Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
I vaguely remember a story my mother tells once in a while. I can only describe it as dark irony, somewhat like the period of enlightenment a child receives when he first sees Mickey Mouse removing his plush head only to reveal a woman inside.
It was a hot summer day in Hayward, California, where my grandmother and her siblings grew up on a small farm. In the 1920s, children did not have computers or video games to play with, television wasn't invented yet, and a family had to be pretty well-off to own a radio. Unbeknownst to these luxuries, children played outside all of the time, without a worry from their parents because it was safe. After spending all morning feeding the chickens and milking the cows, my grandmother's sister decided to go and play near the old woodpile. A curious girl Francis was, always fascinated by the lizards and bugs living in this sanctuary of wood by the fence. While she was seizing and capturing her pets, a black sedan pulled alongside the gate to the dirt road. "Ow!" Francis screamed as one of her captors bit her and scurried deep into the woodpile. A man in his church clothes popped his head out the car window and beckoned Francis over.
"Hey little girl, do you know where Ted Jones lives?" asked the man wearing a new derby.
"Sure," she says, pointing up the dirt road, "you go down that way for a while and when you see a bunch of cherry trees, you go to that house."
"Thank you little girl," the man grumbled as his driver slowly started up the road. Francis went back to her safari and caught a prize blue-bellied lizard. She took it back to the house and put in a jar. She then added this exhibit to her jam jar and milk bottle zoo residing on the front porch.
The mouth-watering scent of beef stew penetrated the walls of the small house, filling the nose of the little zoo keeper. Francis knew it was almost suppertime. She could also smell the distinct scent of sweet, buttery cornbread. This wasn't just any ordinary cornbread; this was her mother Helen's blue-ribbon-for-three-years-in-a-row cornbread only to be complimented with a delicious stew. Anticipating this delectable feast, Francis stepped inside. "When is supper done, Mommy?" Francis whined for the tenth time since her mother put the cornbread in the oven.
"Just as soon as the Jones get here. They are just a little late. They will be here any minute. Go upstairs and wash up, and scrub those filthy hands!" Helen set the table in a way that was fit for royalty and put Molly (my grandmother) in her highchair. In those days, families would have Sunday dinners together quite often, and I can see why. Due to the Great Depression, food was scarce and each family would bring a little of their own food, usually derived from their farms. Since this was beef stew and cornbread night, Anna was bringing over her famous cherry pie and Ted was bringing over the good whiskey for after desert. Usually they came on time, so they could shoot the breeze before dinner. Today they were late, very late. My great grandparents waited and stirred around, but the Jones didn't show and forty minutes had already passed. The cornbread was getting dry, and the stew too thick from being overcooked. "I wonder where they are?" Helen seemed to ask the window as she peered out the curtains.
"They have friends visiting, Mommy," Francis reported as she grabbed a cracker like a slight-of-hand artist.
"What do you mean?" her mother asked. Francis went on and told her mother how the men were trying to find Ted Jones earlier that day, and how polite she was, like her mother told her to be. She then started talking about her new pet, Petey, and how she found him. "What!?" Helen shouted interrupting Francis's tale from the woodpile. "Those people have the gall to visit with friends and not even tell us they ain't gonna make it. Those Jones's always thinking they're too good for. . . ."
My great grandfather, Henry, then interrupted tersely, "I am goin' over there and givin' them a piece of my mind!" If he really was upset at them or just going over to humor his wife, no one will ever know. Mumbling something like "I'll teach 'em to ruin our dinner," he marched out the front door.
Twenty minutes later, Henry opened the door and stood in the doorway. He was just standing there with a million-mile stare and a face whiter than any ghost. Helen served him his plate at the table, not even noticing he was still in the doorway. "Well, did you tell them off good?" she asked in a snooty voice.
"Helen," he stuttered out, "they're dead."
Evidently the Jones' visitors were members of the Gambonucci family, and Francis had politely given them directions to their house. I guess Ted just couldn't come up with the money for the good whiskey. The beautiful pie was on the windowsill when my grandfather went over, still warm to the touch, unlike the Joneses. I assume that occurrences like this birthed the saying "never talk to strangers." Being polite and on your best behavior doesn't always yield the best results. Francis was just trying to be a sweet, courteous girl.