By Karen Brode
For the first time that day I felt really happy. I had a plan. I had my suitcase packed with coloring books and my Barbie and Ken dolls. I was going to be with my Aunt Winnie and it was all going to be really funny when I told her the whole story.
Even though the suitcase was heavy, I couldn’t help but grin the entire time I walked down the road toward Winnie’s house. Winnie’s neighbor, Mrs. Whitman, stood outside her front door, clutching her folded apron. She watched to make sure I got to Winnie’s house okay, but for that moment, I felt like I was on my own. In some small way I was free. At seven years old, that was a big deal. Especially since I was heading away from a day being shuttled around like a dog toward the home of one of my favorite people. And since I walked from Mrs. Whitman’s house, I could surprise Aunt Winnie and she’d have no idea how I got there.
In my mind, I decided that this might be the funniest thing I had ever done. I giggled as I dragged the suitcase up the front steps to Winnie’s porch. Then I knocked on the door.
The look on Winnie’s face was exactly what I hoped for. Her eyes grew wide and, before she said a word, she took a step onto her porch to look for the car that had brought me.
“Heavens, Karen, how on earth did you get here?” Her face grew pale and her hand shook as she reached out for my suitcase.
“I walked!” I said, but it came out all wrong. I had meant to sound certain, to pull off the greatest joke I had ever managed. But I felt bad for causing my aunt to worry. It seemed like I was always causing people to worry.
Winnie pulled me into the house and squatted down as much as she could to get eye level with me. She tilted her head and looked into my eyes. “Karen, how did you really get here?”
Why is it that wherever I went I caused people to worry?
Mother used to get terrible migraines. She had to lie quietly in her bed with the shades pulled down. I would go to her with a cold, damp washcloth and lay it on her forehead.
“You’ll feel better soon,” I’d tell her. I was careful to be as quiet as I could be so she could rest. Still, I had that niggling thought that surely she was sick because of me.
Those times when Mother was so sick, I sat on the floor in her bedroom and cut out pictures from the Sears and Roebuck’s catalog. I wanted to be as close as I could be to her without being a bother. I was extra quiet turning the pages of the catalog to look for images I could cut out as paper dolls.
That catalog had everything you could ever want and all the people in it were always happy. It made me happy to look at them. There was the mother who waltzed through her kitchen because she got a new washer. A few pages over, there was a man fishing with his buddies—that would be the dad.
My own mother became still as I worked. I glanced up at her several times. At one point, she was so still I got nervous that she had died. I couldn’t help myself. I had to check. So I touched her arm and she startled awake.
“I’m sorry, Momma,” I said. “I…um…wanted to see if you needed anything.” I didn’t want to tell her I thought she had died. That would only make things worse.
That day I walked to Winnie’s Momma was feeling okay, but she had outdone herself for a visit from my oldest brother, Kenneth, and his wife Helen. They were only there a couple of days but Momma made all my brother’s favorite pies. She was a lot like my Aunt Winnie in that way—always wanting to make her guests happy. That morning she had gone off to work content with how the weekend had gone, but so exhausted that she had forgotten to figure out what to do with me once Kenneth and Helen left.
This was not the first time in my life I didn’t know what to do or say, but for a while I was the only one who realized that when Kenneth and Helen left, I would be on my own in the house. It was only when their car was packed and they were about to lock up the house that they realized I was there.
“Karen, did Momma tell you where you should go?” Kenneth asked as he and Helen stood at the front door. I could see they were both eager to get on the road. Helen was on the front porch and Kenneth had his hand on the doorknob.
“I’ll be okay here,” I said, hoping I sounded older and convincing.
He and Helen exchanged worried glances. He rubbed a hand through his brown, slick-combed hair. His brow had those creases I came to know as worry, frustration, or impatience in adults.
“We can’t leave you here alone,” he said. “You’re only seven.”
“I’ll be okay.” I held the Barbie I had been playing with up in front of me and combed her hair with a tiny brush. I hoped by looking busy Kenneth would get the hint and go on home. I didn’t want to bother anybody, least of all Momma while she was at work.
Helen whispered something to Kenneth that I didn’t hear, but I knew it had to do with Mother because, moments later he was on the phone with her.
“Is there a neighbor or somebody we could leave her with?” he asked into the receiver. “No, we told you we needed to get on the road before this afternoon, don’t you remember? Helen has to get back to her job tomorrow and we don’t want to be on the road all night.”
Kenneth looked over at me and held out the receiver of the phone. “She wants to talk with you,” he said.
I took it and then took a deep breath. When I put the receiver to my ear, I tried my best to sound as adult as possible. “Momma, I’m okay here. Don’t you worry.”
“Oh, Karen,” she said, worry flowing out of every letter of my name. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how the wires got crossed. Pack an overnight bag with some coloring books, your Barbie and Ken, and Kenneth will take you by Poppa Morrison’s house in Bells. I’ll pick you up as soon as I get off work.”
At these words I felt a knot in my chest grow tight. I didn’t want to go to Poppa’s house. He, like my Aunt Opal, never remembered my name. He called me Carol or Karee. He had no idea who I was or what I was about. He had so many grandchildren and I was one of the younger ones. By the time I was born, he had so many of us that the novelty had worn off completely.
But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t like visiting Poppa. The last time I went there, he had positioned his rocking chair so that he could see if Nurse Nita walked by. Nita worked at the hospital where Poppa had his last surgery, and Poppa surely wanted to know her better. If Nita was outside, Poppa found some excuse to be out in his yard, too. It was uncomfortable watching him fawn over her.
I thought about the doilies on his chair and the little glass bowl of sugar mints on the coffee table. But more than anything else, I didn’t want to be in the same house with someone who used a spittoon. I gagged at the thought of it.
“Karen, let’s get going,” Kenneth said. My brother was nice enough but he always had an edge of impatience in his voice when it came to me.
Reluctantly, I finished packing my little suitcase and handed it over to my brother. Helen took my hand and we walked to their car where I got in the back seat.
The knot in my chest grew bigger with each mile we drove toward Poppa’s house. By the time we got there, Kenneth had to practically drag me out of the car and up the steps to Poppa’s front door. More than anything else I wanted to run far away, but I knew if I did I’d be causing even more worry than I already was, so I stayed put. Still, when Poppa opened the screen door, I froze.
“C’mon, Karen,” Kenneth said. “Go on inside with Poppa.”
I looked up at Poppa whose tobacco lumped smile appeared more like a grimace.
“I can’t stay here!” I finally blurted out.
Kenneth glared at me. “Where is it you want to stay, then?” He looked over at Helen who was still in the car and shrugged his arms.
“I want to go to Winnie’s house,” I said. The words were so soft, he had to bend toward me a little to hear them.
“Winnie’s house,” he said with a sigh, staring out toward the endless road ahead of him.
Poppa nodded. “Winnie’s house is good,” he said. He reached out and patted me on the head as if to thank me for saving us both. “You’ll be in good hands with Winnie.”
Before we even turned to step off the porch, Poppa had closed the door and locked it. I imagined him wiping his brow with relief before shuffling off to a nap or sitting in his chair by the window looking for Nita and spitting snuff.
I felt the tension in the car as we made our way to Winnie’s house. It was just a 15 minute drive from Poppa’s, but it was clear that Kenneth and Helen were both weary of dealing with me. So, when we pulled up in Winnie’s driveway and saw the empty garage, Kenneth slapped his hand on the steering wheel and his face turned pink with frustration.
“I can…I bet Winnie’ll be back soon. I can just go sit on her front porch,” I said.
Kenneth looked back at me and rolled his eyes. “You know I’m not going to let you just go sit on Aunt Winnie’s front porch,” he said.
I bent my head down and looked at my thumbnails. They were ragged and worn from me biting them. It took great effort not to chew on one now but I knew adults didn’t like it when I bit my nails so I kept very still as Kenneth looked up and down the street for an answer.
“Mrs. Whitman,” he said, clearly pleased with an idea.
Mrs. Whitman was Aunt Winnie’s nearest neighbor. She and my aunt were very good friends. Her first name was Irene and her husband was called “Fat.” I don’t know why anyone called Mr. Whitman by the name “Fat” but I never asked.
Mrs. Whitman had given up going to church years before. I had heard bits and pieces why she didn’t go—something to do with her son Andy dying of meningitis when he was 15 years old. I remembered going to the hospital with Aunt Winnie when Andy was there. He had all kinds of tubes coming out of him. Winnie held Irene as she cried in her arms. Andy wasn’t going to make it but the doctors had placed the decision for when to pull the plug on Mr. and Mrs. Whitman.
She cried hysterically to Winnie. I couldn’t remember ever seeing someone so upset. She screamed with anger and sadness, “How can I decide when I want my son to die?”
Even then I knew that was not a choice any parent should have to make.
After that, Winnie baked a ham and a turkey and some pies for the Whitman family so they’d have something to feed everyone who came out for the funeral. It was a sad time, but as usual, my aunt ran to help make it a little easier to bear.
We pulled up into the Whitman’s driveway and Kenneth held my hand as we walked up to her front porch. He knocked and smiled down at me, his lips tight over his teeth, as if to say, “This had better work or we’re leaving you on the side of the road.” His smile melted into a genuine look of relief when Mrs. Whitman came to the door.
“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Whitman,” he said. “I’ve been in town visiting Momma with my wife Helen,” he pointed over to the car and Helen waved hello. “We’ve got to get on back to Houston now but we need to make sure Karen is okay. Mom didn’t realize we were leaving so soon and Winnie’s not home right now. Can she stay with you until Winnie gets back?”
Mrs. Whitman wiped her hands on her apron and smiled broadly. “Why, of course she can stay here!” she said. “She can come play with kiddoes.” She looked over her shoulder at five of her six remaining kids all playing happily in the living room behind her.
I looked over at her kids and felt the pang of jealousy I always felt when I was around the Whitman children. They had each other and two sweet parents and they never seemed to worry about a thing.
“Oh, thank you,” my brother said, pushing me a little too eagerly toward the door.
Mrs. Whitman put a hand on my shoulder and hugged me toward her. I clumsily followed over the threshold and into her arms. “You come on, now,” she said. “We’ll get you something to eat.”
“Thank you, again,” my brother said. He hopped off the porch, not even touching the steps in front of him. Helen rolled down her window and waved thanks to Mrs. Whitman. She didn’t look at me as they drove off.
As gently as I could I pulled away from Mrs. Whitman and said, “Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now.”
“Alright then, you can just to play with the others.” She waved a hand toward her kids who were involved in some sort of board game.
I smiled and tried to appear appreciative, but the truth was I couldn’t wait to leave. It’s not that I didn’t like the Whitman family, I was just ready to get to the comfort of Winnie’s house. It had been a long morning.
So, I sat on the floor and stared out the window, sitting taller with every passing car, hopeful it was my Aunt Winnie.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Winnie drove by.
“There she is!” I yelled while getting to my feet. I had my hands on my suitcase and was at the door before Mrs. Whitman could get into the room from the kitchen.
Mrs. Whitman took off her apron and folded it neatly. “Just a minute and I’ll walk with you.”
She started to walk back toward the kitchen, which made me panic. It was going to take too long for her to walk with me.
“It’s okay. I can walk by myself,” I said. “It’s not that far.”
I didn’t want to give her a chance to say no, so I turned the knob on the front door and rushed out onto the porch.
Mrs. Whitman came to the door with her apron still in her hand. She had those creases in her forehead that I had seen on Kenneth earlier.
Suddenly I had it in my head how to make everything lighter. “It’ll be funny,” I said, smiling. “To tell Aunt Winnie that I walked there.”
Much to my relief, Mrs. Whitman smiled back. She understood me. “Well, okay. but I’ll be down there in a few minutes.”
I nodded and turned then stopped and said, “Thank you for letting me stay with you.”
“Anytime, Karen,” she said, waving her apron at me.
I began walking toward Winnie’s house, smiling from ear to ear. It was going to be fun to see Aunt Winnie’s face when I just appeared out of nowhere. The suitcase was a little heavier but the excitement kept me moving toward her door.
This might be the funniest thing I had ever done, I thought.
Karen Brode is the senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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 for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.