Meade weighed 92 pounds, whistled through her gapped teeth, walked toes out like Charlie Chaplin or a ballerina and French braided her own hair when she was thinking. Or maybe that was her sister Kate, about a year younger. Irish twins, followed two years later, by Hap, and then Margaret. They all lived together in a little brick house behind the A and P with their mother Ellen and father, Major Harry Johnson.
Mrs. Johnson had married at twenty, after two years at Manhattanville College, a hell-bent romance with then Captain Harry, and a bare nine months later, Ellen Meade. Mrs. Johnson was the youngest mom any of us knew, single strands of gray the only clue that she was old enough to tell us what to do. The Johnson kids knew when to listen and when they could do what they wanted. None of them seemed to mind the little house, the way the children tumbled over each other, up and down stairs, banging heads into eaves, knees into corners. Mrs. Johnson liked to tell the story of their first Christmas.
“Remember, Harry, how poor we were? We bought a standing rib roast for Christmas dinner, but we were so poor we could only buy two ribs. The butcher cut it especially for us. I had to stab a fork on each side like flying buttresses so the roast could actually stand.”
“It was delicious,” the major said. “Well-done the way I like it.”
“Oh, daddy, you do not,” Meade said. “You like it rare.”
“Well, now I do, since the roasts are so goddamn thick,” the major said. “By the time you get to the middle, you could be eating Bessie in the field.”
One summer day they invited me to the pool at Fort Belvoir. After swimming, our skin tight with chlorine and sun, Meade and I lay on thin towels on the nubby concrete, occasionally lifting our heads to see if our hipbones still struck out of the gently contoured earth of our bellies.
“My mom says you can stay for dinner at our house,” Meade said. “We’re having corn.”
“Okay. I like corn,” I said. Nothing was better than corn just picked from the fields, the taste of that day’s sun still in the kernels. And corn went with everything, especially Coney Island burgers, tomatoes, Vidalia onions and basil, three bean salad, their vinegar and olive oil and butter and ketchup all running down your chin, so when you finally went to wipe it, you didn’t know whether to lick your hand or wipe it on your shorts.
We rode home from the pool crammed together in the too hot station wagon, Margaret lying across our laps in the way back, sticky, happy, hungry. We piled out and went up to the attic bedroom to change.
“Hey girls, come help me shuck,” Mrs. Johnson yelled up. When we went down to the kitchen, Mrs. Johnson already had three big pots heating up on the stove. She sat at the kitchen table, a ripped brown paper sack in front of her, ears of corn spilling out, each hand yanking the green husks down, leaving a pearly shaft of new corn.
We all sat in the kitchen at the Formica table, our skin scratchy with pink heat, shucking dozens of ears of corn, plucking threads of silk from crevices, smoothing the kernels clean. When all the pots brimmed with bobbing corn, I asked Mrs. Johnson if I could help with anything else.
“Honey, look at all this corn. Do you think we could eat all this and something else too?” she said.
“We’ve got butter and salt,” Meade said, almost reproving. “I told you we were having corn.”
And so we did.
Kristin Sherman lives in Charlotte, where she writes and teaches part-time at Central Piedmont Community College. She still loves corn.