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 support and care for. Courageously, she takes inventory of her resources – a home, poorly furnished and not paid for, and $1.19 in cash. A neighbor gives her a sack of navy beans and Joanna decides to make Boston-baked beans for sale. Another neighbor, Abigail Smith, offers to help with ideas and transportation.
Joanna smiled at the elevator girl. “My husband told me that freight accounts were on the fifth floor.”
“That’s right.” The girl slammed the door. They shot up. “Say, what you got in that basket … smells so good?”
“Home-baked bread, Boston-baked beans. I’m aimin’ to take orders …”
But the girl was opening the doors with a great clatter and did not hear.
Clerks were pouring out of doors into the long corridor. They sniffed when they passed Joanna’s basket, and turned to stare. She heard one man say, “Boy, I haven’t smelled home-baked bread for twenty years … wonder who the lucky guy is?”
Somehow it gave her courage to go into the great barn-like office. She walked down the long row of tables, each with its typewriter. The girls who brought their lunches were grouped at a table against the wall. They unwrapped wax-paper sandwiches with white, manicured fingers. Their hair lay sleekly to their heads in deep finger waves. They watched Joanna’s progress down the aisle, eyeing her basket suspiciously.
Joanna stood at their table. She smiled waveringly. “I … I guess you girls get mighty tired of just sandwiches everyday?”
They groaned politely in assent. “But times are hard.” They watched her lift the lid of the basket.
Joanna brought out a jar of baked beans, opened it, let the fragrance steam past their noses. She took out a loaf of brown bread, cut a slice for each girl, put it and a small portion of the beans on the paper plates. She swallowed.
“I’d like right well to have you try this. My name and my telephone number are on the underside of the plates. If you would like me to deliver an order of beans to your house, or even here to your office, just phone me. I have home-made bread too. Saturday afternoons, you might like to stay downtown shopping instead of having to get a meal. Or you might like to have some for a party. Call me if you do.” She folded the napkin over the basket and closed the lid with shaking hands. “I … I cook other things, too.”
The office girls looked at her with bright smiles that promised nothing. “Thanks. We’ll call you if we need anything.”
There was such emptiness in the words that Joanna’s heart sank. She turned to go away. “Your mothers now, if you’re not married, might like an evening off. Boston-baked and home-made bread would be a grand combination.”
“Wouldn’t it, though?” The same flatness, yet when she turned to go down the stairway to the next floor, she was rewarded by a small shriek of delight, and looked back in time to see the small dark girl’s eyes roll heavenward as she brought another spoonful to her mouth.
It was a little after one when Joanna brought the empty basket to the car. She counted. There was one loaf of bread left and four jars of beans.
“Now can we go home, Mommy?” Sally was tired and hungry.
“Soon, darling.” Joanna climbed in the front seat with Abigail, who was all breathless eagerness.
“How did it go, this time? Did you get any orders?’
Joanna shook her head. “They said they would phone.”
Abigail backed noisily out of the parking. “Well, it was a right good try, Joanna. Don’t you feel bad if it don’t work. You did your part.”
“But they’ve got to call. There’s a need. Working wives and mothers get mighty tired at times. I should think they’d like to have a hot meal brought right to their house … Oh, Abigail, if you’ll just help me get started … drive me around … I’ll see you don’t lose by it.”
Abigail turned her lovely, silver-framed face. “Help? You couldn’t stop me from helpin’. I never had such a nervous morning. I wouldn’t a missed it.”
They passed the church on their way home. Women were wending their way up the wide steps. “The bazaar!”Abigail gasped. “I was supposed to bring a hot dish.”
Joanna sat up straight. “Wait! Stop, Abigail.”
“What on earth for?”
“I’ll leave the rest of the beans and the bread. Ask them to make a sign, telling people I’ve … I’ve gone into business.
Joanna found herself bone-weary when she carried the empty basket into her kitchen. She saw that Penny and David had eaten half a pie and nothing else for their lunch. She gave Michael and Sally bread and milk, bathed their tired, dirty hands and faces and tucked them in for a nap.
She went back to the kitchen, ate a bowl of bread and milk, and washed the dishes and sorted laundry. She put the clothes through the antiquated machine that was kept in the old pantry just off the kitchen. She found herself watching the phone, willing it to ring. It was mute.
It did not ring the next day nor the next. Friday night, when the children were in bed, Joanna sat with her mending at the kitchen table. It hadn’t taken long for the family to get down to rock bottom. There was only a little coal left in the shed. Young David’s feet were almost on the ground. The cupboards were alarmingly bare. Joanna stared at the sack of beans that still stood beside the kitchen door by the range. She thought wearily, when the idea came I was sure it was an answer … I thought a miracle had happened – that I was being shown a way … Imagination, I guess. She put her head down on the table, rocked her forehead on her arms, fear and misery a nausea within her.
The phone rang. Joanna lifted her head and stared at it a moment. Then she rose listlessly and went to it. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Niels, this is Betty Sharp from the freight account office. Remember? You came up here last Tuesday.”
Joanna felt the thunder of her heart through her whole body. “Yes, I remember.”
“Well, the girls told me to call you back and give you this order. I forgot about it completely until tonight. Let me see …” The girl was evidently sorting lists. “Altogether there will be ten loaves of the white bread, twenty-one of the Boston-brown bread, and twenty-five quarts of the beans. Oh, and Mrs. Niels?”
“Yes.” Joanna fought to keep the tears from her voice.
“Could you make a birthday cake for me … a special one … I … I want some window dressing for a young man I know…”
“I … I’d love to make a cake for you,”Joanna said.
“Mrs. Niels? You’re crying. Is something wrong?’
“No. No. Everything is right beautiful.”
Still with the tears pouring down her cheeks, Joanna slipped David’s gray sweater over her shoulders and ran to tell Abigail.
Abigail had been brushing her hair, preparing for the night. But when Joanna told her, she braided it swiftly and pinned it in a roll. Tears slipped down her plump cheeks. “Joanna! Isn’t it simply wonderful? Oh, I’m that happy, I could just cry. Twenty-one loaves of brown bread!” She rose. “Well, we’d best get started.”
Her husband, reading the paper by the round dining-room table, raised his head. He put down the paper. “’Twon’t last … Just a fad. Don’t count on it none.”
Abigail flicked her shawl at him. “Fiddle dee dee, Henry! It’s going over just fine. You watch.”
He shook his graying head; his eyes surveyed them sadly over his steel-rimmed glasses. “You watch. Folks start out with a bang, but it never amounts to nothin’; pretty soon they’re down with the rest of us, content to let well enough alone.”
“I won’t give up,” Joanna cried. “I won’t. I’ll never leave life alone until it gives me what I want for my children!”
“You’ll learn,” he said sadly.
Joanna and Abigail ran across the lawn that separated their homes, into the warm, cheerful kitchen.
Abigail took off her shawl. “I declare, you are the neatest person. Your house is always pin-clean.”
Joanna ran to the drawer that held pencil and paper. “Thirty loaves at fifteen cents a loaf … that’s four-fifty.”
“But you have to consider the flour and milk…” Abigail pulled her chair closer to Joanna’s. “… Course, you could use water…lots o’ women do.”
“No,” said Joanna. “That’s why I’m charging so much, because the ingredients are just right…like I’d make for my own.”
Seventeen dollars! Even when Joanna held the money in her hands she couldn’t believe it. She had orders for another Saturday … and could she make a casserole dish of chicken and trimmings for an anniversary supper?
Joanna drifted down to the car where Abigail waited. “I can pay you for the gas and the oil.”
“Better keep it until next week. You never can tell. But I forgot, that young man down the street brought over another sack of beans.”
“I’m not at all surprised,” said Joanna softly.
The following Sunday was fast day. Joanna pressed the navy blue and mended David’s trousers again and took her children to Sunday School. She watched Penny walking ahead of her, holding Sally’s hand. Penny’s arms and legs were thinner, and there was a new quietness about her, something protective in the way she listened to Sally’s prattling.
It had been hardest of all on Penny. I’m so busy I can’t talk to her the way Big David did, Joanna thought, or tease her out of her quietness, keep her from brooding – so much to do, and so little time.
They tiptoed inside the chapel doors. In the little hallway two men were taking offerings and tithes. Joanna opened her purse and took a dollar out of it. She put it and two dimes and a fifty-cent piece on the table. “Joanna Niels,” she said.
“Thank you.” The man gave her the receipt.
They held fast-day meeting almost directly after Sunday school. Joanna sat on one of the benches at the back. Michael and Sally sat on either side of her, holding their heads proudly. Penny smoothed her starched, blue cotton dress, her thin fingers ran lightly over the patched place in the skirt. Joanna wondered why it should hurt her so to have Penny shabbily dressed. Fiercely, she hungered to give her daughter beauty of every kind. Penny lifted her face and smiled at her mother. Her eyes were darkly brown, like Big David’s had been; her face was a delicate triangle, the rich dark hair hung around it like a cloud. “Aren’t the flowers beautiful, angel-painted?”
The fast-day services began. Humbly, Joanna and her little brood bowed their heads for the prayer and the sacrament. Wide-eyed they watched the babies brought forward and blessed, the older children confirmed. Then came the time for testimonies. Joanna kept her eyes on her clasped hands, while one after another rose, and told of their faith and their blessings.
Perspiration sprang to the palms of her hands and her heart pounded furiously. She tried to push away the urging within her. She had never spoken before more than three people at once in her life. A testimony like mine, she thought, is such a small thing. Surely it won’t be needed. Yet suddenly she was on her feet, supporting her shaking body by her two hands leaning hard on the varnished bench before her. “… My dear brothers and sisters…” She swallowed, but her throat would not open … “My dear brothers and sisters…” She was aware of the bishop smiling his encouragement, of Mrs. Anderson in a new blue hat, of Abigail’s stunned face.
“… I came today to bear my testimony …” The words slipped out, crippled and blurred by the paralysis of her tongue and throat “… I know… that God lives… and that he hears and answers prayers. I was alone and afraid … and he comforted me. I had no place to turn …” Suddenly the fear went away in the terrible need to explain the miracle. “He brought a way of making a living to my very door … If I …” She stood straight and tall. “If I were to serve him all the days of my life, I could not repay in any way all that he has done for me and my family.” She looked into the upturned faces. “I had to tell you. I know that he lives and that his kindness is beyond our understanding.” She sat down.
David and Sally stared at her through round, awed eyes, but Penny put Michael on the other side of her and sat close against her mother. She put her head on Joanna’s shoulder. “You were so beautiful, Mommy. So beautiful.”
Joanna caught Penny’s hand in her own, her heart too full for speech.