By Karen Brode
“He was already a senior in high school when I first met him,” Mother said. She and I sat on the front steps of our house looking out into the warm, Texas night. I could tell by her voice and the faraway look she got that she still thought about him.
“I was 14 years old and nothing to write home about,” she continued. “Opal was married by then, so she wasn’t around to tell me how ugly I was, but I still knew. It was too much to hope that someone like Pete Everheart would fall for me.”
“Momma, don’t say that!” I said, grabbing her hand in mine. “You are so pretty! Whenever I look at that picture of you and Daddy on your dresser, I always think you could’ve been a movie star!”
Mother continued without comment.
“His family was well-off, but we weren’t. Going to a party at his house was almost like stepping into a fairy tale. They had Japanese lanterns all over the yards, and there was a punch bowl and all kinds of cookies. The girls were all dressed in formals and the boys wore suits. It was hard to think of these people being the kids I went to school with everyday.”
I leaned my head against her knee just picturing it. It sounded so glamorous.
“I didn’t go the first time Pete asked me to a party at his house. I thought I was too plain. I kept wondering what someone like him would see in me.”
“Oh, Mother!” I sat back up and squeezed her hand.
She smiled an apologetic smile and said, “I was afraid it was a joke. Every girl in that school had her eye on him. He had golden blonde hair and was tall and very smart. He played on the football team. He was always smiling with those perfect square, white teeth. I didn’t want him to look too closely at me.”
Heartache and longing pulled her eyes from me and into the distant past. I knew that in her mind she was seeing Pete Everheart again, as if he was standing right in front of her.
“When he finally persuaded me to go to his house for a party, old Mrs. Everheart stared out at everyone from the kitchen. She had to wonder which girl Pete would pick to bring home to her. She was so intimidating. She was heavyset at a time when not too many women were. She wore horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. Her dresses were sewed by a professional seamstress, and you could just tell that she didn’t feel as if she had to be nice to anyone. She was the main detraction to Pete, at least in my mind.”
“Besides that, though, there were all the other girls who wanted his attention. You know that I was the only freshman girl at his parties. That was enough to make me feel threatened in every way. Some of the senior girls wondered why he would even want me there. The measuring way they stared at me made me so uncomfortable. If I hadn’t really cared for him, I would not have gone to those parties.”
“So, I spent a good deal of time standing alone, watching the senior girls flirt with Pete. I always knew that there would be someone ahead of me, someone prettier, someone smarter, so I never had the nerve to approach him. But, he always sought me out and asked if I was having a good time. Sometimes, he would catch my eye from across the room. He made me feel as if I was the only girl there. Somehow, without ever saying anything out loud, I knew how much he cared for me. I don’t think I was just imagining and wishing this.”
“Did you and Daddy have that sort of connection?” I asked, thoroughly absorbed in what sounded like a storybook tale. My dad wasn’t Pete Everheart, so I had to know how Daddy had won Momma’s hand.
“Daddy just loved me outright,” Mother said. “I never had to wonder or guess how he felt about me.”
The mention of my father seemed to wake her up to present day. She shook her head and it was as if her old beau disappeared. But I wasn’t done yet. I still wanted to know what had happened that she hadn’t married him.
“Where does he live now?” I asked. “Does he have any children?”
Mother looked at me for just a moment and then back into the darkness. A tear rolled down her cheek and I wished I hadn’t asked.
“It was Labor Day weekend of his senior year,” she said. “He caught up with me that Friday after school and asked if I would join him and some friends for a picnic at the quarry the next day.”
“Did you go?” I asked, sitting on the edge of my seat.
She nodded. “There were about eight people that day at the quarry. My mother had fretted and worried that I was too young to go on a picnic, even if there were a bunch of people there. She reminded me that sometimes boys got ideas on picnics and wanted girls to go for a walk with them. ”
“Your mother didn’t want you to go for a walk with a boy?”
Mother looked at me with a tired smile and said, “Granny just wanted to avoid the appearance of evil. Our family had a reputation for being fine Southern folks, except for my brothers. They got to do whatever they wanted. Granny never did get her sons back into the fold at church after they went wild and left home. She stayed mad at Poppa the rest of their lives that he had let his boys run wild.”
I stared at Momma and tried to envision what “running wild” was. I decided that my brother, John, was probably like Mother’s brothers. John didn’t answer to anyone. Even his sergeant in the Army couldn’t make John good.
“The sun was shining so bright that day,” continued Momma. I’ll always remember that. And we were, all of us, in the mornings of our lives. It was one of those days that seemed perfect. The way I felt that day – if it could be bottled and sold – stores would sell out immediately. I was happy in every cell of my body. We spread our tablecloth on the ground, and each of the girls unpacked a picnic basket she had brought. The boys looked over the different foods and chose a girl to sit with.”
I saw another tear escape down Mother’s cheek. She took in a breath and I knew without being told that Pete Everheart had chosen to sit with her. It was so romantic! I could picture his smile and his dancing eyes as he let Mother feed him. I was certain that her hands were shaking and that her eyes were darting about to the other girls, hoping that Pete wouldn’t decide to go sit with one of them.
“After we ate,” Mother said, “Each girl put away the food and covered their picnic baskets so the flies wouldn’t come. Two of the girls pulled their dresses off over their heads. I looked away for fear of what they might have on underneath. They were wearing swimsuits that by today’s standards were quite conservative, but at the time, they were scandalous. I didn’t have a swimsuit. My mother probably didn’t even know they made swimsuits. I was glad I didn’t have to take my dress off in front of everyone. Even if I’d had something presentable on underneath, just the thought of taking my dress off was unthinkable.”
My poor mother, I thought.
“A black haired girl in a swimsuit came to take Pete’s hand. She wanted to race with him to the edge of the quarry. They had all been there before and knew the best places to dive and swim. Pete had the body of an athlete. He had on black swim trunks and a white undershirt. I will never forget the contrast of his pure white skin against the black swim trunks. He represented all happiness to me that day. I let my heart soar just a bit to think that such a wonderful, happy boy would even look at me.”
“Did you go swimming?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t have a swimsuit. I was happier than I had ever been just watching him have fun.”
“Did everyone else go swimming?” I asked.
“I can’t remember anyone but him. Isn’t that odd? There were other people there, but now it seems as if all their faces were blanks. Then George Stephens pitched a quarter in the air, and told Pete it was his call. Pete glanced back at me and called heads. George told him he could dive first.
“Pete backed up a ways to get a running start. Then he executed the most perfect dive I’ve ever seen. We all watched in happy anticipation of seeing his shining face burst through the surface of the water. But then time slowed, and we were in a sort of trance trying to make time run backward. All at once, George panicked and ran down the bank to get into the water where Pete had dived. Not long after, he yelled for the other boys to come help him.
“I watched in slow motion as they pulled his body out of the water. His eyes were open, but there was no longer any life in them. Several of the girls screamed and held onto each other. The boys carried him to a rock and laid him on it, but it was far too late.
“I remember George’s voice. It was confused, scared, and sad at once. He started to tell us that they had been there before and the water had been deeper, but his voice trailed off before he finished. None of it mattered anymore. There wasn’t anything else to say.”
“I kept thinking of a poem I had memorized for Mrs. Johnson’s English class. It was a Robert Frost poem:
Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
“Eventually, I looked away. I couldn’t watch any longer. People were screaming all around me, but I just shut down. I leaned against a tree and looked up at the bright cerulean sky.”