From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1953 –
By Frances C. Yost
A cold, January wind was clawing around the corners of the Bruce Camden home. Inside, Flora Camden sat before the fireplace with her mending basket on her lap, but she was not in the mood for mending. Usually the flames lent the Camden living room a cheerful glow. Tonight, Flora saw only grotesque pictures leaping from the hearth, their weird shapes adding to her fears.
If only I had not let Marty go on that strange baby-tending job, Flora thought. surely, I could have used the excuse that Bruce was out of town on business for the week end, and pleaded loneliness. Marty is too young to have such responsibility, and, anyway, we don’t need the money, Flora chided herself.
“What on earth was I thinking of to let Marty go?” Flora spoke aloud, her eyes haunting the clock as it ticked into the night. Then, with emphasis, she added, “Marty is my only child! The most wonderful child that ever lived! Oh, why did I let her go off like this?” Flora pulled back the drapes and peered into the night. “If only I knew the people. What did Marty say their name was? I don’t even know where they live.”
Then, as though it were flashed on television, Flora saw Marty again as she came through the front door from her music lesson. Marty who always had so many words to say they bubbled over one another.
“Mother! Mother! Something extra wonderful has happened!” Marty rushed in the house and slammed the big oak door to keep out the elements. “Mother! Oh, Mother, where are you?”
“Here in the kitchen, dear,” Flora Camden answered. “I’m putting on a lunch for the two of us. Daddy’s out of town, you know. What wonderful thing has happened, Marty dear?’ Flora paused in her salad making, with the paring knife in her hand. She came to the living room door to see Marty.
“Oh, Mother!” Marty bubbled, flinging her coat on the green platform rocker, and laying her portfolio on the piano bench. “Mother, Mrs. Larsen stopped me on the street and wants a baby sitter. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“But you’re only a child yourself, Marty, just eleven,” Flora expostulated.
“Mrs. Larsen thinks I’m big enough, and she said she knew I was capable. She said she watches me going to and from school, and she says she hopes her little baby grows up to be just like me.” Marty’s large, soft, childish mouth curved up at the corners, and her dimples winked becomingly. Her light brown eyes had flecks of black in them, and her soft brown hair bobbed gaily in ringlets on her shoulders. Marty was like a breath of springtime in winter.
“I must say this Mrs. Larsen has high ideals, if she wants her little daughter to be as nice as mine.” Flora winked at Marty, and they both giggled. “We’ll stop by her house sometime and get acquainted,” Flora added.
“But, Mother, Mrs. Larsen wants me tonight. She wants me to stay with her baby. Baby Roene, her name is.” Marty’s eyes became pools of pleading.
“All right, dear, if you and Mrs. Larsen think you are old enough, why, I’m sure you are. I’ll drive you over, after supper.” Flora turned back to her salad making.
“But they just live a little ways, I can easily skip over myself, save you getting the car out. The roads are slick as mirrors, and, Mother, I won’t have time to eat, they are almost ready to leave now. Mrs. Larsen said I could eat there, and, anyway, Mother, I just came home to tell you.”
Marty’s voice seemed to rise like a crescendo and gained speed with every syllable. “I just have time for a big kiss, and then I must run.”
Marty kissed her mother on the cheek, and before Flora could untangle the flow of words, she had slipped into her coat and was gone.
Flora picked up the mending and industriously started sewing on buttons. I’m just an old worrier, she thought. I’ll make myself sew on buttons and darn socks and act like a grown woman. Why, when I was Marty’s age, I walked blocks and blocks, night after night, tending children and doing all sorts of work. Believe me, they didn’t call them sitters in those days. A girl never got a chance to know what a chair was.
The past rose up like a storm at sea and engulfed Flora. She felt herself returning to a scene that time itself had laid aside and graciously forgotten …
Flora Hoppe was fourteen, fourteen with a teen-age need for money in a world deflated with depression. Flora lifted her eyes from her eighth-grade reader and glanced nervously at the schoolroom clock. The hands were moving swiftly to 3:30. That was the time Mrs. Miser had wanted her to come to work, yet Flora hadn’t found the courage all day to speak to Miss Thompson about leaving early. Flora fidgeted in her seat.
“Flora Hoppe, will you come to my desk?” Miss Thompson didn’t seem angry, but one could never tell about teachers. Flora slid out of her seat, and the eyes of the entire class left their books and followed her the length of the aisle. Flora stood by Miss Thompson’s desk until the teacher finished correcting a paper and looked up.
“Flora, you’ve been watching the clock all afternoon. Is something wrong?” Miss Thompson inquired.
Flora found it hard to ask for favors. “Miss Thompson, may I be excused at 3:30? I mean now. I, I promised I would tend children.” Flora felt a lump in her throat.
“You may be excused, Flora, but be sure and take your arithmetic and do all thirty problems.” Miss Thompson turned back to the papers she was correcting.
Flora mumbled her thanks and went to the cloakroom for her coat.
It was a long way to the Misers. Flora picked a loping gait. If she went faster, she might fall on the icy sidewalk. A slower walk was uncomfortably cold in January, and, anyway, she was late. A brisk wind stung Flora’s fingers. She made a muff of her sleeves to protect the gloveless hands from the biting cold.
As Flora stepped upon the Miser porch, the door opened. Emma Miser held it ajar. She was a buxom woman, with red hair and freckles, which she tried to camouflage with an overabundance of makeup. “I thought you would never get here, Flora. We’re ready to leave.”
“It’s quite a ways from school,” Flora murmured.
“That’s quite all right,” Emma Miser replied, her mind on the events of the afternoon ahead. “Mr. Miser is backing the car out now. We’re running into Salt Lake City to do some shopping and maybe see a show. We won’t be late, I’m sure. Things are pretty well done up. I washed this morning. Just watch the little ones and feed them supper. You can find something to fix. Bake the bread, too. It’s ready to put in the pans. And you know how Beth Ann likes your stories. Spend a lot of time with Beth Ann. She’s your age, Flora, but the poor dear …” Emma wiped a tear from her eyes. Thinking of poor, crippled Beth Ann was reason enough to make anyone cry. “Well, we best go.”
Emma Miser carefully let her weight down the icy steps. Ron Miser swung the car door open for her, and she eased herself into the front seat.
Flora watched them drive off. She was glad for Emma Miser to have an afternoon free. Life at the Misers was an endless chore of dishes, cooking, caring for little children, and lifting crippled Beth Ann and always there were eggs to wash and case.
Flora worked her way through the noon dishes piled high in the sink. As she polished the glasses to a gleam, she glanced at four-year-old Tommy piling blocks up for baby Susan to knock over. If they will only entertain themselves until I get these dishes and the washroom cleaned up, Flora thought.
“Sing a song,” Tommy begged, as if he had read Flora’s thoughts. His red hair and freckles blended, as if the sunshine had sprinkled both with the same brush.
“What song do you want, Tommy?” Flora liked Tommy, though he was as mischievous as a fox.
“I Play Horsey.” Tommy’s eyes sparkled.
“Well, here goes,” Flora chanted merrily. “I play horsey down the street with my broom, down the street. When somebody moves the street, I fall down and go boom.” Flora sang the song with all the flourish and all the actions.
Ha! ha!” Tommy clapped with glee, and baby Susan cooed and giggled. “Do it again,” Tommy shouted.
“Not now, Tommy. Flora has to clean up the washroom and mix out the bread and bring in clothes from the line, and if there’s time before I fix supper, I want to read to Beth Ann.” Flora bent over the tasks, one after another, her body useful and graceful at the same time.
When the blocks were put away and the floor nice and clean, and while the bread finished baking, Flora said, “Let’s go in with Beth Ann and listen to a story.” She smiled at Tommy, and he took Baby Susan’s hand to follow lovingly behind her.
Inwardly Flora dreaded being in the same room with the invalid. Beth Ann had grown in body to Flora’s height, but never had she known the use of her dangling legs or seen the inside of a school or church. Flora had started reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin to her sometime ago, and now Beth Ann looked forward to her coming as a child looks forward to Christmas, clenching the beloved book constantly in her small hands.
Finally the sun was setting, as a warm, crimson light fell on the windows. Flora, remembering the many eggs to be cleaned and cased, closed the book.
“More story,” Beth Ann pleaded, her words oddly formed.
Flora read on and on, yet the twilight shadows could not dim the piercing stare as Beth Ann peered at Flora, drinking in her every word for which her mind and spirit thirsted.
It was so late when Flora stopped that she decided to scramble eggs for supper. They were quick and there were always lots of cracked ones. It was good she had thought of stirring up a rice pudding to bake along with the bread! There wouldn’t be time now to case the eggs. They would have to wait until the supper dishes were washed and all three children undressed and put into bed.
After the eggs, there would be those thirty arithmetic problems Miss Thompson said must be done. Flora’s shoulders ached from the day’s activities, yet the worst was ahead, the undressing and lifting Beth Ann into her bed. So much work remained to be done, and time was running out like the sands in the hourglass on Miss Thompson’s desk at school.
Flora heaved a sigh of relief when Tommy, Baby Susan, and Beth Ann were quietly sleeping in their rooms. She got out the large buckets of eggs from the washroom and started casing them, making a sort of game of it. She tried to see how many were good eggs and how many were bad eggs. The bad eggs being the dirty eggs which needed extra attention before they could go in the large cases. Flora wondered if God worked with people the same way, having to cleanse and polish some before they were fit for the kingdom.
Some people said that if one kept the chicken coops clean with new straw, the eggs didn’t get dirty and broken. She thought Mr. Miser’s coops must be awfully dirty because there surely were lots of dirty and cracked eggs.
Flora wished her folks had chickens. Eggs helped out a lot, and then some to sell would be nice. Times were extra hard for Flora’s folks. Poppa’s pay check never covered expenses and back debts, never kept the wolf from the door. The old wolf had a clever way of sneaking in and parking himself on Momma’s lap to worry her. Flora usually took eggs for pay when she worked for the Misers because she liked to see Momma’s face light up.
It was hard for Momma to cook without eggs. It took eggs for cakes and pies and puddings and most everything. The whole family was happy, too, after Flora stayed at the Misers, because Momma always cooked eggs for breakfast. Yes, she liked to take eggs home, but it was a bigger sacrifice than any of the family would ever know. A girl Flora’s age needed money for clothes and shows, and treats like the other girls.
Flora kept on casing eggs, and her mind kept thinking about money and eggs, eggs and money. Which was the more important? She must decide before the Misers came home. The clock, moved on, the eggs, one after another, took their places in Flora’s tired hands to be washed, dried, and dropped into the case.
Flora came to with a start. Her fingers were parched and dry. The cloth with which she had been washing the eggs fell from her stiff fingers. She glanced at the egg case. It was full, and the buckets were empty. She had completed her work. But she must have gone to sleep before she did the arithmetic. Was someone speaking?
Flora looked up to find two pairs of eyes upon her. It was the Misers. It must be awfully late. She tried to see the clock, but her tired eyes wouldn’t focus. At length she was alert. Mrs. Miser was wearing a new linen dress. Why had she chosen red? It didn’t go with her hair. But the sepia china buttons down the front were pretty.
“What do we owe you?” Mr. Miser asked. He always asked that. The Misers knew what work there was to do. Mrs. Miser did the same work every day. Why didn’t he just pay her?
The work of the past ten hours raced through Flora’s mind: dishes, bread to bake, chasing Tommy, lifting Beth Ann, changing Susan, and constantly tidying up the house, and always there were eggs to case. Surely all this work was worth ten cents an hour.
Mr. Miser repeated his question: “What do we owe you, Flora?”
She must answer Mr. Miser. Flora heard herself speak, yet she hardly recognized her own voice. It was pitched unusually high. “A dollar, Mr. Miser, minus the price of two dozen eggs.”
A heavy tense hush followed. Flora realized she should have explained the troubles, the extra work, the song she sang, the stories that took time, Tommy’s pranks, but she couldn’t tattle on Tommy. Flora felt an aching pain across her shoulders.
What was Mr. Miser saying? “Two dozen eggs, with eggs at twenty-five cents.”
Ron Miser emphasized the word cents, as though each cent was a gold piece. Slowly he withdrew his wallet, letting the dollars roll into his open hand. Finally, he found a fifty-cent piece among the silver. He laid it on the table as though to hand it directly to Flora was too painful a parting.
Flora pulled on her faded coat, picked up the sack of eggs, the money, and the arithmetic book. As she let herself out of the door the Misers murmured, “good night.” Flora said the words, too, but it was more morning than night. Closing the door behind her, she knew, with the intuition of an adult, that the Misers wouldn’t be needing her again.
January’s chill met Flora at the open door and walked with her all the way home. The cold penetrated through her thin coat and pained her tired bones. The four blocks of newly fallen snow loomed like an ocean before Flora. Her weary legs, urged on by the fear of lurking shadows and dark clouds, picked up speed. Then, remembering the eggs, Flora settled her pace to a steady walk. She must not break a single egg. There wouldn’t be any more eggs, not from the Misers, anyway. Flora used the sleeve of the faded coat to wipe away a persistent tear. She rested the sack of eggs on the arithmetic book under her arm. She clenched the fifty-cent piece in her other cold hand. Together they made a deflated dollar.
Flora Camden finished the mending and the darning. She even started crocheting on the pillowcases she was making for the Relief Society bazaar. Her shoulder felt more tired than she had known for years and years, as she squirmed to relieve the pain.
Then she set aside the pillowcases. I can’t sit here any longer not knowing where my Marty is, Flora thought. Larsens, that’s the name Marty said. Now if they lived close enough for her to skip over – Marty did say she passed their house on her way to and from school … I have it, I’ll look up all the Larsens in the telephone directory, the one in this section of town will no doubt be the right one. Flora searched for the telephone book.
Just then the front door opened, and there stood Marty and a strange young man. Marty was wearing an even broader smile than usual, and both dimples were winking mischievously. “Mother, this is Mr. Larsen, Mr. Bill Larsen. They just live in the next block, but he insisted on driving me home.”
Flora and young Mr. Larsen acknowledged the introduction, and he was gone.
“Oh, Marty, I’m so glad you are home!” Flora threw her arms around Marty’s waist and held her close. “How did you get along?”
“Oh, just grand, Mother. I didn’t have to do a single thing. Baby Roene was asleep when I got there. I watched a television show, then I looked at their Book of Knowledge, and then I just went to sleep.”
“I’m glad you had your sleep. Schoolgirls need sleep to do arithmetic.” Flora felt a boundless joy in just having Marty in the room and safe. What was she saying?
“Mother, and guess what? I told Bill, I mean Mr. Larsen, that fifty cents was plenty, but do you know what he said?” Marty laughed luxuriously.
“What did he say?” Flora smiled in response, a thrill of motherhood coursing through her veins as she watched Marty.
“Why, he said, ‘My goodness, Marty girl, our baby is worth lots more than fifty cents.’ And he squeezed this dollar, a brand, new dollar, into my hand. He just made me take it, Mother.”
Marty’s brown eyes were like saucers, and between her thumb and forefinger she held up a 1953 inflated dollar.