By Betty Slade
I woke early with anticipation for the first day of first grade at Manassa Elementary School. On that Monday morning, my small beginnings took a turn and life began to write my story.
Picture the year, 1947. Each day is as predictable as the days and weeks before. The only change is a new Paul Cobb Mountain Boys calendar hung on top of the previous year’s. The one-page calendar dangled on the nail above the white porcelain sink, alongside the long-handle metal dipper, which we all drank from.
In my town is 1 square mile of homes in perfect grid on wide dirt streets. There are four businesses — my dad’s gas station, Uncle Joe’s grocery story, Uncle Donald’s theater and Dora’s café. They line the main street. A tall, steepled building, known as the church, sits in the middle. A red brick schoolhouse looms big on the street north and I live three blocks away.
The week begins. Monday is designated “wash day,” as my mother washes clothes in her wringer washer on the back porch. With homemade lye soap, she scrubs stains on a washboard until spotless. She hangs crisp white sheets on the line with wooden clothespins placed on each corner not to leave marks.
She knows for certain the neighbor lady looks over the fence and inspects her wash. Guilty of the same busybody act, she inspects her neighbor’s work to make sure garments are hung with diligence and as pristine as hers.
On Tuesday, she irons, cooks a pot of beans and bakes three loaves of bread for her family of five. Wednesday, she cleans her home from top to bottom. She beats the rugs and scrubs the floor.
Thursday is church meeting day with the Women’s Relief Society, who call on the members and help any in need. Friday, she works in the garden. The week continues in proper order and she starts her routine over again come Monday morning.
I slipped on my new cotton dress with the gathered skirt. My blonde curls, which framed my freckled face, were wrapped in rags the night before. They now bounced in rows of curvy locks.
My mother announced, “Today is wash day and I don’t have clean socks for you. You need to wear your brother’s socks to school.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll wear dirty ones before I wear boys’ socks.”
“Yes, you must do as you are told.”
“Boys’ socks have red and yellow rings around the top with cowboys on them. I won’t wear them. Everyone knows the difference between boys’ socks and girls’.” I sulked and refused.
She sent me to school anyway. After all, Monday was her wash day.
I dilly-dallied and scuffed along the broken sidewalk until I came up with a plan. Hide in the bushes and wait out the day, and then go home.
I hid in the neighbor’s garden and ate my sack lunch as soon as I sat down. Hidden between the rows of tomato plants and squash, I stared at the cowboy-printed socks tucked in my Mary Jane shoes.
The morning crawled by and I couldn’t sit still any longer. I devised another scheme. I wanted to go somewhere, but I knew better to go home. I’d get a whipping for sure, so I walked the short distance to school. I found my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, in a flutter.
“Betty Jarvies, where have you been?”
“I called your mother. She said you left the house on time. I told her you didn’t arrive.”
Your mother called back to tell me she looked everywhere for you and is worried sick. She went home to wait by the phone in case you showed up.”
“Oh no.” In bigger trouble, I had to think fast. My imagination overcame my “sock embarrassment,” so I lied. “Two boys stopped me and wouldn’t let me go.”
“Two boys? What did they look like? Do you know them?”
“No, I never saw them before.”
“They must be from one of the neighboring towns.”
“Yes, they are.”
“What did they do to you?”
“They pushed me down in the dirt, got my new dress dirty, and hid me in Old Man Beneger’s garden. They said if I told anyone, they’d come back and give me what for.”
“Your mother begged me to call if you showed up. I have to call her now.” She rushed inside to make the phone call.
“No, I’m OK. I’m not hurt,” but my plea fell on deaf ears.
My mother, a rag tied on her head, sweat on her brow and a wet apron draped around her, came in a huff. She asked more questions. “Who are they? Did they hurt you?”
My lips were zipped about the truth of the socks.
“We have to call the sheriff and ask him to keep an eye out for those boys. He needs to catch them.”
The sheriff came to school. Again, the same questions and answers, “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
The sheriff called the neighboring schools — Romeo, La Jara, Sanford and Antonito. “Do you have two trouble-makers who might have missed school today? They roughed up a little 6-year-old girl in Manassa.”
The authorities promised to check around and keep an eye out for the two rascals.
With a few white lies, I whipped up some dirty laundry that Monday morning. Knotted in frustration, my mother promised to hang me out to dry. She wrung her hands as she gave me the evil eye, the truth written within the deep frown on her face. I looked down at my shoes.
After school, she threatened to wash my mouth out with lye soap for telling a lie. My dad would find out when he came home. I spent the whole day in those socks and wore them till nightfall as I waited for my just dues, which never came.
No one knew for certain, but there was enough speculation to go around, what happened that day in small-town USA. I didn’t dare come clean and I kept a sock in it. But, the next Monday, my mother made sure I had clean socks to wear.
At a writers’ meeting, a guest speaker who writes memoirs gave us ideas how to jump-start our life’s story. Go back as far as you can remember and write down your first memory about your childhood.
That incident, hidden deep in the reservoir of my mind, came to surface. Seventy-three years later, blurred by life and years, did I ever confess? I don’t think so. Did I get a whipping? Not sure. Did they find the boys? Not head nor hair. Did I ever do that again? Not that I remember.
All the people in this story have long gone and only I remain to tell the events as they played out on the first day of first grade. My life’s memoir starts with a lie.
The moral to my story: A precocious child, destined to be a fiction storyteller early in life, I didn’t know where childhood tales would lead me. With an active imagination, lies can go the distance for a fiction writer. Now I understand I am the troublemaker and not the fictitious neighborhood boys.