Baseball buttons and bedraggled bouquets



Talk about temptation. Two baseball buttons, a small boy, and a pocket just the right size. Joey had brought me the buttons while enduring a visit to Sew Bored, the fabric store. I had said they were not in the budget. Now the outrageous price glared at me in red from his dresser. The near occasion of baseballs dangling on a lower rack just at his eye level had been too much.

All the more reason to take them back.

I called Joey to my side and showed him the buttons. “These don’t belong to us. We’re taking them back. We can’t take things we didn’t pay for.”

He hung his head and nodded, so off we went. I held his hand as we crossed the parking lot. I always did that in case cars whipped around the corner or backed up unexpectedly, but really, I just liked holding his hand. He was my littlest and last.

When we got inside the store, we walked up to the counter. “He has something to give you,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could to the store clerk. Joey reached up and handed her the buttons. She looked at me questioningly, and I waited without saying anything while a light bulb flickered on and off over her head. When it finally turned on all the way, I expected her to nod knowingly. Instead, she stuck her lip out and said, “Awww.” A small word, not a word at all really, but I am pretty sure it meant Poor kid. Give him a break, lady.

“He’s OK,” I told her. “I’m not mad at him. I just want him to know that he can’t take things without paying for them.” I looked at Joey — no tears, no convulsions — he’d live.

Joe is now 13, and this story has become famous in our household. It’s the one time everybody agreed with my take on discipline, even the victim. He tells the story without shame. “I never wanted to do that again!”

What a relief. Not just the part where Joe decided to go straight from then on, but the part where he now tells the story with pride. Don’t tell the kids because it would blow my cover, but even with seven, I’m still a parent-in-training. My mom died when our first kid was a baby, so she couldn’t hold my hand through all my mom phases. Luckily, in this case, she did leave me an example. I remember how she handled it when I committed a similar crime.

Mrs. Tilney’s garden

One day my best friend, also a Susie, and I were playing in the next-door neighbor’s yard. Both of our mothers were in the house minding their own business, which mothers did in those days unless you fell off the roof or something. Anyway, kids playing in neighbors’ yards was nothing mothers bothered about, even the ones whose yard it was. Everyone did it. That day, Mrs. Tilney’s flower garden, with its tapestry of colorful, fragrant blooms, became the perfect backdrop for playing princess. To us, it was the Garden of Eden — in more ways than one.

You see, little girls can’t just look at flowers — especially if you’re a princess. You have to touch them. You have to stroke their silky petals and cup your hands over the blossoms as you breathe in their delicate scent. You have to run from one to the other, trampling them as you go. You have to stop and pick up the trodden blooms. You know you’re not supposed to pick them, but you have to pick the broken ones at least. Then Susie, the thoughtful one, suggested that we each pick bouquets for our mothers.

“That would be nice of us,” I agreed. “And we probably won’t get in trouble that way.”

We were always picking wildflowers for our moms. These were way better. The stalks were fragile and yielding, not like the sinewy stalks which roughened your hands and resisted breaking. They were neat and even and in rows, thanks to Mrs. Tilney, who I had once seen kneeling in the dirt with her garden spade and gloves. After about five minutes, we exited the rubble of denuded stalks, grasping the bedraggled bouquets in our sweaty little palms. These were the best bouquets we had ever gotten. Wouldn’t our mothers be surprised!

Susie went home to present hers to her mother, who, if I remember rightly, accepted them unquestioningly because Susie was one of those nice kids who never did anything wrong except maybe draw too much — which explains why we were best buddies because opposites attract. Susie’s mother put the flowers in a vase and said they were lovely and aren’t you a thoughtful girl, the apple of my eye?

My presentation went more like the moment Adam and Eve swallowed the last bite of apple and suddenly noticed that the garden was drafty.

Mom said thank you and seemed pleased. Then she cocked her head, pursed her lips, and said, “Where did you get them?”

“I picked them.”


“Mrs. Tilney’s.”

“Did you ask her first?”

“She wasn’t there.”

Such a beautiful excuse should have ended the matter. Not with my mom. She wiped her hands on her apron. Then she took her apron off. We were going to ask Mrs. Tilney now, she said. In fact, we were going to give her the bouquet.

“But I picked it … for you!”

“It belongs to Mrs. Tilney,” she said matter-of-factly. She then walked me over to Mrs. Tilney’s house — luckily our route steered away from the trampled garden — and knocked on the door.

Maybe she won’t be home! I thought, like Adam and Eve thinking, God won’t find me if I crouch behind this rock. But there were voices behind the door, and then the dreaded soft footsteps got nearer and nearer. Moments later, the door opened, and there stood Mrs. Tilney.

Mom said hello, then: “Susan has something to give you.” I held out the bouquet. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tilney. I picked these from your garden.”

Mrs. Tilney said, “That’s OK,” and smiled. She said I could keep the flowers. Mom said no thank you, and we went home empty-handed. The rest is a blur, except, as Joey would put it 40 years later, “I never wanted to do that again.

”I would like to say that the incident automatically made me honest and infused me with virtue like the conversion of St. Paul or something. But alas, some people get it, and some people don’t. It was more like “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It was only a beginning, but I can attest that it was a solid foundation.

For one thing, it showed me that Mom was honest, even if it cost her some embarrassment. Kids need adults to be good even when it’s hard so that they can imitate them and learn to leave buttons and flowers alone. For another, Mom held me to the same standard of honesty. No protruding lips; no false sympathy. Later I would realize this was a sign of respect.

Maybe it’s not obvious, but it was also a sign of love. Mom didn’t send me to Mrs. Tilney’s or have me call and explain. She walked with me and guided me through the process.

I remembered that when it was my turn to be the parent as I walked hand in hand with Joey and guided him through the same process. He came out of it unscathed and frequently at tests that he is glad to be free from a life of serial button crimes.

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