Otis squirmed to get comfortable on his grandma’s big floral couch. It wasn’t an easy task since she’d enshrined the velvety fabric with a thick plastic covering. Otis didn’t understand why people bought furniture and then covered it up with plastic that poked and squeaked when sat upon. The summer temperatures allowed him and his six siblings to wear shorts, which was an all-around terrific thing, except that sitting on the couch now meant the back of his little browned legs would stick to the unbreathable plastic. He knew getting up from the unforgiving covering would swiftly deliver a burning feeling of ripped-off flesh.
“Oh, Otis, quit wiggling!” his older sister, Doris, demanded. “Sit nice for the photo!”
Otis glared at his sister, but realized all his siblings were staring him down. Apparently they were sitting all nice and stiff, unmoving, but he knew their legs would meld to the couch just like his. He stuck his tongue out at all of them, prompting six sibling tongues to stick back out at him.
“Fine,” Otis relented. “But when this is over and you peel your legs off this couch and it hurts, I’m going to laugh at all of you!” And he would, too.
Otis was seven, the youngest of Marvel and Mavis Swan’s brood. He normally got along with his siblings as well as any kids get along. But sometimes being the baby of the family held a lot of weight. Sometimes all of them ganged up on him when he wasn’t in alignment with their thoughts or actions. There were times, however, his brothers, Otho, Deanie, Cletis, and Chuck, would help him gang up on their sisters, Doris and Gladys. Boys versus girls always brought on a lot of punching, name calling, and hair-pulling (those girls went for the hair every time). Eventually, Mavis, would break up the melee and make all of them say something nice about each other. That little exercise inevitably ended up in fits of laughter, making Mavis the smartest mom in the world.
“Everyone say cheese,” Uncle Daryl hollered.
Twenty-seven family members belted out “cheese,” as Daryl snapped a succession of photos using his hand-held clicker attached to the camera with a long cord. He’d done this long enough to know it took at least twenty-five shots to get one good one.
Uncle Daryl had a huge case full of camera equipment and took the obligatory group photos at every Swan Family get-together, even if it was just a regular Sunday dinner after church, or, like today, the day before the busy haying season started. The calendar read June 14, 1975, and that meant tomorrow, the Swan family would swath the grass to dry out and eventually make hay.
“Good job,” Uncle Daryl praised. “Now, look at the camera and say ‘fried chicken!’”
That made everyone laugh as they all shouted “fried chicken,” and Daryl clicked several more shots. A few of these gems would eventually hang on the wall in his parents’ home—this home—along with the dozens of other captured family moments.
All you fools skedaddle out to the back yard so the women can bring out the fried chicken and potato salad,” Helen, the matriarch of the family, belted out.
All the grandchildren, seventeen in total, ran screaming and laughing through the kitchen and out the screen door, which only slammed three times before they were all on the other side of it.
‘Land o’Goshen,” Helen shook her head. “When those kids are together, they’re like a bunch of deranged lunatics.”
“Or Tasmanian Devils,” Helen’s husband and the grandfather to the posse, Ed, laughed and hugged his wife. “We started this whole mess you know.”
“Don’t I know it.” Helen kissed Ed on the cheek. “Now vamoose outta my kitchen!”
Ed, along with his sons, Marvel, Daryl, Clark, and Sherman, shuffled outside to sit in the Adirondack chairs under the 100-year-old maple tree’s shade. A large tub filled with ice and beer kept them occupied while they waited for the wives to set out the spread.
Helen, along with her daughters-in-law, Mavis, Beryl, Gail, and Patty, bustled around the large kitchen, getting spoons for the variety of salads—including Helen’s famous potato salad—and dishing up large platters of fried chicken. Outside, three tables covered with floral oilcloths would soon hold most of the food, minus the pies for later. All the family members would sit at the various picnic tables, card tables, and blankets spread out on the lawn to enjoy the pre-haying feast.
Like a rocket, Otis raced past the men and thumped up the wooden stairs to the screen door. As he landed on the top step, the screen door began to open, and he quickly pushed it closed so he didn’t get smacked in the face. He saw his mother standing on the other side of the screen, arms loaded with food.
“Oh, Otis, what are you doing?” Mavis sighed. “You’re in the way. Now scoot and let me through!”
“Mom,” Otis breathed, “there’s three baby praying mantises out on the log by the fire pit.”
“You mean to tell me you’re holding up getting lunch set out because of some bugs?” Mavis sternly asked, although Otis thought he saw a smile twitch her lips.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Otis insisted, “but it was just something I thought you needed to know. And by the way, praying mantises are insects, not bugs.”
“Oh, Otis,” Mavis laughed. “Move that scrawny butt out of my way, or I’m going to open this door and move you myself right off the steps into Granny’s rosebushes.”
Knowing his mom would make good on her threat, Otis scampered back down the stairs and raced out to where the other children were circled around the log. He felt light and spirited, like he could fly. Suddenly, a plan formed in his head to race full-speed to the log, land one foot on the end of it, and launch himself into the air. His siblings and cousins would stand in awe as they witnessed his epic flying skills.
But sometimes the best laid plans are a bust, and what actually happened was Otis landing his sneakered-foot on the end of the log and launching the baby praying mantises into the air, in the same fashion as the heavier kids did to the lighter kids on the teeter-totter at school.
Every mouth gaped open as they watched the tiny creatures fly above their heads as Otis stuck his landing some ten feet away. In a fraction of a second, every set of eyes glared Otis down, then focused right back on the tiny air-born creatures.
“Watch where they land so we can save them!” Gladys ordered.
Instinctively the group divided into three clusters, each attentive to where the baby insects might land.
“The impact could kill them,” Otis’s cousin, Buster, speculated.
The tiny specs came back to earth, with the three groups of children carefully making their way to each landing site.
“Here’s one!” Deanie shouted. The praying mantis clung to the head of a piece of grass. Cousin Claire tenderly nudged it with a finger onto the safe perch of her hand.
“Got one!” Cousin Bertie yelled. He, too, took painstaking measures to ease the tiny being onto his hand for transport back to the log.
Silence from the third group, however, hung in the air. Had they lost the third baby? Was it too late? Was it dead? Eager eyes searched and searched.
“Oh, Otis,” Doris lamented, “why did you have to go and mess things up?”
Every pair of eyes landed on Otis once again, and he felt the weight of what he’d done. A lump started to rise in his throat and a sting twinged at his eyes. He clenched his fists; he would NOT cry in front of his siblings and cousins. He swallowed hard, pursed his lips, and marched over to the third landing spot. He looked each child directly in the eye and then dropped to his knees, determined to make his wrong right.
The grass was tall—it would be swathed tomorrow—well above Otis’s head when on his knees. The task to locate an insect not more than two inches long in grass that was about the same color of the missing creature seemed an impossible feat. How in the heck am I going to find him? Otis thought to himself. Guilt made his chest feel heavy and tight. I pray I can find him. I have to make things right.
He focused in on the grass stalks in front of him, dead set on finding the little green thing that had suddenly become endeared to all the children. He methodically looked from ground-level to the top of each grass stalk to no avail.
“Kids! Food’s on!” Grandma Helen summoned the children. And when Grandma Helen summoned you, you immediately obliged.
Deanie and Cousin Bertie carefully supervised the replacement of the two found insects back onto the log. Satisfied they had at least saved two, the children scurried to the back yard to dive into lunch.
Otis, however, stayed the course, and continued looking for the precious critter. He heard his mother holler his name, but ignored her. Baby mantis’s future was in his hands. Finally, after several more shouts of his name, and his father coming to see just “what in Sam Hill are you doin’ boy?” Otis spied a tiny green spec. Sure enough, it was the third mantis.
“Dad, STOP!” Otis commanded with as much authority as a seven-year-old could muster.
Marvel halted immediately. Completely oblivious to the situation, he listened to his son due to the urgent tone in his voice. Normally, this type of order from his youngest would earn a swift whoopin’ on the back side, but for the moment Marvel gave Otis the benefit of the doubt.
“I found him,” Otis breathed.
Marvel watched in wonderment as Otis conscientiously reached for the tiny praying mantis hanging on to a grass stalk swaying in the breeze. Marvel prayed that little insect would oblige Otis’s efforts and go onto his hand without incident. He held his breath as he witnessed his son skillfully nudge the being onto his index finger.
Otis stood slowly and turned to face his dad. “Look,” he whispered. “I got him.”
Marvel smiled and let his breath go, both oxygen and love for his son flooding through him. “Oh, Otis, what are you doing?”
Otis explained the situation as he carefully walked to the log and rested the third creature next to the other two. “There,” he smiled with satisfaction, “he’s back home with his brother and sister.”
Marvel reached over and patted his son’s curly, black hair. He wanted to say so much to him, that respecting all of God’s creatures was an admiral trait, and that he was proud of him taking responsibility to fix something he’d messed up. But all he uttered was, “Let’s go get you a chicken leg and some of your Aunt Patty’s baked beans.”
Otis walked close to his dad, arm draped around his waist. “I might need two chicken legs today. Saving lives works up an appetite.” Marvel laughed as Otis sprinted off to join the rest of the family.
“Guys!” Otis shouted. “I found the third mantis and put him back on the log with his brother and sister!”
“Oh, Otis,” several siblings and cousins laughed and teased. “It’s about time you did something right.”
* * *
Otis and his siblings were allowed to stay the night at their grandparents, promising to get up early the next morning to help on the farm. Otis sat on his Grandma Helen’s lap, his head rested on her bosom, as they watched “The Swiss Family Robinson” on TV. Otis wasn’t just the youngest in his family, he was the youngest of all the grandchildren. Grandma Helen favored him; she sometimes hugged him just a little longer than the others and occasionally snuck him a slightly bigger piece of cake. Otis knew he was special to her, but it was imperceptible to the others, and that was just fine with him.
Grandma Helen started his favorite after-bath-at-Grandma’s-house ritual, rubbing lotion on his small, chubby hands with her weathered and worn ones. She’d massaged lotion on all his sisters’ and brothers’ hands right after they had their baths, but she saved Otis for last—during the hour of television she and Grandpa Ed let the kids watch before bedtime.
“Oh, Otis,” Helen murmured in Otis’s ear. “It’s pretty special you saved that praying mantis today.”
“I’m glad I found him, Grandma,” Otis whispered back. “It was my fault he got flung off of the log, and for that I’m truly sorry.”
His sincerity made her smile, although she knew he might be saying those words to get some extra bonus points with her. “As long as you admit when you make a mistake and take responsibility for fixing it, I think you’re still to the good with God,” she assured him.
“I hope,” he mumbled. “Can we go out in the morning and check to see if the mantises are still there?”
“Absolutely,” she softly replied. “Get up extra early, and we’ll go look for your insects before you go help Grandpa Ed swath.”
“Yay!” Otis shouted, causing his six siblings to turn around and “shhhh” him.
“Sorry, guys,” he giggled. He smiled up at his Grandma Helen, and she smiled back. The plan was set. Tomorrow before he climbed up on the faded red swather to ride with Grandpa Ed, he’d check to see if his mantis babies were safe.
“Ok, kids, show’s over,” Grandpa Ed announced. “Time for bed.”
The children marched up the stairs to the attic, where beds for all of them sat ready. Otis took the twin-size next to the open window so the cool summer breeze wafting in could chill his skin, making burrowing under one of Grandma’s homemade quilts the perfect way to fall asleep. First, however, he knelt next to the bed and stretched his arms wide.
“Look guys!” he exclaimed. “I’m a mantis getting ready to pray!”
All of his siblings burst out laughing with several of them tossing out an,“Oh, Otis!”
The grandchildren quickly said their prayers and then situated under the covers. Their grandparents gave them all a kiss on the forehead, clicked on a tiny lamp by the stairs in case anyone had to get up in the middle of the night, and thumped downstairs.
Otis looked out the window, the attic’s only sound a cricket chirping outside. I hope those mantises said their prayers before going to sleep in their big log house. I think I’ll name them Deanie, Bertie, and Otis, since we were the ones who found them…even though one of them is a girl…I think. He closed his eyes, envisioning the three tiny green insects saying prayers, and then Mom and Dad Mantis putting them to bed. With that sweet thought dancing in his head, Otis drifted off to sleep, soon to be rested and revved up for another day of shenanigans on the Swan Family Farm.
Welcome to Otis’s world. He might share more of his escapades in future issues of Home & Harvest Magazine. Otis is a fictitious character, but some of his shenanigans ring true to the author and her fellow mischief-makers.