It was in the summer of my green youth. A summer that started a subtle magic which would last only until we moved on in the fall. But I did not know that. Mama had looked at me that year and said a girl did more growing between twelve and thirteen than at any other time. And not all on the outside. I didn’t know what she meant then.
We had moved into an old house in Cottonwood. It was tall and white and shabby, with a screened back porch and funny, narrow windows. It had a huge unkempt yard and was flanked on either side by new brick homes. In fact, the whole street was lined with new, lovely homes. Except one, of course. And across the road was a new country club. We were too poor to belong to it, but that didn’t stop me and my sister, Lana, from sneaking over there. They had a great big pond with baby ducks and geese. And sometimes the stable man would let us ride one of the old work horses.
It was a magical summer for growing up in. Everything was new and growing. The horse in the back pasture we rented out gave birth to a wobbly-legged colt we named Loverly. And the cat that lived in the barn gave birth to a litter of mewling kittens, splotched orange or black. And though we didn’t have a house with a clipped lawn or fancy oriental shrubs, our house was surrounded by towering cottonwoods and an oak tree in the back that had a swing. That was the vehicle that flew me away into a sunset or let me kick the evening stars with my bare toes. I loved the wind whipping past me.
Lana and I were best friends then, as sometimes sisters can be, of a summer. She was older than I, but only by a year, and so we’d share a confidence as we slept out on a summer’s eve. And it was in these confidences I was to learn that Lana wanted more. She saw the girls who went swimming across the road at the fancy country club or lived in one of the brick houses. She wanted to be like them, and had I been that year older, I might have longed for it also. But for now, I only wanted to be like Lana. I didn’t know of her hopes until one evening when we shared a mattress out on the screened porch where we could catch a cool breeze. Our girlish laughter had faded and we lay quiet, watching the stars peek through the screens.
“Katie,” I heard my sister’s voice.
“Do you ever feel … empty inside?”
“Like when you’re hungry?” I asked.
“No,” she said very grown-up like. “Empty, wanting something.”
I thought for a moment, not sure what my sister wanted me to say. “What something do you want, Lana?” I asked.
“I want to have friends.”
“Ain’t I your friend?” I asked in alarm.
“Don’t say ain’t, Katie. Yes, you are my friend. But you’re also my sister and they’re not the same.”
By this point I was confused and a little irritated. Besides, it was getting late and I was having trouble keeping my eyelids open. If she said anything else I didn’t hear it, falling asleep under the cool caress of a July breeze.
It was after that that I began to notice changes in Lana. She never fought me for the swing anymore or wanted to go see the kittens. Instead, she spent more and more time around the country club, helping in the stables and talking to the kids who came for riding lessons. I was out of place with them; more and more I felt a pulling away of the bonds between us as July melted into August.
I remember sitting in the big kitchen, sunlight bringing out the bright colors where it fell on the braided rag rug. Mama lifted the gallon jar of raw milk, ladling off the thick ivory cream as I snapped beans for dinner. She skimmed off as much cream as she could before stirring up the milk. Her hands were work-worn I saw with sudden surprise, as if I’d never noticed before. She dried them on her apron before coming to sit down with me to snap the beans.
Mama didn’t smile often. But she’d never had much reason to. Life had dealt strongly with her, and she’d never known anything but work. I never thought about it back then.
“Do you want to hear a poem?” she asked me. Mama always read a lot so I wasn’t surprised at this.
“Sure,” I said.
Then she recited a simple poem. I don’t remember one line of it, only that it was about Indian summer. When she finished she asked, “Did you like it?”
“Uh huh,” I said, dumping the beans from my skirt into the big pan.
“I wrote it,” she said with a touch of pride.
“You did?” My surprise was genuine. For some reason I had never thought my mother capable of writing a poem. Somehow, the thought of those work-worn hands writing down an airy set of lines seemed incongruous. I didn’t say anything.
“What’s the matter with Lana?” she asked me.
“The matter?” I repeated dumbly.
“She and you, you’re not friends like you were when school let out.”
When I’d been little and she’d discovered I’d gotten cherries from the neighbor’s tree, she answered my questions with “a little bird told me.” It amazed me how Mama always knew things. “How did you know?”
“I see more than you think.” She finished the last of the beans.
“Lana wants to be friends with the other girls, the ones that ride horses or live in the fancy houses.” It sounded silly saying it, and more silly because it hurt.
Mama didn’t say anything, only put her arm around me in a friendly comfort before going to knead the bread.
Lana didn’t come home for supper that night. In our house, dinner was at five o’clock and if you were late you ate cold afterwards. It was her turn to do the dishes and I grumbled the whole time I did them, insisting that tomorrow she’d do breakfast and dinner dishes. But by sunset I could see the lines of worry on Mama’s forehead and she sent me out to look. This made me even more angry, since I was certain that she’d gone to some new friend’s house. Still, I went across to the country club, following our footpath across green lawn to the stables. They were shut for the night, the only sound the horses’ snorting and pawing. I checked the old silo we dared each other to climb up inside, never reaching the top because of the dizzying height. I called her name, just in case she was stuck on top. No answer. I checked the duck ponds, the creek bridge, and even the neighbor’s rabbit hutches. It was dark by then. On my way back home I caught sight of a shadowed form beneath the large oak. As I approached, I sighed in relief before my anger took over. It was Lana, sitting in the swing. Not swinging, though; just sitting.
“Lana, I had to do your dishes tonight! Where you been?”
She didn’t answer me. “Mama sent me looking for you; I been all over! You’d better get in the house.”
She never said a word, just stood up and walked toward the yellow glow from the kitchen window. When the screen doors slammed, Mama turned to look at us as we came in. The look of worry and relief grew stern and I expected her to say some strong words to my sister. But all she did was look at her.
“Sit down,” she finally said. “I’ll dish up your supper. The potatoes are cold.”
“Aren’t you gonna scold her, Mama?” I asked in exasperation. “It’s after dark!” We all knew the rule about being out after dark.
I plopped down at the table, resting my elbows on the red and white checkered oil cloth. The overhead lamp cast shadows and I looked across at Lana. Her face was dirty, streaked with tear lines. Her eyes were red. I didn’t say anything after that, and Mama put the plate in front of her, sitting down between us. Lana picked at her food, barely taking a bite.
“Do you want to tell me?” Mama asked softly.
Lana didn’t say anything. “Is it those new friends of yours?” My sister looked up as if to ask how she knew. “I thought so.”
“Oh, Mama!” Lana said, starting to cry. “They said … they said I was riff-raff.”
“They said that to you?”
“No.” Lana choked back sobs. “I was in the stable, brushing one of the horses. They didn’t know I was there. Barbra said she was having a party and Connie asked if she was going to invite me. She said no; her mother didn’t want the neighborhood riff-raff in their home. Diane was there, too. They talked about my clothes, and my coming to the stables when I don’t belong. And they talked about this ugly old house.” She started to cry even more and Mama handed her a handkerchief from her housecoat pocket.
“What did you do?”
“I hid down in the horse’s stall, by his head, till they were gone. Then I came home and sat in the swing and thought. And you know what? I saw that everything they said was true. We are poor, and this house is old and ugly!”
I could see her unhappiness, and I felt it myself. A dark, empty echoing inside. We both looked at Mama. She was quiet for a long time.
“When you and Katie were little,” she said softly, “you used to pick flowers and bring them to me. I never told you that they were only dandelions and other common weeds. You thought they were pretty so I never told you otherwise. But sometimes, now that you girls are older, you bring me weed ideas.”
We looked at her in surprise. “What do you mean, Mama?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she said, “you bring me ideas, believing they are truly flowers when they’re only weeds. Some people think that if you say something often enough, it makes it so. But that’s just not true. No matter how often you call a weed a flower, it still won’t make it one. And no matter how often you say something is true, if it isn’t, it isn’t. If you tell yourself that you are not special, because you are poor, or that this house is ugly, because it is old, it won’t make it so. But you will believe it. And that will be the worst thing of it all. Take this old house. Maybe it’s not like all the rest, but I love it. See this old buffet? It’s nearly 100 years old, and that makes it an antique. And take you, Lana. Maybe you’re not like all the rest of those girls, but isn’t that good? You are special, and our family loves you. More than even that, your Heavenly Father loves you. He doesn’t care what you have, money-wise. He cares what you’re like inside.
“You’ll make new friends, ones that will love you for yourself, not for what club you belong to or what house you live in.” She put her arms around us. “I don’t want my girls to go gathering weed thoughts. Pick only flowers.”
I’ll never forget that summer. The next one that came would see me forgetting about the oak swing. In a way it was the last summer of our childhood. With good and bad things happening, it was still a summer of growing, a magic time of green youth. And I marveled that I’d once thought my mother could not write a poem.