Through This Door
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Mary Ruth Grayson, fifteen, tries to care for her father and her motherless brothers and sisters. She is surprised to learn that Rachel Marriott, once a woman of wealth, is coming to live in the shabby house across the street. Mary Ruth becomes acquainted with Mrs. Marriott, her husband, and daughter Lora, the night they arrive. The next morning, however, Mrs. Marriott tells Mary Ruth, who carries over some popovers, that they are leaving.
“Leaving?” I cried in delight. “Oh, I’m so glad. Where are you going?”
She was putting the popovers on one of her own plates. She stopped and looked at me. “Glad?”
“Oh, yes, glad, Mrs. Marriott. I hope you’ll find a place a lot better than this.”
“Why, thank you.” She really smiled at me then. “It is a beautiful place, as a matter of fact. My sister, in Louisville, Kentucky, has invited Lora and me to come and live with her as long as we like.”
“You and Lora,” I said, “but what about Mr. Marriott?”
It was none of my affair, none at all. But the Marriotts were mine in a strange sort of way.
She answered, defensively, “Mr. Marriott will live with his brother.” She pushed back her hair in an uncertain, fumbling gesture. “He’ll have much better care than I could possibly give hm. It’s better this way.”
“Of course it is,” I said stoutly. “I’m so glad.” I was. My illusions came flooding back. There was always a tower for the princess, a sanctuary. “Goodbye, Mrs. Marriott.”
“This terrible, terrible old house,” Mrs. Marriott went on, just as if I were a grown woman. “This awful house!”
“I know,” I said. “It sure is a mess.” I looked about at the grimy cupboards, the linoleum that was brown from having the pattern all worn away, the rusty, unpolished stove. I wanted to make her feel happy. “I guess it really was quite grand when your grandfather built it. I bet he was proud of it when it was new.”
She laughed, a dry, small sound. “I’ve heard him tell a thousand times about the housewarming they had, when the house was finished at last. He thought he never would get it done, what with crop failures and Indian troubles, and taking time off to go on a mission to Wales. But he finally made it, bless him. He was the salt of the earth.”
I took a deep, envious breath. “They had it so exciting then, didn’t they, Mrs. Marriott? Not like now, with everything so hard. They had fun.”
“Fun?” She stood still and stared at me. “Fun?”
I knew she thought me a dolt. I said, defensively, “Well, it was fun to build things and have adventures and do things. Not like now, when there’s no chance for anybody to be anything, except what he was born to be.”
She came over to me and lifted up my chin and looked into my eyes. “You believe that, don’t you?”
I pulled away. “Sure I do. That’s why I’m glad you are going, so you won’t get to be like the others.”
“But people can be anything they want to be.”
“No, they can’t. Not any more. Things aren’t like they used to be. There isn’t anything to fight with any more.”
“What is your name, child?”
“Mary Ruth,” she took a deep breath. ‘You have just been reminding me of how many things I do believe in.”
She looked over my head. “I was frightened for a while. But I’m not afraid now. Run along and let me see what I can do.” She gave me a slight push toward the door.
I went reluctantly, not understanding at all. I turned back to ask her what she meant, but she was over at the kitchen range flipping the damper on and off, her dark eyes thoughtful.
It didn’t take long to do housework in our house, just to pull the quilts back up on the beds, and prop the boys’ bed with the blocks of wood they kept knocking out, flip out the flies with an apron, wash dishes, and sweep the kitchen floor. Only this morning, I still had the memory of Mrs. Marriott’s eyes on my hair, so I washed it and dried it and braided it extra neatly. That done, I felt so clean that I decided to take a bath, as long as there was hot water left in the tank. I even put on a clean dress, which meant washing the other one. But I felt quite regal when I was finished. I went over to Mrs. Callister’s. She was sitting in her kitchen fanning her perspiring face.
“Mary Ruth! Isn’t it hot enough to cook you?”
I nodded agreement.
She laughed, her hearty, throaty chuckle. “I went over to visit our new neighbor. Golly! If she didn’t give me a workout to last me a lifetime!”
“Mrs. Marriott? She’s leaving.”
“No, she isn’t, she changed her mind. She’s staying here. She’s scrubbing down that kitchen until you’ll be able to eat off the walls. She’s going to paint it, too. All by herself.”
“Paint it? Paint that old place?”
“That’s what she says. Throwing good money after bad, I tell her. But she won’t listen. ‘Hand me this and hand me that,’ she says, until first thing I know I have a scrubbing brush in my hand, and I’m working away as if I were getting paid for it.”
Mrs. Callister looked at me and I looked at her, and we both began to laugh. “That’s what I thought,” she said, ‘Mrs. Marriott,’ says I, ‘I have work of my own to be doing.’ So I came away.”
I slid toward the door. “I’ll go over and see how she’s getting along.”
Mrs. Callister looked past me. “If she comes to pay me a return visit, she’ll not find my kitchen in need of scrubbing, I can promise you that. I think I’ll give it a once-over-lightly this morning.”
I looked about the cheerful, disordered room. “You just got through housecleaning three months ago.”
“I know I did,” said Mrs. Callister, “but I’m not having her look at my kitchen, with that look of hers.”
I slipped through the hedge and almost stumbled over Mr. Marriott, who was sitting in the old rocker reading a book. He looked up and smiled. He was a gentle, kindly looking person, with blue, tired eyes. He held up the book.
“Even Shakespeare seems uncomforting on a day like this. I wish I had something new.”
“The Bookmobile is supposed to be through today. It should be down at the drugstore by now.” I smiled diffidently. “I could get a book for you.”
“Would you, child, something full of adventure?”
I brought him an armload of books, and he smiled his gratitude and withdrew immediately from the grayness and the bleakness of his surroundings into the world of fantasy.
Lora was playing on the porch. Her ringlets were brushed to a shining silkiness, and she wore a pretty pink gingham dress and black patent slippers. She bounced a ball dispiritedly.
“Hello,” I said. “Why don’t you play with the other kids?”
“Mother won’t let me.”
“She won’t? Why?”
“Oh, is that so!” Fury shook me. I looked across the street to where my sisters were playing, and the shock of seeing them as they looked all the time smote me. They were ragged, dirty, and their straight blond hair fell in strings about their laughing faces. Every tender feeling I had ever held for Mrs. Marriott was washed away in a flame of hatred. I flounced home. Let the Marriotts go or stay, I didn’t care. One of these days they wouldn’t be so uppity, when they had become like the rest of us, which they would. They would get just as tired and gray and dusty and grimy as we were. Mr. Marriott would stop shaving, and then he would forget his tie, and then his beautiful white shirts would wear out, and he would get blue, harsh work shirts. They would grow more and more soiled, because Mrs. Marriott would have given up the battle she had so foolishly begun.
I went home and even though it was noon I built a roaring fire in the range. I put the big washtub on the stove and called in the youngsters. They came reluctantly. Their shrill reluctance changed to a bellow of outrage when they saw what they must do.
“Bathe in the middle of the week! You’re crazy!” That was Maybelle.
“We don’t have to!” That was Marlene.
I pursued them, fighting and screaming, and brought each of them to a triumph of cleanliness. I put on their second-best clothes and gave them each a penny. “Now walk by that Lora Marriott’s place and act like you don’t see her, every one of you.”
But in the perverse way of children, they went by Lora’s place and fell raptly in love with her, and with Mrs. Marriott. When I went looking for them to come home for lunch, I found them busy as ants helping to clean up the Marriott yard. I was furious.
“If there’s any of that to be done,” I stormed, “You come home and do it here.”
“That’s no fun,” they whined.
But I drove them home, and the rest of the day was spent cleaning up the yard. Evening saw a great order upon our place. I relaxed on the porch. That would show that smart, old Mrs. Marriott.
Dad came home from the filling station. His tired face lighted when he saw us. He looked around the yard.
“Just the way your mother would have done, Mary Ruth. Just the way she was.”
I turned away, tears hot in my throat, sorry I hadn’t thought to do it before, and proud because my mother was a woman just like Mrs. Marriott. She liked things nice.
But I often wondered in the days that passed if even she had industry to equal Mrs. Marriott, or that same passion for seeing that others were kept well occupied, too …
The summer sped away, but on our street things were different from what they had been before. It was true Mr. Marriott was still the same, gray and gentle, and forever hiding in his world of books, books that took him to the far-off places and adventures his heart would never permit him to visit. But our street was altered to a remarkable degree. The battered leatherette sofa with its straw insides forever spilling out that had long disgraced Mrs. Callister’s front porch, had been taken away and stored in the barn. In its place swung a neat, white-painted swing seat. Not as comfortable by far as the sofa had been, but then, none of us had much time for sitting any more.
The Marriott house was most notable for its transformation, but then Mrs. Marriott had “squandered,” as Mrs. Callister put it, her little hoard of money for paint. She had had it painted a pale gray with a white trim. Each coat had brought a vast dignity to the ancient place, and a clean beauty. It had given our whole street a tremendous lift. The Callisters were forced to paint theirs because they lived so near, and the contrast was so terrible. Mrs. Callister used the money she had been saving for a television set and she held it against Mrs. Marriott for a long time. Her sons were equally angry, because it meant fewer hours down by the creek and less time fishing. But, afterwards, Mrs. Callister was quite pleased and made slighting remarks about the rest of us who could afford no paint.
But Dad did put in a new lawn and a white picket fence, and after a few spankings the children learned to go around the back and keep off the tender, growing green.
Gone were the long, long hours on Mrs. Callister’s front porch. It shamed and silenced us to be sitting doing nothing but chattering while Mrs. Marriott sewed industriously on her own front porch. She was a beautiful seamstress, and she took a special delight in designing clothes for Lora.
It hurt me to see Lora so dainty and my own pretty little sisters in their shrunken, faded cottons. I bought material and a pattern and stopped by one afternoon when Mrs. Marriott was sewing.
She gave me a wonderful welcome, treated me as though I were a grown woman and a great lady besides, and helped me all that afternoon. When I arose, hot and perspiring, to take my pieces home to baste them together, she said, “Would you like a glass of lemonade, Mary Ruth?”
“I would, Mrs. Marriott. I’m so thirsty I could drink ditch water.”
She smiled and went in the house, and in a little while she was back with glasses dipped in powdered sugar on the rims and mint leaves floating in the iced lemonade, and cookies with caraway seeds on the tops. We sipped and munched, and Mrs. Marriott told me about her life when she was my age. It sounded strange and wonderful. But when I was going she put her arm across my shoulders. “I do admire you, Mary Ruth,” she said, “I admire you very much.”
The words went singing home with me, and because of the music they made it was easier to try harder than ever at everything, so she would say them again.
I spent all the rest of the summer afternoons on Mrs. Marriott’s front porch. I learned to sew, and I learned other things that she would have bitten her tongue off rather than tell me. I learned she was even poorer than we had guessed, that the little hoard of money was melting much too fast, that when it was gone there would be no more. “And I’m forty, Mary Ruth … never worked in my life … just school and marriage … Sometimes I get frightened. Lying in bed at night, one thinks such dreadful things.”
I sewed and listened for the unsaid things under the casual phrases. My heart ached because I had no comfort to give her.
“I mustn’t get frightened,” she said one day. “It will be all right. I know it will. I’ll find a way, just as I found a way to make this house livable … only it must come soon.”
I didn’t lift my head, because the words were hard to say. I couldn’t have said them at all, if I had not seen her face in Church, the lighted, breathing-in look she had for the words that some speakers gave. I stammered, “The … Lord will take care of you, Mrs. Marriott … just like he did before.”
She smiled and pulled my braids. “Thank you, Mary Ruth. It’s just that today my believer is bent, and you know when that happens you get sick all over.” She laughed with me, but then she said seriously, “You’re right, Mary Ruth. I just have to be alert to know when he is helping me so I can do my part.”
It happened on the Friday before school started. Mrs. Marriott had come downtown with me to pick out material for a school dress. She was going to make it for me. “The first year of high school is so important, Mary Ruth. You’ll have to look your nicest.”
We had brought Lora along, and she danced ahead of us, looking like a princess in her rose-sprigged organdy dress with the blue socks to match and the blue ribbon in her hair. We went in Millers to the yard goods department.
Suddenly a woman cried, “Why, Rachel Marriott! It’s been years!”
Mrs. Marriott looked up, and gladness flooded her face. “Why, Thelma Williams! What on earth are you doing here in our little town?”
Thelma Williams was about the age of Mrs. Marriott. She had very light hair, and I found myself staring at it trying to make up my mind if it was real, or whether she put something on it. She was wearing dark glasses and a bright lipstick. Her suit was the shade of her lipstick. She looked gay and important.
“Darling, you’ve lost so much weight,” she said.
There was something in the way she said it that made me look closely at Mrs. Marriott, really look at her. I saw that she had lost weight, a great deal, and losing it had brought out lines in her face that hadn’t been there before. I saw that she was wearing the blue linen suit that she had worn on the first night she had come, but a summer’s wear was in it, the white gloves were noticeably mended, and the blue linen shoes were quite shabby.
I drew near to Mrs. Marriott, as if in that way I could keep her from being hurt by this well-groomed, narrow-eyed woman.