From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1931 –
A String of Beads
By Annie D. Palmer
Only twenty-five cents! Surely there must be some mistake. Those lovely cherry colored beads were never intended to sell for a quarter! Janet Major doubted that she could tell the difference if they were laid on the same tray with those at three dollars in a jewelry store window.
The young woman had spent hours window shopping in the hope that somewhere she would see a dress cheap enough to warrant her offering a dollar down and a half dollar a week. Margie Brown had asked her to go to a dance tonight with Margie and Joe. And Janet had promised. Immediately there had come up the question of clothes. Not that there should be a question. She had only one best dress, the same one that had done service for the last three years. She had hemmed it up twice, and then let the hem down and faced it. She had taken the sleeves out, sewed them back in, and finally cut them off. She had put a black collar on it and then a white one. It was still the same old dress, and looked positively hideous to her. She had called it Mauve when it was new; now it seemed to have no color at all, just a dull, drab, neutral thing, with no distinction but the oldness. Janet wasn’t very sure about red being the best color of beads to wear with it; but the red was bright and seemed to her to give an added sparkle to the deep brown of her eyes. At any rate the beads were pretty – and new. She held them against her bosom and was satisfied with the combination.
But there was only a dollar in her poor little purse. Baby Jane needed shoes, and the three other youngsters, underwear. When it came to that, what did the youngsters not need? Dan had been so long without work that she had quit asking him whether or not he had found a job. His father had been paying the rent for months; and an agency had provided milk, groceries, and coal. Janet had gone out for a day occasionally when work was offered her, but the little she earned seemed to go nowhere on the upkeep of clothes and household needs. She put the beads down with a sigh and started away.
“Yes, they are a real bargain,” she heard the little Kress girl saying to another customer. “Our salesman got a splendid buy on them by taking the entire stock.”
Janet walked around the table slowly and came back on the other side. There were some nearly as good looking for a dime. But no. she could not bring herself to be so cheap. Dan would laugh at her. In all probability she would have a day’s work Monday. Anyway the children would all be put to bed before she left them tonight in care of Dan.
“May I help you?” asked the young salesgirl for about the sixth time. And then, “Twenty-five out of a dollar,” as she handed the dollar bill to her co-worker at the cash register.
“Twenty-five out of a dollar!” the words fell heavily on the heart of the woman and continued to repeat themselves even after she boarded the street car and was on her way home. “Twenty-five out of a dollar!”
Having slipped the beads over her head at the time of purchase she now fingered them nervously. She had grown so accustomed to sacrificing everything for the children that this foolish expenditure made her feel like a criminal. And yet – well, she was only a month past thirty, and all her life she had adored red beads. A woman doesn’t outgrow these little vanities easily.
Dan was home when she arrived, and was just making a fire with the last bucket of coal. The children were all standing around him discussing the very important subject of what they were to have for supper. As their mother entered she heard Della say that a tramp had come while they were alone, and that because she was afraid she had given him four big slices of bread and butter.
“An’ mother,” reported Amelia with pathetic concern, “Dick an’ that boy across the street et a whole loaf of bread and all the jam, an’ didn’t give us even a bite. An’ I’m as hungry as a mule!”
“Hush up! and let me get in the house before you pull it down about my head,” scolded Janet. “I wonder if you’ll ever learn to take care of things when I leave the house! What business have you feeding tramps and neighbors when we have nothing for ourselves?”
“Well. I don’t care –” began Della.
“If you can’t hush, please go in the other room!” the mother commanded in desperation.
“Della explained that she was afraid,” Dan suggested calmly. “Perhaps she could do no better than she did.”
“Of course. Everyone does what is best but me,” snapped Janet. “I suppose you’re doing the best you can, too.”
“God knows I’m trying to get a job, if that’s what you mean,” he answered.
“I mean that if you can’t do anything else you can stay at home and keep the tramps away. I’m sick and tired of the racket, trying to make ends meet on nothing!”
“Even at that you can spend money on gewgaws to satisfy your vanity. It doesn’t look very well when we can’t buy food.”
“Meaning this miserable string of beads, of course! But I didn’t use your hard earned money to buy them, my dear man; and let me tell you right now that I intend to use mine for what I darn please!”
“Oh, it’s quite all right! A mother should spend her money on finery while her children starve if that’s the way she feels about it.”
Mrs. Major took the beads from her neck and flung them into the fire. Then she sat down and indulged in a fit of weeping. Dan took his hat and went out. The children stood looking at the open fire in amazement.
“You don’t want them nasty beads, do you, mother? Nobody wants ‘em, I’ll say!” Amelia patted her mother’s hand as she offered the remark she thought would be comforting.
“Hush up!” commanded Della. “Them wasn’t nasty beads. It was what dad said ‘at was nasty. Cross old dad! I’m gonta buy some beads too, when Miss Mason pays me for tendin’ her kids, an’ I’ll let mother wear ‘em all she wants to.”
“Why don’t you give ‘em to her, stingy?” questioned Dick who was now poking the fire where the beads had disappeared.
“I hain’t no stingier’n you be, Dickey. An’ maybe I can buy ‘em for her birthday.”
The heart of the mother was so full of the bitterness of poverty that she hardly heard and heeded not at all either promises or comments of the youngsters. In her mind a battle royal was raging. it was waged between Dan’s criticism on the one hand and her mother conscience on the other.
“How could Dan be so unreasonable as to make a fuss about such a trifle?” Thus the argument.
“But he did not know the cost. He only knew the children were hungry and there was no food.”
“It’s his place to provide food. He promised that when I married him. And I earned the money I spent for beads.”
“If Dan had a job –”
“The same old story. I’ve heard it so long it’s hateful! I can’t remember whether he ever had a job. What I do know is that this quarter is the first one I’ve spent on myself in the last three years. And I’m treated like a criminal for that!”
“Dan is so worried about the children.”
“Let him manage the children if he can do it better. I’m sick of the whole thing. It’s one eternal grind of poverty, with nothing else in sight as long as I live with him! What does he care how I look, or where I go, or when I come! It can’t go on! It just can’t!”
“Mother, I’m hungry. Ain’t we gonna have any supper?”
The mother of four cannot cry for long unless she postpones it until after bedtime. The Major children were indeed hungry. Besides, they were not accustomed to seeing their mother in tears. Being thus called by her son to face realities, she understood the situation and called a truce with her harassed mind to hastily set about the making of a vegetable soup to feed the famishing household.
Meanwhile Dan walked. He had nowhere to go. He had exhausted every resource in the search for work. He blamed himself bitterly now for what he had said. It never could have happened if he had not felt so tired and weak. Of course Janet was hungry and tired, too. How could he, a big burly man, realize how much a bit of personal adornment could mean to a woman? How she must love to dance! Yes, he remembered. She had often told him in the years gone by, that she would rather dance than eat. And she had sacrificed so much, and still must sacrifice! And here he was leaving her to her burden instead of trying to help and comfort her! He turned about, resolved to ask her forgiveness for what he had said, and to buy her some beads with the first five dollars he might earn.
Times grew worse and worse with the Major family as the winter advanced. Mr. Major walked the streets day after day in the vain search for work. He was one of hundreds doing the same thing. Mrs. Major spent every penny she could earn on necessary underwear, hose, and shoes for the children. When not working away from home she mended and remodeled things until it seemed she could devise no more shifts. Never were the beads mentioned since the day she bought them for the dance she did not attend. When she and her husband kissed and forgave each other after the quarrel, they closed that chapter forever.
But there was an outside version. As has been stated the family depended upon an agency for food. Months after the unfortunate purchase in the Kress store it came as a report to the welfare agency concerned.
“Oh, yes, it’s true. Of course it is. A woman that knows Mis’ Major told me herself. I guess you must ‘ave give her two dollars or somethin’ to buy food; an’ the very next day she went up town an’ got her some beads an’ things. I think folks like her ought to have some one buy things to eat for the kids instead of givin’ her money when she don’t know what to do with it.”
“I’ve always thought her rather thrifty and –”
“Well, maybe you call it thrifty. But as for me, I don’t calculate to help folks buy no jewelry. I can’t afford none o’ them things myself, an’ I ain’t a askin’ help neither.”
“Maybe beads mean more to Mrs. Major than to you. Major she has wanted that particular trifle for a long time. Maybe the touch of brightness appealed in a way she could not resist. Maybe –”
“Yes, an’ maybe she ain’t got very much sense. Anyway, I’ll spend my own money, and let them as wants to, donate theirs to buy beads an’ sich foolishness. If you’re gonta allow that, you needn’t ask for none o’ my help.”
Had it not been for Della, this episode might have finished the story. But there came a day when Della tended a baby for a woman who paid her. Ever since the suggestion of a birthday present for her mother had come to her, the child had hoped she might get a chance to earn an extra dime. Often she had stopped in the Kress store and looked at the cherry red beads and asked the price of some that she thought exactly like the ones her mother had bought. Many times she had included in her whispered prayers the petition that she might earn enough money to buy them. Once in a dream she held them in her hands. And now the dream had come true.
It wasn’t mother’s birthday, but she could play it was. Birthdays come so slowly. She could not wait. When she was nearly home she took the beads from the little paper bag to have a fond look at them in the sunlight.
“Mercy, child! Where did you get them fine beads?”
“I bought them for mother, grandma. Ain’t they lovely?”
“You bought them, did you? Well, well!?”
Della knew her grandmother Major was not pleased when she said, “Well, well” in that tone of voice; but the child could not know why. Grandmother Major turned when they reached the corner and went in another direction instead of on home to talk with father.
Della ran to her mother and was clasped in loving but trembling arms. Her father smiled approval. He did not say anything. A moment later his big arms enfolded both the child and her mother.
Grandmother Major hurried to the office of the relief agency, and within a half hour was making her report.
“The fact of the matter is,” she was concluding, “you must make some other arrangement about the rent. My son’s wife is an extravagant creature, with no care how she gets her finery so she gets it. It’s very well for you to stick up for her, but if she can let them little girls run to the store for beads she can pay the rent. I was not brought up that way, and I shall not continue to support anyone so senseless.”
“Janet works so hard, Mrs. Major, and has so little!”
“All the more reason for her bein’ savin’. Folks that has to be helped don’t need silk stockin’s nor beads –”
“I have given her some silk stockings that were considerably worn. She repairs them beautifully.”
“It teachers her extravagance, her an’ the girls, too. She can pay her own rent. I don’t know what the young an’ risin’ generation is comin’ to, the way they spend. If things continue at this rate they won’t have rags to cover themselves before long. I can’t be responsible, that’s all, an’ I won’t. I’m sure Dan’s father will feel the same as I do, so from now on it’s you for the rent. Goodbye!”
The astonished young woman of the agency sighed heavily as she wondered if Dan’s father could really be made to magnify the trifling vanity. It occurred to her that in the educational campaign they were trying to put over, there was need to stress the fact that folks who need are still folks; that their hearts rejoice in each other’s well-being and find joy in each other’s happiness.
She knew how watchful are the eyes of neighbors once the tongue of adverse criticism wags. She realized that the agency depended upon the generosity of neighbors for its financial support. Hers must be the task of interpreting human need in terms of heart-throbs, both to the contributing neighbor, and to the narrow minded parents of Dan. If only she might speed the lesson home as it had come to her.
The discovery of a heart condition is one story; how a great change was wrought is another. Before spring they came together to the office of the relief agency, the contributing neighbor and the mother of Dan.
“Put me back on the contribution ledger,” said the neighbor. “I reckon you was right an’ I was wrong as usual. Here’s my check for the payment I missed.”
“I think you may close the case of Dan,” concluded Dan Major’s mother. “Father and I have decided the family is our responsibility.
“With the children and the extravagant wife?” asked the executive secretary.
“The only extravagant thing I’ve ever heard about Janet was that string of cherry colored beads,” said grandmother Major, “and I’ll be hanged if I’m dead sure about that!”