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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
300 pages
Sep 2004
Penguin Putnam

Dearest Dorothy, Help! I've Lost Myself!

by Charlene Baumbich

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Chapter One

A day, Mother Nature had brewed a delicious swirl of October warmth, even for the northern part of southern Illinois. Without warning, though, nippy evening breezes blew stinging chills through Dorothy’s flung-open doors and windows and right down her spine. She pulled her pink cardigan sweater tight around her chest and pinned it to her breastbone with her left hand as she hustled toward the front door to close it. “Winds of change,” she’d heard her mother proclaim many times before she’d gone home to meet her Maker, and Dorothy thought of her as she repeated the phrase a couple of times with a sigh tucked in between.

Once at the doorway, mesmerized by nature’s sudden onset of rowdiness, Dorothy stood shivering, watching the tree branches bob and weave, marveling at how severely tree branches—even some trees—were bending in the testing airstreams, yet not snapping. “Yup. Winds of change,” she said aloud. A gust rustled her hair and snatched the words right out of her mouth, sending them racing with the wind through all of Partonville, clear out of town and down the country roads. Dorothy’s spirit quickened and her body shuddered. “Oh, Sheba! That felt prophetic! Gives me the heebie-jeebies!”

At the sound of her mistress’s voice, Sheba’s ears perked forward. Curled up tightly on the new white carpet, her warm cocoon suited her just fine, no matter what the winds or world were doing. In response to Dorothy’s statement, Sheba opened her mouth and smacked it a few times before burying her nose further into her own doggie circle of contentment.

“I can barely stand to think yet more change might be coming our way…,” Dorothy whispered, her voice fading under the weight of possibilities. Trying to snap out of it, she straightened up and for a good twenty seconds, willed herself to stand strong against the chill, deeply inhaling the wind’s crisp vigor into her eighty-seven-year-old body. “Almost as good as a splash of cold creek water to the neck,” she said to her smile before closing the door. “Almost.”

Not many people talk to their smiles, but Dorothy had talked to hers ever since the day her mother, who had had it with her nine-year-old’s, strong-willed contrariness, had steered her by the shoulders into the bathroom and stood her before the mirror above the sink. “Dorothy Jean, take a good look at that face. What do you see, child?”

“I see a girl who does not want to wear her dumb blue dress to church today,” Dorothy said with a humph of finality. “Look at me! I look perfectly fine in my pink sweater and dungarees,” she proclaimed, her face pinched into a wad of storm.

“Child of mine, you look perfectly fine in your birthday suit, too, but you’re not wearing that to church today either.”

“Oh, yes I am. I’m always wearing my birthday suit. But usually nobody can see it because I’m wearing clothes over it.”

Ethel tucked her lips inside her mouth, damming a torrent of sharp words ready to burst out of her. She stared at her daughter’s set face, then watched her cross her gangly arms across her chest, clearly reveling in her last statement, which was, at its root, inarguable—and they both knew it. Ethel had long ago learned, however, that neither diatribing nor debating would move Dorothy Jean toward Ethel’s intentions. No, you had to beat Dorothy at her own strengths, and that took prayer, creativity and unending patience. While Ethel engaged in mental gymnastics, she mindlessly crossed her arms against her chest as she studied her own midlife face in the mirror, as if appealing to it for answers. Her eyes scanned their framed reflections. Without a doubt, these two females were the shadow images of each other’s stubbornness. Lord have mercy on us both, Ethel prayed in silence.

Just then the old Register clock in the kitchen began its ten-gong pronouncement that church would begin in thirty minutes, barely enough time for them to finish dressing, pack up and get to town.

“Dorothy Jean Brown, we both look pathetic. Just get a good gander at us. I think we should talk to our smiles and try to coax them out of their hiding places. After all, if you were the pastor, would you want to look at these faces while you were preaching God’s word?”

Mother and daughter spent a few moments moving nothing but their eyes between their reflections. Pretty soon it became impossible not to giggle, which is exactly what they did.

“Look at us,” Ethel said. “Don’t we look like fine women when we smile?”

“We do,” Dorothy said, her heart erupting with love for her mother like an explosion of happy feathers. “Let us determine right here and now,” Ethel said, resting her hands on her daughter’s shoulders, “that when we find we haven’t been smiling enough, we will talk to our smiles to encourage them, okay? We’ll talk to our smiles until we feel them rumbling around inside of us. We’ll talk to our smiles until they appear, so that when we look in the mirror, we can smile back at them.” Ethel then leaned over and kissed the top of her daughter’s fine brown hair, her warm breath melting Dorothy’s remaining resistance.

Without another word Dorothy Jean Brown quickly changed into her blue dress, casting a hurried eye into her dresser mirror each time she passed it, just to make sure she was smiling back at…her smile.

And now, nearly eight decades later, Dorothy Jean Wetstra talked to her smile yet again, realizing it had been hiding for several days. Although she had continued to enjoy decorating her new little home on Vine Street three blocks off the Partonville square, and she truly did relish living so close to her best friend May Belle, and May Belle’s dependent, forty-five-year-old son Earl, whom she loved like her own, her soul still pined for Crooked Creek Farm, the farm she had, just a few short months ago, left behind— lock, stock and crawdads. Not only that but her fierce independence had taken a severe knock when, during this same time, she’d scared herself driving and determined it was time for her to give it up, which now kept her from spur-of- the-thought visits to the miles-away farm, its land, the barn, her birthplace…the very home in which she had learned to talk to her smile.

Dorothy stretched her five-foot ten-inch frame and walked down the hail to her bathroom, reaching her arm around the corner to flick on the light. The cheery cobalt-blue paint that rimmed the mirror and the basketball-sized sun painted in the corner over the tub set the perfect stage for the upcoming drama.

“Come on, smile,” she said out loud to her face in the mirror. “I know you’re in there; I’ve seen you in many photos over all these decades. You know, it’s band practice tonight and Nellie Ruth will be here within thirty minutes to pick us up. Do you want her or Raymond, the director, who stands right in front of us so I can hear him with these old ears, to have to look at this face while I’m trying to muster enough air to blow through my clarinet?” She put her hands to her hips, cocked her head, bugged out her eyes, and lifted her brows in a challenging gesture. “I mean, think about all the friends and happy melodies we’ll be surrounded by. Think about the goodness the Lord has blessed us with by allowing me the privilege to even have a face— although Lord, I sometimes do wonder what You are thinking when letting it age into this!” She leaned toward the mirror and turned her head slightly to the left, then to the right, studying each crease; her ever-heightening forehead; the remains of her thin hair clinging to her pink scalp; her brown eyes, slightly hidden beneath droopier eyelids than she’d last remembered; her neck that revealed the folds of a well-seasoned, long-lived life.

Yes, that outward appearance was constantly changing. But the thing that disturbed her most was the lack of any evidence of a grateful smile for all that blessed her. “Come on, smile, I know you’re in there!” We’ll talk to our smiles until we feel them rumbling around inside of us, she heard her mother saying.

She closed her eyes, willing herself to examine what she was feeling. Sad? Lonesome? Lost? Old?

Then a subtle shift birthed in her gut. “Oh, my,” she whispered, goose bumps racing up her arms. What she could feel was her mother’s heavenly hands on her shoulders, her soft breath on the crown of her head. For a good fifteen seconds she stood motionless, receiving this gift of grace. ‘When she opened her eyes, nearly expecting to see her mother once again standing behind her, only her own reflection appeared in the mirror. But so did her smile.

“There now. That’s better. What a fine woman you look like when you smile,” she said, wiping the joyful tears of love and remembrance from the soft wrinkles around her welcome and familiar grin. “Thank you, Lord, for the balm of sweet memories. Let the winds of change blow where they will; as long as I remember You and my smile, I believe life will go as it should.”