We have just learned a song called “My Favorite Things.” Mrs. Shields sings and plays piano on a squeaky stool, and kindergarten is better than any class so far because the teacher likes me—I can tell—and because my mother hasn’t had to come in for a conference about my habit of talking to myself or counting everything I touch or memorizing phrases that don’t matter. I am older now, better at hide-and-seek and better at hiding in general. I have a loose front tooth and as soon as it falls out, I will add my name to the tooth fairy’s list and choose a prize from the special bag.
Best of all, winter has surrendered to spring like a jumped piece on the checkerboard. Whenever the wind comes up, the trees snow blossoms everywhere, and the bright faces of tulips billow in the flowerbeds, and Mrs. Shields says we are making an Easter present to share with our families at home. It’s a book, she says, and I wiggle my tooth and rock in my chair, barely able to contain my excitement. A book! she says. We are going to write our own books!
“This isn’t a story book, though,” Mrs. Shields explains, peering into my face as she says it.
My hand in the air at once, like a reflex, like the doctor striking my knee: “But what other kinds of books are there?”
“Each of you is going to make a book of favorites,” she says. “On one side of the page, you’ll put the answer to a question about a favorite thing, and on the other side, you can draw a picture of that thing.”
“What are the questions?” I demand.
“Patience, dear Julie,” the teacher smiles, taking hold of my waving hand. “You will bring home with you tonight a sheet of questions. Ask a parent to help you read them out loud and fill in your answers. Tomorrow you can begin to transfer what you’ve written into your book and after that, I’ll help you choose a cover.”
“Can I use scratch-and-sniff stickers?” I plead.
Mrs. Shields lays a finger over her lips. “We’ll talk about that tomorrow.”
My father is traveling again, and my mother is sewing his shirts while a game show blares on TV. I stand by her chair, sifting through the jar of buttons. “Did you need something?” she asks.
“I have homework,” I say, feeling older now but trying to act casual about it.
“All right. Homework is important. Meet me at the kitchen table.”
We sit at the table together, my mother and I, she with her steaming teapot and I with my special name cup. “Did you name me after Julie Andrews?” I ask, fingering the lacy letters of my name and thinking of Mary Poppins.
She shakes her head and studies my first assignment. “No. I named you after a little girl I knew, a student in my fourth-grade class.”
“Your student—a girl you taught?”
My mother nods. “She was a very good girl. She always listened and did what she was told, and she had beautiful, natural-curly hair.” Now my mother looks at me, but it is hard to understand her expression, the way she doesn’t frown or smile or even make an arch in her brow. “I hoped someday I would have a little girl just like her.”
“Okay,” I say. “Could you ask me the first question now?”
“Where is your favorite place to go?”
“That’s easy—Enchanted Village!”
She hesitates but doesn’t write it down. “I think they want you to choose a more private place.”
“What about Albertson’s? I like it there because you always let me have a cookie.”
“No, too public. We don’t want everybody knowing our business, where we buy our groceries…What about home?” she suggests.
“School,” I say, searching for a compromise.
My mother is silent for a moment as she prints the word. “Well, at least Mrs. Shields will like that answer.” Then: “What is your favorite thing to do?”
“Read Amelia Bedelia books and write stories!” I don’t hesitate and neither does she, so apparently this is an acceptable answer.
“When is it my turn to write down the answers?” I prod.
“You can copy them after we’ve finished. That way, you’ll know just what to write and won’t have to even think about it. Now—what is your favorite thing to wear?”
She shakes her head again, and I watch the little moons of disappointment rise in her eyes. “Your teacher will think we let you lounge around in your pajamas all day. Try again.”
“Did you know Grandma June calls them my pajumps? She always says, ‘It’s time to get your pajumps on!’”
My mother isn’t listening. “What about a French dress? You love those low-waisted dresses with a bow pinned at the side.”
“Not as much as I love my pajamas, or my overalls,” I reply, but she is writing already, and I strain to see over her shoulder.
“What did I tell you about those overalls?” My mother lays down her pen and holds my chin close to her face, so close I can trace the contours of her rouged cheeks and painted lips. I realize I have never seen my mother without make-up. “Your overalls are for playing in the garden, but they are not appropriate for daily dress or going out in public.”
“But you did let me wear them to the fair.”
“Yes—once,” she concedes. “What you have to learn is the difference between an exception and a rule.”
Before I can press her further on this matter, the telephone rings, and my mother stretches the long cord into the dining room so she can speak to the caller in private. In her absence, I read the last question quietly to myself: “What is your favorite food?”
I take my pencil and print in big, shaky letters: Hot dogs with lots of musterd.
“Julie, your father wants to talk to you,” my mother summons, and for this, she only has to call me once. I pop up like a jack-in-the-box and perch myself on the kitchen counter.
“Did you lose that tooth yet?” my father asks.
“Not yet, but close. Janna Blaschke says her father tied a string around her tooth and tied the string to a doorknob and then slammed the door. Do you think you could do that after you get home?”
He chuckles. “That sounds like it would hurt. Why don’t we have an apple-eating contest instead?”
“Well, we’ll both bite into as many apple slices as we can, and maybe your tooth will come out in the process.”
“Where are you right now?”
“Terre Haute, Indiana,” he says, “but remember—I’m flying home tomorrow.”
I remember, and a feeling warm as bath water floods my chest. “Guess what? I’m working on my book of favorites,” I say proudly.
“It’s where you answer questions about what you like best, and then the teacher helps you make a cover, and you bring it home and put it out on your coffee table for everybody to see.”
“Maybe,” I hear my mother murmur in the background.
“What do you mean?”
But before she can answer, my father asks, “Can I hear what the questions are and what you said?”
“Sure. Mom, let me read Dad my answers.”
She hands me the worksheet, then opens the refrigerator to begin the dinnertime forage.
“My favorite place to go—I said school.”
“I’m glad you like school,” he says. “I thought you would say Lincoln Park and our trips to Taco Bell on weekends.”
“I like those, too. Should I change it?”
“No, of course not. Put whatever you want.”
“My favorite thing to do is read and write.” My mother has edited out Amelia Bedelia books and stories.
“Even I could have guessed that,” my father says and laughs his affirmation.
“My favorite thing to wear is—French dresses.” The lie has a grainy taste that sticks between my teeth.
“Really? Okay.” I can tell from his tone that my father doesn’t believe it either.
“And my favorite thing to eat is—” I look down at the page, but my words are gone. Instead of hot dogs with mustard, the entry now reads broccoli and cauliflower, printed with a ballpoint pen.
“Let me guess,” my father grins, and it’s funny because I can hear his smile without actually seeing it. “You like the hot dogs your daddy makes, nice and wrinkly at the ends with a big mustard snake down the middle.”
I watch my mother shred a head of lettuce on the counter beside me. She splits the green confetti between two bowls and then, with perfect concentration, begins to slice the carrots and the radishes, the slim disks of purple onion.
“Right,” I say, feeling my shoulders slump, the balloon of my stomach turn soft and flat. “You’re right.” My mother doesn’t look up, and my father says his good-byes, and when I go into the bathroom to wash my hands, I stand a long time in front of the mirror, then reach up and yank that silly tooth out.
This is a wonderful piece operating on several levels. The voice and actions of the child were so authentic. The tension is subtle, but portentous …
Beautifully written. Loved it.