From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1950 –
The Thickness of Water
By Nellie Iverson Cox
Gretchen hastily jerked her scorched finger away from its contact with the hot stove lid. “Ouch!” she ejaculated, surveying her finger ruefully. “And some people think I should settle down permanently to this business of living on a farm!” Gingerly, she began ladling the smooth batter onto the smoking griddle, but turned at the sound of pattering footsteps. Six-year-old Ronnie, barefoot, and pajama-clad, came through the door leading to the bedrooms.
“Oh, Mommy, I don’t want to wear these short trousers; I want overalls like Kenny wears!” His boyish face, with its recently acquired tan, wrinkled up at her imploringly as he held the knee-length suit to her view. when she did not answer, he came nearer and caught hold of her dress insistently. “Mama, you’re not going back to the city; I hate it. I hate Olga and Mrs. Watts at the Day Nursery ‘n everything. I want to live here with Kenny ‘n Nora ‘n Thayne.”
Gretchen’s mind sought desperately for words that would satisfy him without actually committing herself. “Now, son, their aunt and uncle are coming to take care of them. The telegram came last night.”
“But Mommy, they want us to stay ‘n their mama wants us to stay ‘cause Nora said so.”
“Well – we’ll see. Run and dress now. Breakfast is almost ready.” She was always weak where Ronnie’s desires were concerned, but this time she just couldn’t give in. Even Jeff had admitted that it was too much to expect that she should give up her good job for an uncertain future on the farm he wished to buy.
Through the gingham-curtained window she could see Thayne coming with the milk. Even his chore clothes did not hide his blond handsomeness. How proud his mother had been of him and what high hopes she had entertained for the development of his really fine voice.
“You certainly hurried,” she told him, preparing to strain the milk.
“Yes, ma’am.” His voice was musical as he regarded her soberly from under his amazingly long lashes. “There is only Julie to milk now. I’m letting Bess go dry. She is going to have a calf you know.”
Yes, she knew. Ronnie had excitedly informed her of the fact. It was going to be harder than she had thought to convince him they must leave.
A sweet-faced girl with brown braids came through the door. “Why did you let me sleep so late?” she asked reproachfully, beginning to set the table.
“And why not?” asked Gretchen smiling fondly. “You needed to rest after climbing hills all day yesterday. Ronnie seems to be determined to see the other side of every hill around here.”
“I like to take him hiking. He has so much fun ‘cause he says there aren’t any hills in the city and he couldn’t climb them alone if there were.” She slipped her hand into Gretchen’s. “I’m so glad Mom had a friend like you,” she ended chokingly.
Gretchen drew the girlish figure close. “Your mother was lucky to have three such fine children,” she said softly.
A tousle-headed youngster came in, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Good morning, Kenny,” smiled Gretchen. “I guess Ronnie is the slow-poke this morning but we won’t wait. Hurry and wash.”
“Say,” began the eight-year-old, splashing vigorously, “that’s just the way Mom used to talk. ‘Kenny, hurry ‘n wash,’ she’d say first thing.” His lip quivered and he hurriedly applied the towel to his freckled features. There was an unhappy silence which lasted until Kenny, with the quick versatility of childhood, said excitedly, “Say, Ronnie and I want to build a rock dam across the creek and make a duck pond. We can finish it in a week easy, and then when school starts …”
Nora interrupted him. “Mama never told us where she met you, Mrs. Bradley.”
“Why, it was last spring. She came to my apartment building in search of your aunt …”
“Aunt Winona,” interposed Thayne.
“But your aunt had moved away, so I asked her to spend the night with me. It was late and she was a stranger in the city. She told us about you children – that Thayne loved to sing and Nora’s hobby was photography, and Kenny, she said, was her little farmer, always making dams and ditches.”
In her mind’s eye Gretchen could still see the faded little woman who had seemed so out of place in the richly carpeted halls of the New Breton. Gretchen had just stepped out of the elevator and was looking through the letters she had collected in the lobby. There had been a bill, an advertisement, and an invitation to vacation again at Sheerdrop Ski Resort, but nothing from Jeff. Even if he did not feel resentful because she insisted on keeping her job, he could write oftener, if only for Ronnie’s sake. Was he still working on a ranch? she wondered.
Intent on her mail, she did not at first notice the woman in front of one of the apartment entrances. When she did, her first thought had been, that’s what I might have looked like if we had bought the farm Jeff was always dreaming about. Involuntarily, she had glanced down at her own fashionable business suit above the trim brown Oxfords.
The woman was undoubtedly from the country. She was no shabbier than many women seen in the city, but there was a rugged strength in her thin frame, and Gretchen knew, with the quick perception that had won her the excellent position she held, that those brown, roughened hands were accustomed to hard toil.
The stranger had turned, and Gretchen had been surprised at the look of eager expectancy on the still young face. It was as though she had been waiting for someone and must scrutinize every comer.
On sudden impulse, Gretchen asked, “Are you looking for someone?”
“My sister wrote me from this address, but there seems to be no one …”
“I believe the people who were in that apartment have been gone for several days. Perhaps the management …”
“No, it doesn’t matter now. Maybe I can find a hotel.”
Surprising herself, Gretchen exclaimed, “Won’t you spend the night with me? My son would be so pleased. He doesn’t see many people.”
“I couldn’t impose on you that way. What would your husband …?”
“Jeff doesn’t live here any more.” And then, fearing she had sounded facetious. “He has been overseas and the city gets on his nerves.”
“I see. Then I shall be happy to stay.” The haggard look had lifted from her features, leaving them suddenly alive. “Then I shall be very happy to stay. I’m Mrs. Hackett from Dixon, upstate.”
“And I’m Mrs. Bradley. Come, then, and meet my son.” She led the way to the spacious apartment where a curly-headed child joyously threw himself into her arms.
“Hello, darling. Hello, Olga. this is Mrs. Hackett. She is going to spend the night with us.”
The visitor smiled at the maid and then took Ronnie’s hands in her own.
“I have a little boy named Kenny. I have a big boy, too, and a girl.”
“Oh, where do you live?”
“On a big farm in a place called Dixon.”
“Oh. My daddy is working on a ranch.”
Gretchen interposed, “Mrs. Hackett is tired, son. Perhaps after supper she will tell you about her children.”
After the simple meal the guest brought some snapshots from her purse.
“Nora is always taking pictures. Would you like to look at these, Ronnie?”
His eyes sparkled. “Oh, Mommy, look at this big boy in swimming! And here is one of a big load of something …”
“That is a load of hay that horses and cows eat,” said their visitor. “You poor little city tyke, get your mama to bring you to the farm when she takes her vacation.”
The idea, thought Gretchen almost indignantly, that anyone whose children ran barefoot in thorns or whatever country children ran barefoot in, should feel sorry for her son who had the best of everything. Why, the woman sounded almost like Jeff. He had said a child might as well be in jail as locked up in an apartment all day.
“You were saying?” she apologized, conscious that she had not been paying attention in her indignant remembrance of Jeff’s attitude.
“Won’t you bring him to the farm? I just couldn’t bear to have my children raised anywhere else. It’s been hard work for a woman alone, but nothing else could ever be so satisfying.”
“You mean you run it alone?”
“Since Cal died five years ago. It has left its mark on me, I guess. I finished paying off the mortgage last year, so it will be easier now. The house can be fixed up real nice and I know you’d like it.”
What is the woman trying to do, thought Gretchen, amazed. It sounds like she is trying to sell me her farm.
“Say you will visit us,” insisted the woman, but Gretchen had smiled at the improbability of such a thing. However, she had not reckoned with the letters that came from Mrs. Hackett after she had returned home. They were filled with numerous little details about calves and colts, puppies and kittens, and seemed written with the intend in mind of whetting to greater pitch Ronnie’s eagerness to visit the Hackett farm. Even Gretchen found herself wondering if the frost had got the peaches, or if Mr. Burgess, the neighbor who helped run the farm, had recovered from his injury in time to get the hay in. Was Julie’s calf the heifer they hoped for, and how many pups did Flora have? Ronnie never allowed her to skip any detail when reading one of the frequent letters, and he often insisted on her writing for information he wanted. It was not long until she knew the size and shape of the house, the color of the wallpaper in every room, and the general layout of orchard and field. She was amused at herself for being interested, but it was for Ronnie’s sake, she told herself. Lacking companions of his own age, the letters from the farm supplied a definite lack in his life.
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, a telegram had come signed by Mr. Burgess, saying that Mrs. Hackett was very ill and had asked for her. Obtaining a leave of absence, she had entrained for the farming community as soon as possible, taking Ronnie with her. Upon arrival, they had been approached by a grizzled farmer in wrinkled overalls.
“You that city woman Leonora Hackett sent for?”
“I’m Mrs. Bradley.”
“Well, my wife is over there now. Been there since Leonora died last night.”
So, sitting beside a taciturn farmer in a dilapidated farm truck, Gretchen and Ronnie had ridden to the Hackett farm, which looked just as they had known it would, save there was no thin figure in a house dress to welcome them. Gretchen was immediately placed in charge by the neighbor woman who had attended to all needful details. Later that evening, they had attended the simple funeral and had gone to the little cemetery, and Gretchen had tried conscientiously to soften the grief of three orphan children.
“Leonora set great store by you,” said white-haired Mrs. Burgess. “She wanted you to stay with her children.”
Stay with the Hackett children – handsome Thayne, winsome Nora, and little Kenny who had welcomed her own Ronnie like a brother? Of course she would stay until the aunt could be located. But to give up permanently her luxurious apartment and the fabulous salary she received to care for the children of a stranger – surely Leonora Hackett had never thought she would do such a thing! What she had said to Mrs. Burgess had been only the meandering of a sick mind. Still, there had seemed to be a hidden purpose behind all those letters she had written.
I can’t do it; it’s fantastic! she told herself. Why, no one more unfitted to run a farm ever lived than I. When Winona Cappelli arrived, she, Gretchen Bradley would slide gracefully out from under this unwanted responsibility and let the aunt take over. And that was that.
She came back to the present when Nora said hesitantly over her scarcely touched breakfast, “You are going to stay with us, aren’t you?”
“Now, sis,” began the boy, “Mrs. Bradley has her job and her home and maybe she has to go back.”
Gretchen flashed the boy a grateful look. He was trying to make it easier on all of them with his adult understanding of the position she was in.
“Your aunt and uncle are coming on tonight’s train. If we hurry, Nora, we can finish the dress your mother was making for you so you can wear it when we go to meet them. It was made so nicely.”
The air was quite cool with a dash of rain when they started in the early dusk toward the little railway station. Too late, Gretchen realized that their path was taking them past the cemetery where a new mound showed up dark in the early twilight.
She began to chatter brightly. “Wait, I want to count noses. Is everyone here?”
“Yes, and mama is here, too. Her grave is all wet and looks so cold,” and Kenny began to sob wildly.
The lump in Gretchen’s throat still choked her when at last the train pulled in and a few passengers alighted. A flashily dressed woman, accompanied by a portly man, descended upon the children.
“Nora’s babies!” she cried shrilly. “Aunt Winona will take care of you.”
Somehow, Ronnie had got included in the caress as she threw her arms around them. Gretchen realized, with astonishment, that the woman actually did not know how many children her sister had. Mrs. Cappelli began to talk, moving around so that the odor of the perfume she wore reached Gretchen overpoweringly.
“Your uncle and I own a tourist court in Florida. Since receiving the news of your mother’s passing, we have decided to take over the night club in connection. Thayne can sing – oh, yes, your mother sent me the clipping the time you sang over the radio, and Nora is old enough … Oh, yes, I know your mother had this foolish idea about wanting you children to be raised on the farm – she told me so when she wrote that the doctors had given her but a short time to live. Let’s see, that was before we went to Florida, while we were living at the New Breton. I wrote her that I would do what I could and for her to come to see me, but we left unexpectedly and she probably didn’t come. But don’t worry, Aunt Winona will take care of you.”
Gretchen knew sudden shock. Then Leonora Hackett had known she was going to die when she had conversed so calmly in that city apartment – when she had written those letters whose hidden purpose was now so apparent. What utterly magnificent courage! Was she, Gretchen Bradley, so utterly lacking in courage that she, with the advantage all on her side, would not dare what the other woman had dared?
Mr. Cappelli cleared his throat. “Er – that is, we can take the two older children. The boys here would hardly … You are the neighbor who sent us the wire?”
“Yes – no – that is …”
“Well, never mind,” put in Mrs. Cappelli. “We can make some arrangement I am sure. The farm will have to be sold, and something could be allowed to someone for taking care of the younger children.”
There was no intention, then, of fulfilling the last wish of a dying woman. Especially was there no place in this set-up for an eight-year-old boy who bitterly missed his mother. Suddenly, Gretchen was angry. Such heartless callousness to one’s own blood!
“I guess you did not know,” she said determinedly, “that it was Mrs. Hackett’s wish that I stay and care for her children. I have witnesses to prove what I say. These children must not be separated.”
“But,” sputtered the other. “I’m her sister. Blood is thicker than water, you know, and what you say would never hold up in court. You cannot produce a letter to prove …”
“Letter!” They all turned to face a twelve-year-old girl whose face was brilliantly alive, as she delved frantically in the deep pockets of the raincoat she wore. “Oh, Mrs. Bradley, mama gave it to me to mail, but she took so bad and I ran for Mrs. Burgess, and I forgot all about it.” Her hand came out triumphantly with a thin envelope.
Unmindful of the eyes upon her, Gretchen tore it open. They all crowded behind her as she read:
Dear Mrs. Bradley: I’m asking a mighty big favor, but I believe the Lord sent me to you in answer to my prayer. I went to the apartment to beg my sister to come to the farm and care for my children when I am gone, and when I did not find her I was desperate. I knew my time was getting short. Then you came and I knew you had to be the one. I can rest easy if you will move to the farm and take care of my darlings.
The look Gretchen turned upon the group was the satisfied one of a woman who has discovered fountains of hidden strength and who glories in the discovery.
“Come, children,” she said, proudly possessive, “your aunt ad your uncle will want to rest before they return to Florida, and I must send a telegram to Ronnie’s daddy, asking him to come had help us run the farm. I know he will be glad because he always wanted to be a farmer.”