Shay woke early between Kay-Lonnie and Lena but their eyes were already open, waiting for her. They never wiggled till she woke, seeming to breathe the same air, thinking the same thoughts. Susie pulled the quilt over her curly head on the other side of the big bed, grumping about Shay’s cold feet. Shay, Kay-Lonnie and Lena padded barefoot to the kitchen, hugged Mama from behind and found their places at the table as Mama set out Shay’s Campbell Soup Kids’ mug of milk and Minnie Mouse Mug for Kay-Lonnie and Lena to share since they never drank much. After their toast and jam, Shay finished off the milk, helped them wipe their faces, push their chairs in place without screeching and carried their dishes to Mama at the sink. “You’re such a good girl. Oh, and Kay-Lonnie and Lena, too.” Mama smiled.
Racing to the barn, they got there just as Daddy finished milking Jessie. “Heh! Cookie! What got you out so early?”
“Kay-Lonnie and Lena wanted to see you shoot Fluffy with milk!” Sure enough Fluffy, big barn cat, was rubbing herself on Jessie’s hind legs, like they were the best of friends. Daddy shot a stream of milk over Fluffy’s head, and she somersaulted backward, landing upright with her mouth open, catching what she could, the rest cascading down her stomach. It was still the funniest thing Shay had ever seen. Then Daddy took them to see where Fluffy had hidden her new kittens, a secret just between them. They were so tiny their eyes still were closed as snuggled close to Fluffy deep in the hay.
As they ambled back in to get her Peter Rabbit tea set for a tea party, Shay noticed Mary Joe and Barbara visiting Susie. Sometimes they were pretty nice to her but today Susie shut her out of the bedroom while they whispered secrets. She, Kay-Lonnie and Lena took her tea set and had a tea party under the bedroom window till that hateful old Susie tossed a glass of water out on them, laughing like it was the funniest trick in the world. Burt was six years older and could be fun, but lots of times he was so smart-aleck and played mean such tricks, like yesterday pretending he’d give her a bicycle ride then sped off laughing before she got there. She didn’t want to chance it today, so she got her tricycle and rode in the shade. Kay-Lonnie and Lena always rode behind on her tricycle, pushing when the hill got too high, never even asking to pedal.
Mama took them over to play with Becky Jones after their nap while the ladies had coffee. Judy Parker was there, too. When they played house, Becky and Judy both insisted on being mamas saying Shay and Becky’s baby sister had to be babies or just not play, claiming they couldn’t even see Kay-Lonnie and Lena. It just wasn’t fair. Shay, Kay-Lonnie, and Lena just walked across the backyard and sat on the steps and waited on Mama to finish her coffee. They weren’t babies and weren’t about to cry.
Shay was surprised one morning to find Grandma, not Mama, there to give her breakfast…but not a crumb for Kay-Lonnie and Lena. Grandpa milked Jessie and didn’t need her underfoot to get stepped on. Grandma hurried the big kids off to school, “No questions!” and set Shay to dusting and folding towels. After lunch, Grandma and Shay lay down to rest on Mama’s big bed and Grandma told Shay stories about when Mama was a little girl. Shay was surprised to hear Mama had ever been naughty. She woke up much later covered with Mama’s quilt and saw long shadows across her, Kay-Lonnie, and Lena. At supper that night, Daddy surprised them all with news of a brand-new baby sister, Lucy. Grandma stayed for a few days till Mama and Baby Lucy came home. It was wonderful having Grandma all to herself while the big kids were in school. They made cookies, Grandma taught her to make doll dresses, told her stories about Mama and her brothers while they cut out paper dolls. It was just like have a big old-little girl to play with, and Grandma never corrected her manners.
Finally, Mama and Baby Lucy came home. Baby Lucy cried a lot, was too little to play, and kept Mama really busy. Between the baby, washing and hanging out diapers, cooking and cleaning, she didn’t have much time for Shay. The neighbors were always coming in to see Lucy and bringing her presents. What a waste. Worse yet, Mama started having Shay do chores once Grandma went home. Every time she got deep in a game with Kay-Lonnie and Lena, Mama was sure to call her away to fold towels, dust, or set the table. Kay-Lonnie and Lena weren’t much help with that.
As Lucy grew, she loved her big sister Shay and trailed her everywhere. Shay had less and less time for Kay-Lonnie and Lena, though they sometimes slipped off for a tea party in the shade, or played quietly with Shay’s dolls though they still snuggled together at bedtime, sharing her dreams. Shay started school and Buster was born. Like Lucy, he was soon making every step his big sisters made. One day Mama mentioned Kay-Lonnie and Lena and Shay barely remembered them, kind of like a friend who’d moved away long ago. “Don’t you remember? I used to have to set another place for them and you always saved a chair. They were your pretend friends.” Mama said. “You played with them all the time.”
Shay puzzled over the distant memory, like a slippery dream that escaped upon waking.
“I do remember a little, I thought they were real. We played all the time. I haven’t thought about them in a long time.”
From there, Shay went the way of all little girls, becoming a big girl, packing away her tea set and dolls, falling in love, breaking a few hearts and getting hers broken along the way, meeting the one she’d always love, having a family, losing some she loved and learning to love others. In times of heartache, she longed for the comfort of old friends she couldn’t put a name to who’d loved her without judgment, comforted her when she was sick, disappointed, or alone. Sometimes, on cold mornings she’d wake snuggled deep in Mama’s quilt clinging to warm memories of tea parties, swinging high into the clouds, returning her to childhood, whenever she needed it most.
Shay still had a wonderful life with a large family and friends who loved her, a comfortable home, and the joy of good work and a life well-lived, but the hard part of loving of loving is the losing, and the older Shay got, the more she yearned to see her Mama, Grandma, sisters, brothers, and dear friends. One morning early spring morning, she carried her tea to the sunroom, relaxed in her wicker rocker, put her feet up and pulled the afghan up over her aching knees.
“I think I’ll shut my eyes just a minute more. I guess there’s nothing I really have to do just yet.” She drifted off to the sound of “Moonlight Sonata.” Awaking just moments later feeling just wonderful, she found Kay-Lonnie and Lena setting up her Peter Rabbit tea-set like so many times before. Mama and Lucy looked on while Grandma took sugar cookies out of the oven. Daddy came in with fresh milk from the barn. “Oh, Cookie! You’re finally here! Kay-Lonnie and Lena said you were coming. We’ve been waiting so long.” He grabbed Shay, Kay-Lonnie and Lena up in a big hug and swung them around, passing Shay on to the loving arms of young man who folded Shay in a bear hug, as she recognized the child she’d miscarried so long ago, understanding now, he’d never really been lost to her, their time together just delayed. Susie was dancing impatiently waiting for her turn to hug Shay. “Grandpa and Burt are on the way in. In no time, the whole family will be together again.” Oh, Buster was supposed to be here by now, but got held up a little while. Wordlessly, Shay realized they were all free of imperfections, age, and infirmity, and the constraints of time in this magic circle.