Country Girl is a story about a poor seven-year-old girl's wish to be more like her city friends.
By Carrillee Collins Burke
The Great Depression had swept our country, leaving thousands of men unemployed. But my dad found work at a dairy farm.
Our home on the farm was an ugly gray, weather-beaten old house on a hill overlooking railroad tracks and the Ohio River. We picked coal from the tracks to feed the kitchen stove and living room fireplace. Our water came from a rain-filled cistern. Mom covered the cracks in the walls with newspapers and the windows with Grandma’s old lace curtains.
Yet life was still exciting with unfamiliar woods to explore, a sparkling stream to wade, and added excitement when a hobo stopped by for a mug of hot coffee and a slice of my mom’s bread spread with her homemade butter and jam.
In 1940, I started school. My brother, a fourth grader, and I rode the bus to a school in town. I wore long brown cotton stockings, brown shoes laced to above my ankles, and dresses my mother had made from feed sacks. I envied the town girls with their beautiful store-bought clothes, white socks, and shiny black shoes. I yearned to be a town girl too, but I was poor and poor, in my mind, was country and country girls were always teased. I felt I was not as good as my classmates.
But my seventh birthday in March changed everything.
Instead of Mom’s cake, I wanted a bakery cake like other mothers brought to school for my classmates’ birthdays. Those times were grand and exciting to me. My family never celebrated with fancy cakes and parties. So I wanted to be like my new friends and have a bakery cake, too.
Without a car or telephone, my parents couldn’t order a cake even if they could afford one. But I wanted that bakery cake desperately. To me, it was the difference between being a country girl or a town girl.
I prayed to God each night to grant me just this one small wish.
“I’ll be good forever, God. I promise! But I need this cake, okay?” Then, I added, “A very pretty one, please.”
The morning of my birthday over a foot of snow covered the ground, causing the schools to close. I stared out my bedroom window, anxiously waiting for my special day to develop. Suddenly, out of the blowing snow, an old man appeared, his shoulders wrapped in a heavy gray blanket. I screamed for Mom to come see the hobo.
Mom opened the door and the old man walked in and hugged her. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Mom said the man was Al, a distant kin, whom she hadn’t seen in years. She hung his wrap over a chair by the kitchen stove to dry. In his arms was a big brown bag that he placed on the table.
“I can’t stay, Marie,” he said. “I’m just passing through on my way from New Haven to Ravenswood.”
“New Haven! That’s a good five miles. You must be frozen.”
“I am. But when I heard you lived on this road, I had to stop by.” He patted her shoulder. “When I saw the fancy lace curtains, I knew this was your place.” He shoved the bag closer to her. “I bought a cake from a bakery truck guy I met a piece back. I thought it could be dessert tonight.”
“Then, you’ll stay for dinner?”
“Of course,” he answered.
A cake from a bakery! Oh! Thank you God! I couldn’t wait to see it.
Big-eyed and nervous, I hung over the table and waited while Mom gave Al a cup of hot coffee. Finally she pulled the cake from the bag. When I saw it, I crumbled. God, you sent me a loaf of bread. And, I even promised to be good forever. But Mom didn’t share my disappointment. She was excited.
“Can you believe it, Carrie?,” she said to me. “Here’s your bakery cake.”
Then she asked Al how he knew it was my birthday.
“I didn’t,” he said. A smile wrinkled his leathery old face as he turned to me. “So, it’s your birthday, huh? Well, well, well. I hope you like angel food cake.” He patted my cheek. “It’s my favorite.”
My brother took one look and whispered, “Looks like bread to me.”
I turned and ran to my bed, flopped facedown on the rough, hand-pieced quilt and sobbed. I whined and pouted about that ugly angel food cake for hours.
When dinner was ready I finally came out of exile, but only because it was my birthday. Dad sat me at one end of the table. Still pouting, I only picked at the chicken Mom had killed and fried especially for me and our guest. Depressing thoughts filled my head. I was seven years old and my life was doomed.
After dinner, Mom brought in the loaf cake covered with chocolate icing, decorated with white daisies and lots of green leaves on the sides. On the top she’d printed, Happy Birthday, Carrie.
I had to admit it was the most beautiful cake I’d ever seen. I jumped from my chair and hugged her. “Thank you, Mom,” I cried. I even ran around the table and hugged Al before eating my cake with ice cream that Dad had made in our hand-cranked freezer.
At school the next day, I bragged about my birthday bakery cake. Alice, (who had been to my house only once because I was too ashamed of our meager surroundings to invite her back) was the first to comment. “I would rather have your mother’s cake,” she said, telling the other girls about the day she spent with me. “Carrie’s mother made homemade dumplings in navy beans and the best chocolate cake ever.” Then she sighed and said, “I wish my mother could cook like that.” She was so serious I almost laughed.
“Why would you want an old store cake when you could have your mother’s fresh baked cake?” another classmate asked. My friend Betty added, “Yeah, Carrie, you’re lucky you have a mother who can make your clothes, too.” She fingered my cotton dress. “Your dresses are so … happy looking.” And before we all went to our desks, Alice had the final word, saying, “We’d all love to have what you have.”
All of a sudden it no longer mattered where my classmates’ cakes came from, or where they got their clothes, or all those other silly things that I had worried so much about.
The town girls envied me!
Feeling very proud and special, I pulled up my sagging, brown cotton stockings, smoothed the wrinkles from my purple-flowered, feed sack dress and slid behind my desk.
Maybe being a country girl wasn’t so bad after all.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
*This story was nominated for the Pushcart Prize