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Only Scratching the Surface

by Ron Van Sweringen

My Dad wanted to take Mom to a restaurant for her birthday, but she refused.

“That’s no way to spend good money in hard times,” she said, putting her mending basket away.

“Besides, I want my children and family with me on my birthday. A Sunday dinner here at home will do just fine. It will give me an excuse to cook that ham hanging in the smoke-house.” She smiled.

It was a well-guarded secret in our house that Mom usually got her way.

Dinner was always at four o’clock on Sundays. Everyone could gather around the radio later for the Grand Ole Opry and the Kraft Mystery Theatre. My sister Barbara usually helped Mom with the dishes. My brother and I took out the trash, checked the chicken coop and the rabbit hutches for the night.

This Sunday was different though: instead of the five of us, there were going to be twelve for dinner. That only happened occasionally, at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and it was exciting for us kids.

We were a farm family: my Mom and Dad, my sister Barbara, brother Willie and me, Robert Owens. Money was hard to come by in rural Mississippi in the 1940’s. A bought birthday present for Mom was out of the question for us kids. My sister had embroidered my mother’s initials on a new handkerchief my Aunt had given her.

My eight-year old brother Willie, after a week of going through the prize arrowheads in his cigar box, finally decided on one for Mom. It was small and made of pink flint. He chose it because my sister told him all mothers liked pink.

I was left in the lurch, with some dried snake eggs, an old turtle shell and a skunk skin I was keeping for a Davy Crocket cap. My sister Barbara, being a clever girl, decided to save my bacon — for a price. I had to let her go first for her bath, every Friday night for a month. In return she would tell me what I could get for Mom’s birthday. I had no choice.

I was getting anxious by Saturday night. The next day was Mom’s birthday and my sister still hadn’t told me her secret. Barbara was thirteen, a year older than me, but years ahead in matters of the world, as she called them.

Finally before bed on Saturday night while I was brushing my teeth, she knocked on the bathroom door. “Okay,” she said, taking a folded magazine page from under her bathrobe. “Here it is.”

I looked at the page for a while, “Here’s what?” I asked, bewildered. On the page was a picture of an elegant dining room table, fully set with dishes, silverware and crystal wine glasses. Had Barbara lost her mind or was she playing a rotten trick on me?

“What’s in the center of the table, dodo?” she asked in that big-sister tone that made me want to strangle her.

“Flowers,” I said. Then the light came on. Flowers! of course, there were plenty of wild flowers in the meadow down near the creek. A whole fence full of wild rambler roses, both pink and white climbing up the walls of the spring house. There were wild day-lilies and a small blue flower I didn’t even know the name of.

“That’s only half of it,” Barbara said, turning the page over slowly for maximum effect. “Besides the bouquet for the center of the table, it shows you how to make flower rings to go around each napkin. It will be really beautiful, Mom will love it.”

No doubt about it, my sister was a genius, I had to admit it.

We went to church early the next morning and were back home by ten-thirty. Aunt Mable and Aunt Noreen were already in the kitchen when we got home. An apple pie and a peach pie were on the kitchen table. I don’t recall ever seeing a happier smile on my Mom’s face.

Dad and my Uncles Tom and Shorty decided to walk over to the lake and fish for a while. Mom was worried that I was sick when I said I didn’t want to go. She felt my forehead, saying “Will wonders never cease.” Barbara had gone over to the neighboring farm to visit a girl friend, taking Willie with her.

I had already hidden a bucket for water, the pruning shears, some thin copper wire from the shed and the big white milk pitcher; everything I deemed necessary to create my surprise masterpiece.

In the meadow I couldn’t be seen from the house as I cut the flowers, dropping them in the water bucket. In about an hour, I had more than enough blossoms of every sort, even a pretty green vine that looked nice twisted around the napkin rings. I worked at an old table near the window in the shed where it was cool..

Two hours later I was finished with my masterpiece and back in my bedroom, ready to get dressed for dinner. I first noticed the itch in my palm as I put on my Gene Autry cowboy shirt with the fringed sleeves and stitched pocket. A Christmas present, ordered from a Sears catalog by my aunt Mable. I only wore it on special occasions, like today.

I looked to see if an insect had bitten me, but I couldn’t find anything except redness from scratching. I rubbed Vitalis into my hair, then took my time making a perfect part with the comb. Mom would be sure to look at it and I didn’t want to disappoint her today.

As soon as Barbara and Willie came home, I persuaded them to help me bring the flowers into the house by the side door. The large white milk pitcher was overflowing with roses, dasies, wild heather, day-lilies and half a dozen other varieties. It stood over two feet tall in the center of the table. To my surprise, it was a true masterpiece.

Willie and Barbara slipped the flower rings of dasies, bachelor buttons and the attractive green vine, over each napkin, placing them in the middle of each dinner plate. When I stood back, it looked just like the picture in the magazine. Even Barbara said, “Good job, Bobby.”

My sister had never called me Bobby in my life!

Uncle Stewart arrived with Grandmaw and Grandpaw Owens in his red Ford pick-up, just ahead of a rumbling thunder storm. When we were all seated at the diningroom table with Dad saying grace, the lights flickered and went out.

Everyone opened their eyes to the semi-darkness, with six candles burning on the table. Suddenly everything looked different in the soft light. The wild flowers sprinkled across the dinner plates became a magic carpet of glowing color leading up to the old milk pitcher, holding the most beautiful bouquet of flowers I have ever seen, even to this day.

I saw the happiness in my Mom’s eyes, the tears she tried to hide with a smile. A smile meant for me alone.

A half an hour later, in the middle of dessert, my hand began itching again. As I scratched, Uncle Stewart leaned over and whispered with a smile, “I’m not surprised you’re itching. That vine you used is poison ivy.”

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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