By Lona Jennings
I always have a box of crayons in my house. A lot of people do, either for their kids or their grandkids, and they probably keep some coloring books too, but I live in suburban Seattle and my grandkids live on the other side of the United States in Pennsylvania.
The crayons aren’t for them. They’re for the magic.
A half century ago, when I was six years old, I stayed the summer with my older half-sister Nora and her family. Nora was 17 years older than me, and although her daughter was my niece, Carol and I were about the same age.
One morning when soft fog swirled outside the windows, Nora had put Carol and me at the kitchen table with a stack of coloring books and a wooden cigar box full of crayons.
In the tiny coastal town of Garibaldi, Oregon, there was usually a morning fog and it usually disappeared by noon, pouring out of the pine forests and onto Tillamook Bay and the cold North Pacific Ocean like a white tide.
At twenty-three, my sister had already been married seven years and had a serious, responsible outlook on life. It showed in the firm set of her determined face. I had heard her joke with the ladies at church that she’d looked forty years old ever since she was born. With the thick arms and shoulders of a weight lifter, my sister liked nothing better than hard work.
Everyone knew that if you wanted a job done, you gave it to Nora, so she always had something to do. If it wasn’t church work, it was splitting firewood, canning, sewing clothes, or cleaning her tiny house.
With two busy six-year-olds and her husband Bill who worked in a lumber mill and often came home coated with sawdust and pitch, Nora waged a constant battle with grime. It seemed Carol and I were always being chased out of the house so the floors could be mopped clean.
We had our duties too — mine was folding up dry clothes as Nora took them off the clothesline — but not that morning. That morning we were coloring.
As Carol listlessly dug through the crayon box, her thick honey-brown braids hung beside her face and hid the sharp monument of her Roman nose, already the bane and embarrassment of her young life. It was July and ten months since our first ever school shopping expedition last fall. The box held only the leftovers of a dozen successfully completed coloring books with titles like Mickey Mouse, Let’s Go to the Zoo and Great Bible Stories.
The longest dull-pointed chunk of crayon was no more than two inches long. Most of the pieces had lost their paper sleeves, and without labels the anonymous colors all seemed either a sort of navy blue or a dirty brown. The yellows, reds, turquoises, and oranges had been used up decorating Joseph’s coat and Minnie Mouse’s dresses.
Even with the imagination of a six-year-old, it’s hard to create a masterpiece with just dark blue and brown, but Nora had said we must wait another month and the start of school to buy new ones. Money was tight and we had to make do.
“Slosh-slosh. Clunk. Ker-click.” At the familiar combination of water and metallic sounds, I looked up from the picture I’d been working on, a half-finished forest scene of Bambi and the baby rabbit Thumper. Nora had put down a pail of soapy water, and her wet rag mop was already on the kitchen floor, ready to do its moppy business.
“Why don’t you go outside and play?” Nora suggested and started putting our crayons back in their box. When we both whined, her lower lip curled down in a mock pout, but her eyes laughed at us. “Come on now. I’m going to mop.”
Carol and I looked toward the window over the sink. The fog, although thinner than at breakfast, was still hanging on. “Oh, Mom!” Carol answered for both of us, as she usually did. “We’ll get wet!” But Carol was a good girl. She stood up and went to our shared bedroom to fetch her sweater.
I stayed at the table holding a tiny piece of green crayon in my hand and looking hopefully at Nora. “Can’t I finish my picture, Sissy? Please?” At home in Portland I had gone barefoot every summer of my short life, happily shedding my shoes on the first warm day, but here in Garibaldi I’d been told to wear them. The ground was cold, the grass wet, and green banana slugs the size of my brother-in-law’s big thumb slimily slid everywhere. I’d just as soon play inside.
Unrelenting, Nora took my Bambi book and put it in the high cupboard where she kept all the coloring supplies. “Go on. You can finish tomorrow.”
I wasn’t going to give up so easily. I moaned. “I just found this nice piece of green! It’s the last one in the box and it’ll get lost by tomorrow. The boogeyman will eat it up or something.”
“The boogeyman, huh? The one that hides under the bed or the one in the closet?”
“Under the bed,” I told her.
Nora rolled her eyes. “I’m going to have to talk to Bill about his bedtime stories.” Putting her fingers on the tiny stub of green I still held, Nora slowly smiled. She looked at my moping face. “We have to put the crayons away in the cupboard so they’ll grow back.”
“Grow?” I asked. Nora went to church all the time and wasn’t in the habit of lying about anything. On the other hand, crayons growing in the cupboard sounded pretty magical, even more so than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I was a big, grown-up girl. I’d been to both kindergarten and first grade. You couldn’t fool me.
“Yeah, grow. Crayons need nap time just like little girls. If we put them away in the cupboard, they’ll grow big and strong again. You wait and see. Come on now. Up you go.”
Nora took my chunk of crayon and easily lifted me up out of the chair and set me on my feet. “Get a sweater.”
I stood undecided, but whom could I believe if not my Sissy? She knew lots of Bible stories and how to cook and sew. Maybe she knew magic too. Envisioning the ugly stubs elongating into a full box of gorgeous multi-colored sticks fit for coloring a peacock’s tail, I decided to go out and play after all, even if it meant getting a little wet.
I watched as Nora put the wooden crayon box away and closed the cupboard door. Then I trotted off to join Carol in the bedroom.
When Carol and I came back through the kitchen, Nora was on the telephone talking to someone. “Hi Honey, could you stop at the store for me on the way home?” She waved as Carol and I went out the door.
“Wow, Mom! Lona! Look at all the crayons!” Carol exclaimed the next morning. Once again the day had dawned foggy and cool, so Carol and I had decided to finish our pictures from yesterday.
Carol was holding the open box of crayons and looking down at a rainbow of wonderful, bright colors — whole crayons, complete with wrappers and sharp points. There were so many! It looked like a double super box full, including all the special in-between shades and even the metallics. I could see the sparkling gold, silver, and copper crayons that were always the first to go.
It was magic! It was a miracle!
I was so excited I was hopping up and down. “The crayons grew back! They grew, Sissy!” I sang as I wrapped my arms around Nora’s legs and gave her a special hug. My Sissy knew everything!
Nora leaned over to hug me back. “Yeah, they sure did,” she whispered in my ear. She had a satisfied smile as she straightened up.
Carol, who hadn’t heard her mother’s prediction the morning before, looked at me as if I were crazy. As she sat down to color, she shook her head, the motion twitching her beribboned braids up and down her chest. “Loney Baloney,” she declared and stuck out her tongue at me.
“Carol the Barrel,” I answered in kind. The familiar exchange of hated nicknames complete, we sat down peaceably to enjoy our coloring books.
Later when Nora again told us to go out and play, I put the crayons away without a quibble. I had learned my lesson. For their magic to work, crayons needed a nap, just like little girls.