Through This Door
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Mary Ruth Grayson, who tries to care for her father and motherless brothers and sisters, is helped and encouraged by Rachel Marriott, who comes to live in the shabby house across the street. Mrs. Marriott, who was once wealthy, begins a profitable sewing business making dresses for little girls. In high school Mary Ruth falls in love with Tom Mack. Later, she becomes acquainted with Chris Jordan, a nephew of Mrs. Marriott who plans to become a doctor. Mary Ruth decides to take a nurse’s training course, and, in order to help pay her expenses, she works as a maid in the home of Mrs. Williams, who has moved to the city.
There was a schedule, neatly typed and hung in my room. It outlined every hour. “Rise at six, bathe, dress, prepare your own breakfast. Wash your own dishes” (so no slightest trace of my presence would be apparent), “dust the shelves and the bric-a-brac and the stools, while waiting for the family.”
Mr. Williams always sauntered in first, unfolding his morning paper, sliding on the stool at the breakfast bar. He ordered his breakfast as though he were in a restaurant, and I prepared and brought it to him. Most of the time he grunted his morning greeting. Then Connie came in, dressed for school, and usually whining because she was still sleepy. But for Connie I felt love and pity. She was so lonely, so bored with herself, always wanting to know what to do. Then after they had gone Thelma Williams came in for her own breakfast.
For her, nothing was ever quite as it should be, the eggs were overdone, or underdone, the toast too hot or too cold. The first week I would sink down on the stool after she had gone, exhausted before the day had begun.
After the breakfast came the cleaning. There was a day to clean every room. Monday was the kitchen, every cupboard, every utensil, every appliance, window, doors, and floors must be scrubbed, waxed, polished to a high gloss. At home we did the cupboards four times a year.
Tuesday the bedrooms were given the same minute care. Wednesday the bathrooms and the silver, Thursday the dining room and all the woodwork in the house gone over for finger prints, Friday the living room, and all the inside windows, Saturday the rumpus room, my room, and the ironing. In between were lunches, dinners, refreshments for the endless stream of guests.
I wondered how much would be expected of me when school began.
Thelma Williams was very brisk on that point. “I’ll make the beds, of course, and wash the breakfast dishes. I know you won’t mind getting up earlier to get your portion done each day.”
I was accustomed to hard work, but much of this seemed senseless to me. I was lonely and homesick. I didn’t know a soul in the city. Mrs. Williams rarely spoke except to give orders. That was almost unbearable, after the years of neighboring up and down the block.
The parties were hardest. I sat in the kitchen, waiting my cue to serve the late suppers, and listened to the laughter and the quick, joyous voices, and a longing to be part of it was almost more than I could endure.
One Friday night I brought in the hot dishes for the buffet supper. I wore a black and white uniform for this. Someone called my name.
It was Chris Jordan. He came over to me gladly from the group around the piano. He looked tall and well now, with a deep tan. His smile shone warmly. “Mary Ruth, why bless your heart.” He shook my hand and stood looking down on me with an eagerness that made me draw back. “Aunt Rachel said you were here.” He lowered his voice. “She’s worried about you, the princess in the prison tower.” He nodded toward Mrs. Williams, who was frowning in his direction, “Is … she … a little on the witch side, or does she just ride her broom on Wednesdays?”
I couldn’t help laughing, and the sound of it brought curious eyes in our direction. “I … I have to go,” I told him, because I could see Mrs. Williams bearing down on us.
“I could get you out of the dungeon for an hour or so tomorrow afternoon … or wouldn’t your young man like that?”
“Thank you,” I said, “it’s kind of you … but I can’t. Besides I have to get ready for school … starts on Monday.”
“Aunt Rachel sends her love,” he said.
To my embarrassment, tears flooded my eyes. I hurried from the room.
Tom’s picture was on my dresser. His eyes laughed into mine whenever I looked at him a certain way. His letters were in the top drawer. I read them all, and something of his joyousness and his sense of fun, and his strength seemed to flow into me.
But the nights grew lonelier and lonelier. I spent a good deal of them lying awake, staring up at the high basement window, where the moonlight crept among the iris. I thought of the bedrooms at home, all the laughter and talk that went on before we fell asleep, the scuffling sounds from the boys’ room, the radio from Callisters’ house pouring hit tunes into the night.
Oh, at home was never this silence, night after night, with the lovelessness to greet one in the morning, and the chill orders. Then there was the loneliness of the teeming campus, where there was never time to make friends, nor a place to bring them if I did. People had to have words with other people, as they had to have bread. When I turned over, Tom’s letters crackled under my pillow. I stretched up my hand and touched them gently. How is it with you, Tom?
On the first night of November I knew. Down in my bedroom I was awakened at three by the sound of the front doorbell and the heavy measured steps of Mr. Williams. I listened to his steps pausing at the front door, then marching across the living room, through the kitchen, down the stairs. I sat upright, my heart pounding.
The steps moved across the rumpus room toward my own.
I got up and groped for my robe and slippers.
Mr. Williams knocked at the door and I flung it open. He held out the yellow envelope. “For you, my dear, I hope it isn’t bad news.”
He waited while I read it. I lifted my face to him and said quietly, “They say Tom was killed … in an automobile accident, but of course they are mistaken.”
He took the paper from me, and I went back into my room. I went from closet to bed, not remembering where I had put my bags. I opened drawers and started piling my things on the bed.
Mr. Williams came in the room. “What are you doing? Look, Mary Ruth, you can’t go anywhere now. Pleases … wait, I’ll get Thelma.”
I sat when he insisted and rose at once when he left. All inside me there was one thing that filled me with fear, that I should forget the sound of Tom’s voice. I remembered it with all my might, the clearness of it and the depth. I gathered up fiercely and hurriedly all the things he had said, so they wouldn’t be lost.
Thelma Williams came down in her robe and slippers, her hair up in pin curls. “I’m sorry, Mary Ruth.” She looked at the bed. “You aren’t going away?” Dismay was in the tones.
I remembered then the luncheon for her club was the next day. She had a right to be perturbed about my not being there. But I had to get home and walk about the places where Tom and I had walked, and stand in the dusty place before the train stop where I had seen him last.
“Mary Ruth, please don’t go …”
I didn’t answer at all. I remembered the bags were in the fruit room, and I went past her to find them. What of the playgrounds? The gym teacher for the youngsters? All that was done now, and my nursing as well. Because, without Tom and his letters and the wall he built for me, I didn’t have it in me to face another day of the pink kitchen and the endless windows. I would go home to Dad and the young ones and be with them forever and ever. It was as if my being there with them would keep things from happening to them … bad things.
I couldn’t cry on the long bus trip home, nor in Dad’s arms, not even when they laid what was left of Tom Mack in the little desolate hill behind Bill Mangum’s farm. There was a poem I had read that ran through the day. “This was the hardest thing of all to bear, that no bird ceased its singing when you died … that men and women walked their usual ways and talked and sang as though you were not still …”
The days ran through my fingers, and the nights were traps for new anguish, but the other lives went on around me, hurrying a little, as if to catch up on the one day’s grief. Aunt Mercedes went to visit her old friends and neighbors. I had the house all to myself again. I washed and cooked and mended and weeded the garden.
“It’s good to have you home,” Dad said, “we’ll miss you when you go back.”
“I’m never going away again,” I said dully. “There’s nothing to go away for now.”
“Now, Mary Ruth …” but he looked at my face and turned away without saying any more.
Mrs. Marriott came over with a hot peach pie. “You’re looking peaked, Mary Ruth. Are you eating enough?”
“Enough,” I said.
She sat down in the kitchen chair by the door. I noticed her hair had a lot of gray in it around the temples. It was very becoming. I peeled potatoes, and because she said nothing, I was forced at last to conversation. “Dad tells me your business is doing very well.”
“It is. I need another person to help me.”
“Will I do?”
“Thelma Williams writes me that she is desperate for help. She wanted me to ask you to come back.”
“No,” I said.
She came over to help me shell the peas. “Did you hear old Sister Jensen is down with rheumatism?”
“So I heard … I know, it means no nurse close here.”
Her quick fingers moved in and out of the crisp pods. “Mrs. Callister needs that operation. There’s no nurse to take care of her after.”
“I know, I know,” I cried, close to tears. “But I couldn’t help Mrs. Callister. I can’t relieve the shortage not for years and years, even if I went back, which I won’t.”
She said, “It was bitter hard, then, at Thelma’s?”
I put the potatoes on the stove. “… and senseless. When Tom was here … when there was someone with me …”
She rose to go. “Very well, Mary Ruth, if you want to stay here and never go through the door, that’s up to you.”
I turned to the window. “But the door is hard to push open, Mrs. Marriott, and how do I know what’s on the other side … more grief, perhaps?”
“More grief,” she said softly, “but you’ll never know how much joy. If you refuse to push open the door and go farther, you’ll stay here always, in one spot, in the place of your sorrow. I’ve seen people do that.”
I remembered the day Mrs. Marriott came to our street. I remembered the battered ugly houses, and us, our idleness, our terrible lethargy, our unbelief. I remembered how we had hated Mrs. Marriott at first because she wouldn’t come down to us, but had forced us to climb to her.
Now she moved about the room of my life and urged me toward the outside, when all I wanted was to hide my head and my heart in the gentle sameness of day after day.
I started rolling the dough for biscuits. “I’m not going back, and I’d like to work with you if you will have me.”