Gene’s Proposal

By Karen Brode

From this valley they say you are leaving
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For I know that you’re taking the sunshine
That brightened my pathway awhile

Winnie reached up to turn off the radio. It was better if she didn’t think of him. She stared out the kitchen window and sunk her gloved hands back into the plastic dishpan. She tried not to think of him. There was no way that anything could ever be worked out now.

She remembered that spring when her life had been so happy. She was 24 years old. She had graduated from college and started teaching at the community school. And then, almost on cue, there he was at church one night. Every time she peeked at him, he was looking at her as if his whole world revolved around her. She didn’t understand this. She knew she wasn’t pretty.

She had inherited her mother’s olive complexion and her uncontrollable hair. She couldn’t remember the number of times she had given up in despair trying to make it look normal. But it never did. It was easier when she was a child. She wore it in a long braid down her back, but as she had gotten older, a braid looked ridiculous, so her mother had cut it off when Winnie entered high school.

Her hair was bad enough, but she wasn’t like any of the other girls at church who wore makeup. She had no clue where to get it, let alone how to wear it! The only places she ever went were to church, work, and the grocery store. The grocery store only had basic necessities like flour and sugar and cornstarch. And even if she could get it, she didn’t know who to ask to help her with it.

Lucy Bradshaw was one of those girls who never needed that sort of help. She seemed to understand instinctively how to use makeup to make her beautiful eyes stand out more. And, of course, she did everything she could to bat her baby blues at the handsome man who had started coming to church. But, miraculously, it didn’t work. He seemed to have eyes meant only for Winnie.

His name was Gene. Eventually, she learned to accept his attention to her. It still troubled her that Lucy Bradshaw and Clara Bates stared daggers at her from the other side of the church, but it’s not like she had thrown herself at Gene. If she could’ve understood what it was that he found attractive in her, she would try to capitalize on that, but he seemed to accept her for who she was and what she looked like.

He sat by her every Sunday night at church that spring, and sometimes he was waiting for her when the school day was over – just to be with her.

So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the girl that has loved you so true.

When they took walks together, they talked of mundane things.

“The corn looks good this year.”

“It looks like like it’s going to be a dry summer.”

Among the mundane, Winnie wanted to ask him what he saw in her that he wouldn’t want those pretty girls, but she never did. After all, her skin was leathery from picking cotton under the unrelenting north Texas sun. Her hands were rough and hard. It would make so much more sense to her if she could understand what he saw in her.

She felt like she was in a strange land where she didn’t know the customs. She was fearful of saying something or doing something that would make him suddenly realize who she was.

Eventually, she decided that he was seeing her through rose-colored glasses and she accepted this, especially when she realized that her own life was nothing without him.  He completed her.

In late May of that year, when school was almost out, Gene came to her house on a Sunday afternoon. This was not something he had done before. Winnie and Gene sat together in the glider out by the shed. It was a nice day, and shady where they sat. He seemed nervous and excited. She could tell he had something very important to tell her.

From her place on the glider, she could also see her mother, Effie, pulling the kitchen curtain to the side keeping watch over everything that happened. Winnie panicked a little when Gene slid off the glider and knelt at her feet. She thought maybe he was hurt. Her first instinct was to try to help him. Then he opened the little black velvet box and asked her to marry him. He put the ring on her finger and, for the first time, kissed her lips.

It was all too much for her. She cried out of joy and wonderment. All of it felt like someone else’s life. These things didn’t happen to her!

She was so overwhelmed that she didn’t know what to say. Gene took her hand in his and told her he loved her.

But the curtain shifted at the window and a familiar twang of guilt nudge her side. She was very practical minded and was led mostly be loyalty to her family. She hesitated then and looked down.

“I…I need to let you know next Sunday,” she said in a whisper. Her eyes flickered up to his face and then beyond to the window. “I need some time to think things over.”

The spark in his eyes trembled and dimmed. Confusion and hurt furrowed his brow.

“I do love you,” she said. “I just can’t make a decision right this minute.”

He grabbed her hand and held it. His grasp was both tight and gentle.

“I got a job in Missouri,” he told her. “I’ll be going there in a few weeks. I’d love for you to be there with me.”

Winnie nodded and smiled. Tears brimmed her eyes. “I’ll let you know. Just give me some time.”

She sat as still as possible on the glider when he got up to leave. She didn’t want this moment to end. She realized she had been holding her breath after he had walked far enough down the road that she couldn’t see him anymore.

It wasn’t long before Effie was outside standing where Gene had been standing only moments before.

“What was that all about,” she asked, her tone accusing and bitter.

Winnie flinched and had the urge not to respond. She didn’t want to tell anyone, especially not her mother, and take away that moment of magic.

But she owed it to her family to know, so she held the lump in her throat and said, “Gene asked me to marry him. He got a job in Missouri and wants me to go with him.”

Effie’s face twisted up like she had eaten a lemon. “Well, you might as well just get the gun and shoot me now.” She rubbed her neck with a handkerchief. “It’s just as well. My life is almost over anyway. I wouldn’t want to go on living if you were way off in Missouri. I don’t even know where that is!” Her rant continued with the nervous energy and fear fluttering out through shaking hands. “It’s not like I could make a trip there!” She clutched her chest and fanned herself while waddling off toward the house. “Oh, my chest hurts. I’m going to lie down in my bed and hope death comes quickly. I don’t want to linger.”

Winnie sat in the glider until the shadows had started to grow long. She had always suspected her mother would be unhappy if she married and moved on, but now she knew that Effie expected Winnie to live with her and Papa for the rest of her life.

Winnie tossed and turned through many nights wondering and worrying and trying to figure things out. She was certain that Effie could not keep her there with anything but guilt. But guilt was Effie’s currency. She manipulated her husband and her children with it, everyone except for Albert. Somehow he had escaped the chokehold of their mother’s guilt.

It was three o’clock in the morning on the Wednesday before Winnie would give Gene his answer. Effie woke and went to Winnie’s room to tell her she thought she was having a heart attack. Winnie walked Effie back to her bed with soothing words, just like she would have done a child of her own, and waited while her mother slipped back into sleep. But Winnie did not sleep.

On Sunday morning, Winnie put the black velvet box in her purse and went to church. Gene was waiting for her there. He watched her walk up with happy anticipation. His face practically glowed. She took her usual place beside him on the pew.

During the sermon, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”

Winnie did everything she could not to let the tears fall, but they did. She didn’t say anything until after church was over, but she knew what she had to do and it was the hardest thing she had ever done.

When the last song had been sung, she asked Gene to follow her to the back of the building. It seemed an appropriate place for what she had to say. Cigarette butts littered the ground and the smell was heavy with the smoke of men who went there to smoke out of sight of their wives or the minister.

Winnie reached into her purse and pulled out the black velvet box.

“I can’t marry you,” she said, chocking on her words. “My mother is very ill and needs me to take care of her.”

She looked up into Gene’s face. Only moments before, it had had such a soft, gentle expression. Now, his mouth dropped open and he leaned against the church building like he would fall if it hadn’t been there to catch him.

Shaking, she took one of his hands and placed the box into it. And with as much courage as she could muster, she turned and walked toward her house. She didn’t look back. She knew if she did, she would never go home and she would live to regret leaving her mother.

Won’t you think of the valley you’re leaving.
Oh how lonely, how sad it will be?
Oh think of the fond heart you’re breaking
And the grief you are causing to me.

Even all these years later, the memory of Gene’s proposal left Winnie in heart wrenching sobs. She did love Gene. Why had her mother constantly stood between her and any happiness she might have?

_________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She 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.

John’s Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

In the summer of 2005, my brother John, moved back to Grayson County in Texas where we had grown up. He was wrinkled and worn, and for the first time, I noticed that he seemed tired. I tried not to think about all the situations that had driven us apart for so long. The list was endless, and I didn’t have a lot of fight left in me.

The truth too was, no matter what had happened, I had missed him. I often wondered how it could be possible to detest and love someone at the same time. But I did. And I sensed that he wanted to try to be a family again, so I gave it my best shot.

He had been gone for ten years, living in Las Vegas. I wondered how he could live in the entertainment capital of the world one day, and then the next day live in Pottsboro, Texas, the epitome of a tiny Texas town with only one red light.

He had only been back for a week when my husband Gary and I met up with him and his new wife, Jan, at a Mexican restuarant for supper. I hoped and prayed that things would go well, that maybe we could salvage some kind of relationship from the ruins.

He looked old and so small compared to the larger than life man I had known just ten years before. There were no black hairs left on his head, just gray and white. Inside, though, he was still John. He regaled us with some of his favorite stories during supper. They were stories I had heard before, but I wanted to hear them again. I hung onto his words as he wove his stories and I watched the cigarette smoke rising from his mouth.

“I was working at an air conditioning and heating place in Fredericksburg,” he said. “We went out early in the mornings to install new units. That day, we had just climbed up into the attic of a house  when I heard a man’s voice down below asking us how things were going.”

“Well, what was I supposed to say? That it was as cool as an April morning? Hell no. I looked down toward the voice and simply told him the truth–it was hotter ‘n hell up there.”

“You actually said that?” I asked, laughing. I knew this story. I knew he had actually said it, but it had been so long since we had had times like these that I relished hearing it again.

John nodded. “Sure did. And wouldn’t you know, when I looked down through the ceiling air vent, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson opening his morning mail.”

I laughed again. “Did he say anything back? Get onto you or something?”

“Naw. He just stared down at his mail and smiled.”

Sometimes, I wondered how true any of these stories were, but I didn’t really care. It really made them more exciting and interesting.

John had always been more at home in the world than most people I knew. Even as his old age crept up behind him, he still had the confidence and demeanor of the handsome young man he had once been. He even flirted with the waitresses at the restaurant and it didn’t seem to surprise him a bit when the young girls flirted back.

From about the time his feet touched the green grass of Texas, John started talking about having a family reunion. I wasn’t against it exactly, but wasn’t exactly up to it either. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And if I couldn’t explain it to myself, I certainly couldn’t explain it to my brother.

So, soon he was calling me several times a week to go over his list of invitees.

He kept saying “Have I forgotten somebody?”

With every name he added to the list, I felt a deeper sense of dread. So the plans marched on and one day he told me he wanted to have the reunion in July, the hottest month in Texas.

July. Sometimes the entire month went by without a cloud in the sky. The month always made me think of Momma and the song we had sung at her graveside service, “Uncloudy Day.”

Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, the land of cloudless day
Oh, the land of an unclouded day
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, they tell me of a home where my friends have gone
Oh, they tell me of that land far away
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.

Months went by and John kept making plans. I tried to distance myself from all of it for a while. Something told me that he wanted me to cook all the food, just like our mother would have done when she was alive. I really didn’t want that kind of responsibility, so I kept the reunion conversations at arm’s length. Still, I didn’t want to walk into some kind of John-created chaos on the day of the reunion, so I got up the courage to ask him about it.

“Oh, I’m going to rent a boat and ferry people across the lake to the islands,” he said.

He sounded like a little kid, to be honest, and like most kids, he never really thought all his plans fully through. I felt panic rising in my chest. I still couldn’t explain why, but it was there.

“Then what?” I asked, hoping that might prompt more in-depth thought to his plans.

But he heard my worry and got irritated. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll have fun no matter what we do.”

I sat there on the other end of the line wishing I could understand why I was so reluctant about all of this so I could explain it to him without him getting angry.

Maybe it was my age, I thought. Maybe I’m just getting too old for things like this. So I told him that.

He snorted. “You’re still just a kid,” he said. “You always will be.”

He had always felt like I had been shielded from life’s harsh realities.

I pictured Aunt Jane riding in a boat going across a large expanse of lake in 110 degree heat. Old people would be dropping like flies on that boat and John hadn’t thought about any way to keep them from overheating, keeping everybody hydrated. Did he expect me to come along and pick up the slack?

“You can’t worry about all that right now,” I heard him say into the phone. He had gone from irritated older brother to snaky salesman. “Just think of sitting under the shade of those big trees on the islands. How long’s it been since you played a good game of dominoes? Wouldn’t that be fun to sit outside with our family and play dominoes?”

The week before the family reunion, I felt as if something catastrophic was bearing down on me, and there was no getting out of the way. How could I have stopped it? I had rarely seen John this excited.

I comforted myself by thinking that maybe the world would end before it happened. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the earth and I wouldn’t have to worry about the family reunion. I tried to appear excited when John was around.

He had contacted every member of each side of our family that he could hunt down. He had asked me a thousand questions about people we hadn’t seen in decades.

“You think Clyde is still alive?” he’d ask.

I hadn’t thought about Clyde in a month of Sundays, so I just shrugged and said I didn’t know.

Each day leading up to the reunion was hotter and drier than the one before. No cloud graced the North Texas sky. I wouldn’t watch the weather forecast because it was always the same–sunny and hot! It was the same every summer–a high pressure ridge sat over us and any possible precipitation went around us.

A few days before the reunion, the phone rang. John’s voice was muted on the other end. He sounded tired and sad.

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think we are going to have that family reunion.”

“What?” I asked. I was glad I had been sitting down when he called because otherwise, you could have knocked me over with a feather. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Tammy,” he said, talking about his oldest daughter. “She’s been taken to drug rehab in California.”

And that’s when I realized it. He had planned the whole thing for Tammy. She was the real reason he wanted to get the family together.

Never would I have wanted his daughter to have the problems she had and I certainly would never have wished for her problems to be the reason we couldn’t have a family reunion. But there was a part of me that was relieved.

Still, I couldn’t show my brother that. So, I commiserated with him and did my best to sound disappointed.

And then I said, “You know, John, we can have it another time.”

__________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She 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.

Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

Mother got into the driver’s seat of our car,  and Opal took the passenger seat.  Thankfully I had a quilt and a pillow in the backseat. I liked to watch the trees zoom past the back window. We had to drive 100 miles to get to Marble Falls.

It seemed odd to see my mother driving Opal around. My aunt usually commandeered any situation. But, in a burst of unusually rebellious energy, Mother had hurried to the car and got behind the wheel. That left Opal no choice but to sit in the front passenger seat.

I was proud of Mother for taking charge. It was something she rarely did.

We had only been in the car for about thirty minutes when my aunt began squirming.   Mother cut her eyes to watch each time she changed positions in her seat.

Finally, Opal said, “Hazel, I have to find a bathroom!”

Mother’s face blanched. “Oh no. You didn’t take your water pill this morning, did you?”

Aunt Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed her brow with a handkerchief. “You know I have to take that pill every morning! It’s prescribed by my doctor. I don’t have a choice.”

“Couldn’t you have waited to take it after we get there?” My mother’s rebelliousness petered out into a whisper.

Opal glared at her before grabbing her belly and sucking fast air through pinched lips. She seemed miserable.

Mother sighed and looked out the window. I noticed that her hands, placed always at “ten and two,” had a hold of the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles were white. I knew she had not wanted to go to this family reunion, but Opal had planned it and insisted we participate. She had spent the fall and winter contacting all of the relatives on their father’s side of the family.

Neither my mother nor my aunt had had much to do with Poppa’s side of the family. For one thing, there was Uncle Gerald. It was rumored that he had made a killing in the stock market early in his life and now lived in luxury. When Poppa was in the hospital, Gerald had visited a few times, but he always ended up embarrassing my mother in some way, like when he handed out five dollar bills to the nurses. She thought he, of all people, should be poor and miserable because he was morally bankrupt. She told me it didn’t matter how much money you had if you had no soul.

The one hope my mom had for the reunion was to see Aunt “Pet.” She had been Poppa’s favorite sister and had been with him in his hospital room as he died over the last year. My mother loved her.

We had been on the road for about 30 minutes when Mother pulled into a gas station with full service. She drove over the little tube that made a bell ring and the attendant came out to put gas in the car. He looked pretty tousled, like he hadn’t slept much the night before. There were dark circles under his eyes and he moved in slow motion to wash and wipe the windshield. When he squatted to the concrete to check the air pressure, I wasn’t sure he would be able to get back up again.

“Well, we’re out of Grayson County,” Mother said.

Opal swung her legs out of the car, but she couldn’t seem to lift herself off the seat. She made several heaving attempts, but all it did was make her sweaty.

“Karen, go help your aunt get out of the car!” said my Mother.

It was easier said than done, but after extreme effort, I managed to pull her to a standing position. She rocked back and forth a bit to catch her breath.

It was hard for my ten-year-old brain to wrap itself around my Aunt Opal’s figure. She was thin on top and wide, wide, wide at the hips. I tried not to stare when she came out of her bedroom at our house, but I just couldn’t understand it. When she walked down the hall, her whole body sort of swung to the left and then to the right. I never dared try to pass her in a hallway for fear of getting stuck to the wall on one side.

I marveled at her proportions–going from narrow up top to extra-wide in the middle, and tapering at the ankles and feet, until it looked like she might tip over should a strong wind blow by. I often wondered if she knew this about herself. I didn’t think she ever looked in a full-length mirror, and I couldn’t blame her. Perhaps this is why she always seemed very happy with her looks and confident of herself. She certainly didn’t have the personality of someone who had been beaten down by society for being fat.

In fact, she walked around unashamed in her bra and panties when she went to wash her face in the bathroom and get ready for the day. I just wondered if she special ordered her panties from somewhere. It looked like yards and yards of nylon had gone into making just one pair.

There were other things, too, that made me curious about my aunt. She never wore anything but Old Maine Trotter shoes. She was a religious woman–never cut her hair because she said the Bible had forbidden it. Her hair was long and, every morning, she braided it and wrapped it around her head a few times and held it in place with bobby pins. She could never recall the scriptures that forbid a woman cutting her hair, but she believed it and so I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a scripture about Old Maine Trotter shoes too.

My aunt wasn’t completely without vanity. In an impulsive moment, she had bought a wig that she thought might make her look more sophisticated and modern. Had she bought one that fit with her coloring and age, it might have made a little more sense. But it was platinum blonde and it made her look sallow and old. Mother made me promise not to say anything. She told me that if Opal wanted to wear the wig, we should just accept it, and not mention it.

Accept it we did, as we did with everything about Aunt Opal. She was a force to be reckoned with. And so, when it came time for her to use the restroom at the hole in the wall gas station, my mother and I exchanged glances knowing it was likely not going to end well.

“We ain’t got no ladies restroom,” said the attendant to my aunt when she asked for the key to the ladies room. “But you’re welcome to use the bathroom that everybody uses.”

My aunt frowned. She squared her shoulders and with a grim look, started toward the restroom.

It was worse than any of us could have expected. The toilet leaned precariously to the left and the sink had a trickle of orange rusty water drip, drip, dripping out of the faucet.   She looked around for paper covers for the toilet, but of course, there were none.

Finally, she turned and marched back to the car. “I can’t use the rest room here,” she said. “It’s awful. I feel so dirty just being in here. You’ll just have to stop somewhere else.”

So, we piled back in the car and continued down the road. Only a few minutes had passed–just long enough to watch my aunt start squirming again–when my mother said, “You know, there’s not a lot of traffic. You could just go in that field.”

Even from the back seat, I saw Opal roll her eyes like it was a ridiculous suggestion.

“Oh, you know that the minute I got started, there would be lots of traffic,” she said. But in less than a second a pang of pressure must have hit her because she blurted out, “Okay. Stop here, stop here. I’ll do it.”

I helped her out of the car again and watched her disappear into the trees. I wondered if she knew how bright her red dress stood out. Thankfully, no cars came by.

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

I remained silent. I knew better than to try to guess what my aunt was doing.

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Mother. “I should probably go check on her.”

“Do I have to stay here?” I asked, a little nervous.

“Our things are in the car. It will just be a minute.”

It was another 15 minutes before they returned to the car. They didn’t look right, especially Opal. Her face was dirty and her glasses sat at an odd angle on her nose. Her wig had slid to one side of her head.

She got back in the car without a word and Mother told me that Opal had taken a tumble in the woods when she stepped on a large grape vine.

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

Mother started the car and quietly moved back on the road.

Through her sniffs, my aunt finally spoke. “Hazel, would you let me out here in this next town? I can’t go to a family reunion looking like this, but you all keep going. There’s no reason for you and Karee not to go.”

If this had been a cartoon, I would have seen smoke coming out of my mother’s ears.

“No, Opal,” she said. “You planned this family reunion and you are going to enjoy seeing Poppa’s relatives today.”

That’s when Opal started sniffling in earnest. Between sobs, she said that she had always wanted Poppa’s side of the family to like her, but they didn’t. In fact, on bad days, she wondered if they made fun of her. I felt sorry for my aunt, but kept my head down focused on the Etch-a-Sketch I had brought along to pass the time.

“You know how they are,” said my aunt. “If they saw me like this, it would just make them think that they were right about me!”

Mother pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road and stopped. She knew her sister was right. It was also true that Opal did not look her best. No matter how much trouble she was and how much of a nuisance she could be, neither of us wanted to see her humiliated. Mother told Opal that they would stop for an early lunch in the next town and then turn around and go back home.

Opal would have to call the family from a pay phone to tell them that we couldn’t make it after all.

___________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She 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.

Memories of Pete Everheart

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.”