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The Morrell Tribe

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 01, 2011

Why, those Morrell people were the talk of the town, what with their dingy laundry and their lackadaisical work habits, and their accordion, and their phonograph, and their fun …

From the Relief Society Magazine, 1933 –

The Morrell Tribe

By Elsie C. Carroll

When Marian Janis married Hal Morrell, everybody predicted trouble. Not that Marian and Hal didn’t think the world of each other. It was their families: Hal was a Morrell.

Judge Janis, Marian’s father, was a paragon of industry and thrift. Pals of his boyhood days sometimes hinted that these characteristics were acquired – through the vigorous encouragement of his wife; but be that as it may, the two chief principles in Henry Janis’ religion were Work and Save. Mary Janis, Marian’s mother, was conceded to be the best housekeeper in Norton; she could make the best yeast roll, the best sponge cake; she hung out the whitest washing. And thereby hangs this tale.

The Morrells had wheezed into Norton nine years before in a dilapidated Ford. There had been five of them then: Daniel, his wife Kate, Hal, a lad of fourteen, Kitty, four, and baby Rose. The Community Welfare Organization had carried food and blankets to them, and had arranged for their temporary lodging in the old Drake place until the November blizzard should have spent itself, and until “Methuselah,” the Ford, could be put in running condition once more. And there they were, “still camping,” as Mrs. Janis herself had scornfully put it, “nine years afterwards.”

And now there were nine of them instead of five, the twins, Joy and Joyce, Sunny, and Babe having arrived at intervals since that day nine years before when Daniel had announced to the group of loafers on Kirk’s corner that he found Norton a tol’able likable place and as Katie had been coaxin’ him to settle down fer quite a spell, he reckoned as how they had about decided they might make Norton their home.

If the Morrells had ever received an inkling that the citizenry of Norton was not delighted with their decision to become part of it, they did not let such a trifle worry them. They were not the worrying kind. Life was too full of things to enjoy and rejoice over to give time for worrying.

Though the Morrells lacked most of the necessities of life, they had a knack of acquiring a few of the luxuries, and they had a capacity for enjoying what they had, and of not worrying about what they didn’t have, which furnished the gossips of Norton an unending fund of conversational material. For instance, the Morrells were musical, and their first purchase in Norton from the small amount they had received from “Methuselah” when they decided to make Norton the end of their wanderings, was a beautiful accordion – “and that” according to Miss Mehitable Jennings, secretary of the Community Welfare, “while we were still carrying food to them; while they were still sleeping in our blankets!”

While that accordion may have seemed a foolish extravagance to the sane and sensible inhabitants of Norton, to the Morrells it filled a need of their beings quite as much as did the food and the blankets of the Community Welfare. For as Katie Morrell was wont to recount in their a-little-less-lean years after that first one in Norton, “Sure an’ there was many a time we didn’t have enough to eat, but Dan’el ‘ud play us a tune on that beautiful accordion an’ we’d go to bed happy.”

In due time as Daniel found odd jobs sharpening scissors and lawn mowers, and tinkering sewing machines, and as the sturdy Hal became a permanent employee of Lowden’s Furniture and Music Store, other luxuries found their way into the Drake shack to take their place beside the rickety chairs and beds, the rusty stove, the goods-box cupboard, and the accordion. There were banjos and ukuleles, and in time, a piano – this long before there was an easy chair or a decent mirror – and tennis rackets, and fishing tackle, a canary, two oil paintings – one a fine landscape by the celebrate La Roche, that would have given distinction to any home in Norton – an abundance of magazines, and a radio.

Of course Norton had talked each time one of the nonessentials had been added. They talked of the shiftlessness and thriftlessness of Daniel who would leave a job any day to accept a fishing invitation; of Katie who could leave unwashed dishes and unswept floors any time to go to a musical or a circus parade, who had no regular days for washing, ironing, mending and baking; who never failed during the warm, pleasant days of early spring and summer, when other housewives were submerged in house-cleaning and spring sewing and early canning, to trail off with her brood several times a week to the woods, or river’s edge, a magazine under one arm and a paper bag filled with sandwiches under the other, and spend long, precious hours.

Norton talked.

And one of the most scathing voices in Norton’s talk was that of Mary Janis.

“How any woman on earth with a family can do such things,” she would remark over her prim, vine-covered back fence to Mehitable Jennings, “beats me. When we were first married, the Judge used to want to always be going places and doing foolish things, but he soon learned that if we were to get ahead and keep the house going as it ought to we had to make a business of business and housekeeping. Why, they say that woman will sit right down on the floor and play games with her children, the dirty dishes still on the table, and not a bed in the house made up. The thing that really worries me is the influence such people are bound to have in the community. Other children are going there. – Why, the other day my Marian went right into that hovel – that boy Hal wanted to show her a contraption he’d made so he could play the banjo and mouth-organ at the same time – and she actually seems to think the way they live is all right.”

Mrs. Janis had so spoken on and off during the first few of the nine years after the coming of the Morrell tribe. If on such occasions it could have been revealed to her through some occult process that her Marian was to marry a Morrell, she would doubtless have succumbed to instant shock.

But the community had gradually become accustomed to the Morrells, long before the serious courtship of Marian and Hal commenced. And Hal had won his way with his music and his genial personality into the hearts of the people. Of course the remark, “What a shame he’s a Morrell” still passed current along with the really fine things that were continuously being said of him.

From general office boy in Lowden’s store, Hal had risen to manager of the Music Department. He had taken on polish and responsibility amazingly, and had tried to polish the other members of his family. He had endeavored to replace the rickety furniture; to remodel and paint the rambling old house; to mend fences and out-buildings. But somehow the improvements he attempted didn’t seem to make much difference to the general appearance of the old Drake place. And when it came to making over his happy-go-lucky father and mother – that was even more impossible. And while he was often embarrassed by his family, and sometimes deeply ashamed, he was genuinely loyal, and loved them, perhaps without knowing it, for the very qualities he was trying to change.

To be sure it had been a profound shock to Judge and Mary Janis, as well as to the whole town, when Marian revealed that she was in love with Hal Morrell and wanted to marry him. Her father and mother had known that he had been admitted to Marian’s crowd, and had discussed this fact one night after the crowd had been entertained at their home. They had felt virtuous because of their broad-mindedness.

“He is a likable young chap,” the Judge had conceded. “Seemed to be the life of the party, didn’t he? and Lowden says he’s developing into an A-1 business man.”

“But it’s too bad he’s a Morrell. Of course,” admitted Mary. “We can’t very well tell Marian that she can’t invite him here when that’s all there is against him; but Henry, you just ought to see the washings his mother hangs out. Why, her sheets and pillow-cases are the color of buckskin – and her towels and dish-towels –” Words failed Mary Janis, but her expression proclaimed the hanging out of dingy towels and dish-towels to be the unpardonable sin.

“Well, now, if that was all –” the Judge had remonstrated, “it wouldn’t be so much to worry about; you always have put too much stock in little things like that. It’s his father’s shiftlessness that gets me. Only last week we had him up adjusting the typewriters in the offices and by George, if he didn’t leave us without a machine we could work and go off fishing with Lem Keller.”

Finally, after the smoke of the battle following Marian’s revelation had cleared; when Judge and Mary Janis, because they wanted their girl’s happiness more than anything else in the world, had given with reluctance and a well-defined feeling of martyrdom their consent to the marriage, and had grudgingly admitted young Hal to the freedom of the house as the fiance of their daughter, there followed, up until the day of the wedding, a series of conscientious efforts on the part of Mary to train her future son-in-law in some of the essential habits that had been so woefully neglected by his own mother. For instance, when Marian and Hal would come in from a game of tennis and he would unceremoniously throw his hat on the library table and drop his racket and balls on the davenette, Mary would make it a point to take the hat immediately to the hall tree, and to place the tennis balls and racket on a shelf provided for such things in the entry. When he would finish singing or playing, and would leave his music scattered promiscuously on the piano and chairs, she would immediately gather it up and put it away.

It had taken Hal a little while “to catch on” that he was being watched and trained; but one day the significance of Mary’s movements dawned upon him. He had flushed with embarrassment, but as soon as he got hold of himself he had smiled and said with his disarming frankness, “Thanks, Mrs. Janis. I’ll learn.”

Marian in her new joy had not been cognizant of this little side play of her mother’s, and when Hal was gone she had asked the meaning of his remark.

“He’s really got wits,” her mother had responded, “so maybe you can train him. I didn’t think at first he would catch on. You’ll simply have to keep after him, though, I can see that, to break him of those horrid slipshod Morrell habits. Why, he was actually about to put his feet upon the window seat this afternoon; but he caught me looking at him just in time. It’s not going to be easy, but you’ll have it to do now you’ve decided to marry him.”

Marian had flushed with anger. “Mother, how could you? What crime would it have been even if he had put his feet on the window seat? You will make him so he will dread to come here. His mother doesn’t make them feel that the house is too good to live in.”

“No, I should say not,” scorned Mary Janis. “I’m just trying to help you, Marian. You’ve no idea what a trial you’re going to have civilizing that boy – O, I know he’s got a lot of fine qualities. If he didn’t have, your father and I just couldn’t have given our consent to your marrying him. We’ve always looked forward to your happiness as the biggest thing in our lives, Marian. Hal’s a nice boy, as I said, but he’s a Morrell and there’s a lot of savage in that tribe yet.”

“Mother, I’ll not listen even to you talk about Hal’s folks like that. They’re different; but they’re not savages. They know how to have the best times – I wish – I – love every one of them,” and Marian had flounced from the room, while her mother with a sigh and a shake of her head had gone to get the dustpan and whisk broom. There was the unmistakable outline of a dusty footprint on the taupe rug.

Marian and Hal were to be married the first week in June. After their honeymoon they would set up housekeeping in a little three-roomed cottage two blocks from the old Drake place. The Judge made them a present of an electric range, and Mary bought and made the window drapes and chose the rugs. Through his connection with the furniture store, Hal received excellent terms on a living room suite and some bedroom furniture. The little house would be as cozy and tasteful as any bridal pair could wish.

As Marian’s mother was helping to hang the last window drape three days before the wedding, she remarked:

“I’m afraid you’re going to have trouble keeping Hal’s folks in their place. His mother was over here while you were gone to the store. She brought some junk of some kind – set it right on top of that polished library table. I could hardly hold my tongue until she had gone.”

Marian flushed.

“What was it? Where did you put it? Why didn’t she wait?”

“Oh, it was a picture, I believe she said. She thought you’d like it – made it a point that she was giving it to you particularly. It’s wrapped up in a newspaper – I shoved it there in the bedroom closet. She did wait a while, but when I got the broom and swept up the loose grass she’d tracked in, she said she guessed she’d have to go and come over later.”

“Mother! You – you didn’t do that – to Hal’s mother?”

“I swept up that trash after Katie Morrell. I imagine if you give them any encouragement at all, they’ll be here messing up the place all the time. You’ll have to be strict right from the start – let them know you’re a housekeeper – though goodness knows they have never known what that word means.”

Marian opened her lips to speak, but closed them again and went to the bedroom closet. A moment later a cry of delight issued through the half closed door.

“Mother – just see what Hal’s mother brought me – her lovely painting by La Roche. See, Mother – I told you about it – isn’t it beautiful! And to think she – gave it to – me,” there was a little catch in Marian’s voice. “It was the most beautiful – almost the only – beautiful thing she had.”

“Well, of all the incongruities,” Mary Janis exclaimed, looking with begrudging admiration at the masterpiece of art. “A picture like that in their old hovel!”

“But, Mother, I keep telling you – it isn’t a hovel. It’s a – home – one of the happiest homes I have ever seen. I tell you, Hal’s folks – are – why they’re wonderful, in spite of all the horrid things folks say of them. I wouldn’t hurt them for the world.” She was about to say more, but seemed to think better of it.

“Now look here, Marian,” Mary Janis looked at her daughter severely. “You ought to realize that it was a very hard thing for your father and me to consent to your marrying into a family like the Morrells.” Her voice almost broke then. “If it wasn’t that you are so dear to us, Marian, and that we have been living always for your happiness – we just couldn’t have done it. Now wait a minute – let me finish. We haven’t anything against Hal – with right training he’ll make a man; but the rest of the tribe – surely you can realize, Marian, that you can’t take them in and chum with them as you could – other folks. I’m just warning you and trying to help you before it is too late. If you once give them a chance – they’ll be like the camel – they’ll be in all over. Nobody would expect you to put up with the Morrells. Why, even Hal ought to be able to understand the difference between your training and his; your folks and his – and want you to keep up to the standards I’ve always tried to teach you.”

Marian bit her lip and winked her dark eyelashes very rapidly as she tried the oil painting in different spaces on the wall.

It was the second week after Marian and Hal had returned from their honeymoon. It was Monday and mid-forenoon. Mary Janis had finished her washing hours before. The long line of snowy clothes which had gone through the traditional process of being sorted, and soaked, and boiled, and run through the washer, and scrubbed on the board, and boiled again and sudsed, and twice rinsed, and starched – fluttered arrogantly in the gentle June breeze as if aware of the fact that they represented one of the prides of Mary Janis’s heart – the recognized concession that she put out the whitest (and it might be added, the earliest) washing in Norton. They would soon be gathered in and dampened down preparatory to the early Tuesday ironing; but Mary decided that she would have time before gathering in the clothes and starting dinner to run down to Marian’s with a piece of the sponge cake left over from yesterday, and to see how Marian was getting on. She would be washing, of course – or through. Her mother wasn’t sure she had told her just how to cleanse and settle the water to be used for boiling the clothes.

Mary reflected as she walked along the street that she had probably not given her daughter enough responsibility in the home; that she had not emphasized sufficiently the correct way of doing things. She could see that now, and she must try to make up in helpful advice for the things she had failed to do before. It had always been so much easier for her to do things herself – just letting Marian help – then she had known they were done right, and had not had to argue with the girl that thus and so was the only correct way.

She wondered if Hal’s folks had been over again. It had been terrible when she and the Judge had dropped in a few evenings ago. The whole bunch there, singing and shouting and pulling things about. She was just sure that insufferable little Sunny had scratched the orthophonic with a dirty stick he had brought in. Marian simply must make them know that this was her home and it must be respected as such and regulated in a way they knew nothing about. But her girl puzzled her. Why, she seemed actually to be fond of Hal’s fat little frowsy mother – called her “Mom” and laughed at her silly joking with the children. Mary Janis would not admit that she was jealous, but she had been conscious of a queer twinge when Marian had kissed Katie Morrell good bye that night and had urged her to come again.

She wondered as she neared the little cottage just how she was going to be able to make Marian realize that she simply could not afford, for her future happiness and peace of mind, to treat Hal’s folks in such a friendly way.

She turned the corner of the last block. Yes, Marian had been washing; her clothes could be seen through the lilac bushes which half screened the cottage. Suddenly Mary Janis stopped. The line of clothes had come into full view. An involuntary groan escaped her, and she clapped her free hand over her eyes to shut out the sickening sight. In the soft June breeze there fluttered Marian’s white, embroidered sheets and pillow slips, a nightgown, a snowy table-cloth and half dozen napkins, three bath towels, some hand-hemmed tea towels and then – horrors! Two shirts – the color of – “buckskin” was inadequate (all the white background washed out), a pair of grimy pajamas, a couple of pairs of earth-colored B.V.D.’s and a string of light tan handkerchiefs. For several seconds Marian’s mother stood as if paralyzed. What if someone should pass! However could Marian have done such a thing as to hang those clothes out – for the whole town to see. She should have dried them inside; she should have burned them and made Hal get a new supply.

Finally Mary Janis recovered sufficiently to take another step toward the house. Where were the colored clothes? Surely Marian was through washing before this time of day. Oh, she should have been more thorough in her training. Girls of today just did not seem to take on things s they used to in her day. Her mother had never had to impress her with the fact that the washing should always be done on Monday; that it was best to get up a few hours earlier and get it out of the way. She had seemed to know such things instinctively. But Marian – somehow she couldn’t understand the girl’s lack of interest in such important things.

She opened the gate and started up the walk. What was that noise? The phonograph! People laughing and talking! Heavens, the Morrell tribe! Surely not in the middle of the forenoon and washday.

She went around to the kitchen – it was one of Mary Janis’ principles not to traipse through the front part of the house unnecessarily, tracking in extra dirt. What did a few extra steps amount to?

She opened the door without knocking, just as Marian exclaimed, “Oh, Mom, you’re a regular darling to think of it!”

On the threshold Mary Janis stood still, that queer twinge clutching at her throat again. Marian’s voice had sounded so intimate and happy.

At the cabinet Katie Morrell stood spreading thick slices of bread with deviled ham; at the kitchen table Marian was filling a fruit jar with potato salad; at the sink Hal’s sister Kitty was cleaning a bunch of green onions. From the other room came the jazz from the phonograph to which the twins, dressed up in a couple of Marian’s house dresses and with some of Hal’s ties for head decorations, were improvising a dance. In the corner of the kitchen by the stove stood a tub of cold suds beside which lay a little heap of colored garments.

At the look on her mother’s face, Marian’s had gone white. The hand that held the spoonful of salad began to tremble. She felt her mouth go hot and dry.

There was a pulsing silence.

And then a new look leaped into Marian’s appealing brown eyes. She laid the spoon back in the dish and took a step forward with a brave effort to smile casually and to keep her guilty look from straying toward the corner where the tub stood.

“Why – hello – Mother! You’re – through washing – I guess. I’m – I’m – so glad you – came over. Mom Morrell came down a little while ago to tell me that Sunny had come up from the store and said Hal was going in the company car over to Granville. S–so we – we thought it would be nice to fix a lunch and go with him for a – a little – picnic. It’s such a lovely day and we’ll stop there at Glenn Falls and eat, then play around until Hal comes back this afternoon. I’ve always – just loved to – I’ve always thought it – would be such fun – to do things like that. You – see I – I can easy do those few – coloreds out in the morning and get the ironing done too.” She had stopped several times to moisten her lips, and she had tried in vain to bring her eyes directly to her mother’s agonized face. “Would – wouldn’t you – won’t you come and go along with us, Mother?” She couldn’t look at her mother so she took up the salad spoon again. The seconds that followed seemed an eternity.

As Mary Janis read the misery in her daughter’s face, the struggle between what she wanted to do and what she thought she should do, as she realized Marian’s agony, and interpreted aright that choking twinge in her own breast, something snapped within her and her vision seemed to clear. Like a flash little things Henry had said at different times during the years of their married life seemed to come to her with new significance; things she had said about Katie Morrell’s slipshod housekeeping and Marian’s hints that there was a difference between housekeeping and homemaking. Like a flash a new set of standards loomed up beside her own traditional ones – and she at least could understand.

The misery on Marian’s face was too much! She wanted her girl to be happy! Of that one thing she was very sure. She wanted to be happy herself.

“Why, yes, Marian,” Mary Janis heard herself saying in a voice that didn’t sound natural. “I – I – believe I would like to go with you. I wish I had brought more of that cake – but – why, we can go by the house and get it and some cold veal and tomatoes I have in the refrigerator. I’ll telephone your father to go to the cafeteria for his lunch.” What did those grimy clothes out on the line – what did anything matter compared to keeping the love of her girl?

Marian looked up joyfully, unbelievingly. She tried to speak but couldn’t. Mary Janis understood, and rolling up her sleeves she said:

“Can’t I help you with those sandwiches, Mrs. Morrell?” and she took her place at the other woman’s side.

For a little bit Marian sat limply on the edge of the kitchen table and stared. She moistened her dry lips and tried to believe. She felt as she had once dreamed she felt when it seemed that the world had come to an end, but mixed with the feeling now was a happiness new and sweet.



6 Comments »

  1. It’s a sweet happy ending.

    Alas, I was born a Morrell into a Janis family.

    Comment by Mina — July 1, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

  2. All the literary sympathy for folks like the Morrells and “Alas, I was born a Morrell into a Janis family.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen sympathy for the Janises born into Morrell families. I’m an introvert who is stressed and depressed by mess and clutter. I think I’d go crazy living with the Morrells.

    (Not moralizing here; my place right now would drive pre-epiphany Mary Janis into a snit too.)

    Comment by proud daughter of eve — July 1, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

  3. I’ve been a member of both clans at different stages in my life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 1, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

  4. So, what are you all saying? We’re just born that way?

    Comment by Carol — July 2, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  5. I’m afraid you’re going to have trouble keeping Hal’s folks in their place.

    Probably the result of growing up in the cultural South, and i know it wasn’t meant precisely that way, but i can’t read that specific phrasing as having anything other than a racially-motivated tinge.

    Comment by David B — July 3, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  6. I am reminded once again of a long line of Danish and Scottish grandmothers who, if they are able to look down on me surfing away at the computer screen while the floor underfoot badly needs attending, would surely cluck their tongues if they had them.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — July 4, 2011 @ 12:57 am

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