Dolls, and doll clothing pulled from the darkest corners of the closet covered the varnished hardwood bedroom floor. My sisters, Mary and Betty, sat in a circle among the fascinating litter with two cousins. One of my cousins had something I wanted…a small purse with a comb, handkerchief, and mirror in it.
Being six or seven years younger than the other four, I buzzed around them like an annoying fly, refusing to land on the wall to watch quietly. Touching this and that, asking questions, and begging to hold the wonderful purse made them tell me more than once to leave things alone.
How could I sit down and be quiet? Their conversation and the games they played were so interesting! Dolls I hadn’t seen for a long time made an appearance for these cousins who seldom visited. They had the dolls talking like big kids…about school and what they were wearing and who they liked as friends. This wasn’t the babyish sort of things I usually made MY dolls say. Under their skillful hands each doll had received a new hair-do and a fresh change of clothing.
About the time the sun started to peek into the west windows, and the shadows out in the yard became long, my mother called us down from the upstairs bedroom. She said our cousins would soon be leaving and that, “If you girls are hungry…I’ll make some toast for a snack before you leave.” At her mention of food, we all became aware of a pitiful emptiness in our stomachs, and begged her make lots of toast.
In the living room while waiting for our snack to be ready, one of my sisters pushed me away from the davenport. She wanted me to sit in the chair across the room. I stamped my foot and loudly announced, “I wanna sit on the damport!” All four older girls began to laugh.
“What did she say?” one of my cousins questioned, doubting her ears.
“That’s the way she says davenport!” my older sister explained. “You should hear some of her other words!” Turning to me she said, “Kathy, say hamburger!”
Like a trained seal ready to do tricks, I sat up as tall as I could and proudly pronounced, “Ham-ber-ger-ger!” The older girls laughed harder than before.
My sister said, “Now say aluminum foil.”
I leaned forward and dutifully responded, “alumin-nim-nim…” My fractured English had the girls howling with laughter when Mom came to say our snack was ready.
Shortly after I started second grade that fall, I became fully aware of how my babyish mispronunciations were more embarrassing than funny. To make matters worse, there was something else wrong with the way I spoke. Words like, “Sister Susie”, seemed to splatter under my thick tongue. The clear, whistling hiss that seemed to be expected, totally escaped me. Sister said I had a lisp.
One day as my classmates and I were filing out of the room for the last recess of the day, our teacher, Sister Mary Michaeleen stopped me. Apprehensively, I tilted my head back and looked up into the wrinkled face of the tall, black-robed, imposing nun. She said, “Kathy…I want you to go up to Sister Florence’s room and ask her to give you a brown envelope for me to use.”
My heart did a double flip-belly flop. “Envelope” just happened to be one of those words I didn’t…couldn’t pronounce correctly! Sister Florence’s third grade classroom was on the second floor next to the library, but instead of turning to go up the steps to find her, I ran out of the building to the playground. Perhaps if I practiced saying envelope, it would eventually come out right, and I’d be able to face the stern-faced, ancient Sister Florence.
To not do what Sister Michaeleen requested of me was unthinkable. I paced the perimeter of our blacktopped playground muttering under my breath, “Embalope, emlope, velope, embavelope!” None of these sounded right. The palms of my hands were hot and sweaty inside my clenched fists, tears burned behind my eyes. Colored leaves fluttered past my shoulders to the ground unnoticed. Why had Sister asked me to do this? Of all the other children, why me? Was this her way of making fun of me?
Recess ended before I could figure out the proper pronunciation of envelope. I slunk back to my classroom wishing I could be invisible. Sister Mary Michaeleen never asked me where her envelope was. In fact, for the rest of that afternoon she acted as though I wasn’t there.
To this day, little things can make me suddenly remember my uncompleted second grade assignment. For example…a beauty contest on television. As the Master of Ceremonies announces, “The winner is, the envelope…please!” I cringe, marveling at how that wonderfully-awful word rolled so perfectly off his tongue and wonder, “Why wasn’t I able to do that in second grade?”