By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Joanna, widowed when her children were small, courageously works into a profitable business selling Boston-baked beans and bakery goods. Her neighbor, Abigail Smith, as a partner, gives much hard work and good advice. Joanna, placing the welfare of her children first, buys a comfortable home from Kent Taylor, a writer, acting temporarily as a real estate agent. In order to attend a P.T.A. meeting, Joanna breaks a date with Kent and he leaves town. Joanna and Abigail open a number of new shops and Joanna finds her life enriched with many new friends and the abiding love of her children. Kent Taylor returns from an assignment in Europe and asks Joanna to marry him. In order to become Kent’s wife, Joanna plans to leave her children in Abigail’s care for six months while Kent will be stationed in New York. Just before the wedding, however, Joanna decides that she cannot leave her children, especially while Penny is going out with a young man of questionable character.
Joanna went down to the train that would take Kent away. She had intended to go speak to him, wish him well. But when she saw the crowd around him, she put aside the desire. She could not bear to say her farewells before their curious eyes. Kent looked thinner; he was carrying his hat and his bright hair was like a banner in the drab gray and black of pavement and trains and tracks. Joanna stood on the outskirts of a group of people seeing a girl off to school. She watched Kent shake hands with his friends. His sister was a tall, gray-haired woman, who dabbed at her eyes.
Kent kissed her and said something in his slow, teasing way. Joanna turned away. Rebellion seized her. It was like closing a door on rich, vivid beauty, on laughter, and adventure and tenderness. For a wild, anguished moment she thought she must go to him, push aside the people and cry out his name, and beheld in peace against him. She wet her dry lips and went away.
Abigail met her at the door. She had been crying.
Joanna paused. “What is it? One of the children?”
Abigail shook her head. “It’s you. Come in by the fire and let me bring you something to drink. You’ve looked like death for the past few days.”
Joanna asked, “Where is Penny?”
Abigail smiled. “Not with that Tom … You’ll be glad to know. She’s down arranging for those music lessons you promised her. Mothers have been phoning.”
“Penny’s friends. Their mothers want to thank you for breakin’ the ice. Now they can do the same for their daughters.”
Joanna sank into the flowered chair by the fireplace. She looked into the slim mirror that stood above the small table on the opposite wall. She made a wry face and pulled off her hat. “Something’s gone out of me. I look like an old woman.”
Abigail brought her a glass of milk and some thin, buttered toast. “Nonsense! You never looked lovelier … in a peaked sort of way. I think … I think you are a beautiful woman.”
“Goodness!” said Joanna, “you’ve never paid me such a compliment. Where’s Sally?”
“Rehearsing for a Mutual play. She insists that you have all the cast here after the play. If you can do it for Penny, she thinks you can do it for her.”
Joanna sipped her milk. “Of course I can. I will have plenty of time, now, plenty of time.” She put the glass down. “Sally’s a practical little thing.”
“She’s not star dust and poetry,” Abigail agreed. “But she has a good head on her shoulders. Makes me think of you.”
Joanna slumped back wearily. “What would I do without you, Abigail?”
Abigail sat in the opposite chair and reached for the knitting that hung in the blue bag over the arm. “David wants to join the navy … air corps.”
“I know,” Joanna said. “If I can just make him wait another year.”
“Let him go, Joanna. He will come back.”
“Abigail? How do you know?”
Abigail bent over her knitting. “I just know. Let him go, Joanna. It will be all right.”
The years that had flown so swiftly now dragged interminably. The hours in the day between the postman’s visits were slow agony. But, as new day obliterated yesterday, Joanna ceased to watch. There would be no letter from Kent. Typical of him, to cut with a surgeon’s brutal neatness the lump of pain, lest it grow cancerous. I should do the same, she thought. She watched the papers. When they carried brief items about him she cut the paragraphs and put them in the bottom drawer of her desk. A national magazine carried an article of his. On the front pages he found his picture. He looked startlingly gaunt. His hair had been cut close to his head. He had been in Poland. Joanna wondered if he had time or wish to think of her at all. She put the picture with the clippings.
She had little time to brood. David went into the Navy Air Corps. Joanna’s nights now included torturing dreams of a burning plane spinning to earth. But the house was alive and noisy and young with the activities of her children. Penny was enthusiastic about her music. The grand piano Joanna bought her was seldom silent when she was home.
Sally brought the better part of her class home every afternoon, and Joanna coming home would find the living room and dining room filled with bright-eyed youngsters who were beautifully courteous and forever hungry.
Michael was a boy scout and took to sleeping out in the back yard, or rising before dawn to go on never-ending hikes. He eluded Joanna and she grieved over him. She had never had time to know her youngest. She felt awkward with him, not knowing his life. It seemed secret and apart, peopled with strange boys called “Stink” and “Clip” and “Saddy.”
Tossing restlessly one Saturday morning, Joanna heard Michael rise and move about his room. She rose, too, and threw her robe about her. He was tiptoeing down the stairs when she caught up with him. “Michael, where are you going?”
She learned over the railing and he tilted his head to look at her. Joanna almost cried out, his resemblance to his father was so strong.
He grinned. “Just out. It’s almost light.”
“Got a place I gotta see. Don’t worry about me, Mom. If I hitch a ride I’ll be back before noon.”
“I can’t sleep. Can I drive you?”
“Say! Would you, Mom?”
She accepted his delight as if it had been a gift of pearls. “Just a minute. I’ll be ready.”
She dashed back to her room and found an old gray skirt and a black sweater and black, low-heeled pumps. She tossed a short red jacket over her shoulders and went downstairs.
Michael was in the kitchen filling his knapsack. “We’ll be hungry, Mom.”
They stole out to the garage and, feeling like a fugitive, Joanna switched on the ignition and eased down the driveway. “Where to?”
“Up Lamb’s Canyon.”
They drove down the dark, deserted streets. It had rained and the air was heavy with the smell of rich summer earth and roses and rain-wet leaves. “This is exciting,” Joanna said.
“This isn’t half of it.” Michael leaned back against the cushion.
It was beginning to be light when they reached the canyon, but the underbrush on either side was still black and the mountains were blacker against the pearl sky. A deer bounded across the road. Michael cried out.
Joanna stole a look at his freckled, blunt little face. It was ecstatic.
They reached a bend in the road and Michael said, “Here, Mother. Stop here.”
Obediently, she parked the car a little off the road. He was out in a moment, like a caged thing set free. “Now you must come along with me. I’ll show you something.”
She followed him along the dew-wet path, hugging her arms over her breast to keep out the chill. He plunged ahead of her, reminding her of a small puppy, sniffing the wind, reading the sky. His hand reached out to touch every tree they passed, as if they were friends. He paused, finally, beside a small, hurtling stream. “This is a good place. Now watch me build a fire.”
Joanna leaned against the bole of a tree and watched him pick up twigs and arrange them carefully in a wigwam effect. He lighted a match and knelt to hold it against a tiny curl of paper. There was a fullness in Joanna of tears and laughter. The laughter she could hold, but the tears scattered on her face. She wiped them away quickly with the back of her hand and went to kneel beside the tiny blaze.
“One match,” he prodded.
“I saw, Michael. I think you’re wonderful.”
He opened his knapsack and took out a frying pan, two plates, forks and knives, bacon, and eggs. By a great effort, Joanna kept from telling him that the pan was too hot for the bacon. She sat on a rock and breathed in the smell of pine and river, and listened to the small creek hurl itself over stones and around the bend. The bacon was slightly burned, but the eggs were fried to a queen’s taste. Joanna ate hungrily and held out her plate for more.
“You come here alone?”
He smiled at her crookedly, bread making a lump in his cheek. “Every chance I get. You have it all to yourself this time of the morning. You get to see the sun come up and when it’s half light, like this, you can pretend you’re the only person who ever came here.” He poked the fire with a stick. It crackled under his touch and sparks flew upward to the lightening sky.
Joanna’s fork made a little clink when she put it on the plate. “It was nice of you to let me come here.”
He buttered another slice of bread and spread it generously with strawberry jam. “Sometimes I pretend you’re here with me. I show you things … way up on the hill.”
“Oh,” said Joanna, “I wish I had known.”
He took a big bite of the bread. “When I’m grown up I’m going to have some land. Lots of it. Miles and miles of it, if folks haven’t used it all up. Mom, do you think people will have bought up all the land? Will there be just cities all over?”
“I don’t think so, Michael. What will you do with all your acres?’
“Plant wheat, oats, have cattle. You can come and live with me and we’ll sell the old bakeries. You can just sit in a chair all day long and look at my land.”
“When I am an old lady,” she agreed gravely, “I’ll rock in the sun and watch for you to come home from the fields.”
He sighed deeply. “Won’t that be perfect, though? I … I pray for it every night.” He looked at her shyly.
He cleaned up the camp and afterwards they climbed the hill and sat side by side, watching the sun come over the ridge. Twigs snapped around them from the feet of small hidden things, and birds began a wild caroling.
“This has been good, Michael. Let me come again,” Joanna pleaded.
He rose with her and led her down to the car. “We’ll do this lots. I know even better places than this, places that Stink and Saddy haven’t any idea about.”
“What do you Stink and Saddy call you, Michael?”
“Good heavens! Why?”
He looked at her and grinned. “I never asked them why.”
They reached home just as the others were coming down for breakfast. Sally and Penny eyed them. “Where have you two been?”
Joanna was aware of Michael’s tenseness. “Oh, around,” she said vaguely, and was repaid by his sudden relieved clatter up the stairs.