Monday, August 25, 2008

Beatrice's Foot

Beatrice’s (pronounced Bee-AT-triss) foot has long been a discussion of gleeful humor around our house, and shame on us for it. Beatrice was my great-grand-mother’s niece which makes her my twice-baked potato’s next door neighbor’s cousin by marriage, once removed. Her brother’s name was Brainard. What kind of parents would name their supposedly beloved children such names? And if her name were not tragedy enough, one day the poor dear child was sent to the store.

Her second tragedy happened back in the day when females wore high buttoned shoes. They had to be fastened with button hooks which required a bit of dexterity as well as quite a bit of time. On this lovely sunny afternoon, Beatrice was happily skipping home with her basket of goods from the store. She started across the railroad tracks when she discovered that her shoe had become caught somehow under the rail. "Oh, drat!," said Beatrice as she tried to pull her foot loose from under the track to no avail. Wagons continued to cross at the crossing, but no on noticed the little girl struggling to free her foot. Suddenly she heard the familiar throaty whistle of the train approaching the little town. It always sounded its whistle at the bend just at the edge of town to warn everyone to clear the crossing. Beatrice became frantic, twisting and tugging her leg to free her foot. Tears streaming down her cheeks through the dust on her face, she started fumbling to unbutton her high buttoned shoe, hoping that she could free herself that way. As the train neared, her terror grew proportionately, and Beatrice worked even more frantically to free her foot from the rail.

The train chugged on relentlessly toward Beatrice, shushing steam out of its wheels and mingling its screaming whistle with her screams of fear and frustration. By that time she could feel the thundering vibrations in the ground and the rails. Finally a couple of men doing business in town that day realized that the child was not getting out of the way of the oncoming train and actually seemed to be floundering on the track doing something with her shoe! The men ran toward Beatrice, hoping to reach her before the train moving inexorably toward her hit her small body sitting there on the tracks sobbing in terror. They reached her just in time to grab her arms and pull her backwards. They felt the wind of the powerful locomotive rushing past them as the three of them fell backwards into the dirt and safely away from the train. Beatrice had been save. Everything, that is, but the front half of her foot. The poor little dear.

No doubt this horrible event traumatized Beatrice. Remember, she was my great-grandmother’s niece, so by the time I knew Beatrice, she was 769.5 years old and had the personality and temperament of Torquemada*. Beatrice had a habit of visiting Mama, my great-grandmother, to give two-week demonstrations of "How to Be Lazy Without Guilt." Mama was even older than Beatrice but too much of a Southern hostess ever to complain. Despite Mama’s infirmities, every day she made a huge dinner (that’s lunch to our non-Southerner readers), and we sat around listening to family stories and to Beatrice’s vituperations. (That’s sort of like rattlesnake spit.)

She had a mean spirit that tried to wither the joy out of everyone around her. No doubt this came from having been named Bee-AT-triss. She should have been glad she wasn’t named Birtha. (Yes, I know how to spell it, but it looks even worse this way.) The elderlys and I had little enough joy as it was. There wasn’t that much to wither, but she managed. For example, one of the elderlys had been widowed young and had raised her two young sons and even put them through college by working as a seamstress at home. She had lost a good bit of her hearing as a child due to measles. As a young woman, she lost part of the little finger of her right hand in an accident. In front of her, my favorite elderly, in quite a loud whisper Beatrice said to me, "I just can’t stand people with nubs." Beatrice said that. Beatrice of all people. The one who was half a foot short. As the family story goes (and unfortunately I have total amnesia for this historic moment), I turned to Beatrice, smiled sweetly, and slapped her face with all my might. She grabbed her stinging red face and demanded to know why I had slapped her, and I replied, "Why, Beatrice, you had a mosquito on your face." Strangely, after that she quit tormenting me every day. Even more strangely, I didn’t get punished by the elderlys. Under ordinary circumstances, that act would have merited being sent to the dreaded Catholics, the worst punishment anyone could imagine.

But she also unwittingly provided some entertainment. Back in those days we had no car and we certainly had no television. Entertainment was scarce except for radio programs. At the time, I was just a little moppet with blonde ringlets, big green eyes, and an insatiable curiosity. Growing up among only elderlys, all of whom were two and three generations older warped my tiny little mind and made me the ghoul, I mean girl. I am today. Somehow Beatrice still managed to find those high buttoned shoes and wore them with her dungarees. (Look it up if you are too young to know what dungarees are.) It happened that the bedroom opened off the dining room, and after dinner, Beatrice was so terribly tired from all of that nothing-doing that she just had to lie down to take a nap. Oh, God! To me, that was like starting up the lottery ball spinner, and if all the balls fell into place, I would hit the jackpot. The jackpot being – getting to see Beatrice’s foot! I lived to see Beatrice’s foot! That was to be the pivotal experience of my very young life.

As she lay down, I leaned over the table and became uncharacteristically enraptured by the conversation at the end of the table closest to the bedroom, but really staring between the talkers to watch Beatrice because I knew she took off her shoes to take a nap. Well, it turns out that in the ever-so-long litany of "Ladies Don’t" rules, forgetting one’s self and actually climbing onto the table to get a better view of Beatrice’s foot might just top that list. With a great deal of harrumping and disapproval, the elderlys bade me to sit in that chair like a lady. In case you did not attend Boot Camp for Ladies, one was required to sit up straight and not let one’s back touch the back of the chair - a curse that still haunts me today. And also to be seen and not heard - that was required of all children. So, I sat quietly, not touching the back of my chair, waiting for the elderlys to immerse themselves in their conversation once again, and quietly slithered downward underneath the table. I tried to peer through the forest of legs, and after a while, there they were – Beatrice’s feet hanging off the bed! But the bitch had left her shoes on! Just about that time, the elderlys discovered my absence and called me, I stood up, bumped by head, upset all the coffee on table and would have said "damn," if I had known the word. Throughout her whole visit I stalked Beatrice’s foot day after day to no avail. Now that I am old myself, I can go ahead and say it. Damn! I never ever got to see Beatrice’s foot.

Once Spouse and I were walking in a large city and passed a shoe repair shop and what did we see in the window but a size 12 plaster foot. We had to get that for our daughter in memory of all the giggling and sputtering our family had done about Beatrice over the years. Daughter opened it as a Christmas gift in front of her friends, and for some reason, they just couldn’t understand why her parents would give her a huge ugly plaster foot for Christmas.

*Torquemada: The Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition - famous for his tormenting and torturing of imprisoned Heretics.

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