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Who Laughs Last

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 14, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1951 –

Who Laughs Last

By Olive W. Burt

Annabell glanced impatiently at the clock. It was getting late and she ought to be home. That was the worst of teaching! Everyone said, “Banker’s hours! Getting out of work before four, you have plenty of time to get home before Clay. You’ve certainly worked things out right!”

What they didn’t know was that very often, like today, she had to stay to see students about their work, had to stay, whether she wanted to or not.

This fellow not, that she was waiting for when she ought to be home starting Clay’s dinner, getting Libby ready to meet her daddy – what did she care about his problems, really? But as vocational consultant she had to seem to care, had to appear interested, but calm, though she was quivering with impatience to get away. Thank heavens there was only one more week of school this year!

It was past five when she finally stood up behind her big desk and said, smiling warmly, “You’ll be all right now, Mr. Graham. Now that you’ve recognized your problem, I’m sure you can handle it successfully. You’re adult and sensible. But, if you have difficulty, don’t hesitate to come to me again.”

She was thinking, “Please hurry! I’ve got a hot-headed husband coming home in an hour, and a child to pick, up, and some marketing to do!”

As soon as the door closed behind Graham, Annabell grabbed her hat and coat and ran down the hall and across to the parking lot. She swung her car violently out of its place and headed toward town.

She glanced at her wrist watch and thought impatiently, I’d better not stop for Libby. Mother can just keep her till after dinner, then Clay and I can drive down and pick her up. And I’ll not stop at the market, either. I’ll get by with what I’ve got on hand. It makes Clay furious when I’m not there – and I don’t want him to be furious, or even ruffled, till after I sign my contract for next year. Then I don’t care so much!

That contract and her foolish promise to Clay. When he gave his consent to her teaching this year – taking a position to help the university in its emergency of returned veterans and depleted faculty – he had made her promise she would not sign up for another year without his express consent.

“I don’t like it,” he said from the first. “Oh, I know they need help, but so do I, and so does Libby. Libby, most of all. Isn’t that right, Mother Lewis?” He’d appealed to her mother.

Her mother had answered reasonably, “You children must figure this out for yourselves. Don’t bring me into it.” They she had added, as an afterthought, “Of course, Annabell is the only available person with the right training and qualifications – and after all, it is what she had planned to do.”

“I thought she changed her plans when she married me,” Clay had replied bitterly. “Apparently I was wrong. But what about Libby? There’s no decent help …”

“Well, I can help there,” Libby’s grandmother smiled her most disarming smile. “I’ll be glad to take Libby during the day till you do find a housekeeper.”

Annabell grinned wryly, maneuvering the car expertly through the traffic. Her mother had certainly got more than she had bargained for. They’d had girls, of course, from time to time, but not one of them had lasted very long, and then it had been back to mother with Libby. Annabell had rather fancied her mother was getting just a little weary of the arrangement, but since it had been her suggestion, she couldn’t very well make a fuss.

Annabell left the car in the driveway, since they’d have to go for Libby later, and dashed into the house.

As she opened the door the fragrance of roast meat and apples cooking with sugar and cinnamon greeted her nostrils, and her hurry subsided into an immense relief. Mother had brought Libby home and started dinner.

She went into the living room and there sat Clay, his slippered feet high, his paper at a comfortable angle as he scanned the sports page.

“Hello, darling!” Annabell lilted, happy that everything was under control.

Clay dropped his paper, came and took hold of her arms, bending his long body to kiss her.

“Where’s Libby?” he asked casually.

Annabell’s eyes widened. “Isn’t she – didn’t Mother bring her?’ she asked.

Clay shook his head. “Haven’t seen your mother. If she came, it must have been before I got home.”

Annabell motioned toward the kitchen. “Then who …?”

“Oh,” Clay smiled, “that’s Martha Dennis, our new housekeeper.”

Annabell started toward the kitchen impulsively. Then she stopped and turned to face her husband.

“What is this, Clay?” she asked.

He was suspiciously casual. “The greatest stroke of luck, darling. Bill Dixon, you know Bill, has been sent to Europe for a year. Couldn’t take Martha with him, so he lent her to us. He wants her back again when he returns, of course. But I grabbed at the chance. You seemed set on signing the contract for next year, and this seemed the solution. Libby and I will have a real home life, anyway – and you, too, darling. Come and meet her, and you’ll see.”

Annabell tried to collect her thoughts. There was something strange about this. Clay had never tried to hire household help before, had always left it up to her. And his whole manner – sort of smug – a cat-that’s-swallowed-the-canary sort of look.

They went into the kitchen.

“Martha,” Clay said, “this is Mrs. Patrick.”

Annabell stiffened. Clay had introduced her to the servant. Oh, he probably didn’t mean anything by it, but in her mother’s proper household she had been trained to expect correct introductions. Martha came forward.

She doesn’t look like a servant! Annabell thought swiftly, taking in the refined, almost beautiful face; the neat gray hair, the motherly smile with which Martha greeted her. Annabell felt that she was staring, but she couldn’t help it, and she found that her surprise at this housekeeper was making her tongue stumble over what should have been easy words of greeting. What was wrong? Surely she should be as glad as anyone that Clay had found such a housekeeper.

Finally she said coolly, “We eat at six,” and turned to leave the room.

“Yes, Mrs. Patrick,” Martha answered, quietly.

Clay interrupted, “Make it six fifteen, Martha. Then I’ll have time to dash down and get Libby. I want her to get acquainted with Martha. They’re going to be great friends, I know.”

He didn’t wait for an answer or a remonstrance, but hurried out to the car, whistling. He hadn’t whistled for months.

Annabell went into her bedroom and threw her hat and coat across the bed. She stared at herself in the mirror, at her straight black hair in its dignified coil at the nape of her neck; at her hazel-flecked eyes and her straight, set chin.

Why, I look like a sour old woman, she thought bitterly, and then wondered why this idea had crossed her mind. “Maybe it’s because that – that woman looks so comfortable!” she muttered. “But in my job you can’t look motherly. Everyone would weep on your shoulder. You have to look efficient; you have to inspire confidence and self respect. You can’t baby grown men …”

“Or can you?” a tiny voice seemed to whisper.

Well, if Clay wanted mothering, he could have it, she decided crossly.

She pulled the pins furiously from her hair and brushed the thick, dark curls back loosely, watching the mirror for a miracle.

Annabell did not go out until she heard Clay and Libby come noisily in. As she stepped into the hall she saw them go into the kitchen, Libby crowing from her daddy’s shoulder, where she rode triumphantly.

“Martha!” Clay cried. “Here’s Libby – here’s the little queen herself!”

“Hello, Libby!” Martha’s voice was cheerful and friendly. “I’ve made cinnamon apples for you. Your daddy said they’re your favorite!”

Annabell couldn’t help thinking, Well, how could I make cinnamon apples when I don’t get home till five and after!

Libby was crowing, “Pretty, pretty Martha!” and all three were laughing.

“She’ll be bossing you, Martha, if you don’t watch out,” Clay chuckled. “She can boss with a velvet hand, but it’s bossing, just the same. And with her mother away, she’ll be the one you’ll be trying to please.”

Oh, yeah? Annabell thought slangily. She’d better please me, too. Libby bossing, indeed! How foolish could Clay be?

When she met her husband and daughter in the dining room, the color in her cheeks was not due to rouge.

The dinner was good, but Annabell couldn’t eat it. Clay’s appetite, on the other hand, was excellent, as were his humor and wit. Annabell was reminded of the way Clay showed off when they had important guests to dinner, and since he never displayed this charm for her alone – not for nearly a year, anyway – it gave to the presence of the new housekeeper a significance it didn’t merit. Or did it?

When Libby was ready for bed she cried suddenly, “Want to kiss Martha good night! Want to kiss Martha good night.”

She eluded Annabell’s hands and ran down the hall shrieking, “Martha! Martha!”

Annabell caught her lower lip between her teeth. How stupid to be jealous of a stranger! she thought. Then, I’m not jealous! I’m just bewildered.

Clay was saying casually, “She’s the funniest child to take to certain people. I suppose it’s because she’s had so many people take care of her. She doesn’t have a chance to form the silly inhibitions that make other children cling to one person.”

Oh, Clay, that’s cruel! Annabell thought, and turned her face swiftly away so that he might not see her hurt.

It was a terrible evening, with Clay making frequent trips kitchenward for ice water or a snack or merely to see whether the screen was fastened. Every time he went, Annabell found herself tensed into listening to the cheery remarks that passed between him and the busy housekeeper.

Her head was aching when she went to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She lay there thinking of the evening and trying to lay her finger on just what had disturbed her so. It wasn’t anything in Martha, herself, she had to admit. The woman had been perfect in her attitude. Annabell sighed. No, it was in Clay and Libby. It was their evident joy in the new housekeeper, their turning to her all the time, almost as if Annabell were not there.

When Annabell awoke the next morning, she found that Clay had already risen. She started to dress, and then remembered that she didn’t have to hurry quite so fast – she didn’t have to rush a breakfast on the table, get clothes onto Libby, and dash away.

It was with a feeling of relief that she smelled the bacon frying while she dressed. But the relief vanished when she went into the kitchen and found Libby already at the table, bright and sweet in her red-checked pinafore. Martha’s cheerful good morning did nothing to make Annabell happier. Clay came into the kitchen with a handful of roses which he handed to Martha as he came to give Annabell his morning kiss.

“This is something like it!” he beamed, taking the table, charmingly set with a low bowl of spring flowers in the center, and sliced oranges arranged in a cherry-topped circle on each blue plate. “Home was never like this,” he added unnecessarily.

“My, you are all up early!” Annabell remarked tartly.

“Oh,” Clay answered, “I knew Martha would have a good breakfast for us, so I worked in the garden, so I could do it justice.”

“Well, darling!” she put her arms about Libby, “you look very nice this morning. All ready to go to grandmother’s?”

She had made up her mind, and Clay might as well know it.

“Daddy says I can stay here with Martha,” Libby answered, over a mouthful of buttered toast. “Martha is going to make sugar cookies.”

“But, darling, what will Grandmother think?”

Before Libby could answer the phone rang, and Annabell turned to take the receiver from the cradle. It was her mother.

“Oh, Annabell, darling!” she crooned, “Clay told me about your wonderful luck. Isn’t it fortunate? And I’m so glad …”

“But, Mother!” Annabell interrupted determinedly, “It isn’t at all definite. I mean …”

“Oh, yes it is, dear. Clay told me all the details. I guess you were so relieved you didn’t bother – and it came at such a fortunate moment. I was going to tell you last night when you picked up Libby, only you didn’t. But I’ve been named to the library board – and I’ve got a great deal of work to do. I don’t know what you’d have done if Clay hadn’t …”

“Mother!” Annabell forced her voice into the stream of words. “Mother, do you mean you can’t take Libby today?”

“Not today or for some time, I’m afraid, dear. You see, it’s the library board. We’ve got to …”

“Sorry, mother, I can’t talk now. I’m coming down on my way to school. Tell me then.” She cradled the receiver and rose from the table.

She picked Libby up from her half-finished meal, wiped her mouth on her napkin, handed her another piece of toast, and carried her out to the car. Clay came to the door.

“What’s the idea?’ he cried. “Why not leave Libby here? Martha doesn’t mind, and it’s better for the child.”

That last phrase settled it. Annabell wasn’t going to leave Libby there to be taken in completely by Martha’s “motherliness.” Phooey! she thought. Mother’s spoiled Libby badly enough, but then she is her grandmother, and that’s what grandmothers are for. But a housekeeper, beaming on the child like that, doing everything to please her! The child would be ruined in no time.

As Annabell drove furiously along, her analytical mind insisted on checking over her reasons for her unreasonable behavior. Smiling a little ruefully, she had to admit that it wasn’t so much fear of Libby’s being spoiled as it was fear that Martha, a mere servant, would swiftly replace Annabell in the child’s affection. She hadn’t really worried about that with her mother, because her mother was like Annabell, calm and efficient, and not given to spoiling anyone.

“Annabell, didn’t you understand me?” her mother asked, showing her exasperation and annoyance when she saw her daughter and grandchild.

“Of course I understood you, Mother. But you didn’t understand me. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that woman isn’t a regular housekeeper. Oh, maybe she kept house for Bill Dixon – but I’ll bet she was his aunt, or something. And look how spoiled Bill was! Always had to have everything just so. Mother, she’s the kind of person that men and children just adore …”

“Well, what’s wrong with being that kind of woman, Annabell? Surely,” her mother’s eyes crinkled at the corners, “you’re not jealous? Clay said she was an elderly person.”

“Oh, that’s not it,” Annabell retorted, “I’m not jealous of her exactly. But if you’d seen how Clay and Libby looked at her, as if she were – were – well, they don’t look at me like that?!” she ended lamely, almost in tears.

“No?’ her mother asked, “do you give them reason to, Annabell? You know I’ve found that people are like mirrors – remember that silly story you used to read that pointed that moral very clearly? But it’s true, nevertheless. If you took time to look at Clay and Libby as if they were something special – took time to spoil them – maybe …”

“I don’t have time – ” Annabell began, and then stopped. “Well, Mother, can’t you help me out just once more – can’t you keep Libby just one more day?”

Her mother shook her head. “I don’t see how, darling. When Clay told me you had such a treasure of a housekeeper I called up Mrs. Wilson and Lou Adams and told them I’d meet them at ten. I’ll have to rush as it is.” She looked impatiently at the clock.

“Okay,” Annabell said. “It’s all right. Thanks for tending her so much.”

She was holding Libby by the hand when she entered the president’s office.

“I’m sorry, Miss Gleason,” she told the president’s secretary. “I can’t be in my office today. Nor at all this next week. It will be a little inconvenient, I guess, but if you’ll just post a notice that appointments will have to be kept at my home – I believe we can manage since there is just a week left.”

Miss Gleason’s eyebrows were high.

“He will ask me for the reason, Mrs. Patrick.”

“A personal emergency,” Annabell answered shortly. “Oh, and give him this, please.” She handed the girl a long envelope and turned to go.

“Your contract!” Miss Gleason beamed again. “You’ll be with us next year, then?”

“No,” Annabell said, “it isn’t signed.”

She went out of the door and drove home.

Martha was singing in the kitchen. Annabell stood and looked at her a moment. Then she said, making her voice as calm as possible, “I’m sorry, Martha, but I won’t be needing you any longer. If you will tell me what Mr. Patrick agreed to pay you, I will give you a check for two weeks pay and you may go.”

Martha looked up, surprised, but cool. “Mr. Patrick hired me, Mrs. Patrick,” she said. “I’m afraid I can’t leave without his consent.”

“Oh, yes you can!” Annabell’s voice was really calm now. “You can complain to Mr. Patrick if you wish, but I simply won’t need you. There’s not enough work here to require a maid. A taxi will be here for you in half an hour.”

It was as easy as that. When Martha was gone, Annabell took off her school dress and slipped into a red and white pinafore just like Libby’s. She pulled the pins from her hair and tied her dark curls back with a red ribbon.

“So you want sugar cookies, darling?” she asked. “do you want to help Mommy make them?”

“Oh, Mommy! Mommy!” Libby danced up and down. “Can I? Can I?”

“Of course, pet. Here, pull up a chair and I’ll show you. And then we’ll make some strawberry tarts for daddy. He loves them.”

They were cutting funny shapes from the soft dough when Libby asked, “Where’s Martha? Did she go back to Granny’s?”

“No, pet. Martha doesn’t know Granny,” Annabell answered absently.

“Yes, she does, Mommy. Martha and Daddy and Granny had a party. I woke up and came downstairs and they gave me ice cream.”

Annabell stared at her daughter. “Are you sure, darling? When did they have the party?”

“Last day when I was at Granny’s.”

Anger flowed through Annabell. She had been right. Martha was no ordinary housekeeper. They had made it up between them – that was why she was all sweetness and light! Of course no housekeeper would put herself out like that! her mother and Clay had schemed this just because they didn’t want her to teach; her mother didn’t want to be tied down with Libby any more. How childish of them! Why hadn’t they simply told her? No, they had gone into this childish plot and she had let them get by with it!

Well, it wasn’t too late – she could get back her contract and sign it. She could …

But it might have been real, she thought in panic again. I was more scared than I dared admit, even to myself – Oh, Clay, Clay! I couldn’t bear it for you and Libby to grow away from me!

She looked at Libby, busily cutting stars from a piece of smudgy dough. Suddenly Annabell laughed and caught her daughter close, kissing the flour-daubed cheeks.

“I’m glad!” she cried, “glad it was a frame-up! I’ll never let them know I found out!”

Libby leaned against her mother and laughed, too.

“I’m glad!” she echoed. “I’m glad, too, Mommy!”



9 Comments »

  1. “Slangily”?

    Comment by Alison — January 14, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  2. If she doesn’t want Martha, I’ll take her!

    Comment by Chad Too — January 14, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

  3. And I thought “The Help” was a Southern fried thing.

    Comment by IDIAT — January 15, 2013 @ 7:50 am

  4. I’m not a feminist by any stretch, but I was disappointed with those parts of the story that painted the husband as a priesthood holder (or any man, I suppose) who would be angry at his wife for not having dinner waiting for him when he got off of work. In fact, so much so that she was willing to forego getting her daughter from mother’s home just so she could get home and start dinner. The whole attitude of expecting wife to give up plans/expecations because she married him was fairly chauvanistic, even for 1951. And is there really a need to “spoil” your spouse? Yes, sometimes. But not all the time. Nor your children, because they in turn grow up to be spoiled adults and spoiled spouses. Now, no doubt they needed to work together to come up with a solution. I’ve never had to put my children in day care, and about the closest we came was when my mother in law watched our first born a couple of hours a day while I was in graduate school. But, not everyone is living near family or in the position to trade off with friends. Anyway, was just disappointed that (it appeared) husband wasn’t more supportive or appreciative of the work wife was doing both in and out of the house.

    Comment by IDIAT — January 15, 2013 @ 9:05 am

  5. I would not have been “grateful” at the scheme, I would have been furious, and I would have signed the contract the next day and told him to go hire back Martha, if that is what he really wants.

    Talk about treating women like infants who must be tricked into doing the “right thing” to spoil husband and child, and completely overlook any of her own dreams.

    Sheesh! This is one I would have burned!

    Comment by Julia — January 15, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

  6. Thanks for the laugh, Julia! Not that you intended to make me laugh, but your rant did!

    This is another case where we see the difference a couple of generations can make. I’m with you — if anybody did anything like this to me today, I’d be outraged by the manipulation and the scheming and all the rest.

    But Olive W. Burt is a favorite author, and she’s a good storyteller, by the standards of the fiction in the Magazine. She writes this as if she expects her readers to find it funny, rather than offensive — and based on some other stories that involve similar manipulation of husband or wife, I have little doubt that readers in 1951 *did* find it funny. Just think of all the “I Love Lucy” reruns you’ve seen. Many are based on Lucy and Ricky tricking each other rather than sitting down and working out their problems like 21st century adults. Doesn’t this story fit that same pattern?

    Stories like this are a genre that we don’t especially enjoy any more. But I read them imagining my grandmother and her enjoyment of the story. It’s one way I enter her world, and recognize that she lived in a world that was very different from mine, despite similarities in so many other ways.

    But I agree with you in an objective sense — ain’t nobody better try anything like this on me!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 15, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

  7. I was thinking of “I Love Lucy” too. This would make a great sitcom script.

    Comment by Carol — January 15, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

  8. If anybody ever pulled this on me, they’ve have some ‘splainin to do.

    Lots of things about this story rubbed me the wrong way, too. It makes me wonder what we’ll think 50 years from not looking back at 2013…

    Comment by lindberg — January 16, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  9. *now*

    Comment by lindberg — January 16, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

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