“A Mother for Melvin”
Originally published in Diverse Voices Quarterly (December 2016)
During the summer of 1965, Evelyn came to live with us. I was eleven and going to start fifth grade. She was Dad’s latest girlfriend to move in with him, my two older brothers, and me.
I watched Dad help her bring her luggage in from the kitchen window while I stood on a stool washing the breakfast dishes.
“I give her a week,” said my oldest brother Sam, who was thirteen.
My twelve-year-old brother David didn’t make a bet. Instead he belched loudly after gulping down his orange soda.
“What do you think, Melvin?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know.” I dried my hands on a dishtowel and jumped down from the stool.
“Now that we’ll have a mom again, you can play with us outside, okay?” David clapped me on the back.
Our mom died when I was seven, and ever since then, I did all the housework and cooking. I never minded it though because I really enjoyed it. When I wasn’t doing those things, I was reading. I read everything I could get my hands on at school and at home.
My brothers were a different story though. They often led the neighborhood kids on adventures into the woods behind our house. I watched while I hung laundry, but I never really wanted to go with them that much. Whenever we got a new stepmother, I was allowed to come along with them. Sometimes it was fun, but other times, it wasn’t.
The screen door creaked open. “Boys,” Dad called, “please come and say hello.”
We all hurried into the living room where Evelyn was sitting. She had long dark hair and dark eyes like Katharine Hepburn.
Evelyn smiled at us. “Hello.”
We all smiled back. My smile was genuine, but not Sam and David’s. Their smiles would be gone by the time Dad left for work.
“Evelyn, you remember my boys: Sam, David, and Matthew. Matthew likes to be called Melvin though. Boys, you remember Evelyn. She’s going to be living with us for a while.”
Evelyn shook all of our hands.
“So,” Dad continued, “please help her feel welcome. I have to go to work, but I’ll be back tonight.” He kissed Evelyn goodbye and shook all of our hands. Then he walked out the door to go to Carter’s Car Repairs, his own garage. He said Sam and David and I would work there when we were older too. Sam and David loved to help him fix cars. Not me.
“Well.” Evelyn turned to face us. “I hope that we all can get along.”
In response, David belched in her face.
“David, aren’t you going to excuse yourself?”
“Boys will be boys, Evelyn.” He repeated something Dad always said.
She paused and then said, “Did you eat already?”
We all nodded. I had cooked eggs and fried bacon for breakfast.
“Then go on ahead outside and play. I’m going to unpack.”
Sam and David ran to the door.
“Come on, pipsqueak!” Sam called to me. He either called me pipsqueak or Melvin the Mouse.
I followed them slowly outside and into the woods. They had a hideout there, where they kept things for certain games, like bows and arrows and B.B. guns for Cowboys and Indians and rope for Pirates. They also had cherry bombs for making things explode and matches for when they built campfires.
We found Melissa and Lizzie Parker at the hideout already. They lived next door to us. Melissa was in my grade and Lizzie was two years younger. Melissa was accepted into the group because she was older and a tomboy who could keep up with my brothers. When Lizzie was always tagging along, it irritated Sam and David. So they tortured her to no end to get her to go away by lighting her Barbie dolls’ hair on fire and putting ants down her shirt. Each time, she screamed so loudly for them to stop, but day after day she would continue to follow them. All the neighborhood kids wanted to be included with the Carter brothers, because they were always planning daring adventures.
Today, Sam announced that we were going to play Cowboys and Indians. He pulled out three B.B. guns and two bows and arrows. “David and I are the Indians and you three are the cowboys.”
The battle began as David let out a whoop. Those arrows really hurt when they hit you! I kept shooting with the B.B. gun, hoping to hit one of my brothers, but I didn’t. The cowboys as usual were captured and tied up to a tree to end the battle.
“Peace pipe!” David called, pulling a bubble pipe out of his pocket. He blew into it and passed it around. By the time it got to me, I gagged as I blew a few small bubbles and handed it back to David.
From over the hill, we could hear Mrs. Parker calling, “Melissa, Elizabeth, please come inside for lunch!”
Even though she never called for Sam, David, or me, lunch at Mrs. Parker’s was always an open invitation to us since we were next door neighbors.
We all hurried out of the woods and down the hill as Lizzie sang, “Lunchtime! Lunchtime!”
Mrs. Parker served us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with either grape or strawberry jelly, potato chips, fruit salad, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. Since Mr. Parker worked all day, she stayed at home like Evelyn would be doing.
Sam and David wolfed down their food hungrily, while I ate more politely. When Mrs. Parker asked if the three of us could do her yard work this week, Sam said yes with a mouthful of cookie, spraying crumbs all over the table.
Mrs. Parker gave him a stern look, but she didn’t say anything. Instead, she just mopped up the cookie crumbs with a wet sponge. While she was distracted, David wrapped some cookies up in a paper napkin and shoved it into his pocket for later. He and Sam were constantly stealing and hiding food for later, particularly Mrs. Parker’s cookies.
The next day after breakfast, we went to do Mrs. Parker’s yard work. We did it once a week for her. Sam and David were responsible for mowing the lawn, while I was responsible for weeding Mrs. Parker’s garden. I liked making the garden look beautiful. She always paid us two dollars each for our work. I saved my money to buy books at the bookshop downtown, while Sam and David saved theirs to buy cherry bombs, firecrackers, and matches. When we finished two hours later, she invited us inside for lemonade and cookies before we went outside to play with Melissa and Lizzie.
After I finished my lemonade, I excused myself to use the bathroom. Once I got inside, I locked the door, sat down on the closed toilet, and pulled a few copies of Better Homes and Gardens out of the magazine basket. I looked through the magazines, trying to find some good recipes to cook. I ripped out the ones I liked, shoved them into my pocket, and flushed the toilet. As I washed my hands, Sam banged on the door to tell me to hurry up.
Of course, my brothers thought that I was reading Mr. Parker’s copies of Sport magazine like they did, which would launch into a discussion about the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“You think they’ll play better with Mike Nixon as their coach?” Sam would ask.
“Nah. Buddy Parker was the best coach. Dad says so.”
“Well, I think they’ll win with Nixon. What do you think, Melvin?”
Instead of answering, I laughed it off nervously.
At dinner on her third day here, Evelyn said to Dad that she could not believe how neat and tidy our house was. “I would have thought with three boys, it would be a pigsty.”
“Well, honey, that’s all thanks to Melvin.” Dad clapped me on the back. “He’s done all the cooking and cleaning for us. But isn’t it wonderful now that we have a mother in the family again, son? Now you can be a boy again with your brothers instead of doing women’s work.”
It wasn’t wonderful. I felt like Evelyn was taking over and leaving me out of the things I liked to do.
Every night before bed, I always read a chapter or two in a book. Mrs. Parker had given me her entire set of Nancy Drew mysteries from when she was younger, and I was devouring them like penny candy from the local general store. Nancy was a great detective and I instantly related to her character. She was smart like me, and everyone accepted her for who she was. I also liked how there wasn’t any violence in these books like when my brothers played Cowboys and Indians.
Evelyn lasted well beyond the first week, much to Sam’s dismay. He and David played tricks on her to get her to leave, but none of them worked. Not even when Sam caught a little field mouse and put it in her lingerie drawer. We watched Evelyn’s reaction from outside.
Instead of screaming bloody murder, Evelyn calmly caught the mouse in the corner of the drawer and set it free outside.
The morning before the Fourth of July, Evelyn asked us for a favor. “I’m going to make a raspberry pie for our picnic with the little Parker girls next door tomorrow. Could you three boys please pick me three buckets of raspberries?”
I nodded before Sam or David could belch in her face.
As the screen door thwacked shut behind us, she called, “Please bring them back by lunchtime!”
“Okay,” I replied.
Melissa and Lizzie met us in the woods. David told us what we were playing. “We are explorers today and we are looking for food to survive in the jungle. We have to find raspberries to survive and make sure they aren’t poisonous. Come on, explorers! Let’s go!”
We followed Sam and David deep into the woods where the berry bushes were.
Sam said, “We have to be careful of any wild animals, so they don’t eat our berries.” There was a mysterious gleam in his eye that made me nervous. He had the same gleam when he caught the mouse to put in Evelyn’s drawer. But I ignored it and focused on picking berries.
We worked hard to fill up our berry buckets for Evelyn, only picking the ripest and juiciest raspberries. Most of Sam and David’s berries went into their mouths instead of the buckets, but since we had Melissa and Lizzie along to help, it was okay.
A few minutes after I had finished filling up my bucket, I heard a scream.
Lizzie was yelling, “Snake! Snake! There’s a snake!”
“Where?” Melissa asked.
“It crawled out from under the bushes!”
I looked down. There was nothing there.
Lizzie jumped. “There it is again!”
David and Sam ran out from behind the berry bushes, laughing. Sam was holding a brown garter snake, which was not poisonous. If he had been holding a rattlesnake or even a copperhead, we would be in trouble.
“Lizzie is a fraidy cat!” David yelled. “She’s afraid of snakes!”
“I am not!”
“Now you’re gonna get it! Nobody calls my sister a fraidy cat!” Melissa socked my brothers in the arm, first Sam and then David.
“Oh, come on. It was just a joke!” David said.
“Not funny!” Lizzie replied.
“I think we have enough berries for Evelyn.” Melissa looked at the buckets.
“I’ll take them back,” I quickly offered, thankful for the excuse to go inside and read.
Melissa carried one bucket and I carried the other two. “Are you coming back after you give Evelyn the berries?”
“No. I’m going to stay inside and read.”
Melissa was the only other person who really understood me. We both acted differently than how we were supposed to. She hated wearing dresses and loved to play sports. She also never hesitated to fight anyone, girl or boy. She was as good as the boys when they played baseball at recess. She knew how much I loved to cook, clean, and read.
I looked at her. “Do you want to come inside with me?”
“I can’t leave Lizzie alone with your brothers. They’ll still torture her with that snake.”
“I should’ve freed it when they weren’t looking. They’re always mean to animals. Sam put a mouse in Evelyn’s lingerie drawer to scare her.”
“Did it scare her?”
“No. She didn’t even scream when she saw it. She just caught it and set it free.”
“Sounds like you, Melvin.” Melissa smiled. “Have fun reading!” She ran back into the woods when I got into the screen door.
Evelyn was in the kitchen, rolling out the dough for the pie crust. I could hear the radio playing “King of the Road” by Roger Miller.
“Hi, Melvin.” She smiled at me.
“Hi. Here are the berries for the pie.”
“Oh, these look delicious! Thank you for all your hard work.”
“We pretended to be explorers in the woods.”
“That sounds exciting!”
I turned to go back toward my bedroom. But I stopped when Evelyn asked, “Would you like to help me bake this pie?”
Help? That was it! “Evelyn, I already know how to bake pies! I also know how to cook and clean, and I love doing it!”
Evelyn came over and sat down at the kitchen table. “Come sit down with me. We need to have a talk.”
“I’m sorry for being angry.”
“It’s okay. And you have every right to be. I’m a stranger taking over. Your dad told me that you did all the cooking and cleaning for a few years now.”
I nodded. “Ever since our mom died. But when he brings a new girlfriend home, I can’t do it anymore because he calls it ‘women’s work.’”
“I understand, and I don’t agree with him. I believe that girls and boys can do whatever they want to do in life. I am proud of you. You stepped in to take on an important role in your family, and they should not discard all of your hard work because of me being here.”
I stopped feeling angry now. Evelyn understood me.
“Listen, Melvin, I can tell that you don’t always enjoy going outside with your brothers to play. So I would like to know if you would like to stay inside with me to do what you like to do?”
I threw my arms around Evelyn and hugged her. “Thank you!”
“Um, Evelyn, there’s something I need to tell you and show you.” I went into my bedroom and pulled out my recipe box from under my bed, which was where I saved the recipes I stole from Mrs. Parker and now from Evelyn’s issues of Better Homes and Gardens. That had been how I was tricking Evelyn into leaving.
Evelyn opened the box. “That’s the recipe I was looking for this morning! I knew I had it last week when I was writing out my grocery list, but I thought I misplaced the magazine.”
“I’m sorry. I tore it out of the magazine yesterday.”
“It’s okay. I’m not happy that you took the recipes, but I’m glad to know why now.” She looked through the recipes in the box. “These look very delicious. We can make some of these together!”
“Really. We can be partners and work together to get the chores and cooking done for this bunch. I know that there are a lot of things I can learn from you and you can learn from me.”
She opened her arms for a hug, and I embraced her.
I asked if I could tell her a secret.
She said yes.
“Sometimes I wish I felt more like a boy. When I look in the mirror, the image says I’m a boy but it isn’t what I see. I enjoy cooking and cleaning and the smell of sheets when they come off the clothesline. I often wonder if God made a mistake.”
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” said Evelyn.
“Well, I am so glad I have someone to talk to who understands that I’m different.”
“You are not different. You are just Melvin, and I love you for who you are.”