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The Best Little Shrub

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 07, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, March 1946 –

The Best Little Shrub

By Mabel Harmer

Aline Mortensen arose briskly from the luncheon table and started putting leftovers back in the refrigerator.

“What’s the rush, Mother?” asked her husband mildly, reaching for another of the fresh sugar-coated doughnuts. “Are Tidwells having another remnant sale?”

“It’s my day to go visiting teaching and – Henry!” she exclaimed, stopping short in the midst of scraping the jelly dish, “that’s at least five doughnuts! Is that what you call watching your waistline?”

“You shouldn’t tempt me,” he sighed. “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow – I think. What was that song you were singing a while ago?”

“Oh, something I heard at Church the other day. It goes like this:

If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill
Be a shrub in the valley, but be
The best little shrub by the side of the rill.
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.

“That’s all I can remember. I just thought it sort of fitted me. I’ve always been the shrub type – never had any big positions in the Church like Emmaretta and some of the others. She’s been put in the Relief Society stake presidency now, you know. I guess being a visiting teacher is about as high as I’ll ever get.”

“Well, you’re a pine around this house,” said Henry gallantly, as he pushed back his chair, “and don’t let any of those female women keep you talking until you’re late for dinner.”

“Don’t you ever think of anything but eating?” sighed Aline, taking off her kitchen apron and hanging it in the broom closet.

“Sure. Right now I’m wondering if I have time for a ten minute snooze before I have to get back to work.”

“No. But take it anyway or you’ll be worrying about it all afternoon. Shall I wear my navy dot this afternoon or the rose print? Isn’t it nice to have two dresses so that you can choose between them?”

“Wear the rose, of course,” answered Henry, breaking his yawn in the middle. “If you’re going to be a shrub you might as well be a rose shrub. And don’t forget to come home. When you and that Janet Meeks get together –”

“Janet can’t go today,” said Aline, bustling off to the bedroom. “I have to go alone.”

“Well, don’t forget to come home anyway. I get mighty lonesome while you’re making up formulas for the Wilkins baby and reading to old Sister Ballard.”

“Why, Henry,” chuckled Aline. “You know that I don’t do that very often.”

“No, just once a month,” he answered drowsily.

Half an hour later Aline, fresh as a June morning in her rose print and white linen hat, was hurrying down the street. “I do hope that Retta Hubbard has good news of her grandchild by now,” she mused, “and that Ellen Crabtree has decided to try and get along with her mother-in-law. Dear me, it’s always something and it’s so hard to decide just how much I can do without going too far.”

As she turned onto a neat walk, lined with brilliant petunias, she added, “I wish that everyone was as nicely settled as Daphne Rhoades here. A pretty new home, a fine young husband and a darling baby. I’ll just peek in here for a minute and then hurry on.”

* * *

Daphne Rhoades sat staring across the luncheon table with unseeing eyes. The sound of a back door as Rod had slammed it shut barely registered on her consciousness. A door crashing was nothing when her whole world had just gone to smash. This was most certainly the end. There was no use trying to make a go of it any longer. She might just as well get out and find a job now while she was still young and had only one child to support.

Mentally she rehearsed the bitter scene that she and Rod had just been through as if trying to convince herself that it had really happened. Within ten minutes after he had come home for lunch she had known that something was wrong when he failed to go in to the baby or mention the scones which were his special favorite.

Pausing by his chair, she had laid down the plate with the piping hot scones and, tweaking his ear playfully, had said, “All right, out with it. Have you quarreled with the boss or lost that wallet I gave you for Christmas?”

“It’s worse than that,” he had answered heavily. “Sit down, Daphne. I might just as well tell you first as last. Uncle Steve came in this morning to see me. He’s in an awful jam. Aunt Marty’s just had an operation and he had to have three hundred dollars for the hospital. I told him how it was with us but –”

“Oh, Rod!” she cried. “You didn’t give it to him? Not again!”

“But Daphne,” he pleaded, his eyes looking tragically old in his young face, “what else could I do? He had to have some money and there wasn’t another soul he could turn to.”

“He’d have had to turn somewhere else if you hadn’t given it to him,” she answered stonily. “Everyone else comes first with you and it’s your own family last. You know how badly I want this house. And we’ve worked so hard to make that down payment. When I think of how I’ve scrimped and saved – one nickel at a time – to get that three hundred dollars and then you hand it over without even asking me. Now Jones will sell it to someone else.” The first of the hot tears came, to be followed by many more.

“There wasn’t any need of asking you,” said Rod tonelessly. “He had to have it. And he’ll make every effort to pay it back.”

“He may have the best intentions in the world but it will be the same story over again,” she retorted. “Your father intended to pay his back too, when he got the money for that extra piece of land.”

“But he will, just give him time,” interrupted Rod.

“Two years is quite a bit of time,” said Daphne icily. “And then your sister had to have the next bit to go to New York.”

“But Jed only had a week’s furlough and maybe it’s the last time she’ll ever see him. I couldn’t refuse – not my own sister,” he pleaded.

“Don’t I know it?’ she snapped. “And now here it is again. And not even one of your own family. Next you’ll be handing out our savings to every acquaintance that comes along and happens to be in a tight pinch and I never will have a home of my own or any security. We’ll, I’m not going to stand for it. I’ll get out and earn my own money and keep it where your relatives can’t get their hands on it.”

It was at this point that Rod, white-faced and shaken, had risen from the table, without ever having touched his lunch, and gone out of the house, and now Daphne, in her agitation, sat rocking the baby and giving vent to her angry thoughts and emotions by talking aloud to the baby.

Realizing, half unconsciously, that she would have to act quickly while her resolve was supported by anger, she set the baby down in his crib, brought out a couple of suitcases and started to pack.

She was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell, and hastily dabbing a bit of powder over the tell-tale streaks on her face, she picked up the baby and went to the door. She drew a quick sigh of relief when she saw that it was Sister Mortensen, the visiting teacher. She was such a pleasant, understanding soul. Just the sort of person to whom she could tell her troubles – if she knew her a little better – or if this were the sort of thing that she could tell to anyone.

“Do come in,” she said, opening the door, and while her guest was being seated she smoothed the baby’s clothing and her own feelings at the same time.

“I love to come here,” said Sister Mortensen, sinking down into a large chair. “It’s such a delightful room. I believe you said that you were thinking of buying the house.”

“Yes – we were thinking of it,” replied Daphne, a bit unsteadily. “But I’m afraid we’ve changed our minds now.”

“Oh, dear! I do hope that you aren’t going to move away,” exclaimed Aline. “I’d be terribly sorry to lose you from my district. It’s such a pleasure to know a fine, normal young family like yours in these days of change and divorce.”

“Yes,” agreed Daphne hesitantly, “there is more divorce now than in your day, but perhaps times are different – perhaps there is more reason for it now.”

“Bosh, child, times are no different and people are no different. I guess there’ve been mighty few couples that it didn’t take a lot of stamina and forgiveness and just plain intestinal fortitude to stick a marriage out – what with taxes, measles and plumbing repairs always cropping up at the wrong time.”

“But not you, I’ll bet,” ventured Daphne with a smile. “You look so good-natured and even-tempered that I imagine an earthquake wouldn’t upset you.”

“Yet, even I ran home to my mother once,” she returned with a chuckle. “That is, I went part way before I realized how silly I was behaving and turned back. And it was all on account of a sick dog that Henry brought home and was nursing on my best satin living room pillow. I still want to laugh when I think about it but I was plenty upset at the time.”

Daphne took off the baby’s shoes so that he could wiggle his toes luxuriously and, with lowered eyes, asked, “But there are times – don’t you think, when a couple is justified in separating?”

“Perhaps, on very rare occasions. but, my goodness, what a woman, or a man either, for that matter, will give up for what is called ‘freedom,’ all the love and heartaches, joys and sorrows, that go into the making of a full life. The person who hasn’t had a chance to experience some of the heartaches has missed a wonderful chance for growth.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Daphne, quietly patting Jimmy’s adorably plump little leg.

“And here I go on, forgetting my teachers’ message,” said Aline, suddenly diving into her handbag. “Let me see now, what was it? Do you know I’m just awful about visiting and forgetting my message. Oh, yes, here it is:

Sources of Strength – Charity. Charity Doth not Behave Itself Unseemly. The secret of developing this type of charity is to keep in mind, not the giver nor the gift, but the need and joy of the person who is to be the recipient of one’s love and good will. …

Sister Mortensen spoke quietly. Finally she paused and looked directly across the room at Daphne. “It takes great strength to be truly charitable –”

“I’m sure that it does,” murmured Daphne, dropping her head to the baby’s so that her visitor wouldn’t notice the sudden mist in her eyes.

“Well, I must run along,” said Aline, rising. “I still have a dozen calls to make and Henry pretends to be tearing his hair out if I’m late getting home. I’ve enjoyed visiting with you again.”

“Thank you, it’s been nice having you call,” returned Daphne as she walked with her guest to the door.

The minute it was closed she rushed back to the bedroom and put Jimmy in his crib with such violence that he sent forth a protesting shriek. Then she lifted her half-filled suitcase to the cedar chest and started to unpack. it was only a matter of minutes before her dresses were once more hanging in the closet and other things returned to their proper places in the dresser drawers.

“It’s a good thing that I didn’t have time to pack your stuff, Buster,” she said as she pushed the other suitcase out of sight.

With that accomplished, she sat down at her dressing table and gave her hair a thorough brushing. “This is a wonderful way to relieve your feelings, Jimmy, my lad,” she advised. “Next time you have something on your mind just sit down and brush the daylights into your hair, or else scrub the kitchen floor or dig up a patch of the back yard before you do anything ridiculous. And don’t forget,” she continued softly, coming over to his crib, “to always be charitable. It’s an awfully poor excuse of a person who can’t understand the charitable impulse. Don’t forget that, ever – will you?”

The baby gurgled happily and then went back to examining his pink toes. Daphne walked over to the dressing table and brushed her soft hair into a bun at the nape of her neck. Rod liked it that way. He said it made her look like a Gainsborough painting.

* * *

Aline glanced hastily at her watch as she came down the walk from the Hubbard house. She really shouldn’t have stayed so long but it had been pretty hard to convince Retta that she could still exercise faith and charity when her granddaughter was down with polio. She was sure that she had left Retta feeling better, though. Five o’clock! Where had this afternoon gone to? And what would Henry say? This was his evening for visiting his mother and he would want an early dinner.

She found that worthy in the kitchen peeling potatoes by cutting away generous pieces.

“Henry!” she cried. “What are you doing to those potatoes? Don’t you know that you throw away all the good when you peel them like that?”

“And here I thought all the time that the center was the best part,” he answered cheerfully. “I guess that’s the celery – or lettuce. What kind of an afternoon did you have? Anything new on the beat?”

“On the district, Darling,” she reprimanded him mildly, taking off her hat and moving toward the bedroom. “No, nothing unusual at all,” she added, coming back with a big kitchen apron. “Retta is worried about her granddaughter but I tried to tell her that they are doing wonders with that new treatment for polio now. Ellen is going on a trip with her mother-in-law and that young Mrs. Rhoades talked a bit as if they might be going to move. Maybe they need a bigger place now that they have the baby.”

“Well, it sounds as if my pine is doing all right,” he commented, handing over the paring knife.

“Not a pine, Darling, just a shrub,” she reminded him with a smile.

“Maybe so,” said Henry as he trailed off into the living room in search of the evening paper. “Maybe so.”



  1. Cute story. It’s nice to think that we could sometime have a life-changing impact like this. I’m pretty sure it’s never happened with anybody I’ve visited, but I like to fantasize. :)

    Comment by lindberg — June 7, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

  2. Part of the point of the story, I think, is that we never know when we’ve had that effect on someone’s life … which does allow us all to fantasize, eh?

    I remember a time I had a major depressive episode that lasted for weeks. I still managed to go in to work every day and go through the motions, but I really was just walking through a fog. A woman named Ginny came to my office to ask a question. I don’t remember what it was, or what she chatted about while she was there, but as she left, I felt my depression disappearing in a wave starting at my feet and lifting through my body until I was clear again all the way to my head. I had been down so long that I didn’t want that familiar fog to lift — I clawed at it and tried to keep it, but it was no good; it was gone. Whatever Ginny had said, or how she said it, put that episode behind me in a matter of a few dramatic seconds. I never told her about it. She never knew. But it happened.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 7, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

  3. Most of the times we don’t know, and might not ever know, in this life, how our we impact others. When we do know, it is often only because we are told. My patriarchal blessing promises me that my greatest joy in the next life will be meeting those whose lives I have touched for good, and seeing the fruits of my labors, which will remain mostly hidden on this earth. I do know about a few times that my VT teaching made a difference. I blogged about one of them. (For those that know me, ignore the wildly wrong guess, that I wouldn’t need another surgery. I am in the slow recovery process from the second one, which I hope is the last. There is no guarantee of that though.)

    Comment by juliathepoet — June 11, 2013 @ 1:16 am

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