From the Relief Society Magazine, May 1937 –
By Mary Ek Knowles
Ellen was rinsing the last of the week’s wash when the phone rang. She turned off the washer, wiped her wet hands on a hand towel, stepped with amazing skill over blocks, toys, and a rag dog with one eye, and cautioned Denny to “be quiet while Mummy answers the phone.”
“Hello.” it was Paul. Her heart skipped a beat, her dark eyes softened. Nice to feel that way about your husband after eleven years of married life.
“Mrs. Dale,” Paul’s voice informed her with studied seriousness, “we’re going out to a dinner at the Plaza Hotel.”
“A dinner dance, Paul? When?”
“Tonight! But Paul – ” If that wasn’t just like a man. “I haven’t –”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t anything to wear. Go to town. Buy something. It’s going to be a big affair. See you tonight, sweetheart.”
Ellen hung up the receiver with a steady hand. Must get a wave. Hire Nora Daniels to tend Denny. She frowned at her reddened hands. Wouldn’t have washed if she had known. If only there were more time. … then excitement possessed her. she swooped up golden-haired Denny, hugged him tightly, sang, “Mummy’s going out tonight … going to a dinner dance …” She stirred the soup – the three older children would soon be home for lunch – put Denny down, and took the budget book from the cupboard.
She would have to buy a dress. No hope of renovating the thrice-altered blue crepe. And shoes. And by all means, stockings. Her one and only good pair had a darn in the heel.
For fifteen minutes while the little Dutch clock ticked on the wall and Denny built a leaning tower of blocks, she juggled figures on a piece of white paper, her forehead wrinkled, her dark head bent. “Fourteen dollars and sixty-five cents – no – say fifteen dollars,” – she finally announced aloud. That meant, of course, letting the doctor bill and the payment on the piano go until the first, but – Oh, if only she could buy a dress like Aunt Jasmine had worn to the Andrews’ last week. Couldn’t pay as much, of course. Aunt Jasmine had a good paying position, alimony from her divorce, an apartment with maid service and – no children.
It was with a feeling of high adventure and reckless, luxurious extravagance that Ellen began the afternoon that clear April day. It is rare indeed for the mother of four growing children to have $15.00 to spend on herself. Not that it would always be that way. Things were a little close now with Paul just starting in business for himself, but some day – well – some men had the ability to get ahead. Paul was one of them.
She entered the first shop and told the stout, beaming saleswoman her need.
“Dinner dress?” She piloted Ellen over deep-piled rugs to the realm of glass cases, soft lights, and long mirrors. She brought out a peach-colored taffeta dress, long and full, with a short, demure jacket. “Exquisite, isn’t it? You can just step in here –”
Ellen caught her breath for the sheer loveliness of the gown, but held up her hand. “I’m afraid – how much is it?”
“Just $29.50. A bargain at that price, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but –” Ellen hesitated, feeling stupid and painfully conscious of last year’s black felt hat and the darn in her left heel. “haven’t you something a little less –”
The saleswoman lifted her arched eyebrows and sniffed audibly. “I’m afraid not. We don’t carry cheap merchandise.” She turned her back on Ellen with an injured, hurt air.
Why, Sue Daniels never paid more than ten dollars for a dress, Ellen consoled herself when she was again outside. Of course Sue was smaller, easier to fit. suddenly Ellen laughed. That awful saleswoman! What fun she would have telling Paul about it. “… She looked surprised, darling, and she sniffed, just as if I’d suddenly pulled a dead fish out of mid-air and held it under her nose!” Surely, in the next shop she would find just what she wanted. Still, for all her optimism, that heady feeling of excitement was gone. She felt tired, let down.
No wonder. she had had no lunch! In the last minute rush of finishing the washing, giving Nora instructions about Denny and getting herself ready to go she had entirely neglected that little matter. She hurried down the street and into “The Red Robin.” A bowl of soup, and a sandwich, they would take away that gaunt, empty feeling.
“Ellen McCarthy.” She turned suddenly at the sound of her name. Saw Marjory Adams, Drucilla Lane, and Judy Allan at a nearby table. And suddenly the years rolled back. She was a school-girl again. Hurrying from classes to lunch with this same trio.
She hurried towards the table, clasped slim white hands in her own, kissed Marjory on the cheek and seated herself in the empty chair. Everyone talked at once.
“This is a reunion. First Marjory, then Drucilla, now Ellen.”
“It’s been years – ”
“Twelve years – ”
“Don’t remind me!”
Ellen looked at the three women. They didn’t look any older. The three pretty school girls had become three smartly clad, sophisticated women. That hat of Judy’s – black straw, plain, but so smart, with the tiny nose veil. And Marjory. The sheer blue wool dress she wore cried Paris and Chanel in every line. As for Drucilla, no one could wear tailored things with quite the same dash as she. Ellen felt suddenly self-conscious. She straightened her hat, and hid her rough hands beneath the table. She must look like a little brown wren alongside them.
The conversation turned to the subject of what each had been doing in the twelve years since they last met. Marjory had been in Paris studying art. She clasped her long, perfectly manicured hands and told of the exhibit of her work to be held that summer in New York. Her etchings were attracting no little attention, she informed them with a proud little lilt in her voice. Drucilla asked what she thought about the future of modernistic Art, and Ellen felt herself suddenly shut out. She remained silent, trying to keep pace with their clever, brilliant talk.
Judy had made a name for herself in the world of music and she had “dabbled a bit, with no little success, my dears,” in the theater, under the name of Anna Tanya. The talk veered to the latest plays on Broadway. Again Ellen was on a lonely island.
Drucilla was private secretary to a big steel king.
“But weren’t you and Larry Downes engaged to be married?” Judy asked.
Drucilla laughed a short, hard laugh. “I recovered from that. He had some impossibly old-fashioned ideas about marriage, children, and love in a cottage.”
“You’d have been a fool!”
Ellen felt her skin tighten and her face flush.
“And you, Ellen. What have you been doing?” someone asked.
Ellen hesitated, conscious of the three pairs of eyes fixed upon her. Well, what had she been doing? What had she to relate? How to tell in so many words of the sacredness of those first months of marriage to Paul; of that miraculous feeling of being not one soul, but two, eternally bound together. Could mere words describe that ecstasy when first she had known she was to be a mother; the long months of waiting while her body grew heavy with its precious burden, and that moment when she looked upon her baby daughter, and felt in some small measure as He must have felt when He rested on the seventh day and looked down upon the world. Would they be interested in the battle she had had nursing Bud back to health after a siege of scarlet fever – Bud so husky and strong now, with his freckled face and his pride in “the gang” – or the fact that Alice, at the age of ten, could play on the piano, by ear, any piece she might hear? She might tell them that little Betty was at the head of her class in school, and that buttermilk, of all things, had been the only milk little Denny’s system could digest from the age of two months on. But would these drab facts interest them? They had all seemed vitally important to Ellen at the time, but now they seemed uninteresting, colorless.
She heard her voice, weak and faint, as if from the bottom of a deep, dark well. “Me? Why, nothing, I guess. Just raising a family. I have four children, you know.”
There was an embarrassed pause, and then Drucilla laughed. She always had been able to laugh herself out of an embarrassing situation.
Ellen left soon after, and there were friendly goodbys and fervent promises to “meet again.” But Ellen knew this could never be. They belonged to a different world,. As she walked away she could almost hear their comments and the undercurrent of pity in their voices. “such a shame,” they would say, “she used to be such a brilliant person. An A student in English. Such an amazing sense of humor. Remember her screamingly funny compositions?” and then they would forget her, return to their smart, sparkling talk.
Ellen tried to recapture her mood of an hour before; she told herself, “Snap out of it, my dear. You’ve new clothes to buy yet, and a party to look forward to.” But she was conscious of a dull feeling of resentment as she traveled from shop to shop hunting a dress. She found herself comparing each gown with the taffeta one and thinking “This one is shoddy, cheap … or the shade is all wrong, it makes my sin look muddy … and $29.50 isn’t a scandalous price to pay for a dress. I’ll bet Judy paid that much for her hat … and I haven’t had a decent dress since I was married.” In the end, spurred into action by the lateness of the hour, she chose a black rough crepe dress, long, with short puff sleeves, marked down to $9.79 from the winter season. She could remove the tawdry gold bow, wear her strand of pearls and her pearl earrings, “and look as I always do, drab, practical, a season behind,” she thought.
The tall clock on the corner of Main and Broadway told her it was five o’clock. She quickened her steps. Still shoes and stockings to buy. No time, now, to get a wave. She used to wave her own hair when she was going to school. Brush it until it gleamed, then steam it with hot towels and push the wave into place. But that took time. Time! when had she a minute she could call her own, an undisturbed night of sleep? No wonder fine lines were already making their appearance in her fair skin.
She passed a shoe store and feasted her eyes on a pair of fragile, golden sandals. Just what she wanted! Golden sandals and a shimmering taffeta dress. She saw the price tag, $10.50, and walked away. “Marjory, or Judy could have bought them without even a glance at the price tag,” she thought as she walked one flight up and bought a pair of black kid pumps with a silver metal bow.
With her purchases under her arm she made her way towards the hosiery counter in Bengels Co. And then saw them, on the end of the counter near the elevator. Lace stockings. Fragile as a spider’s web. As soft in color as the first warm breath of spring. “They are just new,” the salesgirl remarked at her elbow. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” Ellen nodded and touched them gently with a gloved hand. The price tag said, “$2.50.” They would go well with a peach-colored taffeta dress and gold sandals, wouldn’t they?” she asked, torturing herself.
“Oh, yes. Beautifully,” the clerk assured her.
Suddenly, standing there at the hosiery counter with her packages under her arm, her hat crooked, and her nose shiny, Ellen wanted those stockings more than anything else in the whole world. and she had just 65 cents in her purse. “I just wanted something for everyday,” she lied bitterly and bought a pair of semi-0chiffon hose for 59 cents. She didn’t look at the lace stockings again. Didn’t have to. she would never forget them.
They became, as she walked home, the symbol of everything lovely she had wanted in the last eleven years and couldn’t have. Lovely things she had wanted marched through her mind in tantalizing procession. A brown coat with a beaver collar; a ;pink knitted suit with a beret to match; a white felt picture hat with a blue band; a star sapphire ring like Aunt Jasmine’s. Aunt Jasmine1 Or Judy, or Drucilla, or Marjory. Catch them denying themselves anything. She, Ellen, was as intelligent as any of them. “I could have been a writer, a newspaper woman.” But what had happened? She had fallen in love with Paul. let her heart rule her head. Oh, of course, some day she would have all the lovely things she wanted. Maybe. Some day! She wanted them now, while she was young. “You should have chosen a career, Ellen McCarthy Dale,” she told herself.
Bud met her at the door. “Won the ball game, Mom.” She saw his tousled hair, his dirty shirt, and the rip in his overalls. “Bud, you’ve torn your overalls again. You must think we’re made of money,” she almost screamed. Bud said, “Yes’m,” and disappeared into the bedroom, a hurt look on his freckled face.
Alice ran in from the kitchen. “Oh, mother,” she reached for Ellen’s packages, “let me see!” Ellen frowned down into her eager, upturned face. “Leave things alone!” Little Betty, always shy, remained in the background, her round, serious eyes on her mother’s face.
The phone rang. “It’s Mr. Dale,” Nora called.
Ellen unfastened Denny’s clinging hands from her skirt.
“Get a dress, honey?” Paul asked.
“Oh, my, yes,” she answered. “I bought a silver lame evening dress, solid gold sandals, an ermine jacket, and – and lace stockings, thin as a spider’s web!” She was very near to tears.
There was a moment’s silence, then Paul’s voice came over the wire, worried, husky. “What’s the matter, honey? didn’t you have enough money?”
Ellen made no reply. She couldn’t speak. “Maybe I can borrow ten from Mile.”
“No. Don’t bother.” Borrow ten and be six months paying it back. “I have to get busy.” She hung up. “Shame, shame,” she scolded herself. “Paul hasn’t had a new suit for three years.” But she didn’t care. She didn’t care!
Just at that moment a low, cream-colored roadster drew up in front of the house and stopped. Aunt Jasmine got out of the car and came walking up the path. Aunt Jasmine in a clever, apple-green outfit, her gray hair perfectly waved. “Fashion note, for spring,” Ellen thought. “Select a bright, light weight wool dress for wear under your winter coat.” She bundled her packages together, threw them in the hall closet and shut the door.
“Hello, darling,” Aunt Jasmine greeted. “You look tired. Anything wrong?” Ellen made no reply, but fastened her eyes on a flat package in Aunt Jasmine’s hand. Denny toddled in from the kitchen, his arms held up. “Damin, Damin,” he lisped. Jasmine threw the package carelessly, wearily on the table and reached eagerly, hungrily for Denny. “Just something I bought me as I came through town. See if you like them.” She walked over to the window with Denny in her arms.
Ellen unwrapped the package, and a tiny moan escaped her lips. Lace stockings! Not one pair, but three! The very stockings she had wanted. It wasn’t fair! Bitterness and weariness culminated into tears, and she wept silently, one hand on the lace stockings, the other hand to her lips. It wasn’t fair. Aunt Jasmine had everything!
Then she looked up, saw Aunt Jasmine standing by the window, Denny in her arms, his dimpled hand on her lips, the light making a halo of his bright curls. But it was the look on Jasmine’s face that checked Ellen’s tears, and sent the bitterness from her heart with one clean stroke. For in that unguarded moment she saw disillusionment, futility and poignant loneliness in the other woman’s face.
“Oh, I’ve never known that,” she thought, indescribable loneliness. I never will. I have my children. True, they will grow up, marry and move away. But they will return for warm, cozy visits. They and their children and their children’s children. Always she would have her fingertips on life’s pulse.
The thought came to Ellen that Aunt Jasmine was the Marjories, the Judys, the Drucillas, ten, fifteen years from now. Successful, rich, bored and lonely. The grass always looked greener on the other side of the fence. Until this moment she had seen only the attractive part of the older woman’s life. The ease and comfort, the money. She had not realized That money could purchase only material things that faded and tarnished and lost their thrill the moment after purchase.
Ellen’s life was full, busy, soul-satisfying. Career! Why, she had chosen a career! The most important one in the world. Careers of Music, of Art, of Literature, they were all very important. They made for a rich and more abundant life, but first there must be people born to enjoy them.
The career of Motherhood!
“It is such an age-old occupation that people take it for granted,” Ellen thought, “like the miracle of the sun rising every morning, or the wonder of green sprouts pushing their way through the damp earth in the spring. We mothers are partly to blame. We take it for granted ourselves. We are apologetic about our calling. “Just raising a family,” I said this afternoon, and I lowered my eyes. I should have held my head high.”
She would start a new vogue among mothers. Pride in their task. It was an inspiring thought. It took her firmly by the hand and led her to the top of a lofty mountain.
She carefully folded the lace stockings in the box, put the lid on and tied the string in a tight, hard knot. She was humming a happy little tune.