From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1946 –
As You Were
By Martha Robeson Wright
Connie Reynolds stood with her father and the two boys and watched the train pull out of the station. As their mother’s smile and waving hand disappeared into the distance, the boys’ lower lips began to stick out. They batted their eyes to keep back the tears. That was because this was the first time their mother would be away for longer than overnight.
But Connie didn’t feel sad about her mother going away for a week’s visit with her parents. Inside, her heart was tingling with anticipation. One whole week of being her own boss! She would be on her own. No one to tell her constantly to do this, or not to do that. Her mother’s nagging had begun to get on her nerves. It was a good thing her mother was going away for a rest. After all, she wasn’t young any more; she was all of thirty-four years old, and a woman that age couldn’t be expected to have the control over her nerves that a younger person would have.
And there was the matter of the living room. Now Connie could change the furniture around so it would look like something. She had been begging her mother for over a year to arrange it differently. Surely a girl sixteen was no longer a child, and should have some taste. The whole room was off balance. Nothing synchronized at all. The furniture didn’t show up properly.
And there were the boys. Just because Tommy was seven and Jack was six, there was no reason to treat them like babies. Talking to them constantly didn’t solve any problems. Her mother said they acted so to tease Connie, but most of the time when she was around their manners were simply loathsome.
The ride home from the station could have been more pleasant. The boys quarreled all the way. Her father didn’t say a word. he was probably wondering how things were going to be without a woman in charge. Once or twice Connie found herself opening her mouth to speak sharply to the boys. Her mother would have kept saying, “Boys, stop that quarreling. Are you sure both the car doors are locked? We don’t want any of you to fall out and get concussion like the Terrill boy did last summer.” Mother fretted too much about everything. Boys had to learn some time.
The quarreling didn’t stop. Finally, Connie, in the most patient, sweet, and unexasperated voice that she could manage, said to them, “If you boys will stop your bickering, I’ll give you each a nickel when we get home.” The peace and quiet was so sudden it made Connie uncomfortable. But that was the way to do it, she thought, a nickel each was much better than a scolding.
Her father didn’t say anything until they reached home and he let them out. Then he said, “Connie, are you sure you’ll be all right? Can you handle the boys? Get them to school this afternoon?”
She drew herself up and became most dignified. “Of course, Daddy. And you be home at the regular time. A nice dinner will be waiting for you.”
“That’ll be fine, Snooks.” He tweaked the front lock of her blond hair. “Don’t let the boys get you down.”
“Don’t worry. You saw how nicely I handled them in the car.”
He nodded, and his face became absolutely expressionless. Probably didn’t want her to see that he was impressed. Afraid it might go to her head. “It’s fine, if you can afford it,” he added, and backed the car out into the street and drove down to the office.
It took Connie two hours to get the living room the way she wanted it. The couch in front of the fireplace, with the two small tables at each end and the tall lamps on them. The biggest chair over by the big window. One of the cretonne covered chairs near there, too, making a nice conversation group. The combination radio and record player cabinet she put against the inside wall, with chairs on each side of it. Everything was perfect. Now there wasn’t all that empty space in the center of the room. Funny how her mother hadn’t understood about that. Now the room was balanced.
Moving furniture had tired her a bit, but she began to get lunch. Her mother had left the pantry shelves stocked with cans of soup, vegetables, and fruit. When she was home, her mother made wonderful soup; but Connie wouldn’t have time for that. She opened two cans of different soups and combined them. The baked ham sandwiches, with lettuce peeking from between the slices of bread, were really luscious. There was chocolate cake and vanilla pudding. Really, a nice lunch. And it wouldn’t be eaten in the kitchen.
She had tried to explain, once, to her mother, that children got awful manners from eating in the kitchen. But her mother had only smiled and gone on setting the table in the big kitchen. Today, they were eating lunch in the dining room!
She set the table with one of the nicer everyday cloths, and used the extra tall glasses for the milk. That would save her steps. She wouldn’t have to be refilling the glasses. She called the boys as she heard them on the porch. They came in, giggling at something, their mouths smeared with licorice.
“Please go to the bathroom at once and wash,” she said quietly. None of that “Hurry up boys and get washed this minute,” as her mother always said. They went tumbling into the bathroom, and shut the door. The water was turned on with such force that Connie hoped the basin wouldn’t overflow. She also hoped the boys weren’t squirting water at each other, as they often did. She looked anxiously at the clock. Only twenty minutes left for lunch. She went to the bathroom door.
“Boys, please open the door and come out. The soup is getting cold.”
The boys giggled.
“Open the door, Tommy, and let me in.”
“Girls can’t come in the bathroom when mens is in there,” Jack said.
She prided herself on her control. “Come on, now boys, you’ll be late for school.”
She turned the handle of the door. It opened and the boys laughed uproariously. Then they marched past her, faces solemn. Their almost white, blond hair was soaking wet and plastered down. Their round rosy faces shone with soap that hadn’t been rinsed off. She also saw that their fronts were decidedly damp. But there wasn’t time to change. The air was warm and they’d soon dry.
They rushed to the kitchen and turned to her with a puzzled look. She motioned to the dining room. “Boy, look at the big glasses,” Jack said, and reached. Somehow, the glass got off balance and milk went running over the clean cloth and down on the rug. For a moment Connie wanted to shake him. Instead, she quietly mopped up the mess, changed Jack to the other side of the table and provided him with a fresh glass of milk – a smaller glass.
The boys ate their soup with all the quietness of horses at a watering trough. Connie knew she mustn’t say a word. Instead, she set a good example by eating carefully, always dipping the spoon away from her, quietly taking it from the side and not sucking it out of the end. The example didn’t seem to impress the boys. But their soup was eaten. They wolfed the sandwiches, and she made no attempt to slow them. She would get them off for school as soon as possible.
They grabbed their sweaters and airily waved her good-bye. “Be seeing yuh.”
“You come right home from school and change into your play clothes. I’ll be here before you are.”
“Sure.” They were off down the street.
The boys didn’t come in to change after school. They seemed to disappear each time she went out to look for them. One of their friends was in the yard next door. “Have you seen the boys?” she asked him. “I had planned to give them each a nickel for coming in promptly to change their clothes, but they haven’t been home.”
She knew it would work. Within a few minutes the two little tow-heads came ambling in the back door and to their room. They changed their clothes and stood silently before her, right hands outstretched.
Without a word, she handed each a nickel. They went back out to play.
While she was getting dinner, the front doorbell rang three times. Connie found that going around the furniture in the middle of the room took quite a bit of time. But the dinner, when it was finally put on the table, was good. Her father ate everything heartily and complimented her on her cooking. The boys ate as usual. When they saw her looking at them, they opened their mouths wider and chewed louder, their blue eyes raised ceilingward in seeming innocence. “Chew with your mouths closed,” her father told them, and they did.
Connie found herself out of money by the end of the fifth day. By that time she realized that she had done nothing but work … come home from school, check up on the boys, straighten the house, prepare the food, watch the boys. She hadn’t gone anywhere nor had a friend in, and she had served lunch in the kitchen after the first day, for she didn’t have time to be too fancy. She had also put the furniture back the way her mother had had it. She could see her mother’s reason. It took so much longer to dust and run the carpet sweeper when she had to move everything out of the middle of the rug. Her plans for elaborate desserts had not been carried out, either. She found that the boys were so stuffed with candy purchased with their new source of income, that they had no room left for dessert. She was wishing she hadn’t begun the nickel business. Money didn’t solve problems with the boys. Their hands came out too often and for too little service.
As each night came, Connie crawled into bed so tired she could hardly move. She often wondered how she had had the energy to get her homework, of which she had plenty. She suddenly wondered how her mother managed. she also had the washing and ironing to do, besides going to meetings during the week, going out with Daddy, and entertaining friends and relatives. A woman needed co-operation to get housework done. Even famous generals could never win a battle without co-operation.
Saturday was the day before her mother was coming home. The house must be spotless. Connie let the boys out to play in their oldest clothes. She cleaned their room, straightened the other bedrooms, and vacuumed all the floors. Fresh flowers brightened the living room. She polished the furniture until it glistened. she baked a cake. It was the one recipe that would always turn out the same for her. She made a meat loaf and put it in the refrigerator, ready for the oven. Potatoes were scrubbed and greased, ready also for the oven. What a day!
At five, she lay soaking in the bathtub, trying to get the aches out of her body. But the satisfaction she felt over the spick and span house took away some of that tired feeling. She decided to get the boys in the tub early and to bed early, so they wouldn’t have a chance to muss things.
Leisurely, she wrapped herself in the huge bath towel she had received last month as a birthday present. She opened the bathroom door and stepped into the hall to go to her room to get dressed. Then voices came to her from the living room. Boys’ voices. She went to investigate. Four boys, two of them her brothers, lay on their stomachs in the middle of the room. Where they had picked up the mud that was on their shoes when the days had been dry and clear, Connie couldn’t guess. But the mud was there – and on the rug. Also there was a large circle for their marbles, and the circle was drawn with white chalk!
Connie stood there looking at them, clutching her bath towel angrily. She spoke, and her words were neither dulcet nor sweet. “Tommy, and Jack Reynolds, get up from there this minute, before I get madder. Get the dustpan and clean up that mud. Get a cloth with water. Wipe that chalk off the rug.”
The two brothers looked at her. They stood up, and together two dirty right hands held themselves out for nickels. Connie looked at them coldly. “That racket is over – washed up. Get going and do as I tell you, or I’ll phone Daddy. This room was spotless.”
It might have been the look in her eyes, or it might have been the trembling of her upper lip. It could have been their knowledge that their mother would hear about it tomorrow. The little boys went out quietly and brought back the dustpan and the broom.
Connie reflected it took more than a few nickels to be able to run a house and make boys obey. In fact, it took about everything, including all of your energy. How did her mother find time to do all she did? She understood now why her mother nagged. It wasn’t nagging at all – Connie understood that now. Children – herself included – had to learn responsibility. They had to be told over and over. They weren’t taught by handing out money to them. …
Connie stood with her father and the two little boys on the station platform, watching the train come into the station. As it stopped with a blowing of steam, and the porter was handing the people down the steps, the little boys began to grin and dance up and down with delight. There was mother, pretty and smiling, and walking toward them. How pretty she looked! And not so old, either. The boys shouted and laughed.
But Connie didn’t feel that way. She didn’t smile. As her mother came toward them, Connie’s lower lip began to stick out. She batted her eyes to keep back the tears. That was because she knew how wonderful it was to have her mother home again. She was going to do everything she could to keep her mother smiling and happy. Connie ran toward her mother with her arms outstretched. After all, sixteen didn’t mean that one was too grown up to hug one’s mother in public.