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The Conch Shell

Published: December 17, 2012

Sure enough, the moment Wanda entered the Sunday school classroom the pretty, young teacher glowered at her and took her aside. “Take that off,” Miss Kathleen said. “Girls don’t wear Davy Crockett hats. And turn around. Let me tie you a proper bow.”

Another child’s mama came in to drop off a tray of cookies. She gave Miss Kathleen a knowing look and said, “Bless her heart.”

“Pitiful,” Miss Kathleen replied. “Her brothers brought her here in a Davy Crockett hat.”

The woman shook her head, “That’s what happens when a little girl lives in a house full of boys without a mama.”

“I have a mama,” Wanda mumbled, wishing she were brave enough to yell it.

“Then why don’t your mama ever come to church?” another little girl asked.

Before Wanda had a chance to say anything, the cookie mom jerked the little girl away by the arm and shushed her.

That evening during supper Wanda picked at her plate of undercooked noodles and bland ground beef.

“Daddy, why doesn’t Lydia come to our house on Sundays?” she asked.

“Because people aren’t supposed to work on Sundays, Peanut.”

“The preacher works on Sundays and so does Miss Kathleen.”

“That’s different. Anyhow, Peanut, Lydia’s at her own house.”

“Where’s Lydia’s house?”

“In Orange Mound.”

“Is Orange Mound far?”

“Kind of.”

“Well then, Lydia ought to buy herself one of them new houses they’re building near us.”

Mr. Martin laughed and Wanda felt her face get hot. She didn’t like it when she made jokes, but didn’t know what they were.

“Peanut, people can’t just live anywhere they want,” he said. “Now finish your supper.”

The next day, Wanda woke up while her brothers were leaving for school. Lydia was in the kitchen. She looked pretty in the crisp green gingham apron that brought out her clear, tawny complexion and the amber flecks in her eyes. She saw Wanda in the doorway and said, “Child, look at your knees. You got to stop playing like a boy and getting all those scabs. You’re a young lady.”
Wanda smiled. Lydia’s scolding made her feel safe. She leaned against the electric range and watched the housekeeper deftly crack an egg into the sizzling cast iron skillet.

“Where’s Daddy?”

“He went to the office an hour ago, sleepy face. Have you spoken to your mama yet today?”

Wanda shook her head.

“Well, eat your breakfast, and then go on in and give your mama a kiss.”

Wanda swallowed the last bites on her way out of the kitchen. “Morning, Mama,” she said.

It always took a moment for her mama to answer. Her sentences came in bits and pieces because the machine orchestrated her every breath. It occurred to Wanda to mention what happened in Sunday school, but she thought better of it. It was one of those mornings when Wanda and her mama had to think up things to say to each other, but they talked awhile just the same.

“I’m going to bake sugar cookies later,” Lydia announced, coming through the room with an armload of freshly folded linens. She then added, “If you’re good all morning, you can help me, and I might just have a surprise for you.” Upon that news, Wanda kissed her mama’s cheek and hurried off after the maid.

Lydia unfolded a small, new apron of the same gingham as her own. “I made this for you last night,” she said, tying it around Wanda’s waist. It had a big, rick-rack-trimmed pocket shaped like a heart.
Wanda sometimes wondered if Lydia might be her real mama. They both had big, round eyes and curly brown hair.

That afternoon, Wanda wore her apron down the block to her friend Amy’s house. The two girls played with paper dolls until Amy’s mama had to go to the beauty shop.

“Ask your mama if you can come to my house to play,” Wanda said to her friend.

“She’ll say ‘No,’” Amy replied. “She’s afraid I might catch polio from your mama.”

The two girls looked to up see Amy’s mama in the bedroom doorway. “Shush, Amy!” her mama said, in a tone that made Wanda worry her friend might get a scolding the minute she was out of earshot.

At home, Mrs. Martin was listening to a record. The boys were back from school and the house smelled like pot roast. Wanda kissed her mama’s cheek and then looked for Lydia. She was in the laundry room.

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