Monthly Archives: November 2015

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 8

“It wasn’t only the shoes that made me feel so ugly and inferior to my classmates.  Unfortunately, Donna Bates had a precocious sense of style in clothing, cultivated, no doubt, by a mother who dressed her in lace and crinolines every day in first grade and later, as we advanced together through eight more grades, kept her in the most ostentatiously stylish shoes, dresses, hairstyles, and lunch boxes of any child in school.

I remembered standing in the fourth grade lunch line one day.  I proudly showed my girlfriend Shirley the red rickrack my mother had sewn on the hem of the matching top and skirt she had made for me.  I heard loud laughter, whispering, then even louder laughter as Donna pointed at the hem of her own skirt, batted her eyes, and curtsied.  I didn’t need to hear the words.  I got the message.

I remembered feeling even more inferior in sixth grade when I learned that rich kids not only had better clothes but they also got more attention from teachers and other important adults.  The nucleus of the in-crowd, in which Barbara and Betty were key members, was forming that year.  I watched all year long, from my assigned seat at the back of the classroom, as they chatted with Mrs. Scalding, from their assigned seats up front next to her desk.

The three of them talked before class began each day and in other odd moments like waiting for everyone to take their seats after lunch. I heard them talk about riding horses at Mrs.Scalding’s house and her son swimming in Barbara’s pool, which was still, in those days, a rarity.

When Betty’s mother brought cookies and punch for the Halloween party, she talked to Barbara and Nathan and George, two other members of the sixth grade in-crowd.  She refilled their paper cups and piled more jack-o-lantern cookies on their napkins when only crumbs remained.  In the back of the room, Shirley and I received one smile even we could tell was phoney and the required three-quarters of a cup of drink and two cookies.  I was still hungry, but too intimated to ask for more. Betty’s mother had the highest high heels and more jewelry on her person than anyone I had ever seen.

Then came junior high and high school.  Ah, the pain that was high school!  That, I decided, was where the real damage began.  I was old enough by then to discern the true differences between my home-made dresses and my family’s old sedan and uncarpeted floors and the Villager skirts and sweaters, shiny new station wagons, and two-story houses the parents of the in-crowd kids had.

“Why,” I asked myself again, “Why did it hurt so much?”

I recalled having everything I had needed as a child and teen, and quite a bit more. Both my parents had worked hard to buy our three bedroom house in a new subdivision.  Buying clothes, shoes, and food for three very active and fast-growing children could not have been cheap, but they managed  quite well.  So, we hadn’t really been poor.

“Why had I felt so poor then?”

I stared at the wall a long time before the answer to that question came into consciousness.

“It was jealousy that hurt, pure, simple jealousy, not the actual facts.  My family had just been working class, and I had not been happy with that.  I had wanted what I saw children of wealthier parents had.”

I shifted my position on the love seat, away from the sagging side.  It was uncomfortable to admit I had been jealous.

“And for what?” I asked myself harshly.  Hadn’t I found out years later that the plumber and hardware store owner my parents knew had gone out of business because some people in our small town had stayed delinquent on their bills for so long.  And hadn’t I overhead them say three of the largest bills had been run up by the in-crowd’s parents who drove the new cars, built the biggest houses, and regularly gave parties that were written up in our weekly newspaper’s society section?

My parents had been working class all right, but they paid their bills.  Furthermore, their hard work and careful budgeting had elevated their standard of living considerably compared with that of their own parents, just like the Ingalls’ family.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 7

“Why had feeling poor hurt so much when I was a child?”

Part of it was those ugly saddle oxfords and homemade clothes.  Details flooded back, far too many details, details that would have been better forgotten but which were instead so deeply embedded in mind and feelings that they played automatically, a continuous loop of hurt, disappointment, and embarrassment.

“The first memory I have of feeling poor was  having to wear those ugly shoes.”  That memory felt like a fresh bee sting.  Growth spurts had begun in fourth grade.  The only girls shoes in my size that stood up to my tomboy habits were thick-soled saddle oxfords.  Other girls my age wore trim little Mary Janes or skimmers that at least partially retained a new appearance.  The white surface of my saddle oxfords, however, gleamed in glaring white uniformity for half the first day of wear.  Thereafter the scuffed inner edges of the heels and scraped outer edges of the toes bore evidence of my high impact contact with desk legs, graveled roads, and bicycle pedals.

With time, the broad expanse of the toe box acquired two sets of wrinkles running from side to side.  Those dirty brown parallel lines remained, no matter how many coast of liquid Kiwi polish I inexpertly applied.  The black saddle of the shoe had more luck at retaining its original condition although it, too, assumed a pathetic appearance as progressive layers of the liquid white shoe polish left smudges at the edges.

Looking down at those big ugly shoes, being the tallest person in class, not just the tallest girl, and wearing homemade clothes had hurt. I remember looking at my shoes, kicking through leaves while walking to school and thinking, “It’s because we’re poor, it’s because we’re poor. . . ”

I thought about Sharon. Her clothes were purchased with birthday money or when relatives helped out with a shopping trip.

“Could she be feeling the same way I did?  No, not yet,” I decided.

I knew what was going on in Sharon’s heart.  We had a daily habit of sitting together on the couch reading, and before I opened the Dr. Seuss book for the week, I tapped her chest lightly and said, “Tell me what’s on your heart, sweetie.  How was your day?”

Sharon and I were close, but I would have to renew my vigilance.  She was growing and her feelings would be changing as her awareness expanded.  I straightened the papers in my clip board and returned to analyzing why feeling poor had hurt so much in my own childhood

Update on posts from Unjealous Heart

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Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 6

Sharon and I had read most of the Little House series, and I had watched most of the television series when Sharon was little.  In those stories, Ma and Pa Ingalls and their three daughters showed incredible courage, self-sacrifice, and devotion to one another as they faced the hardships of life on the midwest prairie. The hardships included strenuous daily labor, cramped and uncomfortable living quarters, extreme cold in winter and extreme heat in summer, the ever-present danger of hunger if the crops failed, and not one item more than necessary of food, clothing, and furniture.

I remember countless scenes from the television scenes as well as the more vivid ones constructed in my imagination as I had read the series of books.  My favorite was of the two older girls sharing a bed up in the attic.  Like the small bedroom Sharon and I shared, that tiny attic room had also been illuminated indirectly, although by the moon rather than a streetlight.  Its occupants, too, had laid their heads down to sleep within inches of each other.  The dim light outlined the soft, childish contours of each face so resembled Sharon’s face, relaxed in sleep.

Another regularly recurring scene from the Little House stories was the family supper, with Laura setting out one bowl, one spoon, and one cup at each place.  Over by the potbelly stove, Pa patty-caked with baby sister on his knee, while  Ma brushed her hair from her face and wiped her hands on her apron of coarse brown cloth.  The flickering light of the oil lamp in the center of the table provided the only light for the whole house, which was indeed a little house.

The weak light illuminated only the strongest features of each face at the table:  older sister Mary’s rounded forehead and wide-set, serious eyes; Ma’s compressed lips as she tried to persuade baby sister to open her even more tightly compressed lips for a spoonful of stew; Pa’s wide smile and spontaneous laugh; and Laura’s freckles and braids as she gazed, with intense  admiration, at her beloved father.

The stores, told from Laura’s viewpoint, glowed with the love and pride she felt for her family, especially for her father.  The ostentatious display of the Olsons, the town snobs who owned the hardware store, aroused in Laura not envy but fierce pride in her parents’ hard work and ingenuity in providing for their family.

I flipped onto my back, stared up at the dark ceiling, and turned to look at Sharon’s face in the semidarkness.  I kept thinking about Laura.

“Her family had definitely been working class, but even being truly poor hadn’t hurt her.  So, why was I so worried about Sharon?”

The answer came almost immediately, with tears.

“Because being poor as a child was painful for me.”

I turned back the covers, fumbled for the old flannel shirt I used as a housecoat on winter nights, and felt my way to the front room.  I sat on the good end of the love seat, the one that didn’t sag so much, turned on the lamp, and picked up my slate board and pencil.

I unclipped and straightened the stack of notebook paper so the three holes lined up, then stared straight ahead for a moment while I blinked away the tears.  By the time the tears were dry, questions and answers began coming so fast I could scarcely keep up.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 5

Sharon and I had read most of the Little House series, and I had watched most of the television series when Sharon was little.  In those stories, Ma and Pa Ingalls and their three daughters showed incredible courage, self-sacrifice, and devotion to one another as they faced the hardships of life on the midwest prairie. The hardships included strenuous daily labor, cramped and uncomfortable living quarters, extreme cold in winter and extreme heat in summer, the ever-present danger of hunger if the crops failed, and not one item more than necessary of food, clothing, and furniture.

I remembered countless scenes from the television scenes as well as the more vivid ones constructed in my imagination as I had read the series of books.  My favorite was of the two older girls sharing a bed up in the attic.  Like the small bedroom Sharon and I shared, that tiny attic room had also been illuminated indirectly, although by the moon rather than a streetlight.  Its occupants, too, had laid their heads down to sleep within inches of each other.  The dim light outlined the soft, childish contours of each face .

Another regularly recurring scene from the Little House stories was the family supper, with Laura setting out one bowl, one spoon, and one cup at each place.  Over by the potbelly stove, Pa patty-caked with baby sister on his knee, and Ma brushed her hair from her face and wiped her hands on her apron of coarse brown cloth.  The flickering light of the oil lamp in the center of the table provided the only light for the whole house, which was indeed little.  The weak light illuminated only the strongest features of each face at the table:  older sister Mary’s rounded forehead and wide-set, serious eyes; Ma’s compressed lips as she tried to persuade baby sister to open her even more tightly compressed lips for a spoonful of stew; Pa’s wide smile and spontaneous laugh; and Laura’s freckles and braids as she gazed, with intense  admiration, at her beloved father.

The stores, told from Laura’s viewpoint, glowed with the love and pride she felt for her family, especially for her father.  The ostentatious display of the Olsons, the town snobs who owned the hardware store, aroused in Laura not envy but fierce pride in her parents’ hard work and ingenuity in providing for their family.

I flipped onto my back, stared up at the dark ceiling, and turned to look at Sharon’s face in the semidarkness.  I kept thinking about Laura.

“Her family had definitely been working class, but even being truly poor hadn’t hurt her.  So, why was I so worried about Sharon?”

The answer came almost immediately, with tears.

“Because being poor as a child was painful for me.”

I turned back the covers, fumbled for the old flannel shirt I used as a housecoat on winter nights, and felt my way to the front room.  I sat on the good end of the love seat, the one that didn’t sag so much, turned on the lamp, and picked up my slate board and pencil.  I unclipped and straightened the stack of notebook paper so the three holes lined up, then stared straight ahead for a moment while I blinked away the tears.  By the time the tears were dry, questions and answers began coming so fast I could scarcely keep up.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 4

Picking Sharon  up from school every afternoon was as much a pleasure for me as taking her to school in the mornings.  Our short ride home was filled with happy chatter, from both of us, as was our after school snack time.

She came home to our own little house and sat down at our own little table, with me, for milk and cookies, often home-made.  She no longer sat down to a small paper cup of overly sweet Kool-Aid and two cookies hardened to granite by preservatives.  She also received 100 percent of my attention and encouragement, not a harried smile and a pat on the head before she was dispatched, along with 20 others, to the daycare playground.

“Mommy, I got an A in spelling and I traded Garfield stickers for a Matchbox car.”

“Was it a model you don’t have?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  It’s a yellow Mustang, and it’s brand new!”

She was not rushed, assembly-line fashion, through her snack by a daycare worker with good intentions but a short temper and a view of children as accidents to be prevented or possible misbehaviors to be controlled.

Some days after our snack time, we went shopping or ran other errands but most afternoons, while Sharon was busy with homework or playing, I squeezed in a couple of hours of transcribing.  Her occasional need of my assistance with long division or world geography were welcome relief from the medical terms ringing in my ears.  When I stood up at six-thirty and rubbed my aching back, I felt like Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie when he quit plowing for the day and put the team in the barn.

Our evenings together passed pretty much as our mornings and afternoons:  in close physical and emotional proximity.  We fixed and ate supper, then watched television or played a board game or two or read together.  Then it was bath and bedtime for Sharon and one or two more hours of typing for me.  Finally, it was my bedtime, too.

Tonight, I checked the door, turned out the lights in the front room and slowly opened the door to the bedroom.  The drapes filtered the street light just outside our window.  Fortunately, the angle was such that the panel of light it provided fell only partway up the bed.  At the head of the bed, out of reach of the filtered illumination of the streetlight, Sharon’s head on the pillow was only a shadowed, indeterminate shape.

I saw one bare foot sticking out of the blanket.  She had taken her socks off again. I gently pulled the rebellious foot inside the covers and slid in close to her.  It was a bit cold.   In the diffused light, I could see her face clearly, just a few inches from mine.

“Just like Laura and her sister Mary in the Little House stories,” I thought.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2 Post 3

I stared, imperceptibly at her, out of the corner of my eye.  Having the time to watch her slow ascent to alertness brought back other early morning hours we had spent together in a darkened house.  In her first three years, before the divorce, her Dad had been asleep in the next room.  There had been the sweet smell of baby powder, the incredible softness of the wispy curls at the nape of her neck, and the unaccountable secure feeling it gave me to snuggle her into the curve of my shoulder.  It still, paradoxically, made me feel good to take care of her.

If she was okay, then I was okay, too. That magic had happened since those predawn moments in the hospital when I had first held my baby girl in my arms.

Too soon, breakfast was over, and there remained only the flurry of getting her dressed and off to school before I’d be alone, with nine hours of transcribing.  It wasn’t much of a flurry, though, and none at all compared to what it would have been had the two of us simultaneously been getting ready for the day with one bathroom.   These past two months there had been time to nurture her budding sense of femininity by making a grand show of putting a worried, then questioning, then satisfied look on my face as I took time to consider the question, “Which socks look best with this skirt?”  with the same solemnity with which she had asked it.  There was also time to laugh together when I discovered, as we were leaving the apartment, that my T-shirt was on backwards.

Her school was less than a mile away, but I couldn’t bear to let her day begin with a sweaty walk in the humidity of our Florida mornings.  Neither could I pass up the chance to show her, by my actions, that caring for her was more important than anything else.

Somewhere in my ever-growing stack of parenting books I had read that if a child has at least one adult who cares very deeply about him or her and shows it consistently through what they do for that child, then that caring would compensate for many other problems the child might face.  Watching Sharon get out of the car, happy, well-fed, and fresh-feeling and walk toward her friends, with a smile, gave me a palpable pleasure.  The radiance of that pleasure illuminated the hours of typing that stretched before me

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 2

All that and more flooded warmly over me as I slid out of bed, slowly, so as not to wake Sharon, and shut the door behind myself. The two long fluorescent lights in the kitchen hummed a few seconds before they flickered, then fluttered to full illumination. I smiled as I filled the dented yellow tea kettle.

Now I’m the provider, rising every morning while it’s still dark.”

After devotions, I started the oatmeal. In less than ten minutes, the card table was set with two big bowls of oatmeal and a small plate of buttered toast, sliced on the diagonal and stacked straight.

Just like in a restaurant,” I always told Sharon.

It took four kisses on the top of her head and three long, slow rubs down her back before she could be persuaded to leave the soft warmth of the bed, but I didn’t worry. The oatmeal would be almost cool on top but warm in the middle, just the way she liked it, by the time we sat down at the table.

While I waited for her to go to the bathroom, I sat at my place, leaning on my elbow. The card table gave slightly and I sat up straight. I tugged at the brown and white gingham tablecloth until the checks were parallel with the table edges and adjusted the paper napkin folded into a triangle under Sharon’s spoon. Everything was as perfect as I could make it for her.

Breakfast was just as it had been for the past two months I’d been transcribing medical dictation at home. Sharon plodded into the kitchen, flopped into the chair, and scooted herself up to the table. The hollow legs of the metal folding chair, and the chair itself, magnified the reverberations of the scooting, with a grating, harumping echo. She leaned over to take a long swallow of milk, just enough so she could lift the glass without spilling. Then, as if the effort had exhausted all the energy stored up with nine hours of sound sleep, she rested her head on her hand.

Unjealous Heart, Chap 2, Post 1

Chapter Two –  Understanding

In the dark, Sharon and I could have been in an average-sized three bedroom house like the one I grew up in rather than the one bedroom apartment Sharon and I called home.

I lay still a moment in the thick silence and darkness, listening to Sharon’s slow, regular breathing five inches from my face, remembering how my father always rose at five and left the house at five-thirty for the rock mine.  When I was older and needed extra time to study, he woke me up, too.  On those cherished mornings,  I shuffled between sink and stove, making toast and the one cup of instant coffee I was allowed, while Daddy sat at the table, skimming headlines and perusing the sports page.

We turned on just the stove light on those mornings.   The bedrooms were at the other end of the hall, but the hall was short so the overhead light would have shone under closed doors and awakened my Mom and my two brothers.  Alone in the dimly-lit kitchen, it was like Daddy and I were spotlighted on a stage, the rest of the house hidden in the uniform anonymity of darkness, like a darkened theater, present but possessing no possibility of affecting the actors on the stage.

For those few minutes, I had Daddy all to myself, and we two, who were more alike than I would realize for many years, sat in a silence as companionable as it was absolute, the only sounds an occasional gentle snap as Daddy straightened the newspaper or a quiet slurp as I took a prolonged sip of my precious one cup of coffee.

All too soon on those mornings, he kissed my cheek then was at the door where he’d left his work boots, coated with lime rock, the night before.  Then he was gone, leaving me in the spotlighted kitchen, alone but feeling special and somehow right with the world, having already achieved an early start to my day, just like him.

Chapter One

Below is  Chapter One.  I will  add a post on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (and hopefully, even more often!)  Enjoy!  And remember:  I am a very ordinary person.  You can help your child learn to feel cherished and content, too!  It is not easy, but it can be done!

The Gift of an Unjealous Heart

by

Freda Farmer

Copyright 2001

 

“My Mom found it at Goodwill.  Then we bought these streamers.  You can ride it, if you want to.”

As my daughter ended her sentence, her voice went up in childish innocence.  Sharon twisted the red and blue plastic strips that resembled pom-poms as she sat, left foot on the pedal, right foot on the ground.

“The bike is too short,” I thought.  “and so are her jeans.”

The heel of one white sock extended above the shoe, the ground-in black of barefoot playtimes now gray.  Two inches of bare leg showed above the sock.  She was in the driveway, talking with the ten-year-old neighbor of the Wexels.  We were house-sitting.

The two girls, the bike, and the mailbox by the road all spelled neighborhood.  The sky seemed bigger here than at our apartment, where multistory structures created an unnaturally close horizon.  Here, sky merged with earth a great, soothing distance away.  It was quieter, too.  Trees and open space muted the sounds of dogs barking and the occasional sputtering chug of a go-cart.

Sharon and I visited the Wexels often.  The friendship between our little family of two and their family of four gave her a yard and a neighborhood.  I was company for Dorothy during her husband’s business trips, and Sharon was a playmate for her girls.

I looked at my beloved ten-year-old astride her second-hand bike silhouetted against the neighbors’ two-story house.  Brenda turned and walked away without a word.

Sharon looked at me, eyebrows raised.

“Don’t worry, sweetie.”  I walked over and patted the wobbly back fender of the bike.

“She must not feel well.  Ride to the corner, and I’ll watch.”

“Okay, Mommy!  I’m steady now.”  Off she went, waving backwards.

Love for Sharon had blossomed the first time I traced her infant, rosebud mouth with my fingertip and saw myself reflected in her facial structure and length of limb.  As she wobbled to the corner on the scratched bike, the longing to protect her was fiercer than ever.  How long before she would recognize put-downs like that?

A breeze carried the scent of fresh-cut grass and stirred the strands of Spanish moss hanging from the gnarled old oak in the front yard.  Higher up in its branches, two squirrels chittered noisily before bursting into a fevered game of chase around the trunk’s thick circumference, their flying feet scrabbling across the  brittle gray of the corrugated surface for toeholds.

I leaned against our car as I watched her, feeling I should pat its hood for being the faithful beast of burden it had been for us.  With silent eloquence, it spoke of my struggle to provide for Sharon and myself since the divorce.  Its predecessor, a pale blue Maverick, had stranded us once too often, so with the $400 cash six months of typing at home at night had earned, the heady promise of continuing to be paid, per page, for all the medical dictation I could handle, and the self-serving generosity and mendacity of a new  car salesman, I’d incurred my first big debt in my own name.

“The peace of mind about being stuck somewhere dangerous and no repair bills are worth it,” I told myself.

Of course, I should have purchased a used car.  Of course, I should have read the document I signed to ensure the 12 percent interest the salesman quoted me was written in the appropriate blank instead of the 16 percent I discovered three months later.  Of course, I should have looked over the papers before I signed.  But, I had no one to advise me as I began learning how to take care of things like cars all by myself.  Like many newly divorced people, I had no time to make new friends.  Working eight hours at the office, taking care of Sharon and then typing at night used it all.   Adding to that particular problem was debilitating shyness.  So, my lack of financial savvy had deepened our financial strain.

We were lucky, though.  The car payments had been hard but not impossible to make.  For the first few years after the divorce, Sharon received child support payments and I regularly lugged that typewriter, transcribing machine, and medical dictionary home so I could type at nights and weekends, when Sharon was asleep and did not need my attention.  Had I known what lay ahead, I would have worked even more overtime, and somehow been even more frugal.  In a couple of years, the child support grew irregular, then stopped.  My supply of work, which regulated the size of my paycheck, followed a similar, though more prolonged, downward spiral.

The other parties to a fender-bender an a side collision had no insurance, so rather than increase my monthly insurance payments, I opted for the dented  door, crumpled rear quarter panel and crooked bumper.  After the accidents, the Mustang’s appearance was more appropriate for our circumstances.  It looked like it was barely getting by, too.

Now, as I looked at its faded surface, complete with rust spots on the accident sites as well as my clumsy attempts to apply primer, I smiled.  It had encountered few mechanical difficulties, in spite of its prematurely-aged appearance, and had only recently required the major repairs that foretold the victory of planned obsolescence over just plain luck.

I frowned as I kicked at the acorns dotting the driveway.  If our car told an accurate story of just getting by by doing without, so did certain aspects of my appearance.  There, in all their boney glory, were my ankles, visible, en toto, below the hem of my pants.  I hadn’t outgrown them, of course, like Sharon had outgrown hers.   But one pair of pants in a size fourteen tall equaled one week of groceries.  The choice was simple.  So was the choice to buy my clothes from a consignment shop and to do without a nice watch and expensive haircut, and etc. and etc..

As I watched Sharon and kicked more acorns, my mind compared and contrasted our life with that of the Wexels and the other families in Delwood Estates, as if I were composing an essay for my beloved seventh grade English teacher.  The homes in this neighborhood, many of which were two-story, were spacious, new houses on large lots.  Sharon and I  had a one bedroom apartment facing a parking lot on two sides and the back of another apartment building on the other two.  These residents here in the neighborhood  had upscale family sedans or vans; we had our faded silver Mustang.  Their children had fathers who came home every night; we had a father whose only influence after the divorce had ceased years ago when the infrequent child support checks stopped completely.  These children had vacations at theme parks and designer jeans; Sharon had stay-at-home vacations and clothes purchased whenever we received money for birthdays.

Sharon had reached the end of the street, and I held my breath as she traversed the cul-de-sac.  The sidewalks in our apartment  complex afforded no turning practice. From a block and a half way, I could se the smile on her face as she finished the semicircle with barely a wobble.  A look of concentration immediately replaced the smile but it reappeared as she drew near.  I walked towards her, clapping my hands.

“That was wonderful, baby!”  If we were in a bicycle class, I’d give you an A plus and a one hundred and a smiley face!”

“Oh, Mommy.”   Sharon tucked her chin in, lowered her eyes, and gave a tight-lipped little smile as she braked to a stop at the foot of the driveway.

I patted the back of her hand as she gripped the handle-bars.  It was still so much a young child’s hand.  Soft flesh concealed the exact location of all bones, save wrist and knuckles, and there remained a certain  charming hint of plumpness that would disappear only after years of use had thickened and elevated the underlying muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

“That’ll happen soon enough,” I thought to myself.  “all too soon.”  I resisted the impulse to lift her hand and kiss the back of it.  Instead, I reached out and twisted the streamers around my finger.

“These look really great when you ride, baby.  I think we had a good idea to buy these instead of the basket, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes, Mommy,” was her fervent reply.

“You did a good job making that turn way down there, too.  I was watching the whole time.  Go one more time then we need to go inside and eat.  It’s getting dark.”

Fifteen minutes later, Sharon played Pacman and Frogger while I fixed supper.  Shouts of “Oh, no!” mingled with the arcade-like tinkles, bells, and explosions and one pacman ate another and that poor frog lurp-lurped across the freeway.

Using grilled cheese sandwiches for walls, carrot sticks for a roof, and dill pickle strips for grass, I made two houses on our plates.  Carefully placed raisins became two eyes, a nose, and a mouth in two bowls of warmed, cinnamon applesauce.

I walked into the living room and knelt down by Sharon, watching a few moments until another frog ended his short career crossing the video screen freeway.

“Are you ready to eat, baby?”

“Oh, Mommy!  Can I finish this one game?  Puh-lease.”  Sharon’s eyes never left the screen as she crouched in that intense, forward-focused lean of the obsessed video gamer.

I decided the temperature of her food that might was less important than the  chance to catch up, a little, with the Wexel girls.  They had already grown bored with such games like Frogger and Pacman that came in the Atari package their parents had purchased long before joystick became a household word.

“It’s always the same with the Wexels,” I thought as I watched Sharon maneuver froggy successful across the road.

“They bought the first word processor, home computer, and automatic pool cleaner that were made. One more point of comparison and contrast for my essay.”

Splat!  Froggy’s luck ran out.  Sharon’s shoulders slumped as she frowned.

“Don’t be upset, baby.  You can play again just as soon as we eat.  Besides, you got over 500 points this time.”

“Yeah, but Carla and Karen always get at least 800.”

“Well, we have two more days, you know, before they come home.  I bet you can make it to 800 by then.  Come on, now, let’s eat and you can get back to practicing.  Being hungry probably interfered with your concentration.  You know you rode that bicycle a long time today.  I bet you’re starved.”

One supper, two hours, and 18 games of Froggy later, Sharon and I were finally in bed, reading a Beverly Cleary book.  She was our most recently discovered children’s author.

“Okay,sweetie.  Time to go to sleep.”

“Oh, Mommy!”

Sharon put her book down on her chest and turned to look at me.

“Remember when Henry forgot to take out the garbage for a week and he had to jump on the garbage can to pack it in and he fell on top of Ribsy and Ribsy howled so loud the neighbors complained and Henry’s dad got really mad?”

“Of course, I remember,” I replied.  “I read that one three weeks ago that time you couldn’t finish all the books we got from the downtown library.  But I still remember that.  Did you already reach the place where Ribsy goes fishing?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, then, I won’t tell you about it so I don’t spoil it.  You can read that tomorrow.  Right now, let’s both close our books.  I promise I won’t read any more tonight either.  Here, let me tuck you in.”

“Okay,” she said.  “But will you lay down with me?”

“Sure, baby.  Sleeping in a different bed in a different house feels strange, doesn’t it?”

Only ten minutes and two sleepy-voiced questions later, Sharon was snoring.  The exertion of her unusual swimming, biking, and running suddenly exacted their price on her energy level.

I slipped out of bed and walked to the kitchen.  Lolly, the Wexel’s pedigree beagle, followed me.  We went, parade fashion, down the long lushly carpeted hall, across the wide foyer with the 50 gallon saltwater aquarium, through the formal dining room, then the family room, and finally the kitchen.  Once in the kitchen, Lolly plopped her furry belly on the cool tiled floor at the edge of the bar and watched as I put water on to boil.

“Are you lonely, Lolly girl?”  I knelt down to pat her small, noble head.

Lolly looked at me with the trademark soulful eyes of her breed and wagged her tail.

“Your family will be back soon, girl.”  I tried to make my voice comforting.  Since the Wexels had left that morning, Lolly had shadowed me around the house, and not just to tell me she needed to go potty in the fenced-in back yard.

The tea kettle whistled.  I fixed my tea, opened the sliding glass door for Lolly’s last potty trip of the day. Then I sat down in the living room.  The overstuffed goose-down sofa conformed itself to my hips and back as I snuggled into its contours and looked around the living room.  I was amazed, as I always was during the Wexel’s home Bible study each Friday night, by the ambiance of affluence afforded by indirect lighting, rare ferns and ficus trees, cobalt blue carpet and sky blue walls, crystal chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors, and most of all, simply by the abundance of uncluttered space.

Startled, I looked up.  Lolly zipped by the sliding glass doors in hot pursuit, I surmised, of some squirrel sufficiently emboldened by previous success avoiding Lolly’s frenzied chases to set paw on the pool deck while she was outside.

The lights in the pool shimmered through the water, illuminating the sides and bottom of the pool, painted yet another hue of soft blue.  The extended pool deck, white resin inlaid with river rock, covered the entire back yard right up to the wood fence, except for the picnic table area under the oak tree and a small grassy run for Lolly on the far right. During the day, the oak provided shade for the palms growing in huge Grecianesque urns.  At night, the oak’s branches obscured most of the view of the night-time sky.  A handful of stars alternately twinkled then disappeared as a soft breeze shook the smallest branches and rippled the surface of the water in the pool.

I closed my eyes, then opened them, seeing not the tastefully appointed room or the spacious back yard but rather the look of innocence on Sharon’s face as she’d offered to share her second-hand bike with Deborah.  Deborah, like the Wexel girls, had the best three-speed bike, just their size, money could buy.

“Why did that hurt so much?”  I asked myself.

“Because,” I concluded after a moment’s reflection, “I understood the disdain in Brenda’s face and the stinging insult her silent walking away from Sharon implied.  I understood she thought Sharon’s bike and Sharon herself weren’t good enough for her to play with.”

I understood, and I knew Sharon would too, some day soon.  All too soon she would know the embarrassment I had felt as a child over things like durable saddle oxfords, fit for a clown in my size, and home-made clothes when other kids had store-bought.  Too soon she would perceive the differences between our car and those unmarred by unrepaired damage.  She would understand the wide gulf between being treated at a fast-food restaurant and regularly dining at the best steakhouse in Tampa Bay.  She, to, would surely come to despise the statement, “We can’t afford it” and the ubiquitous questions, “How much does it cost?”  She would know the same of pang of feeling less than and inferior to everyone else and of feeling rejected by friends.

Tears ran down my cheeks.

“I can’t stand for her to feel that way,”  I thought. “Everyone is not as wealthy as the Wexels and the rest of the families in this development but just about everybody is better off than we are or than we’re likely to be – ever!.

“I can’t get a better job, and I’m lucky already to be transcribing because it pays more than normal secretarial work.  There’s no way for me to go to school and even if I did, I’d have to neglect Sharon to attend night classes and study.  Child support payments have probably stopped forever and there’s no one else to help us.  I can barely afford a safe apartment and nutritious food for her.  She’ll never have expensive clothes or trips or music lessons and all the other advantages most children do, even if they’re not rich like the Wexels.”

I slid off the sofa and knelt on the floor next to it, frowning as two tears made tiny spots of dark on the blue and gold velour.  The faded pink cotton of my robe felt rough as I wiped my eyes on the sleeve.

“Dear Father,” I prayed with a quivering voice.  “Please help me take good care of Sharon, and please, please, show me how to protect her feelings.”

I blew my nose, let Lolly inside, checked all the doors, turned out the lights, and walked back down the hall.  I turned back the covers on my side of the king-size bed, and slowly wiggled my way over next to Sharon.  I patted the bump of blanket that covered a slender hip, took a deep breath, and smiled.  Her hair smelled of sunshine, with just a hint of chlorine.

“I’ll find a way,” I told myself.  “I just have to find a way.”