As an aging adult looking back, I am musing about the breast cancer gene that I inherited, the gene that has already taken three of my siblings, two of them the youngest in the family. Now I’m having another recurrence, my fifth since 1979, this time in the liver and lung. So completing the Memoir feels suddenly urgent, imperative. I’m musing about my genetic heritage…not just the cancer gene from the Shultz side of the family, which has seen several generations plagued by cancers of breast, ovarian, pancreas, prostate, and melanoma—all on that same gene—but also for the writing “gene” instilled very early, from Mom, along with a ferocity to survive; and the gene for love of beauty, flowers, and fragrance from Dad. From both parents: a solid work ethic, determination, respect for self-responsibility, gentleness, and endurance. All those seeds were implanted early, like tucking a bulb into the damp September soil. This memoir is about all of that, as well as the way I translated and used all of that in becoming a rather fierce feminist, in the years when fierce feminists were definitely needed.
Remembering, back to the beginning of my conscious memory, 1945, this is where I land. Age five, moving to a farm where my Dad, Travis Shultz, followed his bliss and gave up a high-paying but frustrating job as the Millwright/Engineer at The Lumber Mill, to grow flower bulbs. Daffodils, and Easter lilies. Later, strawberries and peas. For a small farmer on the Oregon Coast, the income was spotty and usually iffy, but the experience for his five children was one of beauty and hard work.
The image of gold spilling into silver still is there on the movie screen in my mind, a moment of transcendent glory. As a child I held the image close all year, summer, fall and winter, wanting it again, wanting to smell and taste and feel being again in the middle of the grace, the gold. I developed a ritual to recreate the image and repeated it every year after that first year, always the same, my early sunrise worship service. I calculated how long until the fields were in full bloom, planned for a morning before the topping would start. The night before, I told myself I would wake up with the sun. I wore my jeans and T-shirt and socks to bed and put my tennis shoes near me on the floor. Every few hours I woke and sat up in bed to check the window, still dark, a fog horn distant and deep at the mouth of the Columbia River. Finally, a streak of light against the window. I got up, shoved my feet into my shoes, and tiptoed out the back door. Walking into the sunrise, running finally through the fields up to the daffodils, stopping to face the sun. Walking into the very middle of the gold, turning slowly toward the ocean, full light now, early-morning mist drifting into faint wisps, the sky shimmering translucent, the inside of an eggshell blown empty and dyed blue, the sun lighting the ocean far below from dull gray to green. Early sunrise service, worship, my eyes filled up with gold. Gold surrounding me, silver far off. I stood in the middle, the breeze suddenly still, the air cool and moist on my bare arms. I stood in the middle until the gold melted into me, filling me again like it had the first time. Filling me like music, like contralto spirituals, soaking in and melting muscle and bone. Marian Anderson on the radio, singing My Lord what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.
The smell brain, deepest in the limbic brain, operates from pure primitive imprinting, the seat of memory and emotion. Imprinted at age five, working my way into the center of a tangled honeysuckle bush next to the gravel road, so I could be surrounded by sweetness. Blooming in August, the heat drew the fragrance into the still air, seeped into every brain cell, shut down logic and rational thought, filled my head with raw sensual unfocused response. Or, finding the clearing in the woods thickly floored with moss, lying face down on the spongy carpet, throwing my arms out to embrace the soft light green, my face and arms and legs and stomach and chest buried in the smell of sun-warmed moss, lying there small and still until I was engulfed and filled through with fragrance.
As an adult, honeysuckle grew by a door in every home I have lived in; if not already there, then planted and loved by me. (With great aiding and abetting from Jack, for the last 32 years.) The fragrance of honeysuckle greets me when I come home, from May to October, and lifts my heart.
The first year we had a daffodil crop was the spring of the year I started school at five years old. I was small for my age, my legs shorter than most five-year-olds. I see the body type now in some of my small granddaughters—small for their age, short, their torsos longer than their legs. It was Daddy’s body type, too. Five foot two, a strong tall man sitting down, a strong short man standing up. Jenny was a little taller than me, though a year younger, her legs the same length as her torso. Her hair was curly and brown, mine straight and light, her smile quick and happy, my face sober in the photographs, hers laughing. Me always in the front row in the school photographs, on the end of the front row, a head shorter than the others, hair parted in the middle and pulled into two tight braids, never smiling, concentrating on keeping my knees together because the first year in the photograph I was bowlegged below the hem of my short dress.
I remember the spring ritual of topping the daffodils.…the long daffodil fields yellow down to where the forest signaled the end of farmland. King Alfreds, the tallest and largest of the daffodils, king of the daffodils, their stems and leaves coming up to my waist when I was five years old. In the spring the fields of King Alfred daffodils bloomed and the whole family topped the daffodils: straddling the row, bending to the golden saucer-sized flower tops, catching a bloom between first and second finger just below the round fat seed pod, snapping it off so the energy of the seed pod would go into the bulb, snapping another bloom, dropping the blooms into heaps of gold between the rows.
I didn’t like to straddle the row because of spiders that might crawl into my underpants, the daffodil blooms brushing against my underpants under my dress, spiders hiding in the golden cups. Daddy taught us the rhythm to topping: snap one bloom with the left hand while reaching for the next bloom with the right hand, snap, snap … snap, snap … snap, snap. I was the one who couldn’t develop the rhythm. My legs were short! I was close to the row. I held a daffodil stem, bent to look deeply into the cup, turned the bloom to look under the petals, look at the seed pod where I would snap it off, looking for fat black spiders, inspecting carefully before cupping the bloom entirely in my hand to snap it off. When I found a spider I left its golden home intact, the family moving along the rows of gold turning them to green, me behind them leaving a splash of yellow here and there in the green, each one with its spider.
If I looked up between snapping blooms I was caught by the hypnotic swaying sea of gold before me, caught and stopped, dreaming my way through the topping, Mama and Daddy and Wesley moved far ahead of me, into the gold toward the dark green forest at the edge of the field, Jenny behind them but setting her own pace, Timmy staggering after them on short fat legs leaving me far behind. Leaving me to stand and stare across the fields, memorizing waves of gently swaying gold, the distant ocean sparkling silver in the April sunlight, gold spilling into silver, mesmerized, bonded, imprinted by golden daffodils.
At the end of each acre-long row the family turned and moved to four new rows, moved back toward me. Daddy stopped to laugh. “We’ll still have cutting flowers, looks like, on Judy’s rows.”
Flowers for the supper table.
That was my first year. I was allowed. My second year, I learned to not think about spiders. I was a little taller, I wore jeans, and I snapped blossoms quickly the second year, not thinking about spiders or underpants.
We didn’t sell the enormous long-stemmed daffodils. We were bulb growers, not flower growers. The war had just ended, and the Dutch bulb industry was under water. Farmers on the northern Oregon coast, too long farming for subsistence, now established a flourishing bulb industry.
I remember the routine…Summer: digging the bulbs with the potato digger that Daddy went in with Mr. Schneider to buy. [His daughter, Emma, later established the first Pig ‘N’ Pancake restaurant, in Astoria.] Mr. Schneider was our neighbor who had his own field of daffodil bulbs. Daddy drove the tractor down the rows with the potato digger hitched to the back of the orange Allis Chalmers tractor, raising dust clouds. The pointed blade of the digger probed beneath the bulbs, tossing them up onto a slowly revolving belt, the belt shaking the dirt loose from the bulbs, moving the bulbs to the back of the belt and dropping them into the V-shaped trench cut by the digger. Wesley and Jenny and me and Mama crawled on our knees behind the digger, tossing the bulbs into flat square wooden crates between the trenches. Timmy playing in bulb crates, singing The Bear Went Over the Mountain, piling bulbs into mountains in the bulb crates, dust in his black hair, barefoot and dusty. Dust in everything, in our eyes, our hair, our mouths. Sometimes mud, if it rained. Then the bulbs would have mud stuck in their roots, and mud would build up on our knees, caking onto our jeans. Crawling through the dust or the mud I passed the time imagining the life I would have when I was bigger, grown up, off my knees, out of the dirt, living in a clean city somewhere, earning a good living in a clean office. Newspaper reporter. Nurse. I read books about reporters and nurses. I would wear suits or uniforms, and ball gowns, and I would wear makeup, and have my hair fixed in a beauty parlor.
After the bulbs were dug came the fumigating and the sorting. First the fumigator, homemade gas chamber. The fumigator was a silver box next to the barn and half as high, made of insulation and silver-coated tarpaper. Daddy raised the silver box with a pulley and a rope, stacked the bulb crates on the fumigator platform, sprinkled cyanide pellets, and lowered the box. Hours later he lifted the box off the platform with the pulley and left the bulbs to air. Daddy and Mama sorted the bulbs, and Wesley helped. Wesley seemed grown up to me, only three years older but already carrying a grownup load of farm responsibilities. Jenny and me and Timmy were too young to sort and grade, too young for the careful eyeballing assessments and the exacting measurements. We played, scampering into the barn and up to the hayloft, climbing back down the hayloft ladder to the sunlight, stopping to watch the sorting and grading.
Daddy took the crates of bulbs from the fumigator and poured the bulbs out of the crates onto long tables set up by the barn. They sorted out soft or rotten bulbs and threw them away, looked for the mother bulbs. Mother bulbs had more than one nose, surrounded by new bulb slabs. Peeled the slabs off the mother bulbs. Measured the slabs with the metal rings sent by the bulb broker, grading them as number ones, twos, or threes, throwing mother bulbs into crates to plant back to make more slabs next year, throwing smaller number twos and threes into crates to plant back. And jumbos—the best—fat round onion-shaped bulbs with a single nose and smooth golden-brown papery skin. Bigger than Daddy’s fist. Mama polished the bulbs like apples to make them shine, then placed them gently in the shipping crate. Jumbos brought the most money. Jumbos and number ones went into crates to take down the road to the railroad siding, loading the crates into freight cars to ship to the bulb broker in Portland.
In the fall just before school started we planted back the mother bulbs and the number twos and threes. Daddy and Wesley went out on the tractor with the plow the night before we started planting and dug long trenches. Daddy poured the bulbs from crates onto the ground between trenches, then Daddy and Mama and Wesley and Jenny and I crawled down the trenches pushing bulbs into the ground root down, nose up, seating the bulbs firmly so they would stay upright when Wesley came by to sprinkle fertilizer and shovel dirt into the trench. When Daddy finished planting a row he walked back down our rows, inspecting, correcting, pointing out proper separation between bulbs, checking how firmly a bulb was seated in the dirt. Timmy planted bulbs in Mama’s row, and Mama crawled after him, replanting.
~ ~ ~
After Dad died in 1982, the year after I married Jack, we cleaned out the house on the farm and I found the letters Dad had saved in a small brown cedar chest, malignant memories for him. Every year the bulb broker in Portland sent checks for the bulbs received. The broker sent letters with the checks, which brought back my own memories of that time, and the years that followed.
“Dear Mr. Shultz: We are enclosing our check #16711 in the amount of $200.00 applying on your 1949 bulb delivery. Additional will follow as collections come in. Very Truly Yours.”
“Dear Mr. Shultz: Enclosed is a credit memo and statement of your account which includes the credit for King Alfred bulbs showing a balance due you of $144.36 for which we enclose our check. Inasmuch as your bulbs were shipped in field trays, the packing was done at our warehouse and in going over the bulbs 29 bulbs were discarded as undersize and rejects. This is all shown on the credit memo. You can let us know if you will pick up these 29 or give us instructions for their return. Very Truly Yours.”
2500 Narcissi—King Alfred DN-1 @ $65/M $ 162.50
Handling – – – Less 10% $ -16.25
Less 29 rejects $ – 1.89
$ 144.36 CR
“Dear Mr. Shultz: We are enclosing herewith our check No. 15118 in the amount of $50.00 to apply on your bulb account. Very Truly Yours.”
And one year, the last year, the year when the Dutch recovered from the war and came back into the market, this letter:
“Dear Mr. Shultz: We have some rather bad news to give you on your stock that you shipped in. We inspected it yesterday and we checked 50 bulbs out of one case and found 11 were under grade. This is 22% undersize. In looking over the rest of the Number Ones we can see from the way the bulbs come up in the case that these too are probably under graded. We also inspected one of your cases of 400 Jumbos and out of 50 Jumbo bulbs we found 14 under size which amounts to 28% undergraded. We cannot possibly send either your Number Ones or Jumbos out as they are at regular Number One and Jumbo prices. The only chance that we might have to dispose of these would be at a reduced price. The only other alternative is to regrade the entire lot but unfortunately we are so busy here now that such regrading could not be done for some time, with the result by the time such regrading was done we would be all through shipping. We suggest you advise us by return mail what you want us to do with this stock. Very Truly Yours.”
I remember the letter, and remember how Daddy’s shoulders sank as he read the letter out loud to Mama. He was a meticulous and honest man, supervising the grading with the broker’s own metal rings. But there was only one broker, and the broker had possession of the bulbs. In Portland. “There’s nothing I can do,” Daddy said. “Can’t sell those bulbs any other way, have to let ’em go at a lower price.”
Daddy went outside and stood on the front porch smoking a cigarette. When he came back in the house he said only, “I know those bulbs were up to grade.” Then he sat down and wrote a letter to the broker, directing him to sell the bulbs for whatever he could get.
After, when Dutch bulbs had wiped out the Oregon bulb industry, Daddy would stop at Newberry’s dime store in Astoria and look at the boxes decorated with little blue and white windmills, the boxes marked BULBS FROM HOLLAND!
“Damn Dutch,” Daddy would mutter. “Their best bulbs are worse than our number threes, full of bugs, rotten.” Daddy didn’t understand international politics and import policies, didn’t understand why better bulbs didn’t guarantee a market no matter what happened in Holland. Didn’t understand why our bug-free fat healthy bulbs had to be plowed under when Dutch bulbs came back into the market. Daddy just grew smaller and older and talked about raising cattle. Until he learned that daffodil bulbs are poisonous to cattle, that cows die when they eat daffodil bulbs. The fields and pastures were still dotted with daffodils, bulbs lying on top of the ground, blooming in random places in the fields every spring. Daddy planted strawberries instead. Grew strawberries to sell the plants, until the inspector found one plant with red stele, a root disease, and quarantined the whole ten-acre field from sale of plants. For the rest of that summer and the summers after, we picked the berries every day to sell in town. Daddy dreamed every year of a crop that would let him be a full time farmer, and every year his dreams got smaller. A sixty-acre farm on the coast was not enough to make a living for a family no matter what the crops were, but Daddy kept hoping, working part-time at the sawmill in town during bulb season, plowing other people’s gardens for a few more dollars, working long days. I remember waking up after midnight and hearing the tractor nearby, getting up to look out my bedroom window and watching Daddy plowing his own fields at night by the light of the full moon and a lantern hung in the pear tree.
~ ~ ~
My cancer started on the bulb farm the year I was eleven, started with the magazine cancer stories, the magazine pictures, the pictures I kept in my mind.
Every Saturday we went to town and Mama bought groceries at Public Market while us kids went to the county library. I checked out the library’s limit of four books every Saturday, and started the first book in the car on the way home. I made them let me sit in the front seat on the way home by threatening to throw up if I had to sit in the back, reading. Finished all of the books by Tuesday each week, then started looking around for something else to read. I had already read all the books in the bookcase, some of them several times, especially the one about the sinking of the Titanic, which happened the day my Daddy was born. Mama had magazines, too. She subscribed to Science of Mind magazine, but if Daddy got to the mailbox first, he threw it away.
“It’s the work of the devil,” Daddy would say, and he said we shouldn’t read it either. “Gotta plant good bulbs if you want healthy flowers,” he’d remind us. “Don’t be puttin that rotten stuff in your mind.”
I asked Mama what was so rotten about it, but she couldn’t tell me. She said it was about whatever you have in your mind is what you will see around you. Like, if you expect the best of someone they will always be what you expect them to be. Or, if you give love you will get it back. Hate, too. You get what you expect, she said, and you get what you give.
But the part Daddy called the work of the devil was about God, how God wasn’t like we learned in Sunday school and church, keeping track of our sins and getting revenge and punishing babies for the sins of their fathers. The stories in Mama’s magazine were about a loving God. But Dad said that was the devil’s work, so I didn’t read that magazine. Not then.
Instead, I read Mama’s women’s magazines: Ladies’ Home Journal, Farm Journal, Women’s Home Companion, Good Housekeeping. I started with the Letters to the Editor, moved on to Can This Marriage Be Saved, read the recipes and the crochet patterns, the romantic fiction, tips on cleaning and ironing and entertaining, parenting advice, true stories of courage and fortitude, and health alerts. There was a diagram in Good Housekeeping Magazine showing how to iron a man’s dress shirt, but I just kept it in my head for later, since my Daddy only wore work shirts, even to church.
Breast cancer had just come out of the closet, and breast self-examination was featured in every women’s magazine. The self-examination was illustrated with diagrams, often in a feature box at the end of a story of a brave woman’s losing battle with cancer discovered too late or denied too long.
It must have been spring the night I found my first breast cancer, the spring after I turned eleven, because I remember the daffodils on the supper table that night. If there were daffodils on the table, we hadn’t started the topping yet. Topping started the spring, summer and fall bulb work, and from then until after Labor Day we didn’t have company over on Saturday night. The Schneiders from up the road came over after supper that night to play pinochle, so it must have been a Saturday. It was the day the calf was butchered.
Killing the Calf
When Daddy got up that morning he yelled for Wesley.
“Get a move on, Wesley,” Daddy yelled, pounding on the boys’ bedroom door. “We’ve got a calf to butcher today.”
I was already up, slicing bread and making toast, Mama frying cornmeal mush for breakfast. To turn the rectangular yellow slabs sizzling in butter in the iron skillet, Mama had to reach across her pregnant belly, eight months pregnant with Annie. Mama’s hair was inn soft brown hair waves, short above her shoulders, cut short herself, holding a mirror behind her head at the bathroom sink, cutting her hair with her sewing scissors.
“Is Daddy going to kill the baby calf?” I asked Mama.
Daddy turned to me. “No, I’m not going to kill the baby calf,” he said. “I’m going to butcher the veal. We’re going to put the veal in the meat locker in town, and then we’ll have veal chops and steaks and cutlets all the rest of the year.
“Meat doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” Daddy said. “It comes from cows, and pigs, and chickens.”
And from the baby calf, the baby calf with no name, the calf I wanted to name, wanted to name after I stood on the bottom rail of the calf pen next to the milking stall in the barn, smelled the dusty hay and acrid manure and milky baby animal smell and offered the calf my fingers and she sucked them, looked at me with soft brown eyes and movie star eyelashes and sucked my fingers. Daddy said not to name her.
Wesley came into the kitchen for breakfast, sat down and ate his fried mush, kept his eyes on his plate, didn’t look up. Gentle Wesley, Wesley took care of the baby calf from the day it was born, brought her buckets of milk, taught her to drink from a bucket, fed her handfuls of hay. Talked to her. Sometimes when I played in the hayloft, I heard Wesley talking softly to the baby calf. Wesley was short for his age but muscular, quiet, blue eyes innocent beneath thick black hair. Wesley read the Bible every day and planned to become a preacher. He did become a preacher, later, and after that, a teacher.
But today, Wesley was going to help butcher the veal.
When Daddy and Wesley put on their boots and their yellow rain slickers and went out the back door Mama shut it behind them, then shut the door to the back room, kept Timmy and Jenny and me in the house all day, said it was raining so we couldn’t go out. Mama kept all the doors and windows shut, but we still heard the cow bawling all day.
“Why is the mama cow crying?” Jenny asked Mama. “Does she know they’re killing her baby?”
“She knows,” Mama said. The cow’s frantic wails broke and ended on a high-pitched bellow. The cow threw her body against the sides of the milking stall Daddy had locked her into, shaking the barn. She didn’t stop bawling to eat or drink, kept up her lament all morning and into the afternoon.
I remembered the last time a calf was butchered. “Daddy says she doesn’t know,” I said. “Daddy says cows don’t know what’s happening if they can’t see it. And she can’t see it,” I said. “She knows,” Mama said. Mama was sewing. Her sewing machine faced the wall across the kitchen from the sink, the round oak table in the middle, the ironing board set up permanently between the table and the sewing machine, leaving just enough room to walk or skate through to the back room.
All day Mama sewed, stood up and turned to the ironing board behind her, pressing seams flat, turned back to the sewing machine, her pregnant belly awkward in the small space, her belly pushing against the sewing machine or the ironing board, patterns and fabric and sewing scissors and pinking shears and spools of thread piled on a shelf above the sewing machine.
Jenny and I listened to Let’s Pretend on the Zenith radio, sang along with Cream of Wheat it’s so good to eat, taught Timmy how to play jacks on the linoleum floor, helped him build log cabins with Lincoln logs, swept the floor for Mama, ate Campbell’s tomato soup for lunch. Mama made sandwiches she took out to the men behind the barn, Daddy and 14-year-old Wesley. By the time the calf was hanging in a white canvas bag in the barn, the cow was moaning, soft moos, talking to herself.
Daddy and Wesley came in for supper early, washed their hands and arms at the kitchen sink. Wesley went into his room and shut the door. Daddy sat down in his brown overstuffed chair, put his feet up on the green plastic hassock, and hollered, “Girls, come and pull my boots off.”
We hated this daily ritual, hated it more when it was raining. Daddy wore high leather lace-up boots with two rows of round silver hooks with rawhide laces criss-crossed through. It was our job, Jenny and me, to pull his boots off. She took one foot and I took the other. We untied the muddy laces, unwound them back and forth from the hooks, and tried to loosen the leather thong where it was tightest at the toes. The boots were slippery with mud. We were afraid there was blood, too, our baby calf’s blood. We pulled and pulled, trying not to touch the boot soles or the slippery places, while Daddy chuckled. Finally we turned our backs to Daddy, straddled his legs, each of us on one leg, and pulled until the boots let go and we fell on top of them, mud on our clothes, maybe blood mixed in with the mud, wrinkling our noses, glad to be free. Daddy picked up the Daily Astorian. Jenny and I went to wash our hands, change our clothes, and put on our skates.
The roller skates clamped on to our shoes with silver clamps around the toe, tightened with the silver skate key I wore on a string around my neck, wore even to school. The skate key had a square opening that fit onto the square peg beneath the clamp, which I turned to tighten the clamp until the toe of my shoe buckled. We skated through the living room and kitchen to the back room, doing wheelies to skate back the other direction. The weathered gray shingle house was long like a railroad car, rooms square the way rooms used to be in old houses, square kitchen behind the square front room, three small bedrooms lined up on one side, bathroom in the corner of the back room where there was a wringer washing machine and the shelves of Mama’s home-canned fruit and vegetables.
Gray and green checkerboard linoleum floors were worn to black in a line from the front door straight through the front room and kitchen and back room to the back door, the path worn by roller skates. Jenny and I chased each other through the house on skates, no place else to skate, no sidewalks. Jenny the more graceful skater, me the more aggressive.
Daddy complained about the racket, put down the paper, yelled for Mama.
“Do they have to skate in the house?” Daddy complained.
“There’s nothing they can hurt,” Mama said. She didn’t look up from the stove. Mama salted the pork chops frying in the black iron skillet.
“Girls,” Mama said, “It’s time to set the table now anyway. Timmy, you help too.”
We took off our skates. Jenny set the six Blue Willow plates on the flowered tablecloth, the Blue Willow plates we got one at a time at the grocery store, one plate at ten cents for every $10 spent on groceries, one per visit per customer. Jenny folded white paper napkins in half and laid one to the left of each plate, a glass above the plate for each child, Blue Willow coffee cups and saucers for Daddy and Mama. I sliced a loaf of homemade bread and stacked the slices on a saucer, took the milk pitcher from the Gibson refrigerator, stirred in the cream, and set the pitcher on the table. Blue glass salt and pepper shakers with silver tops stayed in the center of the table, with the dish of home churned butter, the paper napkin holder, and a blue-green glass Mason jar filled with long-stemmed King Alfred daffodils, their bright blooms as large as the Blue Willow cups and saucers on the table. Timmy was old enough to see over the edge of the table now, so Jenny and I were training him on silverware. Timmy placed the fork on the napkin, the knife and spoon to the right of the plate.
“No, Timmy,” Jenny said. She picked up a knife, turned it over with the blade toward the plate. “You’re sposed to turn it this way.”
Timmy’s eyes made me think of ripe olives, glossy wet and black, like Daddy’s. Their hair was the same, too, Daddy’s and Timmy’s hair, black, shiny and thick. Timmy fastened his black-olive eyes on Jenny. “Why?” Timmy said.
“Because you’re sposed to,” Jenny said.
Mama turned from the stove and stopped the argument before it started. “It’s etiquette,” Mama said.
Timmy and Mama looked at each other for a long moment. Timmy looked back at the table. Timmy’s place at the table was at the end next to the Gibson refrigerator. Timmy circled back around the table, turning the knife blades toward the plates. When he got to his chair by the Gibson refrigerator he skipped his plate, left his own knife turned the wrong way, didn’t look at Mama. Mama watched, turned back to the stove, said nothing.
When dinner was ready Mama called us to the table.
“Come and eat,” Mama said. She set the platter of pork chops on the table with the bowl of boiled potatoes and the bowl of home-canned green beans cooked with onions and bacon.
We took our places at the dinner table, Wesley coming out of his room to eat, Daddy coming from the front room.
Daddy sat down at the head of the table, sat in the chair by the stove and the work table with its bins of flour and sugar. Timmy sat down and spilled his milk. Mama got up to wipe up the floor with a floor rag. Timmy sat at the end of the table where the floor sloped downward, where Jenny and me used to sit until Timmy moved from the highchair to his own chair at the table. The first time Timmy spilled his milk Jenny and I changed the arrangement, moved our places away from the refrigerator. Now when Timmy spilled milk the milk trickled onto the floor or into his lap, no longer into my lap or Jenny’s lap.
“Won’t be long before we’ll have some of that good veal,” Daddy said.
Mama sat down next to Daddy, flashed her blue eyes at Daddy. “Say grace,” Mama said.
Daddy bowed his head. “Bless this food to the good of our bodies, Amen,” He reached for the pork chops. “Good supper, Mama.”.
We ate supper early and Mama had us do the supper dishes early so she could set out the Blue Willow coffee cups and matching saucers and get the silver percolator ready to plug in later, after they had played a few hands. It was pinochle night, so we had lemon meringue pie for dessert, like Mama and Daddy and the Schneiders would have with their coffee, after pinochle. They played on the square card table set up in the middle of the front room between the brown metal oil stove and the brown Zenith radio the same size and shape as the stove. There was an old couch against the wall, Daddy’s brown chair and hassock, and a wooden rocking chair. An upright piano, where Wesley practiced his piano lessons and Mama taught me piano herself because Daddy said we could only afford lessons for one of us, and Wesley was the oldest. Mama’s small desk was by the front door, the desk where she paid bills and wrote letters and typed the stories she wrote on yellow flimsy paper and put away in her bedroom so no one could read them.
I liked it when the Schneiders came over to play pinochle, because I got to sleep in Mama and Daddy’s bed, so Mama could see from the card table in the front room if I turned on the light to read. She hated it when I did that, said it would ruin my eyes. I figured my eyes were already ruined. I’d worn glasses since fourth grade, really would have been second grade except for those two grades they skipped me over. When Mama caught me reading under the covers with a flashlight, she took away the flashlight so I took a candle and read under the covers with it and nearly set the house afire. Now if there was something else going on at my bedtime she kept an eye on me as best she could.
I liked being in Mama and Daddy’s bed all alone, Jenny sleeping in the girls’ room without me, Wesley and Timmy asleep in the boys’ room, me lying in Mama and Daddy’s bed listening to the low murmurs and laughter from the card table, smelling the coffee from the percolator, the electric one that filled up the house with coffee smell while it perked.
That night when the Schneiders came over to play pinochle, I was already in bed. I lay there feeling warm and listening to the table being set up and the cards shuffled, and wondered what they were talking about. Daffodils, probably. Bulbs. I couldn’t hear. Nearly asleep, lulled by the murmurs of conversation and soft laughter and the cards clicking and slapping, the diagram came into focus behind my eyes in the dark. A breast, sectioned into neat quadrants radiating from the nipple outward. I turned onto my back and began my self examination.
When I felt it everything stopped. The air in the room hummed and vibrated without sound.
A lump. In my breast. I had cancer.
“Mama!” I called. The game paused, listening. “Mama!”
She came quickly, shutting the door behind her, and the pinochle game was on hold.
“Feel this,” I said. I fumbled to undo the next button on my nightie, the nightie Mama had sewed for me, and reached for Mama’s hand, grabbed Mama’s warm fingers with my cold hand, showed her where to place her fingers.
“Yes,” she said, and waited.
“I have breast cancer,” I said.
Mama gravely considered this announcement for a long moment, sitting in the dark room with the light filtering in around the door to the front room. She chose her words with care.
“No, I don’t think you have breast cancer, Judy,” she said.
“Then what?” I said
“That little bump,” she said, “is just how it feels when your breasts first start to develop. It’s normal. It only means you’re growing up.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You’re fine,” she went on. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’re way too young for breast cancer.”
“Oh,” I said.
She kissed me goodnight in the dark and tucked the sheet flat across my chest.
“Thank you, Mama,” I said. She hadn’t laughed.
The pinochle game resumed, with a murmured question. I listened. They didn’t laugh. She hadn’t told them. There was only the slap of the cards and quiet talk, and soon I was dreaming of black strapless ball gowns, safe for now.
~ ~ ~
It was thirty more years before a self-examination found the real lump, the lump that was cancer.
Four years after the first one, a second lump appeared, this one a metastasis behind the chest wall. The year I found the second real lump I drove back to the farm, the farm subdivided now, the house long since fallen down and replaced by a modular home. I drove up the hill to the daffodil fields, saw that there were still daffodils blooming in random places in the grass fields between houses. I stopped at the top of the hill and got out of the car to look west toward the ocean. I could see again the gold and silver, look out to the ocean and see the fields of gold, almost at eye level in the eyes of the child I was then. I sat down at the side of the road, next to the ditch, and saw from the corner of my eye flashes of gold behind the tall grass. Pulling the grass aside, I saw what was in the ditch: mounds of dirt and daffodil bulbs, bulbs Daddy had thrown away thirty years earlier, some of the daffodils still responding to April, the King Alfred blooms still big as a cup and saucer. Daddy had died the year before, retired from farming and nothing else to do but die.
But his bulbs were still blooming.