That afternoon as the school bus carried me the thirteen miles back to Opossum Kingdom, I still couldn't believe what happened in home room. So lost in my thoughts was I that the antics of rowdy schoolmates failed to pull me from them. Except for my obnoxious first cousin Patsy, who lived in town. I was glad when she got off the bus.
She hadnt been too pleasant about our class electing me as candidate for Kirksville High Schools 1952 Halloween Carnival Queen.
"You'll never win," she'd said. "Gail Hill is prettier than you. And her daddy's rich to boot. He'll buy her the most beautiful gown ever."
I had to admit that Gail was prettier, a ninth grader with long black shining hair and a big bust. Here I was a seventh grader, freckle-faced with hair that couldn't make up its mind whether to be blonde or brown. And hardly a start of a bust. As for money, we had most anything we wanted to eat but none for foolishness.
When the bus let me and my siblings off at the forks of the roads, in my daze of daydreams, I scarcely felt my feet touch down on the dirt lane that led home. I saw Mom in the yard beyond the scattered remains of the cornfield, my little brother on her hip.
I raced to her and when I told her the news she gave me a great hug. "That's wonderful," she said, her blue eyes sparkling.
I hurried into the kitchen, deposited my books on the table, found a Mason jar and lid, then made a slit in the lid wide enough for a half dollar to slip through.
Mom came in, my little sister tagging on her dress tail like always. "Go change your clothes; you've got chores."
"But, Mom, I need to make a sign for my vote jar." I eyed my older brother who had poked into the kitchen. "Don can shovel out the diary barn and get in the coal, can't he?" Don, such a mild-mannered boy, said nothing.
Mom shuttled me toward the bedroom. "You're not queen just yet."
A couple hours later, the chores done and the kitchen smelling of fried chicken, the four of us children sat at the supper table with Mom and Dad, a kerosene lamp spreading a golden glow over the small room.
Dad pulled a drumstick from the platter. "What's this I hear about you running for carnival queen?"
His tone sounded chastising and I felt my dream slip one notch lower. I never quite knew how to take him.
"You got money for a fancy gown?" he asked.
"Oh, Dan, don't," Mom said. "I can make her one for hardly nothing."
He chewed on a lump of chicken. "The cow feed I got Saturday's got some pretty flowers on the sacks."
My face burned as my dream of a blue rustling taffeta gown crumbled. Mom gave me a wink. It was then that I spotted my jar on the pie safe. She had sketched a likeness of me in crayon above the words, Vote for Me. She was a great artist, studying art through a correspondence course with Art Instruction all the way up in Indianapolis. I smiled and gave her a wink of my own. But I still worried about the feed sacks. Especially since Dad wasn't too happy with me over the "I like Ike" poster I made for the mock election at school next week. With him being a dyed in the donkey Democrat, he tore the poster into pieces and threw them in the cooking stove. "There'll be no Republican goings on in this house. Stevenson's the man to lead this country."
I managed to scoff down a few nibbles of fried gizzard while Dad gave an account of how many rafters and two by fours he'd nailed up at his carpenters job. That night after the lamps were out, I worried that I would let down my classmates. It seemed I had only closed my eyes when the henhouse roosters began their cock-a-doodle-doing to announce a new day. As annoying as they were it was a new day. I dressed in my favorite blue sweater and jeans, and after a breakfast of oatmeal and Ovaltine, slipped into my coat and out the door with my vote jar riding atop my books and my dreams high of returning home with it filled to overflowing with coins.
That afternoon I stepped from the bus, not walking on air but dragging my heels. The few coins in my jar clanked against the glass as a painful reminder of my failure.
"Oh, honey," Mom said. "You've got a fine start here." She dumped the coins into her palm. "A dollar ten cents. That's a hundred and ten votes, and the carnival isn't for three weeks." She grabbed a pencil and multiplied the numbers. "That's 1,270 votes."
"I felt horrible," I said. "I felt like I was begging. They gave me money when I know they had much rather have spent it for candy or a Coke in the school store. And I gave them nothing."
Mom stared out the window with that far away look she sometimes got, then she took off her apron, grabbed my hand and off we went without explanation, past the chicken house to the barn. She stopped in front of the corn crib and opened the door. Golden ears of corn rose halfway up the sides, a lot still bundled in their dried cream-colored husks.
"What do you see?" she asked.
I thought she'd gone crazy like Dad's sister Flora had before I was born. "Corn?" I said, more of a question.
A tiny bit of a woman, Mom hiked up her dress and climbed inside, the corn rolling under her feet. "Votes. Hundreds of votes." She began to rip husks from the ears that had them, and to carefully gather the dried brown and yellow silks stuck to the nub tops. "Help me."
I didn't question her. If she said they were votes, I felt certain she had something in mind that would lead to votes. After we gathered what she said was enough, she pulled me down beside her. "When I was a young girl, my grandmother, your great grandmother, she was Cherokee you know, she taught me to make corn husk dolls like her mother had taught her." A distant gaze came to her eyes. She swept her black hair from her face, and to me right then, she reminded me of the Cherokee woman who came to school and used Indian dolls to act out stories of her ancestors.
"The corn husk doll was the very first doll ever made in this land," she said with pride. Moments like these were hard to come by and I held my breath afraid she would stop talking or stop what she was doing. As if guided by an unseen hand, she began to piece the husks together. "One day, the Corn Spirit asked the Creator what more could she do for her people. He told her He would make a beautiful doll with a beautiful face from the husks, one that could walk and talk. And so He did. The doll went from village to village making children happy. Everywhere she went, everyone told her how beautiful she was. She became vain, and this angered the Creator. He warned her that if she did not change her behavior He would punish her. She promised never to be vain again. But one afternoon as she walked by a creek, she stopped and admired her reflection, thinking how beautiful she truly was. The all-knowing Creator called down a giant screech owl from the sky and before she knew what happened, it snatched her reflection from the water. Thereafter, corn husk dolls were made without faces."
Mom bent the arms of the doll she had made while telling the story and handed it to me. Even without a face or hair, she was beautiful with her tiny waist and long full skirt.
That night after supper, we sat at the kitchen table, dampening the silks and using matchsticks to roll them on to make springy long curls for the dolls I would make and sell at school. The next afternoon as soon as I got home, I did my chores in record time and set about making the dolls. The first two were really awful looking things. Discouraged but not beaten, I imagined myself in the corn crib watching each movement Mom's fingers made to form that first faceless doll. From then on my dolls took on the same beautiful shape.
I managed to make five or six a day, working by lamplight until Mom prodded me to bed. Some I gave blonde curls, some brown to black, and despite the fact that Mom said they couldn't have noses lest bad fortune come to me, she painted on eyes and lips from her paint set. Each morning my classmates and schoolmates clamored around with oohs and ahs and dropped ten cents to a quarter into my jar.
I scarcely had time to think about a gown, though when I did, I was reminded of what Dad had said about those feed sacks in the barn - white background with purple thistles and yellow sunflowers.
Two days before carnival as I sat making my dolls, I heard an unmistakable noise that sent a shiver of pure joy through me. Mom stood there holding up the most beautiful blue taffeta gown I could ever imagine.
"Oh, Mom, it's beautiful." I hugged her and whisked it from her hands. "Thank you." I raced into the bedroom, shooing Don out so I could try it on. Mom slipped in and zipped the zipper, me standing in front of the mirror, puffing up the short full sleeves. I caught Moms reflection peeking over my shoulder, her eyes shining with pride, perhaps tears to be reminded I was no longer a child.
October 31st, Halloween night, arrived on a full moon. Popcorn and caramel apples flavored the air as goblins and ghouls, and vampires roamed the school's hallways and the gym, terrorizing little children who held onto their parents' hands for dear life, while Cinderellas, princesses, and pirates entertained schoolmates with great flair.
Here I stood, proud in my homemade gown, while Gail Hill in her breathtakingly beautiful strapless gown and surrounded by classmates, flashed me a disdaining smirk. I gave her one of my own, as my jar contained more votes than the votes posted by her name on the six nominated candidates for queen blackboard behind Mrs. Dearing, one of my teachers. I handed her the jar and watched her post my 3,421 votes. So far, I held the lead, and she congratulated me on my hard work. I felt a stab of pride that my mother and great grandmother had provided me the gift that had made that possible. But the night was not over, nor the collecting of votes.
I pushed my jar at the people who smiled, and thanked them when a coin would be dropped through the slot, each penny precious. The rhinestone crown, and the necklace and earring set, would be any girls' dream, but my classmates had put their faith in me and I didn't want to disappoint them.
At eight-thirty, the cake walk was announced. People scampered up the steps to the stage to take part. The music could barely be heard over the buzz of conversation. I grew more nervous, because the queen was to be crowned after the game ended. I looked for Mom and Dad and found them at the voting booth, their eyes glued to the blackboard. I sucked in my breath. Gail Hill now held the lead. My heart sank as the music from the stage stopped.
"All candidates for Halloween Queen, please step to the stage."
Mom clutched my hand. "Go on, honey."
I know my shoulders drooped as I took my place on stage, and I hardly heard a word Principal McCray said, until he called my name. Mrs. Dearing took my hand and led me center stage, where she placed the crown on my head. Everyone applauded. And as I finally gained back my sense of reality, I spotted Patsy in the front row. She didnt look happy. Next to her stood Mom and Dad. He smiled and gave me a wink. That wink told a story in itself, one he would never admit to and maybe I was wrong, but I strongly suspected that he put up the money that won me the crown.
(A native Kentuckian, JB Hamilton Queen has enjoyed a variety of rewarding careers; fashion model, nightclub singer, fashion designer, manufacturer, novelist and short story writer. She and her husband live in Florida where she continues to enjoy writing, her favorite career.)
Yesterday's Magazette, Vol. 35 No. 3 - Fall 2008