from: Leona and Me, Helen Marie
by Lu Ann Brobst Staheli
“Watch me, Leona. I’m Miss Tarantula, mysterious tight rope walker of Madagascar!” I lifted my arms for balance and started across the wooden beam in the barn loft, one foot in front of the other, imitating the lady we’d seen at the circus in New Albany. After reaching the wall, I made a little curtsey, trying to pull my overalls out like they were the net skirt the trapeze artist had worn.
“Magnificent, Helen,” Leona said, mimicking a ring master. She held onto a joist about thirty feet away from where I’d ended my trip across the barn.
“With my eyes closed this time,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. Leona was nine, two years older than me, and liked to pretend she was in charge.
“Watch me. Watch me,” I said, closing my eyes and turning around on the beam toward the way I thought I’d come. My bare toes gripped the rough edges of the wood.
“Helen Marie Heffner, you stop right now.” Her voice sounded just like Mama’s when I’m gonna get in trouble, but I took a step. Then another. On the third one, there wasn’t a beam under my foot. My eyes flew open and my legs peddled the air, like a character in the comic papers, trying to find a way to stop falling.
“Le—o—naaa!” I screeched. Hair blew across my face, covering my eyes. Seconds later, I landed on the hay mound below, air whooshing from my lungs. My heart crashed against my ribs. Sweat pored down my forehead like a humid Indiana afternoon. I lay still a minute, hoping I hadn’t broken any bones.
“Are you okay?” Leona asked. I could see her standing above me, still on the beam. Her voice sounded miles away.
When I could breathe, the strong odor of hay made me sneeze. All ten toes still wiggled and my elbows worked. My heart had stopped pounding. I thought the grin would split my cheeks wide open. I wiped my face, scratching at my nose a second before yelling, “Yaaa—hoo! That was the most fun I’ve had all summer. I gotta do it again.” I jumped up and ran toward the loft’s ladder.
Leona must’ve decided if I could fall unexpected and live through it, then she had no reason to worry. She scurried a little ways down the beam, gave a swan-dive, and hollered, “Look out Kitty Hawk. Move over Orville and Wilbur. Here I come.” She made a little humph sound when she landed.
I took my second leap more gracefully. Who needed a net? Morning chores forgotten, I lost track of how many times we jumped. Leona had just pirouetted on the center of the beam, and I was waiting my turn to jump when Papa spoke.
“What in the Sam Hill do you two think you’re doing? Get down from there right now.” His voice said there was to be no foolin’ around. He stood with his legs planted, his arm raised into a fist he shook toward where we stood.
I was standing near the ladder and got two steps down when I heard Leona. “Here I come.” She flew into the air, swooping into the hay one last time.
Papa looked like an angry bull, but he took her hand all gentle-like and pulled her from the stack. Golden spikes poked from her braid, and she was covered with dust. “You’re gonna suffocate in there,” he said, his voice now quiet.
Leona took a couple of limping steps toward him. She tried to hide her pain from Papa, but I knew she had a kink in her leg. She rubbed the muscle to work it out. He pulled her close, into a squeeze like to break a bone. When he looked my way, I scrambled down the ladder. “Come on, Helen. Let’s see what your mama says about this stunt.” He held his hand out toward me, and I hurried to take it.
Once inside the kitchen, Papa told Mama what he’d seen. “Jumpin’ off the beams into the hay mound, big as you please. Sometimes I don’t think either one of ‘em has a lick of sense.”
“Now, Lew,” Mama said as she pulled us each into a squeeze.
She was the nicest woman I knew—better than any of the old grumpy women at church. She was extra special protective of us, especially me, because I’d had rheumatic fever last winter. Mama had lost two babies since I was born, and she didn’t plan to lose either one of us because we decided to do something foolish.
“Leona, you should have known better,” Mama said, her voice just like Leona’s had been when she told me not to walk on the beams. “You know Helen isn’t supposed to do anything strenuous. You’ve got to be more careful of your baby sister.”
I didn’t tell Mama that I was the first one to jump. And I wasn’t a baby, but she worried so much, I had to mind my P’s and Q’s. Good thing I had Leona to keep me from being bored from here to 1923.
My big sister looked toward me, but the only thing she said was, “Yes, Mama.”
Papa calls us his pretty little sweethearts, but Leona Mae’s the pretty one. She has long blonde hair with ribbons tied into braids that Mama plaits new every morning. My coal black hair is straighter than a board, chopped off just below my chin. The bangs were perfectly straight when Mama cut them, but you’d never know it. I have a way of shoving them off my forehead that leaves them sticking straight up, drenched—especially in the summertime.
Mama finished hugging Leona to her side and reached again toward me. I snuggled up, trying to wrap my arms around her waist. I felt her leave a kiss on the top of my head before she pulled away.
“At least you’re both alive.” I heard her sigh. After a minute, she said, “Lots of chores to do today. I’ve got to get busy.”
Papa reached out to give us both a hug, then he pulled a cap on. “I’m going down to the church. Puttin’ on a new roof before Sunday.” He looked me straight in the eye, then turned to Leona. “No more walking on air, girls.”
“Yes, Papa,” we both said at the same time.
I had every intention of being good, but Leona didn’t last much past noon. Mama had baked a cake for dinner, one of those fluffy white cakes that used lots of eggs and milk and butter and tasted so rich that it slid down your throat smooth-like, flavorful all the way to your stomach. She was putting the finishing touches on the icing, all white and swirly, when Leona wandered into the kitchen, where I'd been watching since Mama mixed the batter.
“Is that cake I smell?” she asked. She closed her eyes and sucked air in through her nose loud enough for us to hear. “Heavenly.” She plopped onto a stool and started picking through the bowl of nuts sitting on the counter. She pulled out a big nigger toe and popped it into her mouth.
I loved watching Mama cook, but Leona couldn't wait to taste. She didn't see the sense of watching anyone bake.
"Don't need to watch the hen lay the egg to know it's gonna be my breakfast," she told me more than once when I'd begged her to stay with me. Off she'd go, always with some scheme in mind, like fishing for snapping turtles with bacon fat, or hopping backwards on one foot over to the school.
I was sitting in the hot summer kitchen, aggravated by the heat from the wood stove. Beads of moisture dotted my forehead, but I didn’t care. I was watching Mama. This cake was the kind for special occasions—even more special than birthdays. Mama never baked a cake like this for herself.
"Just too much hard work to make it a celebration," she would say.
"Now girls," Mama said when she was done. "The cake is for dinner tonight."
"Are we having company?" we both said at once.
We loved to tease Mama, telling her company was coming when there wasn't any. She’d look around and start picking up the house. Then she'd send us to wash our hands and faces, but we just laughed.
Mama looked sternly at us both. She wiped the excess flour from her hands onto her apron, gathered up the dishes, and carried them to the basin. "I don't want to find that either of you has decided to whet your appetite. I've got to see to the wash." She started out the back door toward the clothes line.
I could see two stark white sheets flapping in the breeze. Their ghostly forms and loud noises used to scare me. I once thought the devil himself was after me when I took an evening trip to the outhouse and Mama had forgotten to take the sheets in for the night. Now I was used to hearing the snap of cotton blowing dry.
Once Mama was gone, Leona whispered, "Want a lick of the icing?"
"You heard Mama," I said. I tried to sound like I meant for Leona to leave it alone.
"Yeah, but she won't even notice."
"Oh, yes she will."
Before I could stop her, Leona swiped a finger across the platter and held out creamy icing toward my mouth. I shook my head and she popped the icing into her own mouth.
"You won't get in trouble." Leona spoke the words over her shoulder as she dashed from the house. “Mama will know it was me.”
I took a second to slide my chair under the table—no use giving Mama another reason to be upset. After our trouble in the barn, I got to worrying that Mama was already counting naughty-or-nice, even though Christmas was four months away. There was a certain china doll I had my eye on.
I went to the back door. Mama stared after Leona, then she glanced toward me. I knew she was going to ask what was going on, so I took off at a dead run, my heart pounding in a funny rhythm. I heard Mama’s voice echo after me.
"Hell—en! Helen Mar—ieeee! Le—oooo—na Mae—aaaaaa!"
When Mama discovered what Leona had done, would she think I had touched the cake, too? "Leona Mae Heffner, you get back here," I shouted as loud as my voice could carry. "I ain't gonna take no paddlin' for you, and I ain't gonna give up that china doll I want, neither."
Leona laughed as she galloped across the field of new-mown hay. I tried to keep up, but as hard as my legs pumped, I couldn't. I puffed air like Papa trying to light his cigar. I was plum worn out, so I stopped in the middle of the field. I thought my lungs were gonna burst.
“Dang your hide,” I said, almost a swear. “I wanted that china doll.”
I’d ruined my chances last Christmas when I told Mama, “I won't eat that stupid old hash," she’d made for dinner. I got sent to my room hungry. I deserved not getting the doll then.
Would Leona ruin my chances this time? I saw her fly on down past the school yard and toward the pond, her laughter still echoing behind her. After a minute, I walked toward Wennings General Store, wiping the sweat from my eyes. I didn't want to get home before Leona did. I decided I'd just sit a spell at the store, knowing she’d stop there on her way home.
Wennings is a favorite place for both us girls. Not only do they have the best selection of penny candy around, they have the only selection of penny candy. Hancock Chapel is nothing more than a crossroad, seven miles from the nearest town. We were stuck with Wennings, but we have another reason for stopping there.
Aunt Ethel helps behind the counter whenever she's visiting from Newport. She's always so happy to see us, she slips us a little treat. Aunt Ethel is the prettiest thing with soft, curly hair and pink cheeks and dresses in the latest styles. She’s lived in the south longer than we have, and she has the most bea—u—tiful southern accent. I love to listen to her talk, especially when she follows our stories with, "Sure 'nough?" like she doesn't always believe us. I suppose she has reason not to. The stories can be pretty wild, especially the ones Leona tells. Mama says Leona’s imagination is like to get her in trouble some day, as if it hasn’t already.
Thinking about Aunt Ethel made me wonder if her visit was the reason Mama made the cake. I stood up and gingerly peeked my head into the store, squinting in the near-dark to see if she was behind the candy counter. She wasn't, far as I could tell, so I plopped back down on the porch step to wait for Leona, then I heard my name.
I craned around to see who was calling me, but I couldn't tell at first which direction the voice was coming from. The sun was bright around me, and looking inside the store had seemed dark by comparison.
"Helen, is that you?"
Papa. I was in trouble now. Before I could run off, I felt his big warm hand touch my shoulder. He stood in the doorway, towering over me as I sat huddled on the porch. I could see the shadow of his cap across the floorboards.
"Helen, what are you doing sitting out here on the porch all alone?"
"Just waiting for Leona." I kept my voice steady, trying to sound as innocent as I was.
Papa looked back into the recesses of the store for a minute. "I didn't see her . . . "
"She's not in the store," I said. "She ran off toward the school yard, I guess."
"And left you behind?" He chuckled. "That's not very nice for a big sister to do."
I breathed a sigh of relief. Papa didn't know about the icing. "What'cha doing at Wennings, Papa?"
"We've got a special guest coming from Louisville, and we want Ethel to join us."
That piqued my interest.
Before I could say anything more, Papa stooped down and gave me a peck on the cheek. "See you soon, Little One."
The special guest wasn’t Aunt Ethel. That counted out Uncle Herb, too. Mama had said company, but she hadn't said they were from Louisville. No wonder she was so worried about her cake being perfect. Would the guest be one of Papa’s acquaintances or family?
I figured since Papa was on his way home, he must have seen Aunt Ethel, so I stood up, brushed the dirt from my overalls and went inside the store. It was much cooler there, away from the August sun. The ceiling fan swooshed the air into what might almost count for a breeze.
Aunt Ethel was helping Mrs. Bigler with a bolt of cloth, so I busied myself looking at trinkets—glass bead necklaces, silver plated bracelets, and brooches made with glued on seed pearls. After a few minutes, Mrs. Bigler finished her purchase, leaving me alone with Aunt Ethel, who slipped me a stick of hard candy from the counter.
"Papa says you're to come to dinner tonight," I said, as I licked the striped peppermint. "We're having company from Louisville."
"Sure enough?" Aunt Ethel asked.
"Yep. Do you know who it is?"
"Sure enough," she said, but this time I could tell she meant yes.
I waited, but inside I was bursting with impatience. Aunt Ethel wiped off the counter top and straightened a few items, but said nothing. Unable to control my curiosity any longer, I asked, "So, who is it?"
"It's a surprise," she said, with a smile.
"I don't like surprises."
"Then I guess you don't have to come home for dinner."
"Ahhhh! You know I want to. Mama's made a special cake and everything." That reminded me of the trouble I expected when Leona and me got home. My face fell and Aunt Ethel knew something was bothering me.
"What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing," I said, hoping to delay the truth as long as possible.
"Something wrong with the cake?"
I never could keep a secret from Aunt Ethel. She always seemed to know when either Leona or me was stretching the truth. I knew I might as well fess up.
“Leona . . . I mean . . . we . . . ,” I stammered. “Well, Mama's not gonna be too happy that some of the icing is gone from that fancy cake."
"You two snitch a little lick before dinner?"
I smugly answered, "Leona."
Aunt Ethel started to laugh. "I always thought that girl was just the spitting image of Lewis. Your papa used to get a swat across the tail from Ma for doing the same thing."
"He did?" I could hardly believe Papa would do anything to earn a switch.
"Sure enough," she said. "He’d make Ma so mad when he couldn't keep his fingers off the cake."
"Who did?" Leona asked from the doorway.
"Papa," I answered, happy to see my sister returned at last. "He used to eat the icing off the cake, just like you."
"No!" she said in awe as she entered the store and walked toward us.
I tried to mimic the timbre of Aunt Ethel's voice. "Sure 'nough." Both she and Leona laughed at my imitation.
"Then I guess Papa can't get too mad at me for this one," Leona said, smiling. "We've got proof positive right here in you, Aunt Ethel. Want to come home with us for dinner so we can use you as a reminder?"
"She’s already coming to dinner," I said. "To see the company all the way from Louisville." I took another lick of the peppermint in my hand.
"Louisville," Leona said, her eyes growing wide, taking in the importance. Louisville was over thirty miles from Hancock’s Chapel.
"Yep, Louisville. Aunt Ethel knows who it is, but she won't tell." I pulled my mouth down into a huge frown, hoping to encourage her to give us a hint.
"Can't. It's a surprise," Aunt Ethel said, handing a stick of candy to Leona.
"You know I like surprises," I said, and Aunt Ethel laughed.
"We'd better get going before Herb gets there and there isn't a lick of icing left, or cake for that matter," Aunt Ethel said. "He's just as bad as you and your papa, Leona, when it comes to icing on the cake." She called toward the back of the store to let Mr. Wenning know she was leaving, then took my hand in her left and Leona's in her right, and we were off down the dusty road toward home. We chattered and giggled and sang all the way, happy to be with her, but it wasn't nearly long enough before we arrived.
"Helen," Mama said as soon as I stepped into the front door. Leona was a half a step behind me, still not across the threshold.
"Yes," I said, swallowing hard.
"You and Leona need to go outside and wash up. Go on with you now."
Aunt Ethel went into the house. We scurried around back to the pump, splashed water into the bucket, and furiously scrubbed our hands.
"You think she knows?" I asked.
"My cake!" Mama yelled the second the words left my mouth. My stomach dropped.
"She knows," Leona said. "I guess we might as well go face her."
I figured we’d get a scolding at the very least like Leona got this morning because of me. Hand in hand, we approached the back door to the kitchen, our heads bowed, stopping at the door frame to wait for the lecture. Nothing happened. After a second I realized Mama was standing in the kitchen, chuckling. Hesitantly, I looked at Leona and then toward Mama.
Then I saw them. Standing on the other side of the cake, each with a finger packed with icing, stood Papa, Uncle Herb, and Grandpa Heffner, all the way from Louisville. Their sheepish grins proved they were caught in the act of swiping a lick of Mama's special icing.
"What am I ever going to do with all you children?" Mama laughed as she reached over to hug Grandpa.
Aunt Ethel gave a knowing smile to Leona and me before she gave us both a big hug and whispered, "I told you your papa and Uncle Herb couldn't stay away from the icing. You got away with it this time, Leona Mae."
I could almost feel myself holding that china doll.
Copyright 2009 by Lu Ann Brobst Staheli; author retains all rights to the story