Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Career For Marjorie

The child stood irresolutely at the door, her small, unhappy face framed in carefully brushed and curled brown ringlets. Her fingers, hot and damp from mixed fear and excitement, left crumple marks on the stiff white skirt of her organdy dress.


The slender woman at the dressing table turned and swept appraising eyes over the little figure framed in the doorway.

"What is it now, Marjorie? Can't you see I'm busy? Just a minute and I'll pin that sash a bit tighter. And stop twisting your skirt with your hand!"

"Mother, I--I don't want to go. Please, can't we--"

Her mother turned again, her lips set in the determined way so familiar to Marjorie.

"We've been over all that before, Marjorie. What do you think I've paid for all those lessons for? For you to stay at home on the day of the recital like a crybaby? Haven't you any idea what it's cost me to give you the lessons I never had? Now stand still, and pull in your stomach while I pin this."

"Mother, I tried to tell you--I--I can't play as good as the others." Her voice trembled on the brink of a torrent of tears.

"You're just saying that because you're scared. Now go wait for me in the living room." She reached for her lipstick. "The very idea." She carefully tucked a strand of graying hair beneath the blue hat, and kicked her houseshoes toward the bed.


The small figure reappeared in the doorway.

"Stop biting your nails, and tell me if my slip is showing."

"No. You look very nice, Mother."

"Well, so will you if you'll just stop fidgeting. How will you win that contest next month and make your acceptance speech if you don't get over that nervousness?" She picked up her bag and gave her hat a final twitch as she left the room.

Once in the car and on the way, Mrs. Harkness felt better. She had begun to have misgivings, to doubt that she would even get Marjorie to the recital, to say nothing of getting her to perform. She glanced down at the miserable child beside her. So silly to have stage fright. But she would be all right once she was seated at the piano. Mrs. Harkness sighed.

"Marjorie, you should have had blonde hair. It would look so much nicer on the stage."

The large auditorium was almost filled when they arrived. Mrs. Harkness stole a quick look at her compact, gave Marjorie a last brush, and started through the door. Miss Billet, Marjorie's teacher, rushed up and took charge of the child, giving Mrs. Harkness a bright smile that revealed her excellent dental work.

"Oh, I thought perhaps Marjorie might not be coming, Mrs. Harkness. I'm so glad you did get here on time."

Mrs. Harkness nodded her thanks rather stiffly. Didn't the woman know that she would have called and asked the program to be delayed a few minutes if something had happened? After all, she must know this was an important day to Marjorie. Mrs. Harkness had already planned polite answers to all the congratulations. She thought it might be well to feign indifference. No one need know that she was just as much determined for Marjorie to be a success as Marjorie was herself. It would make up for her not being able to have taken the music training she had so desired in her own youth.

Mrs. Harkness found a seat near the stage, and settled herself to wait. Repressed excitement sent hot flashes through her body. She hardly heard the first child who performed. The applause was generous, but not enthusiastic. Mrs. Harkness smiled to herself. Wait until Marjorie finished! She found herself wishing that she had had the time to listen to the child practice more often. She had not actually heard Marjorie play since the first few lessons.

She glanced down at the program. Marjorie was third from the bottom of the list. She wondered what she was doing now. Perhaps she should have gone backstage with her to be sure the child didn't get all wrinkled before time for her appearance.

Ah, what wouldn't she have given for an opportunity such as this when she was Marjorie's age! She remembered her passionate love for music, her desire for a chance to study. It was a feeling mixed with intense bitterness. Mrs. Harkness' mother had been dead many years now, but the memory of her still caused her daughter's mouth to twist in a wry expression of deep dislike. The stern, determined woman she remembered with uneasiness even now, had been the only barrier between her and a career in music.

She remembered the day when her piano teacher had advised her mother to give his gifted pupil the chance to develop the talent that slumbered in the fingertips of her tapering hands. She remembered her own tears and pleading, and the set lines of her mother's face as she had replied that her daughter would enter nurses training the following year, the silent manner in which she paid the teacher, a manner clearly indicating that there would be no more occasion for the weekly payments.

Mrs. Harkness shuddered, and did not notice the puzzled look given her by the man seated next to her. She was not hearing the music at all. She was thinking of how she had been trained as a nurse, just as her mother had declared she would be. She was still a nurse. And with every year that passed, with every line that deepened in her face, she grew to hate it more and to despise the memory of her mother.

Thank heaven Marjorie had not been denied so! At least she had the consolation of knowing that her own daughter would be given the chances she had never had. Her mind came back to the music, and her finger moved down the program. Three more before Marjorie. She thrust all thoughts of the past from her mind. It would do no good to remember and regret. She had her own child to work and plan for now, and in some way, through her, Mrs. Harkness would at last realize her own dream. After today would come other recitals, prizes, recognition, scholarships.

She would forget her childhood fancies after today when she saw the acclaim and the pleasure her music could bring to her. Mrs. Harkness understood that thrill. She felt it now in anticipation for Marjorie. Only one more to perform.

She thought fleetingly of Marjorie's behavior that morning. Strange. She herself would never have been afraid. Her fears had always been forgotten in the pulsing joy of the music she created. She smiled faintly, thinking of Marjorie's silly idea that she wanted to be a nurse like her mother. Children were so foolish. She was always bandaging hurt animals, splinting broken dolls' legs, playing doctor to her playmates.

Suddenly Mrs. Harkness thought again of her mother, a slender, determined woman who closed her eyes and heart to the pleas of a miserably unhappy child. She sat up stiffly, her mind a sudden confusion of pictures that began falling into a meaningful pattern. She got to her feet and pushed her way to the aisle, stumbling over feet, murmuring quick apologies, not seeing the annoyed glances thrown her way. She almost ran toward the door leading backstage.

The little girl in the stiff organdy dress sat by the window, staring out, waiting. Her short, chubby fingers, so unlike the tapering hands of her mother, clutched her skirt nervously, leaving damp crumple marks. Mrs. Harkness swallowed the ache in her throat, and the line around her mouth seemed to become softer.

"Let's go home, Marjorie."

This short story appeared in the Spring 1952 Baylorian, Mother's last semester in college.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Fancy Was Her Name

She was a tiny black Manchester/Chihuahua mix, named for the Bobbie Gentry song that was popular the year she was born. The name was chosen partly because she was given to us by a neighbor reported to be a retired madam. (In spite of her reputation, I liked her better than many of those who looked askance at her.)

Fancy's personality developed slowly. She did not become the lovable dictator she was destined to be until she was about five years old. Then she decided that it was time to take us in hand and train us to serve her better. She saw that I put a glass of water on the nighstand at night, so she let me know that she wanted a glass of water for wee hour drinks, too. If I forgot, she sat on the side of the bed and stared fixedly at the place where her glass should be, giving me occasional sideways looks. When I woke at night and reached for my water glass, she got up and waited for her turn.

Fancy looks for her glass

Some animals don't seem to care one way or the other about music, but Fancy loved it. With exceptions. She despised Barbra Streisand records, giving us dirty looks and leaving the room if we played them. Her favorite singer was Don Williams. She even had a favorite song by him - Lay Down Beside Me. When it was played, she melted with satisfaction. We were driving down the highway once, with her in her usual middle position, when that song came on over the radio. She jumped up and looked at the radio and at us as if to say "How did they get our song?"

She loved to ride between Cindy and me on the front seat, where she could put her feet against one of us and her head on the other. We rode many miles, chatting back and forth. If we fell silent for awhile, Fancy would place a paw on the arm of the one whose turn it was to speak.

Her idea of taking a walk was to lie on her back in your arms while you did the work. Nothing escaped her notice and it was always entertaining to take her somewhere such as the sea shore where she had never been and watch her reactions to new smells and sounds. Seagulls fascinated her, but she did not care much for the waves that kept chasing her.

Fancy takes a walk at the seashore

We enjoyed her company for eleven years. I'll always regret that I was not home when she died. Cindy was with her and David buried her beneath my bedroom window. For months after she was gone we sometimes thought we heard her crossing the floor, nails clicking. If ever an animal was able to haunt her old surroundings, Fancy would be the one. There is no marker on her grave, but her memory will never fade in the hearts of those who knew and loved her.

This essay was written June 11, 1992, during a period when Mother was writing an assorted lot of memories.

Fancy was one of the special dogs in our lives. I have no doubt that she haunted us and I've sometimes suspected that she reincarnated in the persona of Bebop, another special dog who came into our lives a few years after we lost her. Bebop was born knowing he had the ability to become our benevolent dictator and set about his mission to take over from the beginning. Many of his traits were reminiscent of Miss Fancy and he had the same appreciation for gentle country music and a raging dislike of popular music.


Saturday, January 10, 2009


Doors are convenient things to have around the house. You might never realize just how important they actually are until you stop to think how far you would get without them. Of course, a window might serve the purpose just as well, but not if you're on third floor.

Our ancestors didn't have doors. They just lumbered into their smoky caves, thumped their hairy chests, and grunted hello to the folks. How do you suppose they explained the matter of a black eye?

But to return to the door -- and people often do unless they are guests -- there is something definitely attractive about it. There must be, judging by the way students sit in class and gaze longingly at it. One attractive feature common to doors is the keyhole, through which, if one has an inquiring mind and a pliable backbone, may be gleaned many facts of interest.

All doors look very much alike at first glance, but they have personalities as varied as those of the odd creatures who walk through them. There is, for example, the complaining, dissatisfied Frustrated Door. It never moves without a groan or shriek proclaiming its sour outlook on life. It probably isn't much fun being a door, but the least it could do would be to accept its fate cheerfully, and keep its hinges quiet.

There is another type that can only be classified as the Deliberately Malicious Door. It never creaks or moans. It stands demurely silent for days, until it catches you with your back turned, engaged in some activity such as sneaking a hurried glance at the contents of a letter not addressed to you. Just at the right psychological moment, that door slams shut, inspiring its victim to do a fair impersonation of a nervous bowl of jello. Then it stands there maddeningly deadpan, but if you look carefully, you are almost certain to see a smirk around the transom.

Then there is the type of door that is unexcelled in the perpetration of mischief. This is the Bathroom Door. Noah Webster says that the door is "a movable frame providing access to a room", but he couldn't be speaking of the one that always stands between you and the bathroom. There is nothing movable about that one. It generally behaves quite well from six o'clock in the morning until about ten at night, but at any other time it's practically impossible to open without the aid of a good strong axe. This door stands glowering hatefully in the dark, waiting. At the first sound of sleepy footsteps in the hall, it digs in its toes, and prepares for a long siege. It isn't even above switching its knob to the wrong side, just for the sake of confusion. After making its poor victim tug and bang until the entire household is awake, it suddenly releases its grip and smashes the first thing in reach, which is usually a nose.

A first cousin of this type is the Stage Door. It is generally located on the set of a student production of some stirring drama. During weeks of practice, this door behaves like a heavenly portal, but just let the big night come! The heroine repeats the cue line for the hero's entrance until her wig slips down over her eyes, while Stage Door heaves violently from the struggle going on backstage to open it. Just as the red-faced heroine gives up and rushes into the wings, the door releases itself and crashes to the stage, bringing half the back-drop with it, and leaving a mortified hero to face the snickers from the audience.

There is also a Helpful Door. This type is found on the right front side of buses. It only helps those who are laden with packages and are having difficulty getting them all on the bus. Something about the plight of such a one arouses the chivalry beneath the cold metal exterior of Door, and as soon as the person gets one foot inside, it gives a gentle, helpful push, sending him sprawling beneath the driver's feet. If the person is an ungrateful sort, he may think some rather harsh thoughts as he collects his scattered belongings out of the laps of fellow passengers, but he got inside didn't he?

In spite of all their meanness and mule-headed stubborness, however, doors are very necessary. Man couldn't exist without them. What better way is there to release anger than by slamming doors? Where else would one hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign before retiring? What better way is there to escape a visit from your mother-in-law than to lock the front door and scram out the back one? How would the hall closet hold all that accumulation of junk without a door to prop shut against it?

No doubt about it doors are here to stay, and we may as well learn to live with them in comparative peace. We might even try being nice to them. If they ever decided to take over and run things their way, we wouldn't have much chance. They could all develop spring latches, and mankind would perish from pneumonia caused by living in a constant draft.

Do you feel a cold wind stealing around your ankles, or is it just my imagination?

From the Spring 1951 Baylorian.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Old Matt

Old Matt? Why I s'pose any of us kids could tell you who HE was. We sure liked him a lot. Some people said he wasn't nothin' but an old tramp, but us kids knew better. He was our friend.

Old Matt lived all by himself in a dark little room over a ramshackle movie theater on the south side o' town. Ever' Saturday he'd limp up and down main street sellin' pencils and givin' nickles to the kids to buy popcorn and candy. There was always a bunch of us taggin' along askin' questions and gettin' in everybody's way.

His body was all twisted and he leaned pretty heavy on his old cane, hobblin' along advertisin' "bright new pencils" in a shaky sorta voice. He didn't have much hair, and he always wore a beat up old Stetson he musta had ever since he used to ride in the big rodeos. His nose had been busted and had a crook in it, and he couldn't see very good. We used to ask 'im why didn't he wear specs and he'd say he didn't like 'em, but I guess he just didn't have any money to get 'em with. His hands shook so that when anybody bought a handful of pencils, they had to pick 'em out of the box and put the money tight in his hand.

Old Matt's clothes was always old and patched up and wrinkled, mostly hand-me-downs. He never had no money to buy clothes. What he didn't give to us kids he spent for a Saturday night bottle of whiskey. He said it was good for his rheumatism.

He lived for Saturday afternoon when the farm kids come to town, most of us just as patched and ragged as he was. We'd always stop by Red 'n' White for a popsicle, and we'd buy some gum drops or licorice sticks and then hunt up Old Matt. Me and Sandy, my little brother, would bring 'im a plug of Dad's chewin' t'baccer if we could get away with it.

Old Matt always 'lowed that town kids was too smart-alecky and ignor'nt to talk to, but us farm fellers knew what was what. He'd ask about the stock, and the crops, and the new colt, and 'fore long somebody'd get around to askin' about the time he rode Lucky Devil at Cheyenne.

He never got tired of tellin' about the crowds and the big arena, and we could almost smell the sweaty horses and dust and fresh-oiled saddle leather. He'd tell us how that big red horse killed his best pal and how he drew the same horse the next night in the finals. He'd always stop there, and tap his cane on the sidewalk, so quietlike you'd think he'd forgot we was there. Finally he'd push that old Stetson back from his face, and say, "Well boys, I scratched that hoss, til they was blood runnin' off his hocks, an' I was thinkin' how he throwed Jim and busted his neck the night before. I rid 'im to a standstill, and slid off and left 'im standin' there blowin', but I didn't get ten steps t'wards th' fence 'fore I heard him scream, an' he landed on me, hoofs a-flyin' Ain't many hosses natcheral born killers," he'd always say then, "but that there'n was."

Sandy had heard the story almost as much as me, but he always got excited easy, and when Old Matt didn't go on he'd say, "An' what happen'd then, Matt?" just like he didn't know. Sandy was Old Matt's favorite. He'd shake his head sorta sad-like, and say, "Son, I never woke up good for a month, an I stayed three more 'fore they'd let me outa bed. That hoss did me up good. Ain't been able to walk right since, and that was nigh on fifty years ago."

He'd pause again and then finish up with the same words he always did, "Don't none o' you young sprouts git th' idee of follerin' the rodeo. Tain't wuth it to end up walkin' crooked and sellin' pencils fer a livin'." And he'd pull himself up from the bench and hobble off without so much as a "s'long", leaving us kids plumb decided to be bronc riders soon as we got old enough.

Old Matt was our hero for several years. We wouldn't a-missed seein' 'im on Saturday for anything. He could make us see what the real old West was like, and he made Roy Rogers sound like a sissy. We never got tired of hearin' his stores about rodeo life and the horses he'd rode, the big towns he'd seen, and the prize money he'd spent.

Then one Saturday we come to town and somebody told us Old Matt was dead. We wouldn't believe 'em at first, and we looked all over town before we gave up.

There was about six of us settin' there in front of Red 'n' White, sorta pitchin' some rocks back 'n' forth in a game Matt had showed us, talkin' about how we was gonna run off and join a rodeo gang, when Mr. Olson come out o' the store behind us, with somethin' wrapped up in his apron.

"One of you boys named Sandy?" he asked.

My brother got up and nodded his head "yes". We sat there wonderin' what was up. Mr. Olson handed a paper sack to Sandy and said Old Matt left it at the store for 'im a few days b'fore he died. We all crowded around to see, and Sandy pulled out a big pair of real silver spurs, all polished and shiny, with big red sets on the straps. We all reconized 'em as the ones Matt told us about winnin' in Chicago first time he rode.

That was 'bout a year ago, I guess. Sometimes me and Sandy get out the spurs and polish 'em all up and talk about Old Matt and when we'll get to be rodeo cowboys, but we don't look forward to Saturday anymore like we used to.

This story appeared in the Winter 1951 Baylorian. Mother had taken over the editorship of the magazine by that time.