The invitation's the thing

MY little next-door neighbor Ruthie tiptoed across my porch. I had just seated myself before a tempting and -- so I thought -- deserved Sunday dinner after a trip over the wall to extend an invitation to Ruthie for ``later in the afternoon.'' Alas, ``later'' didn't mean a thing to my friend, who would paraphrase Shakespeare if she could and declare, ``The invitation's the thing.'' However, I am learning that the particular graces of childhood are to be accepted gratefully when and where they come, if one is to share in the magic at all. So I called, ``Come in, Ruthie!'' and had a broad smile ready.

``Haven't you had your dinner yet]'' commented my visitor with the clear implication that I was quite out of order. Additionally implicit in the greeting's frank pertness was swift recognition that the kitchen was not out of bounds as it ordinarily is (my shy Persian cat doesn't like little children); that pre-cedent was being abolished for this special occasion due to some extreme mood of leniency, and that therefore -- delightful deduction! -- a little less care than was customary in our speaking relations could be indulged with impunity.

So I answered, ``No, I've just started,'' in a casual though resolute tone so Ruthie would not jump to conclusions and think all bars were down. She closed the door gently and advanced to the table.

``Sit down,'' I invited. I nodded toward the chair next to mine. Ruthie sat, hungry eyes on my omelet. My cat sits close by whenever dinner includes meat or fish and with considerable success she projects her opinion (in a word, Glutton!) about the process that keeps green eyes glued to the table. I didn't intend to let any other living creature do likewise. I adopted an air of sang-froid and strove to maintain it.

``What is that?'' Ruthie needed no finger; gray-blue eyes pointed.

``Spinach omelet.'' Carefully I cut a moderate mouthful and glanced at my friend while conveying it upward.

``U-uh!'' A little face frowned. I felt very much better.

``You don't like spinach omelet?''

``I don't like spinach! But I like chopped egg with butter. You oughta have a soft-boiled egg for your breakfast. I like hard-boiled egg chopped with butter.'' Ruthie's legs dangled while her eyes were clean unwritten pages waiting for what might come next.

``Are you going to help me make candy?'' I asked.

``Yes! Where's the recipe?'' My neighbor looked round.

``It's -- '' I felt that steps should be taken in order. ``Wait till I finish my dinner.'' To me that sounded logical.

Ruthie always was logical. ``Where? Where is it?'' she wanted to know. She was up and peering around on the counters.

``On that shelf,'' I said lamely. ``Right by your nose.''

Ruthie stretched one inch higher and her fingers closed on the recipe. She brought it to me. Hoping to keep the initiative at least in regard to my dinner, I countered, ``I'll read it as soon as I'm finished.''

``Here, I'll hold it for you.'' Generously Ruthie held out the scrap just in front of my plate; the idea was to read it and eat simultaneously.

I read everything carefully, translating difficult words without being asked. After that Ruthie endeavored to sit still and watch me. There was nothing to do but let the omelet go hang as they say while a small chair was brought, bowls, nuts, and cracker assembled and little itching fingers set working. Soon we were both at the nuts with much laughing and talking. Ruthie found it refreshing to fit empty shells on a thumb and shout, ``Look!''

We worked out a system and everything was going quite splendidly until Ruthie leaned back and announced, ``You can finish! I'm tired!'' She softened the decision by adding, ``You go on working till you're tired, then I'll start again.''

So I cracked one more nut and said, ``All right. I'm tired! It's your turn!''

``You're fooling!'' Nevertheless my friend's eyes showed a question. I hastened to declare that I wasn't. So reluctantly, puzzled because she felt sure she hadn't overstepped her prerogative, Ruthie started cracking again. Together -- on a fractional basis -- we finished the job.

We made almond brittle. There was one stupendous moment that perhaps we shall never forget when the pan's entire content of nuts, sugar, and butter threatened to form one enormous half-hardened ball on the spoon. ``Run for the dishcloth!'' I shouted. ``I can't hold the pan still! It's hot!''

From her chair by the stove Ruthie tumbled and rushed to the sink to shout back, ``I can't find it! Where is it?''

In the confusion one piece of the recipe vanished but we remembered directions. Soon we had a large shiny slab of nut brittle on the white tile shelf by the sink. At that juncture we both heard a whistle, signal for Ruthie's departure.

``Ask her if you can stay one minute more,'' I directed. ``I'll cut yours to take home.''

``Cut me plenty!'' my neighbor commanded. ``There's Daddy and Mommy and me -- that's a pretty big family!''

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