ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA. — Antigua, Guatemala. -- Mama signed me up for Blue Birds in 1944, two days after my sister won a $25 war bond at a victory rally. Dimpled and ringleted as Shirley Temple, 7-year-old Patti had torched through "You'll Never Know" with all the down-and-dirty gusto of Alice Faye herself -- and with perfect pitch.
A year younger and four inches shorter, with braids as lank as the shoestrings that refused to stay tied on my scuffed shoes, I started to sulk. When our aunt and uncle had adopted us the year before, they'd said we were special. Patti sure was. But last Wednesday our fastidious piano teacher, the Duke of Matamoras, had grumbled that I was hopeless, wetting my pants if he tried to force my stubby fingers to stretch for the black keys. Patti of course could pace through Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto without a metronome -- and by ear.
As I dried the Sunday supper dishes, Mama thanked me again for helping to make dessert. I had read the oatmeal cookie measurements aloud from the Searchlight Cookbook, and mashed yellow coloring into margarine. Patti, who struggled through "see Spot run," showed no interest in household chores. But even as Mama talked, my eyes strayed to the ice-box door where she'd taped my sister's drawings, delicate and droll as those in my beloved fairy tale books. With pencil stiff between my fingers, I barely managed circle-snowmen and cats. My last report card said I should be printing between the lines instead of all over the page.
I began to sniffle, ashamed and afraid I'd never be special. After finding at Sunday School that the Bible banned envy, I'd pretended to love my scraggly pigtails. I'd tried to be like Margaret O'Brien in "Lost Angel," taking to wrinkling my forehead a lot. At the dimestore, though, the paper-doll folders featured pretty, bubbly Shirley not plain, earnest Margaret.
Mama took the towel from my hand and brushed my bangs back from my damp eyes. "Listen," she whispered. "Tomorrow I'll talk to Mrs. McGee about getting you into her Blue Bird troop." My tears dried when I heard meetings would be after school on Wednesdays, when the Duke would be admiring Patti's graceful fingers racing through "Fur Elise" on the living room upright. And there would be handicrafts. Maybe I'd make something for Mother's Day, something handy.
Weekly I put on my royal blue cardigan, proud of the plastic bluebird Mama pinned to my collar, and that I had an outfit that wasn't just a scaled-down version of Patti's. My early handiwork, a plaster of Paris palm-print plaque and a papier-mache ashtray, though undeniably lumpy, earned me badges for promptness and effort. Also, after covering the blotch of black paint on the bottom of my May basket with crepe-paper grass, Mrs. McGee took extra time to show me how to tie a ribbon on its handle.
Soon we began to weave flowers to cluster into Mother's Day corsages. First we dangled a six-inch length of yarn in the center of a fork. Next we doubled a long strand, hooked it over the two tines on the left, then looped it back and forth, two tines at a time. The ends of the shorter piece were drawn up around the loops and knotted, and when the yarn was slipped off the fork, it magically became a blossom.
Some Blue Birds had trouble catching on, but my hand fell into the figure-eight motion readily. I became a weaving demon, begging yarn remnants from neighbors, working in secret at home, hiding my flowers behind a bookshelf. The last Wednesday before Mother's Day I stuffed at least two dozen jewel-hued flowers into a lunch bag, when Mama wasn't looking. That afternoon Mrs. McGee helped me assemble them into a bouquet and attach a safety pin.
On Mother's Day while Patti sang a solo, I beamed at Mama from the Sunday School choir. Her face seemed as radiant as the garland of yarn on her lapel. As we left the church other women approached to chat, their roses and carnations paling next to Mama's ruby, emerald and sapphire nosegay. "Yes, Patti's voice is lovely," Mama would say, "and Terri made my corsage. Isn't it special?"
Nearly 50 years later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer I worked with the Belize Council of Churches to set up a child-abuse prevention group in that new Central American country once called British Honduras. With pinking shears we cut bookmarks from old greeting cards and stamped them with the message "Mark books, not kids." We handed them out at workshops and through the national library system to publicize our program. But we puzzled over how to make the tassels until I recalled my Blue Bird yarn flowers. Within minutes we'd equipped ourselves with forks and had started to weave.
After the bookmarks were featured on television, everybody wanted some. Flowered tassels swung from books throughout the tiny country. Our grass-roots group grew confident, raising funds to send a delegation to a conference in Trinidad, despite qualms that they'd be viewed as uneducated housewives from a poor, under-developed nation. Jamaica, Barbados, richer countries would be represented by professors, psychologists, highly trained professionals.
At Port-of-Spain's Holiday Inn the keynote speaker emphasized in her address that life takes its value from its purpose. We discussed this as we arranged our home-made bookmarks, tassels bright as the Trinidad sun, amid the tidy displays of other delegations -- brochures, slide sets, textbooks. In seconds we were mobbed, the bookmarks snatched up, everybody asking how we made them, and more important, about Belize and its fledgling child-abuse prevention program. The keynoter herself plucked a yarn flower bookmark from the table and held it high. "Isn't this special!" she exclaimed. Our faces were radiant.
Terri Elders is a free lance.