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Authors: Betty MacDonald

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Anybody Can Do Anything

BOOK: Anybody Can Do Anything
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Anybody Can Do Anything
By Betty MacDonald



Original Copyright Page








PALE HANDS I LOVE (KASHMIRI SONG) by Lawrence Hope By permission of William Heinemann & Company, London, England

AT DAWNING by Charles Wakefield Cadman
From the song “At Dawning” published and copyright (1906) by
Oliver Ditson Company. Words reprinted by permission.

LESS THAN THE DUST by Lawrence Hope
By permission of William Heinemann & Company, London, England

THE CONGO by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay
The Congo and Other Poems,
copyright 1914, 1942 by
The Macmillan Company and used with their permission.

JUDY by Hoagy Carmichael
Used by permission, Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc.






1: “Anybody Can Do Anything Especially Betty”


The best thing about the depression was the way it reunited our family and gave my sister Mary a real opportunity to prove that anybody can do anything, especially Betty.

Mary’s belief that accomplishment is merely a matter of application, was inherited from both Mother and Daddy. Mother, who has become, through the years and her own efforts, a clever artist, inspired cook, excellent gardener, qualified midwife, skillful seamstress, reliable encyclopedia of general information, book-a-day reader, good practical nurse, dependable veterinary, tireless listener, fine equestrienne, strong swimmer, adequate carpenter, experienced farmer, competent dog trainer and splendid stone mason, was working for a dress designer in Boston when she met my father, an ambitious young mining engineer who, though rowing on the crew, working all night in the Observatory and tutoring rich boys during the day, graduated from Harvard with honors in three years. The union of these two spirited people produced five children, four girls and one boy, all born in different parts of the United States, all tall and redheaded except my sister Dede, who is small and hard-headed.

Mary, the oldest of the children, was born in Butte, Montana, and indicated at a very early age that she had lots of
ideas and tremendous enthusiasm, especially for her own ideas. I, Betty, the next child, emerged in Boulder, Colorado, and from the very first leaned toward Mary’s ideas like a divining rod toward water.

When I was but a few months old, Gammy, my father’s mother who always lived with us, sent Mary to the kitchen to ask the cook for a drink of water for me. Mary returned in a matter of seconds with the bathroom glass half-filled with water. Gammy, suspicious, asked Mary where she had gotten the water. Mary said, “Out of the toilet.” Gammy said, “Mary Bard, you’re a naughty little girl.” Mary pointed at me smiling and reaching for the cup and said, “No, I’m not, Gammy. See, she wants it. We always give it to her.”

The rest of the family proved to be a little firmer textured, not so eager to be Mary’s guinea pigs, so she has always generously allowed them to choose between their own little old wizened-up ideas and the great big juicy ripe tempting ones she offered.

My first memories of being the Trilby for Mary’s Svengali go back to that winter in Butte, Montana, when each morning Mary marched importantly off to the second grade at McKinley School, while my brother Cleve and I, who could already read and write, shuffled despondently off to Miss Crispin’s kindergarten, a gloomy institution where all the crayons were broken and had the peelings off.

The contrast between Miss Crispin’s and real school, in fact between Miss Crispin’s and anything but a mortuary, was heartbreakingly obvious even to four and five year olds, but the contrast between Miss Crispin’s and the remarkable school that Mary attended and described so vividly to us, was unbearable. Nothing ever happened at Miss Crispin’s except that some days it was gloomier and darker than on others and we had to bend so close to our coloring work to tell blue from purple or brown from black that our noses ran on the pictures; some days Miss Crispin, who was very
nervous, yelled at us to be quiet, got purple blotches and pulled and kneaded the skin on her neck like dough; and on Fridays to the halting accompaniment of her sight-reading at the piano, we skipped around the room and sang. Miss Crispin taught us all the verses of “Dixie,” “Swanee River,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “Old Black Joe,” and for-the bottom rung on the ladder to enjoyment, I nominate flapping around the room dodging little kindergarten chairs and singing “Old Black Joe.”

Compare this then to the big brick school that Mary attended where everyday occurrences (according to Mary and Joe Doner, a boy at school called on so often to prove incredible stories that “If you don’t believe me, just ask Joe Doner” has become a family tag for all obvious untruths) were the beating of small children with spiked clubs, the whipping of older boys with a cat-o’-nine-tails in front of the whole school, the forcing of the first graders to drink ink and eat apple cores, the locking in the basement of anyone tardy, and the terribly cruel practice of never allowing anyone to go to the bathroom so that all screamed in pain and many wet their panties.

Naturally Cleve and I believed everything Mary told us, but also naturally, after a while, we grew blasé about the continual beatings, killings and panty wettings that went on in the second grade at real school, so Mary, noting our waning interest, started the business about the “sausage book” and for months kept us feverish with curiosity and acid with envy.

One snowy winter afternoon she came bursting in from school, glazed with learning, but instead of her usual burden of horror stories, she was carrying a big notebook with a shiny, dark red, mottled cover, like salami. “Look at this,” she announced to Gammy and Mother. “I call it my ‘sausage book’ and I put everything I learn in it. See!” Carefully she brushed the snow off her mittens, turned back the shiny
cover and with great pride pointed to the first page. “That’s what we did in school today, all by ourselves, without any help,” she said.

“Why, that’s beautiful, dear,” Mother said. “Just beautiful!” Gammy echoed and Cleve and I crowded close to see what was beautiful. Immediately Mary grabbed the book, snapped it shut and put it behind her back. “Hey, we want to see in your sausage book,” Cleve and I said. Mary, in a maddeningly sweet, sad way, said, “I’d like to show it to you, Cleve and Betsy, I really would, but Miss O’Toole won’t let me. She said it’s all right to show our sausage books to our mothers and fathers but never ever to our little brothers and sisters,” Mother and Gammy laughed and said, “Nonsense,” so Mary stamped her foot and said, “If you don’t believe me, just ask Joe Doner.”

Day by day Mary built up the importance of the sausage book until I got so I dreamed about it at night and thought that I opened it and found it full of paper dolls and colored pencils. But no spy was ever more careful of his secret formula than Mary with that darned old notebook. Sometimes she did homework in it but she guarded it with her arms and leaned so far forward that she was drawing or writing under her stomach; she slept with it under her pillow, she even took it coasting and to dancing school. She never was cross or mean about not letting Cleve and me see inside it, but persisted in the attitude that she was only obeying her teacher and trying to protect us, because she realized, even if Mother and Gammy didn’t, that seeing into her sausage book might lift the veil of our ignorance too quickly and send our feeble minds off balance. Our only recourse was not to show her the pictures we made at Miss Crispin’s, which she didn’t want to see anyway.

Then one day Miss Crispin ordered her kindergarteners to draw an apple tree and as not one of us little Butte children had ever seen an apple tree, she told us each to find a
picture of one and bring it the next day. We told Mother and Gammy about our kindergarten assignment and Mother found us a very nice colored picture of an apple tree in our
Three Little Pigs
book. Mary looked at it critically for a minute then said, “I’ll show you a much better one,” and to Cleve’s and my absolute joy opened up her sausage book, Hipped over some pages and showed us a large drawing of what looked like a Kelly-green Brussels sprout covered with red dots and with a long spindly brown stem. “This,” said Mary, “is the way they draw apple trees in real school. Here,” she said, generously tearing out the page, “take this to Miss Crispin and just see what she says.” We did and Miss Crispin looked at it a long time, pulled at her doughy neck and said, “Mmmmmmm.”

The next winter, when we were six and eight, I started to real school and because of a shyness so terrible that I was unable to speak above a faint whisper, it took them several months to discover that I could read and write and really belonged in the second grade.

When the terrible ordeal of reading, in my faint whisper, before the principal and writing my name and several sentences on the blackboard in front of the whole giggling class, had been completed and I had been told that I was in the second grade, my first exultant thought was “Now I’ll get my sausage book.” But the whole morning went by and I didn’t. I peered from under my eyelids at the other children and they didn’t seem to have them either. Finally in desperation I raised my hand to ask the teacher and she, misinterpreting my wants, said, in a loud voice, “Number one or number two, Elizabeth.” I said, “When do we get our sausage books?” She said, “Your what?” I repeated a little louder, “Our sausage books.” She said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, now open your reading books to page three.”

I got up and went home. I didn’t even stop for my coat
or rubbers but ran sobbing through the streets and burst in on Mother and Gammy who were having a cup of coffee. “We don’t get them,” I shrieked. “Don’t get what?” Mother said. “Sausage books,” I said. “I’m in the second grade and I asked the teacher and she said she didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Mother explained that I had a different teacher from Mary’s and that she probably didn’t use sausage books. I refused to be comforted. School had come to mean but one thing to me. A sausage book of my very own filled with secret things that I’d let Cleve but not Mary see. I bawled all afternoon and finally Mother, in desperation, went downtown and bought me a new Lightning Glider sled.

When Mary came home from school, I was out in the back yard, a steep slope about a hundred feet long, reaching from a woodshed and toolhouse at the very back of the lot down to a small level place behind the house, still red-eyed and snuffling, coasting down our little hill on my new sled. When I told Mary about my second grade teacher not giving us sausage books, Mary was so outraged she was going right back to school and mark on the desks and put paste in the inkwells, but to her relief I pled with her and finally talked her out of this dangerous act of loyalty. So as a reward she tried to invent perpetual motion and knocked out all my front teeth.

The back yard was a dandy place to slide and for a while, until Mary had her inspiration, we happily climbed up the little hill and coasted down again, climbed up and coasted down, on the big new shiny sled. Then suddenly at the bottom of the hill, Mary jumped off the sled, dashed into the cellar and came out brandishing the clothes pole.

“Betsy,” she said. “I have a wonderful idea. We’ll both get on the sled at the top of the hill, I’ll hold this pole out in front of us [the pole was about eight feet long] and when we slide down the pole will hit the house and push us back
up the hill again. Then down we’ll go, then up, then down, then up and we’ll never have to climb the hill.”

It sounded like a terribly good idea to me so when we had pulled the sled back up the hill to the woodshed, I climbed on the front and put my feet up on the steering bar and Mary got on the back and we both held the pole out in front of us in a direct line with my mouth. Mary gave us a big shove to send us off and wheel how we flew down the little hill. Then everything went black and I began spitting blood and teeth onto the white hard-packed snow, for the pole, when it hit the house, had been forced well back into my mouth. “Oh, Betsy,” Mary said, her face so pale her freckles looked like brown moles, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m so sorry,” and I knew she was because she gave me her old sausage book. Anyway they were only first teeth.

The next victim of Mary’s ideas was my brother Cleve, then a sturdy little boy of five, with red hair and a deep mistrust of his sister Mary and her Ted-haired friend Marjorie.

It was a Saturday afternoon in the spring and we were playing circus, or rather Mary and Marjorie were directing a circus which had all the neighborhood children as paid admissions and Cleve and me and Snooper, our dog, as the reluctant performers. Mother and Gammy had gone to a tea and left Sarah, our maid, to “keep an eye on us,” but Sarah, who loathed children, especially red-haired children, was in the kitchen ironing, with her back to the window and the back door locked. As it would have been her great pleasure to see one or all of our lifeless bodies laid out ready to be carted away, she paid absolutely no attention to the bloodcurdling yells and piercing screams which arose from our back yard, as Cleve and I, for the benefit of the assembled neighborhood and after a great deal of persuasion, performed whatever daring feats Mary and Marjorie thought up.

We had already jumped off the woodshed into the sandpile
backward, put lighted matches in our mouths, drunk castor oil and heart medicine (bitter cascara), and ridden around the yard on Snooper, but the biggest act was yet to come. Cleve was going to walk the two-by-four which supported our cellar doors. The two-by-four was only about six feet long but the cellar stairs were dark and steep and there wasn’t anything to hold on to. It was a daring and dangerous feat and one which Cleve was not anxious to perform.

“I don’ wanna,” he kept saying stubbornly. “Now, Cleve,” Mary and Marjorie said, “don’t you want to be known as the bravest child in this whole neighborhood?” “No,” Cleve said, patting Snooper. “Look, Cleve,” Mary said, “I’ll walk it first,” and she did with light dancing steps, back and forth, back and forth. It didn’t look too hard. “Why don’t you do it for the circus?” Cleve asked. Mary said, “Because I’m the announcer. That’s why.” Cleve said, “Why doesn’t Marjorie do it then?” “Because Marjorie’s the ticket taker,” Mary said. “You and Betty are the performers. Now come on.” Cleve said, “I don’ wanna.” Then Mary and Marjorie said they would give him twenty-five cents of the gate receipts and that clinched things. Twenty-five cents would buy thirty pieces of “pick” candy (penny candy), six picks for a nickel, and we’d do anything for it.

“Ladees and Gentlemen!” Mary announced in a loud voice. “Come and watch this brave little child walk the tightrope across a deep black hole full of live snakes.” She pointed dramatically to Cleve, who had crawled up and was standing on one of the folded-back cellar doors, clutching the twenty-five cents and looking suspiciously first at Mary and then at the narrow two-by-four. Mary’s sudden inspiration about the black hole full of live snakes hadn’t helped his courage any. All eyes were upon him but Cleve, suddenly deciding that he wasn’t going to walk Mary’s tightrope, sat down and started to slide down the cellar door.

BOOK: Anybody Can Do Anything
9.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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