From the Relief Society Magazine, September 1960 –
A Problem, a Pet, and the Picture
By Louise Morris Kelley
Myrene McDowell tried to put last night’s argument out of her mind; but her husband’s final remark followed her about as she dressed and prepared breakfast.
“The trouble with you is you won’t face the fact that our family is in trouble. If you’d stop to think about it, Myrene, we’re not at all the sort of family we started out to be.”
She set a copper chafing dish on the table for scrambled eggs. Yellow snapdragons in a black vase matched the yellow cobbler’s apron she wore over a slim black skirt. both were a striking splash in the beige and white decor that had been especially created to complement her smoke-blonde hair.
Maybe Del is sorry we have this fabulous apartment in Belmont Towers instead of some cracker box “rose covered cottage.” Well, I’m not. I’m glad his success in photography has allowed us to have some of the niceties of life, she thought. Aloud, she called, “Phillip, are you dressing?”
Her son came out of his bedroom, negative electrical charges preceding him. “I am not going to school today. I am not going.”
Myrene did not intend to take him seriously. “Really, Phillip? Why not?” She poured his orange juice and served his breakfast plate.
“You know why not.” He looked as if he might cry.
“Then I must have forgotten.” She hoped he wouldn’t cry. It made her feel unsure of how to cope with him.
“You know what today is.”
“Of course, dear,” she bluffed, “today is the day that your class – or is it your whole school – is going to …”
“And I still don’t have one.” He was going to manage not to cry. He was going to be stubborn. His face became red between the freckles, and unshed tears made his blue eyes brilliant. “It isn’t just for the pet show. I’ve always wanted a brown woolly dog.”
“You know The Towers will not allow pets.” She added to herself, they barely tolerate children.
“Son, I offered to buy you a lovely aquarium of rare and expensive tropical fish.”
“Huh! You can’t pet a fish. I told you Bobby has a parakeet.” He pushed the scrambled eggs around on his plate. “They’re not woolly. But at least they get to know you and all.”
“You know how I feel about birds. And it isn’t as if you were old enough to take the responsibility of keeping the cage clean.”
He pushed his plate away, picked up his jacket, and left for his day at second grade, leaving his mother worried about his lack of appetite, relieved that he had gone to school, and unhappy because he had not kissed her goodbye.
She ran down the hall and caught up with him by the elevator. “Phillip, I know something that will make you happy. Daddy might come to your school today to take pictures. Any boy can bring a pet to school. But you’re the only one at school that has a Daddy who takes pictures for the biggest magazines in the country. You watch for Daddy and don’t worry about those silly pets.”
He nodded, but would not look at her.
As she re-entered their apartment, Del came out of the darkroom he had improvised in Phillip’s bathroom. His large frame was barnacled about with the tools of his trade. Whether he used the 35 mm. slung around his neck or the 4×5 grasped by his left hand, critics agreed that Del McDowell’s was “The camera with the understanding heart.” A camera in Del’s hands had the ability to see through the outward appearance of people young, old, simple or sophisticated, and record their inner hopes and yearnings.
“I’m out of fast film,” he muttered.”I’ll need it on this public school assignment. Have to hurry and pick some up before my first appointment.”
“Sit down and eat,” Myrene urged. “Your health is more important than what kind of film you use. I’m sure you’re clever enough to use something you have on hand as a substitute.”
He continued toward the door. “”We substitute too much. We’ve filled our lives with substitutes for the things we really want.”
“Philosophy on an empty stomach?” she mocked. But he had already gone. Her menfolk were certainly giving her trouble this morning. Perhaps she should be giving them vitamins.
She put a stereo record on the player and busied herself with tidying up the apartment, a task soon completed and becoming daily less satisfying to her. She looked at, without really seeing, a new fashion magazine. She tried her hair in new arrangements, but none of them lifted the lines of discontent from her pretty face.
Finally, she tried calling some of her old friends, neighbors she had known before they moved to Belmont Towers. None of the three was home. Tuesday morning. Oh, yes, one of them was a Relief Society president now, and she had asked the other two women to work with her.
That had been the cause of another bitter argument between Del and Myrene. “Well, I can’t go to everything,” she had protested.
“Then attend Relief Society as you used to, and cut out these social clubs.”
“But, Del, I’m joining them as much for you as for me. That’s where I can meet women whose husbands could be very useful to you in placing your work.”
Del’s reply to that had been unforgivable. Now that his reputation was made, strictly on the quality of his work, she admitted, perhaps she should do as Del said. She was not as happy in her frantic social schedule as she used to be at Relief Society meeting. But she was so involved now.
As if to substantiate that thought, the phone rang. It was her women’s club president, asking her to be chairman of the fall fashion show.
“We always say,” the woman gushed, “that when we have a problem, the one to get is Myrene McDowell. You are never one to wring your hands or dilly-dally. Once you understand what the problem is, you wade right in and do what has to be done. That’s why we need you.”
“I don’t know,” Myrene stared at the door through which her husband had gone. “We might not be here then.”
“My dear, you’re not giving up that lovely apartment? If you are, let me be the first to know. My daughter is on the waiting list, you know.”
“Oh, it’s nothing definite. Let me call you back later.”
She hung up the phone and walked over to the window. Below her, the outlines of the sprawling city were obscured by the haze from industrial smokestacks and a million auto exhausts. She drew the drapes and turned toward the perfectly proportioned living room. Now why did I say a stupid thing like that? I have no intention of giving up this place. It’s everything any woman ever wanted.
Del came home and developed his negatives.
They ate lunch in silence. Myrene could feel an unspoken hostility in Del, and she was content to let it remain unspoken. This argument about a pet for Phillip – Del and son against her – had actually become a test battle for all the arguments they had had. Arguments about the apartment versus a house; about social life crowding out Church activities, about Phillip and whether they were giving him the things he needed most.
It was the first time she had ever analyzed the arguments and set them up in a row. They made a pattern that way. Almost, you might say, the pattern of a problem. It was a problem she still did not want to admit, because once admitted she would have to do something about it. The club president was right. She was that kind of woman.
She sought a diversion. “Can I go in the darkroom and watch you print?”
Del was surprised. It used to fascinate her, but she hadn’t bothered recently.
He locked the door behind them from force of habit, took a negative off the drying clip. After adjusting the enlarger, he turned on the safe light and put a sheet of paper in the easel. “You’ll be interested in this one. Our son’s pet show. One of the kids didn’t have a pet so he picked up a substitute.”
He flicked the enlarger light on and off, set the timer, and slid the paper into the developing tray in an easy flow of motion.
Myrene rocked the tray gently, sloshing the solution over the paper. The timer ticked off the seconds. Gray areas appeared faintly on the print and gradually deepened. It was undeniably Phillip. Myrene sucked in her breath.
“This is one the public will never see.” Del put his arm around her waist.
The print was full depth now, and he flicked it into the stop bath. Yes, it was Phillip’s face. But more than Phillip’s face, it was Phillip’s loneliness. Cupped in his two little hands was his substitute pet. And his large, wistful eyes seemed to accuse Myrene:
“My mother would give me nothing, so by myself I found the best I could – this brown, soft, woolly caterpillar.”
“Hey, wife, stop crying.” Del’s tone was tender. “You’ll dilute the hypo.”
It would not have been like Myrene to make a confessional speech. She only said, “Want to go house hunting?”
“Three bedrooms, plus darkroom?” he asked hopefully.
“At least three bedrooms,” she agreed. “Plus family room. Plus doghouse.”
His kiss of appreciation told her they were on the way to being the kind of family they ought to be … a happy one.