Seesaw, Marjory Daw
A nursery rhyme came to me last night, and I kept singing it while I walked my little dog:
Seesaw, Marjory Daw, Jack shall have a new master,
He won’t make but a penny a day,
Because he can’t work any faster!”
It took me back to such vivid memories, that it seemed they were present, not past, and the real present was a blurred, confusing thing. The leader of these remembered scenes was my younger sister, Deedee, whose real name was Diana, and at the time, I was still head and shoulders taller than she was. She wore scuffed brown oxford shoes, with mud dried on the soles at times from her managing and riding, her retired, amusement park, Welsh pony, installed in a white lean-to stable Daddy had built in the required 300 yards back from our house. Mama ironed creases in Deedee’s jeans, a thing I thought highly spoiled my sister, but Mama said, “It’s just her way,” and went on ironing. Everyone in the family wanted to keep Diana happy, except for Daddy, who never caught on how much better it was not to upset her.
Deedee was known for her toughness, even on the school playground. Still, she had this appealing other side that could make you want to please her, and to follow her on whatever adventure she created. It was that side that often persuaded me to join the neighborhood kids following Deedee around. Doing that was consenting to enter the hazardous realms she opened up for us in our wooded, Southwest Atlanta landscape. As if that territory, with its creamy white Writer Spider’s nest emblazoned across two pine tree trunks on the root-laced mud steps down to the bottomland, did not hold shocks enough, Deedee made up others. One of them came at the end of that nursery rhyme when just the two of us took to the one piece of bought playground equipment in our whole acre of backyard—a large board seesaw. I should have learned my lesson, but I didn’t want to. Even though it had happened before, I was surprised and outraged that, for Deedee, this jolting trick could not happen often enough. As soon as I had finished singing that song, and we had pumped that long seesaw up and down to give each of us a turn soaring to a fine height, with me as high in the air as I could go—Deedee, starting her turn, jumped off instead, sending me crashing to the ground on that hard board seat. “Y’Yow-ww!” I screamed, giving her the most reward she could wish. Only my sturdy butt saved me from worse pain—the kind we got if a foot slipped from the pedal on a boy’s bike, and we suddenly fell, full straddle, onto that long bar that reinforced it. Now, that hurt. Don’t ask why we rode boys’ bikes—if Deedee wanted us to ride, we grabbed any available bike and hung on.
Deedee wanted to be a boy and acted like one. While we watched our small-screened black and white TV, she sat on the living room rug, with her jeans-clad leg all bent up, the better to carve, “D.D.,” on the bottom of her shoe with her pocket knife; it was the way she wished her name was spelled. It should have been, for it sounds menacing, and she always liked being that, better than anything. In the back seat of the car, with Daddy driving us to one of his beloved summer vacation spots, Alexa, the youngest, and I, contented ourselves with having won window seats. Deedee, however, insisted we all three play “Scissors, Rock, Paper.” Whoever got her Paper cut by Deedee’s Scissors, for instance, had to turn up her wrist and have it slapped swift and hard, with two wet forefingers, making a stinging blaze on tender skin. We smothered our squeals to conceal this mischief from Daddy and Mama in the front seat, both of them in a peaceful spell on the trip. If we were lucky, the game would end soon enough, with Daddy stopping the car so we could drink ice cold Pepsi from a big metal cooler with a spigot to pour it into paper cups, and eat the sandwiches Mama had made, so we never drove far without stopping for refreshments and a break to stretch our legs, find a restroom.
There were two ways I contrived to please Deedee and get her to spend a lot of time playing with me. Even though I had a typewriter, a record player, oil paints and an easel in our bedroom, something told me to get outside every time I could, if I wanted to be healthy and strong like Diana–and I truly did. One was by becoming the “Don” of our detective team on bikes, that she led, while calling herself, “Bart.” After we had ridden those bikes in the summer heat until we were breathless, we pumped them uphill through two more steep hills, to reach Dr. Buffkin’s corner drugstore, with icesicles pictured on the door to announce its air-conditioned bliss. We went in and, without apology, plunked down a nickel and ordered a Pepsi, the larger fountain drink than Coca Cola, with two straws. We cooled off in tandem, sipping the syrupy cold liquid, and that’s when we could both see each other’s red faces and noses beaded with sweat; I was tense with secret joy that she wanted only to share this pleasure with me, and had no tricks or need for them on her mind.
The other way I won Deedee’s company was more elaborate and consisted of finding a way, over time, to re-create in our basement, among the overhead pipes and undersides of our board floors, plus some remaining heaps of red clay beyond the concrete square floor–the exact movie scene of a Saturday serial called, “The Secret Key.” Of course it was a Western, no big-city grimness. In it, the cowboy heroes gathered at a secret hideaway where their leader started every meeting, with a call for the Secret Key, and when he placed it in a niche in the center of the table, lights mysteriously blazed up around it, meaning that the owner of the Secret Key was present, and the scheming could begin. It took weeks of summer days to concoct our version of this, for we had first to acquire a hand drill of good size, with a half-inch bit for drilling a hole in our bedroom floor. How or whether we got parental permission for this, I don’t recall, but the day indeed came. We took time to call up from the basement to the bedroom above, enough questions and answers to determine just where to drill that hole. When the drill bit cleared that half-inch hole and sank through, you would have thought we struck oil, from our excited shrieks. The large rubber plug had already been unscrewed from the extension cord and the end wire was ready to slip through that hole. I ran upstairs with a screwdriver and re-attached the plug, leaving it ready on the floor for Diana to plug in.
We had already cleaned up the basement hideaway where we had sometimes spent the night on a piece of metal made into a bed. None of us would have dreamed of sleeping on this, if not for the all-night adventure, with our parents shrugging at our nonsense, and their voices able to be heard if we called up to them. Now all that was turned into a makeshift sofa and tucked about with a blanket. On either side of it we had placed cardboard-box end tables. With instructions from a toy-making book, we had removed the metal ends of lightbulbs, set the bulb ends in Mason jar-lid rings, and poured them full of blue tinted water. They sat quite well and gave a fine blue light with a candle glued into its hot wax in a cup nearby. Next, we took two card tables and managed to fasten a large old picture frame stretching between them, and a couple of wide shelf boards to hide the gap around it. With a dark, discarded bedspread to cover all except a cutout for the picture frame portion, and to hang down and skirt that table, we put under it four small lamps, and some blue-tissue paper taped to the underside of the glass in the frame. It looked much like the long table with the sunken rectangle in the middle from the Saturday movie. We attached the lamps to an extension cord long enough to be hidden and run up through that hole in the basement ceiling. All our work centered on one surprise.
With about five young watchers gathered around that table, and the basement door closed, and no light except that little candle, we waited for the dimness to take its hushing effect. I stood at the head of the table and brandished a key in the air. Very loudly, I announced, “The Secret Key!” Then I took my time and placed the key in its shaped depression in a tiny box taped to the picture glass. “The Secret Key!” I called to the ceiling once again, and on this signal, Diana, kneeling on the floor upstairs, plugged in the cord. Sudden beams of light burst into the darkness, shining up through the blue-tissue-papered picture glass, lighting up the faces around the table. Light glared on the brown beams of the floor above, where no one saw a tiny hole. The quasi living room with its blue-watered lightbulbs produced dark shadows and lurid gleams, around that table glowing from four hidden lamps, while our little neighborhood kids squealed with awe and delight.
All we needed was a chord of music, but the gasp from our younger audience was just as good. Before they could get too curious and suspicious, Diana appeared, knocking at the basement door and I let her in and shut it tight again. “I’m here to collect the Secret Key,” she said, “It must be hidden so no one else can use it to find out our plans.” At this signal, I slipped out the door and hurried upstairs to our bedroom, tip-toeing to run quietly, unheard. Diana then, swearing them to secrecy, told some made-up plans to the group, about a raft we were going to build just like Huckleberry Finn’s, and how we’d float it down the creek in the bottomlands. “Those are secret plans”, she said, “and now, I’m ready to hide The SECRET KEY!” she yelled. “No one can use The SECRET KEY !” she repeated, and kneeling upstairs, I unplugged the lamp cord, plunging them all into darkness again. Diana then picked up the little candle and told them to wait quietly for “Cowboy Don,” which they pretended with all their hearts was not just me, her big sister, but a real cowpoke. Pretending was a power we all yielded to, and no one would break the spell.. For the same reason, everyone accepted, from Deedee’s own lips, that she was “Cowboy Bart.” All that remained was for me to come back down, be let in the door by Diana, and have her place the Secret Key in its box into my hands. I dashed out the door and went to hide it under the back porch. Next, Bart led everybody outdoors, and the two of us took them on a quick, stomping run down the root and mud ravine steps of the woods, to the bottomlands creek, and back up again.
After we staged the full scene for our friends and everyone we could drag over to our yard, we returned the lamps to where they belonged, and moved on.
Diana and I then took to a game between “Bart and Don,” of hiding the key from each other and conducting great house and bicycle-ridden searches and quizzes of each other, to find it. At last, half due to our out-growing it, and half to my risking contact with some black widow spider besides the one we had trapped in a jar and studied, I eased a brick out of its extra mounds of mortar in a remote basement wall. Once I placed that key in the gap and slid the brick into place, Diana never found it, and I remained the forever holder of the Secret Key.
Unaware of nature’s undercurrents, we were tolerant of each other’s growing pains. Take the quarrel we had when Deedee ultimately wanted to trade me her blue jeans to wear in exchange for my flower-printed dress. I snatched the dress back, but she didn’t let go, and we both fell over the spindled foot of my twin bed, catching Mama who had been leaning there, and making her roll onto that bed with me, Deedee, and the jeans and dress, all in a tumble, pushing Alexa, who had been sitting there to put on her socks, onto the floor. No injuries were sustained in this tumble, not even to Mama’s pride, for she was tolerant, too, but it was obvious we were all changing every day. We were already sharing one jar of creamy Arrid, the universal deodorant back then, and I ironed all our clothes so I could stay in the back bedroom and listen to my Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra records while I worked. We learned to get our clothes out of the front-loading Bendix washer so they wouldn’t sour, before we hung them out on the clothesline. That washer, won in a post-war drawing at Rich’s, waited many months, until Charles Martin Company(now, Martin Marietta) could install it. It lasted all the way through a years-later move to Decatur and into our young adulthood.
Next time, why that plan to build a raft like Huckleberry Finn was the worst thing we ever did, and how Deedee went from backyard leader to being the littlest and toughest member of the Capitol View Church Basketball Team.