by Nancy A. Clark
The most profound sermons are sometimes delivered by the most silent preachers. Take Dutchess, for instance – an itty-bitty thing that taught me lessons to last a lifetime.
Dutchess was a three-inch tall ceramic salt shaker molded to look like a little Dutch girl. Bright blue bows painted into her blonde pigtails matched the color of her eyes and dress. She sported a perpetual smile in spite of spidery cracks in her veneer, and her hands-on-hips posture formed “handles” to make her user friendly. Mom poured salt into her through the bottoms of her faux wooden shoes and when tipped upside-down, Dutchess dispensed her all through miniscule holes at the top of her white three-cornered hat. Off duty, Dutchess, along with her pepper-shaker brother, Dutch, endured without complaint the heat that surrounded her on the stove top between a percolating pot of Maxwell House coffee, and a cauldron of bubbling venison stew.
My sister and I were forbidden to “salt” at the dinner table, but the family heirloom shaker was permitted to stand in the space between our respective dinner plates. We girls loved Dutchess and bestowed upon her the same human characteristics we as-signed to our dolls.
Dutchess was a faithful servant in our busy kitchen, dependable to the very last shake. That’s why her demise was such a paradox to a life well-lived. During a rare outdoor adventure, and only 40 feet from our back door, Dutchess met her tragic end in a manner that literally brought me to my knees and left her salt on my hands for all time.
In the harvest season of my ninth year, I was assigned to “search and rescue” any veggie left behind after the final garden picking of the day. During one such mission, I spotted a grossly deformed cucumber and three overripe tomatoes. Now, I loved cukes and ‘maters – especially with a dash of salt to enhance their flavor; and nobody but me knew they were still in the garden, right? I had a plan, and all I needed was a little salt.
Mom was occupied with our baby brother when I slipped undetected into the kitchen and kidnapped the unsuspecting Dutchess. Clutching the ceramic victim in the safety and warmth of my right fist so as to insure her she need not fear, I wormed our way through gnarled vines and rotting cabbages to the “left-behinds” to liberate the twisted cucumber and two of the orphaned tomatoes. Then we dove into a row of free-standing corn stalks. There, in my private den of iniquity, I carefully tipped and gently shook Dutchess’ bounty over the stolen treasures until those veggies looked like they’d come through a Kansas snow storm. Hankering for more, I wrapped my juice-sticky, soil-encrusted fingers around the muddied shaker and crawled back through the garden jungle to rescue the last tomato.
That’s when I came up front and waaay too personal with a trespasser … a gigundo groundhog, who reached for that tomato just as I was about to rip it from its warty vine. Both the critter and I froze when our paws touched on the top side of that red globe. We each issued a silent scream, reared on our hind legs, turned on our respective haunches, and ran on all fours – he toward the outhouse and me to the back porch. It wasn’t until I was tucked into my wee little bed that night when real terror struck: I’d returned from the garden sans the salt shaker.
Because of me, Dutchess had become a left behind.
Mom’s lingering dismay over the missing salt shaker eventually drove me to confess I was the “perp” in the Case of the Missing Dutchess. My punishment fit the crime: to crawl on my hands and knees in the garden and “look until you find it.” Hours of searching netted a buffalo nickel and a rusty skeleton key, but no Dutchess.
I learned invaluable lessons from this humiliating experience. Among them: a profound respect for “thou shalt not steal,” and the grace of forgiveness. I also learned that when I stand tall, stay cool and keep smiling, I can endure a lot of heat in life’s kitchens … that when I’m turned upside down and shaken, I’ll eventually land on my own wooden shoes … that when I maintain a posture of accessibility, I’m more user friendly. And when I’m empty, my ‘Keeper’ will fill me up and preserve me for inevitable servings of unsalted humble pie.
Sometimes it is the littlest things in life that teach the greatest lessons. Thank you, Dutchess, wherever you are.
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Nancy Clark and her husband, Tom, rejoice in 50 years of marriage, three children and three grandchildren. She dabbles in freelance and memoir writing when she isn’t baking, knitting, reading, or building a jigsaw puzzle.