When I was five years old, Mama decided she had to get a job of her own. She had been trying to make a little money to help out in every way she could for years. She took in washings and ironings and she raised a big vegetable garden for us and another one for a neighbor who gave her half the crops for her work. But it was never enough to keep five kids in school clothes, let alone save up enough for the car she wanted. She needed to go to work full time. I knew all of this because Mama talked about it all the time. She was just sure a full time job and more money would solve all her problems.
Ruby, from down the street, wanted to go to work, too, and she had a car and knew how to drive. When Mama heard Ruby was going into Fulton to put in her application at the shoe factory, she asked if we could ride along. The factory was so loud and noisy, it scared me. I hung on to Mama’s skirts while she filled out the piece of paper, and clutched her hand when she was called into the manager’s office for her interview. Mama wanted me to stay with Ruby in the hallway, but the acrid smell and constant clanging of machinery bombarded my senses so I could only cling on to Mama for safety.
The manager wore a white shirt, like our preacher did, but he didn’t have the same kind of round cherry face. His was long and a narrow, set in permanent frown lines and topped off with the shiniest bald head I had ever seen. After that first look, I hid my face in Mama’s lap. He asked Mama a few questions, then surprised us both by asking me one.
“What about you, little one? What are you going to do while your Mother’s at work?”
I just ducked my head back down into Mama’s lap. I didn’t know.
We went back out in the hall and waited with all the other people who were there looking for jobs. Finally the man in the white shirt came out of his office and started calling out names. He called Ruby’s name, but not Mama’s. Ruby was hired. She gave us a happy little wave as she walked through the door where all the stink and clanging was going on.
All the people who didn’t get hired had to leave. When we stepped out the door of the factory it was just starting to drizzle. Mama said “Come on, we’ll have to go sit in Ruby’s car and wait for her to get off.” But the car was locked. And the rain was getting heavier, starting to soak through the shoulders of my thin coat. Mama dug a head scarf of of her pocket and tied it under my chin, then she took my hand and started walking.
We went past a grocery store and I wanted to go in, but Mama tugged on my hand and kept going.
“We’ll get something to eat when we get home.”
I was glad we were going home. I didn’t like the factory or anything I had seen so far in Fulton. As we walked through the streets, the drizzle kept on, but it wasn’t a really hard rain and the exercise of walking kept me warm. Then the sidewalks ended and we were walking along the side of the road. A car passing splashed muddy water over us, splattering our faces and the fronts of our coats. Mama pulled me further off the road. The long wet grass seemed to grab at my bare legs and the ground was uneven and hard to walk on. But the cars whizzing by still seemed too close and scary.
Then the miracle happened. A car stopped and we were offered a ride. The older couple had been to Fulton to buy groceries. There were paper bags of supplies in the back seat, but Mama moved them over enough to squeeze us in. I sat in the middle, between a big tall brown paper bag and Mama. She was pushed against the door. But the car was warm and dry and we were on our way home.
Mama leaned forward to visit with the people in the front seat. She was telling about looking for a job, explaining why we ended up trying to walk fourteen miles on a rainy October day. I took off my wet scarf and leaned my head back against the seat, breathing in the delicious aroma coming from the paper bag. It was bread. I could see the end of the cellophane package sticking out of the top of the bag. I reached up my hand to touch the soft loaf, wondering what store-bought bread tasted like. My stomach rumbled. I tore apart the cellophane folds, pulled out a slice and ate it. It was wonderful, softer than Mama’s homemade bread ever was, finer textured, soft and smooth on my tongue. I pulled out another slice, and another, until I was all the way down to the waxed paper band around the center of the loaf. The white haired man driving the car was watching me in the rear view mirror. I saw his eyes in the mirror and knew he could see me. But his eyes looked kind, laughing, even, and I didn’t sense any disapproval or anger as he watched me gobble down his bread.
Mama, now, was a different story. When she saw what I had been doing she was as angry as I had ever seen her. She apologized over and over, even though the owners of the bread kept telling her they didn’t mind at all.
“The child is welcome to the bread, don’t scold her!”
Mama was grim and silent for the rest of the ride, but as soon as we got out of the car she bawled me out, telling me in no uncertain terms how ashamed she was to have me for a daughter. She told me she would never be able to face those people again for the rest of her life. She said she would have had a job at the factory today if she didn’t have to drag me along with her. She grabbed a switch off the maple tree by the front walk and switched me across the back of my legs. The pain of the switching was nothing compared to the certainty in my heart that I was a burden and a problem to Mama. She was so unhappy. It was my fault. And there was nothing in the world I could do to make it better.
The next day Mama took me to school. She had a plan to talk the principal into letting me start first grade, even though I wouldn’t be six years old until next spring. The school was a square brick building with four elementary classrooms on the main floor and four more upstairs for the high school. The floors and stair banister were shiny dark wood and the whole building smelled of chalk dust and old books. We perched on the edge of our chairs in a crowded little office, facing another stern faced man in a white shirt. Mama had a dog eared copy of the first grade reader. She opened it on my lap and told me to read out loud. I read the familiar story about Dick and Jane and Sally, but before I got to the end, the principal reached over, closed the book and set it on the desk. He was shaking his head at Mama.
“Yes, Millie, you’re right. She can read. But she can’t start school until she’s six.”
Mama’s tight little smile collapsed into a scowl. “Why not? I know she could keep up.”
“She probably could. But most other five year olds couldn’t. And if I let her start, I might have to let every other five year old in town start, too.”
“I don’t see why! If she’s ready to go, what difference does her age make?
“I just told you. I can’t make an exception. I’m sorry.”
Mama stood up. “Come on, Carrie!” She stalked out the open office door and I knew she expected me to be right behind her. I don’t know how I found the courage, but I walked around behind the big desk to get closer to the man who held all the power in the world, looked up into his eyes, and managed just one word.
Somehow, it was enough. I started first grade the next day. Mama found a job and went to work full time.
And she was happy. For a while.