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Homely Hester

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 27, 2011

This story breaks my heart — the title pretty much tells you what it’s about.

From the Relief Society Magazine, February 1941 –

Homely Hester

By Olive C. Wehr

“Please, God, if you can’t change me into a boy, then please change me into a pretty little girl,” prayed Hester fervently that night, as she knelt beside the big, old-fashioned bed in Aunt Agnes’ upstairs room.

Then recalling that Miss Evans, her pretty Sunday School teacher, had said that we must pray for others, not ourselves, she shut her eyes so tight that she could see the mysterious silver doughnut that always came when she closed her eyes thus, and pressing her screwed-up little face hard against the red and white patch-work quilt, she carefully reworded her prayer: “Dear God, please give Daddy a beautiful little girl.”

She stayed on her knees until they fairly ached, repeating the request and “believing hard,” for one must have faith to have prayers answered. Maybe she hadn’t had faith enough, she reflected sadly, when she had prayed before to be changed into a boy, but it might be even better to be changed into a pretty little girl instead. then Daddy would call her “sweetheart” like he did Mother, and not “little funnyface” any more. Of course, Daddy had really wanted her to be a boy in the first place – she had heard Aunt Agnes say so – but still he would be pleased, she felt sure, since she had to be a girl, if she were only pretty. Mother was pretty – everyone said so – and Daddy adored her. He bought her ever so many pretty clothes – to “show her off,” Aunt Agnes said. if only God would make her pretty like Mother!

When Hester finally arose, for the relief of her protesting knees, she turned hopefully to the big mirror over the dresser. Maybe there would be some slight change already … But no, she was still “Homely Hester” as one of the girls at school had dubbed her – the same homely Hester with the same wide, greenish-grey eyes, the same sprinkling of freckles across a too-pale face, the same too-large mouth, the same stub nose, the same reddish tinge on the hair. Daddy hated red hair, for he was always asking Mother if she thought it was really going to turn red.

“I hate you!” Hester exclaimed viciously to the sober little pajama-clad figure in the mirror; and then, startled at the sudden sound of her own voice, she ran for bed, switching off the light as she went, and buried herself in the blankets. She was grateful tonight for the way the great bed swallowed her whole.

She heard her Aunt Agnes moving slowly about downstairs in her room. aunt Agnes always moved slowly, for she was elderly. She was really Daddy’s aunt; she had brought him up after his own mother had died. Hester lay very still listening and hoping that her exclamation had not been overheard. Aunt Agnes was always asking questions and demanding explanations! She breathed a quick sigh of relief when she heard her aunt winding the clock and knew that she was safe for the night from prying eyes.

How much longer was she going to have to stay in Aunt Agnes’ big, lonely house? When Daddy had brought her here sixteen long days ago, he had told her that she must be a good girl and stay until Mother felt better; then she could come home again, and there would be a surprise for her, but Mother was ill now and too nervous to have a noisy girl around.

She was sorry she had made Mother nervous. she couldn’t help it because she had been clumsy and had fallen down stairs twice; and how had she known that her many questions annoyed her mother? A sudden knot of home-sickness tied itself in Hester’s throat. Shutting her eyes tight to keep back the tears, she tried hard to think of something pleasant. Mother said that was the best way.

What could the surprise be that Daddy had hinted at? Maybe another new dress to take the place of the one he had brought home to her from the city some time ago – the one that Mother would not let her wear because it was red. She had cried herself to sleep that night because Mother had said she shouldn’t ever wear it. She had awakened later to overhear her parents talking

“But, Cecil,” Mother was saying, her young voice lifted high in protest, “whatever possessed you to get red – and such an expensive dress, too!”

“Now, now, Madeline, sweetheart,” Daddy had replied good-naturedly, “don’t be cross about it. I only thought maybe red would brighten up that sober little ugly duckling of ours. You wear red so beautifully, sweetheart.”

“Yes, but she can’t wear red,” Mother had declared. “You know I’ve told you that before, Cecil – not with her complexion and the color of her hair. Blue is her color.”

Blue! how she hated blue! All her dresses were some shade of it. How she loved the bright, exciting colors the other little girls wore to school! Oh, if only God would change her complexion so she could wear the alluring red dress!

In the morning she would look in the mirror again, but she must “believe” now so her prayer would be answered. Yes, in the morning she would begin to look different. Wouldn’t Mother and Daddy be pleased when she went home to see that she had grown into a pretty little girl! then when they went bathing together at the beach, the white-haired lady with the fan wouldn’t shake her head and say to her fat husband, “My, what a handsome couple to have such a homely child! too bad!”

She remembered now how Daddy and Mother had looked straight ahead and pretended not to hear, and had tossed the big beach ball faster than ever to her after that, but nothing had been any fun the rest of the day; and the next week Daddy had taken her to see the doctor and asked him if he couldn’t give her something to put roses in her cheeks, but the big red pills the doctor gave her to take after every meal hadn’t done any good either.

Well, Daddy wouldn’t need to worry after god had answered her prayer, and he wouldn’t be ashamed of her looks then, either. Maybe he would take her on the long trip back East to see his old friends next summer instead of leaving her behind as usual with Aunt Agnes.

“Oh, and is this your beautiful little girl? why, she looks just like her mother!” Daddy’s nice friends would say. Daddy would stand up straight and proud and say, “Yes, she is my daughter,” just like he did when his old friend at the office had said of Mother’s picture, “What a beautiful woman!” – only then Daddy had said, “Yes, she is my wife.” And the white-haired lady with the fan at the beach would say, “My, what a handsome couple, and what a beautiful child they have!”

it would be fun going to school then, too. she would just smile at the astonished little girl who had called her homely, and settle down to her lessons feeling all warm and comfortable inside instead of all tight and cold. Daddy would be pleased with her report card then – an ugly little girl who is so busy being miserable can’t think very hard about the new words pointed out on the big chart by Miss Peters. yes, Daddy would be pleased with her report card, and he would go right down to the store and buy her the big doll with the long, yellow curls that he had promised her if she would get straight “S’s.”

Hester drifted away on a rosy cloud; then it was morning, and Aunt Agnes exclaiming in her thick, raspy voice, “Child, child, you have overslept! Hurry and dress; I have some good news for you – after you’ve had breakfast.”

Good news? Oh, yes, something had happened … What was it? Oh, now she remembered … she had turned pretty and was going East with Daddy? As soon as the door had closed behind Aunt Agnes’ stern back, Hester flew to the mirror. The eager little face reflected there trembled, and a sudden burst of tears flooded it. A sadly-disillusioned Hester turned slowly away to grope blindly for her clothes.

Aunt Agnes looked at her sharply when she went down to breakfast a few minutes later, but for once she asked no questions, for which Hester was grateful. Aunt Agnes believed that a little girl should have no secret thoughts that she was ashamed to tell. More than once Hester had been forced to concoct some sudden falsehood in order to satisfy the nagging curiosity of Aunt Agnes. she was glad that her usually active imagination was not to be so taxed this morning, for it was out of the question to tell her the truth. the very idea of confessing one’s inmost thoughts to aunt Agnes always made Hester feel ashamed – like walking naked.

After a silent breakfast, Aunt Agnes announced, “Now I will put you on the bus. Your father phoned for you to come home this morning.”

The tiny spark of joy that kindled in Hester’s bosom was quenched by Aunt Agnes’ next statement.

“I suppose I ought to tell you that you have a beautiful little baby sister.”

A beautiful baby sister! Then Daddy had a beautiful little girl! So this was the way God had answered her prayer! He had given Daddy a beautiful little girl, as she had asked Him to do, but now she was never to be anything but just “Homely Hester.” Daddy would be proud of the new little sister; he wouldn’t have much time for his “ugly duckling.” Dumb misery too great for tears or for speech settled down over Hester.

“Your little sister’s name is Vivian,” was Aunt Agnes’ next unconscious thrust.

Vivian! What a beautiful name! And they had called her Hester. She was only “Homely Hester.”

Aunt Agnes offered further bits of information from time to time during the short journey to the bus line, but no efforts on her part could induce unhappy little Hester to comment on the new state of affairs.

“I must say, she is the most peculiar child I have ever seen!” Hester overheard her aunt exclaim in exasperation to a neighbor who stopped to speak to her. But she didn’t mind what Aunt Agnes thought. She stumbled blindly into the first seat she could find on the big bus.

During the short ride home, Hester turned over in her mind various plans of escape. She might live with Aunt Agnes. But no, that was unthinkable. She might run away – but where to?

When the bus stopped at their corner, Daddy was there waiting for her.

“Hello there, little funnyface. You have a baby sister,” he greeted her joyously.

She put her hand in his and walked silently beside him down the path toward home.

“Daddy,” she inquired at length, “is your new little girl pretty, and … and not ugly like me?”

Her chin trembled out of control as she put this question to her father, but she must know the truth from his own lips.

Daddy stopped walking and looked straight at Hester in a way that made her cheeks burn. Did she seem homelier than ever to him now? Then suddenly Daddy’s eyes went misty, and he swooped her up in his arms and held her tight.

“Listen, funnyface … I mean … sweetheart,” he said huskily. “I don’t care whether your little sister is going to be pretty or not, but I do hope she will grow up to be a fine girl like her big sister.” Then he added hastily, “Anyway, homely little girls nearly always grow up to be very pretty ladies.”

Somewhere a thousand little birds began to sing. Hester threw her arms about her father’s neck and kissed him impetuously. “I want to see my baby sister,” she demanded.

Her father put her on her feet. With her hand clinging to his, she kept joyful step with him down the path through the bright, spring sunshine, chanting softly to herself all the way the magic, unbelievable words, “Anyway, homely little girls nearly always grow up to be very pretty ladies,” and “I have a baby sister! I have a baby sister!”



12 Comments »

  1. Oh, my.

    Comment by Ellen — April 27, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  2. I don’t believe the ending. A little girl with those ideas so deeply ingrained isn’t going to throw them over with one backhanded compliment. Telling someone she’s an ugly duckling is still telling her she’s ugly. Grrrr.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 27, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  3. And people, do you really believe your comments are not heard?

    Comment by Ellen — April 27, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  4. Ardis, I agree with you. I’m also surprised that a child that is so self-aware didn’t suspect her mother’s pregnancy.

    Comment by HokieKate — April 27, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  5. I find the ending kind of believable, actually—Hester was grasping for any hope she could get, and she was given one there.

    Now, the interesting thing would be what she thought about the situation a couple days later.

    (But unaware of the pregnancy? Yeah—that’s weird. Even women who don’t show end up showing, you know?)

    Comment by David B — April 27, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  6. Yikes.

    Comment by WVS — April 27, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

  7. What a peculiar story.

    About the mystery of pregnancy for young children, I recently read the following written about my great-great grandmother by one of her daughters, the ninth of twelve children born between 1894 and 1917:

    Mother wore long cotton dresses with a long white apron over them. We never know when she was pregnant—we didn’t know the word. I was one of the young ones, so I would be told, “We have a new baby” after the arrival.

    But pregnancy would be a harder secret to keep as styles changed!

    Comment by Researcher — April 27, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  8. In the last “Anne of Green Gables” books, her kids didn’t know when Anne was pregnant either. I think it’s just not something people talked about either to or around children.

    Comment by Proud Daugther of Eve — April 27, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  9. This was a bleak story, and my comment is bleak as well.

    My mother was about Hester’s age in 1941. She was not homely, but she thought of herself as unattractive because she had unconventional looks that didn’t fit into the classic mold for beauty that had women and girls in an iron grip back then. To her credit, she never made a big deal about my physical flaws.
    While reading the story, I was feeling all relieved that we don’t have to deal with all the rules and conventions surrounding appearance that women used to be chained to, like redheads not being allowed to wear red, and worse. I know a woman who had a scholarship to Stanford in the 40s, but had to turn it down because she couldn’t afford a college girl’s proper wardrobe.

    Then I remembered the way modern culture and fashion tries to chain women, especially young ones, to even worse rules and conventions that are still all about looks and “beauty.” My daughters and nieces struggle to be modest without being dowdy. I have friends who’s grandchildren mutilate their bodies in their effort to be fashionably attractive. Maybe we haven’t improved at all since then.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — April 28, 2011 @ 1:33 am

  10. I think it’s too bad that looks are still the most important thing in this “happy” little ending.

    I am living proof that ugly ducklings don’t always grow up to be beautiful swans. Sometimes they really are just ducks.

    Comment by SilverRain — April 28, 2011 @ 7:21 am

  11. Even though it’s fiction, this story was real in many ways to me because I can remember remarks made to me as a little girl, sometimes about looks but about other things too, that I absorbed in ways that my adult self knows those remarks were never intended. It’s a marvel that we grow up to function at all, scarred as we all must be. And while it would be nice to think we could eliminate these hurtful remarks when we speak to and about children, it’s likely that no matter how careful we are something will still be misunderstood and still cut. What a world.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 28, 2011 @ 9:48 am

  12. I still have a hard time not taking comments too personally!

    Comment by SilverRain — April 28, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

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