From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1950 –
“Poor Little Rosalee”
By Norma Wrathall
It was a hot July afternoon when Alta Bowman, a fresh cherry pie in her hand, tapped on the kitchen screen of her recently widowed young neighbor. At the choked sound from within, she opened the door. “Why, you poor child,” she murmured.
There was Rosalee, trying ineffectually to force a wire down the sink drain. Her face was smudged with tears.
“You just put that wire down, honey,” said Alta, setting the pie on one corner of the cluttered table. “Wash your face, and call your little boys in from play. Then all three of you come over to my place for supper. I’ll ask Will to fix that drain for you when he gets in from his work in the field. He’s so handy with things like that, when you can get him at it.”
Rosalee pushed back her short brown hair and dabbed at her eyes. “Oh, dear, I just can’t get it to work.” She saw Alta looking toward the dishes that were stacked on both sides of the sink, and the pile of clothes on a chair in the corner. “What with the boys to look after, and all, things do accumulate so,” she sighed.
It wasn’t that Rosalee Webb had been left destitute. Her husband had left her enough to live on, if she were careful, until her little boys, aged three and five, were old enough to go to school. It was just that she seemed so forlorn, so unavailing in the face of destiny.
Minerva Parker invited a few neighbors in for hot chocolate and sandwiches, the next evening, to discuss what could be done to help Rosalee.
“It isn’t so much that she’s a widow,” explained Minerva, “it’s that she seems unable to cope with things. Alta and I have found her more than once in helpless tears. Now, I think that if we could all pitch in, sort of take the load from her shoulders for a little while, she’d be able to carry on by herself, later on.”
“One thing, she’s got her home,” said Minerva’s husband, Herbert Parker. “Give me that plate of sandwiches, Min, and I’ll pass them around.”
“Yes, but it was never finished,” put in Alta Bowman. “He tried to do most of the work himself, so it wouldn’t cost so much. She can’t afford to hire it done now. Poor little Rosalee. She’s always been so sort of helpless.”
Will Bowman cleared his throat. He was remembering the gratitude that had poured from Rosalee’s blue eyes after he’d fixed the sink drain. “Seems to me we ought to get together and do something concrete about it, not just talk. We men can finish up her house, if we get right at it every evening after work. What do you say, Herb?”
“Sure. I’m surprised, ashamed, really, that we didn’t think of it first thing. You women can help her out with cooking and things. Everybody agreed?”
The other husbands assented. “What do you think, Orvie? Haven’t heard from you.” Will aimed the question at Orval Strong.
Minerva had confided to Alta that she’d invited Orvie principally because he was a contractor, and that kind of work was so expensive to hire. Orvie, who was as old as most of the husbands present, had never married. It was generally conceded that he was too set in his ways to take the step now.
Orvie chewed for a moment, and swallowed, before answering. “Well … it’d be all right. Fine, in fact. But, to tell you the truth, I’m all tied up for at least a month. I don’t see how I could.”
“Tied up!” exclaimed Alta, her cup trembling in her hand. “What about the rest of us, fruit coming on, school sewing to get started, hay men to cook for? But, at a time like this, you’ve got to let other things wait and help out, if you’ve got a drop of Christian blood in you. I should think you’d realize that, Orval.”
“Alta’s all tired out from bottling cherries and helping with Rosalee’s children,” interposed Will. “But I do think, Orvie, that if the rest of us are willing … after all, everybody’s busy.”
“Let’s organize into committees,” urged Minerva. She was thin and energetic, with an abiding desire to extend herself in as many directions as possible. “Some of us can do her washing and ironing – just until she feels able to do it herself, of course, and I’ll get busy and make up her living room drapes. She’s had the material for ever so long. Now, you men decide who’s to shingle her south roof, who’s to paint and paper and connect up her water heater. Orvie, you be responsible for her cement walk, her driveway, and finishing her back porch.” Minerva paused for breath and a sip of chocolate.
“Well …” Orvie glanced about for a possible chance to object, but the other men were talking about the shingles that Herb had left over from his chicken coop, and the fact that Mr. Simpkins, who had a wallpaper store, could let Rosalee have her paint and paper wholesale.
Orvie said, loudly, “It’s all right to help people out, but you can overdo it. Now, you take Rosalee. She’s young and in good health, and pretty.”
“Pretty!” Alta’s peppery tongue belied her smooth features and mild expression. “Trust a man to think that mere prettiness could help the poor child, at a time like this!”
But, as Minerva recalled later, perhaps Orvie had got at the heart of the matter right there.
It wasn’t long until things were humming at Rosalee’s house.
When Monday rolled around, Alta was at Rosalee’s back door. “Just gather up your wash, honey. I’ll run it through with mine. No trouble at all.”
Rosalee’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re all so good to me. I just didn’t ever know how good people could be.”
“Forget it,” said Alta, bustling about, “didn’t you ever get your washing machine fixed, Rosalee?”
Rosalee shook her head, “Orval Strong was here and said he’d send back to the factory in Omaha for some parts for it.”
Later that day, as Alta and Minerva hung clothes in their adjacent back yards, Alta said, “Never saw so much ironing. She’ll never finish it, and I have such a lot myself, this week.”
“Don’t worry about it, Alta. My two girls are home now, and we’ll do up her ironing. Not that both of us haven’t plenty of work of our own, of course, you with six to do for, and there are five of us.”
Alta nodded agreement, her mouth full of clothespins.
As her work lightened, Rosalee lost the forlorn look. Her cheeks rounded, her eyes sparkled. She was thrilled at every improvement that went into her house.
Will’s farm produced abundantly that year. One morning he appeared at Rosalee’s kitchen door with two bushel baskets brimming with fresh string beans. Rosalee looked up at him, thanking him, her soft brown hair framing her little-girl face, her blue eyes gentle. When Will went back home for breakfast, he told his wife, “Alta, that girl doesn’t know the first thing about canning. And she hasn’t a pressure cooker. Alta, it looks to me as if you’ll just about have to …”
“What? Or, for goodness sake! There are three bushels of beans in my basement waiting for me. I’ve already done her cherries and her raspberries. How do you expect me to …?”
“But, Alta, she’s helpless as a child in some ways. She doesn’t know the first thing about …”
“Oh, all right, then. Go bring the beans back. But see that she gets the bottles ready. At least, she can wash the bottles. Remember, Will,” she told his departing back, “see that she washes the bottles.”
Everyone felt that Rosalee should be encouraged to store as much food as possible. Grandma Webb spent a great deal of time helping Rosalee peel late summer apples for drying. But it was a funny thing, Grandma said, how helpless she was at putting them on the dryer. She never could remember which side went down. And, in no time, both her thumbs were cut from peeling.
It was about the time that Orvie was finishing up his part of the work, pouring the cement driveway, and making a little cement wall to hold back the dirt around her rose bushes. Orvie said that he had to pay the man and the helper to run the cement mixer anyway. Besides, he was tired of cement work all the time. As a child, Orvie had helped his mother place fruit to dry on the shed roof. So he placed the apple quarters in neat rows on the dryer, while Rosalee stood in the shade and talked to him.
Grandma said she didn’t see how Rosalee had the patience to put up with Orvie, anyhow, the way he dawdled along with the work he was doing for her. Day after day, he’d spend half an afternoon, and accomplish practically nothing. But Minerva said not to nag him about it, as it was so hard to get Orvie to do anything for free.
But, as the weeks of late summer raced into fall and school days, Rosalee showed no inclination to take back the burdens that willing hands had lifted from her shoulders. All summer, the men had vied with each other to see who could think of the most artistic way to finish up her house. Now it glistened with fresh paint inside and out. It exuded the clean smell of new wallpaper. Its windows sparkled in the autumn sun.
At the tag end of the canning season, when the days were still hot and dusty and the house cleaning was yet to be done, there was something which made the women’s nerves edgy.
The men had finished Rosalee’s basement just the way she wanted it. But Minerva said that she had waited five years for Herb, who was a carpenter, to build her some fruit shelves. She still had her fruit around the basement floor in cases, with labels pasted on top. And Mrs. Simpkins, who lived up the road a piece, stated that she never had been able to get her front porch painted, so this year she’d done it herself, two coats, along with all her other work. She held out her sunburned arms as evidence. The paint on Rosalee’s porches had been applied mostly by Mr. Simpkins, who had been heard to say that you couldn’t expect a slip of a girl like that to mount a ladder and paint anything.
These complaints were aired during a brief conversation on Alta Bowman’s back porch, which had leaked for years, so that every summer, at beet canning time, the sudden thunder showers had trickled down her back while she topped her beets.
“I’ll tell you what’s the matter,” said Minerva, with sudden insight, “we’re too blessed capable.”
“In a way, it’s our own fault,” reasoned Alta. “We started it. We urged the men to help her out. And we took over her work, even to tending her little boys. Not that she didn’t need help, poor child, but Rosalee will have to learn to carry her own load, though I’ll have to confess, I haven’t always been as kind to her as I should have been. I gave her two bushels of peaches from my tree of late Hales, and just walked away and left them for her to can.”
A strange expression crossed Minerva’s face. “I guess those were the ones I did for her, preserves – she’d let them get too ripe.”
The three women looked at each other, and laughed ruefully.
It was the next afternoon, as Minerva was brushing flour onto her board preparatory to rolling out pies, that the phone rang, and Alta poured the message into her ear. “Now’s our chance to explain to Rosalee. She’s bringing her little boys over for me to tend while she goes out with a friend. No, she didn’t say who. Now, remember, we agreed to be kind but firm with her – don’t forget, firm, Minerva.”
Rosalee, flower-fresh in a print dress, was sitting in Alta’s kitchen when Minerva arrived. There was about her an air of suppressed excitement. Her eyes sparkled, her lips trembled often into smiling, one toe beat an impatient rhythm on the linoleum.
“Look, Rosalee,” began Minerva, “I – we – that is, all of us are pretty busy now, getting ready for winter. Thanksgiving isn’t far off. We’ve helped you with your canning and your work, and with straightening up your house after the building was finished, not that we haven’t been willing, of course, but –” she faltered, and looked imploringly at Alta.
“It’s about all any of us can do to look after our own,” said Alta crisply, determined color flying in her cheeks. “Of course, in a case of emergency, it’s different, but we feel that your emergency is over, Rosalee.”
Rosalee said nothing. Her attention seemed withdrawn, as if her own thoughts demanded all of it.
Minerva said, “it’s too much for Alta to do your washing for you any longer, Rosalee. She has three girls in school, and they have so many things in the wash every week.”
From the bemused expression on her face, it was plain to see that Rosalee was only half listening.
“Don’t you think you could do your own washing now, and your ironing?” demanded Alta, abruptly.
The question startled Rosalee into answering.
“Why, I don’t know. Maybe I could. But of course, I never have done it, all by myself.”
“Then it’s about time you began,” suggested Alta.
“What we mean, dear, is that from now on, you’ll have to manage by yourself. We were glad to help you out when you needed us, but you don’t need us any longer.” Minerva leaned back in her chair with the air of one who had put the thing into a nutshell at last.
Rosalee sprang to her feet. Her heels tapped quickly to the door, where she paused, and faced them. “Really, I guess it has been hard on everyone. and I do appreciate all you’ve done. But if it hadn’t been for Orvie, I just don’t know how I’d have stood it. He’s been so kind, and considerate. He’s taking me to dinner and a show tonight.” She glanced uncertainly toward the sand pile where the little boys were playing. “I guess we could take the boys with us.”
“Oh, no, go ahead. That’s all right,” began Alta, but Rosalee was already half way down the path, waving goodbye to her boys.
“Orvie!” exploded Minerva.
“After all the rest of us have done!”
“After what he said in the first place!”
Their indignation melted suddenly into weak laughter.
Presently, Minerva said, “It’s funny none of us noticed it. And, in a way, it will be the best thing for her. Best thing for Orvie, too. You know that it’s the first time in all his life he’s ever put himself out for anyone.”
When the heat of the following day had cooled into dusk, Alta and Minerva rested on their adjacent front porches. From Minerva’s basement came the sound of hammering. Herb was building her fruit shelves. Will Bowman could be seen nailing shingles onto Alta’s back porch. He had been at it ever since supper. And Mrs. Simpkins had phoned that her kitchen cabinets were being painted; goodness knows, they needed it. The two women rocked in companionable silence. Presently, Orvie and Rosalee drove slowly by in his car. The two little boys waved from the back seat.