Tales from Mom 4
By Trudy A. Martinez
This morning one particular patch on Nellie’s handmade quilt captivates her eye, bringing with it sweet memories; it is plain, not particularly pretty, just thin grey stripes on a yellowing, once white, background. Terry, a bright adventurous young lad, wore a shirt made of that same material the day he asks for her hand. Nellie Mae first catches Terry’s eye at the “Miss Perfect” beauty contest, an annual event that brings all the prettiest young compatriots into town as contestants and all the men and boys, both handsome and ordinary, as onlookers.
Participating in the contest never enters Nellie’s mind when she starts for town in her Sunday best dress. Swatches of the material from the outfit she wears, strategically placed on the ‘crazy quilt’ pattern, surround the gray stripped one. As Nellie Mae’s gently caress the swatches with her hand, her memories surface and intermingle.
Seeking a job at the local mill is foremost in her mind and her reason for making the trip to town. Three younger brothers, whom she cares for since birth, are all in school now, freeing her to work outside the farm.
(Nellie’s three youngest brothers)
Before she sets out for town, Ma gives her some words of advice; those words are still lingering in her ears a few miles down the road. “First impressions are lasting ones—just hand them your papers—smile—but keep quiet. You hear me?” Nellie finds herself nodding her head as she walks, just as she did when Ma first said those words to her, when suddenly her concentration is broke by the sound of a familiar voice, a young neighbor woman who lives down the road.
“Nellie Mae–Nellie, wait up, Nellie Mae”, a young woman hollers as she hurries to catch up.
Nellie stops cold and stares at the lanky young woman running to meet her. It is Molly. The awkward appearance of her long legs, stretching out and sort of swinging back in place as if being maneuvered by the strings of a puppeteer, brings a smile to her face. “Nobody’s perfect,” she thinks..
“Still not talking?” Molly asks once she catches up with her. “You know you can—I mean to me—I never laugh like others.”
Nellie says nothing. She just smiles. It is true, Molly never laughs at her. Regardless, Nellie Mae has no desire to talk. “What the sense in talking,’” she reflects, “When I think what to say, it sounds good—in me mind—but when I open my mouth, garble comes out.”
“Are you entering?” asks Molly.
Surprised by Molly’s question, Nellie’s eyes grow in size, as if frightened by some unknown monster, and her head shakes vigorously to show her negative reply.
“Why are you dressed up then?”
Struggling to communicate while handing Molly her papers, she manages to mouth, “m-mm–,” before being interrupted.
“You’re going for a job?”
Nellie nods, feeling a sense of relief from Molly’s postulation.
“You can do them both—you know.”
Keeping silent, she shrugs her shoulders, hoping Molly will drop the subject.
“No need of talking—you’re pretty enough—just have to let them measure you—walk across the stage—that is all. All the beaus will be whistling when they see you. You have a beau, Nellie?”
Nellie shakes her head; lowering it, she meditates, “God knows I wants a beau—but them young ones been taking all me time. My baby sisters done got one—they’ll marry before me.”
Interrupting Nellie’s inner reflection, Molly blurts out, “Then you just got to. You are sure to win—win a beau too.”
Her eyes suddenly show interest in what Molly is saying. “Perhaps”, she contemplates, “This isn’t such a bad thing—if I get a beau”. Although she did not speak a word, her decision to enter becomes shared knowledge just from her reaction.
Deciding to walk to the mill with Nellie because she fears all her convincing will be for naught if she lets her out of her sight, Molly tells her, “I be going with you to the mill—for support.” She knew, though most of the local industries lay off workers, the mill is still hiring some. “I hope she’ll be getting the job”, Molly utters to herself. Arriving at the gate, she leans against the fence and lingers, leaving Nellie to enter alone.
Remembering back a few years, Molly thinks, “It’s better to be poor than rich.” Perhaps, she is right. After all, the Wall Street crash did not affect the poor as it did the rich. How can you lose something you never had? Money is not as important to the poor, at least not in the same way. In our small town, only Mr. Beacon dabbles in the market.
Mr. Beacon paid dearly for his adventurous nature—left his family (May he rest in peace) without a penny. Beacon’s reaction to his fate of losing all his worldly possessions left a lasting impression upon Molly, leaving her to think, “The poor are blessed by God and the rich man condemns himself with his greed”. A short time passes before Nellie returns. Molly catching sight of her coming out jumps up and down impatiently waves her arm to attract her attention. “You get it?” She asks as Nellie Mae draws near.
Smiling, Nellie nods. As her head oscillates, a ring of gold, like a hallo, forms from the sun’s reflection ricocheting off her brown hair.
“Good—now, come on or we be late.” Molly remarks as she clutches Nellie’s hand and leads her away toward town where the contestants are gathering and giggling and carrying on. On the way, she stops to give her pointers on how to walk and move her body just so, explaining, “When you are walking on the stage, these exaggerations are okay, accepted even.”
Nellie Mae watches Molly with eager eyes. Although, in her mind she wonders, “What’d Pa say—him being the preacher and all?” Not wanting to think about how he might feel about her walking with her hips swinging from side to side in such a way and attempting to push all such deliberations from her head, she tells herself, “He don’t got to know about it.”
Nonetheless, she finds herself placing her hands over her ears as if to drown out his words: “The devil will be tempting you—tell him No! This is the road to Hell.”
Removing her hands from her ears she reasons, “Surely, is no sin to finds me a beau”, and she sashays forward, mimicking Molly’s movements.
“You’ve got it!” Molly acclaims just as young, overconfident man, who has been following the two women and watching their every move, approaches.
“Howdy—are you new to town?” His deep voice intrudes upon their enmity, leaving Molly irritated and Nellie in awe.
“You know we are not new to town.” Molly replies sharply, shaking a finger at him while thinking, “He is still using the same line”.
Nellie, on the other hand, smiles. “Such a comely man,” she thinks, “Tall, dark “.
Fixing his eyes in a steady intent look, he cuts Molly off with his astute reply, “I wasn’t speaking to you”. Then the tone of his voice softens and his eyes sparkle as his attention draws toward Nellie, “I was conversing with this lovely lady here”.
Acting like a mother protecting her young, Molly lashes out at him, “She is not for the likes of you, Terry. She has set her sights a might higher.”
“Let the little lady speak for herself,” he quickly responds. He is not in the habit of giving up so easily; and he is not ready to let someone else decide whom he can approach, especially a woman.
Nellie says nothing; letting her eyes drop, a smile forms discreetly on her face. She is feeling special, experiencing emotions new to her. In a sense, she is like a child in a candy store with a shiny copper penny, craving a sweet morsel in a glass display case priced beyond her reach; she can only look and dream of tasting the sweetness.
Molly, on the other hand, feels obligated as a friend to protect Nellie from the likes of Terry. Therefore, when he asks her to back off, standing firm to her conviction, she does the opposite. “She doesn’t talk, especially to the likes of you. Get yourself away from us! You hear me?” She shouts as she waves him away with her hands as if she was shooing a pesky fly.
Ignoring Molly’s outburst, Terry turns to Nellie. “Be seeing you later, little lady?” He asks, looking directly at her. Even though he asks a question, the expression on his face and his body language conveys a promise.
Nellie remains quiet. Raising her head, she bites her lip, glares up at his towering figure with her brown eyes sparkling, expressing a desire to know him before he turns and strolls away.
“The gall! That is no beau for you, Nellie. He be scum. You best be listening to me,” she says, attempting to draw her attention away from him. “He only be after one thing—there be others. Just look at him flirting with them women—He be drawn from one to another like a bee to the flowers.”
Molly did not need to tell Nellie to look. Her eyes stuck to him like a fly to sticky paper, lacking the ability to pull away.
“Come on”, Molly says as she nudges Nellie. “We best hurry. They be lining up to measure.” The two young women speed up their pace, seeing the stage just ahead with its decorations of Red, White, and Blue streamers, flapping in the breeze. It is not the Fourth yet. Regardless, it is just as festive and the colors are there, signifying the spirit of the crowd and the American way.
Some see the contest as a chance for women, at least one, to aspire without marching off to Washington for their rights as Miss Beacon did with the high society women in her earlier years. She said, “I was helping to carry the ‘How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?’ Banner when the police arrest me along with about 100 others.” Objecting to her plight, she did the only thing she thinks she can to gain the upper hand: She refuses to eat. Naturally, the men in authority cannot let her keep an upper hand; so they force feed her, holding her down, stuffing food in her mouth, pouring water in, and pitching her nose so she cannot breathe, forcing her to shallow against her will.
Standing next to the stage, old Mr. Peabody is doing the measuring and some forcing of his own. Occasionally, he makes excuses for the slip of his hand. “Pardon me,” he will say, “I didn’t mean to touch you; my hand slipped a little”, giggling profusely as he speaks, he will ask, “You will pardon me won’t you?” Now what is a woman to do but pardon him—him being the Judge and the damage already done?
A woman has to watch her reputation, making an accusation might damage her permanently. Look what happens to Mary Belle. She is just walking home—she accuses a man. In spite of what transpires, she is the one who leaves town because everyone says, “She is spoiled.” After Peabody gets his jollies and finishes the measuring, the band starts to play, bringing all the onlookers’ prior activities into abeyance.
The crowd consists mostly of men. Of course, Miss Lilly Beacon is there too, with her sign in one hand, waving over her head so everybody can see she is against the whole affair, and her parasol in the other, shading her pale skin from the sun, and seeking a different sort of liberty. Her stance on life changes considerably after her daddy leaves the scene. Now the letters on her sign are so big and bold there is only room for one word: REPENT. In her eyes for a woman to parade, when the parading is for the satisfaction of a man, is a sin.
Miss Lilly and her parasol are a most familiar sight to Nellie.
Every Sunday without fail after Church, she does some parading of her own. She comes to the farm dressed in all her finery with her parasol in hand and invites herself to supper, never offering to help Ma. Instead, while Ma silently rushes around fixing the supper, Miss Lilly sits out on the front porch in Ma’s rocker with Pa, talking and spinning her parasol.
Nellie overheard one church woman say one Sunday morning, “I do declare, Lilly Beacon has her eye on the Preacher, making her claim on him before Katie, as sickly as she is, has a chance to meet her maker.”
If Ma has similar feelings about what Miss Lilly is doing on the porch with Pa, she keeps her silence, acting like there is nothing to all the gossip.
Hearing the sound of Molly’s voice brings Nellie back into the present.
“No wonder she be an old maid,” Molly whispers.
Nellie drops her eyes, pretending not to hear and ponders, “Maybe I ought not—she’d sure tell—Pa will sure be–,” when Molly, pushing her forward, interrupts her musing.
“Your turn—smile and remember what I shows you!”
Nellie seeing Terry in the front row watching her every move and glaring at her with his big dreamy eyes, steps onto the stage, walking just as Molly shows her, and smiles. Whistles fill the air along with several loud wolf howls and the screeching voice of Miss Beacon, wailing, “Repent ye sinners!”
At mid-stage, Nellie Mae turns to face the Judges, smiling; then she swings around and finishes walking across the stage, as the whistling and howling continue, to where the other women who went before line up. She never before felt the way she did now, fearing discovery, yet all glowing inside. She justifies her feelings by questioning, “How can this be a sin?”
Molly came next. When she gets to the other side of the stage, she finds her place next to Nellie. The three Judges put their heads together to decide the winner while the women stand, giggling among themselves, anxiously waiting. “You’re going to win, Nellie,” Molly whispers.
Mr. Peabody, the official representative for the Judges, steps to the center stage, clearing his throat”. Attention! Attention!” He exclaims loudly. “We have a winner! With his tongue, half hanging out and panting like Pa’s hound dog just before he pounces on a downed opossum, he says, “Prepare you–”.
Fumbling and retrieving a slip of paper from his pocket, he regains his composure. “First the measurements,” he says, straightening his jacket and calming himself. Imitating the doleful howl of a wolf, he begins to build suspense by drawing out and lingering on each syllable. giving a few extra ones for emphasis, “Thir—ir—ir—ty–,” he howls before connecting the last digit, “Six”.
Pausing for a moment, he waits for the whistling to die down, occasionally motioning with his hands in a downward direction signifying the response he expects of them. “Twenty-six!” He exclaims with excited emphasis, clinching his fist raising it in the air as the echoing wolf howl coming from some crowd member drowns out all attempts of the others to whistle.
The final measurement, “Thirty-six,” races off his tongue like thunder, explodes, and shoots like a bolt of lightning through the crowd as he swings his arm out toward the young participants and opens his hand to introduce the winner, “Miss Perfect—“
The screeching voice of Miss Beacon cuts through his announcement like a knife at the very instant he pauses, gasping for air. “Pray for redemption,” she shrieks.
Taking a deep breath, he fills his lungs with air, expanding his chest like a balloon. His words, when released, reach every tone on the musical scale like a bouncing ball out of control, “—Miss Nellie Mae, gentlemen, your Miss Perfect! Your girl!”
Nellie Mae stands motionless, not knowing whether to run and hide or to jump with joy. Running and hiding seems to her the most logical. She wants desperately to do both.
“Get yourself over there—you wins–you silly girl,” Molly says encouragingly as she shoves her forward. “Didn’t I tell you so?”
Just the thrill of being in the contest is enough for Nellie—winning really did not matter and was the farthest thing from her mind. Yet, here she is, blushing and smiling, and there is the crowd going wild; they are still whistling and hollering as one Judge delivers a bouquet of yellow roses to Nellie.
Accepting the flowers, she wonders, “How am I going to keep them from Pa?” She walks over to the other contestants who appear about to cry. Wanting to comfort them, she gives them each a token rose, leaving herself without.
“Ain’t she something”, Peabody says. “Sharing all those roses with the others.”
There is a picnic after the festivities. However, Nellie and Molly excuse themselves. Instead of joining in, they start back up the road toward home, giggling as girls do, until they reach the edge of the Mc Guire farm. There they say their goodbyes, and they hug each other. Molly asks, “Be seeing more of you now?”
Nellie nods. Molly turns to walk away. As Nellie waves and watches her cross the field, she wonders if the rumors she hears are true. “How could they be?” She questions. “She chased all the men away. She didn’t chase them.” Nellie overheard Miss Beacon tell Pa about another matter last summer. “Surely,” Nellie thinks, “ Her mama wouldn’t – couldn’t consents to such a thing. Enough of such thoughts”, she tells herself, “I am late.”
Knowing Ma will already be starting supper and wondering and worrying about her, she speeds up her pace. Behind her, she can hear one of those motor cars coming up close. She steps to the side of the road, allowing it to pass by. However, the vehicle slows and the horn toots, drawing her attention.
“Want a ride?” Terry asks.
Nellie shakes her head no as she continues walking, ignoring her inner desire to answer affirmatively.
“Come on, I won’t bite,” he says, attempting to convince her he is not as bad as Molly might have told her.
After looking his way, she quickly turns her head back and shakes it no again.
“I know you want to; I can tell by the look in your eye. Why,” he says, showing his large white teeth when he grins. “You’re even biting your lip to keep from smiling. Come on”, he pleads, attempting to coerce her into changing her mind, adding convincingly, “I’ll be a perfect gentleman. If you want me to stop,” he says, revving the motor of his vehicle. “You need only put your hand on mine.”
Contemplating, “What harm will be done by it?” She spontaneously, releases the tooth hold on her lip, smiles, and nods her head.
Bubbling over with joy because his persuasive tactic manipulates the moment, Terry halts the vehicle and gets out. He is on his best behavior. He opens the door for her and helps her to step onto the runner board. He returns to the driver’s seat only after she is secure in the passenger seat and he has shut the door. Triumphantly, he accelerates. “Do you ever talk?”
She shakes her head no—then nods.
“What kind of an answer is that?” He asks, “No? On the other hand, could she mean yes? Which is it?” Searching, he seeks a sign that will give him his answer. He steals a glance at her now and then.
Nellie Mae sits motionlessly, wanting to answer but unable to gather enough courage to attempt such a feat. Consequently, silence prevails as they traverse up the road toward the farm.
After a short while, the stillness breaks. “Oh I get it—it’s like Molly said”, He says, “You choose whom you talk to.” Then he asks, “Do you only talk to those you trust?”
Nellie nods her head, hesitantly. She finds herself praying for the courage to break the vow of silence she placed upon herself so many years ago.
“What will it take for you to trust in me?” He asks.
She shrugs her shoulders, not knowing what it will take.
“Well, pretty lady,” he says proudly“; this here man is going to do everything he can to earn your trust.”