In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
Even at the tender age of ten, I have been to more than my fair share of potluck dinners hosted by the good ladies of the United Methodist Church of Corydon Iowa. I have eaten enough of their deviled eggs, meatloaf, seven-bean salads, and Jell-O with grapes to last a lifetime. This Sunday, as I sit here, next to my mother and sister Pamela, at yet another potluck dinner, with yet another plate full of potluck food, up walks Francine.
“May we join you?” Francine asks. A tray with two plates of food, two glasses of tea, and two side dishes, with a chocolate chip cookie on one and on the other a piece of apple pie is in her hands. The food is common fare here. What stands next to Francine—actually slightly hidden—is a dish unlike like any I have ever seen here before.
“This is Julie,” Francine says to my mother. “She’s my sister’s daughter. You know, the smart one in North Ontario that I’ve told you about.” Eyes suddenly downward, I sit uncharacteristically straight, still, and silent. Each mouthful of potluck food I carefully chew 23 times (even the Jell-O). I know, because I count each bite.
When Francine says, “Julie is staying with us this summer.” I think about the acreage east of town, near the railroad overpass on Highway 2, just north of the reservoir. Two milk cows, a hutch of chickens, a garden with several rows of sweet corn, a split level house, and a couple with no children.
I try my best to be inconspicuous, not to fidget or look up, but cannot stop myself. Ever so discretely a peek at Julie I sneak. Ringlets and eyes greener than the peas in the salad greet my blue eyes. Confused, curious, and intrigued I look downward and chew my food. Each bite 23 times, I know, I count.
My ears perk up when Francine says, “Murrell, I was wondering…” My chewing slows when she says, “If you could ask Mark Edward…” Then speeds up when she says, “He’s such a nice boy…” When she says, “To look after Julie while she’s here in Corydon?” I gag!
My Mother, as only a mother can do, senses my discomfort. She puts her hand on my knee. A gesture, that thank God the tablecloth hides, tells me to not say a word. Mother says, “Francine, Julie is such a nice girl. Thanks for asking. I will talk with Mark Edward tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.” With that, Mother and Francine take up other topics. Pamela grins. My chewing resumes.
As I chew, I consider taking another peek at Julie, but am too mortified to move. Somehow, my eyes, perhaps controlled by a puppet master somewhere, look up and my head turns. There, in a red cardigan, over a white shirt and blue shorts, a big red bauble holding up her ponytail, sits Julie, listening to Aunt Francine and my mother prattle on. Noticing a beauty mark on her left cheek, I wonder whether she has freckles? As I start to look more closely, Julie’s turning head causes me to stop. Her soft, sweet smile makes me look away.
At home, Mother says nothing to me about Francine’s request and I do not bring it up. To be sure it does not, I head to my tree house, where I spend the rest of the afternoon—alone. There I eat two apples and read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When I get to the part about Becky Thatcher and Tom, I read it twice. Trying to understand their relationship. Over dinner, I am silent. I go to bed before it is time to do so. When Pamela comes by my bedroom to read with me, I pretend to sleep but watch her through my barely open eyes.
A week later, Mother, Dad, several families from the congregation, Pamela, and I are at Francine’s acreage for a barbeque, bonfire, and songfest. Remembering Francine’s request of Mother, my senses are on high alert as I step out of the car. During dinner, I stay close to Pamela. As Francine lights the fire, I hang in the shadows. When the songfest begins I join the kids to play hide and seek. Julie is “it”. I run to the north side of the barn, beside the haystack, near the creek that flows to the reservoir—there I hide.
Near the house, Kumbaya fans the flames of the bonfire. Laughing kids run to keep away from Julie so as to not become “it”. Here by the barn, my back on the soft moist grass, looking to the Moon and stars, safe in the dark, I wait for Dad’s call to go home. Fanning the bonfire, We Shall Not be Moved reminds me how much Dad loves to sing and be with his flock. I worry, and should.
Plop! A pair of plaid denim Toughskin pants sits down beside my head. A pair of Buster-Browns follows, after that a plaid Toughskin jacket. Then comes a whisper. “Great place, Mark Edward. They’ll never find us here,” says Julie. When she stretches out beside me, my heart is beating so loud I fear the nearby barn will rattle.
When Julie asks, “What are you thinking?” “S-t-a-a-a stars,” sneaks out my mouth. Thank you God, she says nothing more, just lies here, next to me, looking at the stars.
When my heartbeat stabilizes, I dig deep for the courage to test my mouth, saying, “That’s the Big Dipper.” Proudly pointing to a seven-star configuration in the northern sky and showing how it indicates Polaris, the North Star. Glancing at Julie, who is looking at the Dipper, a moonbeam illuminates four freckles on her nose. I imagine they point to her beauty mark, much like the Dipper points to Polaris. When I say something about her freckles, she says, “No way! I don’t have freckles!”
“Olly, olly, oxen free,” yells a voice by the house. Hearing this, Julie pulls my left ear—hard. Then she jumps up, and starts running. Without thinking, I jump up and give chase. She is fast, real fast, but I am faster. Soon we are running side by side. The bonfire blazing, house rapidly approaching, I stretch out my legs to pull ahead of Julie. As I do, I call her “Freckles.” Safe base in sight, this race is mine. Then suddenly, not knowing why, I ease up…ever so slightly. Julie pulls even with me. Side by side we run. When I intentionally ease up, Julie pulls ahead. I let her beat me to the base. Game over. Night done. Time to go home. Think about the race I gave to Julie. I have met my match.
The memory that awaits me in Heartland is about being stirred up. Realizing that some people come into my life for that purpose. Their presence helps me question who I am becoming. Forces me to face the unknown. Do things—like throw a footrace—I never ever would have done otherwise. The memory admonishes me to be open to others, especially those who may, at first, stir me up. They bring balance to my life, the anima, in the case of Julie, to my animus.
On a deeper level, my memory of Julie is about seeing. Francine sees qualities in me that I do not see that she sees will benefit Julie. My Mother sees Julie’s refined, empathetic, and deep thinking nature as a nice match for my active and carefreeness. I, with the help of the moon, see the freckles that Julie refuses to see. Julie sees that she is faster than me, but I know better. I see that one, very special girl, who by pulling my ear, helps me view the races I run differently. Sometimes, life is funny like that.
Note: This is the 16th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.