I remember being three years old in 1957. Mama told me on numerous occasions that I'd be allowed to do more things when I was older. I had big expectations as my fourth birthday approached. Maybe I could drive the family station wagon. Find a job. Start a family. Nothing changed though. I was still a kid, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
Mama had grown up poor, with awful stories of four girls sleeping sideways in the bed, and mornings of splitting one banana between seven children for peanut butter and banana sandwiches for their lard bucket lunch containers. No candy cigarettes at the checkout counter for me, and definitely not a toy that squeezed together to make the little man jump and do acrobatic circus tricks. She knew the quality of what she lacked as a child, and she cut out for me, what she called the silly extras.
On our shopping trip to downtown Kingsport, Tennessee, we stopped at the bank on Broad Street, where she faithfully deposited $26.00, her rental income for the tarpaper covered house on stilts by Muddy Creek, she had inherited from her family. The banker looked down from the iron bars of the little window high above me and commented on how cute I was. “I have something for that doggie!” the banker said to me, pointing at Tippy. He walked to the door and tossed what was perhaps the leftovers of his breakfast, a half-eaten ham biscuit with gobs of mayonnaise lumped out the sides of it. The dog ate it in one gulp and looked up at the man from the bank, to see if there was anything else.
Tippy was actually our neighbor’s dog. I renamed him Tippy, since I had practically adopted him as my own. His real name was General, because the other puppies in his litter seemed to follow him around.
Tippy faithfully resumed his walk with us. We went to Nettie Lee’s Boy and Girl Shop, where Shannon’s mama worked. She showed us the sale dresses, as a special favor for being neighbors. My mama pulled out a brown dress. I wandered over to another rack, where I found the perfect one, with a pale aqua background and gray kittens, with blue eyes, printed all over it. I loved it! I took it over to Mama, hanger and all, tripping over the tail of it. She already had a sale dress in her arms. “Oh no, Mitzi, you don’t look good in blues. Brown is your color!”
I stuck my chin out and took a look at it. I hated the brown dress. It had lots of ruffles on the chest and puffed sleeves. It was a little poufy at the waist, with a two-layer stiff crinoline under it, which Mama turned up to show me. I liked my cotton dress with straps. It didn’t have the frills, and besides being cool and comfortable looking, I loved all the cute kittens scattered on it. It was me!
Mrs. Donahue shook her head, her red hair shining under the fluorescent lights, and looked sadly at me, agreeing with Mama. “Why don’t you try the brown one on?” she said.
“How old is Mitzi now?” Mrs. Donahue asked.
“Almost four,” I piped up.
“Saturday after next is her birthday party. She has an invitation card to mail to Shannon,” Mama said to Mrs. Donahue.
“Oh, Shannon will be surprised to get it. She’ll like that!” Mrs. Donahue smiled at me.
Mama took me to the dressing room and stuffed me into the brown dress, tugging at the puffed sleeves and pulling down the skirt of it, from under the brown velvet band. She oohed and ahhed and exclaimed how pretty the dress looked on me. When I came out from the curtain, Mrs. Donahue asked me to do a twirl around, both ladies trying to get me to enjoy the crinoline attached to it. Mama said, “Hold the skirt of the dress out on both sides, Mitzi. Let’s see.”
“You know” she said to Mama, “I might get Shannon the brown dress too. The girls like to say they are twins, and they do look a lot alike. Everyone says so.” I squinched my mouth and turned it sideways.
I hated the dress. It had no cute animals printed on it and was plain old muddy brown with stupid ruffles, and it itched the tops of my legs. I knew Shannon wouldn’t like it either, and there we would be, two goofy looking girls walking down Maypole St. in frilly, ugly brown dresses.
Mama took the paper bag with the brown dress in it, and I watched Mrs. Donahue give back a whole handful of silver coins. It didn’t make sense to me why Mama didn’t just get the blue kitten dress too. She always received lots of money back when she bought something, and in my almost four-year old mind, she’d have even more money.
I looked back longingly, as we exited the store, at the blue dress Mrs. Donahue had laid aside, across the counter. Tippy greeted us as the door opened. He was such a wonderful dog. “Why, hello, Tippy!” Mrs. Donahue said, as she gazed down at him, her patent leather high heel stepping forward to hold the door for us. “He’s so smart; isn’t he?” I bobbed my head in full agreement.
“You look soooo good in brown,” Mama insisted, as we walked along, probably noting my unhappy face.
“Just making mis-cuses!” I replied and skipped ahead of her, Tippy following.
Five Points smelled like popcorn on the inside of the store, and the owner left the doors open, so the aroma wafted out into the street. They also sold hotdogs with mustard, newspapers and magazines. They had a popcorn machine at the counter, and sometimes Mama would get a little red and white striped paper bag and share it with me. When Tippy tried to enter Five Points with us, the owner said to Mama, “Lady, we don’t allow dogs in here.” She replied, waving back at the dog, to shoo him, “Oh, that’s not my dog.” I put my hands on my hips, all of three, and almost four, and declared, “Tippy is too my dog!” Mama looked red-faced, turned around, and pushed me out of the store. Tippy lingered, but the man lifted him to the entrance, and ousted him through the doorway.
“I was pleased to see Mama was headed across the street for Freels’ Drug. Tippy caught up and waited with us until the cars stopped. Then he led us across the street. The entrance to the drugstore was tiled in green and white. “Stay, Tippy,” I said. Mama and I entered, and I climbed up on a seat on the high stools. We had a coca cola with ice in a glass.
“Don’t twist the stool,” Mama said to me, as her friend, Pearl, entered the store.
Mama started telling Pearl about the dress, the way I pronounced excuses, and how I made a liar out of her at the news stand. It was boring to listen to Mama and Pearl, so I inched off the stool to the bottom rung and jumped. “I’m looking at the cards.”
“I don’t know why, but Mitzi loves to look at the cards when we come here.” Mama said to her friend. I saw Pearl tap Mama’s arm. “You should get her portrait made in the dress over at Charlene’s Studio,” Pearl said. “I’ll be working there on Saturday!”
I did like to look at the pictures on the cards. I even thought I might try making some of my own at home, with similar designs to sell…. but the card rack was a place where Mama could keep an eye on me for a while, and I could slide down to the end where the paper dolls were. I loved the Lennon Sisters, particularly Janet, and both of my parents did too. They always called me into the living room when the Lawrence Welk show was on to watch, when Janet, the baby sister of the group, would sing. I wondered what it would be like to be on a television show and be a singer like Janet Lennon. She wasn’t that much older than I. Maybe that’s what I would try when I turned four! I envisioned myself at the microphone wearing the dress with the kittens on it, and bubbles floating in the background, as I sang.
I selected the Janet Lennon paper dolls, and walked over behind Mama and Pearl. Mama hadn’t missed me at all, since Pearl was a big talker. “Sugar in the morning. Sugar in the evening. Sugar at supper time. Be my little sugar…” I sang out.
Mama turned around, and I swished the paper doll package to the left and right up above her knees.
“Oh no,” Mama said. “I just bought you a dress! Pearl, I think I will get her picture made in it. Mitzi, put those back!” she said, putting a halt to the Janet Lennon song I was soon to be famous for.
Now I was mad. Pearl walked home with Mama, and they talked all the way, swinging their shopping bags. I should have had my own brown paper bag to swing. I entertained myself by hopping over the cracks of the sidewalk behind them. Tippy jumped up to paw at me, as I chanted, “Step on a crack. Break your mother’s back.” I was upset at Mama for squishing my dreams, but I wouldn’t want that to happen to her, so I jumped over every single crack.
While Mama offered Peal some of her fruit cocktail cake, yuck, I decided I was headed back downtown on a shopping trip of my own, to claim those paper dolls! It was dumb just to leave them down there for some other kid. Anyway, I would get silver coins back from the lady at the counter before I left the store.
I sneaked out the front door of our house, while they talked. I bent and slapped my knees at Tippy, who sat on his owner’s front porch next door. “Come, Tippy!” Tippy knew exactly how I felt, and he licked my nose and tried to cheer me up.
It was a carefree walk and familiar, but approaching a red light, I was unsure of the procedure, and maybe it was a bad idea to cross the street. The engines of the cars were loud, and the speed with which they took off startled me…. but when the cars stopped, Tippy started to trip-trip with his toenails across the concrete street, and I marched along behind him, swinging my arms. This was very grown up. Then we walked onward together, past the school, from where the big kids carried their books, and past the fire station. No one was out today. Tippy and I made it all the way to the town circle, his ears pointed and his tail with the white tip on it straight up, stepping decidedly, as though he read my mind, and would lead me straight to the Janet Lennon paper dolls! Two streets to cross without a light. Tippy stopped when the cars went through, and I stayed put. I followed his lead across another street.
I became confused when I got to the downtown area though. That building looked familiar. Was that the one we went in? Tippy seemed to be leading. He trotted over to the one that had letters B-A-N-K at the entry way, and he sat right at the front door and lifted a paw, so cute, cocking his head sideways. I couldn’t reach the handle, but when a lady went in, I hurried in beside of her.
No, it wasn’t Freels’ Drugstore! It was that bank, where the man gave Tippy the ham biscuit with mayonnaise earlier. The bank teller looked alarmed, flipped through a notebook, and picked up the telephone while dialing, looking straight at me. I heard him say after pausing a few seconds,
“Did you know your daughter is down here at the bank?”
Yikes, I turned and hurried out the door as the next customer exited. Tippy was waiting, but he didn’t seem to want to leave, so I called him. He still wouldn’t budge. (I thought he was helping me.) I popped into the next alley to hide, walked down the alley way and turned into yet another alleyway. When I came out on the other side, there was a shop lined street. I tried one more building, two streets down, but it wasn’t the one with the spinning stools and the paper dolls. I turned in a complete circle looking around. Nothing looked familiar. The buildings looked extra tall….I was lost.
Downcast, that I never found the drugstore, I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, my chin on my chest and began to sniffle. Then I plopped down in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to fix the twisted buckle on my shoe, and sobbed. “I want my mama!” I cried again and again, but no one was around to hear. Finally, Tippy must have gotten curious and came looking for me. He licked my cheeks. “Stop it, Tippy!” I cried out, as I scrambled to get up, wiping my face.
Then, I noticed that Tippy started toward the crossing. I followed him. A man shouted, “Hey, little girl!” from his car, stopped at the corner. Tippy ran, and I ran after him, my head facing down at the pavement, until I got to the curb. I looked back when we got to the sidewalk, but the cars were moving along, and the man had driven on.
Okay, we were at the town circle again. I wiped my eyes, hopeful now. Things were beginning to seem familiar. It seemed longer going back home than coming down. I had wanted to get the paper dolls and arrive back home, while Mama was still talking to Pearl.
No luck! Mama met me halfway, opening her mouth, puffing up her cheeks and breathing out,…then speeding up.. “Alright, little lady….” she started, grabbing my hand and marching me homeward.
“I wanted to buy the paper dolls!” I wailed. “I wanted to become a singer on tv, like Janet Lennon!”
“This was very dangerous, crossing those streets. Don’t you EVER do it again! I didn’t know what to think when the bank teller said you were all the way downtown. He should have kept you there. I should cancel your birthday party for this!”
“Cancel my birthday? Then I’ll never be four!”
Mama continued, “but instead, I won’t let you go to the movie matinee tomorrow. You have to learn that you can’t do things like this.” She continued, “How did you think you would pay for the paper dolls? You didn’t have any money.”
“The ladies always give money back. I didn’t need any.”
“They give back change if you have more than enough money. If you have no money, they won’t let you buy it! We can’t get everything we want, Mitzi. Santa Claus has to bring some things.
Oh, how I had to listen to my escapade told over and over, first to Pearl, who was waiting in the kitchen and again to Daddy, when he got home….and then on the phone to Aunt Lily Ann and Grandma Macie. My face burned, hearing each account, and I slinked around the house, hiding behind the sofa, when I heard Mama coming through the living room. Now, I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies. (It only took pasteboard milk bottle caps to get in.) None of this made sense.
The doorbell rang, and peeking up behind the couch, I saw Mama answer it. The tall girls standing on the porch told Mama they were selling flower seeds to raise money for their fifth-grade class trip. No, Mama didn’t need any. These girls gave me an idea though, as I slinked away to my bedroom.
Daddy showed up at my door and pointed his finger toward me, “Don’t do that anymore! You could have been hit by a car! Think how we would never get over it if we lost our girl.” Then, he asked me how I knew when to cross at the light. He tried to test me, asking what the red light meant, and what the green light meant. I didn’t know. I explained how Tippy stopped at the curb. When he went across the street, I did too.
I heard Daddy go into the kitchen to soften things with Mama. “Tippy waited for the cars and crossed the street when they stopped,” he told her, “and Mitzi followed. Red light, the cars stop…Tippy goes. That is one smart dog!” I was secretly pleased when I heard Daddy announcing to Mama that I was accompanied by the best guardian in the world.
I expected it was going to be a pretty boring year, being four years old. Now I did have a plan in mind though, from the big girls selling flowers. I would start my own business the first day after being grounded. Our yard was dotted all over with little yellow flowers. As soon as I was allowed to go out, I planned on picking every one of them and selling those real live flowers door to door, to all of the neighbors up and down the street. Pffff! Who needed seeds, when our yard had so many blossoms, and besides, who wanted to wait for Santa Claus? Mama would be delighted when she saw my hands full of silver coins to pay for the Janet Lennon paper dolls, and my smart dog would be more than glad to lead the way!
About the Author: Mitzi Dorton
I graduated from Radford University, with a Master's degree in early childhood education. I worked as a sp. ed. teacher in the public schools in Virginia and also in postsecondary education in Tennessee, with a disabilities center. My essay, 'The Bully of Redbird,' will be published by Annie Publishing this fall. I was twice a VEA/NEA grantee (for 'Struggles and Triumphs of the Black American: History Comes to Life through Puppetry' and 'Roleplay with Appalachian Folktales'). Recently, I relocated to the Berkshires, where I enjoy quilting stories, with my Golden Doodle, Marigold, at my side. URL: https://www.facebook.com/mitzi.dorton