By Karen Brode
Winnie envied the lunch basket Clara had. Her mother had bought it in Bonham, and it was probably expensive. The other children made fun of the preacher’s daughter and her uppity ways, and the bright new lunch basket didn’t help her popularity. Winnie had set her bucket under the table as always. The bucket she used for her lunch was ugly and stained.
The other children had carried things in their pockets to eat for lunch. Winnie’s own brother, Albert, had stuffed a biscuit and sausage into his pocket and was eating it across the room with the rowdy boys. His table of boys never took long to eat, but used most of their lunch time to play baseball.
Winnie went back to her book. Clara had gotten up and Winnie was alone at her table. It bothered her a little that she was sitting by herself reading, but then she decided it wasn’t so bad. She couldn’t think of any of the girls her own age she wanted for a friend. She hadn’t been invited to any sleepovers or birthday parties. It was just as well because her mother needed her at home. She had been so sick when she was carrying the baby, the doctor told her not to have any more children. Winnie had worried so much that her mother would die in childbirth.
Then, the sweet little baby had come, and Winnie had taken over caring for him while Mother recuperated. At times, Winnie felt that the baby was hers. She would often sit by the window and talk to the baby and watch his eyes follow hers. She couldn’t help smiling when she looked at him. His hair wasn’t as curly as Albert’s or her hair. But she kept her hair in long braids almost down to her waist. Albert’s hair was impossible. If she didn’t chase him down and try to brush it, he would look like a wild boy from Borneo. Winnie just knew that this baby wouldn’t be like Albert. He seemed quieter, more thoughtful–more like her.
School was over. Winnie liked this time of day. She stood by her desk and watched Margie Linfield and SaraBeth Morrison walk arm and arm out of the school.
“Where was Albert?” she wondered. She went outside and saw Albert and Reuben over by the fence throwing rocks at Mr. Bedloe! His daughter had set him out in the sun in his wooden wheelchair, and the old man was so addled that he didn’t even register that the boys were aiming at him. The rocks hit all around him.
Winnie caught Albert and jerked him away. “What do you think you are doing?” she asked.
“Oh, we’re just having a good time. We didn’t even hit him! Look at him! He’s funny. Don’t you think he’s funny?”
“No! He’s handicapped! That’s not funny, Albert! You just wait until your Daddy hears about this!”
“Oh Winnie, you’re always such a killjoy!”
His words tore straight through her. It did seem as if she wasn’t really a child, but some sort of miniature adult parading in a child’s body. It would have never occurred to her to throw rocks at Mr. Bedloe.
Just as they got to the edge of their yard, Albert ran back to the bush where he had hung his asafetadae necklace and put it around his neck. Winnie stared at him walking so proudly into the house wearing it. She had to smile. There was no one else like her brother, Albert. He could make her laugh sometimes even when she didn’t want to laugh.
She put a pone of cornbread into the oven, and wondered what else they could eat for supper. Mother had been sickly for so long that it had become Winnie’s job to do the cooking for the family.
“Winnie!” Mother called from her bedroom. “Can you try to find your father? I think I need to go to the doctor!”
Winnie went into red alert mode. It was something she was very familiar with. Her mother often had to go to the doctor on little notice. Winnie counted her blessings. At least it wasn’t like last month when she had to go in the middle of the night and it was pouring rain and the bridge was washed out.
Winnie leaned out the back door and hollered for Albert. He came running from across the road. “Is supper ready?”
“No!” Winnie answered. “Momma’s sick! You have to find Daddy now!”
“Oh, she’s always sick! What’s wrong with her now?”
“Go on, Albert. And hurry!”
Albert was so tired of his momma being sick and lying in her bed. Ever since she started expecting that baby, she had taken to her bed and expected to be waited on. His friends’ mothers didn’t act like this after they had babies. They got up and took care of their babies!
Albert saw his Father on the road coming home. “Daddy! Daddy! Momma’s sick! We’ve got to take her to the doctor!”
John Hawk’s face might not have changed in that instant, but his heart sank. Not another night of doctors! Effie was only 34! When he married her, she had a 22 inch waist, and he could almost put his broad hands around it, and now…. Now she weighed 200 pounds and something was wrong with her all the time. What had happened to that carefree girl he married just 14 years before?
John pulled the buggy into the yard and jumped out of it. By then, Effie was creeping down the back steps. She was wrapped in a bedspread. Winnie was holding little Travis in her arms. Travis would be in good hands with Winnie. It was Albert that John worried about in their absence. He had a way of finding trouble. And poor Winnie could not be expected to take care of Travis and keep Albert out of trouble.
“Albert, you come on and help me with your Momma!” he hollered as he helped Effie into the buggy.
Winnie went to collect the laundry that had accumulated over the past few days. She pumped water into a metal pan and then she poured lye soap into it. She put the washboard in and began to scrub the clothes. She thought how proud her mother would be when she came home and found the laundry done. She had scrubbed clothes on a washboard before but never for this long. Her arms began to ache, and Travis was getting fussy.
She bent down and told him she would take care of him. But she could see that he didn’t really believe her. What would Momma do?
Winnie held Travis’s little hands in hers and tried to teach him Peas Porridge Hot, Peas Porridge Cold, Peas Porridge in the pot nine days old. She could tell he didn’t like the game. He kept looking about wondering where his mother was.
“Let’s sing,” Winnie said in desperation. “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way! Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh!” Travis’s frown turned into an outright wail.
She took her baby brother out of the buggy and sat down with him in the rocking chair. He continued to snuffle and Winnie tried to hum softly to him. His little wet eyes closed and he began to nod off.
About dark, the buggy pulled up and John wearily helped Effie into the house.
“I hope you’ve got something cooked, Winnie Fay,” her father said. “We’re all starving!”
Winnie who had just then hung the clothes out on the line remembered supper and started crying. She couldn’t be counted on for anything! She hadn’t cooked anything but the corn pone! Tears ran down her face as she thought of how useless she was.
“Oh, honey, it’s okay,” John said in a soothing voice.”Everybody’s been through a lot today. I’ll go get some ham out of the smokehouse and we’ll have a grand supper!”
Winnie dried her tears and took her schoolbooks into the dining room. It was the only room with light after dark, and she did her homework after she ate.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.