A love story
LUCIA was the happiest of us all. No matter what happened to her, she never got mad at life. When she finally learned to speak English well enough for us to understand her, we were amazed at all the thoughts she held inside her. For example, she once said that love is like a symphony—but most people have only heard one note of it.
Thanks to Aunt Magic, Lucia learned English. Aunt Magic had Miss Mehitable Matoon give her lessons every morning for an hour. Miss Matoon said she never had a student who wanted to learn as much as Lucia. Lucia got up at 5:00 to study her lessons for an hour before going down to the kitchen to make us breakfast. Wherever she was, she practiced her English. She was so used to not having anyone to talk to, that she would talk to anything, even if it couldn’t answer: “Good morning, pot! Pay attention, pot. Good job, pot. That is all for today, pot. Nice to see you, eggs. Soon Willy eat you. Good-bye, eggs!” And on and on. She especially loved talking to Uncle Nikkk’s boots. He left them by the stove at night. There was nothing like putting on warm boots in the morning. Lucia would pat the boots on the toe and say, “I want to talking a little to you. Tell me, boots, what you see today, O.K.? You tired, boots? Uff! You is smelly, boots! Where you goes yesterday with Mr. Nikkk? Please be more careful. That is all for today, boots.”
After Lucia made the family breakfast, she and Miss Matoon read McGuffy Readers at the kitchen table. Miss Matoon lived with us during the school year. She taught Latin at Rewster Academy. Latin is a language, I learned, that no one speaks anymore except people at Rewster Academy.
Miss Matoon rented a room from us. Then Aunt Magic needed someone to teach Lucia English. So, in the end, Miss Matoon didn’t pay for her room and Aunt Magic didn’t pay for English lessons. “It’s called Yankee ingenuity,” said Aunt Magic. Later, I asked Uncle Irving to tell me what Yankee ingenuity meant since I couldn’t see what was so special about Miss Matoon and Aunt Magic helping each other.
“Do you know the difference between your pockets and your head?” asked Uncle Irving in answer to my question. I didn’t know how a question could answer my question so I waited. Finally Uncle Irving said, “Your head isn’t empty after you use it, Willy. Don’t empty your pockets [don’t spend money] when you can use your head!”
Uncle Irving had the most amazing pockets of anyone I knew. In his back left pocket was a set of six-sided wrenches [a small tool]. His dad gave them to him in high school and after that he always kept them in his pocket, even when he went to church. He attended regularly once a year. In his back right pocket were 2 handkerchiefs: a clean one and his. His front right pocket had so many keys he leaned to one side when he walked. And in his front left pocket were dog biscuits and his lunch. His shirt pocket always had a pen, a pencil, a small flashlight, and a little pocket calendar. The calendar was full of useful quotes like, “You can tell more about a person by what he says about others, than by what others say about him.” That one was really useful. I used it one day in my World History class when my teacher, Imma Hornet, told me to tell the class what I learned that week. It was the only time Miss Hornet didn’t make me come to the front of the class. Usually, I would have to stand in front of the class after I gave an answer. Miss Hornet would point at me and say, “Class, please now look carefully at Exhibit A in front of you. We have here the missing link [connection] between Primates [monkeys] and the Neandrathal Man [the first humans to stand up straight].”
But the day I shared Uncle Irving’s was the last day I became Exhibit A. I said, “Miss Hornet, here is what I learned this week. ‘You know what a person is like by what he says about other people. Not by what other people say about him.’ ” Then I asked, “Isn’t that right, Miss Hornet?” Miss Hornet just stood there with her mouth open and then told me to sit down.
AFTER awhile, Miss Matoon and Lucia asked Aunt Magic if they could share a room. They were just like sisters, even though Lucia had to call her Miss Matoon. We all had to call her that because she was from Boston and people in Boston are proper [very formal and polite]. Miss Matoon never told her parents she shared a room with an immigrant who didn’t speak English. They would have told her to come home on the next train. I guess most people think that immigrants are not really people.
Lucia was the first real friend Miss Matoon ever had. We learned that Miss Matoon was almost the same age as Lucia. She wore fancy dark suits and wore her hair flat around her head like it was full of tree sap. She wore big hats that Lilly absolutely adored. Miss Matoon gave Lilly a hat for Easter. I never knew how Lilly did it, but people were always gooing over her! [Willy should have said, “cooing” over her—making a “fuss” over her, or giving her a lot of attention.] Miss Matoon started to teach Lilly the most stupid words you ever heard. “O, Miss Matoon,” Lilly would say, putting her hand on her forehead, “Save me from my brother. He’s such an illiterati [not well educated person]!” Whenever Lilly started talking strangely, Jake and I would get up and run away as fast as we could.
On Sunday afternoons, Lara, Lilly, Lucia and I would sit on the porch and listen while Miss Matoon told us stories about Boston. My favorite stories were her stories about the Boston Public Library. You had to walk past two stone lions to enter. Miss Matoon would start to speak real soft, like it was a big secret and say, “Do you know what is inside that library?!” She always started her stories that way and then she would tell us something amazing.
I thought it was the greatest place I ever heard of. She said the library was the first one in America built by the people (and not by the government) and for the people—for all people, she said, even immigrants. Right then I decided it was the best place in America. It was the first library that let people take books home. Before that, books in libraries were chained to the shelves. Can you imagine a book chained to a shelf! What was inside those books, I wondered, that people were so afraid of losing. Miss Matoon said she saw a book once that was 500 years old. Every page was hand written.
Every page had pictures around the edges. It was the story of a Viking king who sailed far from home with the queen and his servants until they came to a land covered with snow and ice. The land was filled with beautiful, wild ponies [small horses] and white foxes. But the land was harsh and the weather made it very hard to live there. Still, the Vikings did not leave because they had gone to find peace and freedom. The land was called Iceland, she told us—the land of fire and ice. In the winter, snow could bury [cover] a whole village in one night and, in summer, mountains spit fire high into the night sky and poured out hot liquid soil [volcanoes]!
Then she really shocked us. She said that Iceland was the first place in the world where people were governed by democracy. I didn’t know what democracy was. I only knew that the whole world was at war.
“So is Iceland to blame for the war?” I asked Miss Matoon.
She looked at me with the saddest eyes and said, “No, Willy, Iceland is not to blame. There is war where people don’t take care of peace.” Lara started to laugh out loud at me because I didn’t understand what Miss Matoon said.
“Well, Willy,” said Miss Matoon, “think about this. Did people bring that terrible mess to Lara’s room? [mess: things left all over a room and not put away.] Or is her room a big mess because she spends hours looking in the mirror at herself and doesn’t take care of her room like she should?”
I loved Miss Matoon. Her answer made that day almost perfect until Lilly said the stupidest thing. “Oh, Miss Matoon! I yearnfully hope [really want] to step into such a great library one day! You simply must take me with you or I will pickle!”
“Oh, Lilly, for heaven’s sake!,” said Miss Matoon. “The word is ‘perish’ not ‘pickle’!”
JAKE and I woke up one morning in late October to something crashing on the roof: first there was 1 sharp bang and then there was four or five shots all together. Things started crashing down on the roof one after another: thud .. bang .. crack .. crack .. crack! Jake and I ran downstairs . . . then down the short hall . . . then down the long hall . . . and then up the stairs to Aunt Magic’s room yelling, “What’s happening?! Is this war?! Are they bombing us?! Aunt Maaaaaaagic! Who’s shooting at us?!”
Aunt Magic opened her bedroom door and picked me up in her arms even though I was really too big to be picked up. “Willy Tilly! What are we going to do with you so you aren’t so afraid of life all the time? Ah, Willy, stop crying. The war isn’t coming here. Those are just acorns hitting the roof. [If you have ever heard acorns hitting a roof it sounds like gun fire.] Ah, my poor little Willy. Come on, we’ll have some tea and then we’ll go collect a big bucket of acorns and make some pancakes.”
By that time everyone was up and at Aunt Magic’s door wondering what happened. Lilly started to cry when she saw me crying and Lara was mad because we woke her up. Lucia was afraid because she wasn’t sure what all the commotion [noise and activity] was about and Miss Matoon was embarrassed because she was still in her housecoat. [housecoat: a light coat, or robe, you wear over pajamas]. But Jake just stood there wagging his bottom because everyone was all together. Aunt Magic looked at all of us and said, “Well, I guess this is a day to be together! I’ll call the school and say we had a little emergency and that you won’t be there today. We’ll do some learning of our own today.” Even Miss Matoon stayed home that day.
Suddenly, no one was mad at me, no one was sad, and no one was afraid. It was amazing how just a few simple words from Aunt Magic could change everything. After that, every October 28th was a holiday at Khoo House. We called it Nut Day and we got to stay home from school.
After breakfast we headed for the woods like we were going on an expedition, with Aunt Magic in the lead. The morning light turned the leaves bright yellow—and filled the forest floor with spots of dancing light. Squirrels ran up the trees when they saw us coming, jumping from branch to branch like performers in a circus. A woodpecker was pounding on an oak tree somewhere and two owls were calling to each other. A little red fox poked her head up from behind a log, but when she saw Jake, she disappeared. Everywhere we looked, the forest was full of life. There were mushrooms, berries, and hundreds and hundreds of acorns. I never remembered feeling so alive.
Miss Matoon’s song
“Don’t forget,” said Aunt Magic, “The bigger the acorn cap, the more bitter [not sweet] the acorn will be. Leave the big ones for the deer and the little ones for the squirrels. We’ll take the medium ones. Whatever you do, don’t try to eat one now! You’ll break a tooth and then you’ll have even more holes in your heads than you do already!”
After an hour, our buckets were full and hanging near the ground so we started for home. Just when we thought we couldn’t take another step, Miss Matoon said, “Come on, let’s sing! I’ll teach you a song.” We were so shocked to think Miss Matoon could sing. It was the funniest song we ever heard. She called it a “round”. One person started the song and then, after a few seconds, the next person started . . . and then, after a few more seconds, someone else started! You had to work hard to sing your part and not listen to the part the others were singing. We were all thinking so hard we forgot our heavy buckets and, before we knew it, we were home.
We never did learn how to make acorn pancakes. After all that fresh air and running through leaves and over fallen trees, we fell asleep as soon as we got home. The shouting, singing and laughing made us feel like we were gone for days. When we woke up, there were hot acorn pancakes waiting for us, along with a big jar of homemade maple syrup. But that wasn’t all. There was an even bigger surprise waiting for us in the kitchen: there were two strangers eating our lunch.