Of Pinafores and Satin Bows by Cyndy Muscatel
The summer I was five, I had a lot to worry about. We moved into a new house when my sister was born. Two big adjustments—the house and my sister. But that wasn’t all. Every Wednesday at noon an air raid siren went off. President Eisenhower said on the radio that the siren was to help us but it scared me. I had to hold my breath the whole minute so we wouldn’t be attacked.
I’d been so happy living at Edgewater, but my parents said three kids couldn’t fit into a two-bedroom apartment. I’d loved sharing a room with my big brother, Steve. He knew lots of things, especially how to keep the night monsters away. And I had a million friends. Mother even let me walk to my friend Chi Chi’s house by myself.
All that changed at East Boston Terrace. I can’t tell you why, but it never felt like a friendly house, even though my parents loved it. “It was designed by the architect Paul Thiry. He’s called the father of architectural modernism in the Pacific Northwest, you know,” my mother told Auntie Lil, using her Queen of England voice.
In the beginning my sister was in my parents’ room. I had my own bedroom and Steve had his. I didn’t like it. During the day my wallpaper was a pretty design—bunches of flowers on a blue striped background. But at night the flowers bordering the ceiling turned into skulls and crossbones. My parents were so busy with a new baby, a new store, and a new house that I didn’t want to add to their problems. And Steve seemed so far away, even though he was in the next room. So on the nights I felt too scared to close my eyes in case one of the skulls grabbed me, I slept in the hallway.
Then there was the baby. When they first told me about it, I thought a baby in the family might be fun. Boy, was I wrong. First of all, she cried a lot. Second, I thought I’d be able to hold her and maybe feed her a bottle. After all, I’d had a lot of experience doing it with my doll, but my parents and Allie Mae wouldn’t let me near Pamela.
Allie Mae was our maid. We didn’t have much money, but on and off we had a maid because both my parents worked. They’d bought a jewelry store in downtown Seattle and worked long hours to get it going. It didn’t give them much time for anything else. Before the baby, no matter how busy she was, Allie Mae always had time for me. I remember sitting in her lap and playing with her hand. While the outside was brown, the skin of her palm was white, the lifelines darker. I’d trace those lines with my white baby fingers, feeling the softness of her skin and the sandpaper roughness of her fingertips.
But those days of cuddles were gone. Everyone forgot me unless someone said, “Shhhhh, don’t wake the baby.”
One day I decided I’d had enough. “Daddy,” I said, “I don’t like how the baby cries. It’s so noisy.”
My dad patted my head absentmindedly. “Give her a chance, Cynthia. If you still don’t like your sister, we can mail her back.”
“How would you do that?” I asked.
“We’d put her in that big mailbox at the top of the hill.”
That gave me pause. She was a pain, all right, but I didn’t want Pammy stuffed into a box.
“Okay, I’ll give her more time,” I said.
After another few weeks I knew it wasn’t going to work. “Daddy, I gave her a chance, but now I’m ready to send her back,” I said.
Daddy looked up from his newspaper. “Well, the thing is, it’s too late now. We can’t send her back—we have to keep her.”
“But you said we could.”
“I know but I can’t do anything about it now. If you’d said something sooner…”
I went to bed that night thinking life was so unfair. I was so mad, even the skulls and crossbones didn’t bother me.
I wasn’t much of an eater in those days. One night Allie Mae put a plate of pot roast, peas, and potatoes in front of me. I could only stare at it. She’d cut up the meat for me, and I finally put a piece in my mouth. I chewed the stringy chunk until it was a glob that I moved from one side of my mouth to the other. “Sugar, you be sure to eat up your roast and those peas, you hear,” she said from around the corner of the kitchen.
Swinging my legs, I chewed the beef and worried about how I’d eat the peas. I didn’t want the little pea girl to feel lonely as she slid down my throat. I decided to put five peas on my fork so the whole family could go together. Since I couldn’t stand the mushy feel of them in my mouth, I began to swallow them whole. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never swallow the meat. It seemed to grow larger until it crowded my tonsils. I spit it into my napkin when Allie Mae wasn’t looking. That worked well until she found the wadded-up napkin in the trash can in the bathroom.
“Shame on you. Why, there are starving children in China,” she said, swatting my bottom and sending me to my room.
I sat on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and sucking my thumb. Nobody loves me, I thought. Nobody cares.
The next day was Sunday. Daddy always made pancakes and little piggies on Sunday. I got up and started for the stairs. Somehow I tripped and rolled from the top to the bottom. I lay there, unhurt but stunned. Then I started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” Daddy called from the kitchen.
My brother came to look. “Oh, she fell down the stairs again,” he said. “Come on, baby, get up.” He held out a hand.
“I’m not a baby.” I ran back up the stairs to my bedroom. I got onto my bed and held my teddy tight. The Swensen girls, who lived four houses away, had told me about a girl who knew her family didn’t love her.
“She was adopted,” Linda said.
“Yeah, and they were mean to her. So she ran away,” Barbara added.
I put my thumb in my mouth. Maybe I was adopted. Everyone always asked me where I got my blue eyes because no one else in my family had them. Mommy told me to tell them I got them from the milkman. When I said it, it always got a big laugh. I didn’t know why.
Had they wanted to send me back but waited too long and had to keep me? I wondered.
“I bet that’s what happened,” I said aloud. “Just like with Pammy. They’re stuck with me.”
I sucked my thumb and thought. Then I stood up. “I better run away like that other girl. They’ll be sorry when I’m gone.”
In the wardrobe closet I took out my black and white checked case and threw some things in it. I put Teddy under my arm and carefully walked down the stairs.
At the front door I called out, “I’m running away from home.”
No one answered. With a heavy heart I opened the door and stepped outside. I walked very slowly out the front yard and past the driveway.
I was sure Mother would come out to scold me for making her nervous. “You get right back into the house this minute!” she’d say.
But no. No one came.
I kept walking, Teddy in one hand and my suitcase in the other. Halfway up the hill I started getting scared. I had no plan. Well, my plan was that someone would stop me. I wasn’t allowed to go farther than the top of the hill. And I didn’t really want to. I could get lost. Or there could be a bomb. Steve told me if Korea threw a bomb at us, he’d throw it back. But if I was alone, I wouldn’t be able to throw it back myself. What was I going to do?
I sat down on the curb and started to cry. I knew it, I thought. No one loves me. Nobody cares about me. They don’t even care if I run away. They’re probably happy I’m gone.
After a while I trudged back down the hill. I let myself into the house and climbed the stairs as quietly as I could. I didn’t want them to know I’d backed down. I unpacked my overnight case and put it away. Then I got under the covers. I held Teddy very close. It was just him and me.
When Daddy tapped on the door and came in, I turned my face into the pillow.
He sat down on my bed. “You’re having a tough time, aren’t you, Cynthie?”
I shuddered back a sob but didn’t say anything.
“Aww, sweetheart.” He began to pat my back. “Don’t cry. It’ll all work out. You’ll see.”
The next Saturday, before they left for work, Daddy took me aside. “Cynthia, Mommy and I have a real treat planned for you,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Steve is going to stay overnight at his friend’s. You know, Harvey?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh. He lives by Volunteer Park.”
“That’s right. So he’ll be at Harvey’s, and you get to go to Allie Mae’s tonight. Then tomorrow you’ll spend the whole day with her.”
“Really?” I clapped my hands together. “Can I go pack right now?”
He smoothed back my bangs. “Sure can.”
In August the sun sets late in Seattle, so even though it was after my bedtime, the sky was bright as we set off from home that night. Daddy was in the driver’s seat, Allie Mae next to him. I was in the back, practicing snapping my fingers. I’d been working on it for a while and was getting close. It was quiet in the car except for the radio playing a jazzy tune. Every once in a while, I heard Daddy murmur something to Allie Mae.
When we got to her house, it was getting dark. Daddy walked up the wooden stairs onto the porch with us, but I got to carry my suitcase by myself.
“Watch your step here,” Allie Mae said, pointing to a place where the wood was splintered. We walked around the hole to the front door. Allie Mae had her key out and she unlocked it. When we stepped inside, the air felt thick with heat.
Allie Mae turned to my father. “You go on now and don’t worry about Cynthia. She’ll be fine here.”
“Okay, but call us if you need to,” Daddy said in his worried voice.
She patted his hand. “We won’t need anything, Mr. Thal.”
Daddy smiled at her and then leaned down to me. “Now, be good and mind Allie Mae.”
I put my arms around his neck and he hugged me tight. By the time he drove off in the Chevy, Allie Mae had rolled up the Venetian blinds to let in a little light.
“Follow me and I’ll show you where the bedrooms are,” she said.
We walked down a short hallway, and she led me into a bedroom that had pink curtains and a pink bedspread.
“This was my little girl’s bedroom,” she said.
“Where’s your little girl now?”
Allie Mae began turning down the spread. “Ella moved down to Los Angeles.”
“Do you miss her?” I asked.
“I do,” she said. “I surely do.”
I moved over to where she stood and hugged her around the waist.
“You’re a sweet child,” she said.
In the morning when I opened my eyes, Allie Mae was standing right by my bed.
“I was just going to wake you up,” she said. “Breakfast is on the table and we need to hurry. Church starts at ten o’clock.”
Breakfast was delicious. Bacon and eggs and something Allie Mae called grits. I ate every bite.
Then Allie Mae took me into the bathroom to clean up. She brushed my hair one hundred strokes and bobby pinned the blue, satin bow into place. She helped me into my white dress and starched blue pinafore she’d ironed at my house. I put on my Mary Janes, which had been polished to a shine with Vaseline. Allie Mae was already dressed in a gray suit. She pinned her straw hat with the matching gray ribbon into place before she locked the door, and we started down the front stairs.
“Goodness gracious. I don’t know how we got so late,” she said, hurrying me along the sidewalk.
The church was pretty far away—at least four blocks. When we walked up the stairs and inside, the vestibule was empty. Allie Mae looked me up and down to be sure I hadn’t gotten mussed along the way. She refastened the ribbon on my head, and then she pushed open a swinging door. We walked into the church. The walls were painted white, and there was a large cross behind the pulpit in front. The service hadn’t begun yet, but most all of the people sat on benches in rows.
As we started down the aisle, one lady called out, “Allie Mae, is that your sweet little Cynthia you talk about?”
I turned to beam at her. She had on a straw hat that was twice as big as Allie Mae’s. And it had flowers all over it.
Several people stood and called out greetings as we walked by them. Many touched me on top of my head. Allie Mae smiled more than I’d ever seen her smile. We moved into an aisle just as the pastor started the service. I liked the way Allie Mae stood so straight, the strap of her pocketbook over her wrist. I liked listening to her voice when she sang the songs.
“They’re called gospels,” she whispered to me.
I managed to sit quietly for most of the service. Some of the time I practiced snapping my fingers and some of the time the choir sang. When they did, we got to stand up and clap to the music. A woman swayed her arms back and forth so I did too.
The pastor’s voice got real loud when he talked, and I scooted closer to Allie Mae. Sometimes people shouted out, “Amen! Amen!” after he said something.
“Amen,” I said, trying it out. When I got fidgety, Allie Mae slipped me a Lifesaver.
After the service Allie Mae led me to the line where people waited to greet the pastor. Several people patted my head as I came near them.
“Look at those blond curls,” a man said.
A woman who had a fur around her neck smiled at me. I leaned into Allie Mae when I saw little fox feet on the fur.
“How sweet,” the lady said.
I basked in all the attention, but soon after we’d said our hellos to the pastor, Allie Mae wanted to leave. “Let’s go,” she said, taking my hand.
As we stood on the sidewalk, she straightened my bow. “I surely didn’t like all those people patting your head,” she said.
I tilted my head back so I could see her face. “How come?”
“I just didn’t,” she said.
I knew that voice. It meant I better not ask any more questions.
Because we weren’t in a hurry, we walked home at a leisurely pace.
“Look, Allie Mae. A leaf just fell off the tree.” I pointed to the brown and green leaf floating to the ground.
She sighed. “It’ll be fall before we know it.” She sounded sad so I held her hand tighter.
When we were on Allie Mae’s block, I saw a Chevy parked in front of her house.
“Goodness gracious,” I said, “my daddy’s here.”
Allie Mae clutched my hand for a second and then let it go. “Yes, it surely looks like it.”
Up ahead the car door opened and Daddy got out.
“Daddy!” I called and ran to his open arms. He scooped me up and hugged me.
By then Allie Mae had reached us. “Hello, Mr. Thal. I thought Cynthia was staying ’til this afternoon.”
“We missed her so much, I had to come get her early,” Daddy said.
Allie Mae nodded. “I see. Well, come on in while I gather her things together.”
Daddy put me down and we followed Allie Mae into the house. Daddy and Mommy missed me, I kept thinking. They missed me!
Allie Mae helped me out of my dress and into play clothes. Then we went into her kitchen, and she packed up fried chicken and potato salad from the refrigerator. “I’ll never eat all this by myself,” she said, handing it to Daddy.
When I kissed her good-bye, I thought I saw tears in her eyes. I hugged her extra hard. She must be lonely with her own little girl so far away.
In the car I sat right next to Daddy. “Me and My Shadow” was playing on the radio and we sang along.
At a stoplight he looked over at me. “Did you have a good time?”
I nodded. “It was fun. And all the people in the church were so nice to me.”
“Of course they were,” Daddy said. “You’re a special girl.”
I smiled a smile as wide as the ocean.
“I felt Allie Mae was sad that I was leaving,” I said after a minute. “I think she misses her daughter.”
“I can understand that. Mommy and I missed you in one day,” he said.
As the light turned green, I leaned against his arm. I didn’t feel so worried now. I was going home with my daddy and I felt safe.
Cyndy Muscatel’s short stories, poetry and essays have been published in many literary journals. A former journalist and English teacher, she also writes two blogs. She teaches fiction writing and memoir in Kona, Hawaii, and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. She is writing a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle.
Photograph in banner cited from: vanessa lollipop (flickr)
Edited by: Literary Orphans