From the Relief Society Magazine, 1953 –
Special for Redheads
By Hazel K. Todd
Through her blue, ruffled kitchen curtains, Marian could see the medieval army of nine-year-olds, their grotesque wooden swords flourishing in the air as they lined up for combat. And although she could have walked out the door and saluted the proud leader in a few short steps, yet she knew, with discouraging assurance, she would still be a million miles from reaching him.
“Ready, charge!” shouted Rusty, the knight in command, with his bucket head pointing into the air, and a lock of his red hair waving in the summer breeze through a hole in the helmet. Her eyes followed while the army swooped down with vigorous onslaught onto the unsuspecting clothesline poles. She watched the scramble of arms and legs and bucket heads segregate into separate boys.
“Good work, Sir Knight,” said Rusty, the head gallant, standing in their center, his board shield held in a stately manner before him. “And now we will get the knights on the drawbridge. Mount your steeds, men!”
She saw them straddle their willow horses leaning against the garage and march away to the new battle, her heart following after the competent leader. Being a stepmother could be so satisfying if only Rusty would accept her as the others had done. If only she could think of the way to break down the hard wall he had built up against her. Her gaze wandered down along the row of trees that led to the meadow and the swamp she had heard Robbie mention. She thought of the dozens of ways she had tried to reach Rusty. There was the time when she had bought him the new belt with the shining silver buckle. He had given it to his friend Beany. There was the time she had gone to his room at night. She had sat on the bedclothes and tried to talk to him, but he had covered up his head and stiffened out like something made of steel. Then there was the time …
The word clung in her ears as it had done from the first time she had heard it. She turned to the small figure beside her. It was Robbie, a little boy, short for his four years. He was standing before her with his big eyes and his cat Blinky.
“Moth-er, may I have a drink?”
“Of course, darling!” she said, reaching for the glass. And then she sat on the chair and pulled him onto her lap, forgetting for the moment the one she could not hold. He kissed her lightly on the cheek, stroked the cat’s silky hair, and then he slid from her knees and went chasing after some new interest.
And Marian, too, went chasing in her mind after all the things in the recent past that had made her life so different. From Robbie, with his fairy kisses and his “Moth-er,” to Rusty, with his stubborn red hair, his scowl and himself that he kept always out of her reach; to Patty and her sweet girlishness, always trying so hard to help; and to Bob her husband. With thoughts of Bob there came flooding over her a warmth that sang in her like spring sunshine.
Meeting Bob had been such a sweet surprise. Years before she had folded the scraps of a broken romance away in a corner of her memory and told herself that that part of her was dead. But one day Bob had walked into the shop where she sold toys, having been sent in by a mutual friend. From the moment she had looked into his suntanned face she had suspicioned that something could go awry with her well-planned spinsterhood.
“I want a scooter,” he said, “for a red-headed boy. Jack Rhodes told me you would help me select one.” She had found herself thinking of the man’s handsome red hair, instead of the scooter.
“Something extra strong,” she remembered saying, “for a tough red-headed boy with too much energy.”
And then she had come to herself. “Oh,” she had said, “something special for redheads!” And they both laughed together, and it had been such fun.
Marian didn’t recall when Bob had first told her about his children, whose mother was dead. But one by one she had met them through incidents he had mentioned. There was Patty, who was [thirteen] now, a shy girl who longed for the companionship of a mother; Rusty, nine, who had red hair and so much energy that he needed a special scooter; and Robbie, four, who couldn’t remember his mother. Robbie had a cat Blinky that he loved very much. And there was a housekeeper, Mrs. Sharp, who kept the house and the children very clean, in a very business-like way.
Marian had made a special place in her heart for each of the children by the time Bob asked her to marry him. They had been walking after the rain along a street that was lined with lilac bushes. Suddenly, he had stopped at a spot where the late sun shone through the wet leaves onto his sunbrown face. Marian had looked at his wet hair that burned in the sunlight so that it set her heart on fire, at his smile that twisted her heart, and at his blue eyes that were full of his love. She had taken the folded scraps from the past and cast them away, and given him her heart as clean of the past sorrows as the washed leaves of the lilac bushes.
She had had no stepmother qualms at meeting Bob’s children. She had even waited with excitement the day he was to take her to his home to meet his family. When the car had stopped before the white house with its wide lawn and the neat picket fence, and the trees that led to the meadow beyond, she had felt that it was everything she had ever wanted in a home. Bob had been excited, too, like a boy who wanted to show something that was his and of which he was very proud. But when the car stopped, he had suddenly become very sober. He had laid his hand on her arm. “Marian, if Rusty acts – stubborn – and – well, don’t let him change your mind.”
Marian had laughed. She had seen throngs of redheaded boys who loved scooters. “Of course,” she had assured him, “I will not be discouraged. Don’t you know I have special ways for redheads?”
And even after their first meeting she had not been discouraged. In her thoughts she relived her first visit. She stood again before the door that Bob was opening for her.
Bob opened the door and she entered with joyous expectation. Patty was sitting at the piano, and she stood up and made a sedate little curtsy. Bob gave the girl a quick wink so that Marian knew they had planned it together. And in her heart she clasped the child’s hand, knowing that with her there was nothing to fear.
And then in the picture before her she saw Rusty sitting sullenly in the corner, with his red hair and a black frown.
But before she had time to think further Robbie came from his seat in the big chair, with his big eyes and his cat. He walked falteringly, and he held the cat tightly in his arms. “do you like cats?” he asked earnestly when he was several steps from her.
“Mrs. Sharp doesn’t like Blinky,” Patty hastened to explain. “She says there are cat hairs all over everything.”
Marian felt Bob’s eyes upon her, while before her she looked into the other pair of eyes, the large dark eyes of a child asking for assurance.
“Why, I love cats,” she said happily, going to Robbie and stroking the cat’s soft back. “When I was a little girl I had a cat almost like Blinky.”
Robbie’s big eyes looked joyously up into hers. “Could he sing?” he asked with great awe.
“Oh, wonderfully!” Marian said, and then before she knew it they were sitting in the rocker together with Blinky purring softly.
Bob cleared his throat. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” he asked the boy in the corner.
But Rusty had no such thought. Instead, he pursed his lips and scraped his foot along the carpet.
Marian looked at Bob and saw the flush rise in his cheeks. He looked at her imploringly, as if he were afraid she might run away.
Marian thought quickly. “Oh,” she said, ‘I know what Rusty’s thinking about. I’ll bet it is how fast he can go on his red scooter.”
But as soon as she said it she knew it was wrong. He stood up and ran defiantly out the door, banging it behind him.
Bob looked at her helplessly, and Patty was very embarrassed.
“Please don’t be upset,” Marian hurried to assure them. “Rusty and I will get acquainted when no one else is around.”
But they had not. In fact, it seemed to Marian that he grew farther away from her each time she was near him. She recalled, with mingled emotions, the day they had come home after their marriage. Everything seemed to be going right. Patty met her with a smile and gave her a shy kiss on the cheek and whispered that she was so glad to have her. Robbie came with Blinky the cat and his big eyes full of joy and trust.
“See,” he said excitedly, when the cat purred softly to her touch, “Blinky likes you.”
But Rusty – Marian looked around for his red head from the first moment. He didn’t seem to be anywhere. In fact, he was nowhere to be found until it began to be dusk and she and Bob found him crouched in his rabbit pen with his rabbits. And then he burst out with indignation, “I don’t want any old stepmother! I’d rather run away!”
Bob was holding her hand and he gripped it so tightly it hurt. She looked at the boy sitting defiantly in the rabbit house, his face smeared with dirt and his hair filled with hay leaves.
“Really,” she suggested carefully, but with a smile, “I’m not one of the mean kind of stepmothers, Rusty. And I think redheaded people are nice.”
But Rusty remained sullen. She caught a smoldering fire in his eyes as he climbed from the rabbit pen and walked without another word toward the house. Bob gave a quick start to follow him and Marian saw the angry flush on his face.
She put out her hand and caught his arm. “No, please, Bob, don’t be angry with him. It would do no good.”
He looked at her and the flush melted to tenderness. He gave her hand a quick squeeze. “All right,” he said calmly, with his eyes still on hers. Then he turned, and with perfect control, followed his son.
She had sat down on the stone wall while her mind sorted out all the different kinds of boys she remembered who had come into the toy shop. She was so busy trying to find one that she could identify Rusty with that she did not notice the tiny form sliding closer to her on the garden wall. And then she heard it, a half-whisper as though it were meant for his ears instead of her own.
“Moth-er,” he said hesitantly. She turned then and saw Robbie’s dark eyes like pools in the gathering dusk. They were fastened on her intently, and he had his cat clutched tightly in his arms.
The word sang through her as though it were electric, chasing away all else. An impulse to clasp the little boy in her arms, a need to stop the flood of tears that was racing to her eyes, and a deep sense of responsibility all struggled for possession. She swallowed and said a silent prayer for strength. And then she pulled him over to her and kissed the top of his head nestled in the crook of her arm.
Bob came back with two wrinkles between his eyes. He sat down by them without saying anything. With Robbie squeezed tightly between them, and the touch of Bob’s hand sending a sweet tingling through her, she was possessed with a strange bewilderment as though she were unable to cope with all the different emotions – her deep attachment to Robbie and Patty, her worried concern for Rusty, and her love for Bob, all struggling at once for top place in her feelings.