The Tea Set
I thought that china tea set was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Four little cups with saucers, four little plates and four plastic silver colored spoons and a sugar bowl and creamer, painted with delicate pink and green flowers and edged in gold.
Every time we went to Jitney Jungle on Saturday to buy groceries, I would head straight for the toy rack, holding my breath all the way out of fear the tea set would be gone. It was always there. I would pick up the box and stare into the cellophane window at the delicate little miniature dishes. I wanted that tea set badly but Mama always said, “It costs too much.” So I would carefully put the box back in its slot on the rack and hoped it would still be there when we came back next week. Maybe Mama would change her mind.
So I hatched a plan to earn my own money and buy it myself.
It was cotton picking time and I tried to convince my Daddy to let me go to the field and pick cotton to pay for the tea set. He was really amused that I wanted to do that—at first. Then he just got aggravated because I was relentless. When my Dad said no, he meant no and we knew to let it rest, usually. But I wanted that tea set and the only way I was going to get it was to earn enough to buy it. Household chores at a nickel or dime a pop would take me forever to save up enough to buy it. Yep, the field was the ticket.
I always went to the field with my mother to pay off and I saw those brown paper bags with the week’s pay for each field hand. I figured one good day of cotton picking and I would be able to buy my toy with the money I earned. Daddy explained to me picking cotton was something that not just anyone could do. It was hard work. I insisted I could do it and I should be given a chance.
You know what “they” say about bought lessons.
I wore him down and Dad finally agreed to let me go to the field. My mom sewed a strap on a pillow case and off I went. Dad asked Bessie to watch out for me and he left to go pick up the second round of hands. With great enthusiasm, I attacked the cotton stalk in front of me. Ouch! Those dang pods were sharp! And the cotton didn’t turn loose from the bolls easily, either. This wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be.
The stalks were almost as tall as I was.
Every time I would reach in among the plant to go for the cotton, I would scratch my arms; the opened bolls were sticking my fingers; it was getting hot, bugs were everywhere and my sack wasn’t filling up. My fingers were bleeding a little and I started to cry.
Daddy came back and I wanted to go home. He said no. I could not leave the field until my sack was full and he would be back for me at dinner. (Lunch in the country). He left my water jug and drove off, leaving me standing in the dust, sobbing.
I was miserable and making no progress.
I knew Daddy meant it. I wasn’t leaving that field until my pillow case was full. It was all about the lesson at that point. Bessie walked over to me, wiped my face with the tail of her shirt and put a big ole handful of cotton in my sack. In a few minutes, Bertha and Pie dragged their sacks over to me and stuffed cotton into my pillow case. I started to cry harder. One of them wet a rag with ice water from my water jug and wiped my face and put it around my neck. Before I knew it, my pillow case was full and Bessie told me to sit down under the shade tree and rest.
I drug my now full cotton sack to the tree and settled into the gnarly old roots and laid my head down on that stuffed pillow case. “Joy Lane, Joy Lane, wake up. Here comes yo’ Daddy. Wake up!” I jumped up from my nap and was standing there with my full sack when Daddy drove up. I could get my tea set now!
Daddy told me he was proud of me for sticking it out; he loaded my sack in the back of the truck and we set off for home. I know he knew I didn’t pick that cotton but I wasn’t owning up to it. I wanted that tea set and that cotton was my ticket. I couldn’t wait to get home to go to the grocery store with Mama and buy my tea set.
It was mine. All mine. I hugged the box all the way home.
I took each piece out of the box, pledging to take the best care and never break any of it. It was REAL china, because the box even said so: made in China.
Conscience is a tricky animal.
As I began to think about how I got the money to buy my beloved tea set, guilt set in. I had basically lied about picking the cotton; three kind and generous women had given up hard earnings to relieve my misery; Daddy was proud of me for something I didn’t do. It really wasn’t MY money that bought the tea set. It was Bessie, Bertha and Pie that bought that tea set.
The joy faded.
I don’t recall the time frame, whether it was two days or a week after buying the tea set. At the dinner table, I stared into my plate trying to get the nerve to tell Mama and Daddy what I had done. I finally just blurted it out! I didn’t really pick that cotton. Bessie, Bertha and Pie had put their cotton in my sack and told me to go rest in the shade.
Ill begotten gains
Even as child, I knew it was wrong to use what someone else earned to get what I wanted. Ill begotten gains is the term I learned that day from Mama and Daddy. To make matters worse, Mama told me that those three kind women would probably never afford a toy like that for their own children. She wasn’t telling me that to be mean. She wanted me to understand just how sacrificial they were for me.
I always wondered what Bessie, Bertha and Pie thought when they got their “pay sack” that Saturday. Tucked inside each sack, carefully wrapped in toilet tissue, was a miniature plate, cup and saucer painted with pink and green flowers, trimmed in gold and a plastic silver spoon.
I got the same tea set for Christmas that year. I learned a life lesson from those toy dishes.