From the Relief Society Magazine, 1950 –
Dark in the Chrysalis
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Edith Ashe stood on the landing, not deliberately eavesdropping – she couldn’t have moved if she had wanted to – while waves of alternate humiliation and anger shuddered over her. Below, in the living room, Annette’s voice was plainly audible, discussing Edith herself.
“I know she’s your mother, Kit, but I’m your wife.”
“I’m happy to agree with that,” said Kit in a that-settles-that tone of voice. It didn’t settle anything.
“Kit, something has to be done. I can’t go through another day like yesterday. She took my luncheon guests through the whole thing, from your father’s first symptom, all the operations, and every detail of his death to the funeral. The oxygen tank, the hypodermics and special nurses – all of it, not a word left out. I was so embarrassed.”
Edith caught her breath sharply. Why, she wouldn’t have gone to the luncheon at all – she had offered to stay in her room or go to a movie — if Annette hadn’t insisted. How could the girl –?
“Well, Annie dear, you must realize Mother’s not herself,” Kit was saying. “You must make allowances. When two people are as close as Mother and Dad were, it is an awful thing, a shock to –”
“But two years, Kit! You’d think by this time – I know it’s hard, and I have made allowances, but I can’t stand any more. Can’t she go to Bill’s or to some of the others for a while?”
“No. You know how Bill and Marylin scrap. Mother’s nerves just won’t take it. Frank has that big family, and Andy and Ruth are just getting started. Besides, Mother’s done more for me than for the rest – helping me get my degree. I wouldn’t shunt her around for the world. We have the room and we have the money – no, Annette!”
Annette, weeping, whimpered something Edith couldn’t hear.
“Now, dearest, you know that isn’t true,” Kit answered. “I love you and I always will, but you and Mother will have to work something out yourselves. If Mother had a daughter – daughters and mothers are closer. You don’t really know what a peach she was in the old days – helping Dad in his practice, Johnny-on-the-spot when any of us had a green-apple stomach-ache or a major crisis like the need for a tuxedo and orchid money. She was jolly fun, too.”
“When I get old I hope I have my pride,” began Annette.
“Mother’s not old,” said Kit sharply. “She’s not fifty yet. She’s tired and sick, and Dad’s going knocked her for a loop, but there’s plenty of spunk left in her yet. You just don’t know Mother.”
Kit’s voice was high, belying his words, and his defense of her, placing all her virtues in the past tense, hurt her almost as much as did Annette’s indictment. Edith knew, with sinking heart, that while Kit pretended to put the problem in Annette’s domain, he would still worry about it. Why would the girl send him off to work like this?
Sh crept back to her room, taking care to make no sound, slipped into the still warm bed, and pulled the covers about her. Tears came easily for Edith; they had been her only recourse since Marvin’s death, and they came now, scalding and bitter, to dampen the pillow beneath her cheek.
Annette was wrong. She hadn’t told the girls everything. She hadn’t, for instance, told Annette’s guests that every penny they had in the world, Marvin’s surgical equipment, their two cars, the equity in the family home, and finally borrowed money, had gone into the hopeless fight for Marvin’s life.
Edith didn’t begrudge one penny of it, was only glad that the insurance had covered the loan, but that didn’t alter the fact that now she was dependent upon her children, nor lessen the bitterness that she was considered a relic, and not wanted.
Annette was unjust. Evidently she’d never noticed how Edith kept to her room to allow more privacy to the young couple, coming down after Kit had gone to work, going upstairs early in the evening, to read alone in her room, listening to the radio, or just going to bed to face the awful dark. Perhaps she had said too much yesterday, but if so it was because she was lonely, and because they had seemed interested.
Edith shuddered now to think of it. Polite young women, they were, smooth and well-groomed, hiding their boredom of an older woman’s recital of her troubles beneath an exterior of simulated interest. And Annette, smilingly deferent, secretly ashamed of her. She herself, had she lost her sense of perception, that she could have missed the whole atmosphere?
Edith would not say that she wanted to die, but she certainly did not want to live; with all her being she wanted to be out of this house, away from Kit and Annette, no longer an issue between them, a problem to be solved. But what Kit said was true. It was unthinkable to go to any of the other children for more than a short visit.
Edith turned her face into the pillow with a fresh flood of tears, knowing that it was past time for her to go downstairs, knowing, too, that she could not face Annette.
Sometime later Annette knocked softly at her door, a little edge of apprehension in her voice.
“Mother Ashe, are you all right?”
It was on the tip of Edith’s tongue to say that no, she was not all right, that she had heard every word of the conversation this morning, and she was very much upset. Annette would feel guilty, Kit would blame Annette, and things could go on from there; but some little point of pride from Kit’s defense of her sparked her reply.
“I’m not sick,” she controlled her voice to say. “I just feel like lying here a little longer. I hope it won’t inconvenience you.”
“Surely not,” said Annette. “May I come in?”
“Of course,” said Edith, thankful that the shades were still drawn.
“You’re sure you’re not sick?” queried Annette. “I had planned to go to town and have lunch at Cathay’s with some of the girls, then shopping for the afternoon and home with Kit, but if you are ill –”
“Nonsense,” said Edith, much relieved at the prospect of the rest of the day alone. “Go ahead. I’ll be fine. I’ll have dinner ready when you get home.”
“I’ll appreciate that, Mother Ashe, if you’re sure. Let me bring you something hot now.”
It could be any morning, with nothing changed, except for that hideous ten minutes on the landing. The hot milk and toast, when Annette brought it, tasted surprisingly good, and yet Edith lay there. Kit’s words recurred again and again, each time with added force, “She’s not old – there’s plenty of spunk left in her yet.”
Well, if keeping a home like a doctor’s home should be kept, bringing up four lively boys, entertaining and taking part in church and civic organizations, was capability, Kit was right. “You’re the kind of woman who can do everything, and do it right,” Marvin used to say. No need for a woman like that to creep around on the edge of someone else’s life. No, Annette didn’t know mother!
Kit had met her at school; they had been married that awful summer at the beginning of Marvin’s illness, when the knowledge of what they were up against was a stone in her mind. She hadn’t told them, fearing to shorten their happiness, and hoping the evil dream would disappear. She must have seemed old and queer to Annette.
In the old days there had been dinners and dances and heart-warming visits. Their home had always been hospitably open, and she had been happy in the midst of her cherished furniture and dishes, her linen and silver. She was lonesome for them now, a part of the ache that was for Marvin. Annette had not wanted any of her things, and they were all stored, swathed in covers, in the spare room at Kit’s, in spite of the appeals of the children to “sell the junk,” and in spite of Annette’s hints that the space could be used for a darkroom for Kit, who was an amateur photographer.
It was not just hard for Annette. A strange house, strange furniture, and different ways of doing things were not easy for Edith either. Moreover, she felt she had no right to invite her friends, even her own children and grandchildren. She had looked forward to the enjoyment of her grandchildren, to helping fill their needs, for children needed the rich wisdom of their grandparents, especially since their parents were caught in the conflicts of youth, of adjusting relationships and making a living, and the fears that were fed by their ignorance.
There was Frank’s wife, who had been pretty and popular, and who was now resentful under the burden of four children arriving in rapid succession. She was turning into a scold, nagging the children until they were developing nervous habits, and reproaching Frank for her lack of pretty clothes, the loss of her looks and of her figure, never remembering that she had pestered Frank for an early marriage when he wanted to wait until he was better equipped to make a living, never seeing what it was doing to the babies. Betty Lynn, the oldest, was an adorable little girl, sensitive and intelligent. Edith longed to give her some of the delights of childhood that she was definitely missing.
Andy had married a sweet girl, and a capable girl, Edith believed. They were in Berkeley, Andy going to school on his G.I. bill, and Ruth working in an office. They had a cubbyhole of an apartment. They would perhaps come home for the holidays if there was a place to come to. As it was, Edith felt their letters were getting fewer and more stereotyped with duty.
Bill’s wife, Marylin, was a high-strung girl, and Bill, Edith had to admit, was hot-headed and unreasonable. The result was that their life together was a series of violent quarrels, followed by ardent reconciliations. Edith was sure they loved each other, and would eventually settle into a working partnership, but being around them while they did was not comfortable. She had just not felt up to it.
Bill, her youngest and stormiest child, had always brought his problems to her, disguised as arguments in which she was always bested. Her only knowledge that she won was when Bill went his way, took her advice, which he had invariably rebelled against, and put it into effective use. He had come to Kit’s two or three times, turbulent with questions and doubts, but, naturally, he couldn’t use her emotions for a punching bag, her brains for a sparring partner, before Annette, so he had gone away unsatisfied, to take it out on poor Marylin, no doubt.
Edith sighed, thinking of him. below, in the living room, the vacuum had long since stopped humming. Any minute now Annette would come upstairs to dress. Edith, dreading another encounter with her, from pure chagrin went into her own bathroom and started the water for her bath. She bathed long and luxuriously, and when she came out Annette had gone.
She forced herself to sit at the dressing table and look at herself, something she had not really done for a long time. She was beautiful, Marvin used to say, with a look of distinction, with a high-bridged nose, her blue-black hair sculptured high, and her long blue-black eyes. Now she was thin; her face drooped from too much grief. Her courage went out of her as she struggled to make her hair assume its old smartness.
The morning paper was neatly folded on an end table downstairs. Annette was a good housekeeper, and, in fairness, Edith had to admit she was a good daughter-in-law. She would never forget how unselfishly the girl had taken her into her new home. She had never been warmly friendly, but had always been kind and polite. Edith had been disappointed, so much had she hoped to find a daughter in Kit’s wife, but she had supposed it was just the girl’s way – until today, when her true feelings had tumbled out in words. Maybe it would be better just to ignore this morning’s episode.
Half-heartedly, Edith opened the paper to the want ads. Everything in her rebelled against the thought of thrusting herself into the workaday world, where the tides of life run ruthlessly swift. Sliding her fingers down the column was more a gesture of self-pity than a sincere seeking. Housekeepers, waitresses, and saleswomen seemed to be the only openings, none of them suited to her.
As she was laying the paper aside, her eyes caught one item: “Wanted: Companion for aged lady. Very little to do. Comfortable room with salary.”
Well, a job like that would certainly solve the difficulty, providing one wanted it. Edith didn’t. Since the “Women Want Work” column was twice as long as “Help Wanted, Female,” this plum would long since have been plucked, anyway. Nevertheless, to salve her conscience, to say she had tried, she went to the telephone and dialed the number listed. A man’s voice answered.
Edith summoned her sweetest voice and said, “My name is Edith Ashe, Mrs. Marvin Ashe. I am calling in answer to your advertisement.”
She was prepared for a flood of questions, or to be told that the position was filled. Instead, his breath came out in relief. “Mrs. Marvin Ashe? I’m so glad you called. No one else has called yet, and I was getting desperate. I have to leave for Chicago at nine o’clock in the morning. Can you be here at eight? Call a cab and come to 1218 North Walnut. I’ll pay your fare. Can you do that?”
“I guess so. Yes,” said Edith hesitatingly.
“Fine! I’ll depend upon that,” he said, and hung up.
Edith stood by the telephone, undecided whether to call him back and refuse this preposterous arrangement. What kind of man would hire a person without question? She would call him, yes – later. Now she could still feel the urgency of his voice.
She went upstairs to look over her clothes and toilet articles – just in case, her knees feeling peculiarly weak and her head light with unreality. Kit would make short work of this silliness.
* * *
“Well, Mother, you just can’t do it,” declared Kit matter-of-factly when she told them at dinner. Annette’s eyes widened apprehensively and sought Kit’s. Kit nodded slightly. “What’s his number? I’ll call him now.”
“I’ve left the poor man depending upon me. No doubt he’s told other applicants the place is filled. Of course I shall go.”
Annette’s eyes filled with tears. “Mother,” she said, “I’ve hoped all day that you didn’t hear me this morning. I’m so ashamed, and so sorry. That’s it, isn’t it?”