Patricia was hosting her women’s club for an important luncheon, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was working out the way she hoped it would!
From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1946 –
The White Picket Fence
By Sarah O. Moss
Patricia hurriedly placed a half dozen card tables about her spacious living-room and spread dainty lunch cloths on each one with meticulous care. She took infinite pains with the one long table in the southeast corner and placed a centerpiece of roses in a glass bowl on the center of the lace cloth. Patricia glanced with satisfaction through the corner window at the majestic scene before her – high, rolling mountains spread with autumn color, and then she looked at her own tailored lawns flanked by clean-kept flower beds. She frowned at the broken pickets in the white fence that divided her yard from the tiny structure on the prized corner lot adjoining.
“Tom,” she called in a distressed voice, “you’ve promised me ever since that load of topsoil was delivered, that you’d fix those pickets the truck ruined, and here it is, the one day of my life when I wanted everything to be perfect and my guests will have to stare at the jagged fence. A broken fence, plus that little matchbox of a house.”
Tom came in from the breakfast room carrying a napkin which he laid on the hall table, as he picked up his hat. “I’ll fix it tonight sure,” he said, coming forward, and then, remembering, he added, “Sorry, Pat. That won’t do you any good – the party’ll be over.”
“If you only hadn’t been so slow, Tom,” said Patricia busying herself with the table, “we could have owned that lot and had it all to ourselves. Now look at it.” She threw him a pouty look.
Tom put his arm across her shoulder, detaining her as she rushed about the room. “Say, listen,” he told her firmly, “you are going to grow old hating that little house next door. Those people have to live, too. They’re a decent sort and mind their own business. I think they’ll make good neighbors.”
Patricia gave him a wry smile. “I suppose you’re right. Still, neighbors are the least of my worries. I rather enjoy being alone. But that little tiny house and those pickets, Tom, that’s all Doris Banks will see if she sits at this table.”
Tom went toward the door. “Well, put her in front of a wall. She’s nobody.”
“Oh, but she is, Tom,” said Patricia suddenly and with firm confidence. “She’s vice-president of the Betterment League. She is important. And think of it! Mrs. Matthew James, a national figure, when it comes to civic affairs, will be here. They say she’s a marvelous talker, too. I’m so glad for my lovely home, and thanks to Isabell Cottam, my party food will be perfect.”
“And I suppose you wear the new suit today?” said Tom with a satisfied smile on his face. “A swell-looking president.”
“Uh, huh, and I’ll try to make time to stop in and see you,” Patricia told her husband as he hurried away.
There was so much to do. She picked up and polished silverware from the buffet and began placing it on the tables, but at the telephone’s urgent ringing, she left her task to answer it in the back hall. It was Isabell Cottam on the line. Patricia’s face turned red and white at intervals as she listened to a long speech from the other end.
“But what shall I do, Isabell?” Patricia groaned. “Of course I’m sorry about your mother having a stroke, but goodness, I’m in a spot. I couldn’t fix all that food, and besides it worries me. I get confused and my party’ll be a flop.” She hesitated again as she listened. “No, I don’t know any of my neighbors well enough to ask them to come in and help. I’ve just never felt close enough to them.” Again advice came from Isabell. “I wouldn’t feel confident about that colored girl, Isabell. I’m sure she wouldn’t know what to do if I left her as I’d planned.”
The conversation went on. Patricia became more discouraged the more she talked. Finally, she said, “I’ll manage somehow, Isabell. I know you have your hands full, and I’m terribly sorry about your mother.” At last the conversation ended.
Patricia sat frozen to the chair in the hall. How perfectly awful! She did the only thing she felt like doing. She cried brokenly, without restraint, and her sobs shook her small body.
“Is something wrong?’
Patricia jumped, then, seeing the little figure from the small house, she rose to open the door, still crying. She told the neighbor as steadily as she could what had happened.
“Perhaps I can help,” said the neighbor, who spoke with an accent.
Patricia smiled. “You’re very kind,” she said, with regret that she hadn’t been more friendly through the month that the new people had lived next door. Without confidence, she led the way to the kitchen and surveyed the prospect of creating a luncheon. “This is the menu I’d planned, but it’s too elaborate. Now, let’s see – I’ll have to stay and help. You see, I was to go to the airport to meet Mrs. James, our guest of honor, and then there was to have been a sight-seeing trip. Luncheon is scheduled for one o’clock, so I’ll have to get something together that won’t take too much time, or be too confusing.”
She thought of all the lovely things that Isabell could make. She wished that the aged woman who was Isabell’s mother had delayed having her stroke for a day. How silly! How selfish! Patricia managed to smile at her neighbor who stood waiting to start her work.
“I’m sure everything will work out,” said Mrs. Jarmen.
But nothing was working out today. Patricia answered the telephone again, and before she had time to tell Doris about her own troubles, Doris told her that she wouldn’t be able to go to the airport because her dressmaker who had altered her suit had to take out the hem. “It’s just a half inch too long and you know what a half inch in a hem can do to a suit,” she told Patricia.
Patricia swayed. Doris, who was vice-president of the Betterment League, couldn’t go to the airport. That meant Patricia had to go. But the luncheon! What a morning!
Patricia went back into the kitchen. “I’ll have to dress right now,” she told Mrs. Jarmen. “Order some Parker House rolls from the bakery.” She thought of Isabell’s beaten biscuits. “And order some ice cream – chocolate, from the Sherbet Shop. When I get back we’ll make a salad of that chicken and some hot chocolate. If you’ll wash the lettuce and drain it, and prepare the chickens, I’ll run and dress.”
Patricia vanished. She dressed quickly, then hurried down to back out the car. She remembered that she hadn’t taken time to properly thank Mrs. Jarmen for her proffer of help. She rushed back into the house.
“Mrs. Jarmen, you’re like a Christmas gift. I don’t understand how you happened along when you did. I do appreciate what you’re doing.” Patricia looked at the calm face before her.
“Well, don’t worry, Mrs. Wright. I’m glad that I didn’t go out to work today.” Her Mona Lisa smile disturbed Patricia. She felt that the woman was laughing at her.
“I’ll get back as soon as I can,” she told Mrs. Jarmen, with small spirit. “And will you order the rolls at once, and the ice cream?”
Mrs. Jarmen waved and nodded.
Patricia arrived at the airport with five minutes to wait, but when the plane arrived Mrs. James was not on it.
“She’s probably on a special plane that’s due in half an hour,” the clerk at the window told her. “A delegation of some sort is coming through.”
He proved to be right. Mrs. James was among the passengers. She was very charming, and Patricia was glad when she expressed a desire to go directly to her hotel to freshen up. That would give Patricia an hour extra, and by that time Doris ought to be free to take over. She could take Mrs. James around the town, and the luncheon might turn out right after all. But nobody had figured on the press. Judy Raymond knew about Patricia’s party and wanted to make the most of it for her society page. She talked long and freely to Mrs. James and seemed to take ages to get the proper pictures. If she’d only hurry. At an opportune interval, Patricia slipped to a telephone booth and called her home.
“Did you get the order in for the rolls?” was her first concern, as Mrs. Jarmen answered.
“No, we were too late for special orders, and the ice cream delivery doesn’t get up this way in time for lunch, but I can make some biscuits, Mrs. Wright. Don’t worry.”
Worry! The woman didn’t know what she was saying. The worry was sending her frantic. “I’ll pick up the ice cream, or run down for it, after I get home. I’m delayed, but I’ll come as soon as I can.” She didn’t wait to hear what Mrs. Jarmen was saying. She couldn’t wait. Mrs. James was looking for her. She was probably tired and was anxious to clean up.
It was twenty minutes to one when Patricia finally turned the job over to Doris. She breathed a sigh of relief when she at last reached her own yard and rushed in through the back hall. She raced up the stairs to find a pretty apron, and, smelling the brown of hot biscuits, she conjectured what they might look like. Would they be big, family size discs, or what? Well, it couldn’t matter now. Things couldn’t be any worse.
With freshened face and a dainty apron, she went down the front stairs. She stood breathlessly still at the scene before her. The tables gleamed with beautiful creations – salad that looked like an advertisement, made of melon balls, cantaloup, and grapes. Jellies in dainty dishes, rosebud radishes, and olives looked invitingly tempting to Patricia, as she came down the stairs and into the roomy kitchen.
Mrs. Jarmen was bending over a huge pan of dollar-size hot bread, crusty and golden. On the stove stood the hot chocolate ready to pour. Chicken a la king was waiting to be served, and the concoctions in the other dishes Patricia couldn’t name. On the table stood rows and rows of dainty tarts, her own menu carried out more elaborately even than she had dreamed.
Patricia was overwhelmed. “Mrs. Jarmen,” she said accusingly, “you should have told me you were a cateress.”
Mrs. Jarmen spread her honest-looking smile across her features. “No need,” she said, “that’s the fun of having neighbors – finding out about them.”
“It’s all so lovely,” said Patricia, now understanding the Mona Lisa smile. Mrs. Jarmen had wanted to surprise her, and she had succeeded famously. “How I can ever make this up to you will take me the rest of my life to figure out. You’re a dear,” she said as the doorbell rang and she went with pride to answer it.
It was seven o’clock when Patricia stood by her kitchen window looking into the yard next door. She had already thought of a dozen ways she might show her appreciation to Mrs. Jarmen. The two girls might as well have the use of the piano that stood in the hall, so they wouldn’t have to walk six blocks to the home of an aunt each day to practice. They must be persuaded to use the library upstairs, too, for their school work. She’d make Mrs. Jarmen an afghan and perhaps Tom could take Mr. Jarmen on a fishing trip. Tom spoiled her reverie when he came into the room with a saw and a hammer.
“Have you seen any nails? I need some, Pat, to fix your pickets.” he looked at her questioningly.
Patricia smiled slightly. “Tom,” she said, with a sudden thought, “let’s not fix those pickets. Let’s make a gate instead. It’ll be so much handier than going way around.”