From the Relief Society Magazine, 1956 –
Cathy and the Onions
by Florence Berrett Dunford
Though home was just next door to their cousin Theodore’s, less than a third of a country block apart, Cathy Bennett was so weary she thought she could not make it. Theodore’s mother had nine boys. Naturally it was almost impossible to keep a hired girl. The morning before when Uncle Stanley had appealed to her father, Cathy had offered to help out. For eight hours on Thursday and until noon on Friday, she had stood at the ironing board and ironed nothing but shirts.
I never want to see another boy’s shirt, she thought, as she opened the screen door. She stopped short. Her father and mother were in the long narrow kitchen with its blue and white linoleum and polished range, talking in low tones.
“I’m sorry,” her mother said, brushing at a wing of dark hair, “I’d like to go to the party. But I just can’t. I haven’t a thing to wear except one of those old Mother Hubbards. I’m tired of those.”
“I know you are.” Cathy’s father’s voice was tender. “But still you’ve got to go. You haven’t been out since … since …”
Since the baby died, Cathy supplied in her own mind. Her mother loved babies. She supposed there was nothing worse to her than losing a baby.
She’s got to go! Cathy thought. Mother’s got to go to Aunt Mae’s party tomorrow night.
“It’s taking a little time to get on my feet after the flood,” Cathy’s father said, apologetically. Until the summer before they’d lived on a ranch. But the dry bed had overflowed its banks. Now they were back in Menan again, but the job at the flour mill didn’t pay enough for new dresses. Even Cathy could see that.
Cathy backed down the steps. There was a hopelessness in her parents’ voices, that meant defeat. Only Cathy wouldn’t admit failure. Her sister, Jinny, who was eight, came up at that moment.
“Mother can’t go to Aunt Mae’s party because she hasn’t anything to wear,” Cathy told Jinny there in the sun-baked dooryard.
“Tho what?” Jinny lisped.
“Tho … we have to do something.”
“Didn’t Uncle Stanley pay youoh anything for awning?” Jinny asked. It was warm, the first of June. The Idaho sun turned Jinny’s hair to flame.
“Of course not,” Cathy said. “that was a favor.”
“Well, whyn’t you ask Thindoo?” Thindoo was the best Jinny could do with Theodore.
“I will! I will!” Cathy cried her eyes brightening. “Come on.” She grasped Jinny’s hand. forgetting her weariness, she hurried along the path toward Theodore’s again.
Theodore and Homer were just climbing onto Theodore’s pony. “We’ve got to hurry,” Theodore said. “Father’s expecting us at the ranch to thin beets.” Theodore had fair hair and blue eyes and a kind manner.
“Mothah can’t go to the party tomorrow night,” Jinny lisped. “We’ve got to duoh something to get her a new dress.”
“We thought perhaps you might tell us where we could get a job,” Cathy said.
“Job?” Theodore scratched his head. “Too bad thinning beets is a man’s job.” He took time out to think a minute.
“If we could get work that paid,” Cathy said, “we could ask Miz Rawson at the store to help us select a dress for Mother and charge it.”
“It’s too bad Mother’s hired girl just showed up. I wish I could help you,” Theodore said again. “Wait a minute. This morning at the post office I heard Tom Smith say he wanted someone to weed his onions. He has a big patch, you know; lives about a mile west of town on the way to our ranch.”
“That big thkin-flint?” Jinny asked.
Theodore grinned. “I guess he is a bit close. He’s a bachelor.”
“Maybe he’d think weeding onions a boy’s job, too,” Cathy said.
“Maybe so,” Theodore said. “But he said this morning he’d take girls. Aren’t any boys who’d work for the wages he pays.”
“You think Jinny and I might get jobs?” Cathy asked.
“You could certainly try. Though I have my doubts about Jinny.”
* * * * *
“I’m twelve,” Cathy said over the phone a few minutes later. Luckily her mother was taking her fifteen-minute rest. “Jinny’s a bit younger than I,” she added.
“That’s all right,” Mr. Smith boomed.
Leaving a note for their mother, Cathy and Jinny hurried out the white picket front gate and toward town.
Miz Rawson was very nice about the dress. “You’re sure you have the job?” she asked. She was as old as Cathy’s mother, but she had never found the right man. Her silvery-reddish hair was thin and frizzy. “Not that it matters,” she said. “Your father’s credit is always good.”
“Oh, but this isn’t Father,” Cathy insisted. “Mr. Smith said Jinny and I were to report at eight in the morning.”
They found a pretty dress. “The color of your mother’s eyes,” Miz Rawson said.
“Mother’s eyes are gray,” Jinny said.
“Blue,” Cathy said.
“A gray-blue,” Miz Rawson compromised. “I know she’ll like this dress. And of course I know her size. Your mother and I went to school together.”
“Mother says you were the gayest girl in the class,” Cathy said.
“But she was the prettiest,” Miz Rawson said, sighing.
It was the middle of the afternoon when Cathy and Jinny returned home, the new dress in its wrapping of paper, carried carefully under Cathy’s arm. But she wanted her father there, too, when she showed it. Urging Jinny to keep their secret, she tiptoed through the dim front room to the big bedroom she shared with her sisters and slid the package up on a closet shelf.
* * * * *
“Mother was real touched; she had tears in her eyes,” Jinny told Cathy happily the next morning as they went down the shaded sidewalk in the direction of Tom Smith’s.
“She thought the dress was lovely,” Cathy said. “Father didn’t like it because we’d charged it.”
“But he couldn’t say anything with Mothah so happy,” Jinny exulted.
“I don’t care how hot it is, or how hard Tom Smith makes us work,” Cathy said. “I’m so happy Mother has her dress.”
“How do we weed onions?” Jinny asked, as they neared the big white frame house. “With a hoe?”
“Maybe he’ll make us get down on our knees,” Cathy said.
“You should have borrowed Thindoo’s overalls.”
“I never wear levis; you know that,” Cathy said a bit sharply.
“Well, donth blame me if you get callouses on your knees,” Jinny said.
Mr. Smith answered Cathy’s knock at the rear. He seemed very glad to see her, though not Jinny.
“She wouldn’t know a weed from an onion,” he said. Mr. Smith’s face was round. He was quite round all over, Cathy noticed.
“I work alth time at home,” Jinny protested. “I’m eight.”
“She doesn’t look eight,” Mr. Smith said. “I suppose you won’t weed without her?”
“Oh, yes, I will!” Cathy said hurriedly. She was very disappointed. How long would it take her to earn the dress?
“Forty-seven cents a row,” Mr. Smith said, squinting down one of the rows that to Cathy looked a whole block long. “And no hoes. You sure you can tell weeds from onions?”
“Cathy hath an awful nose; she can smell everything,” Jinny said, snickering.
“She means I’m aller … sensitive to some things,” Cathy said. “Sometimes I get hives.”
“Huh.” Mr. Smith was not interested. “I suppose you brought your lunch?” When they picked raspberries for the Wendells, they were always given their lunch. But after Theodore’s warning Cathy had not expected it of Mr. Smith.
“We sure did,” Jinny lisped. When Mr. Smith’s broad back disappeared inside the cool depths of his house again, she said, ‘I’m just goin’ to stay awhile and watch.”
Cathy got down on her knees. Lucky she had worn a big straw hat. Her old cotton stockings came up well above her knees.
“These weeds are sure thick,” she called out to Jinny a few moments later. There were furrows between the rows. She crawled along in one, pulled the small weeds from between the onions, dropped them in the furrow. “Water will carry them away,” Mr. Smith had said.
“I wishth …” Jinny began, from her shady spot on the ditchbank. Cathy’s sneeze cut short her remarks. “Oww,” Cathy said, and rubbed the forefinger of her right hand across her nose. And sneezed three times, heavily.
“What’s the mattah?” Jinny called out.
Cathy straightened up on her knees. “I … don’t … know. I feel funny. Ker …choo! Oh, my arm’s itching!” She scraped at her left arm.
“Now it’s my forehead,” she cried. “Oh, dear! Can you smell the onions?”
“Of courth not,” Jinny said. “Whatth mattah with you anyway? Your face looks all splotchy.”
Cathy swallowed. Two big tears ran down her stinting cheeks. “I feel sick. I’m getting hives,” she wailed. “These awful old onions are giving me hives!”
“I’ll go tell Mr. Smith,” Jinny said, getting to her feet.
“You will not! I’ll be all right.” She started to pull weeds faster than ever, casting them furiously into the small furrow. Already her knees were burning. Could the welts be breaking out all over?
“I can’t stop; I can’t,” she muttered to herself. “I’ve already charged the dress. Mother has got it. I’ve got to weed the onions … to get the money … to pay for Mother’s …
“Oh, Jinny,” she wailed, sitting down flat in the furrow, “I can’t see! My eyes are swelling shut! I can’t tell a weed from an onion!” She began rubbing the back of her hand across her eyes, sniffling. “I can’t see!” she called wildly.
“What’s this about not seeing?” It was Mr. Smith’s voice, and Cathy thought dimly he must have ears in the back of his head. Or else he was watching from a window.
“Cathy’s got hives; she can’t thee,” Jinny said. Jinny always spoke out, making bad matters worse, Cathy thought desperately.
“I’ll … be … all right,” Cathy gasped. “They’ll … go … away.” To herself, she said frantically, They’ve got to. Her mother wouldn’t keep the dress if she lost the job. When her father got home from the mill tonight, there’d be only gloom in the house.
Cathy got up on her knees again, plucked at what she thought was a weed.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Mr. Smith yelled. “That’s an onion!” He leaned over and, grasping Cathy by the shoulder, lifted her to her feet. “Now, then, let’s look at you.”
From his silence Cathy felt she must look shocking. “Come in the house … no, sit down on the ditchbank in the shade.” Even Mr. Smith’s tight-fisted nature, his concern for his onions, seemed taking second place.
“I’ll be all right,” Cathy gasped. “I’ll be all right!”
“Well, you won’t be around onions, that’s for sure,” Mr. Smith said. “You,” he went on, glancing at Jinny, “take your sister’s arm and lead her home.” As Jinny hurried forward, he muttered distractedly, “I’ve got to get somebody to weed those onions.”
As Cathy and Jinny made their way alongside the house toward the front gate, Cathy could hear his voice on the telephone.
“Nowth what?” Jinny said, as they stood outside the gate.
“I don’t know,”Cathy said. “Let’s just stand here a minute. I feel better already. I believe I can see a little.”
“Buth you can’t weed onions,” Jinny said.
“No. And we can’t go home, either!” Despair poured through Cathy.
“Why canth the dress stay charged?” Jinny reasoned. “Miz Rawson said Fawthah’s credit was good.”
“It won’t be if we do things like this!” Cathy cried. “Besides, Mother won’t let us keep it. By the time Father gets home it’ll be sent back. And he won’t really want to keep it either. Theodore …” In any trouble, Cathy’s mind went to her cousin.
“Thindoo, Thindoo!” Jinny began to dance around with joy. “He’ll help us.”
“He will not,” Cathy scolded. “How can he? He and Homer are thinning beets. And their beets are almost as important to them as Mr. Smith’s onions are to him.”
“Wellth, anyway,” Jinny pleaded, “leth just go on down to the ranch. Ith only a mile; no farther than home.”
Without hope, Cathy let herself be persuaded. There was no way out of her trouble this time, she felt sure. Going to Theodore’s would only prolong her ordeal. And her respect and love for her father demanded she be back home in time to return the dress before the store closed for the night.
Walking along the dusty road, hurrying toward each patch of shade, feeling the coolness of the water in the ditch beside the road, hearing its rush and music and rhythm, did something for Cathy’s hives. By the time they turned in at the wide pole gate at Theodore’s ranch, most of the swelling seemed to have gone away. “I can even see,” she told Jinny.
To the north now lay the green expanse of the beet field. Two small blobs, one shorter and rounder over to the right told Cathy where to go. Somehow the task ahead of her would seem easier if Theodore knew.
While Cathy told Theodore against Jinny’s interruptions, Theodore went on thinning beets, watching Homer out of one eye, who kept striking out with his short hoe in all directions.
“I might have known,” he said, his voice warm with sympathy. “I’ve noticed you never eat onions.”
“I really didn’t know myself. I didn’t like them,” Cathy said.
“You’re sure your mother won’t keep the dress?” Theodore asked.
“I’m sure.” Cathy’s brown eyes met his blue ones.
“Sometimes it’s better to just do a thing … go home and take the dress back, I mean,” Theodore said.
It was his way of saying that this time he couldn’t help.
I shouldn’t have come, Cathy thought. It was bad enough that she’d got herself into this trouble. Now she had Theodore worried too.
She was just turning away, when she saw Uncle Stanley coming toward them.
“Anything wrong?” he asked. Uncle Stanley was kind, but he was also practical. He had so much work to do, he couldn’t let his heart overrule his head the way Theodore sometimes seemed to do.
“We just came to see Thindoo,” Jinny said.
“Cathy charged a dress so Aunt Sue could go to Mother’s party tonight,” Theodore told his father, “on the strength of weeding onions for Tom Smith. But Mr. Smith wouldn’t let Jinny in the patch, and the onions gave Cathy hives. Her eyes swelled up so she couldn’t see.” He smiled a little at Cathy.
“Well, you might thin beets, though the job is for men,” Uncle Stanley said. “But I’m sort of cash, too. Theodore and Homer won’t get paid until the beets are hauled this fall.”
“I guess there’s just nothing we can do,” Cathy said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Mother just can’t go to the party.”
“I didn’t think you’d let girls thin beets,” Theodore told his father.
“Under ordinary circumstances I wouldn’t,” Uncle Stanley said.
“I wonder,” Theodore said, “if we could make a trade for a few days. I could go over to Mr. Smith’s and weed his onions, take the money he gives me and pay for Aunt Sue’s dress. Cathy and Jinny could stay here and thin beets.”
Cathy saw Uncle Stanley’s eyes go over the broad field of beets. Theodore, she knew, was his mainstay. Homer and Jinny and she would be poor substitutes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Already he was in a hurry. “I just …” Suddenly he seemed really to see Cathy. “Why, this is Cathy!” he said. And then he grinned – like Theodore – and said, “We surely appreciated you ironing all those shirts!”
“Oh, that was all right,” Cathy said. She closed her right hand, feeling the blisters which, by now, were turning to callouses. “I was glad to help.”
Uncle Stanley seemed to be undergoing a change of heart. “Since it’s Cathy who is asking, I think we should do our best. How long,” he asked Theodore, “do you suppose it’ll take you over at Smith’s?”
Theodore was smiling now, too. Homer and Jinny were jumping up and down, their arms about each other. For the first moment since yesterday noon when she schemed her wild scheme, Cathy felt everything was going to be all right.