Christine stopped by the clinic on Friday of last week. She was wearing the saddest face. It was about Emily Sweeney.
Small, quiet, and polite, Emily is a sixth grader in Christine’s class. She has straight blonde hair, a sweet, but often expressionless face, and soft blue eyes that silently, thoughtfully absorb the world around her.
The oldest of four children, Emily’s family is poor. The Sweeney’s live in a mobile home on a modest plot of land off Fatty Bread Road. Her father works at the cabinet factory and her mother keeps the house and garden. They are well-scrubbed, steadfast, hard-working people. But they live close. Emily’s clothes are plain but always clean and her notebook and lessons are invariably neat and orderly. She’s an exceptional student.
On Friday morning Christine had given her class a timed writing assignment. The topic was “Best and Worst Things That Happened This Week.” What Emily wrote broke Christine’s heart.
For the best thing, Emily had written about how happy she was for her classmate, Adeline Gentry. Having recently move from Louisville, Kentucky, Adeline was new to Watervalley. Her father, Eddie Gentry was a pharmacist who had bought Morrow’s Drug Store. Overly chatty and loaded with personality, Adeline was a novelty. She was the new girl and anxious to fit in. She made friends easily.
Saturday was Adeline’s birthday and, the talk and giggle of the entire week among the girls centered around all of the activities of her birthday party… the sleepover, the games, the make-up and manicure visit…and a special event that Adeline’s parents were keeping secret.
Emily had written, “It sounds like a wonderful time and I’ll be sure to add Adeline to my prayers that it turns out to be everything she wants it to be.”
For the “Worst Part,” of Emily’s writing assignment, she wrote four simple words. “I was not invited.”
It turns out that given all the activities planned, her parents could only accommodate a group of eight. This was understandable, but still, a tough situation.
Christine sat in my office, heartbroken as she poured out Emily’s story. I shrugged. We both knew that there was nothing we could do. This was part of growing up the world over, even in Watervalley.
Meanwhile, I had my own set of concerns. I had been asked to be Grand Marshall of the Watervalley’s Annual Mule Day Parade. Every April, the town would have a huge Spring festival including parties, a big dance, yard-sales, and, as the focal point, a large parade sporting floats by local merchants, mule teams pulling wagons, riders on horse back, and Watervalley’s High School Marching Band, all twenty-eight of them.
It all took place this past weekend, starting with a dance at the Memorial Building on Friday night. The band was Watervalley’s own Gene Allen and some old guys from his Sunday School class called the Def Shepard Rock Group. By Watervalley standards, it was pretty fun event. But not for me. I was anxious the entire evening, worrying about the parade the next morning.
Agreeing to be the Grand Marshall several weeks ago was the first in a series of bad decisions. I hadn’t realized at the time that this meant that I had to actually be in the parade. I had the inglorious privilege of riding in the back of Mayor Hickman’s vintage Cadillac convertible. Lucky me. Thankfully, Christine reluctantly agreed to ride along.
The next bad decision regarded the creation and design of the clinic’s float… yet another responsibility for which I was not prepared. Having put the “pro” in procrastinate, I had allowed Sunflower Miller, Watervalley’s remnant tree-hugging, mother earth, tie-dyed, sixties flower-child to be in charge of creating a theme and building the clinic’s float.
In past years the clinic staff had used the float as a teachable moment, such as fabricating a ten-foot syringe and needle and then loudly blasting Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” in an effort to remind parents to have their children vaccinated. Sunflower had other ideas.
She called me Thursday wanting to know if I’d like to drop by her farm that afternoon to take a look at the float. I had forgotten all about it. After a moment’s panic, I immediately agreed and thanked her profusely for getting this done. Soon after arriving to Sunflower’s barn, my gratitude was short lived. Along with forgetting about the float, I had also forgotten that Sunflower needed adult supervision.
Her flat bed hay wagon had been beautifully decorated like a flowering spring meadow, complete with live buttercups, wildflowers, live vines draping over the sides and actual grass covering the rest. But in the middle, made of paper Mache, standing some nine feet high, and spanning from one side of the wagon to the other was a gargantuan, rosy pink human colon, complete with ascending, transverse, and descending sections. She had even brushed it with heavy varnish, giving it a shiny, saliva-like finish. There was a banner across the wagon’s front declaring, “A Healthy Colon is a Happy Colon.”
Standing there in her “Good Planets Are Hard To Find” tee shirt, Sunflower looked at me with an exuberant face of anticipation, anxiously awaiting my response. I didn’t have one. I was dumbstruck, and it easily showed.
Sunflower dejectedly broke the silence. “You don’t like it, do you?”
“Huh? Well, sure… I mean. Wow! Look at that, will ya? That’s one incredibly huge rectum.”
She spoke sheepishly. “I thought it would be a good idea to highlight the need for a natural and therapeutic colon cleanse. It was the least attended of the community health classes.”
I nodded thoughtfully, still wearing a poorly masked face of shock.
“I’m not getting a good feel from you here, doc.”
“Um, no, no. It’s um, it’s really well done and, um, impressive.”
Sunflower folded her arms and gave the float a long, discerning assessment. Apparently, she had moved past her concern about my opinion and spoke with proud resolve. “Well, I think it’s perfect. Should be a real attention getter.”
“Yeah. Definitely. I uh, I’m pretty sure people will take notice.” My uncertainty was all too easy to discern. Weeks back, when she had volunteered to do the float I was immensely relieved. Her community health classes on natural remedies had overall been a big hit and I felt that I could trust her judgment. I had given her no suggestions, no directions. Now the parade was two days away and it was too late to change anything.
“Oh, it will be fine, Luke,” she said in a somewhat jovial, motherly voice and delivering a playful slap on my shoulder. “You just need to unlock that academic straight jacket of yours, open yourself up to a little higher cosmic vibration.”
I swallowed hard, smiled, and spoke with resignation. “I hope you’re right, Sunflower. I hope you’re right.” My words belayed by true feelings. I was filled with a shadowing dread about the impression this was making, about what people would think. I had swallowed a slow poison.
At nine o’clock Saturday morning I met Christine and Mayor Hickman at the parade assembly point over on Sullivan Street, about a half mile from downtown. We were lucky. The weather was perfect with a seamless blue sky and a warm spring sun. Since I was the Grand Marshall, we were to lead the parade.
As fate would have it, Sunflower and her colossal colon pulled in line right behind us. Her float wagon was drawn by her brightly painted VW van, a vehicle old enough to vote and replete with mother-earth and save-the-planet bumper stickers.
Christine gave me a definitive wide-eyed look.
“Don’t ask,” I responded dryly.
We sat on the trunk of the old top-down Cadillac with our feet dangling into the back seat and watched as the various parade entries pulled by to join in the line behind us. Despite my muted embarrassment regarding the clinic’s float, I couldn’t help but enjoy the electricity, the excitement, and all the acres of smiles of everyone assembling. The air was filled with laughter, shouts, and a cacophonous symphony of voices and sounds. Wagons, mules, horses and horns, all passed by. This was the zenith of small town life… a collective and unified expression of celebration, of shared history and shared lives.
Christine and I sat and waited, taking it all in with irrepressible smiles. That was, until a richly decorated flatbed truck pulled by and a myriad of young voices excitedly screamed Christine’s name.
“Miss Chambers! Miss Chambers!”
It was the float for Morrow’s Drugs and riding in the back was Adeline Gentry and the seven other girls from Christine’s class who had spent the night at Adeline’s birthday sleepover. Riding in the parade was the “special event” that Adeline’s parents had promised.
Christine smiled and waved. But after they passed she forlornly looked at me with pursed lips.
After a long, thoughtful moment, she looked at her watch. “Luke, I need to go do something. I should be back before the start.”
She climbed out of the Cadillac and headed off, reaching for her cell phone. She stopped about twenty steps away and dialed a number. Then she headed off again and vanished into the crowd.
For the next thirty minutes I made small talk with the mayor, waved to passers by, and anxiously awaited Christine’s return. She didn’t show. Finally, ten o’clock arrived. Mayor Hickman shrugged his shoulders. “Doc, we need to get this show on the road. Looks like you’re going to have to go it solo.”
I offered a weak smile and nodded. The lack of Christine’s presence had robbed the situation of it’s only upside.
We had traveled less than half a block when I realized the rest of Sunflower’s free-spirited gastro-intestinal road show.
While a friend of hers drove the van, Sunflower positioned herself out in front. She was dressed like a woodland fairy, ceremonially announcing the arrival of Spring. With an ivy wreath around her head and dressed in a robe of wispy white linen (and, I’m quite certain, no bra) she pranced and leaped spritefully along, randomly handing out pamphlets for making your own home-made colon-cleanse concoction. To complete the effect, she had a sound system playing “I Want A New Drug,” by Huey Lewis blasting in the background. I had to count my blessings. I guess it could have been “Night Moves” by Bob Segar. No doubt, Sunflower thought she was advocating natural healing. For me, it was more like a natural disaster. The only thing missing from the way I felt was a seltzer bottle and big floppy shoes.
It didn’t help that her float was immediately followed by Hoot Wilson on his John Deere tractor. He was proudly pulling his brand new, and thankfully, unused New Holland manure spreader.
All this time I had been turned around and looking backward, so dumbstruck by the whole spectacle of Sunflower and bountiful bowels that I failed to notice Christine walking beside the car.
She was tapping me on the shoulder and holding the hand of a young girl. It was Emily Sweeney.
“Luke, I’m not feeling just great and was wondering if you minded Emily taking my place.”
It took only a split second to put everything together. “Absolutely!” I said enthusiastically. “I would love the company!”
The mayor momentarily stopped the car while Emily climbed in and took a seat beside me. The bubbling excitement that radiated from her smiling face was beyond words. She practically glowed. Christine winked and walked away. Off we went.
With only a few inquiring questions, Emily talked nonstop. Suddenly, the Sunflower Miller side-show was all forgotten. Emily and I rode along engaged in an almost giddy conversation. As we smiled, and laughed, and waved to the crowd, she chatted steadily about how one day, she wanted to be a doctor, about how she wanted to be the first person in her family to go to college, and about how her parents were saving small pockets of money each month to help her when that day came. She talked about her siblings and how they made her laugh, about her parents and how they encouraged her, and about Christine and how much she adored her.
She was an intelligent, articulate, and entertaining twelve-year old. In her was a spark of deeply imbedded confidence, a powerful yet unheard voice that clearly foretold that Emily Sweeny was someone who would find her way in this world. She was a pure delight. I had to laugh at myself. I suspect Emily thought it a big deal to be riding along beside me, the town doctor and the parade Grand Marshall. But candidly, I found myself fascinated to be beside her.
Before I knew it, the parade was over. I had been so immersed, so absorbed with our conversation that the minutes had flown by. It seemed that at any age, amazing people could do that to you.
Her mother approached and introduced herself. Like her daughter, she was small, polite, and modestly pretty with inquisitive, intelligent eyes. She thanked me and smiled sportively at Emily. It was a telling moment.
There were no words but their mirthful expressions spoke volumes. Between them was a clear bond of love and assurance, a private language of two intimates. These were people who found their rudder in the strength of family, whose self worth was not sourced in the conclusions of others. And in those shared seconds before departure, we all three smiled, delightfully aware of the beauty of the moment, the rewarding joy of new friendship.
I told Emily that anytime she wanted to know more about being a doctor to just call the clinic and we would set aside time to talk. It would be my pleasure. She nodded enthusiastically.
As she and her mom walked away arm in arm, I elatedly realized that there had been no need to worry about Emily and this recent small chapter of social exclusion. She had a depth of character that in time, would create an irresistible gravity around her. She would be fine.
About this time, I noticed that Sunflower Miller was getting ready to climb into her van and haul North America’s largest colon back to the barn. I called out to her.
She stood patiently as I walked purposefully in her direction. Without ever breaking stride I approached and enveloped her in a smothering hug, lifting her up and spinning her slightly.
When finished, I spoke while holding both of her hands. “Sunflower! Fabulous job! Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!”
This bursting display of affection had clearly put her off balance. She spoke in a mixture of caution and delight. “Well…sure. You’re welcome, I think.”
Quickly however, she gathered herself and spoke with her usual pluck. “You’re an odd duck, doc. I got the feeling you didn’t much care for my float idea.”
I smiled. “No, I didn’t, Sunflower. I didn’t like it at all. But, I have to tell you something. I don’t feel that way about you. You, Sunflower Miller, are a darling and a delight, the kind of strong, independent woman this world could use a lot more of. Candidly, Sunflower…I adore you. I could almost kiss you, maybe even on the lips.”
Momentarily addled by my spontaneous show of sentiment, she was speechless, shyly absorbing my words for a generous second. Then, just as before, she quickly regained her poise. She smiled, turned, and opened the door to her van.
Then, she looked back toward me and with an artful wink replied, “get in line!”
I laughed and walked away…grandly contented with the knowledge that one day, the world would be doing exactly that for Emily Sweeney.
Until next time!