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Second Best

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 18, 2012

This story is posted as an illustration of 1950s thought. Take a deep breath and try not to be angry.

From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1954 –

Second Best

Blanche Sutherland

Kay Webster turned the chops and lowered the fire under the skillet before lifting a flushed cheek for Don’s homecoming kiss. There were tired lines around her mouth, and a strand of fair hair had escaped its pin.

“Dinner’s late,” she said, hurriedly putting plates and silver on the table in the breakfast nook. “Mr. Martin brought in some extra contracts to be typed – in triplicate, too, mind you, and at five-thirty.”

“Well, I’m late, too,” Don consoled. “That’s what comes of having to ride with Carson. He’s always behind time.”

“I wish we had two cars,” Kay interjected impatiently, “or you would pick up the baby, and I’d come home by bus. No – that wouldn’t do. I’d be later than ever. Oh, well, wash Bobby’s hands and put him in his chair, will you, Don? And start him on his dinner. He’s so hungry and tired. Mrs. Meredith was just about to feed him when I finally got there.”

Don laid an envelope beside his own plate silently and picked up Bobby from the floor, swinging him to his broad shoulder.

“Hi, old man,” he said, his broad face tender, “how about a wash-up and then that egg, I see there?”

Bobby rubbed his eyes with a small, grubby hand. “Egg,” he demanded, “egg.”

Kay fluffed the potatoes, stirred gravy, and was sliding a pan of rolls from the oven when Don and Bobby returned, sleek and smiling.

“That oven!” she ejaculated. “These rolls are too brown.”

Don sniffed appreciatively at the warm odors emanating from the steaming utensils. “I like ‘em brown. And chops. Who wants steak when chops are half the price?”

He leveled Bobby into his chair and gave him his spoon. “Did you see what I brought home, honey?” he asked eagerly.

Kay shook her head. “Dinner’s ready,” she said.

Don sat down, opened the envelope, and passed the contents over, then straightened back, a smile lighting the broad planes of his face. “How’s that?” he inquired.

Kay dropped her eyes to the paper, then, “The car,” she exclaimed. “In full, Don, in full? Well, that’s off our shoulders.”

“Yep. Our car at last, and still in good shape, and now …” He grinned at her.

Kay poured milk into Bobby’s cup. “And now. What do you mean – and now?”

Don took an appreciative bite of his chop. “And now, you can quit working, honey. See?”

“Quit!” Kay remonstrated. “The car’s paid for, yes, but there’s still the house.”

“I can take care of that. The fifty dollar raise I got, you know.”

“But that’s not all, Don,” Kay broke in, her blue eyes impatient. “The furniture is all secondhand stuff, as you know. The stove and refrigerator are both on the ragged edge. And then, I want one of these automatic washers – instead of spending half my evenings washing and drying clothes.” Kay stopped for breath.

“But if you weren’t working, you wouldn’t need to wash evenings, honey,” he objected. “We’ll get all those things in time. Be reasonable, won’t you?”

Kay laid down her fork patiently. “But Don, Bobby’s all right. Mrs. Meredith is wonderful with children, better than I would be. Bobby has playmates there, all about his own age. He’d be lonesome here all alone.”

“He’d get acquainted with his father and mother,” Don argued shortly. “The way it is now, we rush him to Mrs. Meredith’s so early he can’t even have breakfast here. Then, at night, after he’s had his dinner, he’s tired and goes to bed. That’s no way for a family to live.”

Kay’s lips trembled. She spooned baby food onto Bobby’s plate, wiped egg smears from his mouth. “Well, I’m too tired to argue,” she said. “I just told Mr. Martin this morning that I’d stay on, so I guess I’ll have to.”

Don shrugged and finished his meal in silence, his mouth set grimly. but as they were preparing for bed, he renewed his plea.

“Kay, think it over, won’t you? I want a real home and a wife who isn’t all tired out when I get here, where dinner’s ready, and the kid’s not too tired to play a little while. Can’t you understand?”

Kay, seated at the dressing table, took the bright stones from her ears and started brushing her short, blond hair.

“I’ll think about it,” she said shortly. “Anyway, there’s no hurry.”

But she was too tired to think, this night as always, and in the morning there was no time. Don doesn’t know what he’s asking, she reasoned with herself. Besides, I like working, and Mrs. Meredith is so lovely with Bobby. Breakfast, lunch, and naps right on time. And she’s teaching all the children good manners and how to get along together. I couldn’t do it.

Kay met Margery Holt in the drugstore downtown that noon when she went in after lunch to get some toilet articles. Marge had her baby with her, almost the same age as Bobby.

“Still working, Kay?” she asked.

“Yes, but Don’s beginning to fuss about it,” Kay answered. Then, “Do you think I’m unreasonable, Marge? You stay at home, you know how it is. I want to keep on working until we have some of the nice things.”

“Well, of course, Don makes more than Ed. But staying at home’s no cinch. I’m real tired at night, and we don’t go out much as we can’t afford a baby-sitter very often. Bobby’s all right, isn’t he?”

“Oh, yes, fine. Mrs. Meredith is wonderful. She takes care of four children, all under two. Some are creeping, some just staggering around. And the jargon!” Kay laughed. “She told me this morning that Bobby said ‘Mawy’ the other day. She thought he was trying to say Meredith.”

Margery laughed. “Of course, that’s natural. He sees far more of her than of you.”

Kay winced, but did not reply, while Margery continued, “And once they get started talking … My Danny was slow, too, but he’s been saying Da da and Mum for two or three weeks. Ed was so proud, you’d think no child ever talked before.”

“Mum, mum,” Danny interrupted. “Da da!” his tiny hands waving in an ecstasy of accomplishment.

Kay smiled down at him, a small stirring of jealousy in her heart. It wasn’t any lack in Bobby, of course. She’d start tonight saying Da da and Mummy over and over. It wouldn’t be long.

“And his first step,” Margery was bubbling on. “Oh, that was a day. Maybe, it’s because Danny’s our first, but Ed would hardly let the child rest a minute. ‘Stand up now,’ he’d say, ‘like a little man. That’s it. Now, come to Daddy.’ Over and over, he’d urge him until I had to step in and put him to bed.” She laughed. “I suppose it’s the same with you.”

Kay nodded. she wasn’t going to tell Marge that they hadn’t known about Bobby’s first step alone until he was really walking. Mrs. Meredith had too many first steps to report, maybe.

“Well, I’ve a tub of laundry waiting,” Marge exclaimed. “Come up some Saturday and we’ll compare children. So long.”

“Say Mummy. Daddy,” Kay coaxed Bobby that night as she was preparing him for bed. She pulled a tiny shirt from over his small blond head. “Mummy, Daddy.

“Mawy,” Bobby replied stolidly. “Mawy.”

“What’s that he’s trying to say?” Don asked from his seat on the bed.

“Meredith, I guess. At least, Mrs. Meredith thinks so,” Kay replied shortly, “or imagines,” she added. “Though with all those babies gabbing away, I don’t know how she’d know who really did say it.”

Don’s face was inscrutable. He started to speak, thought better of it, and lapsed into silence.

“Did you think any more about giving up your job, Kay?” He asked later as she washed and he wiped the dishes.

“No,” she answered crisply.

“Well, do,” he urged. “You’re looking tired, honey. I’d think you’d rather stay home.”

“Marge Holt stays home and she gets tired, too,” Kay interjected, “real tired, she expressed it today. They’re having a hard time financially, too. I believe she envies us.”

Don shrugged and carried a load of dishes to the cupboard. “I wish I’d never let you go back to work,” he said grimly.

“Then the car wouldn’t be paid for, maybe not even the doctor bill for Bobby, and a lot of other things,” she flashed. “Don’t forget that.”

She wiped off the table, hung up the towels. “I’ve some things to wash out,” she said shortly.

“Okay,” Don said, his mouth a grim line. “anything I can do?”

“No,” Kay answered and watched him out of the kitchen. Perhaps Don had forgotten how things had been, she thought, her hands deep in soapsuds. They had married on faith and a shoestring. She had her job, he had his, and, of course, with one rent to pay instead of two and home-cooked meals so much cheaper than restaurant ones they had decided they could get along. They had for a time. The furnished apartment did very well until they found an unbelievable bargain in a house. They had furnished it with unclaimed furniture from a storage place, all on time, of courses.

Then, their luck had faded. Don’s car gave out, and they had to buy another, and Dr. Wellman informed them that Bobby was on the way. Soon, there was only Don’s salary. Doctor bills mounted, crib, carriage, layette had to be bought, later, hospital bills, nurses and pediatricians to be paid. The first of the month became a nightmare of juggling salary against groceries, bills, and house and car payments. There never was enough to go around. Kay watched Bobby through many a minor upset to save another doctor bill.

Then, she had found Mrs. Meredith. Kay reached for the soap box, recalling her first encounter with her. She had gone for a walk in the park with four-month-old Bobby and a sudden rainstorm had sent her up on the porch of a nearby house for shelter. Suddenly, the door opened and a pleasant woman had appeared.

“Come in, my dear,” she exclaimed. “You’re getting wet. I’m Mrs. Meredith.”

Thankfully, Kay accepted and found inside what seemed to be a room full of bassinets, cribs, playpens, all with children in them, all nearly the same size.

“Are they all yours?” she asked in bewilderment. “Twins or triplets, or …” she stammered, looking from one to the other.

“Oh, no,” Mrs. Meredith laughed. “I only take care of them. It’s just another way of earning a living.” She picked a string of plastic balls up and handed it to the occupant of a bassinet. “I love children, and it’s much easier if they’re all about the same age.”

“But – but where are their mothers?” Kay gasped.

“Oh, working. Diane, here, has a father in Korea, Jerry over there in the play-pen, his father is dead. Mary’s mother works to make ends meet. Different reasons, you know,” she explained. “But sit down and let me see your baby. Boy, isn’t it?”

Kay complied, and by the time the rain had ended and Mrs. Meredith had disclosed her terms, she was thoroughly imbued with her new idea. Everything, the room, the babies were shining clean, the children seemed happy and well cared for. This would be the answer, and Mr. Martin, her employer, had told her any time she wanted to come back, he’d find a place for her.

“Would you take Bobby?” she had asked. “I really need to work, we’re so in debt. And I’d feel perfectly safe if he were here.”

Mrs. Meredith hesitated and looked about. “I’ve never taken more than four at a time,” she objected. “I’m afraid not.” She brightened. “Judy’s mother is getting better. Perhaps it won’t be too long before she can care for her herself. Give me your name and telephone. I’ll call when I can take him.”

Bobby had gone to Mrs. Meredith at six months of age, ten months ago. They’d paid their debts, one by one, bought a few pieces of furniture, finished the payments on the car – and now …

Kay poured the pan of suds into the sink, filled it with fresh water, and started rinsing small shirts and stockings, overalls, and sweaters. Now, with an automatic washer, Bobby’s clothes would all be clean and dried by the time he was in bed and she’d be through for the night. She crisscrossed a cord in the kitchen and hung up the small garments with a sigh of relief. Maybe this was the last time. There wasn’t a single reason why the washer might not be decided upon tomorrow, or the next day at the latest.

Don made only a small objection, going with her to decide on the make and size most suitable. After that, life went along as usual, except that Kay wasn’t so tired at night, and they had their evenings together.

“I guess you were right, Kay,” Don owned grudgingly one evening. The weary lines had disappeared from the face she bent over her mending. “At least, about the washer,” he amended. “What’s that you are sewing on?”

“Bobby’s overalls. I’ve mended and mended them but hand-sewing doesn’t hold. I believe I’ll get a sewing machine. It would really be a saving. I could make the drapes for this room for a third of the price they charge.”

Don shook his head wearily. “Here we go again,” was all he said.

Kay went on, “And I saw a sofa in Hanagan’s window, just the color I want.” Kay turned and looked about the room. “Everything’s so shabby. Now, with new drapes,” she went on brightly, “and another chair, you wouldn’t know the place.”

“Honey, honey,” Don begged, reaching forward for her hand. “Let’s be satisfied with what we have until I can manage. I’ll get the sofa and the drapes, and after a while the sewing machine. Just be patient, won’t you?” He patted her hand. “Those are just things, and meanwhile we’re losing a real home. Bobby is, too, if you’d only see it.”

Kay turned her head away. Was she unreasonable? Don looked so eager, it seemed to mean so much to him. Then, suddenly, something of the old panic she had felt before and just after Bobby’s birth returned. Who knew when bad luck might strike, and they’d be faced with bills again – every month turning this way and that, balancing this against that. She was doing this as much for Bobby’s sake as for theirs, she thought irritably.

She pulled her hand away from Don’s. “Another year maybe,” she promised, “just to be safe.”

Don pushed back his chair and got up abruptly, his dark eyes hard as a stranger’s beneath the thick, dark brows. “And you have no faith in me and my ability to take care of you and Bobby.”

“It isn’t that,” Kay objected, but she knew it was.

“Or are you a coward?” Don asked bitingly. He picked his hat from the closet shelf and walked out.

Kay gathered up her mending with unsteady hands. She wasn’t a coward, she wasn’t, and she didn’t doubt Don. She only wanted to do the best for all their sakes.

Later, in bed, she turned and tossed until Don returned, finally dropping off to sleep, promising herself that when the sewing machine was paid for, she would stop work. But not now, she told herself feverishly, Don would just have to understand.

One afternoon, several weeks later, Mrs. Meredith called. Bobby seemed to have a cold, she said, his temperature was up a little. Probably, nothing to worry about, but Kay should come and get him. The other children must be protected.

He did seem quite feverish, Kay found. She bundled him up and carried him to the car, trying to hush his crying. It couldn’t be serious, Bobby was always so well. But she’d call Dr. Wellman. Then she’d call the office, and say she wouldn’t be back that day, and after that, Don.

“It’s too early for a diagnosis,” the doctor reported. “There are a number of things it might prove to be. I’ll leave something for his fever and the cough. Keep him in bed and no visitors. It might be contagious. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Contagious? Oh, no, Kay thought, dismayed. I’ll call Don.

Don arrived home early, his dark face anxious. “I got hold of Johnson and he brought me,” he explained. “How’s Bobby?” He stood over Bobby’s bed. “Probably just a cold,” he said without conviction. “Do you suppose it’s something he caught over at that Meredith woman’s?”

“No,” Kay replied. “I called ‘that Meredith woman’ as you term her. She said the other children were all well. It’s probably something he picked up at the zoo where you insisted on taking him Saturday.”

Don shrugged and looked at her in silence. Then, “I wanted you to go, too, remember? We have so few pleasures together with Bobby, honey. Saturday afternoon is our only day.”

“And my only day for finishing those drapes,” she replied in a tense voice.

By the fourth day, telltale spots appeared on Bobby’s face, and the doctor’s verdict was measles.

“Measles,” Kay exclaimed. “Oh, all children have measles. How long will it take to clear up? My job, you know.”

“Two weeks, probably,” the doctor said. “That is, if everything goes well, and there are no complications.”

Kay sobered instantly. “Complications?”

“Bronchitis, ear trouble, even pneumonia is possible. But keep him comfortable, no chilling, no drafts. Care is the necessary thing.”

After the doctor’s departure, Kay stood watching Bobby, his small flushed face against the pillow. He coughed Hoarsely and opened his eyes. “Mawy,” he called, “Mawy!”

Kay bent and touched his hot little forehead. “Mommy’s here, Bobby. This is Mommy. Do you want a drink of water?”

Bobby turned his face away. “Mawy,” he sobbed, “wan Mawy.”

He means Mrs. Meredith, Kay thought numbly. “Mawy can’t come, Bobby. Daddy will be here soon, thought.”

“No. Mawy,” Bobby sobbed over and over, “wan Mawy.”

That night Bobby woke screaming with an earache. He cried constantly for “Mawy,” until the doctor arrived with a sedative.

“Who is it he’s calling for?” he asked, “a playmate?”

“No, a Mrs. Meredith who has been caring for him,” Kay replied slowly.

“I see. Too bad. Of course, she couldn’t come.” He turned in an attempt at jocularity. “Bobby’ll have to get along with just his Mom and Dad. Usually, a good combination, though,” he smiled. “If the baby’s not better by morning, call me.”

Kay studiously avoided Don’s eyes. She knew what he was thinking. He and she were second best in the eyes and heart of their own baby. And it was her own fault. She had sold their birthright for a mess of pottage. His first step alone had been for Mrs. Meredith, his first word had been her name. The mess of pottage was a box of receipted bills, a washer, living room drapes, and a sewing machine. Don was able and more than willing to care for his family’s real needs.

She threw herself down beside the bed where Bobby was lying in a drugged sleep and wept. “You must hate me, Don,” she sobbed hopelessly. “I hate myself. It’s not only me but I’ve robbed you, too. I’ve given away Bobby’s babyhood, as if it were nothing. And nothing can bring it back, ever!”

She felt Don’s hands lifting her. “I don’t hate you,” he said, his face against her hair. “I love you. I know you thought you were doing right, I’ve known that all along. you just were scared of unpaid bills, which we could pay in a while with careful budgeting and not buying unnecessary things.”

He raised her chin and kissed her trembling lips. “Besides, by another month Bobby will have forgotten all about Mrs. Meredith. You’ll see.”

“Do you think so, really? It seems mean, she’s such a nice person,” Kay sympathized, then brightened at a new determination.

“I’ll call her in the morning and the Martin Company, too. They can both start advertising in the Wanted columns. Bobby and I are going to be occupied otherwise from now on,” she concluded, with a glow of gratitude in her heart for her decision.



5 Comments »

  1. I’m always more likely to read something with a disclaimer.

    So. My baby is almost a year old. She was in daycare while I finished school, and now she’s still there while I am looking for full-time work and trying to publish some articles. I can relate to this article.

    I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.

    But I could see this appearing in the Ensign today.

    Comment by HokieKate — June 18, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  2. Not as bad as I was expecting with the disclaimer. Working wife/mother decisions are a tough call in any time. I, too, can see this story updated being used today.

    I also see some differences in economic situations right now. Housing costs are on their way back up here in the Seattle area, so for one son and his wife, it will take both incomes to pay for the house they just bought. His younger brother bought a condo with an hour commute so they could afford for his wife to stay home with their young daughter; he’s the only one making it on a single income.

    Tough, tough calls in any era. I will not judge.

    Comment by kevinf — June 18, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

  3. When this was published (about 5 months before I was born), neither of my parents had a real paying job, and they already had two daughters. My dad might have been receiving something as a graduate research assistant (he was two years from his PhD) and I believe that he was getting payments under the G.I. Bill. But if my mother did read this it must have struck a chord because, like Sister Romney, she “never worked a day in her life.” And she’s not likely to start in her 88th year.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 18, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  4. Man, after some of the serials this blog has seen, this was positively TAME! :) I think the only aspect that doesn’t translate to today is the husband’s insistence that Kay stay home. Maybe. At least in my experience, it’s moms who are agonizing, and dads are more ambivalent.

    Comment by E. Wallace — June 18, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

  5. There’s that e-word again! Lol.

    Comment by Coffinberry — June 18, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

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