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. From a slow and unpromising beginning, they build a profitable business.
They crowded around her afterwards, her neighbors and friends, to shake her hand, and wish her well, and to say over and over, “Thank you, Joanna.”
They brought her gifts in the weeks that followed – flour, bread pans, another kitchen range. She took out the heater that had been in the small front room and replaced it with the range. “Now I can bake twice as much, and we’ll be warm beside,” she said.
Penny looked ruefully around her. “Now we have two kitchens instead of one.”
“I know. It doesn’t look very pretty.”
Penny smiled. “Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter.”
But Penny’s patient acceptance of the change hurt her, and the fierce desire to give her daughter beauty rose again. She lifted the clamoring Michael into her arms and stared about her. “But Penny, if it has to be a kitchen, let’s have it a real kitchen, real kitchens are nice.”
Penny clapped her hands. “We could have a story-book kitchen, Mother, red and white gingham curtains and geraniums on the sill, and paint that old machine white…”
Joanna visualized the room. “We’ll take up this old rug, and paint the floor and put rag rugs about. How would that be? And I’ll slip cover the davenette with some red material and make some white cushions, washable, of course.”
Penny hugged Joanna round the waist until Joanna pleaded for mercy. “Oh, Mother … You’re the nicest mother in the whole wide world.”
Joanna kissed Michael’s fat neck to hide the tears. There was something about Penny that reached into her like pain.
“Get me the tape measure, Penny, and let’s find out how much material we will need.”
It took six weeks to eke out the money to buy paint and material, precious hours when she should be sleeping, to paint the woodwork and floors and sew the yards of gingham.
Penny and David went to the park, and pleaded with the gardeners for geraniums. They brought the plants home in triumph. The room was Penny’s pride. All her life Joanna would be able to close her eyes and see her daughter tending the geraniums or curled up on the slip-covered davenette, reading to the younger children.
Abigail, helping Joanna knead the raised dough into loaves, listened to Penny’s clear, low voice. She shook her head. “Isn’t she the beatinest! Just listen to her. I never heard a child read that good before.”
“Nothing but ‘S’s’ on her report card,” Joanna said proudly. “She’s going to be somebody, just wait and see.”
“So is her mother,” said Abigail smartly. “I never did see the likes of the way you’ve run up this business. How much was it last month?”
Joanna laughed. “I keep track by my tithing receipts. Just a minute.” She brought the box out of the cupboard and opened it. “Twelve dollars and fifty cents. One hundred and twenty-five dollars.”
Abigail held up floured hands. “Land sakes o’ Goshen!”
“But the month before that it was only fifty dollars. Believe me, I was right scared …” She patted the last loaf deftly in place. “But this month I have so many orders I can’t possibly fill them myself. Will you come and help me, Abigail? Be my full-time helper?”
“Good heavens! child! I couldn’t do that. Henry would have a fit.” She went to the kitchen to wash her hands. “It would mean going off relief, and you know Henry hates change.”
Joanna handed her a towel. “But I’m sure it will be steady. People are asking me to cook for their parties and they want pastries for their dinners. It will be our business, Abigail. Partners.”
Abigail shook her beautiful silver head. “Henry won’t like it. But I’ll do it.” She nodded vigorously.”If you can take the chances you’ve been takin’, I guess I can, too. Besides, you make it look interestin’, this not knowin’ whether you’re going to eat or not.”
Joanna laughed. “But I know we’re going to eat.”
Abigail’s sniff was unmistakably skeptical. “How?”
Joanna crossed her big hands on her breast. “In here. Promises.”
Abigail poured beans into the huge pan. “Wish I had somethin’ like that inside o’ me. But I’ll be your partner, not full, forty-sixty is good enough for me. You thought of it, and you’re the one that’s been makin’ it grow. Henry …” she sighed, “well, he’ll just have to get used to being a capitalist.”
Joanna marked the years by such special things as that, being able to have Abigail help her all day long, by being able to hire the protesting Henry to drive an ancient delivery truck Joanna bought, and by Penny’s fourteenth birthday.
It was to be an event, this fourteenth birthday. Joanna planned a party. They sat around the kitchen table after dinner, going over the details. The children’s faces were ecstatic. Joanna’s heart smote her. They should have had more of the good things … like this party.
Penny’s face was shining. “I wish I could ask the whole home room. But I’ll have Connie … Oh, Mother, she’s clever. She is the smartest girl in the whole school and her clothes are just beautiful … Wait until you see.”
Joanna smacked Michael’s hand away from the cookie jar. “You’ve had ten. That’s more than enough for a while.”
She turned back to Penny’s radiant face. Delight pierced her. Penny was beautiful. Her small face was delicately formed, the dark eyes soft and dream-filled. When Joanna thought of the ingredients that made her child, she thought not of flesh and bone, but of scraps of poetry, captured spring days, remembered songs, haunting bits of beauty that Penny gathered and brought home for Joanna’s and her own delight, as another might gather bright stones, or another, stamps.
“Who else will you ask besides this wonderful Connie?”
Penny counted them on her fingers. “… Ruth and Evelyn, she’s the red-headed one, and Cora and Sally … Sally’s brother is the one who is always trying to kiss us.”
Joanna bit back her chuckle. She leaned her chin on her palms, reveling in this little moment of peace and rest and companionship with her children. “We’ll have a Halloween party, since it’s so close to the end of the month. We’ll take the plants down from the window sills and put pumpkins there instead. You can make black cats to decorate the walls.”
David grinned down at his sister. “And I’ll scare all your sissy friends … I’ll hide by the gate…”
“You’ll do no such thing. Mother, make him promise…”
Joanna looked at her son. He didn’t look at all like big David, nor act like him either…Even the laughter was beginning to leave his brown eyes, except in moments like this, when he teased Penny or the ten-year-old Sally, by stealing her dolls or mocking her adoration for some current movie star. His chin was beginning to look square and firm, and his mouth had a straight determined line. He hated it when Joanna was forced to carry heavy loads, and took them from her when he was home, muttering savagely under his breath.
“This is Penny’s party,” Joanna told David. “It’s got to be right. Everything has to be perfect.”
David’s mouth set in that new, queer way. “But Mom, some of those girls are … are terrible … They’ll think a little home party is corny … They’re used to a … a lot.”
Penny’s laughter mocked him. “Oh, don’t listen to him, Mother. He’s just bitter. He used to be in love with Connie.”
Joanna stared sharply at her son. His face turned a painful red. “I wouldn’t be such a fool … unless I had a car.”
Joanna repainted the living-room floor. She papered the walls herself in a gay pleasant pattern. She made new gingham curtains and washed the slip covers. She pored over magazines, judging, discarding recipes.
Abigail snorted in disgust. “Land sakes o’ Goshen! Anybody’d think you were having the Archbishop of Canterbury for dinner.”
Joanna giggled but did not look up from her magazine. “This sounds good, ice-cream cones on the top of cupcakes… you put currant eyes and noses on the cupcakes. They’d look just like little witches… apples decorated like jack-o’-lanterns.”
Abigail sat heavily on the davenette and fanned her flushed face with her apron. “A lot of work. Remember, you promised to make all those rolls and cakes for that banquet on the day of Penny’s party.”
“I can manage both.”
“Joanna, you need a rest, not more work. You look terrible.”
Joanna put the magazine aside and looked at her hands. “I know. Aren’t they a sight!” She rose and went to the mirror that hung above the sink.
Abigail followed her. “You don’t take care of yourself. No rest. No creams.” She patted her own soft cheeks. “That’s one thing I’ve never forgotten. Every night I …”
But Joanna was not listening. She leaned forward, staring at the stranger in the glass. She was very thin, her cheeks hollow under the high bones. Her eyes looked very large and deeply blue, but it was around her mouth that the years showed mostly, the years of tightening her lips for the daily struggle. Those years had thinned her mouth and etched lines at the corners. Her brown hair was drawn back in a roll on the nape of her neck. Joanna laughed, and the reflection showed fleetingly as a sliver of light, the lost brightness of her youth. She looked down on her hands leaning on the sink board. They were brown and scarred and rough.
“You could be right handsome,” Abigail said softly, “if you’d take things a little easier, take care o’ yourself.”
“I haven’t time yet…”
“But you can’t go on alone like this … Years are running away from you.”
Joanna turned briskly from the mirror. “I’d never find anybody like my David. Besides, I have no time for any man.” She stared over Abigail’s head. “The only dream I have is of going to California someday, taking Penny and the rest of them. I want to look at the sea … I’ve had a hunger for it all my life, landsman’s hunger. I want to see those palms I’ve been hearing about and I want to lie on those beaches and rest. Some day I’ll do that.” She looked at the clock.”Good heavens! Abigail! We’d better pitch in or we’ll never be through with this night’s work. I want to cut out those jack-o’-lanterns for the party tomorrow.”
“Humph! A lot of work for mighty small fry.”
“But Penny’s getting the worst of it all. That’s why this party has to be right.”
“The worst of what?”
Joanna leaned against the sink. “By the time the others are grown, Sally, Michael … David even, I’ll really be set. They’ll have the good times, the good clothes. Penny’s the one that’s doing without and she’s helping me like a grown woman, an’ she’s only fourteen.”
Abigail got the pan of apples from the back porch. “Pies first? All right. Don’t worry about the party, Joanna. Don’t worry.”
“You’re worried as a settin’ hen. Remind me to bring over some of my special face cream. Every night I pat it on an’ it’s just done wonders for my skin, why I says to Henry, I says…”
Joanna piled the family’s gifts to Penny on her breakfast plate. She hurried about the kitchen, making hot cakes and squeezing orange juice. It was strange …she’d never worried before over whether or not Penny would like anything she bought, but today she watched, breath held, to see how Penny would like the yellow sweater she had chosen.
Penny lifted the yellow wool to her shoulders and danced over to the mirror. “Oh, Mother, you’re wonderful! How did you know I wanted a new sweater and skirt …and yellow, my favorite color?’
“Well, I thought you looked right pretty in it.”
Penny turned slowly around. “Pretty? Mother, am I really?”
Joanna said softly, “I guess every girl in the world asks that question when she’s your age. Yes, Penny, you are.”
Penny went in for a last look at the living room. “It looks just adorable. We’ll light the jack-o’-lanterns just the minute we get home. It will be dark then. Oh, I can hardly wait to have you meet Connie. She’s going to wear her new velvet dress. She told me about it, and it sounds like a dream.”
After the children had gone, Joanna went to work with a furious intensity. The little house shone. The fragrance from baking cookies and cake poured out upon the autumn air. Joanna worked alone. Abigail’s presence made her nervous.
She put on her best black dress at three-thirty, and remembered to put lipstick on her pale mouth. She went to the front windows. Abigail was supposed to invite Michael and Sally for dinner. David was going to a movie. Joanna wondered at the thick pounding in her throat. She saw them coming down the street, Penny in the center, the other girls crowding around her. The girl on the right had smooth yellow hair under a tiny fur beret. She wore a smart blue coat with a collar that matched her hat. That must be Connie. Joanna watched the girl’s face when she saw Penny’s house. She saw the delicate brows raise, and the gentian eyes slide to the girls around her. “Is this yours?”
Joanna watched Penny’s eyes move serenely to the front door. “Yes, and there’s Mother. Come on, everybody, let’s hurry.”
Connie held back for a moment, and like a band of muddled sheep, the others were stemmed. Penny ran ahead of them and waited impatiently on the porch. “Hurry! Hurry!”