Joyce Whitis

“Dinner’s ready,” I hollered from the back door. Those were words Daddy and Austin had been waiting to hear. They dropped their hammers and headed for the house, stopping to “wash up” inside the screened-in back porch. A wash-bench sat next to the back door; wooden bucket with a long-handled granite dipper hung on a nail beside a gray granite wash pan on the hand-made bench. Austin dipped several scoops of water from the bucket and poured them in the pan, then took a long drink from the dipper. He splashed water over his face, neck and head, took a bar of Mama’s best lye soap from a tin saucer, lathered up his hands, rinsed them in the cool water and reached for a cotton towel hanging on a nail driven into the door frame. He shook out the towel from which the words “American Beauty Flour” had almost faded away, dried his hands and threw the wash water in the back yard.

Dad put down the flat cigarette he’d made from a sack of Bull Durham in the bib pocket of his overalls, refilled the wash pan, washed up and then threw the water out the back door onto a young salt cedar Mama had planted expressly because it would get watered several times a day. The little tree was thriving on this day in early October while the days were still sunny and pleasant.

We sat down at the round table, Daddy gave thanks for the food and Mama passed the biscuits still warm from the oven and both Austin and I reached for a piece of chicken. I got the pulley bone and later when we broke the bone, I got to shout, “I’ll live the longest!”

We passed around a bowl of beans, the dish painted with blue flowers, and heavy platters of green onions and sliced tomatoes. Conversation hovered above it all, touching on the day’s work and the 42 party coming up Friday night at our house. All the Chandlers were coming, Daddy said, and Mama told Daddy that she would need more coffee beans to grind up and flour to make that devil’s food cake he liked so much.

I wondered out loud if Virginia would be able to play hide and go seek on Friday since she’d had her appendix out last week. I had never known anybody that had to go to the hospital so I had no idea how long it would be before she would be back to normal. Doctors were only called to the house when there was a baby to be delivered or somebody was really, really sick, close to dying actually. Going to the hospital meant that the person was in pitiful shape. They only went there after Lysol, coal oil, and turpentine had failed to cure. Mama said Virginia would be just fine but that she might not feel like running around much yet. Maybe we should just stick to a game of Touring or Old Maid. That idea didn’t have much going for it in my mind but I thought that I’d just have to wait and see. Anyway, it was going to be a really great time with all the aunts and uncles and cousins coming over. It was just exciting to think about.

Daddy started talking about the Lindbergh baby being kidnapped and how terrible that was and I got really scared to think that somebody would steal a child away from its parents. As I listened to them talk, I got a bad feeling deep in my stomach and thought that maybe I wouldn’t go out to play because a bad man might come and get me. I turned to Mama and told her how scared I was because I didn’t want to be stolen away from my family, ever. She reached across the table and took my hand, “Honey you don’t have to worry. Bad men kidnap children from rich families because they want a ransom. We’re not a rich family so you don’t have to worry about that.”

Her words were a great relief and I reached for another piece of chicken. Not being rich is really good I thought to myself but of course looking back, Mama was wrong about that. Although there wasn’t much money life itself was very rich.