Gifts My Parents Never Gave Me, Part I

President Richard M. Nixon used to lament about his childhood, saying, “I never had a pony.” My parents did, however, give me a pony. He was a brown-and-white pinto with a hostile disposition. We shared an aversion to each other, from the day he was given to me. I hadn’t asked for a pony, as I recall, but my mother had her own ideas of what I needed. To entice me further to get better acquainted with Billy, she acquired a green cart with rubber tire wheels that could be hitched up to him. But I was too uninterested to learn how to put a harness on Billy. If I wanted to ride in the pony cart, I had to ask Uncle Jim, our handyman, who was brought up on a farm in Taney County, Missouri.  Even though he didn’t say so, he probably thought I should know by then how to hitch Billy up to the cart, for he always seemed testy when I asked him for help.

My maternal grandmother, who had Quaker parents and grandparents, had had a similar experience when she had asked her grandfather to “put that thing on the horse so we can go to town.”

“If thee can’t say ‘harness,’ I’m not going to take thee to town,” he had chided her.

I was given cello lessons that I also hadn’t asked for. Since I was the youngest by far in our immediate family (my sister was 25 years older and my brother, 20 years),  I think my mother wanted me to have every advantage my adult siblings had missed.  And because they were available, I was given recitation lessons, which no one else since Edwardian times had even heard of. At the time I must have been old enough to read because the only part I enjoyed about these lessons was the fact that when I used the teacher’s bathroom, I always noticed a pink jar of what was labeled as “vanishing cream” on her vanity. It intrigued me. What would happen if I put a dab of it on my hand? Would my hand disappear? How could I retrieve it? . . . One day during a break from practicing my current dramatic piece, I could resist no longer. I stuck my finger in the snowy cream and held it up. … No change. I waited. … Still no change . . .

“What are you doing up there?” My mother called.

With guilt, disappointment and relief, I hastily wiped the cream all over my hand. The cream, not my hand, vanished. “I’m coming,” I yelled back at Mother. That was the end of my fantasy about a gift I would’ve liked—the ability to come and go like Alice in Wonderland.

My parents did have gifts I wish they had passed on to me. My mother was a superb cook. Not the Julia Child kind of gourmet chef, but a “down-home” specialist.  Her fried chicken was famous throughout southwestern Missouri when she had her Half-A-Hill Restaurant five miles southeast of Springfield. Her chocolate cake with caramel frosting was legendary. She never seemed to measure any ingredient, and whatever she made came out the way it was supposed to, even better, as a matter of fact.

Mother had once been a seamstress. She had fashioned gowns for some of the wealthy matrons in Springfield. Consequently, if I came home from school and announced, “I’m the Queen of the May and I need a costume by tomorrow morning!” she could do it. How I wish that I had acquired her sewing skill. But I am inept at sewing, by hand or machine.

However, the gift I was given by my parents makes me eternally grateful to them. My mother’s love of education has been deeply instilled in me. From her entering me at birth in Greenwood, the lab school for what is now Missouri State University, to her determination that I would acquire a college education, which was an unattainable dream for herself. The day I was graduated from college was one of the happiest days in her life.