From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1943 –
The Gracious Years
By Kathleen B. Nelson
Rhea Calvert’s home was charming. Each detail of her spacious living room had been chosen with a careful discernment. Rhea, herself, was charming too in her way – her hair smartly styled and the pale linen dress she wore exactly suitable for that particular hour at home. Rhea had given all of her mature life to acquiring a background of cultured ease. Her husband had made money and she had made use of it. Now widowed for several years, she gave all of her time to her particular social set. Not until recently had she entertained even a vague doubt that hers was not an important contribution to the world’s well-being. And now this doubt was driving her to an almost frenzied justification of her way of life.
Today she had two callers, but they were not enjoying themselves. In spite of the comfortable cool room and the dainty food on the coffee table, they sat on the edge of their chairs as though poised for a chance to break away. Rhea’s monologue like a fast-revolving door kept them fixed. Her voice had caught in a fretful groove and was spinning on in a long recital of grievances suffered from the butcher, the baker, and even the candlestick maker. Then there was the recurrent refrain, “Nobody knows the trouble I have.”
Maude, Rhea’s sister, was, frankly, impatient, and Laura, her mind on her own work of locating missing soldiers for their families, was frankly inattentive.
To have so many grievances and nobody really eager to listen to them was trial enough. It made Rhea more than ever vociferous, “and after all my trouble of getting help and food and cars, half of the crowd say that they can’t go. Just like that. They can’t go! What about me! You’d think they’d have a little consideration – ”
Maude broke in here, “Now Rhea, this is no year for big house parties.”
“But it’s just our crowd. I’ve had them for so many years. I just can’t give it up.”
“Face the facts. There isn’t any crowd. Four or five useless card-playing women.”
“Being my sister does not give you the right to insult my friends.” Rhea spoke from a lofty height, but Maude brushed it off with an affectionate pat.
“I haven’t a thing against any of them Rhea, but I hate to leave you here moping and I’ve got to get back to work. Shall we go, Laura?”
“Yes. I must.”
The two women hurried away but Rhea’s wail, “But you haven’t told me what to do,” followed them to the door.
“Crochet a bedspread,” Maude suggested glibly, but Laura’s advice, though given hurriedly, had more thought and warmth behind it. “Get a job, Rhea. Good ones are going begging.”
“Me a job?” Rhea asked herself. Did Laura mean it or was she just being superior?
How could she work? Why, she was over forty-five. These were her gracious years. Sometimes little things get stuck in the brain. So that phrase, “the gracious years,” had stuck in Rhea’s. It was a speaker referring to a woman’s middle age, and he had called those in-between years “the gracious years.” A beautiful moment in time that could be held indefinitely so long as health remained. Rhea had loved the idea so much that it had become her goal – those long, extended gracious years. Her own conception pictured herself in a series of dramatic hostess gowns, always the center of a crowd of enchanted friends. Ah, lovely dream! Imagine if she should start to work, what would become of her ideal of beautiful middle age? It was too pitiful. “No one understands me. No one appreciates me,” Rhea thought rebelliously.
It was some minutes before, overcome with self-pity, she decided to call the doctor to verify her own opinion that she was not strong enough to work. The doctor would build up her self-esteem, and a little talk with him would be a moment’s escape from a situation that she did not like to face. Really, she was not well! Thinking about it made her certain of an illness. She did not sleep very much after an evening’s excitement. Besides, what of those moments of sheer revelation when things around her took on strange new meanings? She must speak to the doctor about that. It might be psychopathic. Being a rich widow approaching fifty gave one some privileges with a doctor’s time. Besides, Clint was an old friend of her late husband. She knew he’d be stern at the mere idea of her working. Well, she’d call him anyway, and that would end the job business. If she believed in anything, she believed in obeying her doctor’s orders.
She dialed the number and almost on the instant a crisply efficient voice answered, “Dr. Clinton’s office.”
“May I speak to Dr. Clinton?”
“Sorry. The doctor is busy.”
“But I must speak to him. This is Mrs. Calvert. I’m an old friend. I’m not just one of his patients. I – yes, I’ll hold the line.”’
She had to wait a long time before a voice snapped at her, “Yes?”
“Oh, Clint,” she began in a leisurely conversational tone, “How are you? This is Rhea. Yes, Rhea. I had a little time and I thought I’d call you. Yes, yes, of course it’s a professional call. You know last week when I came in to be checked and you didn’t find anything wrong? Well, since then I remember I didn’t tell you everything. You know I’m always getting – What’s that? Come in next week and see you? But I have something to ask you now. Yes, yes. Wait a minute, Clint. It’s important. Do you think it would hurt me to work? Yes, to work. Why should it? Well, I don’t know, only I thought perhaps at my age … You say you’re ten years older than I am and now you’re having to work harder than you ever did? Well, really, what has that to do with me …?”
“Nothing, Rhea, only everybody else is working, and I can’t see why you should be in a class by yourself. Besides, those crowds you wait on at your summer place every year – If that isn’t work, what is it? I mean, if you can stand that you can stand anything.”
Rhea’s voice thinned to a pathetic waver, “Well, what kind of work do you think –?”
“I am a doctor, Rhea, not a vocational guidance man. Good-by.”
This was certainly her day! There, another friend had brushed her off with annoyance. But why? Was it because her way of life had no place in this busy world at war?
Rhea was not a moron. “Everybody else can’t be wrong. Turn the light on yourself,” a voice inside her insisted. So, reluctantly, she forced herself to a reckoning. She felt terribly let down, but she was not in tears. In fact, looking at herself as at a stranger, she was half inclined to smile. She had always concentrated on getting what she wanted out of life. Her husband had been a great one to pull her away from her too avid pursuit of things. A favorite jingle of his came to her mind now:
Stop doing whatever you do do,
And do whatever you don’t.
Whatever you don’t do
Might agree with you,
Since whatever you do do, don’t.
“That must mean a regular job for me.”
In spite of herself Rhea was smiling. Through force of habit she looked at the clock and turned on the radio for the news. The voice that came to her was a direct appeal. “There is a crucial shortage of adult help in the canning industry. Food will win the peace. If you have any time to spare, apply at your local U.S. Employment Office at once. Don’t wait. The need is urgent.”
Was that Rhea’s cue to plunge, to dive in before she had time to get frightened? She fingered the telephone directory uncertainly. What on earth could she do at a canning factory? Peel tomatoes? No, no. She’d get fallen arches, and a lame back, and have no fingernails, and she didn’t have to work unless she wanted to, and she didn’t want to – or did she? Morning would be time enough to decide. Anyway, there was the business of calling off the party at her summer place – more telephone calls.
Rhea didn’t go out that night. Instead, she went to bed and couldn’t sleep. The gnat of indecision can cause a lot of uncomfortable buzzing in the brain. But by morning Rhea had reached a decision. She hinted to Maude later that a dream about her mother had clinched the matter.
At the Employment Office she was told that the canning factory needed an adult supervisor for girls to see that nothing slovenly was allowed, a woman who would be able to keep the standards high without antagonizing the girls. Would she like to try it? Rhea answered that she had come around to offer her services as a tomato peeler, but she would work any place they could use her, but that she had had no experience. Rhea was extremely modest today.
“Perhaps your experience with handling people will come in just right,” the plant superintendent told her genially. “If not, we can still use you to handle tomatoes.”
Six weeks later, Laura and Maude were lunching with Rhea. It was after work for all three of them. They sat on the terrace on the cool side of the house drinking fruit juice from tall glasses and eating thin sandwiches. The food was good but simple. The women were tired but jolly.
Rhea had been regaling them with a recital of her first week at the factory. It had been awful at the time, but looking back in the light of her present success with the girls, it seemed merely amusing. Her listeners rocked with laughter. There was no boredom here, nor fidgeting to get away.
“I never thought you’d do it, Rhea,” Laura wiped a tear away. “Though I knew you could if you once made up your mind.”
“You didn’t let any grass grow under your feet,” Maude said. Then suddenly, “What did you dream about Mother that night, anyway?”
Rhea’s face suddenly changed from jocularity to a serenity that was soothing to see.
“It was beautiful,” she said softly. “Almost too beautiful to talk about. I had been tossing all night, and then as dawn approached I fell into a sleep peaceful as a desert twilight. It was twilight, all splendid with golden clouds and bright with the muted brightness that lingers after the sun has gone. And Mother and I were walking together in a country lane. Mother was wearing one of those huge gingham aprons, and it seemed to be full as usual with stuff from the garden. I plucked at it playfully. ‘What’s this you’re carrying?’ ‘Beans,’ she said, turning her face full upon me. But the smile she gave me. You remember it, Maude. How she’d look at us with such an understanding kindness after we’d been naughty, and from seriousness how her face would bloom with love. That’s really all there was to the dream. Just Mother and her apron full of beans and her smile, but it was enough to turn my mind back to a real happening.
“It was the summer before my last year at college. Some of my sorority sisters were visiting with us. After supper I discovered Mother was out in the garden picking vegetables. She looked like a pleasant woman, a black figure with her apron poked out in front with its earthy burden. I went out to help her, also to protest that my girl friends would think it was queer that she should be doing this menial labor. ‘But why must you do it, Mother? If anyone wants these beans let them come and get them, if not let them go.’ ‘I can’t let things go to waste,’ Mother had replied. ‘If the earth is bountiful we must see that its yield is harvested. I call it keeping faith with the soil, Rhea. I could not sleep if I knew things were wasting in the garden.’ So when she said ‘Beans’ and smiled, I knew what she meant.”
“‘Keeping faith with the soil’ – what an idea. So that’s why you went to the cannery,” Laura mused. “I didn’t know you were raised on a farm, Rhea?”
“Yes. Mother died the following year and Father sold the place so that summer was my last one there.”
“What will you do when the canning season is over?”
“Guess?” but she could not give them time to guess for her own eagerness, “I’m going to be a Nurses’ Aid. I’ve already signed up.”
“But Rhea! That’s real work, you know.”
“Do you remember that little lecture you used to give us about the gracious years?” Maude asked. “Where do they come in?”
“Yes, I remember very well, for after all I did a lot of striving toward those gracious years.”
“And what do you think of them now?”
“I think the gracious years must be those years that a woman is allowed to render service beyond her own immediate circle; and I hope the Lord will allow me quite a few of them.”
“You’ve learned a lot in six weeks, Rhea.”
“Perhaps – but it was Mother’s smile that put me on the right track.”