I remember the first time I got to help Mama with supper. She had me shuck the ears of corn into the trash can in the kitchen and then hand them to her to put in the pot of boiling water, one eye on me to make certain I didn’t come too close. She hummed a simple tune as she cut up the tomatoes from our garden and kneaded the dough for our bread. Supper was always an ordeal at our house. It usually took Mama hours to prepare, and I bet she was sure glad when we all got old enough to help. I was the oldest so I usually got to do the bigger stuff. Then as they got older, my younger sisters were always scrambling to get to do the “more important” chores, like peeling the potatoes and setting the table. I bet Mama got a good kick out of that.
Ellie, who was only a year younger than me, would every day jump up and down to get her chance to knead her busy little fingers in the bread dough. The twins, Jackie and Carrie, were usually busy fetchin’ things from the gardens… well, at least Carrie was fetchin’. Jackie was usually hiding in the apple orchard, having herself a little pre-dinner snack.
The littlest, Lottie, she always wanted to help, but seein’s how she couldn’t reach the countertops and would always just end up underfoot, would usually be sent to wipe the tables or dust, or even run her toy vacuum cleaner. Mama wanted to make sure she felt just as useful as the rest of us.
Sometimes it seemed we’d really be cutting it close, but it always ended up ready by the time Papa came home from work. (He was an architect, busy designing big houses like the one we lived in.) We’d have the table neatly set, Mama’s lovely china steaming with good things to eat, and he got home, washed up, and our whole big family would sit down together to eat.
Papa would say the blessing, and sometimes he’d come around and whisper a special blessing over each of us. We all went by our nicknames, especially in these blessings, cause Papa said he was sure the good Lord would know us as friends. Mama loved our names, and she would always sing our names into her favorite songs, which was easy, cause they all rhymed. Maddie, Ellie, Jackie, Carrie, and Lottie, little Lottie, little Lottie… Maddie’s me, by the way. We all had brown hair and freckles, and I often wondered how Mama even could tell some of us apart –especially Carrie and Jackie, who looked exactly alike.
So anyhow, after supper, if it was a nice night, we’d all go out on our big front porch and Papa would play his fiddle and Mama would sing all her old hymns, or sometimes something a little more lively. We sisters would just sit there on the scratchy wooden floor and watch our parents play and sing, and sometimes if we knew the words, we’d sing along.
A lot of times our neighbors just down the road would hop in their old red pickup truck and come over and join us on the porch. Mr. Ames played the banjo and Mrs. Ames was teaching herself guitar, so we’d just have ourselves a regular old concert. And their daughter Libby might as well have been our sixth sister. And her name even rhymed.
You know how people always say something felt just like yesterday that….? That’s what those times always feel like. Those were the days that everything seemed to just stand still. The sun came up, the sun went down, but we didn’t change. Maybe we grew a little taller, or our freckles stood out a little brighter in the summer, but it seemed every day was the same. We had a beautiful house, a huge backyard, two adoring parents, everything we’d ever wanted. The days rolled on in childhood bliss.
But before I go on, I’ve got to explain something, because it sure sounds like we lived on an old country farm. We didn’t. We lived in the suburbs, the upscale, densely populated suburbs just outside of Indianapolis. Sure, our house was an old colonial style with a big front porch and a sprawling backyard, but we were definitely in the heart of the suburbs. When we were little it seemed like we were in a farm a million miles from nowhere, but when you start to grow up and look around, there was no denying it. Not when you live in Lakeview Prairie and there’s neither a lake nor a prairie in sight, just a bunch of houses in a row that look pretty similar to your own.
But ours kind of stood out. To look at it from the street you’d see big trellises lining the sidewalk up to our door, completely covered with hollyhock and honeysuckle, and extensive beds of marigold and verbena. The driveway was lined with berry bushes – raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and currants. Even around the mailbox was a small rock garden with thyme creeping across it. Most of our neighbors just planted bushes, kept perfectly trimmed, and dotted them with impatiens. It didn’t take more than a couple school bus rides through the neighborhood to realize we were a bit different.
Our backyard was even prettier, but nobody could see it. A six foot privacy fence saw to that. We girls always loved to go play out there on our swing set, and help Mama in her garden. We had a screened porch just off the big deck with a swing and a grill, just like most other houses. But when you went down the steps it was a whole different world. Mama had her little box herb gardens right next to the porch, full of rosemary, basil, sage, thyme, lemon balm, mint, pennyroyal, and tansy. Walk through the herb boxes and you’d head straight for her main garden, or her “salad garden” as she called it - full of lettuce, snap peas, cucumbers, peppers, turnips, onions and tomatoes. Just off to the left was what she called her “three sisters garden” – corn, beans, and squash, just like the Indians used to plant it, she told us. Keep walking that way and you’d run into her little pumpkin patch, complete with gourds, but those were always planted a little later than everything else. Keep going and you’d run into the tall wooden fence (wouldn’t recommend it), but if you then turned left you’d get to our swing set. On the other side of that was our little apple orchard – from which you could always find at least one of us stealing when Mama and Papa were looking the other way. We even had a couple little walnut trees, from which we’d collect nuts in the fall, if the squirrels didn’t get to them first. It was the best backyard for playing hide-and-go-seek, and most of the time we could be found out there playing some sort of game, which of course always included our two dogs… and they usually found us before we could find each other.
We never had too many people over, but when we did most folks gushed at the extensive gardens we kept, calling it a wonderland, exclaiming they’d never seen anything like it before in their life. Others called Mama old-fashioned, but she just brushed that off, and went about her business. The Ameses lived in a pretty similar way to us and up until I started kindergarten, I pretty much lived either at their house or ours. So based only on everyone else’s reactions to our home, I knew we were a little different from most, but it was something I never really gave much thought. But that was before I’d ever been to somebody else’s house.
That was the first time I really began to realize just how different we were from everybody else around us. When I went over to my friend Rachel’s house, that is. First thing I noticed was they had a TV in their house. We didn’t. I didn’t even know you could have one at home. I didn’t have much time to think about that though because her mother then took us to a huge place she called a “supermarket” to shop for supper. I’d never heard of a supermarket. Our food came from farms, the farmer’s market, or our backyard. I wondered where the supermarket food came from?
But then I got to thinking about something else much more interesting. Rachel had a grandma that lived with her. Her grandma was the mother of her mother. So then I started thinking about where people come from. (Don’t laugh – every child asks that question some time if they haven’t already heard it on the school bus.) But see, I’d never had a grandma or a grandpa. I didn’t know any family other than my mama, my papa, and my sisters. So even the word “grandma” was new to me when I learned it at Rachel’s house. (When they found that out, they changed the subject fast.) So I went straight to Papa, the answerer of all questions.
I picked a time when Mama was really busy knitting on a Saturday morning to go track down Papa. I found him outside weeding his flower beds. My sisters were inside so I had him all to myself. I approached with caution.
He yanked a weed out of the dirt and sat back on his knees. “Well, hello there, Maddie. Come to help out your old father?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, sure.” I plopped down on my knees and started pulling up a weed.
“Whoa, there. You need some gloves. Wait here.” I sat back on my hands and watch him walk over to the garage and come back with one of Mama’s old pairs of gloves. “Here y’are.”
“Thanks, Papa.” I pulled them over my hands and realized just how much bigger Mama’s hands were than mine. But they worked to keep them safe from the prickly weeds.
“This is the first time you’ve ever helped your dear old dad out in the flower bed,” Papa mused. “You help Mama in the garden all the time,” he said, jabbing me in the side with his elbow.
“That’s cause I get to eat what’s in the garden,” I giggled.
“We eat these, too,” said Papa, pulling out a dandelion. “Think I may have Mama make a dandelion salad for supper tonight. We’ve got enough here for a feast!”
All this time I was mulling over in my head how to best ask Papa about grandpas and grandmas. Then I had it.
“Papa, did you ever help your papa with the yard work?”
Papa was in the middle of pulling up a rather stubborn weed, and he just stopped mid-pull. I watched a worried look surface. It made me nervous.
“Didn’t you have a papa?”
He yanked the stubborn weed out with a very forceful pull, tossed it aside, then sat back on the sidewalk. Then he looked straight at me.
“What makes you ask that question, Maddie?”
I shrunk back. He didn’t ask it in a mean way, but that worried face made me not want to go on. But I asked, stumbling over my words as I went.
“Well, um, the other night I went over to Rachel’s house for supper. Her grandma lives with her family. They said she was Rachel’s mother’s mother. And, well, I guess I never even thought about how you and Mama must have parents, too. Then I thought about how I’d never seen them, or even heard you talk about them. I, um, I just wondered.”
Papa wiped the sweat off of his brow and peered at me from underneath his straw hat. I could tell he was trying to figure out what to tell me.
“Yes, sweetheart, I of course had a father, too. I don’t really remember him – he died when I was very young. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more.” He stood up then and extended his hand towards me. I took it and he pulled me up.
“Why don’t you take all of these dandelions in to your mama. You can wash them off for supper tonight. I’m going to mow the lawn.”
I glanced at the flower bed. There were still a lot of weeds left. But I knew enough not to press the issue. Papa obviously didn’t want to talk about his father. So I took the dandelions inside and washed them off, just like he’d asked me.
My sister Ellie was a year younger than me, and we were always together, in fact we were often mistaken for another set of twins. The real twins, Jackie and Carrie, were only four, so a lot of times Ellie and I would sneak away so we could play on our own.
After I washed off the dandelions and set them in a bowl in the refrigerator, I grabbed Ellie’s hand and dragged her out to the swing set, our big old Collie right on our heels. Mama was still at her knitting and the twins were playing at her feet with the baby. They barely noticed us.
“Something funny is going on,” was the first thing out of my mouth. Ellie hopped on one of the swings and gave me a funny look. (I was getting used to these funny looks by now.)
“You mean, like a mystery?” she asked. My eyes grew wide at this realization, and I nodded. Papa was always telling us mystery stories, and Mama always read us the Boxcar Children books. All of a sudden I got this big idea about turning into the kids from the books. We’d be detectives.
I got so caught up in this little idea that for a few moments I completely forgot to fill in Ellie. Before long she was waving her hand in my face. “What’s so funny that’s going on?”
“Aah!” I snapped back to reality, and hopped on a swing myself. “Well, it all began with….” And I related my story about grandmas and grandpas and Papa and his papa and ended with, “so we gotta figure out what they’re hiding.”
“But Papa said his papa died when he was really little. Maybe he just doesn’t want to talk about it.”
I stared at my shoes sailing over our big house as I swung up and up. Maybe Ellie was right. I didn’t know. I decided I’d give it a while and ask Mama about her parents later if Papa didn’t want to tell me about his.
Up until then, I looked at my parents as people who could do no wrong, and as people who knew absolutely everything. They’d always been good at telling us stories and reading us books and helping us with homework, but after that I felt like I couldn’t ask them any questions without them getting worried or upset. So after a while, I just stopped.