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|Publisher:||Bedazzled Ink Publishing|
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|Age Range:||12 Years|
About the Author
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It's not the tragedy, but loss of innocence, that hardens the soul.
SOMETIMES IT SEEMS that each year renders the same mean destiny as the one before, like a wound that won't quite heal or a door that won't slam shut no matter how hard I push against it. There never has been much happiness in the world. All I do is struggle to make ends meet and put up with kids who, half the time, are more of a burden than a blessing, especially Holly. Ever since the day she was born, she could aggravate me one moment, then leave me feeling ashamed for not being a better mother the very next. She simply wants more and needs more than I ever have to give her. Even in the womb, she was insufferable; kicking my insides out every restful second and putting me through eighteen hours of labor on one of the hottest days ever recorded in East Texas. All I had to show for it was a scrawny, baldheaded, red-faced screaming daughter. There, I finally said it. Now I would spend the rest of my day trying to make amends. I would buy Holly a new set of paper dolls or let her tear out the Betsy McCall page as soon as my new magazine arrived. I might even sit down with her while she drew a picture and tell her she was sure to make an artist.
Holly's older sister was born eight months after Ross shipped out overseas, somewhere in the Pacific. He made it clear in every letter he wrote home how badly he wanted a son. I was sure once he saw Kathleen he would feel differently. But fighting a war had left Ross too moody and restless, too willing to find comfort from a pint of Jim Beam, to notice what a beautiful baby girl I had given him.
The war had taken its toll on me, too; what with trying to raise a child all alone, wondering how I was going to pay all the bills and worrying whether my husband would come back in one piece. But I never used any of that as an excuse for chucking my responsibilities.
Kathleen was almost seven when I got pregnant with Holly. Ross eagerly awaited the birth of a son, just like he had done when I was carrying Kathleen. He didn't even try to hide his disappointment when he learned his second child was also a girl.
Holly was still in her crib when Jake was born. Ross may have gotten his wish for a son, but for me each waking moment was spent taking care of an infant and toddler still in diapers. To make matters worse, every time Ross held Jake in his arms, Holly would throw a tantrum, crinkling her face like an old man's as she squatted at his feet, screaming and kicking, then hitting her balled fists against the floor before sprawling out in front of him like a jilted lover. It wasn't until Holly came down with polio, right before her second birthday, that Ross paid her any attention. From then on, he gave in to everything she wanted.
I was the one who had to deal with Holly's bad leg and temper. She was different from all the other children her age and she knew it.
"Don't make me!" she screamed each time I tried to put the brace on her leg.
"You know you can't walk without it. Besides, you're not the only child with polio, you know."
"Am, too," Holly insisted.
"I don't want to hear any more. Just be glad you didn't end up in an iron lung. Now hurry up before I give you something else to cry about."
One morning Holly grabbed the brace and threw it against the wall, tearing a hole through the plaster. The day before her Aunt Martha and her cousin Nick had stopped by. Holly, Jake, and Nick were running around the backyard like wild Indians. The two boys had taken off their shirts and were tossing a ball to one another while Holly did her best to snatch it from them. She was no match for her brother and cousin and soon plopped down on the grass, emptying her pockets of the pebbles she had gathered earlier and throwing them at the boys for not letting her have the ball.
"Poor child." Martha didn't even lower her voice as she spoke to me. "She'll probably never marry. You know what I mean, with her leg and all."
"What a fool thing to say about a six year old," I said. "Holly has a pretty face and that will more than make up for her bad leg."
"Well, I wouldn't tell her she was pretty if I were you. That way, she won't be disappointed when men notice she's a cripple and look the other way." Martha pursed her lips, the way she always did when she wanted to make a point.
I felt guilty for having thought the same thing myself. Although I worried how Holly would handle being labeled a cripple, it only fueled her doggedness to prove Aunt Martha wrong. She worked hard to build her strength so one day she could walk without her brace and took extra pains to disguise her lameness.
Despite having polio, Holly pestered me constantly to let her take ballet lessons like her cousin Caroline, who was a year older and had two good legs to dance on. Holly would never walk on her toes any more than she would fly to the moon. Why God had given me a child who always wanted what she couldn't have, most of which was utter nonsense, was beyond me. Her fixation on being a ballerina was soon replaced with wanting an apple tree like the one she had seen in some book. I blamed Ross for that. He's the one who told her she could have anything she wanted if she waited long enough and thought hard enough about it. I don't know why he had to give her such false hope.
The day this all started was so scorching hot and humid I had to mop my neck repeatedly with a damp dish cloth. Beads of moisture formed on every surface. A small fan droned as it swung back and forth in its battle to stir the unforgiving air. I heard utensils rattling in the drawer behind me and turned as Holly grabbed a large serving spoon and tried to hide it under her cotton shirt. She slid out the screen door before I could stop her.
"Just where do you think you're going, Holly Hendricks?" I hollered after her. "You're not going to take my good spoon out there in the yard!"
"I'll bring it back, I promise!"
"You know better than to run around like that on your bad leg. You'll have to wear your brace again if you're not careful." It was too hot to chase after her. All I could do was keep a close watch as she ran toward the chain link fence that separated our backyard and pasture.
Holly, safely out of calling range, crouched down next to the dark pink blooms climbing the fence like a floral barbed wire waiting to prick the living daylights out of anyone who brushed up against it. I tried calling her again, but she couldn't hear me.
The best I could tell, Holly was digging little holes with my spoon. I had a good mind to go out there and snatch it from her. She knew better than to tear up my garden after all the time I had spent pruning, mulching, and nurturing my beautiful Tyler roses, which were not only pretty to look at but also provided an alluring feast for the forager bees Ross kept in the pasture. Earlier that morning, I noticed the apple seeds Holly had placed on the windowsill to dry were missing. Later I saw her untie one of my handkerchiefs and look at the little pile of seeds she had wrapped inside it.
"You ought to throw those seeds away," I grumbled.
"I'm going to plant them," she argued.
"Well, you're wasting your time if you ask me. Apple trees don't grow around here. Not in this kind of soil and climate."
Holly retied the handkerchief and stuffed it in her pocket. She walked out of the room like she hadn't heard a word I said. I don't know how she got to be so stubborn. Kathleen always yielded to a strong voice and Jake never caused any fuss in the first place. For whatever reason, Holly wanted an apple tree and no amount of coaxing could change her mind. Well, she didn't get that kind of thinking from me. That was Ross's doing. I had been burdened enough with all this foolishness. Ross would have to deal with her, not me, when those seeds of hers refused to sprout.
There are moments in life so splendid they spark the fire in our soul, and some so tragic they snuff it out altogether.
ACCORDING TO MOTHER, when I was a baby I used to wrap my tiny fingers around the garnet ring she wore. Even as a young girl, I liked to curl up on Mother's lap when she read to me and fix the ring between my thumb and forefinger, and turn it slightly so the light danced off its facets. I would gaze at its blood-red sparkle, pretending to be a prima ballerina or an acrobat standing on top of a prancing pony, until my eyelids grew heavy and I fell asleep. Mother didn't place much value on anything unless it was green or needed watering, and she could never understand why anyone would let their passion for what they wanted obscure the very smallness of their dreams; most of which, in her opinion, were a total waste of time.
As I got a little older, I lost interest in dancing on point or chasing a trapeze high above the ground. Instead, I began to set my sights on having an apple tree for my very own. It wasn't just any apple tree I yearned for, though, but one like the tree I had seen a thousand times in the old third-grade reader I discovered in my grandfather's library. For many years, the little reader had remained tenderly hidden among his musty volumes of judicial law and religious philosophy. My father had scrawled his name on the inside cover: This book belongs to Ross Hendricks. Just under his signature, he had written Miss Agar's Third Grade Class in his imperfect hand.
While my cousins and younger brother played outside at family gatherings, I would shuffle through the books in the tall, glass door cabinets that lined the library walls, searching the unkempt hardbacks for any with glossy pictures. Pleasant scenes jumped off the pages, letting my mind run as free as the other children that whooped and hollered across the lawn. Sometimes poetry and love notes blossomed in fancy penmanship on the faded flyleaves, unveiling their author's most tender feelings. I would go ask Daddy to read me what these secret lovers had written generations ago. These intimate glimpses from the past, however, never captured my imagination like the apple tree in the reader with the happy family gathered around it. Its branches were brimming with large red apples, the same color as Mother's garnet ring. Daddy promised me that someday I could have a tree exactly like it.
I believed what he said. Each time I looked out at the pine trees and post oaks that cluttered our lawn, I expected to see an apple tree shooting out of the ground as if Daddy had waved a magic wand. When several weeks passed and nothing happened, I was certain he had forgotten all about his promise.
"Don't you worry," Daddy assured me when I reminded him of the tree. "I haven't forgotten. Here, let me show you something."
I stood by impatiently as he polished a Red Delicious apple against his shirtfront until its dark peel glistened. He pulled out his pocket knife, unfolded the blade, and ceremoniously sliced the apple in perfect halves.
"You see these little brown seeds?" he asked, pointing them out with the tip of his knife.
"Mother always throws them away," I responded. "If you swallow the seeds, a tree will grow in your stomach." I had gotten that information from my grandmother Bibi, who was always saying things to scare us.
"Apple trees do grow from seeds like these, but whoever told you they would grow in your stomach is simply wrong. Now, why don't you take these seeds, plant them, and see what happens? Sometimes, when you want something, it's best to make it happen yourself. You'll always be disappointed if you wait on someone else to do something for you."
From then on, I insisted on saving the seeds from every apple I ate.
"I don't know what you're going to do with those seeds," Mother chided. "It's foolish to think an apple tree would grow in East Texas."
"Don't throw them away," I begged her.
"Well, here. Put them on the windowsill to dry."
A few days later, on a mid-summer morning beneath a sweltering sun, I knelt beside the rose garden Mother had planted parallel to our backyard fence and dug a shallow hole between two of her prized bushes. I then reached into my pocket for the handkerchief that held my tiny seeds. I carefully untied the handkerchief and just as carefully, clutched each seed between my fingers before dropping it in the hole.
"I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you," Mother cautioned when I came back inside. "Nothing's going to grow in this kind of weather. Too hot. Now go wash that dirt off my spoon and don't let me catch you taking it outside again."
"Yes, ma'am," I replied in my meekest voice.
Every day for nearly a month, I carried Mother's rusty watering can to the exact spot I had marked with a Popsicle stick. The hot Texas sun would dry up the dirt almost as soon as I dampened it.
When my seeds failed to sprout, Daddy and I went to Turner's Feed & Seed Supply searching for a small tree like the ones featured in the Stark Brothers catalog. Mr. Turner said he had never carried any apple seedlings and didn't know anyone around here who did. Daddy told me not to worry. He said that all dreams come true for those who believe and those who wait. Not long after that, he kept the promise he had made to me in a very special way.
A CLEAR, COOL snap had christened the October air the evening before. Just as the sun was topping the trees, Cindy's playful barking awakened me abruptly.
Cindy was the stray Border collie that had shown up on our doorstep when I was only three. I hurried to the window and pressed my face against the pane, looking intently through the bright morning sun. Cindy was at my father's heels, jumping and yelping; trying to get her nose into the large paper bag he carried as he walked toward the scrub oak that shaded the east half of the lawn. I quickly ducked out of sight as Daddy peered over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching. He looped his right arm around the bag so he could use both hands to steady himself as he climbed the ladder that was leaning against the tree. As he neared the top, he fixed the bag on one of the rungs, then reached inside and took out a large red apple. I watched in awe as he balanced it among the scrubby leaves of the old oak. He continued the ritual until the bag was empty and the tree blazed with bright red apples that looked like Christmas ornaments hanging from its gnarled branches.
I quickly headed down the stairs and made my way toward the back door, skillfully dodging Mother's attempt to block my path with her outstretched arm. "You can't go outside like that," Mother protested.
Ignoring her completely, I took off across the lawn.
"Look what grew in our yard last night!" Daddy called when he saw me running toward him, still in my nightgown and barefooted. He had scarcely had enough time to finish his task. He reached down and scooped me toward heaven so I could get a better look.
"Higher!" I cried, reaching for one of the apples.
I didn't let Daddy know I had seen him placing the apples in the branches.
Granting me my biggest wish was one of his finest moments and I didn't want to spoil it. And even though the tree was not the one I had longed for, somehow it was even more splendid than the one in my father's old third-grade reader, simply because it grew from the love in his heart.
Knowing how to adjust our sails to avoid drifting out to sea is the only sure way to reach our destination.
THE FALL OF 1964 staggered between the heat of summer and the early frost Farmer's Almanac had promised. We would run the air conditioner one day and have a fire going the very next. I always wore a button down sweater over a short-sleeved blouse so I could keep comfortable no matter what direction the weather took. I hated sending the kids to school in a jacket, knowing they would leave it behind somewhere once the morning chill wore off.
It was hard to believe Thanksgiving was less than two weeks away. I looked over at the calendar just to make sure. Already, I dreaded the extra shopping and cooking.
I hated to admit it, but I was worn out. Sometimes I wish I had never gone back to work. Prior to moving to Dallas a year and a half ago, Ross and I had never lived anywhere but Land of Goshen, a small town cast deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas. The town got its name in the early 1800's from the dirt farmers who left their homes in places like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi in search of cheap land and a new life. They thought they had reached the Promised Land when they saw the lush trees and foliage of East Texas, so they began to settle. It was either that or they were too tired to travel any farther.
Leaving the only home we had ever known was a difficult choice, especially for Ross. His father, Wylie Hendricks, had served as a county judge and a deacon in the First Baptist Church. Everyone in Land of Goshen knew Papa Hendricks and held him in high esteem. Even after he passed away, Ross and his two brothers continued to benefit from the family name and reputation their father had left behind.
Excerpted from "The Eyes of the Doe"
Copyright © 2017 Patricia Taylor Wells.
Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
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