From the Relief Society Magazine, May 1927 –
“Mothers Always Is”
by Mrs. Bessie Alston
Martha Harmon had merely come to the door to shake her dust cloth, but the balmy air that caressed her hot cheeks lured her on to the porch. There she lingered, absorbing through every sense the joyous signs of spring that proclaimed themselves on every hand.
A few early insects drifted lazily along in the warm air. A flicker drummed madly at the sheet iron extension on Martha’s chimney, stopping every few minutes to call his sharp “wick-a-wick-a-wick,” in evident protest that this promising location would not yield to his attempts at home building. The crocuses were just throwing out faint purple and yellow hints of future glory. Slender spears of green marked the spot where golden daffodils would shortly stand.
Between the houses one could catch glimpses of children at play. Their shrill voices came from every direction, triumphant shouts of welcome to the spring. The adjoining vacant lot a diminutive nine played the national game with noisy enthusiasm. The littler boys whose tender years excluded them from the big game were quarreling noisily over a game of ‘lag-outs.’ Farther up the street three little girls played at dolls, while another wielded a skipping rope to the rhythm of a wonderful chant.
As these human signs of spring caught her attention, a look of irritation crossed Martha’s pleasant face. Not that she disliked children. Far from it. Martha Harmon considered herself a real lover of little ones. Her friends all agreed that she was the most devoted mother in the world, and her two children, clean, wholesome and well-behaved, proved that the statement was not exaggerated. Since Billy came, nine years before, Martha had never willingly missed a lecture or failed to read any new authority who might help her attain more of efficient motherhood. Billy and Margaret bathed, exercised, ate, or napped with a fearful regularity. Twice a year the dentist inspected their correctly brushed teeth, and when the proper time came for the ceremony, each child was relieved of tonsils and adenoids, in spite of Grandma Harmon’s horrified protest that none of her ten were ever submitted to such barbarity.
Yes, indeed, Martha loved her little ones, and the children of her old school friends liked nothing better than a day at Auntie Harmon’s, but loving dainty Margaret or fresh-cheeked Billy was one thing, while even tolerating the McSwinneys’ numerous offspring was another matter entirely.
It was the sight of the McSwinney brood, one or two of whom were in every playing group, that brought the frown to Martha’s face.
What was wrong with the McSwinneys, you ask? In the first place Martha felt that eight children in these modern days of tiny yards and closely built houses constitute a disturbance of the peace, or rather eight disturbances, to say the least. Mrs. McSwinney herself was undisturbed. Indeed, that worthy individual had passed through so many family upheavals, births, quarantines, broken limbs, and other excitement incident to the rearing of a large family, that she was not to be easily upset by such trifles as a bit of dirt, or a little noise. There was so much to be done that she didn’t know where to begin, so she seldom began at all. Going up or down the street in a torn kimono, her hair uncombed, her shoes half laced, she was a never ending eyesore to fastidious Martha.
Only once had Martha been in the McSwinney home. Larry had cut his hand and she went in to help dress it. The piles of unwashed dishes, the swarming flies and general chaos of that kitchen had appalled her, and the memory still remained to haunt her.
The McSwinney children roamed the streets in all stages of dress, or rather undress. Apparently most of their meals were taken en route, for one or another of them was forever passing with a huge slice of bread from which honey or molasses dripped on the sidewalk. Even though Martha admitted that they were a happy, generous, friendly lot, it annoyed her to see them squatting on her well kept lawn, and she had no desire to have her children acquire their slang or noisy ways.
Many a night Martha lay awake, wondering if it would not be best to sell the little home and move far away from the McSwinneys. But she loved the home where her children had been born, and, after all, as her husband philosophically assured her, no real estate man could furnish a pedigree for every neighbor on the block. Without a written guarantee, how could she be sure she wasn’t jumping from the frying pan into the fire, unless, as he jokingly added, “we get wealthy enough to move into a swell neighborhood where kids are tabooed and everybody raises a poodle. Then, madam, what would you do with our precious infants?”
It was these thoughts that robbed the spring day of part of its brightness. As Martha turned to go in, her little Margaret came around the house.
“Oh, mama,” she pleaded, “can’t I ride my tricycle up and down the block? It’s so nice out doors and there isn’t any mud on the pavement. See, I have my hat on.”
“Yes, dear; don’t go around the corner,” and Martha kissed the eager little face, and went indoors to finish her work.
Twenty minutes later she looked up the street again. The tricycle stood on the sidewalk, riderless. Four tiny girls sat on the steps of the McSwinney home. Lorna McSwinney’s arm was thrown lovingly around her baby’s shoulder, and Martha froze with horror as she saw Margaret take something from Lorna’s free hand, and cram it into her mouth, her face beaming with enjoyment.
“Margaret, come here at once!” The cry was sharp and decided. With one look at her mother’s angry face the little girl jumped to her feet and hurried across the vacant lot.
“Yes, mother,” she said, still munching unconsciously on the offending morsel.
“Haven’t I forbidden you to eat between meals?”
“What are you eating?” The stern voice frightened Margaret. She hung her head. The answer was almost a whisper.
“Lorna’s piece of bread.”
“Lorna’s bread! How did you get Lorna’s bread?”
“I – I – I just took it from her.”
Martha’s self control gave way. A wave of unreasoning anger and shame swept over her. That her child, always carefully fed, should take dirty little Lorna’s bread! At the thought of the filthy kitchen where that bread was made, of the grimy little paw that had held it first, nausea swept over the shocked mother.
Snatching the frightened child by one arm she almost swung her through the house to the kitchen. then pausing by the coal bucket she commanded, “Spit it out at once! Every crumb! Now, go and bring your tricycle around to the back. You can’t go out again today. Such a naughty girl! Mother is ashamed of you.”
The little girl obeyed quietly. Never had she seen her mother so angry. As she went out of the door Martha’s heart smote her, for there was something so crushed in her silence, her hanging head, her dragging feet. After all it was she who was to blame. How silly that display of temper! She must talk to Margaret when she came in.
Margaret dragged the tricycle onto the back porch, then stood leaning against the door frame, a drooping, pathetic little figure.
“Margaret, honey,” the mother began. At the tender tone the child looked up. As she met her mother’s eyes she burst into tears. Between sobs that racked her slender body she gasped, “You’ve spoiled all the party. Oh, I never had so much fun in – all – my – life. It was such a lovely party.”
Martha dropped into a chair and drew her little daughter upon her knee.
“What party are you talking about, dear?”
“Lorna’s party. You made me spit mine out.”
“Made you spit your party out?”
“Lorna had a big piece of bread and she said, ‘Let’s p’tend it’s a party, and this is the ice cream and ‘freshments.’ She cut it all in little weentsy pieces, and we was havin’ lots of fun.”
“What was on the bread, dear?”
“Just nothin’ at all. Only bread.”
“Why, Margaret, you don’t need to eat dry bread. Mother will give you some with jam on it, and a niece glass of milk. I’ll let you take my butterfly lunch cloth and you can have a little party all yourself.” Martha was eager to make amends for her sharpness.
“Don’t want jam; don’t want nothin’ on it! ‘Tisn’t any fun to eat alone! It’s the company and the make believe that make the party fun.” And the tears came again.
Poor baby! All unconsciously she had voiced the age-old cry of the human heart for romance and companionship. The words, aided perhaps by the scents and sounds of Spring on every hand, transported Martha back through the years to her childhood days.
As the balmy breeze came in the open door she felt again the thrill her child-self had always known when spring housecleaning was begun. She remembered how the shabby old carpet used to be thrown over the line awaiting the beating that sent such clouds of dust over the fence and grass. How she and Maggie Birnie used to love that day. Between the dusty folds of the carpet they had a wonderful tent. There they would sit half suffocated by dust, with rivulets of perspiration trickling down their grimy faces as they munched in ecstasy on some odds and ends they had pilfered for the camping party. Ah, the thrills of that great adventure! Margaret was right. It wouldn’t be a party without the company and the make believe. A sudden understanding came to the mother.
“I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t understand. The party isn’t over, is it?”
“No,” Margaret’s voice was tragic. “It only just began when I had to – had to – ” Sobs came again.
“You can go back and finish it, if you want to. Wouldn’t you like to take some apples for your share of the party? Wipe your eyes and hurry, dear.” She picked out the rosy fruit as she spoke. “There now, little daughter, have a good time. I’ll call you when I need you,” and she kissed the transfigured little face.
Long after Margaret had gone, Martha sat by the table, her work forgotten. Memory once aroused, brought before her a score of pictures from the days when she, too, was a little girl, eager for play and playmates. What glorious adventures she and Maggie had had in the old apple tree that could change so magically from prancing steeds to fairies’ bower, from fairies’ bower to pirate ship. What new vistas Maggie’s quick imagination had opened to the quiet, shy girl who had been herself. She smiled at the picture of motherless Maggie Birnie – yes, she had been as dirty as any McSwinney; her grammar was atrocious, nay, more, if occasion seemed to demand, she could even swear a bit. And yet she had never been harmed by her friendship for this generous, impulsive playmate, for whom her own gentle mother had always had a smile and a cooky.
All at once Martha saw her own problem in a new light. All her tender care could never teach her children to stand alone as life would demand that they should stand, unless she let them learn how to glean the best from the companions of their daily life. That must be the mother’s part, to love, to guide, to understand, but hardest of all to “keep hands off” at the proper time.
A tender smile came to her face and lingered on her lips as she again set about her housework. Passing the half open window she caught snatches from the party.
“Now play like this is the strawberries!” Lorna’s shrill voice was joyous.
Then from Margaret: “Next time we’ll have a party on my porch. I’ll ask my mama to let me give the treat. My mama’s the nicest mama in the world, ain’t she?”
“Um-hm-m,” mumbled Lorna happily. “Mine is, too. Mothers always is.”