Monday, May 12, 2008

The Purple Handkerchief, a short story by Stef Kramer

“Do you think it’s a good idea to take our sixteen year old daughter to a place full of criminal men?” Dad asks Mom.

My parents and I are on our annual visit to Phoenix, where my Aunt Connie and her son Trent live. Trent, a recently appointed correctional officer, works at a branch of the Maricopa County Jail and really wants to give us a tour.

“They’re locked up for God’s Sake.” Mom pulls Dad aside and whispers something. I hear the words “for Trent” and “so proud”.

So now, we’re enjoying our fieldtrip at the Maricopa County Jail. Trent leads us into a sterile-looking room labeled, “For Authorized Personnel Only”. Our newly acquired security badges allow us this new, respectable status.

“In a few minutes, five new inmates will be brought in. We’ll wait here until they pass,” Trent explains.

“Should we be standing here?” Aunt Connie asks with the some anxiety.

“We’ll be fine, Mom. They’ll be shackled and restrained by two highly-trained escorts.” Trent sounds impatient, like he always does with his mom.

While the badge gives me authority, I’m a little nervous. I edge closer to my Dad.

The security doors open with a loud clank. Immediately, our small-talk is suspended. A parade of orange-clad men, surrounded by the keepers of our peace march to their place of restitution. I look at the first prisoner. My gaze temporarily locks with the eyes of the Latino man with a shaved head. I drop my eyes first. With my head hanging low, I focus on my shirt that is unnervingly sporting a big, yellow smiley face.

The parade continues, and with arms crossed to hide “Smiley”, I edge even closer to Dad and watch with my peripheral vision. The tense energy seems to devour me.

As the last inmate is brought through, I notice Mom moving closer to Dad. But apparently, her change in position isn’t for protective assurances. She wears a big smile and looks at each inmate as if she were the hostess for the Maricopa Criminal Gala.

Trent proceeds to take us to the center of the jailhouse where the officers stand guard amidst glass-celled cages stacked two stories high. As we approach the guards, the inmates in their cells arise to their “windows” to catch a glimpse of the new guests. Their faces reveal curiosity, longing, revenge, sexual prowess and despair. Their pathetic situation is consuming me when I notice the woman in front of me, my mother, returning waves to each and every prisoner as we pass. Dad takes action.

“This isn’t the place to show our Iowa diplomacy.” He gently grabs Mom around the waist and stifles her happy waves with his arms. Mom’s smile fades. Luckily this part of the tour is almost over and soon Trent will be showing us only logistics about the facility.

The drive back to Aunt Connie’s house is more quiet than normal. Conversation is polite and civil, in the worst way. I sit in the back of the van with my mom, knowing she still feels badly. While I don’t understand her need to be friendly to rapists, thieves and murderers, it pains me to see the hurt look on her face.

“Dad wasn’t trying to be mean, Mom. He was just concerned,” I try to comfort her.

My words break her gaze and she turns to me.

“Oh, I know. I’m not upset with your dad.”

“What’s bothering you then?”

She becomes quiet again. I don’t press.

A few minutes later, she asks me, “Did I ever tell you the story about the purple handkerchief?”

I nod no.

“Well, when I was in the 2nd grade, I had a teacher by the name of Miss Grant. She was young, beautiful, and well, not very nice. But she was my teacher and I had to respect her.

“Anyhow, you know how poor I was growing up. We had nothing. The only clothes I had were hand-me-downs from our neighbors, Leta and Leo Jensen. The dresses (we always wore dresses back then) were very nice, but always way too big. Mom never had the time, or ability, to alter them. So, I typically looked ridiculous -- a poor, skinny girl, playing dress-up in chunky girls’ clothes. I was an easy target for Miss Grant who often made me an example of how “not to dress”.

“One day I was so excited to go to school.” Mom spoke with a smile, still remembering her excitement. “You see, Mrs. Jensen had given me a beautiful, purple handkerchief among a group of dresses. It had the most remarkable lace detail. Now, in the 50’s, after we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, everyone was to place their handkerchiefs beside their outstretched hands to be inspected by the teacher. Hygiene was of utmost importance. Most of my hankies were drab, or torn, or frayed. But not that day. I finally had something nice – something beautiful!

“The moment came. The Pledge of Allegiance was over and I could see the other girls admiring my new accessory as I laid it out. Never had I felt so proud.

“Miss Grant approached my desk and stopped abruptly. I knew she would be impressed.

“Sandra, where did you get that?”

“I smiled and told her that Mrs. Jensen, our neighbor, gave it to me.
She then lowered herself to my eye-level and asked again, in a deeper tone, “Sandra, where did you get this?”

“I told her again, knowing by the tone of her voice that Miss Grant was mad and about to make me a spectacle.

“She told me to go in front of the class and proceeded to ask me the same question over and over again, until I cried. She then screamed at me and said, “Admit it! You stole it, didn’t you?” So, I finally lied and told her what she insisted on hearing.

“She took away my handkerchief, and one of the few moments in my childhood when I felt a sense of pride.”

Feeling more than perturbed with my mother’s childhood teacher, I interject, “What kind of person could be so cruel? Especially to a little girl?”

Mom goes on, “Well, she wasn’t very nice, like I said before. The worst part was going home to tell my mother I had lost it.”

“Why didn’t you tell her the truth? And tell her Miss Grant had taken it away? Grandma would have been furious!”

“I was in 2nd grade. I couldn’t possibly have gone home and told her I was in trouble with a teacher. To a seven-year old, getting in trouble with a teacher was worse than losing the handkerchief.”

Feeling upset by the injustice my seven-year old mother endured, she brings me back to the point of her story.

“Anyway, I promised myself, way back in 1951, that I would never, ever, make anyone feel like a criminal.”

“But some people are criminals, Mom.”

My mother grabs my hand and says softly, “That’s not for us to judge.”

I look at my mother’s kind face, smile at her, and put my head on her shoulder. I avoided as many faces as I could in the jail.

Thank God Mom was there today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed "The Purple Handkerchief." It has an O. Henry flavor.

Joyce R.