By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Joanna, who had married David Niels against the wishes of her family, is left a widow with four children to care for and support. Courageously, she takes inventory of her resources – a home, poorly furnished and not paid for, and $1.19 in cash.
Someone knocked at the front door. The children, like a covey of quail, went with her to answer it. It was the neighbor who had built the fire for his children. He was carrying a stuffed flour sack, which he swung down from his shoulders. “It’s navy beans. Got a cousin who brought me down a couple of sacks of ’em. He grows ’em. Thought you could use ‘em, maybe.”
Joanna smiled at his flushed, young face. “Thank you. I surely could.”
He went ahead of her to the kitchen. “Tell me where to put ’em. Don’t want to mess your clean house. Behind the stove do?”
Joanna nodded. She moved a chair to make room.
He cleared his throat. He was young and ruggedly built. Color ran up into his neck. “Anything I can do, Mis’ Niels?”
Joanna shook her head. “You’re right kind to ask, though.”
When he had gone the children climbed back in their places and resumed their meal. Penny stared at the sack. “I guess we’ll get a thousand suppers out of it.”
David rubbed his stomach. “Boston-baked, with molasses … That’s what Daddy liked.”
Penny buttered her bread. “Daddy said nobody could make Boston-baked like Mommy. Daddy said she was the best cook in the world.”
Joanna, standing by the stove, lifted her head. There was a sudden burning in her breast, a roaring in her ears, a breathless reaching for a spar. “Say that again, Penny … What your Daddy said … about my cooking.”
Penny nodded her head vigorously. “He wasn’t just kidding, either. Every time you make Boston-baked the whole neighborhood walks by just to smell the delicious smell. Mrs. Smith says so. She told me.”
Hope leaped like flame in Joanna. She opened the lid of the range and poured more coal into it. She opened the oven door and let the delicious heat surge into the kitchen. Michael’s head was nodding. She went to her bedroom and brought out the rocker, sat in it, and held Michael against her. This was the hour David had loved. He had held them cradled in his laughter and his love. She searched her mind. But no story was hidden there. She reached out her arm and Sally cuddled against her. Joanna asked haltingly, “Would you … like to hear about when I was a little girl?”
They shouted their delight. She told the stories carefully, knowing she had no magic of words to make the brooks and the orchards real, to make her small adventures exciting. But they listened intently, and suddenly she realized that they were hanging on every word she said because, to them, she was their sole security. They clung to that knowledge with all their childish might. She looked around at them. She said,”There isn’t any call for us to be afraid. We’ve got someone looking after us. Looking after us good. We’ll say our prayers and we’ll make out famous. Some day – some day, we’ll have a piano, even.”
“A piano!” They stared at her with round, awed eyes. “A real one?”
She nodded. “For Penny to play for us.”
Penny’s frail fingers danced on the table edge. “Like this, Mother. Watch. I’ll play like this.”
They went to bed, ecstatically happy, talking back and forth about the day when a piano would be enthroned in the front room.
Joanna washed the dishes, rinsed the towels, and hung them by the stove. She opened the sack and poured beans into a pan. Her fingers were shaking. It seemed suddenly a preposterous idea. Shyness was an enemy that marched into her body, scattering the courage of her heart, the half-formed plans in her mind. She fought the enemy with all her strength. She sorted the beans into the large canning kettle, poured water over them. She looked in the ice box and cupboards. Salt pork? She had enough. Molasses? A gallon of it, brown sugar, and mustard … everything.
She took the alarm clock from the top of the stove, set it for four o’clock and carried it to her bedroom. She looked at the bed and grief rocked her. She went to the children’s room and lifted the sleeping Michael from his place beside David. She carried him to her bed, undressed, and slipped in beside him. He was warm and soft and heavy, his hand sweet as warm silk under her lips. Her tears fell on his face and he stirred and turned to her, cuddling his head under her chin. After a while she slept.
The shrill of the alarm clock dragged her from sleep. She rose and dressed, covered Michael more closely, and went out to the kitchen. It was cold. She hugged David’s gray sweater around her shoulders while she made the fire. She held her hands over the cold stove. The wood crackled and the smell of its burning made a fragrance in the room. She closed the doors to the bedroom and the front room. There were pale stars in the black sky when she went out for another scuttle of coal. She put the beans on top of the range to cook until the skins should split while she looked for cans that would do for Boston brown bread.
At six she opened the oven door and struggled to force the giant kettle of beans and brown sugar, salt pork and molasses, onions starred with whole cloves, into the oven. She made it with an effort, but burned her arm.
“Land sakes o’ Goshen!” declared a voice behind her. “Joanna Niels! Whatever are you doing?”
Joanna turned guiltily. “Why, hello, Mis’ Smith. I was … was … just trying out an idea of mine.”
Abigail Smith was short and feather-pillow round. She had beautiful white hair that gave her an air of aristocracy, bringing to Joanna’s mind the remembrance of powdered wigs and curtsies and billowing skirts. Her eyes were a bright sparkling brown, her skin was lined, but Joanna loved to look at her, finding her beautiful.
Abigail Smith was puffing. “I came through the back way, leaning under that fence always gets me. But I couldn’t hold back any longer. I been watching you since crack o’ dawn.” She eyed the oven door. “What were you puttin’ in that oven?’
“Beans,” Joanna said, laughter a pale ghost in her voice, as she watched her visitor’s astonished eyes go from covered dish to cake pan, to half-eaten pie. “It’s not for us. Folks brought us enough to last the week.”
Abigail Smith unwrapped her hands from her apron and came to stand before the range. “Then who for? What you making a batch o’ beans that size for?”
Joanna measured oatmeal into the boiling water. She avoided her neighbor’s eye. “I had a thought … maybe I could sell them. Folks say they never tasted Boston-baked like mine.”
“You’re the best cook in this ward!” Abigail averred. “Everybody’s crazy about your cooking.”
“It’s all I know,” Joanna said. “It … it just has to work.”
Abigail opened the oven door and sniffed appreciatively. “Well, maybe you can do it. How do you plan to go about it?”
Joanna, setting the table, stumbled out her ideas.
Abigail shook her head. “Maybe you can do it. But, this depression, nobody’s making out. Maybe you should better have saved your beans.”
“I’ve got to try it,” Joanna cried. “I just can’t sit and do nothing.”
“You can go on relief, like the rest of us.”
“No.” Joanna’s mouth set stubbornly. “No.”
Abigail rolled her hands in her apron. “Well, maybe if I had children, I’d feel like you do. Children make a difference.” After a moment’s silence, she added, “I’m right proud of you. Leastways you’ll go down fighting.”
Joanna smiled crookedly, “But you think I’ll go down.”
Abigail turned to the door. “Listen, I have to go now. Henry will be getting up in a minute, but there’s no call for you to drag things around in little David’s wagon. I’ll drive you around in that old Model T of ours. You’ll be able to carry more.”
Joanna’s face flushed in gratitude. “That’s nice, right nice of you.”
Her hand on the door, Abigail paused. “Why don’t you make up a batch of your good bread? I’ll bake it in my oven. It’s got heat in it going to waste. People ought to like that bread of yours.”
Joanna stirred the oatmeal impatiently. “I’ll do that.”
“You just come any time … If I get done with my work I’ll come over and help. What do you plan to carry the beans in?”
Joanna looked wildly about the kitchen. “I never thought of that.”
Abigail’s smile was smug. “I thought of something myself, just standing here. I thought, now why can’t she carry them in fruit jars? I have ’em and to spare.”
Joanna sagged in relief. “You’re wonderful.”
“Smarter than a lot of folks give me credit for …” The kitchen door slammed on Abigail’s complacent back.
There was a sudden stirring from the bedroom and the children stumbled out, carrying their clothes. They hunched around the warmth of the range. Their faces were bleak.
Joanna’s heart cried out, seeing them, remembering how David had made the mornings joyous. How he had tumbled them out of bed and brought them in triumph to the kitchen, as though his waking them up was something of a miracle. How he had teased Penny until she had eaten the hated hot cereal, not realizing that she did.
Now they whimpered like wet kittens.
“And guess what we’re having for breakfast today?” Joanna pushed the cereal haughtily to the back of the stove.
“What?” They looked at her through tear-filled eyes.
“Hot cakes!” She trumpeted the word, forcing triumph into it. “Hot cakes and syrup!”
Michael took up her cry. He jumped up and down. “Hot takes! Hot takes!”
Penny laughed to hear him and presently David laughed, too.
Joanna made the bread dough while they ate, and put it in a warm place to rise. She sent David and Penny to school, standing with Michael and Sally on the front porch to wave them goodbye. Then she sent the two smallest to play in the tiny, fenced backyard and went back to the kitchen.
Abigail came at eleven with a basket of bottles. She helped Joanna sterilize them. She peered over her shoulder when Joanna took out the giant pan of beans. “I declare! Did you ever smell anything so delicious! Um-m-m!”
Joanna found the tin cup and poured the steaming brown beans into the bottles. She stacked them in a row on the table and stepped back to look at them. She frowned. “But they’re so… drab. They ought to look gay and – special.”
Abigail nodded. “That’s what labels do to things.”
Joanna went to her bedroom and came back with a spool of yellow ribbon. “Bought it for Penny’s hair … always liked a bit of yellow against that dark brown. She took the scissors from their nail above the sink and cut the ribbon in lengths. She tied a bow around the neck of a bottle.
“Right cute,” Abigail said. “It does give them a lift.”
“Wait a minute.” Joanna ran outdoors to the maple tree by the fence and gathered a handful of flaming leaves. She took them to the sink, washed them, dried them on a dish towel and slipped the stems through the bows. The effect brought delighted smiles to Abigail.
“Now! Will you look at that! Smart! They look smart as paint.”
Joanna was silent, putting the bottles in a laundry basket, a baby blanket between layers. Abigail went for the car and drove back, the motor chugging and protesting.
“I put the bread in the back,” she shouted. “I put it in wax paper for you.”
Joanna ran to the bedroom, flung off the faded pink gingham and reached for the navy blue. She pulled on stockings, slipped into her good shoes, and stared at herself in the mirror. Her hair! She brushed it behind her ears and forced the short ends into a roll. She stared at herself. Her eyes looked too large and brilliant and anxious. Her mouth was pale. She fumbled for a lipstick, applied it hastily, and rushed back to the kitchen. She called Michael and Sally, got them in and out of the bathroom, and then, with Abigail’s help, carried the basket to the back seat of the car.
The fear within her grew larger with every block that brought them nearer to town. All right, she thought, I’m afraid. But I can’t let that stop me. I can’t just quit with all the food I’ve made. I’ve got to go ahead with it. I’ve got to try. What more can folks do than say “no?” I’ve been said “no” to, lots of times. She looked back at Michael and Sally jolting in the back seat, babbling their delight over the ride and the sights. They have no one but me. It just has to go.
But when at last Abigail found a parking place before the building that housed the railroad office, Joanna could hardly force her legs out of the car.
Abigail was nervous, too. “Now don’t feel bad if they don’t buy. I’ll take good care of the youngsters.”
Joanna nodded. She lifted jars of beans, loaves of bread and white bread into a picnic basket that already held the paper plates and napkins and spoons that had taken ninety cents of her small hoard. She covered them all with a white linen napkin, and straightened and looked at Abigail. “I’ll make out,” she said through dry lips. “I’ll make out fine.”
“It’s just five minutes to twelve. You’ll catch them at a good time.”
Joanna crossed the sidewalk to the door. The prayer within her had so loud a cry, she wondered that the passers by did not pause to hear … please help me… You know I can’t do anything without you. You know I’m nothing but a farm girl, not brought up to do anything but cook and bake. You know about my children. Help me now, please.”