A Memory from My Missouri Childhood
Dad was always full of plans and projects. Once he took a look at the old kerosene lamps and said, in the broad expansive manner he employed when launching his many and varied campaigns for the betterment of his family, “These old lamps have to go.” His white hair swept back neatly from his forehead and his stance was like Washington crossing the Delaware as he stood there in the old kitchen surveying the lamps. He smiled tolerantly and reminiscently as if they were already on display in a natural setting at some future museum.
“Why, Wilson, whatever on earth do you mean?” Mama asked, stopping her sewing machine only long enough to turn a corner seam. She was making new dresses for Lou and me for the Thanksgiving program at school.
“I mean –” Dad began, and stopped helplessly, waiting for the sewing machine to quiet down again. “I mean we’re going to have gas lights,” he said, strutting about the museum, peering into the ancient steaming pots to see what was cooking way back then, and waiting patiently for the rest of us, whom he often called “The Practicals,” to span the centuries with him.
“It’s a carbide system,” he explained, when The Practicals continued to lag behind and evinced no measurable amount of interest. After all, we knew we were many miles from a gas line. “You put the carbide and water tank in an outside shed. The water drops onto the carbide forming a gas which is channeled into the house and is turned on and off at the fixture. Just strike a match” – he shrugged his shoulders at the utter simplicity of it – “and what have you? A clear, bright, blue-white flame. No lamp chimneys to clean. No wicks to trim. No constant filling with costly kerosene. No growing up of the children with poor eyesight. Yessiree,” he warmed to his plan, twirling his watch fob vigorously, “I mean to bring some light into our lives.”
“Well, don’t light a match now,” Grandma, the Archpractical, said, “or things’ll blow up in here for sure with all you’re giving out with.” Dad ignored Grandma’s remark and walked over to study the Thanksgiving poster Lou and I were working on.
“It’s a cornucopia,” I explained to Dad in much the same manner as he was trying to explain his gas lighting system, half-fearful that in the advanced century in which he seemed to be living they had done away with Thanksgiving. “It is symbolic of peace and plenty and purple autumn haze – and burning leaves and frost on the pumpkin.”
“All that?” Dad asked, an appreciative look in his pale blue eyes. He took the poster up and looked a bit more closely. “Sure enough,” he exclaimed, “and I can further see the squirrels and chipmunks busy storing their food, corn shocks, a harvest moon, and the mallards flying south. And listen,” he said, excitedly, holding the poster up to his ear, “hear that cricket?” It was actually a cricket we’d been hearing all fall somewhere about the kitchen fireplace, but it was good to play this game with Dad. And it was comforting to know that there still must be a Thanksgiving up ahead.
“Let’s try these on now,” Mama said, holding up the partially finished dresses. “When is all this light supposed to come into our lives, Wilson?” she asked absently, measuring a hem. Dad studied the ceiling and the view from several kitchen windows before replying. He did a little figuring on the back of an envelope, walked over to the calendar and flipped a few pages, and when the sewing machine quieted down again, said, “Next week.” This was in his clipped, climactic, closing-in voice he used when it was necessary to rouse The Practicals out of their lethargy, inertia, opposition, rebellion, or despair, which he said we often suffered epidemically.
Mama spun around, removing pins from her mouth hurriedly. Such haste in Dad’s plans she was not used to meeting. “Next week?” she demanded. “Now, Wilson, a thing like that takes time and money.”
“Money, yes. Time – no. The whole system can be installed in a day. We’ll set the tank in the smokehouse. We’ll all lend a hand at digging the ditch and we’ll start with just the one fixture right here in the kitchen. Right about here.” He climbed up on the table, turning over the sugar bowl, and marked a little circle on the ceiling with his pencil. We’ll have it ready for Thanksgiving and we’ll ask all the neighbors in. They’ll be green-eyed with envy.”
“I thought the purpose of the thing was for better eyesight, not to turn the neighbors green-eyed with envy,” Mama said, rather sharply, and Grandma, from the dark confines of the pantry, offered a remote and muffled approval of Mama’s crisp reply.
“Well, someone in the community has to make a step forward.” Dad knocked the spoon holder over getting down. “We’ve been going on and on with the same old beliefs and customs and lighting systems generation in, generation out.” He had reached the table-pounding stage, only used when The Practicals seemed impenetrable, and I watched Mama’s little pile of pins do an Indian war dance.
“All right. All right!” Mama said, hastily cupping her hand over the pins. “But will the neighbors want to come on Thanksgiving? That’s a family day when folks like to be around their own table.”
“They’ll come,” Dad said, nodding his head affirmatively, “when I hint there’s going to be a demonstration of something for the betterment of the community.”
“Well, let’s see now,” Mama started planning. “We’ll have roast turkey with chestnut dressing, cauliflower au gratin, fluted patty shells with creamed peas-” “– and gravy, bread and potatoes,” Grandma joined in, flatly practical. Dad disappeared and returned shortly with his brace and bit and the benign smile of one way out in front. He climbed up on the kitchen table again and began boring a hole right in the center of the ceiling while The Practicals looked on with puckered brows. Lou and I watched the curly wood borings come drifting down like soft, blond snowflakes.
“Well, it sure does need airin’ out in here,” Grandma said, breaking the uncomfortable silence that followed the hole-boring. “We could have opened the door, though,” she added ruefully, looking up at the fresh new hole leading into the attic.
“H-umph,” Dad remarked. Some of the borings fell into the spilled sugar and Mama picked them out daintily.
“You don’t suppose mice can come down through there, do you Myrtle?” Grandma asked Mom, like she never expected to have the hole stopped up with anything ever again. Mama said perhaps not, but the attic mud daubers were sure to come.
“H-umph,” Dad reiterated. It wasn’t that he had a limited vocabulary. It was just that if he’d said anything more, Grandma and Mama would start discussing, interestedly, what they might do with the bathtub Dad had fashioned once and couldn’t get in through the doorway when he had it finished; or the long, gasoline-driven conveyor belt that was supposed to deliver heavy things from the barn to the house. It would have worked, except that the belt swayed in the middle under the weight of a bucket of milk or a basket of eggs, the only heavy things we had to transport from the barn to the house.
The carbide lighting system was a used one for sale at Wallingford’s Mercantile. It could be had for one fat steer and a wagonload of corn which Dad had calculated were expendable. Lou and I went to town with Dad in the big wagon and actually saw the exchange take place. He covered the tank and pipes and fixtures with old quilts. “Don’t want no one asking questions,” he explained, winking, comrade-like, at us. He meant the neighbors we would probably see on our way home. Lou and I swelled with pride in our forward-looking father’s actions as he loudly and loftily informed various and sundry strangers in and about the store of what he was doing, not only for the immediate family, but that his action would serve as a lever to lift the whole community out of a generation’s old rut. This, I felt, with a secret thrill in my heart, would cancel the abortive bathtub and conveyor belt and make Mama stop the sewing machine when Dad had something to say – and keep Grandma from dodging the mud-daubers in such a theatrical manner. They had begun to come down through the hole, seeking the warmth of the kitchen.
Paul Britt was making a few repairs on his rickety old barn when we passed by his farm. The whole Britt place was rickety and run-down and scrawny-looking. A few years ago a windstorm that had skipped every other place in the community had crippled the barn and twisted the house on the foundation. Paul had never recovered because, as he said, he “couldn’t find a startin’ point.” It was a joke to make light of the disaster and everyone went along with it, offering suggestions to Paul all the time as to where he should begin his restoration.
“I’d start with a match and some coal oil,” Jim Stacey suggested, and Tom McDowell said the easiest way to get on top again, in his opinion, would be just to plow the whole place under.
“Howdy, Paul,” Dad greeted, pulling the horses to a stop. “Found a startin’ place?”
“Naw, sir, I ain’t, Wilson. Thought sure I had. I says to myself only this morning. ‘Now, it’s on the west side of the barn you need to start – she’s a-leanin’ westward.’ So I started bracin’ it back up and now I got it a- leanin’ eastward. They just ain’t no proper startin’ place.”
“How about starting with Thanksgiving?”
“Thanksgiving?” Mr. Britt laughed as if it were a joke. “For this?” He let his arm sweep over the sorry sight that was his homestead.
“Well, you got the land yet,” Dad observed.
“No, I reckon I ain’t right properly got the land no more. Third year the taxes have gone unpaid and you know that can’t go on forever.”
“No, it can’t Paul,” Dad agreed, “but anyway, I was going to say, how about you and Lonnie having Thanksgiving dinner with us this year? I’m asking the neighbors in. Got a little surprise to spring.”
“Oh, I reckon not, Wilson. We’d be pretty poor company around a Thanksgiving table knowing this was probably our last year here. Sure hate to be leaving, but don’t see no way out of it.”
Dad looked gloomier than Mr. Britt. “Well, sure like to have you if you change your mind, Paul.”
Mrs. Stacey was digging parsnips when we arrived there. Dad got down and went over to the fence, and Lou and I followed. “Bessie, how about you all coming over and having Thanksgiving dinner with us next week?”
“Thanksgiving?” Mrs. Stacey’s chin started trembling. “Oh, Wilson, we just couldn’t. This’ll be the first year we’ve not all been together and we’ll not be fit company on Thanksgiving. If only Jack could be home, but we can’t send him the coming money.” The tears started running down Mrs. Stacey’s cheeks. Lou and I started crying, too. We’d been flower girls at her other son’s funeral during the past year and the sadness all seemed to come back.
“Got a little surprise I was a-fixin’ to show the neighbors,” Dad said, wistfully. “Something the whole community might like to adopt.” Mrs. Stacey just shook her head miserably. We climbed back into the wagon and went on. Dad’s shoulders began to sag and wrinkles formed across his forehead. This was unexpected interference with his plans.
The McDowells were just sitting down to noonday dinner when we reached their house. There were Tom and Polly and Herbert and Aileen and Maggie all around the table. We looked for the rest of them, but didn’t see them anywhere. “Well, Wilson, howdy.” Tom got up and shook Dad’s hand heartily. “Get, some of you kids, and let these folks sit down and eat with us.”
Dad protested, but neither Tom nor Polly would hear to our not stopping to eat. There was a great bowl of potatoes cooked in their jackets centering the table. Each person took a potato as it was passed, and that was dinner. Dad made a great ceremony of peeling, salting, peppering and eating his potato, so Lou and I did too.
“Want you all to come over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner.” Dad issued his invitation.
Tom and Polly exchanged worried glances.
“Don’t reckon we can, Wilson. Got some sick kids on my hands.” He motioned toward the bedroom.
“What’s the trouble?” Dad asked.
“Well, it ain’t something you can put your finger on like the grippe or measles or snake bite. Doc says it’s a longtime thing and that the kids need more fruit and things.”
“Sure am sorry,” Dad said. “Had a little surprise I was a-fixin’ to show the folks. Well, come if you can.”
We almost got home with the lighting system. We had crossed the river and started up the last long hill. Our place looked like a Thanksgiving poster itself, I thought. How nice it would be to have the new lights and with the new lights a new, respectful family relationship. It would be the best Thanksgiving ever. Suddenly Dad turned the wagon around and sent the horses on a trot back to town. “What did you forget?” Lou asked, but he didn’t answer.
Back to Wallingford’s we went and to our great amazement heard Dad tell Mr. Wallingford he didn’t want the lighting system after all and would Mr. Wallingford please give him back his money, only keep out enough to send a barrel of oranges and apples out to a family by the name of McDowell on the Elvins-to-Loughboro road. Then Dad went to the depot and the courthouse to transact some Thanksgiving business, he said. Lou and I sat huddled in the wagon, miserable about the great retreat. Now Grandma and Mama would have the hole in the ceiling to talk about, along with the bathtub and belt, and there it would be, right over our heads three times a day.
It was after dark when we got back home and snowing softly. The lamps, stationary, hanging, and bracketed, sent light streaming from the kitchen windows, turning the snow to gold dust and making a welcome path for us. How nice things could have been if we were just coming home from an ordinary Saturday trip to town! Well, there were certain sterling tests one had to go through, Lou and I reminded each other. Mom and Grandma were silent about the lighting system, which made it look more than ever like they didn’t expect anything Dad planned to come about. I wanted to say, “Well, he did get it and almost got home with it, but – but –” My upholding of Dad’s actions seemed to sway in the middle like the conveyor belt.
Everyone carefully avoided looking at the hole in the ceiling for the next several days. Once Grandma, after having swept, stuck the broom handle up through it and said maybe we could use it for a broom holder if we moved the table. It looked ridiculous hanging down over the table. I jerked it down and put it where it belonged and Grandma told Mom she believed I needed a round of sulphur and molasses. “Guess the neighbors won’t be coming for Thanksgiving,” Dad told Mama and Grandma when preparations for the meal were getting underway. He didn’t say why and they didn’t ask, not even about the fat steer and the wagonload of corn that had disappeared.
Lou and I were proud of our new dresses as we stood up to say our Thanksgiving pieces. Everything Mama did, she did well. It was artistic, neat, finished, and workable. The pies she made Thanksgiving morning were brown and flaky. The turkey was roasted to golden perfection. The potatoes were light and puffy. It wasn’t her fault that there wasn’t enough to go around, for Dad had said the neighbors weren’t coming. But they did. All of them.
“I know it weren’t right of us to come in on you at the last minute, Myrtle,” Mrs. Stacey said, handing Mom two loaves of freshly baked bread, “but after Jack came home, surprisin’ us like he did, we couldn’t keep from comin’. And don’t act like you don’t know where his ticket came from.” She pushed Mama gently on the shoulder and winked secretly. Lonnie Britt set down a jar of preserves and hugged Mama, saying that a more neighborly thing could never have been done than what we had done about the taxes. And as soon as they got on their feet again they’d pay them back.
Mama sat down weakly. She glanced at Dad and I saw him nod his head the least little bit of a nod. And Mama suddenly smiled at him. A symbolic smile, I guess you could say, like Dad’s cricket and the cornucopia. It said, I love you, and I think what you’ve done is wonderful.
Grandma opened some more cans of beans and peaches and preserves and cut all the pieces of pie in two again. We brought in the library table and the bedside tables and all the boxes and benches we could find, and had a wonderful meal.
“Now, Wilson,” Paul Britt said, when everyone was finished, “tell us what your surprise is.”
Dad looked stunned. I guess he’d forgotten he’d promised a surprise.
“You mean you ain’t seen it yet?” Grandma said, pointing ruthlessly to the hole in the ceiling.
I watched nineteen pairs of eyes turn toward the hole in the ceiling, then toward each other and finally toward Dad. I felt so sorry for him I couldn’t stand it. I pretended to drop something on the floor and got down to hunt for it so I wouldn’t have to watch these people laughing at him, destroying his dignity.
“It’s a symbolic hole,” I heard someone say, and I got up off the floor hurriedly to see who else understood this kind of stuff. It was Grandma.
“It stands for light that Wilson, here, has brought into our lives. All of us have holes in our lives, don’t we?” She looked around at the folks slowly. “Holes where something isn’t that we had planned to be,” Grandma continued in a very practical voice. “And we have to fill them up with something else until the right thing comes along.” A queer feeling took hold of me, hearing Grandma, the Archpractical, talking like this. A good, light, floating feeling. I looked at the hole in the ceiling again and thought of how it was filled up with Jack Stacey’s railroad ticket home and Paul Britt’s three years of taxes, and a barrel of fruit rather than with the carbide light fixture for which Dad had made it.
“And,” I heard Archpractical going on, warming to her explanation, “sometimes the things we fill holes with turn out to be better than the thing we had intended for them.” Dad was glowing like a pumpkin in the autumn sun. Mrs. Stacey and Mrs. Britt had caught on and were using their napkins as handkerchiefs. Sad-happy they were. I’d felt like that before, too. Mr. Britt, looking thoughtful, had thrown back his shoulders like he had found a startin’ point at last.
“You mean you bored that hole there a-purpose for this lesson?” Mr. McDowell demanded, skeptically, ready to laugh at the joke that must be here somewhere.
“We’re using it for that until something better comes along,” I said. Everything got so quiet.
Dad scraped back his chair and went over to open the door. “Needs airin’ out in here a little, don’t you think?” he asked everyone, but Archpractical especially. November sun flooded in, laying a golden floor mat before the door, but it did not match the illumination that came to everyone, especially to us, through the hole to the attic.
– From Jean Bell Mosley, Wide Meadows (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1960). Reprinted with permission.
Missouri author Jean Bell Mosley (1913-2003) enthralled readers worldwide with her writing, yet she lived a quiet, unassuming life. Born in the tiny lead-belt mining town of Elvins, Missouri, she was raised on a farm in the southwest portion of the Ozark Mountains, educated in a country school, graduated from Flat River Junior College (now Mineral Area College), and earned a B.S. in Education from Southeast Missouri State College in 1937. Her first short story, published by Woman’s Day magazine, was followed by 6 books, a weekly syndicated newspaper column that ran for over 40 years, and numerous short stories and articles printed in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, The Writer, and Guideposts. Her many honors include the C.S. Lewis Silver Medal for her children’s book The Deep Forest Award and the Missouri Writers’ Guild Award for The Mockingbird Piano.