From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1951 –
Herman and the Birthday Dinner
By Hazel K. Todd
Mother is one of those understanding souls who can always find the nice things about people. As Sue says, “It doesn’t do any good to say something unkind about anyone. Mother will always prove you’re wrong, and then you will wish you hadn’t said it.” Even when Sue and I were just eight and peeked through the hole in the barn door while the hired man sucked all the eggs mother had been sure the skunks were carrying off, mother couldn’t be convinced he was wicked and father should fire him at once. She just said, when we made her watch and find it was true, that the poor man must be hungry, and she must give him better meals. And once when father, who is really a good scout and seldom complains, remarked that you couldn’t trust “So-and-so” as far as you could throw a bull by the horns, mother just laughed. The reason, she said, that father talked in terms of bulls was because of Herman, our gentleman cow.
People like to be with mother. They just happen by for a pickle recipe, or some advice on sewing a dress, or just to visit. Mother has a place in her heart for them all. Just like Mariar. Mother has a deep sense of duty toward Mariar who, she says, is all alone in the world. She pays no attention to her cross eyes and her nose. As Sue said after it was all over, homely people are like garden toads to mother. When you know how much good they do, you forget about their ugly shapes.
Mariar used to come and sit for hours and watch mother. she was tickled to death if mother would let her pare the potatoes or something. She ate dinner with us all the Sundays and every holiday. In fact, Sue said she was sure that Mariar had had more pieces of cake at our house than both of us, being twins, had in our fifteen years. Sue would look out the window and say, “Well, here comes Mariar.” Only she’d draw out the last syllable so that it sounded like a cat in trouble. Mother would look a little hurt, but, after all, she knew that Sue was only teasing.
Of course we didn’t really mind Mariar. That is, nobody minded until Mr. Burton came along. Mr. Burton was the new English teacher at junior high, and, when you listened to him, even gerunds and participles were nice things.
“Sanny,” Sue said to me one night after school, “isn’t he wonderful! I think we should invite him to the October birthday dinner.”
October was the month when Sue and I were born. And when our little brother Billie came along in October, too, mother said that was reason enough for a special celebration, so we chose the Sunday nearest both dates, and had a real feast.
It was a new idea to invite anyone else to the October birthday dinner since that had always been a day for just the family, except for Mariar. Mariar had eaten our birthday dinner with us ever since I could remember.
Sue had stopped and leaned against the pasture fence. I looked at her and knew there was something going on in her red head.
“Sanny,” she said, “Mariar would just be out of place having dinner with Mr. Burton.”
I thought of Mariar’s chin wiggling up and down on account of no teeth to hold it straight.
“Why,” Sue continued, “why, Sanny, he’d think we’re looney to have such odd friends!”
I looked across the pasture fence and watched Herman eating quietly, his big head moving from one side to the other. Presently Sue picked up a stick and flipped it into the air so that it spun around like a humming bird. “I know what,” she said, “let’s not have Mariar to our birthday dinner!”
I looked at her, and her nose was turned up like a March morning.
“But, Sue,” I explained very carefully, as if she might have forgotten that Mariar was as much a part of October birthday as the fried chicken and the birthday cake, “Mariar always eats October birthday with us.” I ran my hand along the wire. “Why, mother wouldn’t think of leaving her out. Besides, Mariar expects it.”
“Well, after all, Sanny,” Sue said, “isn’t October birthday our birthday, and aren’t there two of us? That should count, shouldn’t it?”
I didn’t say any more, but I had a depressed feeling that something was going to happen.
That night when Billie had been tucked into bed and Father was settled in his favorite chair and his stocking feet, Sue motioned to me, and I followed her into the kitchen, where mother was fussing over some pickles. Sue squeezed into Billie’s high chair and perched her legs upon the footstool so that she looked like a little girl, instead of a young lady in junior high.
Mother smiled at her over her pickle jar. “Sue,” she laughed, “how long do you think you can squeeze into that chair?”
Sue didn’t say anything. She just grinned in a way that always brought a little sigh of pride from mother. But I didn’t smile. I just squirmed and wished she’d hurry and get it over.
I didn’t have to wait long. Sue began very carefully, explaining to mother that we should like to invite Mr. Burton to the birthday dinner, and that she thought Mariar was sort of different, “odd,” she called it, and would mother please not invite Mariar this year.
She looked at me for acknowledgment. But mother’s expression wasn’t just what you’d call reassuring, so I just sort of nodded my head and looked out the window.
But when mother spoke, her voice was very quiet, and there was no trace of what her face had shown. “Very well, dear.” She hesitated a moment. “Mariar has been like one of the family for a long time. She has eaten your birthday dinner with you since you were very small girls, and I am sure she will be very hurt.”
I felt like a heel. But Sue always knows how to get out of things.
“Oh, she won’t mind this once, Mother. And then we can have her over the next Sunday.”
Mother began putting away her utensils. “Of course, Sue, other Sundays aren’t birthday Sundays, but we will not ask Mariar.” She laid her hand lovingly on Sue’s red head for a minute, and then turned quickly and went into the living room where father was asleep in his chair.
“Whew!” Sue sighed, “I wish mother wouldn’t always have to be so loyal.”
“And we wouldn’t have to be so disloyal,” I added, just for a little spice to the situation. And then I went out and stood by the pasture gate where Herman was quietly feeding. He raised his big, mean-looking head and shook it at me belligerently. “What’s the matter with you?” I asked, feeling as if I’d stolen some little child’s ice cream. “Nobody left you out of a birthday dinner.”
But maybe Herman wasn’t so sure, for I heard father say the next evening that something had certainly stirred Herman’s temper up.
I was getting my English, but mostly gazing out the window. I forgot all about conjugating verbs when I saw Mariar coming through the gate. She had on her old red sweater, the same one I’d seen her wear ever since I could remember. It was darned at the elbows and the pockets sagged until Father always wanted to know what she’d had in them.
“Here comes Mariar,” I said to Sue.
But Sue just said, “Mariar is coming, Mother.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “Go to the door, will you please?”
Mother was sitting by the table with some recipes or something,. Mariar sat down beside her.
Father came in hunting for the newspaper. “You’d better not let Herman see that sweater tonight, Mariar,” he said, “he’s in a bad mood.”
“Oh, go on about your business,” Mariar laughed. “That old bull of yours wouldn’t chase anything. Besides, he’s seen this red sweater so much he doesn’t pay any more attention to it than he would a pair of blue overalls.”
Father found his newspaper and went out on the porch where it was quieter. Mariar looked at Mother fondly, while she fumbled around inside her sweater and brought forth a peculiar-looking object and set it carefully on the table before Mother. It took a few minutes to distinguish what was under the ribbons and paper flowers and other bright stuff. Then I saw that it was just a plain, old, white summer squash. Instinctively I looked at Sue, but from her puzzled expression I knew she hadn’t yet discovered what it was.
Mother had caught the joyous expectation on Mariar’s face. “It’s lovely,” she said.
Mariar beamed like a child who had just eaten all her oatmeal and was being praised by the mother. “I thought we could use it for a table decoration for the birthday dinner.”
I looked at it again with the new light of identity upon it. Now I understood. The scallops of the squash represented a basket. The flowers and ribbons and things went in it. I looked at Sue helplessly. but I knew from her pained expression what she was thinking. I pictured in my mind Mr. Burton sitting at the table, while in front of him, bedecked in all its glory, rested Mariar’s masterpiece. He would twist his head to one side of it and say, “Miss Sue, may I have the butter, please?”
Sue turned beseeching eyes upon Mother.
Mother is a dear. I think she understood in that one look just how much it meant to Sue to have Mr. Burton impressed at the birthday dinner. She reached over and laid her hand tenderly on Mariar’s.
“Mariar,” she said, with no trace of the emotional strain that I knew was going on inside her, “I wanted to ask you something. You see, the twins have invited some friends from school this year to their birthday dinner.” Mother hesitated a moment. “I thought perhaps we had better leave the dinner to the young people this year.” She glanced at Sue, but Sue didn’t say anything. so she continued, “Maybe we should have Billie’s birthday separately this year. You could help me with it.”
She had tacked this last thought about Billie on, on the spur of the moment, for I knew mother loved the way we had all our birthdays together. She was looking at Mariar for reassurance, and so was I. But I saw the color slowly drain from her face, leaving it forlorn and helpless.
“Oh, sure, Mrs. Simpson,” she said, struggling for control. “Of course that would be right.”
I looked at her sitting so alone and homely in her old red sweater, and I wished Sue had never thought of Mr. Burton.
But Sue was doing something in the cabinet, rattling pans around. She didn’t look up.
I turned back to Mariar, and she was rubbing her old wrinkled hands together in sort of a helpless gesture. “I guess I ought to be going,” she said.
She stood up and reached for the table decoration.
But Mother’s hand on her arm stopped her. “No, don’t take it, Mariar,” she said. “I’d love to have it.”
Mariar flashed her a quick look of thankfulness and then she left.
Nobody said anything.
Father came into the house. He looked around and remarked, “What’s everybody so glum about? You look as if you’d all been sucking pickles.”
Mother said, “Oh, it must be the weather.” But that was odd, for it was lovely autumn weather.
Father put on his hat and went out somewhere into the yard.
Mother picked up a pink shawl from the chair back, and went out, saying something about some plums.
Sue was sitting in Billie’s high chair. She was unconsciously twisting a piece of her red hair around her finger. “Well,” she said, looking at me defensively, “I’m glad that’s over.”
“Yes,” I said.
“She’ll get over it,” Sue said. “It’s nothing to fuss about. I’m going outside.”
After she’d gone I walked aimlessly around the kitchen. Billie called for a drink, and I took him some water, spilling some on the cabinet. I took a dish towel and wiped it up. It seemed as though everyone was going outside, so I went out too, unconsciously carrying the dish towel with me.
Sue was leaning on the orchard fence, sort of looking at nothing, so I went and leaned on it, too.
“How’d you like Mariar’s centerpiece?” she asked dryly.
“But maybe if you sort of scooped out the middle of the squash …” I began, and then I saw Herman. He was standing under the Delicious apple tree, and he was tearing up the earth with his horns and his feet, and letting out unearthly noises.
“Sue,” I said, clutching her arm, “what’s Herman doing in the orchard, and what’s he so angry about?”
But even as I glanced at Sue and saw the color drain from her face, I caught a glimpse of mother’s pink shawl. She was picking plums and, even in the anxiety of the moment I knew she was thinking of Mariar, for she was utterly oblivious to Herman. And it was plain to see that mother was the object of Herman’s annoyance. He lifted his huge head and snorted.
Sue was white as a sheet. I was thinking desperately what to do. Mother was too far to run to her and, if she ran, Herman would surely run, too.
“But Herman has never chased anyone before. Surely he wouldn’t harm Mother.” But, even as I said it, he lifted his head and roared with anger, and I knew that what I had just said was not true.
“Mother!” I screamed, and Sue screamed it right after me.
Mother started and then, when she saw Herman, she clutched the shawl around her shoulders and began to run.
Herman pawed again and the dirt flew like a dust storm. And he took two terrible steps.
“It’s the pink shawl!” I screamed. “Drop the shawl, Mother!”
But mother was too scared to know what we said. Instead of dropping it, she only clutched it tighter and tried to run faster.
Sue was clinging to me wildly, and I could feel her heart pounding against my sleeve. then Herman put down his massive head and started forward, and I heard Sue praying aloud.
“Father!” I cried, “Father, where are you!”
Then I saw Mariar. She must have been sitting in the grape arbor. She was running toward Herman with the old red sweater in front of her. She shook it wildly at him. I swallowed to keep my heart from leaping out of my throat.
“Mariar!” Sue sobbed. “It’s Mariar!”
Herman had seen the sweater now, and he roared with rage. Something had come into his way, something that was red instead of pink. He hesitated in his horrible purpose, and pawed the earth like something mad. Through the corner of my eye I could see mother running, still running, without looking back to know that a third party on the scene. She was headed for the gate that led to the house.
Herman gave another roar, and I turned to see him plunge at the red sweater. I felt Sue hide her face in my dress, and I closed my eyes to hide the awful thing that was about to happen. I strained my ears for Mariar’s scream, but instead, it was father’s voice, clear and commanding. “You old heathen! What do you think you’re doing!”
There is nothing sweeter when situations are tense than the relief that comes with complete faith in someone who will handle the situation. I opened my eyes, knowing that Father had made things right. He was ramming a pitchfork at Herman. And Herman was backing off like an exploding volcano, while, shaken and white, Mariar leaned against the apple tree.
Sue was crying aloud as she used to when she was a little girl. She reached over and took the dish towel that I had been unconsciously winding around the fence post. She wiped her face and handed it back to me.
“Sanny,” she asked, “how could I have been so selfish? Here Mariar would have given her life for mother, and because she has crooked eyes and a funny nose, I would have denied her our birthday dinner just to make an impression on some old guy who teaches us how to parse sentences.”
“Oh, Sue, darling!” I sobbed, with my arms around her. And then we were both crying together.
“Come on, Sanny,” she said, breaking loose, “we must invite Mariar to the birthday dinner.”
“And don’t you suppose,” I suggested, wiping my eyes, in turn, on the dish towel, “that we could scoop out the middle of the squash and make a nice table decoration?”
“Of course,” said Sue, leaving a piece of her plaid skirt on the orchard fence. “And if Mr. Burton doesn’t like it, we’ll feed it to him for dessert.”
That night as I was going down the hall to bed I heard mother saying to father, “No, John, we won’t get rid of Herman. He isn’t really bad. You see, I had a problem tonight I didn’t know how to answer. It was Herman who solved it for me.”