From the Relief Society Magazine, 1949 –
By Margery S. Stewart
Everyone left at last, the relatives, the neighbors, the acquaintances. They came to Joanna and kissed her and pressed her hand, murmuring over and over, “Be sure to let us know if we can help. Be sure, now.”
Joanna nodded her bent head and repeated clumsily, “It was right nice of you to come … right nice of you. I’ll let you know. We’ll get along. … We’ll get along some way.”
The friends from Brigham City were the last to go. They had known her all her life. “You better come back,” they said. “We can help you there … Big city like this is no place for a widow with a family …”
Joanna lifted her swollen face to them. She looked past the sun-browned faces of the men and saw again the hills of her home, the pleasant orchards of her childhood, the ordered fields, the roads, the little rivers that had known her bare, quick feet. She looked at the women’s faces and saw the pity there. She saw her history in their compassionate eyes …Joanna, young and impetuous, not willing to stay like other girls in the small, peaceful town, but running off to the city, to nothing better than waiting on table jobs and to marrying a man her folks had never met … of whom no one approved. Too gay and quick talking, Joanna’s man, David, too many dreams for making money, but not enough money from any of his jobs to pay for doctor bills when his and Joanna’s four babies came along. Joanna’s folks had paid for them. Joanna’s folks had mortgaged their little house and their farm to pay for this and that which Joanna and her small brood had needed, until death had folded their stubborn, toil-hard hands and they could help no more.
The relatives would talk about David, Joanna knew, on the swift ride back to Brigham City. They would comment on his death. Typical of him, they would say, speeding down a mountain road in a car that should have been in a junk yard long ago … typical to have left no insurance, no paid house that a widow might use as a fortress.
Joanna went with the Brigham City people to the door. Their disapproval made no difference in their love for her. They wept over her, kissed her again and again. They bent and hugged the children, standing mute and big-eyed upon the battered porch.
“You come up to the farm,” they said to Penelope. “We’ll fatten you up.”
Penny stood stiffly in their arms, a thin, tall child, with long, black hair and her father’s beautiful, winging brows.
David, no taller than Penny though two years older, endured their caresses with the stoic dignity often. Joanna saw how bleak his brown eyes looked without the laughter that always lived in them.
Sally, four, and Michael, two, took hugs and kisses as a matter of course, more interested in the wedges of cake in their grimy hands. They waved cheerfully to the departing guests. They turned to their mother. Sally held up her hand. :Bite?”
Obediently, Joanna took a bite, and could not swallow it. Her throat was dry and swollen, and fear was a lump she could not dislodge. The hose was trickling a thin stream on the small, discouraged lawn. Joanna knelt and lifted it and drank. She rose and dusted off the hem of her one good dress, navy blue crepe, with a white lace jabot. She went slowly down the cracked cement walk to the street. The street was not paved, only graveled. Now the gravel was almost hidden under the golden drift of cottonwood leaves from the trees that lined the street. The houses on either side were shabby and tumbled, red brick, most of them, with porches long in need of paint and with sagging, broken steps.
Joanna turned and looked at her own house. It was red brick, like the others. The door, behind the battered screens, was flanked by two square windows. The window on the right was cracked, brown sticking paper following its course.
She went up the path, up the stairs, into the house. She looked around the little sitting room, with its coal heater in the corner, the leatherette sofa along one wall, the chair that matched it standing against the opposite wall. Her treadle sewing machine stood under the starched lace of the curtains, mending spilled out of the reed basket. She looked at the threadbare rug, and the straight back chairs as if she were taking inventory. There were two pictures on the stained brown walls. One was “The Angelus.” She had cut it out of a magazine and put it in an old frame. The other was also a magazine print, “Sunflowers” by Van Gogh. Joanna stared at it, dazedly, remembering how she had always loved the fierce, wild beauty of the sunflowers. She had imagined the mad artist plunging them violently into the squat vase. Today they seemed garish. She went past the picture into the kitchen.
The table was loaded with cakes and pies and covered dishes from the hands of kind neighbors. The kitchen range sent out a cheery warmth. She opened the lid and poured more coal from the bucket that stood on a newspaper. She looked at the linoleum, no one but herself knew that under the gay rag rugs the pattern was worn through the boards. The kitchen chairs stood neatly against the green painted walls, Sally’s battered doll on one of the gingham cushions. Joanna straightened the gaily embroidered dish towels on their rack. She went swiftly through the children’s bedroom. There were only the two beds, covered with the quilts she had made from scraps her mother had sent her. She opened the door to the bathroom that would be icy cold all winter and closed it again. She went to the bedroom she had shared with David.
She touched the wooden footboard, her hands dragging. She smoothed the crocheted spread. She sat for a moment in the small rocker, where David had sat when he read to her. David’s voice had been rich and beautiful. There had been a magic in listening to it, because it never mentioned doubt, or poverty, or grief, only the wonderful things… new inventions, the kindness of people, the marvelous stories he wove out of his own dreaming head.
Joanna went over to the bed and sat on it. She looked at the chair and saw David in it, the rich, bright waves of his dark hair, the winging brows, the beautiful square teeth. Laughter shone in him like candles … and something else… a child’s belief in life, a belief in the ultimate reward.
“David,” Joanna whispered. She looked down at her hands, palm up on the blue crepe skirt. They were large hands, the fingers square and spatulate, faintly calloused, worker’s hands, accustomed to grasping the implements of toil. They were reddened from the harsh soap that Joanna bought because it was cheaper.
Her purse was lying open on the dresser. She rose and went over to it. Her reflection in the mirror came to meet her. She watched it come nearer. She looked at herself dispassionately, as one would look at a stranger. She had the long, big bones of her father. Her shoulders were wide her neck was long and slender. She looked at her face. It was not pretty. There was no soft pink and whiteness, no pertness. It was a strong face. David had called it beautiful, finding pleasure in the high cheek bones and the square, firm jaw line.
“You will always be lovely, Joanna,” he had told her. “Time won’t destroy this modeling … You don’t need jewels. Your eyes are so sapphire blue … stars caught in them. Is it love that makes your mouth so sweet to look upon? Love for me, Joanna?”
I am thirty-two, Joanna thought, and I look forty. All my life I’ve known women who have looked like I do today. I never knew why. She bent over her bag, finding the coin purse, emptying its contents on the dresser. One dollar and nineteen cents. She had declined every offer of help, declined it fiercely, frightened by it, the stern scorn of her father for shiftless folk who “took charity”ringing in her ears.
But one dollar and nineteen cents and pride were pitiful barriers against the coming days. Panic rose in her. She went swiftly to the front door and called young David. “Go, borrow a morning paper from Miss Smith. Tell her I’ll send it right back.”
She almost snatched the paper from him on his return. She took it back to her bedroom and sat in the rocker and tore it open to the want ad section. Three jobs in the “women wanted” section. All of them housemaids. Blind terror shook her, making her heart thunder in her breast, pushing the breath out of her lungs. She thought of the men she had seen, shuffling outside the soup kitchens on winter mornings. There was a woman on the next street who had put her children in an orphanage, while she slaved for the meager wages a downtown cafe paid. Depression. A spectre, striking food from children’s mouths, driving people out of their homes.
She noticed suddenly that the room had grown dark and that she had not heard the children for some time. She rose hastily and went in search of them.
They were at the far end of the block, watching a neighbor rake autumn leaves into a burning pile for the delight of his children. There were two of them. They raced around their father, shouting with delight when sparks showered around them. The man caught them and held them under each arm, laughing over them, pride in his face.
Joanna’s children stood shyly back from the blaze, spectators only, taking the new role humbly.
“Children,” Joanna cried, unaware of the tears scattering from her eyes.” It’s time for supper. Did you forget? Let’s have a race home.”
They leaped around her like puppies. “Race! Race! Should we give Sally and Mike a head start?’
“Oh, yes. David, you and Penny get way back here. Farther, much farther.” Her voice had a queer catch in it, but they didn’t seem to notice. “Now, run!”
They sped away from her; leaves whirled up from their feet. She watched their fleeing forms. Penny ran like a doe, fleet and wild, her dark hair streamed behind her. David ran with his head down, his arms close at his sides. Michael laughed when he ran, spurts of laughter, pushed out of his fat body. Sally only pretended to run, not really interested in such a boisterous business.
Penny reached the porch first. She straddled the railing, waiting for Joanna. “Look, Mom, the street is pretty now. It gets pretty at night when the houses are hidden.”
Joanna followed her daughter’s eyes. It was true. The houses were hidden by shadows, their windows were cheerful with the bright golden light streaming out of them. The dark night seemed caught in the black, stripped branches of the cottonwoods. Suddenly Joanna shivered. Winter was not far off, almost she could hear it, baying on the hills like a gaunt white wolf. She herded the children into the house, sent them to the bathroom to be washed by Penny. She warmed a casserole dish of stewed chicken and noodles, cleared the table and set it with her own preserves, with thick slices of homemade bread and with fresh country butter that one of the women had brought from Brigham.
The children sat in their accustomed places. They stared silently at the chair where their father had sat. Their small faces grew sharp. Joanna sat hastily in the vacant chair. She bowed her head. “David, you ask the blessing.”
They ate hungrily, with the intense enjoyment of healthy children. Joanna watched them, her hands folded in her lap. Love and fear and loss shook her in turn. Suddenly she could bear it no longer, the smell of hot chicken, the singing of the kettle on the range, the children’s lamplit faces.
She rose and went to her room. She knelt beside the rocker, her face leaning against the knuckles of her hands. Her breast seemed torn with the whispered cry “… I haven’t anyone but thee. I know I have made mistakes, done foolish things … Forgive me and help me now, I humbly pray …”