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Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String.....

by PK Brannon about a year ago in extended family
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....and other favorite things

Nine year old Etta's full name was Henrietta, and she wasn't particularly fond of it. It was much too long and had a boys name at the start of it. That was their first conversation a couple of years ago when the family moved in next door. "My name has the same thing at the beginning...a boys name. My name is Harriet," I told her. She had never met anyone with a name like hers and we decided to be very good friends in spite of our almost 60 year age difference . Besides, I was still young at heart and she was a very old soul.

Etta would visit every day after school, and at least once on weekends. My home was filled with the treasures one gathers in life. Lots of knick knacks and tchotchke. " Tchotchke?" she asked "What in the world was tchotchke!" After I explained, that became the word we used to refer to anything that didn't have a specific use, but held wonderful memories or had a fantastical story attached. She'd hold something up and say," What is this little tchotchke?". I had to teach her how we touched things first with just our eyes, then make sure handling it was ok, and could be gotten to safely without anything in its direct path.

Etta collected words. She would learn a new one, inquire of its meaning then say it over and over again in a made up song. Or she'd use it repeatedly during a tea party under the Willow tree in the back yard, often glancing at her hand held mirror and see how her mouth looked saying the new word. Although a lover of all of the favorite things around my house, I know she was a wordsmith at heart, destined to link them all together in some written form someday.

" Why do you call the tchotchke favorite things, Harri? " she wondered, using our secret names.

"Because that is what they are Henri," I explained. " They either are a souvenir from a favorite time, or remind me of a favorite someone. Then there are those pieces that just speak to me, and make me feel happy holding them."

" They speak to you?" Etta said, eyes widening-probably half believing of that possibility and half believing I might be crazy.

I laughed and sat her down of the couch with a little cast iron figure of a cat standing on its hind legs while peering into a cauldron. I placed it in her hands. "Not literally," I said. "That is called personification," knowing as soon as I said that that I would have to explain the term before we could go any further as she mouthed the word back to me. After I did, I told her to look at the detail on the figure. Made with a fine hand.

" But -no story?" she asked hopefully.

"No story," I said. "Yet. Let's make one up!" Her face was soon divided by an ear to ear grin and we spent the better part of an hour creating the cat's world.

" Favorite things." she sighed happily.

"Just like raindrops on roses." I added. Which required yet another explanation followed by playing the song on the piano for her and the promise to find a copy of the movie to watch together. Newly excited, she leaned out to answer "Coming!" to the familiar call from her mom for dinner, hugged me tightly around my neck and said, "See ya tomorrow, Harri!" and she was off.

Sometimes we did nothing together. Hot summer days were spent just sitting on the porch swing with a tall glass of lemonade. She loved the lemonade and loved making it even more.

The first time was when she had decided to have a lemonade stand and her mom had forgotten to buy the lemonade. She had made her signs, and had the cups -but no lemonade. I walked over ready to buy a glass as she had talked of nothing else for a week. I asked her what was wrong.

" I know mom didn't mean to forget." she said after she told me the problem. " But, I'm still upset."

" I understand." I said, smiling into this sweet face distorted between a cross look for her mom and guilt from feeling that way. "Well, why don't we just make lemonade?"

Astonished, then almost rolling her eyes she said, " Harri- you can't just make it. It comes from the store." I took her by the hand and led her inside. We made our lemonade and added a new word to her collection. A reamer, I explained, was all you needed-no fancy machine. Just this Jadite green bowl with the ribbed conical shape in the middle where the lemon fits perfectly.

"This is one of my very favorite things," I explained carefully drying the reamer to place it back in the cupboard. "I've had it since I was first married. It had belonged to my grandma and with it I had helped her make all kinds of goodies. My sisters inherited many lovely things from her house... I just wanted this reamer."

The next day Etta found me going through old recipes. "Whatcha doin'? " she asked. I told her it was my birthday soon and my daughter and her family were coming to visit. I was trying to decide what to make.

My children and I are very close. And I had traveled to see my daughter at least every other weekend, the other weekends I went to see my son who was about 2 hours in the other direction. But as I was getting older, it got harder for me to make the trips. Highway driving was difficult with bad knees. I missed my twin grandchildren very much. This past year I had only seen them a few times so I was really looking forward to having them for a weekend.

I decided to make chicken soup , bread, and lemon bars for desert. My chicken soup was something they all loved.

I told Etta I would love to have her family come say hello and have dessert with us. With smiling eyes she said she'd ask her mom. We both heard her mom calling and she hugged my neck, waved goodbye but protested all the way out the door and across the lawn that birthdays required birthday cakes and candles. She turned once and yelled out, " Wait-can I help you make the lemon bars?"

" Of course- the day before!"

She ran in her house calling "MOM! We are making lemon bars in two days!"

Etta came straight to my house from school that day. I had all of the ingredients laid out and we read through the recipe together as she waited patiently for the lemon squeezing time.

"Now?" she asked excitedly.

"Now ! " I replied.

As she got up to get the reamer the kitchen towel dropped off of the table-she reached down and flipped the towel back to the chair but it fell short behind her. Etta carefully reached for the reamer on the counter, walked slowly back, both hands and eyes on what she was doing...she was so careful, but not seeing the towel on the floor, slipped and the reamer flew out of her hands and came crashing down against the floor.

I had rushed to be sure she didn't fall, catching her just in time then turned to watch the reamer split in several pieces. We both looked at each other at the same time. Etta burst into tears, and ran out of the house. I ran after her but she was gone before I got off the porch.

On Saturday, I got up and began the soup. As I diced carrots I couldn't take my mind off of Etta. I spoke to Hannah last night to explain but decided to give her another call.

"Hi Harriet, " Hannah said. " She was still a little sad this morning, she just feels so bad- we all do. I sent her with her Dad to the Farmer's Market. I'll let you know when they get back."

I hung up the phone. While I let the soup simmer, I kneaded the bread and just put it in the oven when the phone rang again. I was sure it would be Hannah or maybe even Etta. But it was my daughter.

"Oh hi honey! I wasn't expecting to hear from you before I saw you. I -" She cut me off quickly. There had been an accident at school yesterday and my granddaughter was in a cast. My daughter was nearly in tears but they wouldn't be able to make the trip today. " Oh, don't be silly. It's just another birthday." I lied." No-, just take care of her. Love you too."

I sat down at the kitchen table. It wasn't that it was my birthday, I just wanted to see them. I heard a knock on the door. There was Hannah with Etta, with look-alike grins across their faces.

"Hi Harriet! Etta has something she wants to say ," said Hannah. They came in, Etta holding something behind her back as she sat down on the sofa by Harriet.

"Harri, I am so sorry I broke the reamer. I wasn't careful enough or I woulda seen the towel on the floor. "she said, looking down.

"Henri, you were very careful. It was just an accident. I was sad too, but sweetie these are just things." I said.

"Favorite things. " Etta interjected.

" But even the most favorite thing in the world is still just a thing and not as important as a person. Not even close." I explained.

"Well, I know I can't make it up to you, 'cause it was your grandma's, but this morning I went to the market with dad, and he was buying stuff so I went to the flea market section. And there it was-just sitting there on the table. Like it was waiting for me. It was...speaking to me!" We shared a smile. " And well, Happy Birthday Harri!"

She held out a package wrapped in a rather crumpled brown grocery bag paper tied up with a piece of string. " Oh, Etta!" said Hannah, embarrassed, " Why didn't you use the wrapping paper and a bow?"

Etta smiled even bigger. I laughed out loud and held out my hands. " This is perfect!" I opened the package to find a vintage Jadite reamer exactly like my grandma's. " Oh, Henri did you spend your lemonade money?!"

"She insisted," said Hannah. " Well, we better scoot, I know your family is coming soon and dinner smells amazing."

I explained what happened and then got an idea. "Say- do you like chicken soup? I made so much and bread baking. I would love for all of you to join me. Will you?"

They both said yes at the same time. A half hour later the entire Margolis family was on my doorstep carrying a surprise birthday cake.

After dinner, Hannah and I were doing the dishes. " That was delicious," said Tom , her husband. And I am stuffed!" He excused himself.

" It really was so good, Harriet." said Hannah. " I am sorry your family couldn't make it!"

I glanced in the living room where Tom had settled into the recliner thumbing through a book and Etta was expertly explaining to her brother how to look only with his eyes, defining Tchotchke and telling him the cauldron cat's story. " Family is a wonderful word-so inclusive, expanding to accept new members at will. Your cake was lovely, but this, " I said, pointing to the living room and back at her, " This was the best birthday present ever."

extended family

About the author

PK Brannon

I am a transient New Yorker (always in that New York state of mind) living in glorious southern California. I am currently working at a private K-12 school where I teach theatre outside of the box and am the Artistic Director.

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