissed me on the forehead. "You're the best help I got."
His aftershave lingering, I licked my lips and tasted the salty taste of my tears rolling down my cheeks and into my mouth. I knew I'd never have a more special birthday in all of my life or feel that kind of love again.
Forty five years later and I was right. It was a faintly familiar, warm feeling of love not often experienced throughout my life growing up from my parents, but one that I now find myself on occasion, gathering up - drawing from the precious memories that live deep in the corners of my heart. And sometimes I go back there when life is being too difficult or sad. And, I'm thankful for that.