Althea, September 1966
“James, are you out there?”
Althaea and James let go of each other and sat up straight.
“It’s okay,” James whispered.
“It’s just my mother.”
I didn’t think my heart could beat any faster than it did when I put my head on James shoulder just a few minutes earlier, but it was pounding now.
James stood and walked over to the edge of the treehouse and looked down at his mother.
“What are you doing up there, James? Who are you with up there?”
“Hello, mother. I’ll be right down. Give me a minute.”
“I came by to return Mrs. Ray’s casserole dish to her. She said her daughter, Althaea, spends time in the treehouse and you might be with her. I need to go to the market. Why don’t you come with me? Your father is lost in one of his woodworking projects, and says he’s not in a good place to stop right now. He’ll probably work on it until dinner.”
James looked at me before starting down the ladder, and mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
As he reached the ground, I heard his mother once more.
“What were you doing up there?”
“Althaea was just showing me the treehouse.”
I peered down at them, just as she looked up.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Porter.” I called down to her as we made eye contact.
I slowly worked my way down the ladder, and extended my hand to her when I reached the ground.
“It’s nice to meet you. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
She looked me up and down. Then, she looked at James and back at me.
“Well, we best get going if we’re going to get a good cut of meat at the market. I want to make my roast for dinner tonight.”
I stood there awkwardly and smiled.
James broke the silence.
“I’ll see you in school tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you then.”
They turned and walked toward their house. James looked back a couple of times and smiled.
I stood there smiling back until they were far enough in the distance I couldn’t make out his smile anymore.
The next day James found me on my way to the cafeteria, and asked if I would trade the company of my book for his. I couldn’t help but laugh. If he only knew I only read a book at lunchtime in order to look like I wasn’t interested in talking to anyone. It kept people from thinking I was approachable. Not that many people dared to sit with me anyway. Every now and then a new kid would sit near me, and try to make small talk. I mostly ignored them, knowing once they heard the rumors about my family they wouldn’t be back.
“Let’s find a place outside to sit and eat. There’s that big oak tree out back. How about we go there?”
I figured he didn’t want to be seen having lunch with me, but I didn’t care. I enjoyed his company and wasn’t ready to give him up just yet.
We made our way around the building and to the tree. He took off his jacket and set it down for me to sit on.
“You don’t have to do that. I’m fine sitting on the grass.”
“It’s the gentlemanly thing to do. Let me be a gentleman”
We both laughed at that as we sat down and pulled out our lunches.
We ate in silence for a bit, and I feared the words before they came out of his mouth.
“Althaea, my mother mentioned something last night.”
“I know what you’re going to say, and I get it. You don’t want to hang out anymore. No big deal. It’s fine.”
“Why are you getting so defensive? That’s not what I was going to say.”
“What were you going to say then?”
“I was going to say that my mother mentioned she had heard that your mother and grandmother are well known in the community for their homemade remedies. Is that true?”
“Well, yeah. People usually come to them with chronic headaches or stomach viruses, etc. My mother has an assortment of herbs for just about any ailment.”
“I think that’s fascinating. My mother does too, and she wondered if you would like to come to dinner at our house this Friday evening.”
“Me? Dinner? At your house?”
“Yes, that’s what I said, Althaea.”
The way my name rolled off his tongue made me want to say yes to all of his requests before he even asked them.
“I’d have to ask my mom, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. She wanted me to go with her the other day to welcome your family, but I stayed behind and did homework.”
“It’s settled then! We’ll stop by your house after school, and confirm your mom is okay with it.”
I was overcome with a feeling I couldn’t quite describe at the realization that he was planning on walking me home from school.
My mother had instantly loved James and his polite ways, and not surprisingly agreed to my having dinner with his family on Friday. She even made James promise he would extend an invitation to his parents to join our family for lunch after our church service on Sunday. Several of the parishioners often took turns hosting lunch at their house each Sunday. Mom said it would be a great way to welcome the Porters to the church community.
We ate lunch together under our tree again the next day, and walked home together after school. We had become kind of inseparable, spending afternoons in the treehouse until dinner time. I didn’t know if James told his parents where he was spending his afternoons, but I didn’t dare to ask. I still recalled my less than friendly encounter with his mother that first day in the treehouse. Part of me was really dreading dinner with James’ family on Friday.