|A GIRL IN
A CALICO DRESS
by Carolina Mintz
“I wanted to name you Shelby,” Mama said,
sitting on the edge of my bed, shuffling through a
box of old photographs. She’d choose one from the
many, smile, turn it over to check for a date or a
name, then set it back among the others. I could
see memories in her eyes.
She paused and slowly took one from the box. She
neither smiled nor turned it over. “But your father
wouldn’t have it. Told me never to mention the
“Here.” She handed me the photo in her hand.
I leaned over from the other side of my bed and
took the black and white photograph. It was a
picture of a little girl. In it, the girl was smiling,
squinting her eyes against the too-bright sun. She
stood alone, wearing a calico dress with old-
fashioned puffed sleeves. Her two front teeth were
“Who’s this?” I turned it over, but there was no
name or date.
“That’s your cousin. Shelby. Picture was taken
maybe twenty years ago. Shelby’s seven there. Of
course, she never got any older.”
“What do you mean?”
“Died soon after.”
I looked again at the child in the photograph. It
could have been a picture of me. The same shoulder-
length hair, light brown, as far as I could tell, with
willful curls and stubborn waves. Both knees looked
scuffed. I was always scuffing my knees. She stood
with her hands behind her back, a posture that
implied shyness, like she felt uncomfortable having
her picture taken.
“Shelby died? But how?”
“It was an accident. Your father’s sister, Aunt
Gladys, nearly went mad from grief.”
“Aunt Gladys and Uncle Al?” They owned the farm
in Kentucky and we visited them a couple of
summers ago. “Uncle Al showed me how to milk a
cow.” I remembered that morning, the fertile smell
of plowed earth, the sweet alfalfa. I followed my
uncle down a narrow dirt path to the barn, trying to
match his unhurried stride with my small footsteps.
To my left, a vast field of pungent tobacco, a shade
of dusky green even in the dawning light. Chickens
scattered and barnyard cats came from everywhere,
mewing, when he motioned for me to sit on the
milking stool. My uncle laughed at them as he
scraped his own stool next to mine. He patted the
cow’s flank lovingly, and she turned briefly then
went back to her hay trough. Fascinated, I had
never been that close to a cow before. I stroked her
brown and white flank as well, unexpectedly soft.
“Watch me first,” my uncle instructed, and he
grasped a teat and pulled gently, sideways, a spray
of warm milk suddenly hitting the bucket. He
repeated this again and again and the bucket began
to fill. He worked with a rhythm he must have
known since he himself was just a boy. He nodded.
My turn. I held the teat tentatively, wanting to get
it right. It was a strange, rubbery thing in my small
hand. Uncle Al laughed in a good way when at last,
after several attempts, I shook my head and smiled
shyly. All my uncertain tugging hadn’t produced a
single drop and only made the cow stomp her
hooves. “You did good, anyways,” he said, patting
the brown and white cow again as if addressing both
“They never said they’d had a daughter. I don’t
remember pictures of her.”
“Oh, they didn’t talk about her. They wouldn’t have.
She had been gone for many years by that time.
Your aunt, she burned the pictures of Shelby in the
woodstove on one of her worst days after. Out of
her mind with loss and sorrow, they never really
knew why. Maybe she figured if she burned Shelby’s
pictures, your aunt could destroy the pain in her
heart. I think she was trying to erase Shelby
altogether, as if that little girl had never been born.
“Your uncle managed to save this one. Gave it to
your dad and me that time we visited. Patted my
hand with tears in his eyes. Keep her safe, he said
when he handed it over. I didn’t know if he was
talking about Shelby or you.”
“Mama? How did Shelby die?”
“Going to town, the three of them, your uncle and
aunt. And Shelby, of course. In that old Ford pickup
of theirs. Shelby wanted to sit by the door, and well,
Gladys hardly never denied that little girl anything,
her being their only child. They were going up one
of them hills there, taking a back road to town.
Well, going up that hill, that truck door came open.
It never did close proper.”
“The truck door came open?”
“Never did close proper, like I said.” Mama stared
out my bedroom window as if she had been there,
as if she could see what had happened next.
“Shelby fell out. Maybe was leaning on it. She fell
onto the road, onto the dirt. Must have fell forward,
trying to stop herself with her hands. Like I said,
they were going up a hill. Well, she rolled down
under the truck and . . . .
Mama paused, but wouldn’t look at me. “That truck
ran her over. Those back tires just ran that little girl
over. Your uncle, he didn’t realize to stop. Didn’t
realize the door’d come open. Well, your aunt, they
say she jumped out shrieking words that might have
sounded like prayers to Jesus. She picked up that
child. Just picked her up, your aunt already half
crazy. Ran back down the hill with her, screaming.
Wouldn’t stop screaming.”
Mama took the photograph from me and placed it
gently back in the box.
“I sure wanted to name you Shelby. Such a pretty
name, don’t you think?” She shook her head. “But
your father said naming you Shelby would always
remind your aunt and uncle of your cousin. I just
think he was afraid same thing would happen to you
somehow. That you would die when you turned
I bowed my head.
I put my tongue in the space where my two front
teeth were missing.
As a young girl, Carolina Mintz wrote stories on the back
of completed math tests. As an adult, she won first prize in
the Diamond Valley Festival of the Arts short story
category and second place in Writer’s Weekly. She has
also published an historical novel called Anya and Miles.
She works as a librarian.