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. Joanna decides that she must have a better home for her children. A salesman, Kent Taylor, shows her a house on a hill, which Joanna cannot afford to buy. Unexpectedly, however, she is offered $5,000 for her recipe for Boston-baked beans.
Kent Taylor came when the man had gone. He sat on the edge of the kitchen table and filched cookies from the growing pile before him. “It’s incredible, Joanna.” But he seemed not too much surprised.
Joanna, taking more cookies from the oven, straightened and stared at him. “Kent Taylor! You had something to do with this.”
The afternoon sun poured through the window and burned on his bright hair. “Strangest thing … I’m to do an article for the Post about the William Davidson Company.”
Joanna came to the table and leaned on it. “You told them about me … about my Boston-baked?”
His hazel eyes mocked her. “Come to think of it, believe I did. Angry?”
“Oh, Kent, how could I be? … I’m … I’m always so amazed when it happens so naturally …”
“What are you talking about?”
Kent caught her wrist. His face was very close to her own. Joanna could seethe gold flecks in his eyes, the light freckles under his tan, the lines that quickened when he was amused. There was a sudden thudding in her breast.
“Now we can celebrate. You’re going to get your house and your shop. Be young, Joanna. Be young and frivolous. Don’t be bowed down with responsibilities all the time. Let’s go rake a few stars down from the sky.”
“I’d like that,” Joanna said. “I’d like that very much.”
He swung to his feet. “Wonderful! I’ll call for you at eight tomorrow night. We’ll have dinner. We’ll dance. Can you dance, Joanna?”
“I’ve forgotten how.”
“Good! I’ll teach you.”
Abigail came over when he had gone. “I saw his car drive away and I came right over. Oh, Joanna, I’m still walking on stars from that Mr. Parkinson. Now finish telling me.”
Joanna said dreamily, “I have a date, Abigail… a date with Kent.”
Abigail flushed with pleasure. “About time, I says. When is it?”
“I’ll go downtown with you … in the morning … just to see you don’t buy another practical dress.”
The dress was a soft green wool; the coat was gray, the hat a dashing thing of gray to match the coat. It had a green feather slashing through it. Joanna could hardly bear to leave the dressing room in the shop. “I never dreamed I could look … like other women.”
“What other women wouldn’t give … to look like you do this minute. Now for a manicure and a hair fixin’. Oh, we’ll give that young man a surprise, we will,” Abigail promised.
It was fifteen minutes to six when Joanna, breathless and taut with excitement, reached home. Her children fell back from her, awe in their eyes.”Gee, Mother, you look wonderful.” David’s eyes shone.
“Like a movie star!” Penny said.
Michael pushed a grimy paper in her hand.”This is our program for tonight. Gee, I’ll bet none of the other fellows will have a mother as good-looking as mine.”
Something lurched sickeningly within her. Memory. This couldn’t be the night! Dimly, for days, she had been aware of David’s excited talk about the P.T.A. program. She looked down at the paper in her hand. “Solo …Michael Niels.” She looked down at his bright, expectant face.”You’re … going to sing … alone?” she asked.
“Sure, Mother. That’s the surprise. I told you I was going to bring you a surprise. They chose me … out of the whole school.”
“Darling,” Joanna said, and hugged him hard.
The other children were jumping up and down in their excitement.
Sally pushed the yellow curls out of her eyes. “Take us, Mother. We want to hear Michael. We’re going to sit in the front row.”
She called Kent Taylor, caught him as he was leaving. She had never heard his voice on the phone before. She liked it. It was quick and deep. “Joanna? Anything wrong?”
She told him, and heard his click of impatience at the other end of the line. “But, Joanna, I’m going away tomorrow. Denver and then New York. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
She said dully, “But Michael has never sung before. This is important to him. I couldn’t let him down.”
“I see.” The words were like a little gate closing against her.
Michael came into the kitchen when she hung up the receiver. He flung himself upon her, hugging her with all his might. “I love you,” he said. “I’m going to sing like a million dollars, you wait and listen.”
She hugged him to her, hiding her face in his hair.
Snow covered the ground in the morning, hiding the bright, blown leaves, shrouding the trees. Joanna was glad to see the whiteness. It hid the color of a hot autumn.
She plunged into the business of getting her family settled in the new house, and her work moved to the little shop she and Abigail had found. These were gigantic undertakings, requiring their toll of her strength, until she fell into bed so exhausted that her heart began a queer, lurching sensation.
She went to a doctor. He shook his head.”You really must slow down, Mrs. Niels …”
She smiled at him. “I will slow down, just as soon as I get things settled. Then I’m planning a visit to one of the seacoast towns. I’m going to lie under a palm for months and months.”
His rueful smile matched her own. “I’ve been planning something like that for thirty years. Don’t put it off too long, Mrs. Niels.”
But when the moving was finished, the new furniture in place, and her small brood gathered in silent ecstasy before the joy of their first fire in their first fireplace, Joanna wondered if she would ever be so happy again.
She sat in the low rocker that she had brought from the old house and slip covered. The children knelt on the white shag rug before the blaze. Penny’s hands were clasped under her chin. “I guess this is the most beautiful house in the whole, wide world.”
Joanna laughed and curled Sally’s long yellow hair around her fingers. “There must be thousands of nicer houses than this right in this city.”
“With this … this feeling in them, Mother? This beautiful feeling?”
Joanna nodded. “With this beautiful feeling. But aren’t we lucky to have it?” She smiled at David. “I see you’ve written out the chores?”
David nodded and sped to get the paper. “I got it all figured out, Mother. If each one of us will just do his job and put a check right here when he’s finished, there won’t be hardly anything for you to do.”
Joanna read the list again. David was to take care of the lawns and the porches and the basement; Michael was to oversee the wastebaskets and run the errands, and help Sally with the dishes. Penny was to make the beds, vacuum, and dust.
Sally laid her cheek on Joanna’s knee. “Oh, Mother, I love you so much.”
“We all do,” David said, “and someday you won’t have to do one single thing. We’ll do it all. You can just ride around in a car and wear fur coats and things.”
“Mink,” said Joanna and bent and laid her face against Penny’s cheek. “My children,” she said softly, “my dears.”
Joanna used to wonder which gave her the greatest joy, her house or her new shop. The shop had been a dreary little place when she rented it, with fly-specked mirrors, dirty walls, and grimier floors. Now, under the brushes of painters and the scrubbing cloths of herself and Abigail, the place began to gleam. She papered the front of the shop in yellow and gray striped paper, hung pale yellow poplin drapes at the windows, covered the floor in black linoleum with a yellow border. Her showcases glistened. She hung bright plates in a circle around the mirror, and she placed red geraniums on a white shelf where they made a gay splash of color.
Joanna cared for the geraniums herself. “They’ll always remind me of the old house, the red and white checked curtains and the slipcover on the davenette.”
Abigail’s brush scrubbed busily. “I should think you’d want to forget that place as quick as you could. Ugh! The hours we’ve put in.” She looked complacently around the shining store.”Pin-clean, every inch of it. Folks will feel right good buying their bread here.”She tried on the new yellow apron that would front the gray uniform. “Unlock the door, Joanna, and stand back. We’re ready for business.”
Joanna laughed and kissed Abigail on her soft, flushed cheek.”What would I have done without you? You’ve … been a pillar, Abigail, a beautiful, bright pillar.”
Abigail untied the apron.”It’s been a right interesting affair, even Henry admitted, the other night, that working for you was almost as good as being on relief.” She looked up. “Here come your first customers. What is that fellow carryin’? That black thing?”
“A camera?” Joanna went slowly to the door and unlocked it. The man with the camera took off his hat.
“You’re Mrs. Niels?”
“How would you like a little publicity?”
Joanna stepped back. “But that would be wonderful … but why?”
A smile softened his hard-bitten face. “Not many folks here in town but have eaten your bread. I’ve been waiting for years to have it turn doughy and flat … like the others. But up to now it’s had integrity.”
Joanna laced her fingers in delight. “I guess that’s the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.”
He opened his camera. “I’d like an inset of you, perhaps a full shot. Turn this way, Mrs. Niels.”
Abigail and the children shrieked with delight when they saw the paper that carried Joanna’s picture and a two-column spread.
“But Mother,” Sally exclaimed over and over. “You look beautiful.”
Secretly, Joanna thought so, too. She couldn’t get over the delight of turning the page and having her own face look up at her, serene and laughter-touched. She bought several copies of the paper and smuggled them into her room. She couldn’t get over the wonder of being attractive. For it was there for anyone to see. It had become fashionable to have a face like hers, with good bones showing, and faint hollows under them. It was smart to be wide of shoulders and very thin. Glamorous, they called it.
She suddenly discovered that she had a host of friends. On the opening day of her shop, flowers were everywhere, baskets and baskets of them, bannered with bright ribbons that wished her luck. Long before closing time, the counters were bare. Joanna hired two more women for the kitchen, put Abigail in charge, and bought uniforms for two more sales girls.
She began to be asked out … to dinners, to plays. She met a great many interesting people. It amused and amazed Joanna to be the center of attraction, to watch men arrange things so they could take her home, to have the telephone ring because someone wanted to take her out. She bought new clothes, reveling in the texture of velvet and good tweeds. On the day she opened the second Joanna Bakery, she bought five pairs of shoes, and then could not sleep all night, shocked by her own extravagance.
She laughed when her children crowded around to admire her before she went out. She cupped Penny’s face in her hands. “Darling, you see? A woman can be Cinderella at almost any age.”
Sally rubbed her face against the garnet velvet of Joanna’s gown. “I’m so glad you’re having fun, Mother. Have lots and lots of it, heaped up and running down.”
Penny said, “There’s a boy named Tom Nichols. He wants me to go out with him … to a party. Mother, it’s … he’s special.”
“Well – if you are in by eleven …”
“Mother!” Penny flung her arms around Joanna and hugged her hand. “I do love you.”