Friday, April 30, 2010


Image from the Internet

My childhood friend Gloria lived in a creaky-board old house, around-a-block-and-down-the-block from Mammaw’s house---in exactly the same place on that block. But it could have been in another town or another country, compared to Mammaw’s neat yard full of flowers and brick edgings and that huge, bountiful garden out back which supplied three families’ freezers.

Gloria’s house was a ratty old thing, much bigger than Mammaw’s---good thing, for Mammaw’s three-room shotgun did well to house the four of them (and I STILL don’t know where they all slept). And Gloria had five brothers, to whom could have been laid the broken windows, the hangy-down screendoors, the screens like rump-sprung skirts, flappy-cornered on the big three-sides porch, and the absolutely naked yard all around---foot-stomped and body-slammed every day of the week.

In the Summer, the boys all slept on pallets on that porch, under those huge old trees for the cool of the night, and I don’t know how they lived through it---the screens were dark-rust blankety things, so stretched and so clogged with grime that they sucked in and out like old curtains whenever the wind blew. They were certainly not attached to the rims in enough places to foil the hordes of mosquitoes which inhabited that yard from dusk til dawn.

They lived just down the street from the “flowin’ well” and we loved to go down there and let the coldcold water run over our bare feet after we’d sorta rinsed our hands enough to cup them full of that wonderful water and get a good long drink. The “well” was an artesian flow, from a big curved red pipe, gushing out onto an area of flat pavers laid so you could walk up and fill a jug or a bucket. And in my childhood, quite a few people still did “go get water” every morning and night, up to and including for dishwashing and their baths.

The flat stones were slick and mossy in places, with the onslaught of the water making the little growth of green wave and sway like the face-fur of a car-window dog. I’d sit on the low brick wall, watching the hypnotic dance of the green stuff, thinking how it looked like the seaweed in movies we’d seen, trancing myself into being underwater, swimming down deep.

We’d dare each other to walk the flats, rocking-in-places and uneven like broken-up tombstones.  We'd cling our toes tight  to the slick surfaces, trying to make it past the slippery outskirts, treacherous with moss, to take one quick leap without our feet sliding out from under us, and to land in the drier grass past the ledge.

One year Gloria had a party on her birthday. It’s marked for me, for I never knew her to have one before, and I was the only guest. I was at Mammaw’s for the weekend, having arrived on Friday after school, and she came over and invited me on Saturday morning. Like a kid, I thought nothing of the short notice, and Mammaw got out her pocketbook and gave me a little money out of her old black snap-top change-purse.. My heart lifted when she pulled several dollars out of that tiny stronghold, but she fished around down in there and for the first time in my nine years, handed me two quarters, with the gravity of paying off the mortgage.


I went to Aunt Lou’s store and pondered my choices; socks were a possibility, as were underwear in those days---we thought nothing of wrapping up a pretty pair of panties for a girlfriend’s present, and since the boxes almost always looked the same as handkerchief boxes, a discreet word to the honoree, and she’d hold up the box, say who it was from with a smile, and to the laughter of all boys present, and then slide the unopened box under her chair.

A little glass bottle, much like those in the big grocery spice-racks today, with a foil-wrapped stick of Zia cologne was a popular gift---I can still smell the acrid-sweet of those, as well as hear the little muffled cloomp as you shook the bottle in your hand. There was also the choice of a nylon “neck-scarf”—a foot-square scrap of nylon, mostly solid, but sometimes in checks; we all had several colors, and wore them tied off to the side of our necks, kinda like cowboys, but WAY chic.

I finally settled on a little year-diary with a tiny lock and a poodle-charm on the keychain. I appeared at the appointed time, expecting to see a table with the crinkly white paper tablecloth with HAPPY BIRTHDAY around the edges, and a balloon or two flanking the cake-with-pink-roses, which was all I had ever seen for a girl’s birthday. (Except, of course, for the cakes made and decorated at home with a set of grocery-store letters in those hanging packages, those squeezed-out-tiny-points of rock-hard icing, like tee-ninecy stalagmites spelling out Happy Birthday. The few matching candle-holders didn’t fit any candle known to man). Those were mostly for boys, in awful color combinations like yellow and brown, and featuring rocket ships or lassos.

The cake sat on the same old bird-spattered, faded-to-gray wood picnic table we sat at most afternoons (well-scrubbed and hosed down earlier, with the dirt still damp beneath our feet). It was a “bought cake” all right, but it was an odd little thing. Aunt Lou’s shelves always held a half-dozen or so of those---white cake, which you could plainly see through the cellophane, for they were like you’d made a LONG loaf cake,with frosting between the two layers and all around top and sides, and cut it into six-inch sections, with the two cut ends left naked.

There were no games or contests, unless you counted her brothers’ whooping dashes around the yard, or their swinging all up into the trees, or wrestling each other in that damp dirt.
We just talked for a while at the table, sitting on those splintery planks attached to the X of the table-legs. There were no candles, but we sang, and then she took the cellophane off the cake, cut it lengthwise in half, and those each into four slices. She deftly placed the slices on eight plates, DARED her brothers to touch them, and opened the two little square cartons of “ice milk” with their dark green cardboard sides. It was fifteen cents a carton, I remember, for Mammaw might send me around the block for one now and then, to divide amongst us three for an after-supper treat.

She cut the cartons open, then sliced each little block into four. When she’d placed the first block on a plate, she directed one of the boys to “take that to Mama,” and he disappeared into the house with it. We all then ate our cake and ice cream and talked a bit around the table before the boys dived back into yelling fists-and-elbows action, I suppose showing off for the party guest.

I remember every moment of that party, as if it’s a movie I’ve watched so many times I can repeat the dialogue. My most vivid memory of it, though, is when Gloria’s Mama finally came outside; she’d stood holding the screendoor open for a moment, just framed there in her faded loose dress, then came gingerly down the steps toward us.

She collapsed into the big faded-red lawn chair, and said she hoped I’d enjoyed Gloria’s party. I said I really had, and was glad I was there that weekend. She sat, feet outstretched, regarding her immensely-swollen feet and ankles, and said, “She just told me about it this mornin’ and I wish she’d have give me more notice. I coulda cooked up some chicken-backs or somethin’.”
The simple resignation and acceptance and open-handed generosity in those words have haunted me for decades.


Southern Lady said...

I'll bet Gloria still remembers that "birthday party," too, Rachel. So sweet and innocent, but sad, too. I'm sure you felt very honored to be her only guest. I wonder what happened to her.

Anonymous said...

Your talent for "recall" of the details is only exceeded by your talent for describing in such a way that the reader can see the picture as if there. Love it. Also, congrats and happiest wishes on the newest grand.

Kouign Aman said...

Gloria couldnt have wished for a more generous, gracious or kind guest. What an accomplishment for a kid, to plan and manage her own birthday party.

mary said...

Somehow, this story reminds me of the "pound party" to which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was invited, back in the swamp with the Cracker family.
We must be fairly close in age. I owned and wore neck scarves. My older cousin used Midnight in Paris (remember the blue bottles?) and we younger girls did the best we could with Blue Waltz from the five and dime store.

Wsprsweetly Of Cottages said...

I think I am a bit older than you..for I was in my freshman year in highschool when the neck scarves became popular.
I hope Gloria had a wonderful life. I have always loved that name.
What a wonderful writer you are...I am so totally hooked!
I feel like I have just come from Gloria's party!


racheld said...

Gloria is a lasting memory, for I saw her only on weekends, except in Summer; to me, she was just living til she could leave that loud house with its light refused entrance by those musty-dusty old screens. Even out in that hot Mississippi sunshine, the whole YARD was drab, like a sepia picture in Daddy's book on The War.

But I remember her fondly, and I certainly DID think of that party when I saw that scene in the movie with the humble swamp-house filled with quiet, coarse-dressed children inviting the pretty new neighbor to "bring a chocolate cake," to go with their galvanized bucket of water to serve as refreshments.

And do you know that they still sell Blue Waltz perfume, still marketed for "young ladies"? My Mother forbade me to even put a sample on my wrist at Ben Franklin---she said it was CHEAP---which it WAS, but then very little in the store cost more than a dollar.

I loved the scent of it, and have contemplated ordering a bottle, just for old-times-not sake.

Somewhere in all these boxes is a story including one of those bottles with the big fancy plastic stopper, its theft, and my child's disbelief that the girl would have prized it in the first place.