Because I was a middle child, with sister Lucy too big and sister Flossy too little to play with me. Pa let me work with him so he wouldn't be lonely. It never mattered what time of the day it was or what season of the year, Pa always had a game or chore for me to do.
"We need a little helper," Pa would say. "Sissy, I'll bet you can set the table for Mama better than any little five-year-old girl in this house. I'll be the timekeeper and Mama can be the judge."
Then I'd hustle to see if the centerpieces needed attention. I'd remove the linen napkin which lay over them between meals. I'd put more spoons in the spoon-holder and refill the cracker jar. I'd get a clean plate for Mama's freshly churned butter pat and take the creamer and sugar bowl to the kitchen for Lucy to fill. Then I'd turn the plates right side up, which Lucy had turned upside down after breakfast dishes were done.
Just as I was through Pa would yell, "Time's up!" I always got through just in time, and Mama would come busily from the kitchen with the food dishes, hot and steaming.She'd smile hurriedly but not say a word. Pa would wink at me and tell me in a whisper that Mama liked my work just fine; her smile said so. Mama never talked much, and when she did, she wasn't as smooth as Pa.
"Mama's work is never done," Pa'd explain. "She doesn't have much time to laugh." Then I'd remember that Mama had to cook and sew and bake and iron and make garden and churn and feed the baby and wash clothes on a brass rub-board and clean the house and carry in water and carry out the slop pail and ashes.
In wintertime Pa would let me win at pick-up-the-scraps after Mama was through sewing carpet rags for the evening. I'd save the basting threads around an empty spool, and put the biggest scraps in Mama's quiltblock box and the little pieces in the coal hod. Pa knew I was the best little five-year-old girl in our house.
Then Mama would put Flossy to bed and Lucy would study her numbers. Pa would get the double dominoes set and turn the box carefully upside down on the living room floor, and that would become a load of lumber for me to make a barn. I'd soon have the dominoes all over the floor, arranged in squares and oblongs of all kinds. I'd have a barn for Pa, a house of Mama, and a chicken coop and a hog-house. And at the back I'd have a little square house with a little girl paper doll sitting in it. Pa always laughed at that.
"I'm going to buy a team of mules," Pa would say. "I need a new shed to put them in." Then I'd add onto the barn and make a manager for them with my Tinkertoy sticks. Pa would give me last week's Farm Journalm to cut animals from , and without a word, Mama would carefully tear out a page of little-girl fashions from her McCall's,m and hand me her shears. That would keep me occupied while Pa was busy with his City Daily,m his most important "work" of the day, he said.
Summertime was always fun. We'd all go on a picnic by the creek and Pa would show me how to make a cup with my hands and get a drink of water without getting any up my nose.And he'd show me how to skip a pebble in the creek. Pa could do that the best, but I could find the prettiest pebbles, so that made us even.
Pa showed me how to see people and things in the clouds. I got so good that I could find a forest like the one Snow White was lost in. I could find a castle like the Wizard of Oz lived in. And sometimes I'd find a whole city! Pa said I was just as good a dreamer as he was, so that made us even again.
Sometimes Pa would take me piggyback from the house to the barn to see a new calf or the old red sow with 13 piggies. He'd let me pick out a tiny one for the kitchen "runt" and name it myself. He said I was the only little five-year-old in our family who could find so many names for so many piggies. But sometimes I had a hard time, and Mama would put the runty one in a box back of the range and say, "There! Sissie can call you Friday," or some other day of the week.
Pa taught me many useful things. He showed me how to tell the different kinds of nails; then when he was building a hog trough, or mending a barn door, I could run and get him a handful of eightpenny nails or shingle nails or any kind he needed. When he dropped a few, I was the best little girl in the family , who could find every one. Sometimes Pa let me help him stride off a new fence row. His strides were much longer, but mine were many more, so we were even on that, Pa said.
In harvest I was a good helper because I could count the grain bundles and tell Pa when he had exactly eight for the shock and two for the top, placed just so to shed the rain. I could carry half a syrup pail of water to the field and swing it over my head without spilling any. Pa could do it with a full pail, but when I did it twice as many times, that made us even.
Sometimes Pa let me ride with him to town on a load of grain. We'd drop our feet over the front of the wagon box and count telephone poles and say "Gee!" and "Haw!" to the mules as we went around a corner. And I helped Pa by yelling "Whoa" as we arrived at the elevator. The mules stopped best for me, Pa said.
My most treasured memories are those of my parents patiently, or impatiently, guiding me toward responsibility and adulthood. Our Joanie was here last week with her preschool child, and we discussed the coming event of her next one. While in the company bedroom I opened the middle dresser drawer and lt her peek at the tiny layette I'm working on.
I didn't mention the things in the bottom drawer. When the time comes for her "Sissie" to have them, in the box she'll find a set of double dominoes, a Sears wallpaper catalog, and a handful of bright, shiny pebbles, just right for skipping in the pond.