Miss Pearl and the Pump-Handle Lamp

When I was a public school children’s librarian and surrounded by volumes of marvelous children’s literature, it was a desire of mine to write a children’s story along the lines of an intermediate level picture book. This story is a result of finally honoring that desire and is inspired by my childhood friendship with Miss Pearl. While my intent is for this to be a story for elementary age children, I realize that it also may offer appeal to a wider audience.

I wrote this story to submit to the first Open Group for Bedlam Farm Short Story contest, and it was awarded first place.

Image    Miss Pearl (circa 1965)

MISS PEARL AND THE PUMP-HANDLE LAMP

Betsy had just arrived home after visiting an old friend in the town where she grew up. She’d taken a detour to drive down Morris Street past her childhood home, braking and slowing her car as the house came into view. Not much had changed in the fifty plus years since Betsy had left. The façade was still brick with the same heavy oak front door. The side porch had been stacked with several cords of firewood, and the alley was still unpaved. She recalled catching a glimpse of Miss Pearl’s house as she drove by. The memories pushed forward as she sat down to relax that evening .  .  .

 * * * * * * * * * *

ššššE. Pearl Fogelsanger was a spinster lady. The E stood for Esther, but everyone called her Miss Pearl.

 She lived alone in a ten-room Victorian style house which was cluttered with antiques. Everything she owned was old, having previously belonged to her parents, grandparents, great grandparents, or great-great grandparents. She resisted modernization; she had no use for frills.

Local townsfolk used to say that Miss Pearl still had the first dollar she earned.  She refused to spend money unless it was for something absolutely necessary. She wore fifty cent house dresses and old-fashioned clunky black shoes with laces and a thick one and a half inch heel. Her mid-back length grey hair was pulled into a bun and secured at the nape of her neck. The hair pins often worked loose and would stick out in random directions like porcupine quills.

Rheumatoid arthritis had twisted her fingers at right angles. Inflamed joints and painful feet caused Miss Pearl to walk with a curious slide-shuffle. Her skin was soft and appeared to be slightly spongy.  The neighborhood kids secretly called her Mrs. Gobbleton because of the way her drooping cheeks moved when she talked, very much like a quivering wattle on a turkey.

 Two or three times weekly Miss Pearl would shuffle to her garage which had once been a shed for farm equipment. She would struggle to open the huge double doors which swung outward and were secured with metal pins that dropped down into a hole in the ground.  Eventually a monstrous black sedan, a 1936 Chrysler which had belonged to her father, would inch its way rearward until it cleared the shed. Then she would drive down Main Street at 15 mph, obviously very out of place among the vehicles of the 1960’s

Miss Pearl had inherited another Victorian home from her father, which sat diagonally across the back alley from her own house. She maintained it as a rental property, and the front of the house faced the entrance to the large town cemetery on Morris Street.

Betsy was ten years old when she and her parents moved into the Morris Street house. Her father was a professor at the local state college, and her mother taught piano lessons. They had been searching for a larger home to rent that would be affordable on a teacher’s salary.

Betsy, an only child, had been born with a hearing loss and did not learn to talk until she was fitted with a hearing aid at the age of four; in the meantime, she had become an expert lip-reader. She wore a harness under her clothes which held an unwieldy Beltone body aid. A cord ran from the aid up to a button-type earmold. This contraption constantly announced to the world that she couldn’t hear.

“Deaf and dumb!” kids would chant. Because she was often rejected and ridiculed by her peers, Betsy turned to adults and animals for companionship. Throughout her childhood she had numerous pets — Easter chicks, a bunny, a garter snake, cats, and a little dog named Ginger.

She was a curious child and an avid reader who was always asking questions and wanting to try anything new. This sometimes got her into trouble because she could be impulsive and did not consider the consequences of her forays into new experiences. It was not unusual for her to be seen riding her bicycle all over town, with Ginger in the large handlebar basket, exploring back roads and strange neighborhoods.

Miss Pearl would sometimes sit on her back porch and watch Betsy playing with Ginger or climbing the maple tree in the yard. She would wave and call her to come over for a piece of her famous homemade fudge. She didn’t seem to notice Betsy’s hearing challenges; she saw her for the friendly and smart ten-year-old she was. Because Miss Pearl’s arthritis was so painful, Betsy would often do little jobs or run simple errands for her. Even though there was a difference of fifty plus years in age, the two of them quickly became good friends.

Many evenings Betsy and Ginger would walk across the alley to Miss Pearl’s house to visit or find out if she needed any help. Betsy would bang on the back door and wait patiently. Because of Miss Pearl’s arthritis, it would take her awhile to come to the door. If she wasn’t busy, she would ask Betsy to come in. Miss Pearl loved dogs so Ginger was always invited too.

“How about a piece of fudge,” she would usually say as they entered the kitchen. She’d open her old green candy tin, and Betsy would help herself to the biggest chunk. She loved the rich, chewy candy and always hoped Miss Pearl would give her a few extra pieces to take home.

Then they would go into the sitting room which was very dark. Because Miss Pearl was so frugal she didn’t turn on any more lights than necessary. The heavy antique furniture was also dark, and the front of the house was shaded by large oak trees which cast eerie shadows. Betsy would sit in the corner rocking chair, and Miss Pearl would sit opposite her in an upholstered wing chair with Ginger usually lying on the rug by her feet. “More comfortable for the arthritis,” she would sigh.

Between them stood a marble topped table with a lamp that had a base shaped like an old fashioned water pump. Lifting the handle would turn on the light and lowering it would turn it off.

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“Pump on the light,” Miss Pearl would say to Betsy who was fascinated by the lamp. She would sit there pumping the light on and off until Miss Pearl gently admonished her to stop.

One evening Miss Pearl looked at Betsy and asked, “Have I ever told you the story of this lamp?”

“No,” Betsy shook her head. “Tell me.”

* * * * * * * * * *

 Well Betsy, my Grampa Fogelsanger was a proper old gentleman. He owned his own general store downtown in the days when horse drawn carriages were starting to give way to Model T Fords. I was just about your age, and every Saturday my father would give me a penny. I would walk down to Grampa’s store to see what I could buy with it. Sometimes I would find something unusual like a pretty ring,but most of the time I bought a piece of root beer flavored candy shaped like a barrel.

One Saturday morning when I walked into the store, Grampa was unpacking some new merchandise. One was a lamp with a handle that looked like a water pump. “Come here, Pearl,” Grampa called. “Look at this! Pump on the light,” he directed me.

I slowly lifted the handle upward with my forefinger, and the light blazed. I pushed it down, and the light went off. Suddenly, there was nothing I wanted more than that pump-handle lamp.

I had a penny in my pocket, and I wanted a piece of candy; but I knew I had to have that lamp. “How much is it? Grampa,” I asked.

“Oh Pearlie girlie, It costs a little more money than you have,” Grampa said.  “It’s $2.59, and that includes the light bulb.”

“Two fifty nine!” interrupted Betsy, “That’s not a lot of money.”

“Not today,” replied Miss Pearl. “But it was when I was growing up.”

Miss Pearl continued. Grampa smiled at me as I fingered the penny in my pocket. He knew I wanted that lamp. I watched him wistfully as he affixed a price tag and set it on a shelf over the cash register.

 “It’ll be safe there,” he murmured.

I turned and walked out of the store without spending my penny, and I ran home and up to my bedroom. I grabbed my bank which looked like a little treasure chest. My savings tinkled as I turned it upside down and twisted the plug to release the coins.  I dumped the money on my bed and counted it.  “I had 87 cents, Betsy, so do you know how much more I needed?”

Betsy slowly did the math in her head. “Another dollar and seventy two cents?”

“That’s right,” said Miss Pearl.

So I sat there awhile and thought about how I could earn the money to buy the pump-handle lamp. That afternoon I was back at Grampa’s store.

“Why Pearlie girlie,” Grampa said with a twinkle in his eye. He knew why I’d returned, and he took the lamp down from the shelf, even before I had a chance to ask him.  I picked it up; it was heavier than I’d imagined. I remember running my fingers along the base and the handle and admiring the beautiful mahogany wood. It was even more magical now that I was actually holding it, and I desperately wanted it for my own.

“Grampa, I really want this lamp,” I said to him. “I have 87 cents, and I need a way to earn the rest.” I took a deep breath and asked, “Can I work for you to earn the money?”

I remember how he’d push his spectacles down on his nose and peer over the top. He could tell that this was a very serious request. He put his forearms on the counter top and leaned towards me. “What kind of work do you have in mind, Pearl?” he asked.

 “Anything I can do to help,” I told him.

Grampa sighed softly. He looked at me with a thoughtful expression, and my stomach flip-flopped.  I was so afraid he was going to say no. But suddenly I saw a trace of a smile wrinkling the corner of his eyes.

 “I suppose I could use your help. How about starting now? I’ll give you a nickel if you sweep the floor.”

I was elated! I grabbed the broom and spent the next hour sweeping the floor, being very careful to get into all the corners and using a dust pan and brush to gather up the dirt. I wanted to show him I was a conscientious worker so he would continue to give me jobs.

When I was finished, Grampa took out his store ledger and wrote “Pearl’s Lamp” on a blank page. He noted the 87 cents I’d given him and added another 5 cents for the sweeping job.

“That’s 92 cents, Pearlie,” he said. “You come back next Saturday, and I’ll have more work for you.” I was so excited I ran home as fast as I could to tell my Mama and Papa.

So every Saturday morning I went to the store. Now, instead of spending my penny, I gave it to Grampa, and I worked.  Sometimes I would sweep, sometimes I would unpack merchandise, and sometimes I would arrange items on the store shelves. Other times Grampa would ask me to run errands, and eventually he taught me how to use the cash register and make change. Occasionally he would tell me to come twice a week, one afternoon after school as well as Saturday morning. And he always sneaked me a piece of root beer candy on my way out.

The months seemed to stretch on forever, Betsy, but I finally worked off the last nickel. I watched Grampa make the final entry in the ledger on my page$2.59 – paid in full, he noted.  He put down his pencil, turned, and took the lamp off the shelf and handed it to me. It suddenly became the most precious possession I’d ever owned. Grampa gave me some newspaper to wrap it and pack it into a carton so I could carry it home safely.

Then Grampa smiled and said, “Pearlie, you are a hard worker, and I would really like it if you would continue to come and help me on Saturday mornings. Would you do that?”

 “Oh! Yes, Grampa, yes!” I said, and I gave him a big hug.

And that’s how the pump-handle lamp became mine, and that’s how I eventually became Grandpa’s store manager. I earned enough money to go to college to become a teacher. And you know what I studied, don’t you? Business!

“Pump on the light,” Miss Pearl said softly, as she finished the story. “Pump on the light,” Grampa would always say before I left the store. “It almost became symbolic for the love between my grandfather and me .  .  . we both brought so much light into each other’s lives, just like you now bring the light of friendship into mine,” she said to Betsy.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Betsy smiled at the memories .  .  . of Miss Pearl, of her stories, of the pump-handle lamp, and the special friendship between a ten-year-old girl and an eccentric old lady. She reached down to stroke her dog lying beside her on the sofa.

 “Miss Pearl would have loved you, Bella,” Betsy said, as she reached across the dog to pump on the light.

 

 

Miss Pearl’s famous fudge recipe in her handwriting

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