By Ginger Beall

I never speak to my father. Stern, gruff, and ancient at the age of sixty-three, he terrifies me. He growls that we are no good, gives us orders, and swaggers around half-lit on homemade wine, telling of the rough work he does at the sawmill each day. I want him to like me, but I am just a skinny little girl. I can’t chop wood or milk the goats, like my big sisters. Our pigs and the dark scare me to death. I only do one thing really well, and that is spell.

The author's father, Francis. Photo courtesy of Ginger Beall.
The author, circa 1959. Photo courtesy of Ginger Beall.
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In my second grade class at Weippe Elementary School no one spells better than me. That’s why I‘m going to Orofino for the district-wide spelling bee. Because I placed first in all the contests held at our local school, my teacher told me I had earned the privilege and responsibility of representing Weippe in the district competition. I’m nervous, but I tell myself I can outspell everyone in the big town of Orofino. Neither of my parents has ever attended any of my spelling bees, but Daddy agrees to drive me to this event. He decides that Mama will come with us. Such special attention makes me feel giddy.

Mama braids my hair up tight in long French braids, telling me she’s so proud of me. I put on my best dress, a red calico with short puffy sleeves and two layers of gathered ruffles for the skirt. Mama dresses up too, in her Sunday clothes and shoes. Instead of his usual work shirt and jeans, Daddy puts on his navy blue pinstripe suit that only gets worn when there’s a potluck at church and he goes with us to get something to eat. He warms up the old green truck and I climb in to sit between my parents for the winding descent on the Greer hill from Weippe to Orofino.

Mama’s quiet most of the ride, but her quiet doesn’t bother me at all. I still feel warm inside knowing she’s proud of me. Daddy’s not saying anything, just keeps steering the truck back and forth on the hairpin turns. Looking out the window at the green spring hillside, Mama all of the sudden says, “Oh look, Francis!”

Daddy jerks his head around and I see his blue eyes bulging out. “What?” his voice booms. “What is it?”
“Flowers, Pa. Just look at them pretty flowers,” Mama replies.

“For God’s sake woman!” he roars. “Are you tryin’ to get us killed? Don’t you never holler out at me like that again unless it’s somethin’ I gotta know to keep us on this road.” The rest of the ride is silent.

The halls of the huge school building in Orofino overflow with people—kids and parents all looking for the right rooms. Mama asks someone for directions to help us find my group of spellers. I hang onto her hand as we work our way through the crowd. Once inside our room, I reluctantly release my tight grip and sit down with the other contestants. Looking around me, I see so many kids to outspell.

A smiling gray-haired lady announces, “Let’s begin.” We all stand in one long line at the front of the room—facing a sea of mothers and fathers. The lady carefully pronounces each word, all easy ones at first, but several kids spell their words wrong. Eliminated, they sit down with their parents. The words get harder and harder, but I am very good at phonics and easily figure out how to spell most words by sound even though some of them are unfamiliar to me. One by one, the spellers join their parents until only four of us remain at the front of the room.

It’s my turn now. “Uh – riginal,” states the gray-haired lady. I stare at her, my mind scrambling to fit itself around this word I’ve never heard before.

“Uh – riginal,” she repeats. According to the rules, spellers must state the word, spell the word, and restate the word. She waits for me to respond.

“Uh—riginal,” I say…“a – r – i – g – i – n – a – l…uh—riginal.”

“That’s incorrect,” she says. Oh no, one wrong, I grimace. But, all is not lost because I have two chances to misspell before being eliminated. I look to Mama for reassurance. She smiles at me, and Daddy grins too. Right then and there I decide that for the rest of my words I will look straight at my parents while I spell. Then I won’t be so nervous.

Two others are eliminated before my turn comes up again. Only two of us remain, and one will leave the winner. The gray-haired lady looks at me, smiling, as she says, “Farther.” Such an easy word, I think to myself.

“Farther,” I state. Looking straight at my parents I begin to say the letters…“f – a – t – h – e – r…farther.”

“That’s incorrect,” she says. Her voice settles into my disbelieving ears.

No, I didn’t spell it wrong. I spelled it right! Didn’t I? I hurry down the aisle and bury my red face in Mama’s arms. “It’s all right, Ginny. You did good.”

My father reaches for my hand, takes it in his and squeezes. “You did real good. Let’s go celebrate!” His smile is the biggest I’ve ever seen. With Mama holding one hand and Daddy the other, the loser of the spelling bee leaves the building and walks down the sidewalk toward town.

“Mama, what did I get wrong?” I ask.

“You spelled ‘father’ instead of ‘farther.’ You forgot the ‘r’,” she tells me, smiling.

“That’s right,” my father beams, “Ya looked right at me and spelled out ‘father’ just like as though it was the word they’d give ya. I never seen anything like it. Ya done me up proud.”

He leads us into a store and tells me to find something I like. I choose a blue and green hula-hoop and he buys it for me! As I relish this miracle of being gifted even though I lost the contest, Daddy asks, “Does anybody want ice cream?”

Mama and I look at each other in surprise and we both answer, “Yes.”

He takes us to the drug store where the stools are so high Daddy has to lift me off the floor to place me atop it. The young man behind the polished counter asks me what kind of ice cream I want. I choose strawberry. The shame and humiliation of losing melts with each creamy lick. A little ray of sunshine fills me and I nestle contentedly between my father and mother, riding in the old green truck all the way back home to Weippe.

The next day my world became ordinary again, with all the weight of being lost in a crowd of nine siblings while Daddy drank and Mama cried. But for that one day I felt the joy of my father’s pride. I reveled in a moment of being special. I cherished the hula-hoop, twirling endlessly until the plastic cracked and broke. The memory of the ice cream lingers still. As I ponder the choices at the local Baskin Robbins forty years later, I often choose strawberry. [/private]

About Ginger Beall

Ginger Beall lives in Boise.

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