Parents were not prone to analyze and probe their children’s minds when I was small. Had they dug deeply in my mental garden I am confident they would have uprooted some of the greenest sprouts that grew there. Fortunately for me, those obnoxious weeds died later of their own volition. Perhaps all children’s minds hold equally queer collections.
One of my most unlovely desires was for a facial disfigurement known as a stye. I have no idea why I wanted one unless for the purpose of banishing it by magic. Rubbing a stye with a gold ring was said to be an infallible cure, a bit of legerdemain I never had the opportunity to exercise. Nosebleed was another colorful and attention-attracting spasm I courted without success. My last hypochondriacal hope was attainable only when I grew to ladyhood. I wanted to be pale like English mothers who lay upon couches with tiptoeing children anxiously smoothing their brows. That ambition was too remote to more than dream about but I was willing to wait because I knew it would take a long time to fade my red cheeks.
Peeping into saloons was another vagrant idea I gave room to in my thoughts. The most recherché and snappy saloon in Springfield belonged to Tim Brady. The Brady arcade was off by itself at a corner of the public square, however, so we had no opportunity to even pass it. Tim Brady’s was a name Mary and I mentioned in whispers only. When he walked past our house or drove fast horses hitched to a smart turnout, we rolled our eyes at one another thinking he might shoot, because we knew that he was a ‘bad’ man. It seemed to me positively dangerous for him to flaunt a bold, big, ruby ring and jeweled studs on a green field of vest. Disaster was bound to be tempted by such brazenness. God might strike him dead or turn him into a pillar of salt, this smircher of men.
Mr. Brady had an ostentatious residence (It was much more than a house) on States street, below ours. There, beds of flaming red cannas and salvia, whitewashed shell walks, and rigid deer in listening attitude, announced to the passing parade that behind the fancy gingerbread fence dwelt the king-pin of tavern proprietors, Timothy Brady.
In a community where political disagreements often ended with a stab or a shower of buckshot, it was natural that Brady’s arcade should be the stage of such scenes, and, undoubtedly, sketchy descriptions of what occurred behind the mysterious swinging doors of this mirrored temple of sin had whetted our appetites. As Mary and I walked past the foul-smelling and cheap drinking places between school and home, the odor of stale beer dwelt in our nostrils, our eyes clouded with images of tipsy men, and our ears rang with ribald laughter. Springfield streets seemed full of staggering drunks in those days and as they passed our place they frequently threw their empty whiskey bottles over the fence on to our lawn.
One day when I was bound on an errand for Mother at the grocery store, a man accosted me. I recognized him as one who had previously waved his handkerchief at me.
“Hello little girl,” he said, and when I quickened my pace he followed me and said, “What’s your hurry, little one?”
I was so scared that I took to my heels and ran like a deer. When I reached home breathless and big-eyed, Father took me aside and told me I was never to go anywhere with a strange man (he made no mention of women; all ladies were supposed to be good in those days) not even if they promised me candy or said they had been sent by my father to take me to him. I drank up every word of his advice and years later had reason to be grateful for it, though at the time it was given I comprehended none of its implications.
It must have been on a lonely day that ‘Bird’ walked out of nowhere into my child world and was immediately adopted as my invisible playmate. I have no idea how she acquired her name or the date of her arrival but she immediately became an important member of the family. I had heard the story of a small boy who had made himself a playmate out of sticks and straw and clothes and that may have suggested the idea. Anyhow, I used to talk to her and we played games together. I would tell her when it was her turn to play at croquet and then dash across the lawn to knock her ball for her. It was an exacting role. My brain cooperated but my hands would not. Poor Bird hadn’t a winning chance. She never won a game as I recall, but she never complained.
If a visitor arrived while she and I were playing, I cold-shouldered her without a quiver, secure in the knowledge that she would not throw a tantrum. I confess I was never too happy over cheating her but I did it just the same, and then rationalized by saying aloud in a bold tone that “Bird won’t mind.”
She was a grand little stooge in spite of the advantages taken of her, a convenient person to have around at all times, and she supplied imaginary services for years. When troubles grew thick I could tell them to her and know that she would never let me down. After I adopted her, I introduced her to Mary and the two of us included her when we wanted a threesome at games.
I must have been eight or nine when a mental gymnastic caused me considerable anguish. Mother had given me an autograph album for my birthday, albums were quite in style at the time, and on the flyleaf in beautiful script she had written, “Time and patience turn the mulberry leaf to satin.”
Underneath this bon mot of Wisdom she inscribed “Your Own Mother.”
I was delighted to have it to show to my playmates. Lilly explained the noble sentiment which I feel sure Mother had chosen carefully in order to implant a moral. Mother cultivated our social selves and weeded our faults as persistently as she did her rose garden. I had no objections to the moral. It was the signature that flapped on my breast at night and twisted my dreams.
Mother told us of a boy who had been adopted when he was a baby by people who neglected to tell him that he was the son of a friend. When boys on the playground taunted him with the truth, he went to his mother and asked her if she were his own mother. She had parried by saying, “Haven’t I been a good mother to you, Jimmy?” until finally he learned the truth.
Knowing Mother I reasoned that she, too, was quite capable of withholding the information if I asked it. If she were my own mother why should she advertise the fact? Maybe I was a foundling left on the doorstep tied up in newspapers. I was afraid to ask anyone for fear I’d get the wrong answer. Being a foundling would clear up a number of puzzlements, why I wasn’t as pretty as Lilly for instance. Yet I was determined to refuse to yield my place in the family without a struggle. Being a healthy child I decided to turn the matter over to God. He should know and time would tell, but both time and God kept the secret and I suffered many uncomfortable nights before confidence in my legitimacy was restored.
One quirk that caused amusement in my family deserves a special chapter. It was closely concerned with my appearance and its improvement.