An Iowa Valentine's Day, 1945
Cupid’s arrow struck me at an early age — seven to be exact. The object of my affection was Joy, the daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Lester McDonald. With Valentine’s Day approaching, I found the perfect gift for my blond, blue-eyed second grade classmate: a colorful bracelet that pleased Joy and sent my mother on a sinful path.
The bracelet began in cutout form in a Children’s Activities magazine. Coloring the geometric design with a variety of crayons and cutting along a dotted line with snub-nosed scissors, I attached the ends together with white paste and created the most stunning piece of jewelry this side of Tiffany’s.
After school on Valentine’s Day, I approached Joy and proudly handed her the paper bracelet. “This is for you,” I remarked with a shy smile.
Joy beamed and placed her new jewelry around a tiny wrist. “Oh, thank you,” she gushed. “That’s so nice of you.”
I skipped and hopped my way home, still thinking about the triumph of my jeweler’s skill and my wooing wonders.
My mother, always busy at her Singer sewing machine, greeted me when I arrived, and then went to the kitchen to answer the ringing wall phone. I listened as she spoke, “Oh, hello, Mrs. McDonald,” she responded ... You say a bracelet? Why, isn’t that cute?”
Mom’s face turned serious as she listened a moment before replying, “Well, I suppose that is a bit young.”
Another listening pause followed before my mother replied, “After school tomorrow? Yes, I’m sure that’ll be all right. Thanks for calling.”
Mom turned my direction. “Did you give Joy McDonald a bracelet at school today?” she asked.
Somehow I felt guilty, but more from my mother’s mood than any notion of wrongdoing. “Uh-huh,” I replied.
“Well, Mrs. McDonald is concerned about your gesture at such a young age. She would like to meet you. You are invited to come to the parsonage with Joy tomorrow after school.”
The next day I walked with my intended girlfriend down the three-block slope of Prairie Street leading from Guthrie Center’s grade school to the Methodist Episcopal parsonage. I had never entered Reverend McDonald’s home but knew well the principles of our church. We were taught “total abstinence,” meaning no drinking of alcohol, no smoking, and no gambling. Dancing and attending movies were frowned upon, and the Sabbath must remain holy, meaning it was a day for rest only. Indeed, rumors told of the church elders sending Reverend McDonald’s predecessor packing when seen riding a horse on a Sunday afternoon.
With all those rules in mind and knowing my parents danced and allowed me to attend Saturday matinees at the Garden Theater, I intended to conduct myself properly and keep silent about my family’s marginal behavior.
I sat on a sofa in the parsonage parlor, my clasped hands resting on closed knees. Joy, minus the Valentine bracelet, took a seat across from me on a straight-back chair. Mrs. McDonald sat on a nearby rocker. Ostensibly knitting, her alert ears were turned our direction.
“What would you like to do? Joy asked.
Sliding down the stairway banister or playing tag came to mind, but I ruled out both as inappropriate in a house of the Lord. “Do you have any cards?” I asked. “We can play book.”
“Sure, I’ll go get ‘em,” she replied.
When Joy returned she handed me a deck of cards designed with a long-legged bird, a kind I had never seen. “These are Rook cards,” she explained.
“They look funny,” I remarked. “Don’t you have any with kings and queens on ’em? That’s the kind we use at home.”
Mrs. McDonald popped out of her chair like a Jack in the Box. “I think it’s time for you to go home, young man,” she commanded.
I ran the two blocks home and found my mother speaking on the phone when I entered through the kitchen door. Again, she looked very serious. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said. “He really is a nice little boy.”
I sensed being the topic of conversation and must have flunked the test for good manners at the McDonald’s. But what did I do? It must have been something awful to see my mother so upset.
The phone conversation continued, with Mom mostly listening as her face turned increasingly red. “Oh, no, we don’t gamble and certainly don’t approve of cards.”
Goodness! I had caught my mother disobeying one of the Ten Commandments, bearing a false witness my Sunday school teacher told us meant a fib. Mom enjoyed playing a variety of card games, as did the rest of the family. I didn’t realize we were sinning. And now I made my mother bear a false witness!
I continued to listen to my mother’s strained conversation. “He said we have cards with kings and queens on them? Well ... uh ... I don’t know about that. Maybe my brother-in-law, Billy, left some here when he visited last week.”
Poor Mom was getting an earful and interjecting an occasional “yes” or “I understand.” She looked pained, and I felt guilty. Punishment would surely follow.
At last the phone conversation ended. My mother wiped her brow with the back of her hand, sat down at her sewing machine, and uttered a long sigh. I awaited my sentence. Mom remained silent for several moments. Finally she turned to me and smiled. “Okay, Romeo,” she said. “Run and play.”
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org