© Copyright 2002 by Judith Nakken
The homemade present for Miss Raczek was lightweight, crisp in tissue paper Mama ironed between tea towels this morning. I scuffed my overshoes slowly up the hill and examined each Nebraska snow bank I passed. I could bury it and just not take a gift. But, if Mama found out, she’d tell Father! I shuddered with more than the December cold.
I put the hex on the package, stared at it with my half-patched right eye to turn it into candy or hankies. My grandma, who died last year up in South Dakota, believed that walleyed girls were witches. I think my mama believes it, too. She watches me when she thinks I’m not looking. But I was now at the yawning maw of the brick, two-story school and I could still hear the old glassine powder box, noisy under the tissue paper. So, what good being an ugly little seven-year-old witch if I couldn’t turn anything into something else?
I was committed when I reached the door to the room where first, second and third grades met. Miss Raczek stood there, receiving hankies and proud, rare fruit and candies from other children. Shortages were the rule in this second full year of the war against old Hitler and Mussolini. Most fruits and all candy were noticeably absent from the grocer’s shelves.
She smiled big at me. She always did because she felt sorry for me. Her freckled arm reached for my package and I had to let her have it. I thrust it at her and scurried to my seat with the third graders who chattered to one another in Czech as I arrived.
They weren’t bigger than me, the third graders. I was big for my age, as well as smart. We’d only been in Morse Bluff since August, but I understood a lot of their Bohemian words already. Eyes. Great Big Head. They shunned me, and I was the only real American kid in the whole school until a few weeks ago. I didn’t care.
Mama and Miss Raczek said I was going in the next room to the fourth grade after Christmas vacation. Some of those sixth graders in that room were as big as Miss Raczek, and I just moved up to the third grade at Halloween. I wanted to go, though. They had maps that pulled down and a full set of purple encyclopedias angled into a bookcase at the rear of their room. And they could check out fat books from the library in the high school upstairs if they wanted to, but I didn’t think they wanted to very often.
Miss Raczek called for order in her vibrant voice, her square face plain and sweet. She was never mean to any kid, yet they all obeyed her. As I looked at her I thought of my beautiful mama, she with the faint freckles under her face makeup and brown ones on her arms. When Miss Raczek was a mother, her kids would think she was the most beautiful person in the world because that’s the way it was with children and their mothers. Jessie Ann’s mother was plain ugly, like Dogpatch. It was hard for me to believe Jessie Ann’s eyes saw her as pretty as my mama was, but I knew it was so. I couldn’t wait to get my own kids and be beautiful.
"Come to order now!" Miss Raczek waved her hands in the general direction of all not seated. "I know you want me to open these gifts, and I will do so if you will take out yesterday’s reading material and review it." She started to open flat boxes of store-bought handkerchiefs and thicker ones of candy.
The room began to assume the odor of oranges and chocolate and resounded with the lifting and closing of desks, the rustling of pages. As she read each card or note, my teacher wrote a line on her tablet. Probably to call the mothers, I figured, and thank them. What on earth could she say to my mother? Thank you for the cheap soap?
Oh, no! She was taking the tissue paper off my present, reading the burnt-edged paper note attached.
Wayne Beto was not studying. He was making comments to everyone around him. He was eight and in the second grade, littler than me and always dirty. I avoided him in the cloakroom because his short black hair stank and I was afraid it would rub off if he touched me. I already knew he had my name in the drawing and agonized over what gift I might get from him. All the Christmas presents were piled under the big tree in the auditorium. They’d be passed out after the program tonight.
I went to Wayne’s house when they moved here. My mama sent me with a plate of cookies. His dad did War Work with my father and they rode together to save coupons. The Beto’s house was smelly; too full of dogs and little kids and his mother in her underwear. They gobbled up the cookies, kids and dogs alike, and didn’t even offer me one. I told Mama I didn’t want to go back and she said it was okay. Wayne was the other American kid in school.
His beady black eyes were dancing as he pointed and whispered. "Looky. Somebody half burned up their card! Looky!" One grubby hand indicated Miss Raczek’s desk. She was reading inside the folded paper my mother had toasted brown in the oven and singed around the edges with matches.
"Silence, classes, silence! Or we will do our arithmetic instead of opening gifts." The room hushed. Of course, it would be just at the time when she removed that old, cheap powder box from the used tissue paper. They all saw it. I scrunched down and made myself invisible.
The dome was punched inward on one side, probably from my thrust at the classroom door. Miss Raczek touched gently at one side and then the other of the cavity, trying to make it pop out. The crackling thundered in the room of forty eyes, forty ears.
When her poking didn’t work, she sat it in front of her and lifted the see-through cover straight up, careful not to disturb the homemade water in the box. She stroked the inside of the lid gently and replaced it. It was now smooth and clear and you could see the scene from all sides. Miss Raczek twirled the box slowly and looked faraway, like Mama sometimes when she rubs powder on the baby.
The water was made from cotton balls soaked in bluing, dried and pulled about. It raged wildly on the surface of the powder box pond, trying to flood out, trying to upset the soap that sat in its middle and the three little weeds glued to one side of the dome. Half a seven-cent bar of Ivory soap it was, now a swan with its neck arched and wings furled.
It could have been a pure white kitten, a lion, an owl or a bear in a whole forest of weeds. All the shelves and most of the bay window seat in our dining room were covered with soap animals exactly the size of a half bar of Ivory. The whole house smelled like soap. If Mama didn’t like the finished result, or if they broke a leg or wing, my baby brother got them in the washtub for his suppertime bath in the warm kitchen. Keeto loved his floating animals.
When I was little I liked to watch her carve the bar with the big and little paring knives, to see the animals appear as the soap chipped away and to help her capture the flakes for washing dishes. The smallest lines and holes were made with the orange sticks she also used to fix her fingernails. But now I wanted to be just a regular kid, whose mom yelled and worked in the garden and hung over the back fence with Mrs. Vopolinsky. I wanted to live in an American town, not wear glasses, be like other kids and have a real present for my teacher!
The dreamy look faded from Miss Raczek’s face. She took her hand from the box and began to record furiously on the tablet. She is probably trying to think of something nice to say to my mother, she’s so sweet, I thought. She opened the rest of the hankies and candy while each kid looked proud and pointed to himself as his package was unwrapped. I stayed invisible, becoming Tess in the Limberlost. I was reading it at home.
She was done opening the gifts. We did some arithmetic for a while and were then dismissed for vacation at noontime. The whole school would come back at seven for the program and the presents. My mama already said she’d try to come. I was saying The Night Before Christmas by heart.
Miss Raczek waved me into the corner by the door as she bid good-bye until tonight to the other twenty children as they filed out. "Thank you, thank you!" She beamed at everyone and adjusted scarves and hats as they left the cloakroom to go into the pale day. Alone with her, I was ashamed. She was going to be nice to me again.
"Judy. Will your mother be at the program tonight?"
"She said she’d try, Miss Raczek." Was I going to get off this easy? No, I wasn’t.
"Judy. Please tell your mother that the swan diorama is the most beautiful thing I have ever owned. I’ll treasure it always. Please ask her to come tonight and I can tell her myself." I’d look up diorama when I was alone in the schoolroom; I didn’t want her to know I didn’t know the word.
She lied and lied, going overboard in her praise. She always tried to make me feel good and I was sick of Miss Raczek. She was still adjusting the scarf around the stiff plaid jacket that matched my snow pants when I escaped out the door.
Tears did not freeze on my cheeks as they did in the storybooks. I wiped them all away before I reached the bottom of the hill. "She said to tell you ‘thanks,’" I told Mama when she asked about the swan.
I didn’t look for my mother in the audience like little kids do. I knew she wasn’t there. She’d made long curls of my hair and let me go without my glasses in my red dress, and said she would try to come. She walked me to the door and waited until other families were walking up the dark hill to the lighted schoolhouse before she let me go out. I said my piece perfectly. Miss Raczek clapped and clapped.
The teachers gave the principal a gift and he talked for a long time. Finally he began to pass out the presents stacked under the tree. Kids around me were either ripping into their presents or teasing their folks to let them, parents determined that the pretty boxes go home under the tree until Christmas morning. Wayne Beto’s mother wasn’t there, either, and he opened his present. It was a box of at least eight paints with two brushes and a book to paint in.
Almost everyone had their present, and people were making noise with their chairs. I squirmed on my wooden seat. A couple of big boys were snapping scarves they’d been given at each other, and then there were two kids who did not have a gift and only one package left under the tree. I knew the truth before the little man with the thick glasses called Jerry Chalupsky’s name. Wayne Beto didn’t bring me a present.
The principal waved his hand at his high school assistant, and she went behind the podium and got a red, rattling box. "Judy Roberts," he called.
It was a big-piece puzzle, and on the bottom of the box it said 1-2-3 in black crayon. A picture of the wooden space it had come from flashed in my head. It must still contain boxes marked 4-5-6 and 7-8, in case someone in those rooms didn’t get a present. I made a picture in my head of the snow bank where I’d bury the baby puzzle on the walk home. I was making the picture of Wayne’s face pounded to a bloody mess just as Miss Raczek stopped me from slipping out the side exit.
"Judy, please tell your mother again how much....." A long, strange look came into her eyes and I jerked out of her grasp and ran, fell and ricocheted into piled snow at the side of the walk. I hated her and Bohemians and Americans and my mother as I brushed at my clothes and did not cry.
Thirty-something years later I picked up a four-pack of Ivory at the grocery. I had no idea why I did so, and the first tears of my adult life deluged. The soap’s odor triggered my childhood heart as I stood in the aisle and wept and realized what that long-ago teacher’s gaze portended. One day I would recognize the rare talent, the beauty alive in that kitchen-carved swan, and she hoped it would not be too late.
I like to think Miss Raczek and my mother watch me from somewhere, buying
the occasional bar of this particular soap as I do the shopping for my
solitary life. I break it here at the typewriter table and the chips lay
until they are scentless. I lift the half bar often and inhale deeply,
memories of Ivory bear and lion and especially of swan sharp in my nostrils.
Sometimes I brush the soap crumbs from the table and float them with occasional
tears in the evening’s dishwater. When I return to the keyboard I finish
another self-help article about taking a risk, reaching out, examining
false truths, learning to communicate. And I hope you hear me.
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Judith's Story List and Biography