Original art by Kathleen Holdaway Swain
We endured periodic visits from Mother’s bizarre relatives, Cookie and Uncle Riley. Whether or not they were actually deranged was debatable, they definitely teetered somewhere between eccentric and maddening. Most people who had to interact with them on a regular basis held out for just plain crazy. Both held Master’s Degrees, Cookie’s in Education and Uncle Riley’s in Mathematics. Cookie was head of a large public school system in Texas. Uncle Riley worked for the government as a mathematician in the 1950’s. I won’t press that any further, except to say that somehow, they miraculously collided and produced Cousin Barbie, The Wonder Baby. On their way to an Easter visit in 1957, Cookie and Uncle Riley made a few stops.
I digress, but needed to set the scene for their visit. Because my mother had married a blue-collar worker, a man they considered “beneath her” and had three children, Cookie and Uncle Riley held the impression that my parents ran an orphanage and would be grateful for any gift of apparel, no matter how useless they might drag in. This particular trip, they came bearing refuse from a fire sale: ten pairs of boys black high top basketball shoes in a wide range of sizes, six identical but slightly singed, size eight, red and green sateen dresses trimmed with black velvet collars and waist bands, six dozen pairs of size two cotton satin-striped Toddler Training Pants, and three six-packs of men’s silk dress socks in a nude tone, a color I’d never seen anyone wear. In addition to these useless prizes, they’d stopped by a fruit stand and gotten a great deal on a box of fifty pounds of bruised bananas and an Easter duck for Barbie. By the time they’d reached our house many hours later, four-year-old Barbie, Easter Duck, and Bosco Dog had romped in the back seat and pretty much-made soup of the bananas. Fruit flies circled the old black 1943 Ford merrily as it rocked to a stop. Uncle Riley, the mathematician, anticipating breakdowns didn’t believe in wasting money on new car parts. He always carried a collection of parts extracted from a junker in his back yard to keep his old clunker running. He also split the back of his old jeans and laced them up with shoe strings when they got too tight, but that’s s story for another day.
I know Mother must have dreaded their visit, with its never-ending pandemonium, especially since for some reason, the only thing they shared with Daddy was a healthy contempt and barely concealed animosity for each other. The five of us kids were always delighted to see them, in spite of their bizarre offerings. One pair of the smoky-smelling shoes did fit my brother, but shredded in a few steps, due to its proximity to the fire. The dresses were put back for “Sunday Best,” Thank God, never to be seen again, since neither of us girls was a size eight, nor was partial to singed, scratchy dresses. Fortunately, for my parents, at the moment, they had no size two toddlers for the training pants, though they did manage to come up with a couple just a few years later. Easter Duck, however, deeply interested four-year-old Billy.
Sensing misfortune in his future, Mother tried to run interference for Easter Duck, fearing for his health. For some reason she was distracted by the madness of intervening between Daddy and her whacked-out relatives, getting dinner ready for the whole crowd, dealing with out-of-control kids, and finding places to bed everyone down for the night. Not surprisingly, her concerns for Easter Duck were pushed to the bottom of the list. Never having been deprived of anything she wanted, ever, Barbie had no intention of being parted with Easter Duck. Billy needed a better look, and having had plenty of experience dealing with mean kids, patiently waited for his chance. Forgetting Easter Duck, Mother and Cookie went back to their visit, leaving the two four-year-olds to play. As you might expect, before long, they heard the screaming. Barbie held poor Easter Duck by his head; Billy had him by the feet. Between them, they had stretched the poor duck’s neck way past anything God ever intended, even for a swan. Neither exhibited the Wisdom of Solomon and was determined to maintain possession, at all costs. Poor Easter Duck paid the price! Though he was rescued, sadly his neck was not elastic and did not “snap back.” He didn’t get to spend the Easter holidays with his new friends, Barbie and Billy.