First Love

A Reminiscence

It’s Sunday just past eight as we leave Mom behind at home. Dad wears the same dark gray suit he wears to work. His shirt is fresh and his tie knotted close to his Adam’s apple. My brother Dale, seven years older, wears a heavy, white sweater over his shirt, woolen knee pants, and Argyle knee socks. I’m in my new red coat with the matching red bonnet. Underneath I’m wearing the plaid cotton dress I had my first grade picture taken in. Dad tucks his bible under his left elbow and holds my left hand and Dale takes my right hand. We walk down the street past the other little houses on our cul de sac called Garden Court in South Point, Ohio. We stop at the highway and look both ways before we cross with care. As we wait for the bus that will take us part of the way to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Huntington, West Virginia, I start to pop up and down, toes to heels, heels to toes, rock back and forth with excitement.

Then here the bus comes up the road. As my breath comes faster and faster still, the bus slows and stops with a wheeze of its brakes. The doors fold open and there he is.

“Hi, Jesse,” I say, with bated breath as Dad and Dale swing me up the steep steps, and set me down on my feet next to the man in the broad leather-covered driver’s seat.

“Hi, Jet,” he says, calling me by my childhood nickname.

His name is Jesse Lemaster and I’ve been in love with him since the moment I first climbed onto his bus two years before.

I’ve rarely seen him standing, but I can tell from the way he fills the space at the front of the bus between the big wheel and the lever he uses to operate the doors, that he’s tall and lanky. He has blue eyes and wears his nondescript brown hair short and slicked back. He wears his usual gray, short-sleeved shirt and gray wash pants.

I pay no attention to Daddy, who probably puts money in the till for the three of us, and Dale, who obviously gets on the bus because he gets off with Dad and me in Huntington when we make our transfer to a city bus. I only have eyes for Jesse as I settle in the seat at the top of the steps.

I wonder now why this seat was always empty when I got on the bus. Perhaps Jesse shooed other riders out of it just so I could have it on Sundays. I watch him pull the lever to shut the door, release the brake, and engage the clutch with one big foot. The bus eases back into traffic as I lean forward and start to talk.

I tell Jesse what’s happening at home with Mom and our cocker spaniel Donny Boy that Daddy had since before I was born and Jersey Bird, the parakeet I picked out from among a hundred birds raised by Mom’s friend after he lost his feet in an automobile accident in New Brunswick, New Jersey. We brought Jersey Bird home on the train in a shoe box with holes in the top to live in a metal cage in the living room close to the furnace.

I’ve already told Jesse about getting spanked in first grade for asking a kid across the aisle if I could borrow his red crayon, so I’m spoiled on the subject of school for a while.

Jesse listens. Sometimes he smiles and glances my way as he drives the bus into town on Sunday morning so long ago.

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Twenty years later, after I got my Master’s from the University of Colorado and returned to Huntington to teach at Marshall University, I called the bus company to find out if Jesse still worked for them. He did. In fact he drove the route in town I used to take to go to my dance classes. So I caught the bus one afternoon, climbed on, said, “Hello, Jesse, remember me?”

He did. And he reminisced. He said that when I was four, I was small and looked two. “But you spoke as clearly as you do now,” Jesse said, a man cooler and more remote than the man I loved when I was a little girl.

Back then I knew absolutely that the attraction was mutual. For after all, Jesse gave me gifts.

One Easter he was off-duty, so he sent an emissary. The guy who drove his route that day came up to our house with a basket wrapped with crinkly paper and filled with candy my mom must have parceled out to me stingily.

But the Christmas I was six, Jesse came to the house himself to give me a big blue rag doll dog with floppy ears. I hugged it to my chest and dubbed it “Blue Doggy.” The next time we rode the bus, I clutched my new doll and sighed, “Well, Jesse, I guess I’ll just have to marry you now.”

I didn’t, of course, but I think it’s absolutely no accident that throughout my adult life I’ve been attracted to tall, lean men with light eyes. (Hey, Clint Eastwood still works for me!

And I named my daughter Jessica. (I never told her father why I chose that name.)

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Juliet Kincaid writes the calendar mystery series, set in Kansas City about a hundred years ago, and the Cinderella, P. I. mysteries that feature Cinderella, twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball. All her stories and novels are available as Kindle eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com.

A House in the Country

A Reminiscence

Whenever we went for a drive on Sunday afternoons and on long trips, too, back in the 50’s, Dad stamped white horses. If he spotted a white horse in a field by the side of the road, he’d lift his right hand from the steering wheel, lick the end of his index finger, punch it against the palm of his left hand still on the wheel, and slam his right fist against his palm to seal the deal.

On our rides, Dad and I competed to see who stamped the most white horses. So he liked to wait until we’d almost passed the horse and it was almost out of sight to stamp it, so I’d miss it and he’d win. He’d chuckle like crazy as I’d turn my head to look for the white horse and say, “Where is it? Where is it? I missed it. Oh darn it, Daddy.”

(Two can play that game.)

I don’t imagine we stamped too many white horses on a drive in Clarion County PA that we took close to the Fourth of July in 1955.

My dad’s mother, Grandmother Willman, wearing a faded, short-sleeved house dress, but as stiff-necked as usual, came with us. She wanted to find the house her husband grew up in. Though the area hadn’t changed as much as it would in the next decade with the building of the interstates and the subsequent development along them, it had been a very long time, sixty years or more, since she visited that house. You forget lots in sixty years, something I understand much more now than I did when I was fourteen going on fifteen, a supple young thing who didn’t understand how age stiffens necks.

Our usual seating arrangement in the car was Dad at the wheel. Mom rode shotgun. Our dog, a short-legged beagle mix with a big brown spot in the middle of her white back, sat in Mom’s lap. I rode in the back.

On that particular ride, Grandmother Willman sat in front, so she could give Dad directions. Mom, Dotty, and I rode in back.

Mom was obviously pissed off about the seating arrangements. She glared through her glasses with her snapping black eyes at the back of her mother-in-law’s head, covered with silky white hair pinned in two braided crescents that crisscrossed each other just above her seamed neck.

Mom always said Grandmother Willman was a bitch because before Dad married Mom, Dad sent most of the money he made working for the CCC home to his mother to save for him.

Or so he thought until his wedding to Mom on 7/11/37, he asked his mother for his money, and Grandmother Willman said, “Money? What money? I don’t have any of your money.” Whenever Mom told this story, she bellowed those exact same words in the exact same way. And so my dad had to take out a loan of $200, a substantial sum back then during the Depression, to start his married life with my mom.

I’m certain Grandmother Willman disapproved of my mom just as much. They were so different, the one a stern, church-going, teetotal countrywoman and the other a city girl with a New Jersey accent who didn’t attend church much, not even on Easter and Christmas, except for the social stuff like the annual picnic. Also Mom used words like “bitch” and “shit” and didn’t mind the occasional beer or cocktail.

Grandmother Willman’s disapproval of the girl Dad married the second time around passed down to me. Though my mom was a world-class housekeeper and kept a far tidier house than any of my dad’s sisters and his mom, she wasn’t teaching me crucial womanly kitchen skills. (She didn’t want me underfoot when she was in the kitchen fixing supper.) Also my mom earned her living as a nurse before she and Dad got married.

I was headed down the same wrong path of wanting to go to college and to earn my living instead of getting married, making babies, and keeping house.

But that day, given a choice between staying back at the family farm with Dad’s relatives that she barely knew and going somewhere, anywhere, in the car, Mom shut her mouth and glowered at her mother-in-law from the back seat. She was probably just waiting for Grandmother Willman to say something or do something Mom could bitch to my dad about for days, weeks, months, and years to come. (“And that’s another thing that burns my ass off about your mother, Homer,” she’d say.

The drive, maybe punctuated by Dad and me stamping a white horse or two, took a while because Grandmother Willman was unsure of the directions. It must have been a point of pride that in the end she did remember where the house was and finally the car bumped along a lane past a new farmhouse, white with bright blue shutters, till we came to an old house inside a square of dirt with a rickety barbed wire fence around it. Even I who’d never seen the house before was shocked by its condition.

“This must be it, Mother,” Dad said as he pulled the car close to the fence. He turned off the engine, opened his door and got out without closing the door on that side. He stared across the top of the car.

Mom squeezed against me as she looked out the window on my side of the car. “Is that really it?” she said. “I can’t say much for it.”

Staring at the old house, I tried to figure out what was wrong with it. Well, for one thing, it was the gray of weathered wood without any paint at all. There wasn’t anything green around it. Unlike my father’s mother’s family farmhouse, it didn’t have a pond sitting in front of it. And then I realized what I didn’t see, too. It sat alone inside that fence without a single outbuilding, spring house, outhouse or corn crib, shed or barn.

After a while, Grandmother Willman said, “I believe the people that own the place now are using the old house as a barn.”

“I think you’re right, Mother,” Dad said, his voice a little distant from outside the car. He turned and poked his head back in. “I tell you what. Why don’t we look around? The cows aren’t in the barnyard and I’m sure the new owners won’t mind.”

“Yes, let’s,” Mom said. “I hate to think we came all this way for nothing.”

Mom opened the door. The floppy-eared Dottie spilled out. My mom slammed the door and I jumped out my side. Grandmother Willman was the last out, helped by my dad though I don’t think she stopped looking at that falling-down house the whole time.

Dad went ahead and unlatched the wide gate, shut by a loop of wire, held the gate open while we trooped through, then closed it. A little closer, I saw that the windows didn’t have a bit of glass anymore though a rag of a curtain blew through a window on the second floor.

Glad to be out of the car, I ran ahead of the others, up the narrow stone steps and through the doorway (no door left) straight into the house. Momentum carried me through what must have been the kitchen and parlor, up narrow steps to a hall and into a bedroom. Finally, the sight of faded wallpaper shredded down the walls, straw littering the floor, mouse droppings, and the stink of must and decay stopped me. This is horrible, I thought. Finding the house in this condition was worse than not finding it at all. It was like walking inside a corpse.

I heard my mom and dad marching around downstairs, as they tried to figure out the layout of the house, but I couldn’t stand breathing the close, rotten air of that house anymore. By the time I got back outside, Grandmother Willman was there, too, gazing at the house through wire-rimmed glasses that reflected the sunlight so I couldn’t see her eyes.

I heard her voice shake, though, as she pointed toward a nearly leafless, thorny plant growing by the steps. “That’s a blackberry bush,” she said. “My mother-in-law made the best pies with the berries from that bush.”

Suddenly, I felt sorry for Grandmother Willman, in her faded house dress, stiffly corseted underneath, in her black granny shoes and stockings, as she remembered all the people she’d known and loved who’d lived in that now dead house, alone and solitary in a barren field.