Miss Home Canning of 1942, 2024 Honorable Mention

By Mark Ready

Butter-colored sunlight spread across the tops of the hills but left the valley floor in shadow. Carter Mathewson blinked away sleep, lifted the case of Kerr Wide Mouth jars off the backseat of the ’26 Willys Knight, and closed the door. His Uncle Marion usually only drove the four-door auto on Sundays, but today, they used it to haul home canning supplies to a spring rodeo and fair for his Aunt Lorena.

 The rich aroma of frying sausage, flap jacks, black coffee, and tangy wood smoke accompanied the greetings of ‘good morning’ from fellow early exhibitors as he walked through the quiet fairgrounds. A rectangle of light outlined the entrance to the exhibition hall, and when he stepped inside, his aunt was arranging pamphlets, and Millie read from a handful of notes.

“Where do you want these, Aunt Lorena?”

A middle-aged woman in a gray jacket and skirt motioned toward a long table covered with a red and white checkered cloth. A poster depicting Uncle Sam filling canning jars from a giant cornucopia with the word ‘PRESERVE’ in huge letters hung from the rafters above it.

“Set them next to the pressure canner and the drying racks, please. I’ll arrange them in a minute.” Lorena focused on the petite young woman studying the crumpled notes. “Time to put on the sash, Millie.”

She lowered the scribbled pages and brushed a lock of wavy auburn hair from her eyes. “I sure hope I can remember all these rules and procedures, Lorena.”

Carter’s aunt removed the Wide Mouth jars and arranged them behind Small Mouth jars and pints. “You’ll be fine, dear. If you don’t know something, send them to me.”

Millie smoothed the orange sash across her upper body. “I’m going to need someone to help me straighten this thing.”

“I’ll do it.” Carter moved to her side, felt her body’s warmth, and smelled the fragrance of Miss Clairol shampoo and mint toothpaste.

“Don’t squirm.” His face flushed when his fingers brushed against her breast as he arranged the sash so the words: ‘Miss Home Canning 1942’ hung smoothly across her apron.

Lorena’s footsteps echoed off the walls of the nearly empty building as she hurried over.

“No, no, it’s too long.”

“Why do I need to do this again?” asked Millie.

Lorena scooted her nephew to the side and removed a safety pin from the gray jacket’s lapel. “I explained that, dear. With the war and the troop build-up, we must encourage home gardening and preservation so the boys in the service have the food they need and nobody goes hungry this winter. I was supposed to get these supplies a few weeks before the fair and hold a contest, but they arrived too late.”

Lorena pinned the sash to hang slightly below Millie’s waist and stepped back to inspect her work. “I used my authority as the Department of Agriculture’s Home Canning and Gardening Agent to award it to you. Besides, you’re getting paid to do it as my assistant.”

Millie looked at herself. “I just don’t want to disappoint you.”

Lorena stroked her back. “I’m not worried, dear. How does she look, Carter?”

Shiny black shoes and white Bobby Sox covered Millie’s feet. Her legs were visible from the top of the socks until they disappeared under a knee-length printed cotton dress. A full white ruffled apron shaped her figure into an hourglass, and round glasses framed her brown eyes. She smiled.

“You look beautiful.”

Millie touched the sash, and her eyes twinkled. “Beautiful? You think so?”

“Yeah. I can’t think of anyone better to carry the mantle of ‘Miss Home Canning 1942’ than you, Miss Millicent O’Kelly.”

“Oh, Carter!” She took a step forward and punched him in the shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to be judging a contest or something?”

He grinned. “I’m on my way. Do you want to have lunch? They’re serving barbequed beef on a roll and all the fixings.”

Millie’s arms went across her chest. “Maybe.” She glowered and then smiled. “Sure, come and get me when it’s time.

 Noontime came, and Carter took a break from supervising the 3rd through 6th-grade Patriotic Poster contest and War Bond table. The smell of barbecued beef made his stomach growl as he walked to the hall where Millie and his Aunt Lorena had their display. His Uncle Marion stood waiting beside the jar-filled table dressed in a long-sleeved western shirt, rolled-up blue jeans, and boots like the singing cowboy and movie star Gene Autry wore.

Carter laughed. “When did you get here, Gene?”

Marion did a bowlegged turn, hitched his thumbs through his belt loops, and leaned on his heels. “Howdy, partner. I came to see if my little filly wanted to put on the feed bag. You?”

Carter looked at his gray suit and black Oxfords and felt out of place at the western-themed fair. “I told Millie I’d take her to lunch. How’s the Ration Board’s booth doing?”

Marion shrugged. “People are a might skittish. But, for the most part, they understand why we must do it.”

Lorena handed a stout woman in a straw hat a pamphlet and joined them.

Marion kissed her. “I came to see if you’d care to accompany me to the chuck wagon for some vittles.”

Lorena’s forehead wrinkled. “What I need is for you to watch the table.” She glanced at Millie. “Neither of us has had a chance to go to the powder room all morning.”

Carter noticed Millie surrounded by a group of young men and felt jealous. “That’s not good.”

Marion nodded. “You go ahead. We’ll watch the table.”

Lorena wrung her hands. “I’m sure Millie needs to go too.”

“I’ll take care of that.” Carter grabbed a handful of pamphlets and hurried over. “Excuse me, gentlemen.” He looked at Millie. “Miss O’Kelly, Mrs. Mathewson needs to speak with you.” He motioned toward Lorena. “You have some official Miss Home Canning duties to attend to.”

Millie blinked. “Official duties?”

Carter motioned with his head. “Yes, Miss O’Kelly. Official duties.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Oh, yeah. I’ll go see her right away.”

He watched her leave and turned to the young men who had vanished. That was easy.

At nine o’clock, Carter shooed the stragglers out of the hall and locked the door. He dropped the War Bond money at the fair office and to check how Millie was doing. She and his aunt were draping white sheets over their display table.

“How’d it go today?”

“Pretty well,” said Lorena. “We certainly had a lot of interest.”

Millie slipped her shoes off, massaged her heels, and wiggled her toes. “My feet are killing me! I think I’ll soak them when I get home.”

Marion came in from the darkened fairgrounds with his hat in his hand. “Are you ready to go, or do you want to dance the night away and attend the Cowboy Breakfast?”

Everyone stared at him with blank expressions.

He rubbed his eyes. “I feel the same way.”

Lorena locked the exhibition hall, and she and Marion started for the Willys Knight. Carter began to follow but noticed Millie gazing at the moon.

He turned back. “You, okay?”

“Yeah. Help me with my sweater, would you please?”

Carter held her brown wool cardigan open, and she slipped her arms into the sleeves. “Thanks. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“The moon? It’s a Waxing Gibbous.”

Millie frowned. “It takes away the magic if you name it, Carter. Just enjoy it. Listen to the night.”

Carter stared at the moon and wondered what he was supposed to be listening to.

Millie spoke after a few seconds of silence. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

Millie motioned at the moonlit fairgrounds. “What did you hear?”

“I heard the song Tumbling Tumbleweeds coming from the pavilion by the creek.”

“That’s all?”

Carter nodded. “Pretty much.”

She sighed and began walking toward the parking area.

He looked up at the moon and followed. “What was I supposed to hear?”

“It’s different for everyone. I can’t tell you.”

They took a few steps in silence.

“You sure had a lot of young men hanging around you today.”

She glanced at him sideways. “I know.”

“I, uh, think you’re pretty swell.”

She stopped and peered up at him. “Swell. Really?”

“Yeah. I do.” Carter shifted so the moonlight reflected in her eyes and moved to kiss her.

“Are you two coming?” Marion stood with the Willys driver’s door open and one leg on the running board.

Millie hurried to the car, and Carter followed.

“We wondered if you two kids got lost.” He climbed behind the wheel and closed the door. 

“Sorry. It was my fault.” Millie stepped into the back seat. “I was looking at the moon and listening to the night sounds.”

Lorena leaned over the gray upholstered seatback. “Sometimes, the little things make the biggest difference.”

Carter glanced at Millie and laughed nervously. “Yeah, sometimes.” He climbed in beside her.

Millie kicked off her shoes and snuggled against him. “Do you mind?”

“No, no.” he stammered. “I don’t mind.”

The Willys joined the string of cars heading for home. The moon’s reflection made a golden path across the Snake River. Carter looked at Millie, the moon, and the golden path.

I’ve been an idiot.

Marion pulled the car to a stop in front of a double-doored garage. “Open the doors, please, would you, Carter?”

 He looked at Millie. “Will you wait for me?”

She rubbed her eyes and stretched. “I don’t know. I’m pretty tired.”

His heart fell into his stomach. “Oh, okay.”

Carter turned when he finished. He expected Millie to be gone, but she was still there. “I thought you were tired.”

“I am,” she hooked her arm through his. “But I decided to wait for you.”

He looked from Millie to his aunt and uncle. “I’m going to walk Millie home.”

Marion and Lorena smiled and nodded. “Okay. Good night, Millie. You two have a nice time.”

The older couple entered the house, and Carter stopped when they reached the backyard.

“I failed the moon question, didn’t I?”

Millie looked at the almost full moon. “Yeah. Did you even try?”

“I was thinking with my head.” He hesitated. “I should have listened with my heart.”

Their eyes met. “Your heart?”

Carter took her hand. “Do you mind?”

Millie’s head shook. “No. It’s warm. It feels good.”

Her hand felt soft and small and like it belonged in his. “I thought about the moon question on the drive home, Millie. I didn’t only hear Tumbling Tumble Weeds. People were saying goodbye, children were crying, and car tires crunched on the gravel. I, uh, noticed your eyes, too.”

“My eyes?”

“Uh-huh, they sparkled. . . I like you, Millie.”

She half-smiled. “I know. You think I’m swell, right?”

He shuffled his feet. “Uh, more than swell.”

Millie squeezed his hand. “I think you’re more than swell, too.”

“What do we do now?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know,” her eyes narrowed. “Maybe we could talk about it while you rub my feet?”

He laughed. “I’d be sipping Champagne out of your slipper in the movies.”

Millie’s face wrinkled. “Hoo-wee, I’d like a foot rub better.”

Carter went silent. Kiss her, you idiot! What are you waiting for? Come on, kiss her. Tell her how you feel.

Millie gave him a funny look. “Penny for your thoughts.”

He felt his face flush. “I was, uhm, just thinking about how beautiful you looked in the moonlight. I’m glad you came to Lewiston, Millie.”

“I’m glad I did, too.” She led him to the back door of her grandmother’s house. “Now, come on, you promised to rub my feet.”