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DON'T CALL ME DEARIE MAG
Don't Call ME “Dearie“
by L. M., Lake Forest, IL
Please call me Alexandra. It's funny how much you can change in a short period of time. A month ago, I would have never asked you to call me that.
The old lady's name was Carine Bates. When her husband died, she said, a part of her had gone with him. She decided to drop Lanigan (her husband's name) and was now just Ms. Bates. She lived across the street in an old, wood house that looked like it was four centuries old. The reddish-brown paint was peeling, her garden needed weeding, her lawn needed to be mowed and there must have been thousands of jobs to do inside. The truth was she could not keep up such a big house; she never admitted it, but we all secretly knew. My mother got the idea that I should be the one to help ol' Ms. Bates.
Before I continue, you must know my reputation would never have allowed such a thing and, if it weren't for my mother, I wouldn't even have come in contact with the old lady. I had a reputation for being the biggest, meanest, toughest kid in my entire school. I have always hated the name Alexandra, so I shortened it to Alexis - a much tougher name. My auburn hair was usually tied back with a bit of string and kids said that they would shudder when they looked into my intense green eyes. I have always been much taller than the other kids and I used my height to my advantage. I wanted to be cool and tough.
I remember the time I picked on Christopher Meeks. He was a short, overweight kid with bright red hair and freckles. I remember shouting across the playground, “Hey carrot top, your fly's down!“ Of course, his fly wasn't really down, but he bent over and inspected his zipper. I started to laugh and he got as red as his hair and slunk away. I felt badly for a few moments, but pushed my emotions aside when I heard others laugh. It was weak laughter at first but, as I smiled, the laughter became louder. Then, I felt powerful and told myself I didn't care what happened to Christopher. If taunting him made me cool, I would do it. I lived for my reputation at school.
So, you can understand how panic-stricken I was when I heard my mother had arranged that I would help Ms. Bates every weekend. I wanted to die for two reasons. What would the kids at school think if they found out I helped a little old lady? My reputation would just evaporate. All I had worked for would go down the drain. My other reason was that I was secretly scared of Ms. Bates. I thought she was a witch. She barely ever came out of her house and, when I went past it, I would hear her singing. She never did the things all the other old ladies in our town did. She never sat in the park and fed the pigeons. She didn't invite others over to play cards or drink tea. She didn't even participate in parties or go to plays. She talked to herself and had a black cat (well, not totally black, but black enough).
It was a Friday afternoon and I was supposed to go tell Ms. Bates I would see her Saturday. I was a bit nervous, but not really. Okay, I was really scared. This would be my first encounter with her and I was not looking forward to it. I knocked gingerly on her front door. I waited for ten seconds, decided she wasn't there and was about to go home when the door opened.
“Why, hello there, dearie!“ she cried happily. “Please come in.“ She opened the door just wide enough for me to enter.
I stepped inside, not knowing what to expect. The first things that struck me were the paintings. There were dozens hanging on her wall. I didn't know she collected art. I looked closely at a picture of a vase of flowers. They were pastel colors, pinks, blues and yellows. The vase was on a table, along with books and a pair of reading glasses. I had to admit it was pretty good. I looked in the lower right hand corner and saw the initials C.B.L. - Carine Bates Lanigan. She didn't collect art; she painted it. I glanced around the hall and discovered all the paintings were by Ms. Bates.
“This way, dearie,“ she called. She ushered me into her spacious kitchen. The first thing I noticed was that it probably was the room where all the action happened. It was painted white with soft, lemony-colored flowers. From the ceiling hung flowers in wicker baskets. A round, white table with two chairs stood in one corner; a stove and sink were crammed into the opposite corner. Cabinets that reached the ceiling were stacked with silverware, dishes and china. In the middle there was space - nice, wide-open space. My tennis shoes squeaked on the wooden floor and I shuffled after Ms. Bates with my eyes on the ground.
“Would you like a cup of tea, dearie?“
I nodded, still looking at the ground. Ms. Bates was a small, round lady with more lipstick on her teeth than anywhere else and glasses that hung around her neck. She wore a brightly colored skirt that had a gypsy look to it. A gray, baggy sweater reached past her waist. The skirt and sweater didn't really go together, but they had a comfortable, relaxed look. When the kettle began to whistle, Ms. Bates poured our tea.
“Here you are, dearie. A nice cup of tea. Would you like milk or sugar?“
“My name is Alexis,“ I said through clenched teeth. She kept talking to me as if I was three years old! I was the girl everyone admired for being big and tough. Why should this old lady treat me as if none of that mattered? If there was one thing I hated, it was being called “dearie.“
“Why, of course it is, dearie,“ she responded. “Would you like sugar?“ she asked again.
“I always have sugar in my tea,“ I mumbled.
“Very well,“ Ms. Bates replied. After our tea, Ms. Bates insisted that I have a tour of her house. The house wasn't very big and the tour certainly shouldn't have taken as long as it did, but Ms. Bates was determined to show me every nook and cranny.
“This is the guest room,“ she said as she entered it. “My father used to sleep here, but when he died, I turned it into the guest room. Now you see that chair over there?“ she said, pointing to an old, dusty chair in the corner. “That used to be my mother's chair. Her room is down the hall, but when she died ...“ I blocked out Ms. Bates' voice. I now knew more about her house than I cared to know. I didn't care that this chair used to be in that room and the dresser had been passed down by four generations. I rudely interrupted.
“I want to go home,“ I told her. She looked at me and sighed. She seemed disappointed that I wanted to leave.
“Well, I suppose we will just return to the tour tomorrow.“
“Humph,“ was all I said.
“If you'll follow me, I will show you out.“
“I don't need your help,“ I insisted as I barged past her and marched down the stairs. I didn't care that I really didn't know my way around. I got down the stairs and into her kitchen but couldn't figure out where the front door was when Ms. Bates entered.
“How old are you, Alexandra?“ she asked calmly
“My name is Alexis and I'm eleven years old,“ I mumbled to the floor.
“Well, the door is just down the hall and you just give a holler if you need more directions,“ she said. I raced down the hall and slammed the front door. I didn't look back until I was far, far away. Something about that old lady unnerved me. The fact that I could scream, shout and make a fuss without her yelling back amazed me. I was as rude as could be and she still remained her happy, cheerful self.
The next day, I was doomed to go to Ms. Bates's doorstep once again. I knocked twice and Ms. Bates answered.
“Hello, dearie! It's so nice to see you!“ she exclaimed with a smile on her face. Wish I could say the same, I thought. I suddenly became fascinated by my shoes.
“Hello,“ I feebly muttered as I stuck my hands deep in my pockets. We walked into the kitchen and she poured me a cup of tea. All of a sudden, my curiosity got the better of my shyness and I asked, “Do you care if you're cool?“
She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “No, I don't. That's why I don't do the things everyone else does. Just as long as I'm happy doing what I do, I couldn't care less about what they think. Do you care, Alexis?“
“Well, no. Well, kinda yes,“ I admitted. This was the strangest person I had ever met. She was so unlike me. I stirred my tea and slurped loudly. But she didn't get mad and didn't care what others thought, so, from my standpoint, she wasn't human. She didn't utter a word - she only peacefully looked out the window. This day went by more quickly. We finished the tour of her house and I was busy thinking about what she had said.
When it was time to go, I was looking at all the flowers when I noticed a vase that didn't have any blossoms. The buds were all wrapped up, as if trying to hide from the world. I studied them and Ms. Bates whispered, “Sometimes, the flower that blooms last will be the most brilliant.“ I left, eyes still glued to the floor and my hands still in my pockets.
On Sunday, I arrived at her house for the last time that week. I shuffled in and took my seat at her table in the kitchen. After tea, she asked if I would like to help her outside. I shrugged, which she took for a yes. Her lawn desperately needed help. I picked up her rake and began. We barely spoke, but I broke the silence.
“Why don't you care if you're cool or not?“ I asked, not stopping my work or looking at her.
“Dearie, when you get to be my age, being cool just doesn't matter. You have so many other things that are important that being cool is simply not an issue.“ She had stopped weeding her garden. “I like to garden and paint and do things around the house. Do you have anything special that you like to do?“
I cocked my head as I thought. “I used to collect stamps,“ I said wistfully.
“Then I think it's high time you got a hobby,“ she said and walked toward her house, forgetting all about the weeding. I dropped my rake and followed. We went upstairs into her father's room. She opened a drawer and brought out an old, cobwebby box. She blew dust softly in every direction. “This used to be my father's,“ she said. “He was a great collector of buttons.“ I leaned over her shoulder and positioned myself for a better look. I didn't know they made so many styles of buttons. There were big ones and little ones, square ones and round ones. The colors included black, red, blue, yellow, tan and white plus a few other colors, but I didn't know their names. Ms. Bates dumped them on the floor and began sorting them by color. I grabbed a handful and studied them closely before sorting them. Our conversation came quickly and easily.
“Would you please pass that blue one? Yah, the one by your foot.“
“Are there any more red ones? Stand up so we can check.“ We laughed at the button that looked the strangest and cried for the one that was alone.
Then, we were interrupted by someone knocking on the door. It was my mother. We had lost track of the time. I scooped up all the red square buttons and held them out to Ms. Bates. She put her hands over mine and said softly, “This is your hobby now.“ I smiled and gently placed the buttons back in their box. I walked slowly down the stairs with the box under my arm, not sure at all that I wanted to leave. I was on her doorstep and turned around to face Ms. Bates. “Good-bye, Ms. Bates. Thank you for having me,“ I said as I looked her in the eye for the first time. I extended my hand toward her. She looked at it for a moment and then embraced me. I held on tightly and buried my head in her shoulder.
Ms. Bates smiled and said “You are welcome any time, Alexandra.“ Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the vase of flowers, the one with all the buds. One of the buds had opened.
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The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.
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