By Ralph Fletcher
Houghton Mifflin Copyright © 1995 Ralph Fletcher
All rights reserved.
1.Clifford Allyn Abernathy III
My full name is Clifford Allyn Abernathy III, after my father and grandfather, but I leave off the III, the Allyn
, and the ord
. Call me Cliff. I’m in Mr. Beck’s class at the Bradford Bridges Elementary School in Ballingsford. I’ve noticed lately that lots of my favorite things seem to start with “B”: baseball (Baltimore is my favorite team), basketball, bacon, bluefishing, blue slush cones. Brad.
I’m the oldest of six kids. And that makes me different from the other kids. Dad and Mom sure treat me different. The other kids can whoop and scream and holler like a bunch of savages. They can sneak into Mrs. Montgomery’s vegetable garden and pick all her cherry tomatoes—no big deal. They can climb trees and get sticky pine pitch smeared all over their shirts and hair—what do you expect?
Dad and Mom expect more from me. I have to be Mr. Responsibility, Mr. Set-a-Good-Example. On certain days keeping the other kids out of trouble makes me feel more like a policeman than a brother. Some days it drives me nuts.
Take the time when a water pipe burst down the street and made a huge mud puddle on the Mcllreavys’ front lawn. Before I could say Baby Beluga the other kids had kicked off their shoes (Teddy kept his socks on) and waded deep into the mud-brown water. I stood at the edge yelling at them to get out, secretly wishing I could go in. When we got home it didn’t matter to Mom that my own clothes didn’t have a speck of mud on them. She took one look at the other kids, sat me down as if it was my fault, and demanded, “How could you let this happen?”
Don’t get me wrong, being the oldest has its advantages. I don’t have to wear a baseball glove somebody else stunk up with years of their old sweat. I don’t have any Monster Big Brother or Evil Big Sister to boss me around. I get to stay up later than anyone else. And I get to hear lots of grown-up stuff the younger kids never hear, like about why Uncle Ray doesn’t come to visit anymore (he’s drinking again).
“Being the oldest is special,” Mom is forever saying. But when you balance out the advantages with having to act like Mr. Almost-Perfect and all the rest, take it from me, being the oldest is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Living in a family with so many people can be pretty weird, too. Ever go to bed on a cold winter night with the heat turned down and your room so cold you have to pile a bunch of blankets on top of you? While you lie there you mostly feel the flannel sheet and quilt right next to you. With the other blankets, the ones added last, your body doesn’t notice whether those blankets are made of wool or cotton. All you know is that they’re helping keep you warm.
In a crazy way it feels like that, living in a family with so many kids: Nate, Cyn (short for Cynthia), Teddy, Brad, Josh. Nate is like my closest blanket. We’re less than a year apart. We share a bedroom. The other kids are my sister and brothers, but Nate is my best friend. And then there’s the baby, Josh. I was almost ten when he was born. He’s okay, as babies go, but most of the time I don’t pay all that much attention to him. He’s like that last blanket piled on my bed just before I fall asleep.
“We Abernathys always overdo everything,” Mom likes to say. True enough. I hate going with Mom to the supermarket—it’s embarrassing. We end up with two shopping carts overflowing with food. Mom buys the jumbo size of everything. When she cooks, she always doubles the recipe, but after supper it’s a miracle if there’s any food left on the table.
We Abernathys always overdo everything, but even for us this past year has been like nothing I’d ever thought possible. Like five years crammed into one. With plenty of stuff I want to remember forever. And stuff I wish I could forget.
I only know one way to start telling about a year like this: take a deep breath, begin at the beginning, and push right on through until the end. 2.A Yidda Yadda
It started a few days before Christmas. I was sitting in the kitchen, getting ready to dig into a steaming plate of French toast Mom had just handed me, when she asked: “Would you cut up Josh’s French toast first?”
“C’mon, Mom, I’m starved!
” I told her.
“It’ll just take a minute,” she said. “I don’t have four arms.’’
“Oh, all right,” I grumbled. Josh wasn’t quite two. I cut a piece of French toast, and he popped it into his mouth. I cut another, and he gobbled down that piece, too.
“Don’t just swallow it,” I told him. “You gotta chew or you’ll get a bellyache.”
Josh started coughing hard. He had a bad cold: two fat jets of greenish snot were slowly making their way down his face from nose to mouth. He grinned up, but I tried not to look at him—it was too disgusting. Finally I got his toast cut up and his nose wiped, and had just drowned my own French toast in syrup when all of a sudden I heard something at the front door.
“Watch your step, Grandma,” a voice said. Dad! Grandma! A mad scramble for the front door. I jumped up first, but Teddy swerved in front of me, nearly knocked me over, and made it to the front door ahead of everyone else.
“GRANDMA!” he screamed.
Grandma Annie stood there waiting for us, a little stooped over, holding a small shopping bag. Dad stood behind her carrying two suitcases. “Grandma! Grandma!”
All six kids wrapped Grandma in a big bear hug.
“Well, hullo! Hullo!” she cried. Her face was lit up, blue eyes sparkling behind her glasses. “Hullo! Look at you all! Just look at you! How tall you all are! Cliff, you’ve grown half a foot since last summer!”
“Just broke five feet,” I told her. I was the second-tallest kid in my class, three inches behind Melody Swift, a dorky blond-haired girl who had just moved from Tallahassee.
“Can’t keep food in the refrigerator,” Mom said.
“Just as it should be,” Grandma told Mom. “Better to spend your money on food than on doctors’ bills.”
“I’m getting big, too!” Brad put in.
“Yeah, but I’m BIGGER!” Teddy yelled.
“You’re all simply enormous!’’ Grandma said, tousling their hair.
Josh tried to climb her leg like a squirrel. She reached down and picked him up. “Well, hello there, little monkey! Just look at that runny nose! That’s quite a cold you’ve got, young man.’’
“He’s been sick all week,” Mom sighed.
“Sick,” Josh said.
“I’ll make some chicken soup,” Grandma said. She reached down and touched Cyn on the back of her neck. “And how are you, darling?”
“Santa Claus going to bring you a special present this year?” Grandma asked her.
“PRESENTS! PRESENTS!” Teddy yelled. Mom shushed him.
“I wish he’d bring me a little sister,” Cyn said quietly.
“I know, I know.” Grandma stroked her cheek.
“Five brothers,” Cyn said. “And me.”
“It must take a mountain of patience,” Grandma said.
“Buttuh goo,” Josh said. Everyone laughed, but Grandma looked confused.
“He’s saying: butter good,” Nate explained. “Josh loves butter, don’t you? Hey, Josh! Tell Grandma what you want Santa Claus to bring you.”
“A yidda yadda,” Josh said seriously. He sniffled and tried to wipe his runny nose, but only smeared the stuff all over his face.
“Here,” Grandma Annie said, wiping his face with a tissue. “Now what did you say?”
“I wanna yidda yadda,” Josh said. Grandma looked confused again.
“What’s that?” she asked.
That’s the thing—no one knows,” I told her. “It’s a mystery. Everybody’s trying to figure it out.”
“Hey, Cyn, you speak baby talk, don’t you?” Nate asked. “What’s he saying?”
“Very funny,” Cyn replied. She shrugged. “It could be almost anything. Sounds a little like yellow water
. Or maybe little spider
Grandma asked Josh, “Do you want yellow water?”
He shook his head.
“Do you want a little spider?”
“Can you use some other words to tell us what you want?”
“I wanna yidda yadda,” Josh repeated patiently. Then he pinched a fold of Grandma’s loose neck skin and sort of stretched it out from her neck, let go, and pulled the skin out again, all the while grinning and saying, “Squishy, squishy, squishy . . .”
“Josh!” Mom said. She looked horrified.
“Oh, now that’s all right.” Grandma was laughing. “Guess I am pretty squishy in certain places.” She grabbed a hunk of Josh’s cheek. “Squishy, squishy yourself!”
Dad sent me outside to fetch the rest of Grandma’s stuff. I gobbled down my French toast, threw on my coat, and went outside. In the far backseat of Dad’s car I found two shopping bags filled to bursting with presents, already wrapped. Grandma didn’t have much money but somehow she always showed up with a ton of presents for everybody. It was clothes, mostly, but comfortable stuff you wanted to wear right away.
I carried the presents into the den where Grandma would be sleeping. Everyone was in the living room, crowded around the Christmas cactus.
“Look at all the buds!” Grandma said, bending forward to get a close look. She had given us the cactus a few years before. It looked like an ordinary plant with thick green leaves. In mid-December the leaves started budding up with bright pink balls. And by Christmas it was always full of beautiful pink blossoms.
“LOOK! THEY’RE OPENING UP!” Teddy shouted.
“Hey, we can hear you,” Dad told Teddy. “We’re right here.”
“Must be that time of year,” Grandma said. “The whole house looks beautiful! Say, where’s the tree?”
“I’m going to buy it this afternoon,” Dad told her. “Now, how about a nice hot cup of coffee?”
“I’d love some!” She rubbed her hands together. Dad took her black coat and got her seated on the couch. Cyn and Brad snuggled next to her. “Oh, thank you! It’s just so good to be here! And there’s so much to do! I’d like to start my holiday baking today, if that’s all right.”
“I don’t see why not,” Mom said.
“Thought I’d start by making my stollen.”
“Naughty Grandma, Grandma stole
something,” Cyn said with a shy smile. I stared over at Cyn—she hardly ever cracked a joke. Grandma laughed out loud and gave her a quick tickle. Just then Teddy dragged the two bags of Grandma’s presents into the living room. Teddy was the family maniac; Christmas made him worse than ever.
“Hey, let’s open these presents!” Teddy yelled. “CAN WE, GRANDMA?”
“Teddy, put those down!” Mom said. She took the bags away from him.
“Teddy, come over here and help me make this shopping list,” Grandma said. She patted the cushion next to her.
“What’re you gonna buy, Grandma?”
“Let’s see,” Grandma said. “I’ll need some flour, yeast, brown sugar, regular sugar, confectioners’ sugar—”
“SUGAR!” Teddy yelled.
“Yes, and nuts, and cherries.”
“CHERRIES!” Teddy again.
“Teddy, we’re right here,” Mom reminded him. “You don’t have to yell.”
“I’ll need lots of butter.”
“Buttuh goo!” Josh put in.
“Oh, almost forgot,” Grandma said. “Suet for the birds.”
“Suet?” I said. “What’s that?”
“Fat. The birds need extra fat when it’s this cold. We’ve got to keep feeding them or they’ll freeze.”
“You won’t start baking without us, will you?” I asked. It just killed me that Grandma Annie was visiting but I still had to go to school. It wasn’t fair.
“Heavens, no!” Grandma retorted. “How could I? I’ve got a ton of baking—I’m going to need all the helpers I can get.”
“Can I come to the store with you?” Cyn asked. “Please?”
“You have to go to school, young lady,” Mom said. “You all do. Look at the clock. Get a move on! The bus will be here in five minutes.”
“But I want to go shopping with Grandma!”
“I’m not going shopping,” Grandma said. “Your father said he’d be nice enough to go shopping for me. I’m going to take off my shoes and put these old feet up. All this travel and excitement has worn me out!”
We went off to school. I was in fifth grade, Nate in fourth, Cyn in third, Teddy in second, Brad in first. I sat next to Nate on the bus and the whole way I thought about Grandma.
Grandma Annie needed plenty of rest because she was really old: seventy-nine years old. When she was eighteen she got a job working at Filene’s department store in Boston; she played on the Filene’s women’s basketball team. Now she had a slow and stooped-over kind of walk, and I couldn’t imagine her dribbling or shooting or guarding another player. But she had been one of the best players on the team. Dad showed me an old newspaper clipping that said, “Anne Sullivan plays the toughest defense in the league.”
Back in the 1920s only men could vote—no women allowed. Grandma had marched on the Boston Common with thousands of other women who were mad about that. They wanted women to have the same right to vote. Grandma was proud: she had helped to change that law.
Annie Sullivan got married and had eight children; Mom was the youngest. Annie’s husband, James, had died on Mom’s thirteenth birthday. “My mother has always had a backbone like a rod of Bethlehem steel,” Mom liked to say about Grandma. I guess she needed that strong backbone being a widow when her four sons (my uncles) went overseas to fight in World War II.
Now Grandma Annie lived alone. She had lots of people who loved her, tons of relatives begging her to spend the holiday with them. I always thought it was amazing, almost a miracle, that most years she chose to come to our house. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 1995 Ralph Fletcher. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin.
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