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Custer’s First Stand

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 09, 2011

It’s the birth of a baby boy — and it has *nothing* to do with Christmas.

From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1940 –

Custer’s First Stand

By Gertrude LeWarne Parker

“You’d better come, in case we need you,” the Widow Bentley said over the phone, and John Custer, with a shake in his voice, answered, “I’ll be right home. Take good care of Margaret.” But the receiver on the other end clicked before he finished speaking.

As he raced homeward, his thoughts went back to the time two years before when he and Margaret Bentley, finding themselves very much in love, had pleaded with the Widow Bentley for her consent to a little home of their own. Weeks before this, they had wandered through every furniture store in town, had planned living-rooms of bright chintzes and soft gray rugs, had ordered dishes, all white with embossed rose design, and gay green and orange pottery for the kitchen.

Then, as he had listened to the Widow’s side of the story – with Margaret clinging to him, smiling through her tears – he had realized how lonely her house would be without Margaret. “But,” he had reasoned, “other daughters have married, other mothers have been left alone.”

Slowing down for a traffic light he remembered, too, that afternoon when he and Margaret had sat on the piano bench, their arms around each other, facing Mother Bentley. the widow, stern and unbending, had said as a parting stab, “Margaret’s an ungrateful daughter to even want to leave me alone so soon after poor Pa’s gone.” He thought again of Margaret’s whispered sob, “Couldn’t we, John, stay just a little while?” He recalled his half-hearted surrender and promised that they would move in with her mother and try that arrangement for a while; now, today, he realized more than ever what a mistake it had been.

As the car slide to a stop at the back gate, he pushed his hat back on his bristling red hair topping a pair of bright blue eyes that twinkled in fun at less serious times than this. He got out and reached for the box of yellow roses in the back seat – was glad he had thought of them. It hadn’t delayed him more than a minute or two. She loved them so.

He hurried up the path to the back door, forgetful of the garden which lately had called forth a daily snort of disapproval – a maze of prim flower beds and narrow winding paths all edged with jagged malicious-looking rocks; not one patch of grass where a boy and a dog might roll and tumble. Instead, the whole thing fairly screamed, “No children or dogs allowed.”

For two years John had been making what he called “a back-door entrance.” The front part of the house was kept sacred to the memory of “poor old Bentley,” as he was generally known around town. He had been so pitifully pleased that, “You’ve never caught me tracking up your front porch, Mother.” John did better than that – he didn’t track the back porch. He wore rubbers according to the calendar, even on days like today. He figured it saved a lot of stupid argument. In spite of his evident haste, he remembered them now and placed them side by side on the top step and wiped his shoes on the mat. He listened anxiously before opening the door. Entering the old-fashioned kitchen, he hung his coat and hat in the kitchen closet, washed his hands at the sink and carefully wiped off all traces of any splatterings on the wall. With one frightened glance at the unusual appearance of the room, he tip-toed along the ribbon of spotless rag rug which stretched the length of the floor, In gayer moods it had been a tight-rope, and he had pranced across it wildly waving a frying-pan as balance. Other times it was the “straight and narrow” with Margaret as “temptation” atop the kitchen table. Such doings didn’t go on long though. “We mustn’t forget poor, dear Pa,” Mother Bentley would say.

And now, she sat in the next room dolefully rocking and waiting. Her hair, thin and streaked with gray was twisted into a wad and skewered to the back of her head with large steel pins. Her spectacles were rimmed with steel. A dress of old-fashioned gray-striped calico was fastened about her throat with a brooch which held a lock of “poor, dear Henry’s hair.” Over her dress, in deference to the occasion, she wore a stiffly starched white apron, the one bright spot in the darkened corner where she liked to sit after the last speck of dust had been ousted.

As John approached, she anticipated his anxious question by saying curtly, “She’s all right. Flowers? Put them in water. You’ll find a fruit jar on the back porch. I’ll take them in later. You’d better sit down. We’ll likely have a long wait.”

Sit down and wait? No! he could take it better standing. He went into the kitchen – paced up and down the strip of rag rug, pulling up sharply in front of the table to look again at the terrifying array of instruments thrown carelessly on a pink-striped towel. Going to the stove, he poured more water into a pan which held other necessities of the sick-room. A feeling of utter helplessness surged over him, a fear that he hadn’t known before. All the joy of the last few months was lost in the agonizing present. He turned sharply toward the door, listening. Perhaps Margaret had called him. Perhaps she wasn’t able to call – never would call again. No. No! it couldn’t be as bad as that. Such things did happen to other people, but it couldn’t to her. But he must know. He went quickly and quietly into the other room. “Has she asked for me?” he whispered, fearfully.

“No, she hasn’t. She’s resting just now. I’m right here if she calls.” She gave him a withering look. “Sit down. I’ll be going in again in a few minutes.”

Although the packed stuffiness of the room was almost unbearable, he did want to be near if Margaret called. He sat gingerly on the horsehair sofa. It seemed to John that hours passed while he sat among the cushions – six or seven of them – all crammed to the bursting point. He took one, gave it a vicious punch right in the middle of its clamoring red roses, threw it aside with a disgusted, “Nope!” He repeated the attack on a bunch of orange daisies, then threw that on the floor, and so on until all were in a pile. He sat glaring at them, mumbling, “Nope, not one in the whole bunch.”

The rocker had stopped squeaking. He glanced around. The Widow stood watching him.

“John!” she snapped in a hoarse whisper, “What are you doing?”

“What am I doing?” He looked at her long and steadily with eyes that were almost hidden under a heavy frown, scratched his head, rumpled his hair. “Me! Oh, I’m trying to find a tumbling-mat.”

She sniffed, sat down, settled her long bony frame and started the rocker squeaking again, muttering to herself, “Sometimes he makes me think of poor Pa – silly answers with no point to ‘em whatever.”

A trained nurse came into the room and filtered her way into the kitchen, stopping long enough to speak to the woman in low tones. For John, she had nothing but a glance of pity mingled with some disdain. He knew what she thought and agreed with her that his place was in the bedroom with his wife. But he and Margaret had talked it over. They had decided that he would wait outside, forestalling any possible or probable clash in opinion. He smiled as he thought of what Mother Bentley would say, in the event he should go into Margaret’s room: “I’ll never be able to face the ladies at the missionary meeting again. Why, even poor Pa would have known better than that!”

Today brought the culmination of what John termed “intensive preparations in pink.” And anything pink was more or less of a sore spot with him. He knew it was foolish, and childish, too. It brought back a harrowing memory of small school-boy stuff. He groaned as he thought of it again. He had always felt that if his mother had lived she would have understood his yearning, all the fierce longing of his boyish heart, for high-topped boots, overalls with patches on them, and more than all, a “real feller” nickname. He had wanted to be hailed up and down the street as “Hi, Red!” but the Aunties had kept him so clean and dressed-up that the kids had called him “Pinky.” Sissy name! It made him want to fight, to push their faces right to the back of their heads; but nice little boys didn’t fight, the Aunties had said.

After more seemingly endless hours, the doctor stood before him.

“It’s a boy,” he announced. “The mother’s fine, too.”

John Custer’s heart swelled with relief, while his lips formed a prayer for pity: “Heaven above,” he breathed, “a boy in this house!”

In a few days, routine again settled down in the Bentley household –that is, as far as John knew. His meals were always ready. There was plenty of time to read his newspaper. It wasn’t a bit like the boys at the office said it would be. He was never asked to fix a little hot water for the baby, to bring the baby’s washing in from the line, or to “hold this blanket over the register a minute.” He’d have been glad to, even the pink ones. He thought amusedly one evening, “I ought to bring the efficiency expert from the office up for a squint at this layout.” Little whimpers came from the bedroom. John crept in for a look at his family, but always there was somebody about to be doing something for either mother or baby. It was always, “Would you please step out a minute? I’ll call you when we’re through.” They never did.

Telephone conversations irritated and amused him at the same time. The Widow always sounded to John like a busy executive who had just put over a big deal.

“Doing nicely, thank you,” she would say, crisply. “The pink blanket is so nice. We want to thank you for the bootees. They are lovely. Pink seems to be his color.”

On one occasion, as the Widow came back to the kitchen, John remarked, “The reports are quite pink, aren’t they?” She stopped, faced him, and saw again that half-defiant, half-amused look in the narrowed blue eyes. Later that same evening, John sat thinking, planning, dreaming dreams. It was pretty fine to be the father of a boy like that. In a little while they’d be tumbling on the floor together. The boy would be riding pickaback. He’d get him a puppy, take him fishing, teach him to shoot. He’d give him the things he himself – The telephone again! he snorted, “Another pink report.”

The Widow answered. “Yes. Both fine, thank you.” She paused, listening. “Well, yes, we have. Margaret wanted to call him John.” Another pause. “Yes, for his father, but we finally decided to name him Henry. Yes, after poor, dear Henry.” Silence while she enjoyed her moment of melancholy; then, “Good-by. Thank you for calling.”

As she turned from the telephone, John’s face was close to hers, his eyes blazing, one hand waving a rolled newspaper, his voice rising in spite of his efforts at self-control.

“Henry? Henry?” he shouted. “Where do you get that stuff? Whose baby is this, anyhow? Who says he’s going to be Henry?”

“Why, John!” she stepped back a little. “Don’t get so excited. It’s this way – I promised Pa that if we ever had a grandson I’d name him Henry.”

John gave her a searching look, his jaw set at a stubborn angle unusual for him. He turned away with a shrug and started for the back door.

“Poor Pa!” he said as he slammed the door behind him. The Widow went after him, yanked the door open, “What do you mean ‘poor Pa’?”’

He turned on the top step and looked at her. “Oh, nothing. I was just thinking, he might have been a girl, and then you couldn’t have named him Henry.” The idea tickled his sense of the ridiculous, and he roared with laughter. Another backward glance showed the Widow still curiously watching. He caught her muttered words, “Now what’s the sense in an answer like that? Drat the man, more like Pa every day!”

Shortly before noon the next day, John parked his car at the front gate and strode up the path to the front door. He raised the old-fashioned knocker and banged furiously. Both women came running. The key turned, and John burst into the gloomy old house like the first March wind, kissing Margaret’s cheek lightly as he passed. He went through the clutter of the front room, back to the kitchen and for several minutes rummaged through the kitchen closet, grumbling and swearing under his breath because he couldn’t find what he wanted. Finally, he found it and went into the bedroom. He stood for a moment looking at the curly head peeping out of the blanket. Clumsily and tenderly, he lifted the baby, took off the hated pink trappings and wrapped him tenderly in a much-loved old sweater of his own. With just a wave of his hand and an airy “We’ll be back,” he went the way he came, scarcely seeing Mother Bentley as she stood dumbfounded, warily waiting. Margaret, happily intent at the window watching father and son going down the street, could not see the look of grudging admiration stealing over her mother’s face.

For an hour they waited. Then he came. Giving the baby to his wife and holding them both close in his arms, he said, “My son and I have been to the courthouse. His name is legally recorded as John Arthur Custer, Junior. Sounds great, doesn’t it, Margo? On the way home, we stopped at old Jan’s, the shoemaker, and ordered a pair of red-topped boots.” He held up a tiny foot that had kicked its way out of the old sweater. “See how he’s growing. It won’t be so long until he can wear them.” John pulled a chair toward Margaret. “Sit down, dear. There’s something else, too. I’ve made arrangements for us to go to see those new bungalows at Laurelhurst tomorrow morning. Junior will be all right with your mother for an hour or so. And, Mother Bentley,” he turned to her, his blue eyes alight, “while we are gone, bundle up all this pink stuff. Give ‘em away. Burn ‘em. Anything. Only get ‘em out of my sight.”

Margaret put the baby in his basket while tears of happiness fell on the beloved old sweater. With a rush of tenderness, her arms were around him.

“Oh, John!” she whispered. “It’s worth waiting two years for!”



5 Comments »

  1. After seeing the title on Nothing Wavering, I had to click through to read this.

    Comment by Adam G. — December 9, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  2. I feel like I could write a term paper on everything going on in this story. But I’ll refrain. Thanks for posting this!

    Comment by HokieKate — December 9, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  3. I keep hearing Dr. Laura’s voice . . .

    Comment by Carol — December 10, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  4. I have some sympathy for the Widow….

    Comment by Anne (UK) — December 12, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  5. Not allowed, Anne. We tolerate only lock-step opinions here!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 12, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

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