I stack the logs in the oven and make it real hot before I put my biscuits in. Mama says if you want to make a good biscuit, you have to cook them high and fast, no one wants a half bake biscuit. I’m only thirteen but I think I can make them just about as good as Mama’s. I watch them carefully as they bake; they rise into a nice golden brown but I’ll wait just a little longer. We all like them crispy in this house.
“Ooh-wee, what’s that you got cookin’ girl?” Daddy asks cheerfully.
He grins revealing a full set of teeth, which is rare for these parts. I always wondered how he managed to have such a nice smile with all of his teeth still there. He’s dressed in the same red flannel and jeans that he always wears, tucking the flannel into his jeans as he sits down at the table. His dark almost black hair and loose curls hang all over his head unable to agree on one direction but it doesn’t really matter, he’ll be wearing a hat most of the day.
“I made the biscuits today Daddy” I answer proudly, blushing a little at my accomplishment.
“Oh boy. I bet they are as good as ever. I reckon you’re becomin’ a good cook like your mama.” He says, glancing at Mama who’s just finishing the gravy, and gives me a wink.
I check the biscuits and see that they’ve turned from golden brown to an almost chestnut brown; they’re perfect. Lifting my apron, I use it to protect my hands as I grab the scorching hot tray out of the oven. Carefully, I slide the biscuits into a serving bowl and take it to the table where it’s greeted by bacon, eggs, and the gravy, still bubbling a bit that mama just put on the table.
“Breakfast is ready!” she calls to the rest of the clan. Anxious bodies swarm to the table but know better not to touch the food. Daddy sits at the head of the table; all heads look to him for direction. When he begins to bow his head, we follow.
Daddy speaks slow and loud for all of us to hear.
“For this and all we are about to receive, make us truly grateful, Lord. Through Christ we pray. Amen.”
I know he’s happy to be able to provide for us. Other folks aren’t so lucky and don’t have a daddy like we do. They’re lucky if they get grits or anything in the morning.
We all eat fast except for Roby and Malloy. They don’t know what time means until it’s there staring them right in the face. Mama is always telling them to hurry up and to stop dillydallying. I’m sure it was the same when I was little and eventually I got used to moving along. We all do.
Daddy stands up and takes his last sip of coffee and walks over to the sink to Mama who’s already washing the dishes, handing it to her. I stand next to her drying the dishes. She's wearing her old tattered house dress and her sleeves are rolled up; her blonde hair is up in a wobbly bun like it always is and small wisp try to escape, standing straight up like the devil's horns; she’s hard at work scrubbing the dishes for eight people.
“Bye Mama,” he says as he kisses her with a loud smooch on her tanned cheek leaving behind a bit of slobber. She smiles but doesn’t take her eyes off the pan she’s scrubbing. There’s no time to stop her work for a goodbye.
“Bye, Daddy. You take care and try not to rip your britches this time" she scolds him lovingly.
“I won’t dear," he responds and then looking at me, “Be a good girl and help your mama today”.
“I will,” I say loudly as he’s walking out the door.
I watch him out the window as I continue to dry the dishes. He’s going to town to get tools and then he’s going to start building another barn. The animals are getting too crowded in the small one we have. I wish I could go with him but I don’t bother asking. I have asked enough already to know the answer will be no. So instead, I daydream. I picture daddy telling me it’s ok this time and that he’s taking me with him. Town, in my mind, is only what daddy has told me from his stories. I close my eyes and I can see the bank, hardware store, and the fabric shop on one side and the other side, the grocery store, hotel, and diner. I think I would like to go to this side of the street. I would pick out my own candies from the grocery store, something that daddy usually does and brings back for us kids. I might even hide a couple for myself for later. I’d watch the beautiful girls walk by in their dresses and ask them where they’d buy them so I could buy one too. Then I’d travel to wherever they said they got their dress from and pay with my own money. Own money. I wonder if I’ll ever really have any of my own money. I take a foot out of my daydream and remember where I actually am.
“Mama, how come we don’t go with Daddy to town?” I ask while slowly drying a dish.
Mama seems a little impatient as she hands me another dish. I struggle to hold both at the same time and get the hint to hurry along.
She answers annoyed, “Maggie, now I’ve done and told you before. We have to keep house here, and besides daddy has business to attend to and it isn’t appropriate for little girls to tag along.”
I know she won’t say any more on the subject so I quit asking for now. She always has the same answer; I wonder why I bother asking. I do as Daddy says and help mama with the chores: feeding and tending of the animals and then the washing. Then it’s a quick lunch of yesterday’s soup beans and we’re back to scrubbing dishes, snapping beans, and churning butter all while making sure the youngins aren’t getting into any trouble.
Daddy returns close to supper time and everyone stops what they’re doing to greet him.
“Daddy, daddy!” the little ones say jumping up and down and reach for him to pick him up.
Daddy sets the bag in his hands down next to him and picks Roby and Malloy up with each arm, dragging them like two sacks of potatoes and having to set them down once they’re inside. I pick up the bag and follow after them.
“What did you bring us?” Flora, the six-year-old, asks clapping her hands.
“Well, well, what did I bring you?” he asks like he’s forgotten.
He reaches into the bag and springs out a new tool.
“Oh, I know, it’s this brand new hammer!”
“No!” the little kids answer while giggling.
“Tell us what you really brought us, please Daddy?” says Sam, the eight-year-old that often pretends to be more mature than he really is.
“Well, what I really brought you… was a big ol’ bear hug”
Upon yelling the word bear, he lunges forward to give Sam a hug, wrestling him to the ground. The other kids pounce on his back but not me, I’m too old for such childish games. He is no match to five children and is now stuck to the ground.
“Mama, help me!” he asks, pretending like he’s been defeated in battle.
“You got yourself into this Mr. Mullins and I think you should find a way out” Mama teases.
He sticks out an arm but mama doesn’t reach for it so I do. Someone has to. I pull but the kids overtake Daddy and me. I forgot how much fun it can be playing around.
“Ok, ok, want to see what’s in the bag?” he asks breathless.
The trick works and all the kids bounce off of Daddy like grasshoppers. They ask what’s in the bag but they already know. It’s going to be candy, like always. He pulls out a bag of cherry sours, my favorite, and hands it to me.
“Thanks Daddy!” I say happily digging my hand into the bag.
He gave it to me because he knew I’d be fair and share it with the youngins. I’m handing out small handfuls to them all when I see him reaching back into the bag. More candy I assume.
“Now, I gotcha ya’ll something real nice this time” Daddy announces.
I can tell he’s excited. I give daddy my attention to see what the fuss is all about but everyone else is too involved with their candy. In his hands, he’s holding a box that looks like it has a picture of lights on it. Nothing I have ever seen before.
“This here is called a Lite Brite”
The word Lite Brite catches their attention and they run over to Daddy. He gets on one knee so the youngins can see the box better. Pointing to the box daddy explains further.
“You see here?”
He points to the little lights.
“You stick them in this board here and it makes a picture. When you turn it on, it all lights up.”
Mary, the nine-year-old who’s usually quiet asks, “What do you mean it lights up? We ain’t got no lights”
“Oh that’s alright, it has batteries, I’ll show you.”
Daddy starts to open the package. To the left I see Mama eyeing him with a look that asks “can we afford this?” He answers back with that smile that she loves and she’s reassured.
Lights without electricity and batteries; what are these new things Daddy is talking about? It sounds almost like magic. The youngins are really interested now. They peer over his shoulder as he pops a piece out the back to reveal two small pieces resembling logs.
“This is what makes it light up, the electricity is in there.”
“Wow!” the boys say in unison.
“Let’s play with it,” one kid says but I can’t tell who. I’m still thinking about how electricity can get into a battery. Doesn’t seem to make much sense. Makes me feel like there’s a lot I don’t know about. I watch the kids find a black piece of paper with a picture of a boat on it while Daddy shows them how to put it on the board. I’ve never even seen a real boat before.
“Daddy, where did you get this from?” I ask.
I didn’t know they had anything like this in our town. He walks over to me to answer me.
“There’s a new toy shop in town,” Daddy tells me quietly. “But don’t let your brothers and sisters know about it, they’ll bug me half to death to go there every time I’m in town."
“Maybe I could go with you sometime, I could help you carry some things, not just toys.”
Laughing, Daddy dismisses my request.
“You know I wouldn’t make you carry my things. I would bring one of your brothers for that but they’re still too young yet.”
I sigh; there’s no use arguing. Mama can see my disappointment and tries to make it better
She suggests “Why don’t you go and help them make a picture?” her hands grabbing my shoulders for a half hug.
I don’t want them to think I’m ungrateful for such a nice gift so I go over to the kitchen table with the others. I take the small plastic crayon-looking pieces and punch them into the holes. Making the punching sound is kind of fun and soothing. When it’s all finished, we close the shutters and count to three to turn it on. An aura of colors brightens the room to show a boat on the water. This must be what it’s like having lights in the house. As easy as flipping a switch.
The youngins clap and holler “let’s make another one!” but Mama puts a stop to it.
“That’s real nice what Daddy bought but now it’s time to wash up for supper. Y'all can play with it some other time.”
We all wash up and I help Mama set the table. The food is good, Mama’s cooking is always good but I take my time eating. I’m still thinking of that boat. I imagine being on it and traveling to a faraway land. When I get there, the lights shine from all the tall buildings and someone offers me a fancy new dish to try. I never worry about chores again, just like a princess from those fairy tale books Mama reads us.
I know it isn’t real but could it be? Maybe not like a princess but something close to it. Could I sail away on a boat from here? No, I’d have to get off the mountain first, then I’d sail in a boat and go to the first city I see. I’d have a different life from here. A better life, an easier life.
Now I feel awful. It’s not like I’m not appreciative for all I have but I know there has to be something more out there. I would miss Mama and Daddy but they just don’t understand. They’re happy living life like this and I’m not. I’m too restless. But I’m also too young to go anywhere by myself. I’ll just have to wait a little longer. I’ll make a promise to myself now: When I graduate high school I’m going to leave Kentucky. I’ll get on a bus and head north and see where it takes me.
It’s only four more years.