When we lived on the farm, my father was a wheel in the Plainville Jaycees.
(Junior Chamber of Commerce… service to humanity… the brotherhood of man transcends the sovereignty of nations... earth’s great treasure lies in human personality, etc.)
Pop had already snagged the Outstanding Young Farmer award and was angling for Outstanding Young Man (Jaycees’ caps). All this upward mobility meant occasional weekends in the glamour locales (Salina, Wichita,
Often, Jaycee org chart climbing commitments overlapped with grandparental gallivanting. That meant only one thing for us kids:
A weekend with Mama Jo.
Short for Josephine, Mama Jo babysat Plainville progeny for generations.
Her house was old in 1964 and smelled like it. As did its inhabitants. Mama Jo was married to a slow-mover named Augie, who decades earlier made peace with his lot in life and his place in the pecking order of marital bliss.
Mama Jo’s furniture was covered in plastic wrap. Sitting on the couch was like fingernails on a blackboard.
A late ‘50’s vintage black and white television, which they converted into a “color tee vee” by applying red, blue and yellow cellophane across the front of the screen.
When Captain Kangaroo told us Mr. Green Jeans’ jeans were green, we bought it.
Not Mama Jo.
Breakfast brought another crisis. An assortment of cereal boxes and a carton of milk. Mama Jo and Augie wasted no time digging in. My sister and I were supposed to follow suit.
No Alpha-Bits, no Sugar Pops, no Trix, no Sugar Frosted Flakes (they’rrre grrrRRREAT!)
Mama Jo’s glare left no doubt about the expectation.
“Pick one and
it. That’s all there’s gonna be, boy.”
Middle child (me) left, youngest in the middle, big sis right.
Passing on breakfast was not an option. Mama Jo needed to preserve the ability to accurately report to the Outstanding Young Man and his bride that their children enjoyed three squares a day.
My big sister, all of seven, was hip to everything.
“Here,” she said, nudging what she discerned as the least-threatening of my choices (Ralston Purina Wheat Chex) toward me. “These taste kinda like Wheaties.”
My big sister knew I was a picky eater. But she also wanted to stay right with Mama Jo. Knowing the answer, she asked the next question anyway.
“Want to try some?”
I looked up at my big sister, wordlessly forlorn and beseeching (read: whining),
“But I don’t like these kinds of cereal.”
Viki’s return glance was just as prescient.
“I know. But you have to choose one.”
At some point when the smelly house, squeaky furniture, faux color tee-vee, and limited breakfast options simply become too much for a five-year old to bear, he just lets go of the fear and trusts his big sister.
Or at least, he trusts his big sister.
After choking down a few swallows of Ralston Purina Wheat Chex, big sis and I settled in on the couch and squeaked our way through Mr.
That evening, when the Outstanding Young Man and his bride pulled up in the family station wagon, we did our best not to race for the door, dutifully thanked Mama Jo for her hospitality and started to breathe again.
We clambered into the back seat and thanked Pontiac, the Jaycees and Jesus that normal was returning:
A black and white television where the color of Mr. Green Jeans’ jeans was left to our imagination.
A kitchen cupboard filled with familiarity.
Lemme at them Sugar Pops.