Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Cynthia Pitman

The hand-stitched hem
of my home-made dress
is a little uneven.
The seam of the right sleeve puckers.
The back zipper buckles
and the pattern in the cloth
doesn’t match up.
The bodice is too big,
the skirt too tight.
Loose threads here and there
shed everywhere.
The dress is a mess,
but I don’t care.
It’s mine. I made it.
And its little lavender flowers
with their tiny green leaves
make me feel sweetly wrapped
in the delicate scent of spring.

For an extra 25 cents an hour,
I iron while I babysit
three little boys under six.
Their father plays Jai Alai
and speaks no English.
Their mother plays housewife
and speaks no Spanish.
His white cotton dress shirts
need spray starch and steam.
I push my weight down hard
with my right arm
to smooth the wrinkles.
But the board has no pad.
A pattern from its metal surface
appears on the starched white shirt:
crisscrossed diamonds
embedded in the cloth.
I worry at first. This won’t work.
But I grow to like them,
this myriad of diamonds
the steam creates.
They sparkle from the starch.
They are my art.
Our washer and dryer
finally broke for good.
Since then, every Saturday morning
my father drives us girls
to the run-down laundromat
up the highway.
We trudge to the building,
lugging cracked plastic baskets
crammed full with the laundry
of our family of seven.
Filling the washers
with all the faded colors and dingy whites,
putting the quarters in the slots,
pulling the laundry out
after the washer stops churning,
putting it in the dryer
to spin and spin,
then pulling it out to fold –
all of these are dreary tasks
and make a dreary beginning
to the upcoming weekend.
But every Saturday morning, without fail,
when I pull the sheets from the dryer,
I gather them to my face
and breathe them in.
Then all my world
is warm and fresh and clean.

My mother does all the cooking.
“If there’s one thing I hate,
it’s kids in the kitchen.”
She says that all the time.
So I stand just outside
the doorway, peeking in,
hoping to discover her magic.
I can’t. I can’t see.
But after supper,
I get to go in the kitchen
all alone
and fix chocolate pudding –
the cooked kind.
I mix together hot bubbling milk
and Jello chocolate powder
in a pan on top of the stove.
When it stirs nice and thick,
I pour it into bowls.
Then I set the bowls
in the refrigerator to cool.
I haven’t much patience.
I look in again and again,
trying to discern if the pudding
is cold yet, and ready to serve.
My patience gives out.
I pull the bowls from the cold
refrigerator and pass them out.
A thin chocolate skin
has formed on the top
of the pudding. I eat that first.
Then I eat the top layer,
cool and creamy.
But it is only when I get
to the bottom of the bowl
and taste the still-warm chocolate
nestled in the heart of the pudding
fresh from the kitchen’s hearth
that I know I now know,
all on my own,
the secret alchemy of cooking.

My allowance is 50 cents a week.
Of that, 10% has to be tithed.
I put a nickel aside.
Of what is left, half has to be saved.
I cheat. I round down
and put two dimes away.
The remaining quarter
is mine-all-mine to spend.
When I add it to my babysitting
and ironing money, I have $3.25.
I then begin the mile-long walk
to the store-front shopping center
up the highway, next to the laundromat.
The sun is high.
I cross the burning asphalt parking lot
to the gift store. The front is all glass.
When I look through the windows
all I see is sparkling crystal,
fine porcelain. and painted tin.
I go in.
The shopkeeper gives me
a suspicious look.
I don’t know why.
Doesn’t he know I tithe?
I walk the aisles, carefully,
just to show him.
Then I see it:
on a shelf, behind glass,
is a teal tin music box
in a spiral shape –
a curving pyramid
with a pink-painted rose on the top.
This is it. This is what I want.
I look at the price: $2.69.
I can have it if I want!
I bravely tell the shopkeeper
my choice, then count out the change.
Still suspicious, eying me with misgiving,
he places the music box
in a slick paper bag and hands it to me
across the counter. I leave the gift store,
and begin my trek back home.
I hold the bag close
and cherish my very own treasure.

Now I am old.
At long last,
my struggling childhood is past.
I live a simple life alone.
I order what few clothes I need
from a catalog;
my eyes can no longer see
to thread a needle.
I make sure what I order
is crease-free polyester.
No cotton that grips wrinkles
and won’t let go.
I can’t lift an iron,
much less set up an ironing board.
The laundry is light.
A girl comes by on Saturdays
and takes care of it all in a single unit
in a closet in the hall.
Cooking is quick.
My meals are from a microwave.

A check from the government
comes each month.
No need to tithe;
my old bones
can’t make it to church.
No need to save.
Not many years are left.
So I have no troubles.
All is well.
But sometimes,
when the house is too quiet
and the night is too long,
I think about all the little joys
I culled from a long gone life,
when I was just a young girl
making do.


  1. abrokenbird and Eugenia, thank you so much for your lovely comments. They mean so much to me. These are actual memories from my life( but for the last one, which is a slight projection), so they are very dear to my heart.

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