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 meager resources and plans for the future. 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 umpromising beginning they build a profitable business. Joanna rears her children with love and devotion and for Penny’s fourteenth birthday she plans a special party.
On leaden feet, Joanna went to the door and opened it.
She took a deep breath. “Darling,” she said to Penny. She lifted her head. “My dears, I’m so glad you could come.”
“Hello, Mrs. Niels,” Connie said primly. Her mouth pursed as she sidled past Joanna into the room. Joanna saw the quick eyes inventory the kitchen range, the absurd decorations. “I’ll have to leave early, Mother doesn’t want me in this neighborhood after dark.”
“But we’ve lots of time until then.” Joanna bustled about, taking their coats and scarves, saying whatever gay and welcoming thing popped into her head. The prayer beat in her throat, please … please, for Penny’s sake, let the party be good, not anything to mar her day, please…
“Did you ever play ‘Witches’?” she asked them, pushing laughter through her stiff throat. “It’s fun.” She described it.
Connie sat on the davenette and smoothed her red velvet skirt. “I’d rather not. It sounds too childish.”
Joanna swallowed hard. “Very well. Let’s play this one … called ‘Ghosts,’ and if Connie doesn’t like it, she can read a book.”
She forced them into it, hiding the firmness under the banner of her laughter. She gave the gay prizes she had bought with a flourish. Slowly, slowly, the ice melted and the girls came on her side. Laughter came spontaneously from young lips. After a while Joanna could leave the room, go into the kitchen to put last-minute touches on the cakes and the ice cream. The shrieks and the clamor of excited voices were music to her ears.
They ate the refreshments in an ecstatic silence. Joanna watched Penny’s face. There was no cloud upon it, nothing to sully the clear joy of having her friends about her, of showing them off to her mother. But when the party was over and the young guests ready to depart, the clouds rose stormily again.
Penny was helping Connie into the lovely coat. “Do come again, Connie. Come often.”
Connie’s mouth pinched. “I’ll try. But I’m afraid Mother will have a fit when she finds out where I’ve been.”
Joanna stuffed her hands into her apron pockets so they would not strike out at the pursed, pink mouth, the too-wise eyes that bade contemptuous farewell to the little room. Under her eyes, the decorations, prepared at such a cost of time, grew pathetic, the slipcover faded and sagged. Joanna fought fiercely to bring back the gaiety. Don’t you understand, she wanted to cry out, how precious a thing Penny’s friendship is? The friendship of anyone who really loves you. What does it matter if they live in a tent, if they love you, they have value!
Ruth, a black-haired echo of Connie, nodded her head. “But we really had fun,” she said, in frank wonder.
Joanna saw the darts had gone into Penny’s heart. Her eyes darkened with pain. Joanna had the wild desire to step in front of her daughter, as if by so doing, she could take the pain into herself. She heard her own voice speaking, quickly, lightly, “I’m so glad you could all come. You see, we’re moving into another neighborhood, and we might not be able to be together again.”
“Mother!” Penny lifted enraptured eyes. “You didn’t tell me! When?”
Joanna swallowed. “Very soon. It’s to be a house on a hill, out of the smoke.”
Connie smoothed the sleeve of her coat. “That will be different. Mother will let me go up there.”
Joanna watched with the helpless amazement of the adult, as her daughter received this information with shrieks of joy. “Won’t that be simply super! Just out of this world?”
When the evening meal was over, Joanna sat enthroned among her children, while they gazed on her with adoration and awe. “You really mean it, Mother? A big house O! Room for everybody to have a room? Oh, Mother, it will be so wonderful.”
Joanna gulped and wondered if there was a place she could get with a down payment not to exceed three hundred dollars.
“I’ll have a room of my own,” David said, “a place where I can study without the rest of you getting in my hair.”
“Your precious old books!” Sally was hostile. “What I want is a place to hang my pictures without everybody painting beards on them.” She hugged Penny. “You can have your room, too, and write your poems in it.”
“Poems?” Joanna turned to Penny. The girl’s face was scarlet.
“Sally! Why did you have to tell?” She rose and ran toward the bedroom. “They’re awful! Awful!”
“Poetry.”Joanna caught her breath. But of course, she should have known, Penny would never be one to hoard beauty, it would pour out of her like light, into other people’s lives. “Poetry … I’m so glad.”
Abigail came over after supper to help with the night’s work. She listened eagerly to every detail of the party, pausing in her kneading to look at Joanna’s face. She made Joanna think of a silver-haired girl, in her ruffled blue apron. There was something young and wistful in her listening. But when she heard about Connie, her outrage knew no bounds.
“You should have told her to go home! That’s what you should have done. The idea! The very idea! What’s the world coming to?”
Joanna sliced apples into a pie shell. “I don’t know. When I was little, a party was an event. We talked about it for months, before and after. I can’t remember ever noticing a house, or taking inventory of the cost of things.”
“It’s their mothers!” Abigail said shortly, “putting their own snobbish ideas into their daughters’ heads.”
“I … I told them we were moving into a new house.” Joanna looked up at Abigail. “I … had to.”
“Humph,” snorted Abigail, “so they defeated you, the brave Joanna, who hasn’t been downed by hurricane or famine, going down like ninepins before a bunch of little girls. I thought you were going to buy some new equipment?”
“I was,” Joanna said unhappily.” I was going to do so many things. I was going to buy a small bakery and start out with just breads and pastries … a real shop.”
Abigail blew a curl from her forehead. “Well, you can still do it. The children can just wait for their house.”
Joanna set her chin. “No. The children need a home. A real one. Penny will need one more and more. I can’t bear to have her left out, or have less than the others. She has a right to things. Poetry. Just think of it, Abigail, she’s writing poetry.”
Abigail said softly, ”Well, I’m not surprised. I’ve often told my Henry, ‘Henry,’ I’ve said, ‘there is one person whose mind I wouldn’t be afraid to look into. Penny Niels’ mind would be like a flower garden, that sweet, from the looks of her and the things she does for her mother, and the gentle way she talks! Just like a flower garden,’ I told him.”
Joanna came around the table to hug Abigail’s plump shoulders. “You see, we have to give her lovely things, a chance in life.”
Abigail patted Joanna’s hand. “We’ll do it, my dear.”
Joanna stood at the kitchen table, the next afternoon, wrapping fresh loaves of bread in wax paper; the pale October sun splashed warmth across her hands and on the kitchen table. A woodpecker swung on the lower branches of the apricot tree, just outside the window. Someone knocked at the front door.
Joanna impatiently finished the bread she had started and went to answer it, not pleased to have visitors interrupt her busy day. She frowned at the tall, red-haired man who grinned at her from his great, lean height.
“Yes, but I …” She did not return his smile.
“You’re busy, I know … I’m Kent Taylor, and I understood that you are in the market for a house.”
Joanna’s mouth dropped gently. “But, good heavens! I just made up my mind yesterday.”
“I know,” he said, “I read minds by television. You want a house on a hill.”
Joanna laughed, reluctantly. “I suppose you know how much, or little, rather, I can afford to pay down?”
He shook his head. “I never inquire into my clients’ private affairs, such as love, money, or pet peeves. May I come in?” He sniffed the air. “It smells like a small corner of heaven.”
Joanna, leading him into the kitchen, wished suddenly she was wearing her new, high-heeled shoes, instead of the brown, flat brogues. She watched his eyes light up when he saw the crusty brown loaves on the table. She said, hesitantly, “Would … would you like a slice of fresh bread and some strawberry jam?”
His grin was quick and pleased. “Would I? I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted fresh, home made bread in all my life … Mother was a career woman … real estate. She and my sister are running the business together. I’m home on vacation so they put me to work.” He took a deep bite out of the slice of bread and jam. His eyes widened. “Brother! Now I see what people mean. This isn’t the first time I’ve tasted your products. We had some Boston-baked beans last night. My sister was telling me about you … my niece, too. In fact it was our charming little niece who told us you were in the market for a house.
“Uh-huh, Connie, she was here to a birthday party.”
“Oh,” said Joanna.
He looked around the room. “You need a shop.”
“I need a house,” Joanna said. she looked at him wonderingly, marveling at his quick tongue, the enormous enjoyment he seemed to derive from very simple things. She liked the tweed suit he wore, and the snap brim was like him, past its first youth, somewhat battered, but possessing to a high degree, dash and charm.
“I have a house,” he said, “or rather Mother has … on a hill. When could I take you to see it?”
“I’ve so much to do…”
“This afternoon, at say, two-thirty?”
Reluctantly, Joanna nodded.
He rose and picked up his hat. He looked soberly down at Joanna. “Connie is a difficult child. I think this is the first nice thing she ever did … for me.”
Startled, Joanna looked into his blunt, homely face … She saw laughter starting from deep down in his hazel eyes. His mouth twitched a little at the corners. “Thank you for the bread and jam, Mrs. Niels.”
She closed the front door behind him and went back to the kitchen. She began again to wrap the bread, and then suddenly went to the kitchen mirror and peered into it. She had not changed from yesterday, and, yet, there had been something when he looked at her … a relief … as though he had hoped she would be attractive and was not disappointed. Joanna turned sharply away. What an idiot! What an utter idiot, to imagine such a thing.
But when she dressed, after lunch, she tucked one of Penny’s bright scarves into the collar of her gray suit. The red and yellow scarf brought color into her cheeks and a sparkle to her eyes. Joanna brushed out her hair, let it wave softly around her face. But when she heard his car stop before the house, she tore out the scarf and pinned her hair back into the accustomed roll. She looked again in the mirror. The gray suit and the neat white blouse looked Quaker prim, but the color had not departed from her face, and her eyes mocked her with their shining.
She went to open the door for him. She nodded briefly, “You’re on time.”
“So are you, a rare and delightful trait.” He helped her into the shining car as though she were an object of great price and rare fragility. “I ordered the day especially for you.” He waved an expansive hand to include the rich gold of the sunshine, the scarlet banners of maple trees, the blue haze on the mountains.