June, Daddy always said was the final proof that February (his least favorite month ) was done with, and spring was about to put on her dancing shoes.
He and his poker playing friends; the Police Chief, Tiny, Doc and Charlie, were so bored by the waiting and the cold that they’d taken to putting cayenne pepper in their neat whiskey, just to liven things up. Mama just gave them her “Baptist Look.”
Sometimes in late March or April, their regular, once-a-week poker games, an appointment kept faithfully by them as long as they were able to shuffle, and tell an ace from a deuce; let the good times roll on as they moved from the dining room table to the screened-in-porch. The hot roast beef sandwiches that had waited on a small table changed to ham and potato salad.
Now, my mama had no patience with spirited beverages, even cough syrup. Card playing wasn’t high on her list either. But, she loved my daddy better than Christmas, so she just left the food, ignored the whiskey, and quietly disappeared.
They were long, sometimes restless evenings filled with laughter, raspy talk, and a few old “buddy jokes.” Occasionally some “under the table words” danced around, and sometimes they hesitated and talked so slowly I wondered if they were still there at all.
Mostly it was a noisy, rambunctious game that confused the occasional visitor who expected silent, serious poker. They played for pretty low stakes, and a grand-slam run of luck might produce at most, ten bucks. Actually, it wasn’t so much gambling, they were interested in; no, they needed this time, these games, this reassurance that they had survived.
From my bedroom which was on that end of the house, I listened to their voices floating around in the night air until I fell asleep, secure in their presence; Mama’s humming, and the gathering dusk of a spring evening.
I was (unknown to them), to share many of their problems. And weekly, their familiar voices drummed on sliding long into the night, tying the closeness of their friendship yet another notch.
The Chief always hinted at crime scenes and the latest gossip around the Base. Tiny could make the wind stop with his exaggerated stories and Scottish drinking songs. Doc., (who really was a doctor), discussed their health problems, chewing down hard on his cigar; his knife edged features softened by the light in his eyes. No one seemed so young anymore.
The War had sneaked in and stolen their youth. Charlie was certain those ‘fools’ in D.C. didn’t know which side was up and he worried about another depression or another war. Daddy, still in the Marine Corps, (as they all had been at one time) had a strained-faraway look in his eyes, and he spoke in slurred tones of buddies still missing or dead. All the days of his life would be haunted by the past.
Theirs was a world removed, filled with a mixture of sadness and tired laughter. Still, it was probably the best therapy they would ever have. So, the games continued far into the night, and always the next week they would begin again.
Just about the time the poker game moved outside to the porch, the first magnolia appeared, that most beautiful and fragrant of flowers; a momentous event. My mother would watch patiently for that first flower, year after year in the same spot, on that same giant tree that had protected us as long as I could remember.
When the first flash of white unfolded, the household seasons officially changed. Wool rugs came up and throw rugs went down in their place. Winter curtains, whose folds still held bits of tinsel and fir needles from Christmas, went off for cleaning and storage. Summer sheers, long, elaborate lacy things, emerged from the storage chests in the attic. Like a bolt of lightening, Mama soon had the whole house summer ready.
And that first magnolia, that treetop beacon was an irresistible prize for children. We all climbed after it; inching our way slowly upward, determined. I had almost reached that untouchable flower, when a Virginia breeze shook the tree like a broom. I ended up on the ground with no more damage than ruined clothes, a face full of scratches, lost dignity and one mighty broken arm. “Well” said my mother. “Was it worth it?” It was, but I kept that to myself.
They discussed me at the poker club. Daddy said I should have been a boy. Doc said I would spend most of the summer in a cast, but that I “was damn lucky I hadn’t broken my neck!”
I think that was the same summer (cousin) J.M. came a ‘visiting’ from N.C., J.M. had had a light case of polio, and even though he was in pain he had this tremendous smile. I remember they wrapped him in a great cocoon of blankets and massaged his skinny limbs several times a day. He was okay (for a boy,) despite those big, old Cocker Spaniel eyes that followed me everywhere I went.
J.M was scared to death, far from home; we were a poor substitute for the farm. And it was that same summer polio would shake our own town with its relentless iron fist, so we all began to feel the same helpless fears of isolation.
Still despite the problems of the world, the Friday poker games rumbled on through the long nights. Mother still hummed her songs and listened to her soap operas. J.M. finally became well enough to walk; my arm slowly healed, and the undisturbed magnolia glowed softly in the moonlight.
Micki Cottle was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent who occassionally regales readers with her wit and charm. She is also a member of the Sampson County Historical Society.