Iowa Writes

KATHERINE WEST
Let the Sun Shine In


Many of the winters I recall growing up in Creston, Iowa, in the 1950s were brutally cold and resulted in little social interaction between children outside of the classroom. One notable exception was Wednesdays when we donned green Girl Scout uniforms and looked forward to after-school Scout meetings. 

In my third-grade year, it looked as though we would have no leader, but at the eleventh hour Mary Mahoney stepped forward and said she would take the troop. The Mahoney home was well known in the small town for its rather shabby appearance. Broken toys, old lawn mower parts as well as old tires made up the outside décor. The preceding year a goat had appeared fettered to a tree in an apparent attempt to trim the grass.

Many of the winters I recall growing up in Creston, Iowa, in the 1950s were brutally cold and resulted in little social interaction between children outside of the classroom. One notable exception was Wednesdays when we donned green Girl Scout uniforms and looked forward to after-school Scout meetings. 

In my third-grade year, it looked as though we would have no leader, but at the eleventh hour Mary Mahoney stepped forward and said she would take the troop. The Mahoney home was well known in the small town for its rather shabby appearance. Broken toys, old lawn mower parts as well as old tires made up the outside décor. The preceding year a goat had appeared fettered to a tree in an apparent attempt to trim the grass.

It soon became apparent that Mary Mahoney had no more idea what to do with us than we ourselves did. She greeted us every meeting day as if she were a little surprised to see us. As unprepared as Mary always seemed to be on our arrival, she nevertheless exceeded our expectations. When we expressed a desire to earn a cooking badge, Mary turned us loose in her kitchen to make “Girl Scout Soup with Dumplings.” We managed to coat ourselves and everything else with flour, scorch several pans, and turn out a rather lumpy tomato soup with doughy blobs. We pulled taffy one day in the fall and managed to attach it to every wall in the house; we threw popcorn at each other instead of making the popcorn balls we were supposed to create. Mary joined in, laughing with us and then turned the two spotted hounds loose in the house to clean up the mess. Another time she handed us all nails and hammers and told us to practice hammering on some boards she had dragged up from the basement. She said we might need to know how to drive a nail someday. Then she had us remove all the nails with the claw end of the hammer. Her husband Mick wandered in and asked for the boards. He had been thinking about building a lean-to for that goat. When he saw what we were doing, he just grinned and told Mary to let him know when we were done. 

The best day at Mary’s house, however, was one January afternoon when Mary greeted us with a surprised little, “Oh…hi girls!” as if we had just spontaneously dropped by. When we entered the tiny living room we were shocked to find the carpet rolled up and the room empty of furniture. She explained she was just getting ready to paint and added, “Why don’t you girls do some painting first?” She pulled out several brushes and from somewhere located several small cans of various colors of paint. One by one we began to shyly dab a bit of blue, yellow, green and orange on the wall. After all, we had been taught all our lives NOT to paint or color on the walls. “Oh NO!” she yelled and we all cowered. “I mean, PAINT! Wide sweeps! Come on now, BIG rainbows!” We quickly got into the mood and, to the tune of KSIB’s Rocking Radio Hour, painted that living room a bright collage of colors. Huge arcs of orange and greens spanned the walls with trees and a bright yellow sun peeking out of the corner. All the Scout uniforms sported flecks of paint from that meeting on, and we wore them proudly, almost as if they were another badge we had earned. 

Mary taught us a lot that year about enjoying life when you have very little to work with. She taught us to stretch our boundaries and that good memories outlive concerns about mundane matters. 

When we sat in Mary’s house during subsequent meetings, I sometimes noticed a splotch of yellow bleeding through the neutral color of the walls, as if the sun were smiling through at us. These days, when I feel restricted by constraints and expectations, I think of Mary urging thirteen third-grade girls to paint huge rainbows across her walls, and I think about that sun bleeding through and smile.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


KATHERINE WEST

Katherine West is a native of Creston, Iowa and received her B.A. from University of Northern Iowa (’69). After moving to California with her husband Robert (University of Iowa, ’70), she earned M.A. degrees from California State - San Bernardino and California Lutheran University while teaching secondary English.

This page was first displayed
on November 29, 2006

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