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The Lilac Bush is Blooming
By Jan Surasky
Sandalwood PressCopyright © 2017 Jan Surasky
All rights reserved.
Mama set up the table for breakfast. It was usually us kids who did that, but today was very special. The annual fair and circus was coming to Mayberry, a town of three thousand forty miles away, and we had to carefully pick what we would wear. It was our yearly chance to make an impression on the kids from bigger cities.
Not that the cities they hailed from were humungous, but they were way bigger than Mayberry. Mayberry was central to a lot of mid-sized cities, and anyway, the owner of the circus came from Mayberry. He never let the people from Mayberry forget how when he was a kid the other kids made fun of him because he was short and skinny and wore glasses. But, now he was tall and muscular, mostly due to his overcoming puberty and growing to a great height, but also because he had learned how to tumble and walk the high wire from the best performers he had found in Europe.
Caroline Ann, the oldest, known as Carrie, or Squirrel, mostly for her love of the hazelnuts we found along the nearby stream that ran behind our small orchards and fields that every spring held the seeds of our ever-changing cash crops, and depending on who was addressing her at the time, came bouncing down the old, creaky stairs of our hundred-year-old farmhouse in a swishy, navy taffeta gingham-checked skirt, a white peasant blouse, and a brilliant red satin bow which held back her thick, wavy, jet-black hair, which she considered her greatest asset, in a very perky pony-tail. She had just stopped short of winding it up and putting it in a French twist, a style Mama forbid because she thought it too sophisticated and too daring and too much like those trollops who wandered the streets at midnight in big cities who we had only heard about but never seen. We were certain that Mama had never seen them either, but she had long used them to scare us into submission when we wanted to stay out past eight or begged for a sleepover which all the kids from Mayberry indulged in.
Next came Georgie Boy, or John George, as Mama always called him. Being the youngest and the only boy in the family he was somehow more indulged, not really spoiled, because he had his chores to do like us girls, but he always felt he could be last to the table. He had carefully chosen his only pair of chinos, a cowboy belt of which he was very proud that he had gotten for his last birthday, a pair of cool sneakers which he had saved his meager allowance for, and a tee shirt which would rival the Marlboro man for macho.
Now that we were all assembled, Mama gazed out of the window.
"The lilac bush is blooming," she said.
We didn't answer, because this was a ritual Mama engaged in every spring when the robins returned to lay their eggs and the songbirds added their chirping to the early morning cock-a-doodle-do of our barn rooster. All reliable signs, but Mama gauged every spring by the lilac bush.
We children swiveled our heads, as if in unison, an annual habit we had formed to give Mama the impression that we found it as important as she did. We looked beyond the yellow checked chintz curtains framing the old paned window and out into the glorious sun-filled pasture next to the barn. True enough, the first blossoms were showing through the greenery of the bush. The most vibrant, deep purple we had ever seen. We had always agreed that their intensity was unrivaled.
Mama took a moment to admire its beauty, burst from a seedling she had nurtured that had somehow found its way to the back of the barn. And, its reliability. Then, she turned her attention to the old heavy iron stove that had been in the family for generations.
"Who wants buckwheat pancakes?"
The griddle on the stove sizzled and Mama stood over it, dropping spoonsful of batter with one hand while she stood with her trusty iron spatula in the other. Buckwheat season was short and Mama guarded her supply with fortitude. Ditto her supply of honey taken from the hives of honey bees which fed on the soft, pink blossoms of the buckwheat plants. Uncle John Turner, who helped run the farm, made sure that Mama had as much of a supply as she wanted of the beautiful, dark honey which showed its deep purple when the rays of sunlight coursed through its plain glass mason jar, wrested from Matt Archer down the road who kept bees.
Buckwheat honey was a treat. Not only was it Mama's bastion against all ills, being better for coughs than the pitifully thin, artificially colored cough syrup sold in the general store in town, it tasted special. It had an earthy smell and its malty, rich, molasses flavor was sweet but not too sweet.
Carrie was the first to speak. "I'll just have one," she said. "All the girls are dieting. It's a contest to see how many boys they can get to ask them out before May Day."
May Day, the last day of school before exams would determine who would have a fella for the summer months. And, pickings were scarce. Most of the boys had to help out on the farms and had precious little leisure time. And, they weren't always sure they wanted to spend it with girls. Going fishing with the guys and skinny-dipping in the many water holes around held out a lot more appeal.
"You're too skinny as it is," said Mama. "I don't know any boy worth anything who wants a girl who looks like a broomstick. Why your father was stuck on me from the time we were both sixteen. And, I had some meat on me. Where it counted. And, when it came to threshing time I could bale hay with the best of them. When it came to tackling or hitting a ball, or getting to the pasture first to catch a runaway horse, no boy could beat me."
Carrie fell silent. No one argued with Mama on this topic. Especially when she mentioned Papa. Yes, Mama was sturdy and tough when she needed to be but when it came to Papa Mama had always been a marshmallow. When the threshing accident took him nearly five years ago now Mama pretty much fell apart. Mama's sister Maybelle had to come from Pennsylvania to keep us together. Mama's eyes still teared up at the mention of Papa.
Carrie looked down at her plate and accepted the two hearty pancakes Mama dished up and placed on the old yellow chipped crockery in front of her.
"How about you, John George? A growing boy needs a lotta help when it comes to a good breakfast. A good stack of buckwheats oughta put a few inches on you right away."
Georgie Boy looked pleased as Mama loaded his plate with a heaping stack of buckwheats. Everyone knew Mama favored Georgie Boy, but we didn't care. We all loved him anyway. He was fun and you could tease him mercilessly and he didn't tease back. And, he was always there tagging after you when you needed him most. On the days when you felt most down he was there to puff you up. And, when I lost my first fella to that stuck up Mazie who had just moved here from New York in fifth grade and who lived in one of those pretentious old mansions in town, I found a length of red ribbon Georgie had put on my bed when I was out with a beautiful wild daisy he had fashioned into a bouquet to mend my broken heart.
Georgie was our hope for the future. He was being groomed to run the farm and Uncle John Turner worked long and hard with him, putting him on the back of the tractor during plowing time, taking him out to show him how to plant the seed, and making sure he was right next to him up front when the harvesting machine came in.
Next, Mama unceremoniously plopped the remaining pancakes onto my plate. "Anabel May, you are last but not least." Mama always said this, and I tried not to think too hard as I noticed my permanent place. I would just for once like to be first, but we all had our places. A year younger than my beautiful, raven-haired sister Carrie, and a few years older than our youngest, I was of course the middle child. Not really noticeable at all. Less a beauty than Carrie, I was blessed with freckles and fine, limp, sandy hair and arms and legs that never seemed to stay in place. And, I didn't seem to know any antics that would make me cute like Georgie.
I was the responsible one. Mama relied on me for everything. When Carrie was curling her hair or practicing eyelash makeup, even though she couldn't wear it out of the house, Mama would call on me to go over to the general store and get the sugar she had forgotten or the length of gingham old Mr. Barker had just called her about that he had just gotten in. But, Christmas was different. Mama never played favorites at Christmas. Every year we waited for the Sears catalogue and every year we spent months before we even cut the tree to pick out what we wanted. One year I asked for a doll that was every bit as beautiful as Carrie and I realized later on must have been way out of Mama's usual budget but she got it anyway and I had a great surprise to find her wrapped with a big pink bow with my name on it under the tree.
Georgie dug in. "First one done gets to ride in the back with Sailor."
"Now, John George, we don't need any stomach aches on the way to the fair," Mama cautioned.
Carrie stayed out of the fray as usual, too preoccupied with how to nab a boy without looking like that was what you were doing.
"There's no contest here, Georgie," I said. "Everyone knows Sailor likes you best."
Sailor, the large black and white mutt that belonged to Uncle John and Aunt Mabel always went with us to the fair. Uncle John arrived every year to pick us up with Sailor in the back of the pickup.
"Okay, now everybody eat up. I want us to be ready when Uncle John gets here."
Mama scraped the griddle clean and left to go upstairs to change into the flowered sundress she always wore to the fair. That, and the big straw hat she favored to keep the sun from her eyes.
As for us kids, we could barely eat for the mounting excitement.CHAPTER 2
The drive to Mayberry was forty miles over bumpy, back roads and potholes gouged out by the fury of the previous winter. But, the chatter of excitement drowned out the squeaks and squawks of Uncle John's pickup, an old model Ford which he had kept together by rolls of duct tape and the knowledge he had gained as an army mechanic overseas in the Second World War. Every now and then he could be heard muttering to the vehicle as it approached a rise or a bend in the road, "C'mon Elsie, you can make it!"
Carrie sat in the back guarding her nails which she had done up in a very perky pink. Mama sat in the middle between us girls and Georgie in the truck bed with Sailor, glorious in the sunlight and basking in the gentle spring breeze which ruffled his sandy brown hair and pointed Sailor's ears backwards.
Aunt Mabel in the passenger seat up front held court with Mama on the latest gossip while I pretended not to listen. The talk was all about who had entered what and who they thought would win. As for us, Carrie had entered her bread and butter pickles which she had been putting up since she was seven, Mama had entered her famous cherry pie, and I had entered a quilt with hearts and meadow roses and our lilac bush in the center which Mama had thought quite fetching. Georgie had entered his pig which he called Rosie and had hand fed since she was a piglet.
Uncle John had entered his feed corn as usual, which was a staple in our area, and Aunt Mabel had opted out, considering her position as the president of the local garden club and the consistent first prize winner at every annual state fair for whichever of her roses she entered reason enough to stay away from a mere county fair.
As we entered the fairgrounds, we were ushered very quickly by volunteers with heavy red vests and the name of the county fairgrounds written in big white letters across them to a spot along the very back row of the rutted field which passed as the parking lot for any event that was held in Onondaga County. The circus tents were way beyond the fairgrounds, almost out of view.
"Hey, Carrie, how 'bout coming with us?"
Carrie opened the window and waved. "Super, Lizzie! Be with you in a sec."
"Not so fast, Caroline Ann. I need to know where you are at all times so you will need to check in with us on the hour every hour. Do you have your allowance money so you can buy yourself something when you need it?"
"I do, Mama. But, every hour?" Carrie pouted her usual pout which meant the usual negotiations.
"Okay, every two hours, but on the dot. And, no sneaking away off the fairgrounds."
"Thanks, Mama." Carrie blew Mama a kiss as she raced to catch up with her friends who were already headed for the circus and the daredevil rides Clayton Ashton brought every year to impress his former tormentors and take their money.
Georgie had already jumped off the truck and was searching the fairgrounds with his eyes for Will, our trusty handyman and part-time field hand who helped Uncle John run the farm. Will lived three farms down from us and was often at Georgie's side, especially after Papa passed on, trying to provide that male influence that Georgie now lacked since Uncle John was often preoccupied with providing an escort for Aunt Mabel's many church and social activities. Sailor was already at the front of the truck, knowing if he didn't appear to get leashed up he was in for a scolding.
Will was Willem Hendrik Vanderwort, Dutch ancestry by way of London's poverty ridden East End and several years older than Georgie, which made him about three years older than me. His parents were dirt poor, but they had tried to make it in three countries and this was their last stop. Will had a cheery personality nevertheless, and he was a hard worker. To me he was a blond god, but to Georgie he was a pal who never tired of skinny dipping and fishing in the many ponds around us.
Though Will was built like the Marlboro man and had endless blond good looks, he was shy. Girls avoided him like the proverbial plague, shunning him for the jocks and the wealthy of the school. Will never minded, preferring to hang out with Georgie or Sailor, or his own many dogs, acquired through the years since he was an only child. I was his most reliable female companion, let in only if he and Georgie didn't shoo me away for some all-male fun.
"Hey, freckle-face, where's that kid brother of yours?"
Will had appeared round the other side of the truck, out of sight of Georgie. I spied him first. I ignored his teasing.
"What's it worth to you if I tell you?"
"One ride on the carousel or the Ferris wheel. Your choice."
I pointed in the direction of Georgie and giggled, wondering how Will could have missed him.
As I fell in with Mama and Uncle John and Aunt Mabel I scoured the landscape for friends of my own. Nothing could be worse than being stuck with a bunch of grown-ups for the entire day while they gabbed and gossiped and ignored me. Luckily, after the first few minutes of discussion on who would win for what and why they shouldn't and who was related to the judges and of course would win I spotted Lucy Mansfield a townie who lived in the village in a small house on the edge of town with perennial peeling paint and no one to fix it up. Her father drove a truck and was never home. Her mother took care of a brood of eight and seemed never to be out of the kitchen.
Lucy was a middle child with mousy brown hair like mine always plaited in two long braids which hung down her back nearly to her waist and were neatly tied with two red ribbons put in by her older sister at the insistence of her mother who was determined that all eight of her children be well groomed and well-dressed despite their position at the bottom of the scale at the edge of near-poverty.
"Hey, Luce," I called as I delivered the loudest two-finger whistle that both of my fingers at the sides of my mouth could muster. Lucy turned around and waved, a little embarrassed by my decidedly masculine efforts to call attention to myself, but glad to see me nevertheless.
"Hey, Annie May, how 'bout joining us?"
"Swell," I returned. "I think I can win us a pixie doll at the rifle shoot or the basketball court."
"Great," she answered, as she took stock of the many brothers and sisters younger than she was who she was responsible for. "Ma wants us to stick together, but I think I can convince Marcy to take over if I promise her half of my babysitting money from the Thompsons who have me lined up practically for the entire summer."
As Lucy and I took off for the rifle shoot by way of the cotton candy stand I spied Carrie mooning around with a new boy I never saw before. She was still with her friends, but she was staring into his eyes intently and he was showing a lot of interest in her. I could only hope he was the right type of boy Mama would pass on, because if he wasn't, we were all in for a long, hot summer of fights and arguments, and many threats of grounding and suspending privileges. Mama could be fierce if she was scared for her kids.
Excerpted from The Lilac Bush is Blooming by Jan Surasky. Copyright © 2017 Jan Surasky. Excerpted by permission of Sandalwood Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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