Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
I Can't Find the Ketchup!
"Set the table. Why do I have to ask every night for some help." Cindy spoke in sing-song tones imitating her mother. "Help me. I don't ask for much."
"Cindy? If you're talking I can't hear you with the faucet running." Mrs. Rose stood in front of the white porcelain basin rinsing, then scrubbing with a coarse brush, Idaho potatoes.
"Nothing." Cindy screamed as loudly as she could. "I didn't say anything. I was singing."
"Okay, honey." Mrs. Rose lowered the water pressure. "Set the table."
"I am!" Cindy was sharp in tone. In her pockets, she carried silverware so she wouldn't have to make too many trips to the kitchen cabinets. She placed plates on the dinette table then moved them into position. "Beverly sits with her back to the window. Yeah. She picked that place 'cause it's the hardest one to get out of to help clear, or get anything that's been forgotten."
"Oh, Cindy," Mrs. Rose responded. She lay the peeler on the countertop, picked up a linen dishtowel with a red border and wiped her hands.
"What?" Cindy continued pushing plates around. Her pocket jingled with the flatware.
"Beverly picked that seat when we first moved in. She picked the bedroom with the windowbox, and linoleum floor that had game boards impressed into its design; it wasn't the biggest bedroom either. It's almost 1950 now, so that was quite some time ago." Mrs. Rose moved her exposed arm over her forehead as if to wipe away moisture, but there wasn't any. "What's the matter with you tonight?"
"I hate being the youngest!"
Mrs. Rose bit her lower lip to steady it from breaking into a smile.
"I go to bed first. I get all the hand-me-downs. I'm always the last to do anything special. No one takes me seriously. Everyone else here whispers about periods and bras and hickeys like I was too young to know what these are. I wear ugly shoes and socks. And I hear ‘I'm too busy, Cindy, so could you do my chores since you're only a little kid?’"
"Well, let's take these one at a time."
"I don't need a lecture. Save that for Beverly." Cindy grabbed the silverware from her pocket and put in on the table. She wanted to have a monologue not a conversation.
Mrs. Rose persisted. "You'll be with me the longest, honey. You and I will have special times that your sister can't ever have."
"Swell." Cindy shoved knives and spoons to the right of each plate, forks to the left. "Yippie." The sarcasm was obvious.
"You also have more playthings because they've been handed down. And, unlike Beverly, the firstborn, you've always had someone to play with and show you how to do whatever..."
"You should have had three children! The middle is best. Middle kids have everything. They sometimes say they get the least because parents start from the top or bottom but that's not true. Can't you see you'll always think of me as the baby!" Cindy seemed exhausted from this small outburst and sat down. The wooden back of the chair was curved and jabbed her shoulder as she sat at an angle. "Darn chair!"
Mrs. Rose tossed the towel, she was still holding, on her shoulder. Cindy noticed the border and muttered "meat". Aloud she stated, "Goulash, I'll bet."
"You used to say goolish-goulash. I guess you're growing up." Mrs. Rose stroked Cindy's head. Cindy wiggled it wanting her to stop.
"Oh. You don't understand. You just don't. Why am I setting up the table all by myself!" Cindy tried to move out of the chair but her mother and the back's angle prevented it.
"You won't be doing the dishes. This is your job tonight. Tomorrow you'll dry and not set up. It's called division of labor. Equal." Mrs. Rose knew Cindy was trapped in the chair but wanted to touch her and show caring.
"Yeah. Division until a boyfriend comes over, or too much homework, or no other time to practice the piano. Then it's 'Cindy, please do this or that because I just can't tonight.'" Cindy kept squirming until, finally, her mother moved aside. Cindy got up quickly and walked into the kitchen, opened the painted wooden cabinet that contained glasses, and removed four.
Another pre-teen girl, Mrs. Rose realized. Hormones. Handle it, there's years of experience. But then the awareness that this pre-teen child is fatherless caused a sigh to emit from her nostrils as she smothered its release from her own mouth. Inside her head she spoke to her cherished, deceased husband and asked him for guidance, told him she missed him every day she's faced without him.
Beverly came into the dinette. "When's dinner?" Her hair was in metal rollers and she was wearing a cotton duster-coat since her shower and hair-washing.
"Cover your rollers while we have dinner, Beverly," Mrs. Rose instructed, then answered the question, "soon." She walked to the sink, lifted a potato then cut it into sections on a wooden board. Dropping it into the pot of cubed meat, sauce, onions, green peppers, carrots, that had already simmered for an hour, then repeated the procedure for three more potatoes. "You've both complained about soggy potatoes from cooking too long. These won't be soggy."
"Who's complained?" Cindy defended. "I don't even know any better yet. I'm not old enough to ever have eaten a potato that wasn't mushy or goopy from either being cooked in chicken soup, or goulash, or pot roast, or brisket, or anything." She pulled her arms around her chest and swayed.
Mrs. Rose's head shook back and forth, back and forth. She pursed her lips. "Just get the ketchup from the pantry," she tried to keep the disgust out of her voice, but it crept into the tone anyway.
Beverly quickly left the room. "Not my set-up."
Cindy went to the pantry. It was a double-door closet that reached to the ceiling, and was built next to a hallway wall between the kitchen and dining room. She opened it. On its very top shelf was a trophy engraved "Miss Pitkin Avenue"; it was hard for her to believe that this woman, her mother, with functional clothing and pinned-back hair was once beautiful and lithe enough to have won a bathing beauty contest. Mothers could never have been young and pretty, and she certainly couldn't imagine her own being the best of an entire group of hopefuls.
"I can't find anymore ketchup," Cindy called.
"I bought five jars. It's right in front of your nose." Mrs. Rose's voice vibrated from behind the open refrigerator door.
Cindy looked again at the trophy shaped like a goblet with two handles. Her mother called it a loving cup. Dumb name, she thought, then her eyes went down to shelves with canned goods and jars. Aloud she said, "soup, pickles, beans, corn, mayonnaise, beets--yuk, peas, cocoa, castor oil--double yuk, Crisco, vinegar. Mom. We're out of ketchup."
"Follow your nose, or your eyes, or whatever. It's in there, Cindy." Mrs. Rose was pulling a seltzer bottle from the back hall.
Cindy touched her nose, made an imaginary line from it to a shelf. "Toilet paper," she yelled. "We can have goulash and toilet paper." She went to her eyes and made the same line. "I see, right before my eyes, black olives. Yes. I love black olives. Can we have black olives?"
Mrs. Rose, feeling that Cindy was just amusing herself in order to annoy, went to the pantry. "Here. Right in front. If it were any closer, it would bite you. Ketchup. More ketchup. Where were you looking? Nothing was hiding it. Big, red bottles, right in front. Stop being annoying already."
"I didn't see it." First Cindy was defensive. Then she stared at the line of red bottles and repeated, quietly, "I really didn't see it right in front of me." Her eyes moved to the very top shelf at the 'loving cup'; she felt unlovable at the moment but she also felt her mother's sarcasm about a bottle biting her was uncalled for so, for her, the woman who received that prize was unlovable for the time being.
"At least with milk meals, there are noodles with butter, milk, cheese, and we don't need ketchup." Mrs. Rose stated in exasperation as she was tired.
Cindy carried the bottle as if it was a treasured possession. "Right before my eyes and I didn't see it," she spoke to herself in muted words. "Will life go by this way? Will opportunity go by this way? Did daddy's being alive once go by this way?" She burst into tears as she placed the full bottle on the dinette table.
Mrs. Rose wrinkled her forehead, mumbled "adolescence", turned her head from right to left, then pretended to be cheerful as she walked to Cindy and embraced the child. "I didn't mean to be harsh, honey."
Cindy sobbed until tears were spent.
©1996 Bronxville Women's Club
reprinted by “Front Porch” in October 2014