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Not a dress for a shrinking violet

FLOWERS were rare where I grew up. Skies were cloudless and water scarce in that part of Arizona where Highway 66 formed a corridor between the Oklahoma dust bowl and California, the land of promise. From sheer necessity our father had moved the family ``out West'' several years before the general migration of people fleeing their own grapes of wrath. I was too young to remember the home my parents yearned for during those first hard years. They had left behind the lush green fields of Illinois, a land their families had called home for generations, to make a new start where red sand formed the background of our daily lives. In time the broad skies and seemingly endless landscape embraced us with a loving familiarity. My father, especially, was an integral part of the place. For more than 30 years he crisscrossed the vast stretches of northern Arizona and New Mexico, an area that was still a barren frontier when he gratefully accepted a job he had never heard of before and knew nothing about. He became the true Westerner, so at home on the range that it seemed he had lived there forever.

For lack of any other job title he called himself a hide buyer. He bought sheep pelts from the Indians, cowhides and furs from remote ranchers and trappers, and he sold wholesale supplies to the distant trading posts that provided the basics of daily living to their widely scattered customers. He was also an ambassador of goodwill. He was ``Bake,'' openhearted and uncomplicated, generous with his smiles and material possessions; an honest and trusted friend to anyone he dealt with.

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But a young farm boy remained hidden deep within him. At various times we had a cow, chickens, a goat, even pigeons, but their tenures were short. Eventually our fortunes improved and the dream of owning a home became a reality. For him the best part of the dream come true was the lawn. It was only a small front lawn, but it was green. Each blade of grass that managed to survive had to be sheltered, guarded, and constantly persuaded to grow. Flowers seldom thrived in the arid climate, but he managed to cultivate a sprinkling of the hardier varieties, cosmos and geraniums mostly. Except for keeping things watered while he was away from home, our mother left the real gardening for him to enjoy.

We looked forward to his homecomings. We looked forward to his presence; to walking up town with him and stopping for a soft drink at the drugstore; to hearing him play the piano and sing his favorite songs -- from ``The Preacher and the Bear'' to ``Rock of Ages''; to an impromptu whirl around the living room when the strains of a Strauss waltz filled the air. He ``talked politics'' with us as his peers, and popped corn to eat while we listened to Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy on the radio.

Sometimes he brought us presents. They weren't just ``things'' for the sake of it. They were gifts from the heart, spur-of-the-moment surprises he had chanced upon . . . yards of emerald velveteen, dainty Indian rings or bracelets, a jacket with a fur collar for Lucinda, a pair of roller skates for June, Western boots for Jake. And one fine day he brought pansies for Barbara and me.

He came through the door with a larger smile than usual, carrying a promising-looking brown bag. ``I brought you girls a surprise,'' he announced, handing each of us a package.

The entire family gathered round to share our pleasure. Everyone was prepared for the usual ``Ohs,'' ``Ahs,'' and other sounds of delight that always accompanied such moments. But as our eager hands simultaneously withdrew the contents of our boxes, a unanimous gasp was followed by an audible silence. We held up identical dresses with gigantic pansies splashed at random on a background of white cotton. Viewed separately, the dresses were startling; together they were riveting. Astonishment gave way to mirth.

My pansies were purple, Barbara's yellow. Each flower measured a full 10 inches across. Each was an explosion of wild color radiating from a vivid center and accented with every shade of the rainbow. Clearly, the salesperson had looked at our father and ``saw him coming.'' Our father looked at the dresses and saw the pansies in his mother's garden. We looked at the pansies and saw disaster.

``They seemed different in the store,'' he said, nonplused. ``Maybe they will look better when you put them on.''

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We slipped into them and awaited our moment of truth. ``Mine's too little,'' Barbara sighed with undisguised relief.

Mine fit like a glove.

After the initial shock wore off, I grew accustomed to seeing it in the closet and even wore it a few times. But I was shy and knew that it wasn't a dress for a shrinking violet. I decided that the only way to carry it off was to affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. It worked. After the first trial run I felt quite avant-garde and sallied forth behind a faade of confidence that fooled even me. I almost blossomed in it.

I still smile whenever I happen upon a bed of pansies in full bloom.

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