Long Live Judy French Fry
Fifty years ago, in working class Kansas City, Mo., if you had asked a little girl, “What would you ask for if you could have anything in the world?” she might have asked for a Chatty Cathy doll or a Barbie doll or a pair of those little plastic high heels with the elastic straps.
As for me, I wanted Renters. I thought of them that way, as a proper noun. I prayed that a family with a daughter my age would rent one of the brick bungalows on the other side of the creek that ran through my side yard. I would kneel by my bed and ask for a miracle: that when I woke up the next morning, Renters would be living in the house and a little girl with a pony tail like mine would knock on my back door and ask if I could play. It didn’t happen.
I grew up, the youngest of four, in unincorporated north Kansas City. My house sat on two acres of scrappy land sandwiched between the Starlite Club Saloon and a creek on the sides, and highways in front and back. No neighborhood, no neighborhood kids. What had started as a small farm where my parents raised chickens, cows and a garden, over the years became less farm and more mini-industrial complex, where my dad did welding jobs in the evenings and on weekends. Every day he went to work at 7 a.m. at Builders’ Steel Co., and came home at 4:30.
I loved 4:30. I would listen for his old truck to come barreling down the driveway. He would open the back door, his green work clothes dirty and a black line around his forehead from the welder’s helmet. He’d kiss my mom, then pick me up with one strong arm and snuggle me onto his lap as he sat in a kitchen chair. We had a little ritual. I would check his pockets until I found the pack of Juicy Fruit gum he always carried. When I found it, he would tickle me and give me a piece. Mama would hand him a cold Hamm’s beer and he’d take one long pull, then let me have a sip. Or two. I loved the unlikely pairing of the beer and Juicy Fruit on my tongue, along with his smell of sweat and steel.
With the older kids off at school, I was left at home during the long days with our cats and dogs and my mom. At five feet tall and 100 pounds, she did laundry every Monday, in the basement, with a wringer washing machine. She carried baskets of wet sheets and clothes up and out to the clothes line in the back yard that stretched 20 or 25 feet. Tuesdays, she ironed and baked. Mama made sack lunches for my dad and all of us kids every day as long as anyone was going to work or school. She refinished furniture and painted walls and put up wall paper. She defrosted the refrigerator, scrubbed and waxed the linoleum floors weekly. When we still raised chickens, she cut off their heads as I held their feet, then she would pluck them and singe off the pin feathers. She was a whiz with numbers and kept the books for my dad, paid bills, did the taxes. For fun, she sewed most of our clothes.
Left to my own devices, I had trees to climb and frogs in the creek to poke and catch. There were litters of kittens to be dressed in doll clothes and pushed around in the doll buggy. But what I really wanted was to be a cowgirl. I had a red cowboy hat and a holster with two cap guns. I had a name for my cowgirl self— Judy French Fry. I don’t know where that came from but it had a nice ring. I wanted to ride the range and drink coffee by a campfire with my sidekick. Without a Renter, of course, I had no chance of having a real sidekick. Sandy, my red mutt, tried, but he was easily distracted.One particularly slow day, in my quest for a sidekick, I found a big, curved stick about my height. I named her Cooley Stick. I would drag Cooley Stick around as I trotted on my imaginary horse, Gumption, with Sandy close behind. Cooley and I sat around imaginary campfires, drew pictures in the dirt and drank water coffee from old tin cups. Cooley listened to my stories and watched as I took target practice so I would be ready to scare off coyotes in the night. Cooley bunked with Sandy out in the chicken coop.
Sadly, when my family got a load of Cooley Stick, Gumption and Judy French Fry, they were merciless. I don’t know that I ever saw my mom laugh that hard again. I should have prayed harder for Renters.
See what I mean? Please start on that book mom!
p.s. Today I dropped my cell phone in the post office parking lot and ran over it with my car. Oh Lord, Coom By Ya. If you need to reach me email is the best way.