Short story from Sheryl Bize-Boutte

THE DRESS   

By

Sheryl J. Bize Boutte

 

By the mid 1960’s my parents had four school-aged daughters to support and a fifth change-of –life daughter on the way. Birthday and Christmas gifts often supplemented outgrown or worn out school clothes along with the begged for doll, bike or skates.  Sometimes we got something special; something homemade, handed down or handed over that always brought a unique and precious feel to the celebration.

It was in this tradition on Christmas Day in 1966, while the color wheel changed the aluminum tree from blue to green to red and back again, my mother handed me a gold- ribboned box.  Inside was a simple frock; a multi-colored, multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a wide belt and full skirt.  A gently worn hand-me-down from one of my mother’s wealthy acquaintances, the bottom of the hem hit just below my knobby knees and fit my unfinished 15-year-old body to a “T.” Even though it was a spring dress, I could not wait to wear it to school.  My fingers were already turning the front doorknob, as my mother’s voice admonished, “Girl, don’t you know it is JANUARY? You are going to catch pneumonia in that thin little dress!” But I was halfway down the street and about to round the corner on my usual path to my freshman year in high school before she could finish her second sentence. My inaugural wearing of this dress would also be the day a 17-year old boy would look out of his window from the 3rd house on the right and see me for the first time.

I knew I probably wore that dress much too often, but I had never had anything like it. It had the power to make my teenage self feel like a big gown up lady and became the favorite in my sparse wardrobe.  It also made that boy wait for me to pass his house each day and then fall into step behind me.  Stealthy and silent, he walked behind me for the five blocks to school for the rest of the school year. A bookworm and a loner, totally inside my own head as I made my way, I never thought to look back.

On a late summer day, after almost a year of following me after I rounded the corner, the forces emanating from that dress with me in it, would give that boy the courage to ring my doorbell and introduce himself.  “Hi, I’m Anthony from around the corner. Does the girl with the flowery dress live here?” he asked my sister who answered the door.  With her usual eye roll she answered, “ You must be looking for Sheryl.  She is always wearing that old-timey dress.”  She called to me to come to the door and from that day forward the boy from around the corner became my boyfriend and soon after that, my fiancé.

On a beautiful spring day in 1971, we married in the living room of my family home with only our parents, my grandmother and a few friends in attendance.  Still waiflike at age nineteen, my wedding dress was an elegant non-flowery peach chiffon and silk, the perfect compliment to my new husband’s ruffled peach shirt and coordinating bowtie. Our reception consisted of post-wedding photos taken in my parent’s park-like backyard, while our few guests dined on crust-less tuna and chicken salad sandwiches cut into little squares accompanied by Mum’s extra dry champagne.

Settling into married life was automatic for us and as though it was always meant to be.  I finished college and my husband was at my graduation along with my parents.  Soon after I began my career with the government while my husband continued his climb in the building industry and finished his degree.  During this time, the dress became so faded the flowers were barely visible, and so threadbare it was no longer wearable. Tearfully, I threw it away.

As the years passed, my husband would often come home on my birthday, our anniversary or Christmas with a ribbon-tied box containing an exquisite dress, suit or even shoes, from a small boutique he claimed as his territory for his gifts to me.  Once he presented me with a beautiful white suit and when I asked what the occasion was, he replied, “Because its Tuesday.” He always chose the correct size and only stopped the practice when his boutique of choice went out of business.  But of all the wonderful articles of clothing he purchased, the dress, or anything like it, was never among them.

Then one rainy December day in 1976, during one of my shopping trips through the annual major department store Christmas wish book I saw it; a multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a white background, a full skirt and a wide belt. It did not matter to me that Christmas was near and I was ordering a dress from the catalogue’s preview for spring, I had to have it and ordered it right away. When it arrived I was a bit disappointed to find that the fabric had an unworn stiffness to it and therefore not as soft as the original, the flowers were not as vibrant as they had appeared in the catalogue picture, and the belt was a skinnier version of its predecessor.  But after so many years of dress drought, I decided this dress and I would make a pact to stay together, even though we both knew the relationship would never be ideal.

My husband loved me in this dress even though I knew it for the poseur it was. And because he loved it, I wore it to work and out to dinner.  I wore to the movies and to the supermarket.   I wore it with a shawl in the spring and with boots and a jacket in the winter. I continued to wear it after our daughter was born in 1977 and was surprised, yet happy that after I punched an extra hole in the belt for just a bit more room, it continued to fit. I wore it through my daughter’s early school years and into her entry to junior high.  After she told me how much she liked it, I wore it even more. Still, through all of that, this dress could not convince me that it was the one.

Since I could never get enough of how happy it made my family, over time the dress and I had settled into an easy truce. I came to accept the fact that it could not help me to recapture the feelings I had when I wore the anointed original.  And it seemed to know that although it was not the dress, my family’s reactions would make it a most treasured piece in my by now, extensive and often talked about wardrobe.

Then one day, after 19 years of wear, I put the dress on and discovered I could no longer easily button it, and had run out of room for more belt holes. In defiance, I buttoned it and fastened the belt anyway, breaking a fingernail to the quick as I did so. The dress countered my orders for its cooperation with sharp and intense rib pain and taking away my ability to breathe.  We stood at loggerheads in the mirror for a few seconds before I gave in and feverishly began to free myself from its grip.  My disappearing waistline and the dress had finally conspired to betray me.  With mixed emotions I knew we would have to part ways.

Time went by and dresses with magic flowers and full skirts were often sought but not found. Over the years, I tried to replicate that special dress many times over, but it always ended in disappointment and eventual rejection; sometimes by me, but more often by the dress as the Body Mass Index continued its upward climb. Along the way, I happened upon beige and brown flowered silk shirtwaist and I bought it, but like the substitute garden scene dress I had previously outgrown, it was just not the same. I even tried other styles, and I felt I looked just fine, but I felt nothing extraordinary when they draped my frame and somehow that just continued to feel like a requirement.

From time to time, I would still pine for that original long-lost dress and the power it had to make a shy boy follow me to school, my daughter smile, and strangers stop to tell me how great I looked. Even though I was loved well, had a happy home and fulfilling work, I still wanted the all the dress had given me.

In 1995, our daughter went off to college and we became empty nesters. We moved on with life and the blessings of family and love continued as the years passed without the dress. Then on Christmas Day in 2010, my husband presented me with a golden box wrapped with a golden bow.  We had decided not to buy gifts that year, because we felt so blessed, so I was both surprised at the gift and annoyed that he had broken the pact. In the middle of a hot flash with lips pursed, I launched into my protest, “But I thought we weren’t going to…” I was stopped in mid-sentence when my smiling husband and daughter said in unison, “ Just open it!”  Their smiles grew wider and wider as I pushed through the tissue paper labeled “Zell’s Vintage” and opened the box.

Inside was a simple frock.

A multi-colored, multi-flowered shirtwaist dress with a wide belt and a full skirt.

The Dress was back for Christmas.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Sheryl J. Bize Boutte

 

This story was originally published by Harlequin Publications in their 2013 holiday story collection “A Kiss Under The Mistletoe” by Jennifer Basye Sander, and in my 2014 book, “A Dollar Five: Stories From a Baby Boomers Ongoing Journey” available at Amazon.com and other booksellers

 

https://www.amazon.com/Dollar-Five-Stories-Boomers-Ongoing/dp/149938310X/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=14

 

Short story by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Uncle Martina

I don’t know why Daddy brought me with him to Uncle Martin’s house that day or even remember whether it was just he and I, but there we were, standing on the curb edge squinting into the sun, waiting for Uncle Martin to cross the street.  Dressed in an un-tucked flowy white shirt and severely creased beige slacks, Uncle Martin was looking back nervously over his shoulder as he slowly made his way across the yard and on to the sidewalk carrying a small raggedy suitcase containing what he would later tell me were his “essentials.”

Much later, I would understand that Daddy was the logical one to be there that day.  He and Uncle Martin had been close since the day Daddy married his only sister, my mom.  Uncle Martin took one more quick look over his shoulder just before his foot hit the black asphalt of the street.  Standing in a stiff row behind him were the family he was leaving, an angry wife and three children; a girl aged 10 and two boys aged 7 and 5.  The girl stood solidly beside her mother trying her best to mimic her adult fury, while the oldest boy simply looked lost and confused.  The youngest boy, who looked nothing like Uncle Martin, had a look on his face that coincided with his mismatch, that of utter detachment.

In the middle of the street now, car engine running, Daddy called out, “Come on man, let’s go.  It’s hot as hell and I’m wasting gas here!”

With that, Uncle Martin wound his long slender fingers into a tighter grip around the fragile suitcase handle and sauntered in extended elegant strides to mom’s humming, brand new 1962 Chevy “Big Rider.” Daddy grabbed Uncle Martin’s shoulder and squeezed it, which made Uncle Martin lower his head and smile a strange combination of devastation and relief.  We all piled onto the new car smell green leather seats, and with Daddy and Uncle Martin in the front and me in the back, Daddy pulled away from the curb.

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Short story by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Chosen

noun: immigrant; plural noun: immigrants
a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.  (Google dictionary)

“Most don’t think of adoptees as immigrants. They don’t arrive by what we have come to believe are the current means of immigration. They are, after all, chosen.” –Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte

I vividly remember when I first saw her.  I was seven and she was eight. Her yellow petticoated dress glowed amber in the sunlight behind her as though she had arrived on a sunbeam. Although the almost blinding light obscured her facial features, I could see that her dark straight hair was neatly parted down the middle, providing a pathway for the two thick long braids that lightly brushed her waist.  But it was her welcoming smile that broke through all of that with a singular brightness of its own and captivated me immediately.

It was her first day in America. The unwanted child of a Japanese woman and an African American soldier, she had been among the countless babies who had been abandoned at orphanages in Japan after the war.  Having no children of their own, my career Army godfather and godmother had adopted her on one of their many trips to Japan. By the time she and I would meet for the first time, her Japanese name had been erased and replaced with the name Cassandra.

As I moved closer to her to get a better look, her smile never wavered.  She spoke little English at the time, but we did not need words. My godmother stepped in between us and handed each of us a small jewelry box. We simultaneously opened them to find matching rings she had purchased on a recent trip to Istanbul. Grinning, we each put on our rings and in that sunbathed impromptu ceremony we became sisters for life. On that day, it never occurred to me that this meeting and the rings had been in the planning stages for some time.

We spent our childhoods playing together whenever our parents visited each other.  We missed each other when we were apart but had no control over our meeting frequency.  Cassandra remained very much Japanese, quietly keeping her own counsel, while she slowly explored her African American heritage.  Sometimes she would show me her photo album from the orphanage, full of the mixed race children that Japanese mothers did not want or could not keep. My godparents had chosen her out of all of those unwanted Amerasian children looking expectantly into the camera lens, with eyes full of hope and longing. I often found myself looking more at the beautiful Japanese clothing they wore to avoid those eyes. With the exception of showing me the album once in a while, Cassandra rarely spoke of her time in the orphanage or of her biological parents.

Much later I would learn that Cassandra had been born in Gifu City, Japan, known as the “crossroads of Japan” due to its location in the center of the country.  It would be this central location that would cause Gifu City to be the target of relentless and heavy bombing during World War II. During the American “occupation” and reconstruction of Japan from1947 to 1952, thousands of mixed race children were born to U. S. servicemen and Japanese women. Cassandra was one of these children.

Some of the Japanese mothers simply left their mixed race, mainly African American-Japanese, or as they were called “hofu” children on the street.  Many were taken to the Elizabeth Saunders Home, a Christian orphanage founded in 1948 by Miki Sawada and named for her major benefactor, Elizabeth Saunders. This orphanage specialized in the placement of unwanted African American-Japanese children with American families. The thought at the time was there was no possible way to assimilate these “hofu” children into Japanese society; they were simply not wanted. For Miki Sawada, that meant they had to be rescued and returned to their native land in America.

Although I don’t know whether Cassandra was a resident of the Elizabeth Saunders Home, I now think it is very likely she was, and I may have been looking at an album of pictures from that very orphanage on my visits with her. In that sea of smiling and longing faces, I may have been looking at a little girl who was then known by her Japanese name, Masako.

As we grew, we became solid “God sisters,” and as budding teenagers, spent countless hours steaming our faces with hot washcloths to banish breakouts. We used gallons of Noxzema and thought of it as a miracle cure. Even though I don’t remember it really doing much to banish the bumps, we reveled in the routine and the promises made on the jar. We always swore we looked better after one of our “treatments.” We had many sleepovers at her house; I don’t remember her ever coming to mine.  That was fine with me. I did not want to share her with my four younger sisters anyway and besides, I got to be the little sister when I was with her.

We both met the loves of our lives in our late teens and made our entries into early womanhood during the Black Power movement of the 1970’s. Under strict parental orders to shun militancy, we were simultaneously frightened and enthralled by changes taking place and wore dashikis and black leather jackets to support the cause. With the danger infected courage of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton in our surrounding atmosphere, I served as her matron of honor while my new husband played the conga drums at her African themed wedding.

She was the first to have a child and would have four to my one.  We both would get college degrees: mine in English and hers in Child Development.  With her degree in hand she started a daycare business called San’s Childcare.  My then baby daughter would be among the first to receive the benefits of her loving care.  She became my daughter’s second mother and instilled many valuable traits from infancy through early teenage years.  When I was climbing the work ladder, it was Cassandra who supported me in teaching my daughter many things woman and many things strong.  When I could not be there, Cassandra made sure that all was well at school, the homework was done, the scratched knee was bandaged and the meals were healthy. She was a precious gift sent to accompany me on that vital part of my motherhood journey. My daughter was a part of her family and we both knew we were blessed to be in her presence.

All too soon the children would grow up and Cassandra would decide to retire from the childcare business.  The children she had taken under her wing had all arrived as infants and reached their preteen years at the same time. The time had come for them to leave the nest and fly on their own.

On one of my last trips to pick up my daughter, I encountered Cassandra and her husband on the sidewalk in front of their house.  She was again back-lit by the bright sun and I could only see her outline, moving toward me with a slow and unfamiliar gait. As they got closer and her face came into view, I asked how they were doing.  “OK, she said.  I just have a little cancer.”

Matter of fact.

Just like that.

Everything stopped: The cars on the street were no longer moving; Charlie across the way was suspended halfway up his front stairs; the dogs next door ceased their incessant barking; everything but Cassandra fell away. She had to go in to the house and tell her children.  I had to tell my daughter. I told her she would be all right and that I was there to do anything she wanted. She hugged me and without looking back, walked up the steps and through her front door. She and my unknowing daughter passed each other at the threshold and hugged each other tight as they said their goodbyes. I held my tears until I arrived at home.

Cassandra fought her disease with all of her might.  When we would visit her in the hospital during and after her treatments, I would try my best to make her laugh.  But soon it became clear that the treatments were not having the desired effect.

And so, in an effort to save her, her husband moved Cassandra and their family to his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee where the world-renowned cancer specialists at Vanderbilt University could treat her. Things would go from good to bad again and back for some time until bad stayed much too long.

In what would be my last conversation with her, with the sounds of her children in the background, and barely able to speak, she told me there had to be something she could do.  That she did not want to just lie there and die.  I told her how much she meant and would always mean to me, from the day I saw her in the sunlight with the long braids and the smile. Then we laughed and talked about Noxzema and dashikis and how we both still had our rings and about being true sisters. I thanked her for sharing her light and helping to make my daughter the beautiful loving person she had become.  I told her I would always be there for her children as she had always been there for my child.  She took a breath and I could hear through my own tears that she was crying as well.  Then she said, “Thank you so much.  You don’t know how much your words mean to me. I love you.” “I love you too, Cassandra, I said, and I will see you later.”  Her last words before we hung up the phone, were, “I will see you later, too.”

Two days later, I received a tearful call from her youngest daughter.  All she said was, “Mommy didn’t make it.”  At the young age of 44, a loving wife, devoted mother and my treasured sister was gone.

As her children began to re-group and return to California, I have kept my promise to always be here for them. Although they are all grown up now with children of their own, and I don’t see them much, the bonds are strong and deeply rooted.

I think of my chosen sister often and miss her still.  And each day, with the rising sun, little Masako continues to share her light with us all.

Copyright©2018 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte

Poetry by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

THE 40 PARADOX

 

The hazy summer of the new millennium

Finds the four of us

Inching through the daily scramble of the 405

That finally lands us on Wilshire Boulevard

Mother, Father, Daughter, Nephew

We all look for movie stars at the corner Starbucks

Giddy that two are real enough to stop and chat

After compliments on latest movie

And our travel plans shared

Telling looks and “I have to go” smiles

Stage whisper we had lingered

as long as we could

 

No real relationships are solidified

Warm goodbyes float on the Westwood glitter

And the smoggy rumor of

A Los Angeles sun

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Poetry by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

Not As Sweet

This one is not as sweet

As the one before it

I was taken in by its good looks

The rich green color

The dark and perfect striping

I thumped it

Sniffed it

Weighed it in my hand

And then I took it home

With the first cut

The signs of heartbreak were there

Thick, tough and resistant to my instruments

It fought the quartering

Railed against separation from the rind

Exacted revenge by making me the fool

Tissue paper flesh should be discarded

But I am hungrily devoted

To the bland watery chunks

Tasteless and diluted as they may be

To partake is to be the same

Fighting the seduction of inviting aroma

And the whispers that outside pretty

Means the inside is just as

Because you know when they get together

They don’t always tell the truth

This one is not as sweet

As the one before it

And even knowing that

I sprinkle the sugar

And devour it anyway

Copyright © 2017 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte

Short story by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

MADELINE AND ME

“Stop it! Stop it!” Madeline screamed as the kids on the Whittier Elementary school playground hurled whatever they could find on the ground at her.  Sticks, rocks, dirt, even discarded remnants of lunches were launched toward Madeline as the evil chorus shouted, “Fat Mad!’ Mad, Fat!”  “Mad” was short for Madeline and “fat “was because, well, she was bigger than the rest of us and those kids were mean.

Madeline ducked and dodged as best she could, screaming all the while. “My hair is clean!” she cried, as she covered her head with her hands in an attempt to protect her gleaming blond hair from the onslaught of garbage landing on her from head to shoes. That blond hair of hers was her crowning glory. For her, it neutralized her large body type and gave her a modicum of self-esteem.  And for Madeline, the big white girl, and me, the skinny high yellow bookworm, self-esteem was often hard to find.

Madeline was not just a white girl standing in the middle of the 1960’s white flight, she was the only white girl left at my school.  All of the other white kids and their families who were in the neighborhood when my family and I arrived in 1960 had moved away. On the schoolyard, as in the world, we had become acutely aware of our differences, and the torture that could sometimes result. We had also arrived at an age where how we chose to handle differences would be revealed. As fifth graders we did not process much beyond influences from parents, teachers, friends and television. When those influences combined with where we were at the time, we often just fell into the actions that made us fit in with the others.  It felt so good to fit in and so lonely to be an outlier, we were all vulnerable to meanness at one point or another. And those of us who were different, in varying ways, tended to cling to each other, just to get through the times we were forced to leave our sometimes viewed as odd comfort zones and step foot on the scary asphalt yard with the others.

United in the third grade by our differences to the accepted norms, Madeline and I were solid best friends. We were the only friends we had, and on that day, on that schoolyard, it was my duty to come to her defense. Even though I was thinking this, I still waited a tick for the adult yard monitors to intervene, but when I looked over at them, they were pointing and laughing at the attack along with the others. As I scanned the crowd it became clear that the adults who were supposed to protect us were having a good time watching Madeline’s anguish. As more joined the sideshow, those who had already used their physical weapons, added their voices to the verbal insults, while others began to gather just to join in the “fun.” After all, nothing bad could be happening since the adults were participating.  No nothing bad.  Just the torturing of Madeline.

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Short story by Sheryl Bize-Boutte

THE LAST COLLARD GREEN

collardgreen

Hello, my family name is Green and I am the last Collard in town.

Life was good in my rich patch of dirt at the corner of Rice and Roux.  Every year I would defy the winter frost and blossom forth from spring into the fall. My leaves broke away from my sturdy spine in clean lines and the pot liquor I produced was always a soft pastel green, affirming my lack of bitterness. I felt unique, included and loved. After all, I was individually planted with a soft glove and closely cared for unlike my cousins who arrived chilled in paper bags festooned with big red letters.

I spent my growing days in the sun hanging out with my friends Turnip and Mustard.  And even though we were different varieties, we were all Greens and lived together in familial harmony. All Greens were welcomed to share the soil and flourish along with us.

Then one day, Mustard suddenly disappeared.  At first we thought the gophers had gotten to her.  But there was no tale- tale hole where she had been, just the smooth dry ground.  Turnip and I talked about it and soon realized that we had not been watered in several weeks and were slowly losing our ability to stand. Tiny flowers were beginning to bloom on our leaves, a sure sign we were heading back to seed.

Then the unthinkable happened.  Turnip disappeared and I was suddenly alone.

And then I saw them.  New sprouts beginning to emerge.  I was only able to stay alive from the trickles of water allowed by their stingy runoff.  As I slowly wilted, I watched them grow tall and strong.  Soon they covered the entire garden.

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