The night I knew that I'd grown up a little
Children grow in many ways and rarely feel it, but whenever I see one of those little glass balls with snow in it I am reminded of a winter night in my childhood when I grew up a little and felt it, even then. A Greyhound bus stopped at our house.
We marveled afterward that Mother had chosen that particular day to bake beans. A huge roaster-pan full had been cooking since morning in the oven of our cast-iron wood-burning range. I suppose that Mother had figured the beans would last for several meals. How was she to know that the whole pan would be empty before the night was over?
We lived in the country. The Great Depression had brought our little family down to the southeast corner of Minnesota where my grandfather had homesteaded. Grandpa's land included a five-acre tract where two highways met. It was an ideal location for a gas station.
Mother was a city girl from Minneapolis but by the time of this story she had, no doubt, mastered the art of cooking on a wood stove and doing without most of the other amenities of city life. I was just a youngster then, blissfully unaware of the struggles of the times. "The station" was my world.
That stormy winter night. as we were about to have supper, the bus drove into our gas station. Ours was not a bus stop, but the driver explained that he'd been limping along with some mechanical problem in the hope of finding a telephone where he could call for another bus. He had only half a dozen passengers, but they were cold, tired, and anxious. Daddy invited the driver and his passengers to wait inside where it was warm.
The front office was open to our kitchen. and when they smelled Mother's baked beans there were groans of delight. Mother said, "We have plenty, would you like to join us for supper?" Would they! That there was enough for such company seemed miraculous. The table was cleared and extra leaves added to accommodate everyone.
My little brother and I sat on the piano bench brought from the living room and squeezed in amid the strangers. They were friendly and chattered away like a flock of birds at a migratory stop. They ate heartily of pork and beans and buttered bread, declaring the meal as delicious as they'd ever eaten.
One man, it turned out, was the son of friends of my mother's family in Minneapolis. He and Mother talked about his parents and mutual acquaintances. Around the table conversation flowed freely as if everyone had known one another for years. I remember Mother's face. It was flushed and radiant. She seemed at home with these strange people. We children were in awe.
After the meal, people helped clear the table. Then someone asked who played the piano. Mother smiled and, as if this part, too, had been planned, she took a pile of sheet music out of the piano bench and sat down to play. Old standbys like "Whispering," "Beautiful Ohio," and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." People began to sing along. They harmonized, they rocked back and forth. No one seemed tired or cold anymore.
The man whose family Mother had known said, "Faith, don't you study piano at McPhail's School of Music? Why don't you play something serious for us?"
"Yes, do!" chimed in the others. I could see Mother hesitate, but only for a moment. Then she put aside the sheet music, stared at the keyboard until all was quiet, and began to play from memory. "Humoresque," by Dvorak. Softly, lightly, then gradually, with all the confidence and sweet rapture of a concert pianist, she played. I had heard her play this number many times before but never like this. No one spoke. When the last note faded there was a burst of applause. Mocking a grandiose bow, Mother seemed in her element.
Just then the bus driver's voice broke in from the front office. "Get your coats on, folks, there's another bus out there for you!"
Someone spoke for the rest, "Gosh, do we have to go?" There were thank you's and blessings and promises of returns. The man who knew Mother was last to leave. He looked at her with a look I couldn't quite fathom, then reached her hand and kissed it.
When they were gone, the house seemed suddenly still. Daddy said to Mother, "Honey, why don't you go in and play some more while I do the dishes?" Then he looked at my little brother and me as if we'd been forgotten in the shuffle. "Say, kids, I've got an idea: Bundle up in your coats and I'll take you out to the bus."
Such a bus! We'd never been on one before. and we went up and down the aisle touching the plush seats and seeing the station from the bus windows in some faint light of the night. Daddy left us there saying, "I'll be back soon. Just sit and pretend you're going somewhere." I thought, almost for the first time, about the world outside our rural gas station, its neighboring town and farms. What was waiting for me out there?
What a strange night it had been. I wondered about those people, so friendly, yet strangers. Other customers rarely were invited in, and never to eat with us. I thought about Mother and how I'd seen her that night as never before. Had she come from their world? I wondered about her as a little girl practicing her piano. What had her thoughts been like then? Had she known what her future might bring?
Someday I, too, would be grown up. Where would I be? What would I be? I noticed my little brother across the aisle. I wondered where he might go someday in a bus like this. Would we go together?
The storm had lost its bluster. We were like those little people in the snow-filled glass ball Mother brought out at Christmas time. Now we were on the inside, peering out, while real snow fell gently all around us. I had grown just a bit older and wiser that night. And I knew it.