Lesson from a Small Town: Following Directions
Mothers give directions and expect their children to follow them.
My mother gave many directions.
I listened to my mother and followed some. Others I ignored.
“Don’t look under the paper plate!”
My mother gave the tempting directions to my fellow Brownies and me one sunny, spring day on the grounds of the Canajoharie East Hill Elementary School. Mom was assisting our leader with after school games and a picnic when she noticed a fresh deposit of dog poop on the grass where we were running around. Without a shovel or other means to scoop up the brown lump, Mom grabbed a paper plate and a rock to cover the perilous pile and announced the warning to my beanie-clad friends.
Instead of her well-meaning intention to save us from a messy encounter, it was as if Mom put a spot-light on the forbidden area. We were drawn to it like moths to a flame. Shortly after hearing the mandate, the first member of our troop skipped over, shifted the stone and lifted up the plate.
“Pee-u… poop!” The initial rule breaker ran in the opposite direction holding her nose. Two more girls quickly followed with similar responses. And then I joined in on the fun with my own plate flip.
“Pee-u… poop!” I confirmed.
Eventually the whole troop disregarded my mother’s directions. As a result, the planned games were replaced with an impromptu race to the dog dirt by a dozen girls in brown uniforms with arms wildly flapping in the air. Squeals of delight filled the air as tiny bodies crouched around the canine deposit and then scattered like a swarm of barn swallows shooed out of the rafters.
Mother was not happy with the troop-wide outbreak. She reprimanded me all the way home to Ames from the front seat of our station wagon.
“I am going to get the afternoon mail,” Mom declared with authority.
Prior to her short walk to the corner store, that housed the official Post Office boxes for the village of Ames, Mom had set my three sisters and me up at the kitchen table with an activity. She knew that four busy sets of hands needed to be occupied while she left us unattended for a quick trip to the end of the street.
My sisters and I each held a long, rubbery filament as we sat immobilized on a long bench pushed against the table. In front of us, colorful, plastic beads patiently waited.
“Don’t put the beads up your nose.”
Mom announced her last-minute direction as she slipped her arms in her coat and grabbed an umbrella resting on a rag rug near the unlocked kitchen door.
Hmm-mm. I that is an interesting statement. Who would do that?
Dismissing her words, I focused on my project, knotted my string and laid out a pattern with my beads. I loved jewelry and was excited to make my own necklace.
Within minutes of being unsupervised, I noticed a few red drops on the maple table in front of my youngest sister.
“What did you do? Mom said not to do that!” yelled my oldest sister as she too observed the droplets from her position next to me at the end of the long picnic-style table.
At the other end my tiny sister innocently shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something about just trying it. I felt sorry for my youngest sibling. She didn’t know any better. After all, Mom did plant the seed of this tempting idea.
The culprit’s long blond tresses made a natural curtain in front of her pale face and hid her streaming tears. Her small body slumped forward. Her pointed, quivering chin rested on the edge of the table in the innocent pool of blood.
Within minutes, the remaining three of us instinctively banded together in sisterhood. Living in the small village of Ames, we learned at an early age to rely upon each other for fun, and now in a time of crisis. We slipped down off the bench under the table leaving the youngest one still locked in her position. On hands and knees, we scooted out from under the table and sprang into action. One of us stayed nearby and tried in vain to dislodge the plastic booger. But the well-meaning probing fingers just pushed the plastic piece further inward. Another gathered triage supplies from the downstairs bathroom. I turned on the kitchen sink full blast and stuffed the collected wads of toilet paper under the faucet. A trail of water led to the table when I transferred them. Soon clots of damp, blood-soaked toilet paper littered the table top like an awful crime scene. Down the hallway, an empty cardboard toilet paper roll signaled surrender.
When we heard footsteps on the wooden steps of the side porch, we froze. The squeak of the screen door sent us scrambling to our original positions as if nothing happened. But it was clear one of us had not followed directions.
It did not take Mom long to notice.
“Why would you do that? I told you not to! Didn’t you listen to me? What is the matter with you?”
The usual motherly phrases sputtered out like machine-gun fire. They were not really questions. No answers would have satisfied her inquiry.
We were kids. We were adults-in-training. For us, directions were more like suggestions, left up to our own interpretations.
A pair of tweezers and few Q-tips were all Mom needed to expertly execute the excision of the infamous bead. The bloodied pink piece was displayed on a napkin on the kitchen table as evidence for my father to inspect.
By the time Dad got home, the blood on the paper square had dried to a dark maroon color and blended in with the floral pattern of the napkin. The troublesome piece of plastic barely showed a trace of trauma.
Dad did not seem overly interested in the nugget when Mom recounted the story. The whole tale seemed a bit far-fetched and he just wanted to get to his meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Fortunately, that evening the dinnertime conversation focused on the Presidential images printed on the cardboard milk carton. We had been collecting the pictures and descriptions with the intention of memorizing all of them all in order.
The bead incident faded with the dried blood on the napkin.
“Don’t ride your bike in the road.”
“Don’t ride on the back of a bike.”
Two directions given.
Two directions ignored.
My older sister owned a better bike than I did. Her two-wheeler had a fancy battery-powered light in the center of her handle bars and a large metal clasp to carry a newspaper or mail on the back wheel-cover. She even had handbrakes and three gears. My simple bike had a basket and a rusty bell that barely worked when my thumb pressed on the trigger.
I am not sure what the motivation was, but we ignored both directions together on the same day.
It was a beautiful day.
I enjoyed the sun on my face as I sailed along Ames’s singular street. A fresh layer of tar and gravel had been spread on the worn asphalt roadway and gave off an intense petroleum odor. It smelled like summer. My skinny bottom balanced on the rear metal clip over the back wheel. My naked arms hugged my sister’s waist as I struggled to stay centered.
“Keep your legs out Kim,” my older sister shouted into the wind as she sped down the middle of the road though town. Heavy tree roots pushed up several blocks on the parallel concrete sidewalk so we opted for the smoother ride. There was never much traffic in Ames anyway. I trusted my big sister to keep a look-out for stray cars and for Ronnie’s red tractor and hay wagon on its way to the field behind our house.
I felt quite grown-up, even though my age was only in the single digits. I turned my head to the side so I could gauge our speed. The houses that lined the street whizzed past. I secretly hoped that a neighbor noticed this daring feat behind a drapery.
As I sought out adult attention, I forgot to keep my scrawny legs in an outstretched position.
Suddenly I felt a searing pain in my left ankle. I was ejected from my perch and was catapulted onto the road’s shoulder near the Ames Methodist Church. Splat! Lifting up my head, I spit out a mixture of saliva and gravel. I felt a warm puddle in one of my Keds. I peered down. My grass stained shoe was tuning red.
My sister’s scuffed bike lay next to me on its side. But she was gone. Then I heard a faint voice down the street.
“I am getting help.”
There she was, running down the sidewalk in the opposite direction towards home. I panicked and started to cry. I feared she was not going to return. We had ignored two directions and now I was left alone with the evidence!
My forty-pound body must have gone into shock because the next thing I remember, I was sitting in a canvass butterfly-style chair on our side porch. My bandaged-wrapped injured ankle was propped up on an adjacent chair and a plastic bag of ice was balanced on top of it. Someone must have retrieved me and the bike. There must have been some home-style medical intervention, but the trauma erased my memory. I am sure there must have been some scolding too and more tears mixed in there somewhere, but I didn’t remember any details.
By the time things calmed down, my whole family had gathered on the porch to witness the aftermath. My two younger sisters stood speechless at the far end. Next to me, my mother played detective and tried to piece together the events of the accident. She started probing and inquired into the possible infraction of the bike rules. Dad tended to the dented bike on the driveway. I just wanted to continue licking on my orange Popsicle and forget about the whole thing.
“She didn’t keep her feet out like I told her to” was my older sister’s defense. With arms crossed, she stood in front of me with a look of disdain.
“My foot got caught in the spokes… I couldn’t get it out… you kept pedaling,” I shot back as my strength returned.
I wasn’t about to take the fall for both of us. After all my sister was eighteen months older than I was. She should have known better. It was not even my bike. She was the one who steered into the road. All signs of guilt pointed to her. I was just an innocent victim.
But in the end, it really did not matter. Mom’s directions were ignored and one of us got hurt. Me.
That summer I hopped around on one foot. I could not put my full weight on my left side. Looking back, I don’t know why the aid of crutches was not offered. Feeling guilty, I quietly accepted my lame status.
I could not ride my bike. When Mom took us to the nearby swimming pool in Sharon Springs, I could only dangle one leg in the cool refreshing water. The other one remained on the steaming concrete apron with a Wonder Bread bag secured by a rubber band up to my knee. I was side-lined.
It was a long hot season.
I am a mother and a grandmother now. Sometimes I give directions. I try to stick to basic safety issues.
Don’t put your fork in the toaster when it is plugged in.
Don’t stick your hand in a hole in the dirt unless you know what dug it.
Don’t sit on the toilet during a thunderstorm.
But not all of my directions are followed. Based on my own habits, why should I have such high expectations? It is probably genetic.
Yet even today, my inner child will prevent me from following one direction. I will always be drawn to look under a paper plate with a rock on it. After all, there could be poop!
Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers everywhere!