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And Sumner? Sumner! Listen to me. If I die, marry Miss McCourt.

My family’s at the oak pedestal table the night before another of Mum’s operations. The nine of us have dug into meatloaf, mashed potatoes, heaping sides of green beans, and iceberg salad. Well, make that eight of us. Our mother sits on a wobbly three-legged stool with her clipboard and felt-tip marker. She works her way through a long list of to-dos:

DON’T LET THE BABY NEAR THE CELLAR STAIRS.

KEEP THE CELLAR DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES.

EAT ALL THE COLORS AT EACH MEAL.

EMPTY THE TRASH.

USE TOILET PAPER.

CHANGE YOUR UNDERWEAR EVERY DAY.

RINSE THE DIAPERS BEFORE WASHING THEM.

FEED THE GOLDFISH.

FEED THE DOG.

KEEP YOUR FATHER’S SUPPER WARM.

I mean it! Marry Agnes. She’d be good for you. Sumner! Listen!

The table quiets. Spoons pause midway between meatloaf and mouth. Butter melts on the mash. Green beans glisten, unforked.

While Dad and Mum lock eyes, we picture Miss McCourt. AGNES McCourt.

Our first grade teacher. A tiny lady with quilted edges and easy dimples. She smells like soap when she hugs us. Even when she scolds her voice is low like a merry breeze and matches the twinkle in her eyes. Even our pencils have sparkles and stars. She keeps extra leggings and snow boots in the coat closet in case you forgot yours, so you won’t miss outdoor recess. We just plain love her. She just plain loves us.

And for a split second we seven kids picture Miss McCourt as our mother. And think how wondrous THAT would be.

But just for a second. Then…

Are you hearing me, Sumner?

Dad springs to life. He pushes his chair back, bounds to Mum on her stool, gives her a smooch and a hug and waltzes her around the room, humming “Bicycle Built for Two.”

And meatloaf gets to mouth, butter stirs into the mashed potatoes, the beans get forked, if not eaten.

Mum DIDN’T die on the operating table; Dad never got to MARRY Miss McCourt.

But of a Sunday, with Mum home as per usual after dressing us all for church, when Miss McCourt is about to walk by our pew, Dad gives a little tug at her coat sleeve and raises his eyebrows at the empty space beside him. She smiles and sits.

Dad was listening.

PATTY

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5 thoughts on “I Remember: “Sumner! If I Die, Marry Miss McCourt!” (Another Raymond Family Story of 399 Words–399 Being the Number of Our House on Lafayette St. Way Back When. Caveat, As With Any Memoir, Every Story is Written at A Slant, Meaning It’s the Slant From Which I Saw It.)

  1. This, this is gorgeous. I love every element of this story. I am curious…. did you time it? Did you just write, without stopping… whether you did or not, it is just so wonderful I read it twice; but, I’m curious none the less. Beautiful post!

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  2. Thanks. Here’s what I did. It began at about 700 words. I mulled it. What happened as I whittled (I was thinking that I wanted the “gambit” of telling my stories about what happened at #399 in 399 words, sort of as a discipline) is that I saw the story differently once the extra adjectives, adverbs, clunky past tense verb constructions were o-u-t. The ending wasn’t in the original 700-worder. It came up as if from a deep lagoon. I had forgotten that Miss McCourt would sit with us, and when I remembered–after all the shrinking–the whole thing crystallized. I’m learning something with each of the pieces I decide to shorten so as to understand what happened better. I love the I-Have-to-Pay-Attention to this brain exercise of this writing process.
    Patty
    PS I don’t know if you’ve read any of my 420 Character 9-Liners, but with those I begin with tons more characters than 420, and over the course of several hours or days, as I attempt to get the count down to 420, I begin to see the connection between the two things I’ve got on the page. Most of the time it ISN’T what I was thinking originally.

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