Thelma decided to serve her family their Thanksgiving dinner in the front room like her mother had on certain occasions. Besides, she didn’t want Henry dribbling tobacco juice into the kitchen sink with everyone watching. He would have to leave the room, or better yet, take out his chew before he sat down.
She counted the plates and realized she had set one too many. After her mother died, Thelma continued to save her space at the table until one day her father reached across and pulled Freddie next to him. Everyone shifted and the void was filled. Today, her mother would be remembered. She shoved Freddie’s highchair down one place setting.
She returned to the kitchen as Iggy dropped a hot cover back onto the pan and yelped. He danced in front of the stove with his fingers in his mouth.
“Get out of there,” Thelma scolded. “Dinner ain’t ready yet.”
“Just checking how everything tastes.”
“Well, does it pass inspection?”
“I’m not sure. I better check them sweet potatoes.” He swiped his finger through the pot steaming on the stove, licked the hot sticky goo and ducked Thelma’s playful blow.
“Get out of my kitchen. Or, make yourself useful and put a chair at each place setting.” He dragged chairs across the floor banging them into the woodwork. “Be careful and leave Freddie’s highchair where I put it.”
“Why we eating in the front room? We got company coming?”
“I told you to call it a parlor.” She shook her head. “Have you forgotten already?”
“Used to be the front room.” He grasped the arms of his father’s chair, held them like the reins of horses and steered out of the kitchen. He returned and grabbed Arnie’s chair. “Pa calls it the front room.”
“Today it’s a dining room, and never you mind about company.” She enjoyed his confusion and decided to keep Henry’s invitation a secret.
“Hey, you set too many plates.” Iggy stood in the archway and counted on his fingers, “Pa, Arnie, George, Herman, Ralph, you, me and Freddie makes eight. You got ten plates.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Thelma fibbed. “Father Reinhardt and his sister are coming to dinner.” Before he could react, she pointed on the stove. “Take hot water out to the porch and wash up good for dinner.” To annoy him, she added, “And don’t forget behind your ears.” She followed him as far as the door and listened.
“Thelma’s lost her mind. Father Reinhardt and his prissy sister’s gonna eat with us.” Iggy stammered, “She’s set two extra plates.”
“Naw. One of them’s for Henry.” George wiped his razor with his finger and flicked a glob of shaving cream speckled with black bristles at Iggy. “Pa made me drive to his place yesterday to invite him. He don’t got no phone.”
“What about the second plate?” Iggy wiped the soap from his shirt and scraped it into the slop pail.
“Maybe it’s for Ida, coming to thank me for helping her with the chores,” Ralph chuckled, “and other stuff.”
Iggy didn’t laugh with his brothers.
“Imagine Thelma’s face if Ida sat next to her.” Ralph slapped his knee, tears in his eyes. “She’d throw Ida’s plate away, not bothering to wash it.”
Thelma stood in the doorway and said, “Knock it off. I know when you laugh like that it’s something dirty what’s tickled you. Besides, dinner’s almost ready. When Uncle Henry gets here we can eat.”
Soon the splashing and towel slapping stopped, and all four brothers traipsed through the kitchen sniffing at the aromas.
“Where’s the table?” George glanced around the room.
“We’s eating in the front room today.” Iggy puffed up his chest.
“The parlor, Iggy.” She tossed the towel over her shoulder and made a pushing gesture with both hands. “We’re eating formal so get upstairs and dress for dinner. I got your good clothes laid out on your beds.”
Svez and Arnie sat at their respective ends of the table unfazed at the change in procedure. Thelma felt proud when her brothers, dressed in their Sunday best, joined them.
“We’re ready. Where’s the grub?” George yelled into the kitchen.
“Just hold your horses.” Thelma stood in the archway, hands on her hips. “I’ll bring you guys something to drink, and you can talk about the weather or something while we wait for Uncle Henry.” She glared at Ralph. “No more smart talk about going to see Ida.” She returned with the coffeepot and noticed Ralph, red-faced and avoiding eye contact.
When a car entered the yard, Thelma opened the kitchen door and began filling the serving platters. Henry stomped into the porch, stood in the doorway and stared into the kitchen.
“We’re eating in the parlor, Uncle Henry.” She picked up a platter of chicken and glanced over her shoulder. “Go in and sit down.”
Henry’s nostrils flared. “Parlors is fer dead people.” He glanced around, put two fingers and a thumb into his mouth and removed a squishy chew of tobacco.
“Put it in the slop pail under the sink and take a seat next to Uncle Arnie.” She felt strange calling Arnie uncle, and it apparently annoyed him because he stood and picked up his plate as he did when things didn’t suit him.
She set the chicken on the table, walked over to him and touched his arm. “Please, Arnie, eat with us today.”
For a tense moment, Arnie and Henry stood motionless, their eyes fixed on each other until Svez said, “Here, Henry. Come sit next to me.” He tapped George’s shoulder. “Move down and make room for Henry.” Arnie settled onto his chair.
Thelma whispered, “Thank you, Arnie.” When Freddie banged his spoon on the tray of his high chair, she said, “There goes the dinner bell,” and everyone laughed except her father. She wondered if the extra place setting annoyed him. Would he pull Freddie to his side and push Ma away from the family again? He didn’t. Others glanced at the empty space but no one said anything.
When Thelma returned from the kitchen with dessert, George cleared his throat and said, “Why don’t you sit at Ma’s place from now on?”
She felt pleased and honored as her brothers and her father nodded in agreement.
Exhausted from preparing, serving and cleaning up after the holiday dinner, Thelma took a break from preparing the following evening meal. She checked the apple pies in the oven. The men—she thought of them as men even though her father called them boys—hadn’t said anything about cold sandwiches for lunch, but they might object to a supper of leftovers. She took the pies from the oven and set them next to the fresh bread already cooling on kitchen counter. They’d better not complain about her cooking when they came to the house after evening chores. She had a few hours to herself.
The parlor felt oppressively quiet after the clamor yesterday, but slowly melted into a comfortable blend of wind driving the sleet against the north side of the house and the whisper of her voice as she sang her favorite church hymns. She knew different songs, but polkas and other fast tempo dance tunes didn’t fit the solemn mood of this lonely, snowy afternoon. She gathered her mother’s shawl around her shoulders. The kitchen would have been a warmer place to work, but no one moved the table back. From the lower drawer of the buffet, she removed her quilt stacked in a bundle of neatly cut squares. She selected a shiny piece of black cloth, glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching and fingered it tenderly as she touched it to her nose and lips.
“I know I did wrong, Mama, but I needed something from you. If heaven is so wonderful, the angels won’t care about a hole in your funeral dress.” She pressed the cloth against her breast. “You don’t need it as much as I do. No one at your wake ever noticed, not even the Christian Mothers who checked real careful if I had prepared you proper.”
Momentarily amused by the vision of her mother having to explain the missing material to long-deceased relatives, Thelma’s dark mood returned. She pressed the square from the dress against the table and placed a larger piece from her baptismal gown beside it. The sharp contrast of black and white pleased her.
“Mama, you’ll be the centerpiece.” The quilt would keep her mother’s spirit alive, and Thelma could forgive her for putting it off. She framed the dark piece with the white one. “You baptized me and made me a Christian.” Afraid she offended her mother with her anger over the unfinished quilt, she said, “Because you taught me how to sew, this quilt will be from you. I’ll complete all the things you couldn’t when God took you away.” She remembered the advice her teacher, Miss West, gave. “And, I can still find time for me.”
Thelma smiled. Miss West had cautioned her to look out for herself, because she was the only girl among many brothers, each making demands on her. Thinking about her teacher and pleasant school memories, Thelma searched the bundle for cuttings from her graduation dress. Her mother’s reaction four years earlier when Thelma cut up her clothes pressed on her mind.
The room darkened as the sun dropped below the trees in back of the house. She pulled the string on the single light bulb above her head and saw her reflection in the window.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I just had to do it. I was still a little girl then.”
The dress reminded her of graduation day and the strange advice Miss West gave her like an assignment due some time later in her life. After excusing the rest of the students for summer recess, Miss West walked to the back of the room where Thelma and Iggy sat and congratulated her eighth grade class of two students.
She handed Iggy his diploma and told him about the school board’s decision to let him graduate even if he hadn’t passed all his final exams. He began to cry. She held out his diploma with one hand and her handkerchief with the other. She excused him to join his friend, Larry Collins, who had been peeking through the window. Iggy grabbed his diploma, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and ran outside. Miss West tucked her handkerchief back into her sleeve and sat at Iggy’s desk.
Larry graduated the year before, and Thelma felt he came to taunt Iggy, assuming he wouldn’t receive a diploma. She was proud of her brother and stuck out her tongue at Larry. She felt uncomfortable with her teacher so close and started to fidget with the frills on her dress.
“What a beautiful dress. You look so grown up.”
“Ma and me . . . I mean, my mother and I made it special for graduation. Iggy got a store-bought shirt and pants from York’s in town.” She paused, sensing her teacher wasn’t interested in those details, and the room, usually filled with noisy students became eerily quiet.
Miss West smiled and said, “The very first day you came to school, I saw a spark of light that has since developed into a delicate flame. If you’re not careful, it will flicker and may even go out. You must fight to keep it alive.”
Confused, yet now comfortable with her teacher so close, she said, “I will.”
“The demands of adult life can squelch a woman’s spirit quite easily. There are lots of men in your family who might take advantage of your fire, and it will extinguish if you are not on your guard.”
Thelma nodded, confident her teacher meant something different from a real fire but wasn’t sure what. Like reading books, the real meaning had to be figured out.
“They’ll mistake your enthusiasm for a need to please and expect you to wait on them. Your role as a woman is important, and you must be on guard to defend your dignity. Living with a house full of men, you must constantly remind yourself how special you are.”
Back in the one-room country school, a thirteen-year-old Thelma felt confused. At seventeen, she thought she understood what the flame inside meant, and the possibility of losing it frightened her. But George, Herman or Ralph weren’t the problem. Except for some of their crude jokes, they always respected her privacy. Rather, poor innocent Iggy, as Miss West sometimes called him, snooped from the roof of the porch when she bathed.
Like a thunderbolt, her anger turned white hot and she screamed, “Pa is one of the men Miss West meant!” This revelation exploded like coffee boiling over in an open kettle. The strength of her voice disturbed the silence of the parlor and startled her. Cautiously, she began to release the feelings she had been harboring.
“You’re a good person, Pa, the way you took Freddie and how you treat Arnie. You’re kind to Iggy, and I know you’re proud of George and Herman and Ralph. Freddie and I never have to be afraid of your anger because you don’t get mad like a lot of other fathers.” She paused and then shouted, “I trusted you.” She found the key to release the anger she had buried and hoped would never surface.
“You violated me!” The words and their force frightened her, but she catapulted forward. “I was an innocent little girl playing house while my mother wasn’t there to protect me. You allowed me,” she paused to find a stronger word, “made me touch you in a way no daughter should touch her father. You should’ve stopped me. You’re my father.”
All the memories of what happened the day Svez was injured vanished when the taboo of the second incident with him in her mother’s bed, hidden even deeper in her heart, broke loose. The dam burst. In her mind, she replayed his sexual penetration.
This time she screamed, “Stop, Pa! Stop!” He didn’t stop and she again felt the pain and the humiliation. She sobbed and confronted him. “You made me feel dirty. Even if you didn’t want it to happen—I had to make myself believe you didn’t—it did happen. When I awoke in Ma’s bed, I blamed myself.” She put her hands on her hips. “It wasn’t my fault.” She stared at the black cloth with its white border. “I tried to explain to Mama it was an accident. I don’t think she understands. I don’t understand.”
Through a rush of tears, Thelma stared at the bay window covered with smears of frost making sweeping swirls around central vortexes. At another time, she would have interpreted them as angels or as her mother or as devils. She saw none of these. Her mind and her emotions were chaotic. All she saw were swirls of frost on a cold bay window in the parlor.
Svez found his voice after savoring the aroma of baked bread and apple pie. “Anyone in the house?” He glanced toward the front room where Thelma stared at something she was sewing. She didn’t seem to notice him. He left as quietly as he had entered. Trusting his sixth sense of trouble brewing, he felt bewildered by a gnawing urge he had conquered years ago. He wanted alcohol, felt he needed a drink to erase the pain he couldn’t understand. He sought the refuge of the barn to sort out his feelings.
He didn’t eat supper with his family. Instead, he spent the evening with the livestock wrestling demons. When he was sure everyone had gone to bed, he meandered back to the house and was surprised to see dirty dishes on the table in the front room. He expected to see Iggy asleep on the couch and Freddie nestled in his crib alongside his bed. The couch was vacated and the crib was missing. He took off his shoes and carried them back to the porch. He went upstairs, checked the boys’ room and saw Iggy sprawled out on his bed. He heard Thelma’s voice and assumed she was consoling a fussy baby. He tiptoed back downstairs and crawled into bed.