Story Portrait

Leftover snow from winter lined fences and ditches that Sunday afternoon. During the previous week, fickle spring weather see-sawed back and forth between snow and rain. Today, Dame March was treating Wisconsin to warm sunshine and gentle breezes. Sighing contentedly, I signaled to turn at the next cross road. I’d decided to drop in on my sister and her husband for a short afternoon visit.

Better than a doorbell, Susie the one-year-old black pug announced my arrival before I even reached their door. Agnes cheerfully greeted me and said, “I was just making blueberry pancakes for Jim. Would you like a cup of tea?” I nodded with a smile and sat down at the table.

Placing a steaming cup in front of me, Agnes asked, “Would you like pancakes, too?” The pancakes she’d made were beautiful; filled with plump, fresh berries.

Breathing in the aroma of black tea, I answered with contented satisfaction, “No thanks. The tea is all I want.” Jim sat down across the table from me and buttered the pancakes on his plate.

I said, “The pancakes look so nice and fluffy.”

Agnes said, “I just followed the recipe in my Junior Woodchuck Guide.” I laughed. When I was little, Daddy bought Dell Comic books every week and my family lived vicariously through Donald Duck and his three nephews. Instead of Cub Scouts, the ducklings belonged to a Junior Woodchuck troop which appeared equal to the US Navy Seals. Members of the troop used an official 32 page JW guide book, which in amazing detail contained the entire wealth of information known to this world. From experience, I knew that my sister’s Junior Woodchuck Guide was her Betty Crocker cookbook received as a wedding gift more than fifty years before.

My sister and I began to talk about the food Mom used to make. We discovered that she cooked differently for Casper, Agnes, Rosie and Billy, than she did for Mary, Betty and me. Our conversation moved on to how Agnes missed seeing us younger children growing up because she left for college when I was five.

I said, “So many people think being the middle child is horrible, but Billy (the middle child in our family) got to know and play with not only you three older kids, but with us younger three.” Agnes nodded in agreement.

“There are some unexpected perks to being the youngest of the family though.” I added. “I heard Mom repeat family memories so often, that I have a story portrait of my siblings.”

Looking intrigued, Agnes asked, “You have a story for each one of us?”

I chuckled and said, “Let’s see what I can all pull up. First there was Casper. Mom said one day he fished in the pond and caught a few minnows. He was so proud of them that she had to clean them, roll them in flour and, using a syrup pail lid for a pan, fried them in lots of butter.”

Agnes smiled and said, “They tasted so good!”

Nodding at my sister I said, “You came next. Mom said one Christmas Eve when you were small, you crawled out of bed and walked into the living room and said, “I hope Santa gives me a doll wearing a nighty just like mine.” She said you were wearing a flannel gown that she’d sewn. Mom stayed up all night making a doll’s night gown from scraps of leftover material.”

Agnes said, “Mom made new flannel gowns for us every winter. What do you have for Rosie?”

“Mom said that when she wanted Rosie to stop sucking her thumb, she told Rosie she could only suck it at night. One evening Mom came into the living room and Rosie was standing by the window looking out. She turned to Mom and very plaintively asked, ‘Is it dark enough out yet (to suck my thumb)?’”

Agnes laughed, “Rosie didn’t suck her thumb, she sucked her two middle fingers! What do you have for Billy?”

“Billy was about three when Mary was born. One evening toward the end of that pregnancy Mom was sitting in the living room when Billy came up to her and sadly inquired, “Do you have room on your lap for me?”

Looking thoughtful, my sister mused, “I would have been six, then.”

I said, “Mary is next. She was very young when World War II ended. I wonder if she overheard people talking about airplanes that bombed cities? Mom said that one day Mary was outside when an airplane flew over. She ran to the house screaming, ‘A pain in the pie! A pain in the pie!’”

“Back then it was unusual to see airplanes!” Agnes explained. “When one flew over, we all filed out of the house to look at it! What do you have for Betty?”

“The memory I have for Betty is one of my own. She was a very good artist. One day when I was about nine, she drew a cartoon of a good-looking man singing on a stage. His hips were swinging. Girls in the audience were so excited that they were throwing up, squirting tears and melting into puddles. That was my introduction to Elvis Presley.”

Agnes asked, “What memory would Mom have for you?”

Stumped, I looked at my sister for a moment before answering, “I’m not sure. The only thing that comes to mind is how she once told me that when she was 45 years old she wanted one last baby. She’d had a several miscarriages between me and Betty. The doctor told her she’d never achieve another full-term pregnancy. She prayed. He turned out to be wrong. So, here I am!”

Pouring more tea, Agnes said, “You were meant to be in our family portrait.”

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