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.

Hollyhocks and Tomatoes

Like Hector Jones, a character in “The Barn Door,” my father always had tomatoes and hollyhocks in his gardens, no matter how large or small. He must have done this sketch from memory because it’s dated 11-16-39 in his neat civil engineer’s hand.

“The Barn Door,” a prequel story to my calendar mystery series set in Kansas City a hundred years or so ago is still FREE today, 07/08/2017, at www.amazon.com/dp/B073G7ZXMP.

 

 

The Gardener

Recently, while working on a prequel story for my calendar mystery series called “The Barn Door” that takes place on the 4th of July weekend in 1898, I decided to give one of the characters a vegetable garden. And that led me to think about my dad and his gardens. Here’s my piece on that subject, originally published on my website in 2011 as “My Father’s Gardens.”

My father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., used to say, “When the Corps hired me, they took a great farmer and made him into a half-assed engineer.”

Still, though he worked over twenty years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my father always had a garden if only three strips around the patio. Until his last summer, he grew at least a little something, maybe vibrant begonias, a geranium in a big pot, a climbing rose, possibly hollyhocks, usually mint so he could watch the telecast of the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May with an icy julep in hand. And always, always, he had a tomato plant or two.

Back in the fifties and sixties, the prime years of his backyard gardens, he put lots of effort into his tomatoes. We lived in the tri-state region of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia where winters were mild (though Dad always hoped for some snow to put nitrogen into the dirt). After the ground warmed and softened along about Easter, Dad took his shovel out to his garden patch to prepare the soil.

My mom used to kid my dad about “digging to China” because to him preparation meant digging a pit eighteen inches across and three feet deep for each tomato plant. He partially refilled each hole with compost, manure and other nourishing substances mixed with loose dirt.

The newly planted tomato plants–named Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Boy and Rutgers–looked scrawny so far apart, their sparse leaves insufficient to fuel growth. They did grow though. Usually by the Fourth of July, Dad would push aside those leaves, releasing the acrid odor that set our stomachs to growling, and with a gentle tug, pick the first tomato of the season. Mom, Dad, my brother Dale, and I fought over that first tomato, so ripe the skin peeled off clean and biting the tongue with its acidity. By late summer, the plants, lovingly tied to their stakes with strips of old sheet, stood eight feet high and loaded with tomatoes Mom canned, made juice with or begged neighbors to haul away.

Maybe the secret of Dad’s tomatoes lay in his compost pile that he researched, built and maintained like a true engineer. The compost pile I remember best was a four-foot cube of vegetable peels and melon rinds, musty grass clippings, twigs, lime, and goat manure he got as partial payment for a ship model he built for a friend who owned a herd of goats.

Dad made a hole in the center of the compost pile so air got inside and furthered the controlled decay. Once, out of curiosity, he tied some string to a thermometer and lowered it into the hole. In less than a minute, the thermometer broke. Later, with Mom’s candy thermometer, Dad discovered that the compost pile had reached 135 degrees.

Usually, Dad scaled his gardens small, but back in the late forties when we lived in the aptly named Garden Court, he almost filled the back yard with his vegetable plot. Forty by sixty feet, it ran from the house back almost to the tree-lined creek. Pieces of string stretched between sticks defined the plot so meticulously it looked like Dad had laid the garden out with a surveyor’s transit.

Dad bragged about that garden having fifty different varieties of plants. They included tomatoes of course, potatoes, corn, green peppers, red peppers, scallions, onions, cucumbers, and Black-seeded Simpson leaf lettuce. Instead of cantaloupe, that Dad said didn’t prosper in our climate, he grew muskmelons. Radishes started the growing season and beets finished it. Many of the vegetables I’ve forgotten now, but I still love to recite exotic names like zucchini, kohlrabi, and cocazelle.

We all got involved in Dad’s gardens. One year we had so much cabbage that Mom canned it. Dad paid Dale a penny a hundred head to pick bugs and beetles out of the garden. Dad never let me forget that those pretty yellow hollyhocks I picked one year were actually squash blossoms. Once, we tried to shell tough-hulled soybeans by putting them through Mom’s washer wringer. The beans popped out the other side and Dale and I chased them as they bounced around the kitchen floor.

My father’s gardens . . . Whenever I think of them, I see a picture of him in my mind.

Small-boned, with a mustache, my father wears a billed cap to keep his scalp from burning, a tan shirt dark with sweat under the arms, tan pants cut off and neatly hemmed above his knobby knees, and muddy shoes too worn to wear to work anymore. He leans against a shovel stuck into a pile of dirt. And dreaming of fresh tomatoes by the Fourth of July, he grins.

I don’t have a picture of my dad in his gardening togs, but here’s one of him, taken around 1973 when he was 70, that shows his wonderful grin.

January Jinx, Fatal February, and Mischief in March, the first three calendar mysteries set in Kansas City a hundred years or so ago, are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com. Look for “The Barn Door,” a calendar mystery prequel short story, coming soon as a Kindle eBook.

A Family Story

A Family Story

Part of the backstory for my calendar mysteries explains how Minty Wilcox, her mother, and the two youngest members of the family came to live in Kansas City. This story focuses on Minty’s youngest brother, Eddie, born with a clubfoot. When Eddie was around six or so and going to a country school, the other kids made fun of him for the way he walked. Similar to the way Lord Byron was said to move, first he thrust one foot forward and then dragged the other up next to it.

After Eddie came home from school crying day after day, his mother Laura Girard Wilcox moved her youngest three children (Minty, Eddie, and Peach) into Kansas City where she could find much better medical care than she could in rural Kansas at the time. Her effort paid off, and several operations partly cured Eddie’s condition though when we first see him in January Jinx, he wears special shoes and sometimes limps.

The boy with the clubfoot is based on my great uncle Croswell Doane Perkins, also born with a clubfoot. Not long after my uncle Doane’s birth on October 15, 1884, our great grandmother Laura Wilcox Perkins sold the family farm in Hobart, NY, and moved to New Brunswick, NJ. From there, she took her baby son by train into New York City for several surgeries, so he spent much of his infancy with a foot and leg inside casts.

Please note that the family story credits only my great grandmother Perkins with saving our uncle Doane from a cripple’s life. It doesn’t mention our great grandfather Charles Samuel Perkins, born around 1844. My cousin Sarah Faye Morse recently checked the family records for me and confirmed that Charles S. Perkins fathered two more children with his Laura and died in 1905. So he undoubtedly was around in 1884/5 to help make important decisions like selling the family farm and moving his family from the place his forbears settled in the late 18th century if not earlier. But perhaps my mother, born on November 1, 1910, and Faye’s mother, born on March 12, 1913, omitted our great grandfather Perkins from the story because he died before they had a chance to meet him.

Suffice it to say, both our great grandparents Perkins made considerable sacrifices to ensure that their fourth-born child lived and prospered. Indeed, after he grew up and got married, our great uncle Doane won dancing contests with his wife. Or so the family story goes . . .

In this photograph, taken around 1896, Uncle Doane is the boy on the right, slightly behind his mother, Laura Perkins. The girl in the back is my great aunt Melicent Perkins. The young woman on the left is my grandmother Juliet Perkins Smith, for whom I’m named. The little boy in front is the youngest boy, Charles Andrew Perkins, and the little girl is Faye Marguerite Perkins, for whom my cousin is named.

January Jinx, Fatal February, and Mischief in March, the first three novels in the calendar mystery series that feature Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price from newly met to newly wed and beyond in Kansas City  a place that could get downright deadly a hundred years or so ago, are available as Kindle eBooks and trade paperbacks at Amazon.com.