I looked up from my paper. Without making a sound, our teacher, Sister Mary Florence was walking slowly up one row and down the next. All 48 children sat still at their desks, silent as mice when the cat is about. Outside, the wind moaned subdued complaints as it swirled through the playground. The bank of windows which ran the length of our fourth grade classroom creaked as the wind push against them. The radiators below, whispered, ‘click, click, click’ as warm water from the school’s boiler room flowed through the pipes.
I startled when Sister Florence suddenly said, “The next word I want you to spell is camera.” Pressing hard with my lead pencil, I slowly wrote, c-a-m-e-r-a. At least it was a word without silent letters!
As if reading my mind, Sister Florence’s next word had a silent letter. “Spell answer.” I pressed down and wrote a-n-s and stopped. What came next? I remembered that it was something ridiculous. Was the mysterious letter, x? That didn’t seem right. Maybe it was w. I put that down and then stopped again. Did this word end with i-r, or did it end with e-r?
Before I was finished making my decision, Sister said, “Spell the word sneeze.” As if on cue, two of the naughty boys in the class promptly made sneezing sounds. Sister Florence instantly pinned them to their desks with a stink-eye-glare. With reddened faces, they lowered their heads to write the word down.
After I was home from school that afternoon, I got my bike from the garage and peddled up the road to visit my neighborhood cousins. One of the girls in that family was my age, while another was one year older and yet another, a year younger.
I leaned my bike against their well mound and heard a cow moo from the barn in concert with the jugging sound of a motor. Knowing that a similar sound at home meant Daddy was in the barn milking the cows, I knew their father and brothers were doing the some thing.
A fat, dirty white dog came running from the barn to greet me. I patted his shaggy fur saying, “Hi there, Spitzie!” Dancing in a circle around me, I could see the dog’s pink tongue in his open, laughing mouth. His dark eyes were alert and his black nose ready to sniff out a treat.
Barb, Donna and Alice came out of the house. We sat down on the cement steps at the back door to visit. Alice was squirming with excitement. She said, “Guess what! Janey’s boyfriend asked her to marry him!” Janey was the oldest child of their family.
Excited as they were at the prospect of a family wedding, I asked, “When will it be?” Two of my own sisters were married, one when I was eight and the other when I was nine. Their wedding days were fun, but very dissimilar.
Donna said, “We don’t know yet.”
Barb added, “Ray only just proposed when they were out yesterday.”
My married sisters no longer went by my family name of Altmann. As women often do, each took their husband’s last name. I asked, “What’s Ray’s last name?”
They said a name. I frowned because it sounded like it had at least fifteen letters in it and ended with a ski. How many silent letters were among the lot? Feeling horrified, I blurted, “Does Janey know how to spell his name?” Then, in a panic, I added, “What if I get married some day to someone with a long, impossible-to-spell name? With a name like the one you just said, I’d have to go to school just to figure out how to properly pronounce it!”
The three girls sitting on the farmhouse stoop with me stopped chattering and turned to stare at me. After a brief moment of silence, we all began to laugh. The crazy, long, hard to spell and pronounce name wasn’t our problem; it was their big sister Janey’s problem. Giggling, Donna said, “It’s a good thing Sister Florence won’t ever give us that name in spelling class!”