Kittie Howard

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kittie Receives an Invitation

I closely examined the black and white photograph in the Baton Rouge newspaper. Four women in white hats and gloves, each with a white purse hooked over the left wrist, stood behind a cloth-covered table.

A rose-filled vase centered the table. Positioned to the side was a large tray with a teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl. My grandmother had a similar arrangement, what she called 'a tea service', in the dining room. But my two-and-a half-year-old sister and I weren't allowed to touch the treasured wedding gift.

I sat mesmerized, staring at the pretty picture. The photograph's black and white contrasts wove a dreamy spell, an enchantment that ached to touch a pretty moment that was. The ladies wore fashionable shirt-waist dresses with full skirts and wide belts. A string of pearls at the neck and pearl earrings accessorized dresses with small, dainty prints.

The women had dark brown hair that hung spray-net smooth beneath elegant hats, then rolled into a semi-collar of perfect curls that framed glowing faces with dark eyes and arched eyebrows. The 1950s society-page mavens smiled white smiles through rouged lips. I knew they wore bright red lipstick. Like my mother wore. Even if my mother lived in the country, not far from Baton Rouge, but a world removed from the society page.

But women who lived in the country still looked at glossy magazines and dreamed, smoothed on the Ponds Cold Cream, and checked the mirror for that Ivory Soap complexion. Not exactly vanity. But 'pretty is as pretty does' prevailed.

And so did gossip. In a male-dominated era that chafed but didn't rile women, if a woman didn't look good, something had to be wrong. So, my mother, a transplanted New Orleans city girl, dressed to please herself, but with an eye to what others thought. Along the bayou, gossip reigned, as much a crop as sugarcane and cotton.

Mama knew rumors couldn't fly about a poor mental state, a catch-all for not liking boudain (blood pudding), Wilbur's Beauty Parlor or the bruised bananas at Mr. Luke's grocery store. So my mother baked banana bread, enjoyed pickled pigs' feet, avoided Wilbur's but announced (rather than said) she voted for Wilbur's cousin in the last parish (county) election.

Which he won. Not specifically because my mother voted for Baby Joe. But locals appreciated that my mother thought like an insider and understood that no one else knew what to do with Baby Joe either. At 46 years old, Baby Joe, son of Big Joe and Skinny Rose, hadn't done much except grow a few rows of garlic. So, turning Baby Joe into a politician became an investment. Folks knew he wasn't clever enough to steal big money, not like the real politicians.

As such, my mother relaxed into enjoying pretty: Feeling pretty, looking pretty, thinking pretty, admiring anything pretty. In the mornings, I'd watch her apply red lipstick, pinch her cheeks rosy red, fluff her blond hair, and smile happily back at the mirror. She was 26 years old.

Mama looked especially pretty on Fridays, when Daddy returned home from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. (And when Sarah and I couldn't go into their bedroom.) Ma and Pa watched Sarah, Dan, and me while my parents visited with their friends. Or friends came to our house.

My parents joked that strangers who got lost on the state road that fronted our farm probably thought nothing much happened in the country.

Quite the opposite. Louisianians loved to throw parties. Or cook up big meals in honor of a favorite Catholic saint. And if a week or two passed where a saint didn't appear on St. Mary's Holy Roman Catholic Church calendar, well, word spread that one of the farms was having a crawfish (crayfish) boil, just before sunset. With music blaring. And dancing on the porch. Or just sitting around on the stoop. It really didn't matter, just so folks got together and lived life. And this life wasn't always good. But being together cushioned what had gone wrong or hadn't made sense.

This morning, though, I wasn't thinking about crawfish (crayfish), just lipstick and getting dressed up. I narrowed my blue eyes to read the newspaper print beneath the photograph but couldn't. At four-and-a-half-years-old, I was all grown up, knew the alphabet backwards and forwards, even recognized words in my story books, but I couldn't read, not like the adults.

This frustrated me. I wanted to know what happened in the newspaper that smudged my hands with black ink. I wanted to know why four women wore hats and gloves and stood behind a table with a big teapot.

When Little Mary, Jo-Jo or Melodie visited, and we played with my tea set, we sat on the floor, with our dolls, and drank lemonade. We wore shorts, not dresses. According to the picture in the newspaper, we didn't dress right. And, come to think of it, how come only adults drank tea? I'd have to ask Mama. She knew everything.

I waited while Mama changed Dan's diaper. He was six months old now and a good baby. At least, that's what everyone said, even Mama. Compared to kittens, though, who rolled onto their backs and pawed at my string, I didn't see how Dan did much of anything, good or bad. I mean, what fun was a baby brother who did what babies do: Poop, eat, laugh, sleep, cry, poop?

Still, I worried why Mama put a salve on those things boys get between their legs, you know, what the bull in the pasture has. I'd heard Mama and Daddy say the salve protected the family jewels. But what I saw looked like half a Vienna sausage and two jacks balls, not pretty stones that sparkled in the sun.

When I told Mama what I thought, her eyes flashed, and I knew I'd made a mistake. I'd said something about something only adults talked about.

So, no, she didn't have time to mess with an afternoon tea. I'd have to ask Ma.

Which I prepared to do. While Mama dripped her second cup of Community Roast coffee and thumbed through the Ladies Home Journal, I tip-toed out of the kitchen, and around through the living room, careful not to draw my sister's attention, carefully closed the screen door (for a change), and flew across the pasture to my grandmother's house.

Only to come to a screeching halt. Ma and Mrs. Slim drank coffee and visited on the porch while Mr. Slim sat across from them, reading a magazine, paying no nevermind to the two women who spoke in French.

I didn't have to understand French to know Mrs. Slim had been to Wilbur's Beauty Salon for a new perm.

I could smell the solution that had fried her short brown hair into tight curls that hugged her scalp. I thought she looked like a surprised hornet's nest, what with her eyebrows arched so high and her thin lips puckered into a red wheel. But I didn't say anything, not after getting Mama mad at me, not if I wanted an afternoon tea (now that I knew what I wanted).

Besides, I had to be nice to Mrs. Slim. She was Little Mary's grandmother, one of the three friends I wanted to invite. Mrs. Slim possessed a fiery temper. When Mr. Slim had been younger and slim, like his nickname, he'd gotten caught cattin' around with a woman while Mrs. Slim thought he was helping this woman's husband.

To show Mr. Slim he wasn't going to mess around anymore, Mrs. Slim had driven his Ford to the center of their large front yard, hauled out his shotgun, shot up the Ford so it wouldn't run anymore, planted a pink rose bush in front of the car and placed statues of the Virgin Mary on either side. Mrs. Slim bragged the rose bush had grown into a flowery testament to marriage's sacred vows. (Daddy said Mrs. Slim trimmed the bush back once in awhile so the bullet holes showed, just in case.)

So, when Mr. Slim started to laugh at my idea for an afternoon tea and Mrs. Slim shot him a warning look that snapped his mouth shut, I knew Ma would like the idea. Mrs. Slim, whom Ma called Bernice, triumphed as Ma's major source of gossip along the bayou.

Within minutes, Ma and Mrs. Slim had gotten into planning my tea and told me to run along. That evening, when Mama learned she and Daddy would host the crayfish boil that followed my afternoon tea, Mama reacted with how tired she was, what with three kids to raise while her husband attended law school during the week. And, just in case anyone thought otherwise, she hid her ladies magazines under the mattress and behind the dresser.

The ploy worked. While Ma planned the tea at her house, Mrs. Slim and her cadre of Wilbur devotees decided who would do what and when at our house. And Mama perked up when she learned we'd keep the leftovers. Mama didn't like to cook. Nothing pretty about wringing a chicken's neck and plucking the feathers.

A week before my Saturday afternoon tea, Mama handed me an envelope with my name printed on the outside. Mama read where Ma had written on a note card I had been 'cordially invited to Afternoon Lemonade.'

When my eyes popped and my heart sank, Mama thought I didn't understand 'cordially' and went on to explain. However, I didn't care about cordially, only lemonade. Not more lemonade! No one dressed up for Afternoon Lemonade. No one had a 'lemonade service' in the dining room. Even I knew that.

I protested (cried, wailed, pouted, tried to make myself throw up, the usual get-my-way stuff) to no avail. Kids didn't drink tea. End of discussion. I didn't perk up until Daddy informed me that I'd actually gotten what I'd wanted, doing what the ladies did in the photograph, and whether we drank tea or lemonade didn't matter.

So, the following Saturday morning, Mama washed and set my shoulder-length hair with Bobbie pins, in small curls that would dry really tight. When the clock finally ticked the time to dress for Afternoon Tea, Mama surprised me with a grown-up shirt-waist dress. Since Mama could sew without following a pattern, she had copied what the ladies had worn, only pint-sized for me.

Mama hair-sprayed my flounce of tight curls into a stiff collar, positioned her white hat on top, snapped white beads around my neck, placed her white purse on my arm, and proudly pronounced me ready for Afternoon Lemonade. At the news, I looked into the mirror and beamed.

But, just as we stepped outside, onto the porch, and Mama handed me my white church gloves, I ran back inside. Mama had forgotten the red lipstick!

She frowned a bit when I returned, but quickly smiled again. Together we walked across the pasture, like twins, with Mama in her matching shirt-waist dress, white hat, gloves, and purse, to Ma's front door (for Mama said we were guests).

And when Ma opened the door, she also wore a shirt-waist dress and white hat. As did Melodie, Jo-Jo, and Little Mary. And their mothers. And Mrs. Slim.

In the center of the living stood a round table (that I didn't know Ma had). On the table were a vase of pink roses and Ma's tea service.

While the ladies sat elsewhere, on the living room sofa or in chairs, Melodie, Jo-Jo, Little Mary, and I sat at the round table and enjoyed an Afternoon Lemonade that included small sandwiches without crusts and little cookies.

After Ma took a photograph of the four of us. We stood behind the cloth-covered table: Steel magnolias-in-training with bright, lipstick-smeared smiles.

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