|Patsy and David with Aunt May|
Patsy Miller was tired of waiting for her mom and little brother. Leaning against the back porch railing, she watched the mid-morning sun shine first on one windowpane then another as it found its way between the apartment buildings. Looking up she saw birds traveling from Sheffield Street to neighboring blocks. Looking down she saw squirrels scampering on vertical surfaces.
Patsy watched a playful breeze ruffle the hem of her new pink skirt. Chicago didn't have many warm spring days, but this one was almost perfect. Except for the waiting. Rats, Patsy said.
Last year Patsy's younger brother, David, had been an energetic 2 year old that enchanted people with his golden curls and smile. A few months later he suffered a seizure that forced him to wear leg braces. Most days Patsy didn't mind that it took her mother almost 15 minutes to coax David's metal-clad limbs into his trousers. Today was different.
To celebrate Easter, the family was going to take the "L," the rapid-transit train that swooped along elevated lines and dipped into subways, to visit her mother's oldest sister. Aunt May would have lunch ready by the time they reached the south side of Chicago, a special, once-a-year meal of baked meats, sweet potatoes and fluffy dinner rolls. And lots of dessert.
Patsy's arms were going to sleep from leaning against the railing for so long. The yard looked a lot sunnier than the back porch.
|Patsy, the summer before the fence|
incident, David, 3, and Jimmy, 12.
A few more seconds passed while Patsy investigated the area for interesting insects, lost marbles and other signs of spring. She smoothed her white blouse, which her mom had decorated with pink feather stitching along the collar, cuffs and both sides of the button placket. Her mom had worked on the garment a little bit each night in order to have it ready for today. Patsy spun a few times to make her felt skirt swoop in a circle. When she stopped with a dizzy sway, she was facing the fence.
This fence was more than an 8-foot high structure separating the neighbor's lot from the corner gas station. It was a rite of passage. If you could walk its length by the time you were 10, your friends said you were brave. If you mastered the fence by the time you were 8, you were precocious. Patsy was 7, and she had no fear of heights or broken bones.
She had tried walking the fence before now, but every time she got near the top, some of the big kids yelled at her to get down. They knew if a little one fell, they'd get in trouble for not watching out for their younger siblings. Others were less subtle and threw things such as dirt, rocks and cans.
Staring at the 6-inch pickets that blocked her view, Patsy heard a church bell chime. Soon the other kids would start walking back from church. But that wouldn't be for another hour. Patsy knew her mom couldn't see her, because the neighbor's house blocked the view of the fence. And the gas station was closed on Sundays.
Now's my chance, Patsy thought as she grabbed the rough surface of two broken slats. Wedging her feet into the improvised steps, Patsy wished she could trade her pretty outfit for some corduroy pants or a pair of shorts and her favorite pullover T-shirt. She liked to look pretty, but not if it interfered with life.
As Patsy struggled to pull herself onto the 2-by-4 stud that formed the top frame, her skirt snag on a jagged slat. Patsy never thought her skirt would tear. Now a hole as long as her hand gaped near the hem. Grease stained one sleeve of her blouse. But both feet were balanced on a piece of wood barely as wide as her shoe.
required a fancy dress. Rats!
Next she looked over the tops of her neighbors' garages. This was something she never could have seen while out walking or even while taking a rare car trip. She was looking into a whole other world, one with a brighter sun and fresher breeze.
It was time for the final test—walking the entire length of the frame before turning around and returning to the starting point, a roundtrip of 200 feet.
Too soon Patsy completed the circuit. She knew the rules stated that each kid had to climb the fence with at least a pair of witnesses. But Patsy knew she had been there today, and that was enough. It was time to go home.
Opening the back door, Patsy walked down the hallway toward David's bedroom. She always was getting dirty, so the grimy cuffs didn't concern her. She'd just point out the one other small problem. She felt sad about the skirt but knew her mom could fix this; her mom could fix anything.
"Mama, I tore my new clothes."
"What? I just made that outfit!" Helen cried. "What were you doing?" Her dreams of having a little princess were destined for the rag bag.
A few days later the blouse became a short-sleeved top, and the skirt suddenly sported an appliquéd poodle. Patsy thought the dog leash that went up to her waistband was very cute. What Patsy didn't like was that for the next several weeks she was confined to the house, watching the other kids run races and play Hide and Go Seek.
After she was sprung from her parental jail, Patsy still climbed the fence; she just waited until her mom was busy or at work. It was important to keep training, because the next rite of passage was just around the corner. She had to bang her hand on the gutter of the four-story apartment building by climbing up the back porches.
But fate planned a surprise for Patsy.
Oh she climbed the building all right, and she climbed it safely. Her mom never even found out, but Helen still got the ultimate revenge. You see, Patsy Miller is my mother. And instead of a tomboy, Mom got me—a little girl who insisted upon Mary Jane shoes, lace dresses and no dirt.
Rats, Patsy said.
For all of my readers who are mothers, I hope you had a special Mother's Day.