From the Relief Society Magazine, 1954 –
The Falling Shackles
By Margery S. Stewart
When the conductor came through the train calling “Salt Lake City … ten minutes,” Maria Tobler felt she could not endure the tension another moment. It had been mounting for days and weeks and months and years. Ever since the first prison gate had closed behind her and Mamma and Karen, this moment had been in her dreams and waking moments like a tormentingly far, beautiful star. It had been the burden of all her prayers and all the fierce longing of her seventeen years. Now it had come. One more gate through which to pass and the land would be hers.
She looked across the aisle to Papa’s white face and saw the strain was in him, too, tightening his mouth to a fine line, bringing his brows down over his gray eyes, making his long fingers clasp and unclasp on the arm rest. Papa had been years long in a worse prison camp than any of them. There were times still when Maria wakened to his endless, nervous pacing. But here … here, deep in the heart of this beautiful land, it would pass.
Maria looked from Papa to Mamma’s strong, dark face. Mamma was looking at her, smiling and nodding. “Is good.” Mamma’s lips formed. “Is very good.”
Beside Maria, Karen twittered and jumped. “I can’t bear it,” Karen whispered, her hands crossed on her thin breast. “I won’t live until we get there. Just feel my heart, Maria. Isn’t it zipping? I shall die and I am only fifteen years old, die before I have a chance to be happy.”
Maria laughed. Karen was always so dramatic about everything. Maria could almost see the visions Karen was conjuring up in her mind, her prostrate form, the startled passengers, the tragic procession that would bear the beautiful, young girl to her last resting place.
“You know Papa said you are strong as a horse,” Maria said. “It was the third American hot dog you ate last night that made you sick.”
Karen subsided furiously, “Meanie! You wait until you get a symptom.”
Maria put her arm around her younger sister. “When I get a job I will buy you a sweater, like the one the blonde girl was wearing yesterday. I will buy you a little string of pearls, and you shall go to high school and be one of them. Think of it.”
“I can see myself,” Karen murmured.
She closed her eyes, and Maria rose to take down the last bag, smilingly aware that her sister was deep in another daydream. But, arms in mid-air, she was arrested by the furious screams of her small brother. Maria turned. Karen jumped.
Philip, in his father’s arms, was protesting the end of the journey by kicks and screams. “You promised me Indians!” he was shouting. “Indians you promised me … I have not seen one, not even a baby one, not even a mother Indian. I won’t get off … I won’t!”
The other passengers roared with laughter. Maria turned pink with embarrassment. How were they to know there wouldn’t be Indians at every stop? In the few American movies they had seen, the land seemed to be filled with them, brightly painted, mischief bound, hurtling themselves down from rocky hills.
‘No,” said Papa. “You must be still …”
Phillip redoubled his protests until Mamma put out one large firm arm, brought him in one sweeping gesture to her ample lap, and silenced him with a look. Peace reigned.
“We shall find Indians,” said Mamma, “but first we have other things to do.” She turned and peered through the window as the train slowed to a stop. “Do you see him, Maria? Do you see Cousin Frederick?”
Maria and Karen searched from their window. “How will we know, Mamma?”
Mamma sighed. “I forget. He was only a boy when he left for America … is long time.”
The passengers disembarked. Maria picked up one of the bags, pointed to the other, and Karen reluctantly followed her example. They trudged heavily on the heels of the school teacher from Chicago.
When it seemed impossible that she would ever leave the train, Maria found herself being helped down the high steps, breathing the damp, smoky spring air. The night had come and she regretted it, since now she could not see the city until morning. Beside her Karen jumped up and down. “Maria, Maria … we’re here!”
Papa and Mamma descended with more dignity but just as eagerly. Only Phillip, forlorn as only a five-year-old can be, bewailed still the lack of Indians.
A man hurried toward them. “Christopher Tobler?”
“Cousin Frederick!” cried Mamma. “I should have known you anywhere.”
Maria blinked. Cousin Frederick was paunchy and bald and wore thick, horned-rimmed glasses. Mamma had talked long and happily of a curly haired youth, so slim he had been the worry of his family.
“You should have come yesterday with the others,” Cousin Frederick mourned. “Yesterday was bands, was newspapermen, was the mayor even, but today … nothing.”
Mamma sighed. “It was Karen. She was sick, and we had to stop over … the others came without us.”
Cousin Frederick was still unhappy. “No sense of timing. Yesterday everyone was interested in the arrival of refugees. Today,” he snapped his fingers, “they are forgotten. Today there is a new headline.”
Mamma laughed. “We do not need a mayor, or a headline. We are here, that is enough for us.”
But Maria crept close to her mother’s ample side. It was plain that in coming late they had offended Cousin Frederick and were at once out of step with important happenings.
“Tonight,” said Cousin Frederick and mopped his forehead, “tonight, my Hilda is having her baby, and I must rush you to your house and rush back to the hospital. Come, come, I will help you with your bags.”
“Oh, Frederick,” cried Mamma, pushing Maria before her, “you should not have come. You should have sent someone. Hurry, hurry, Karen. Come, Phillip. No, Papa, let Karen carry the bag, it will not hurt her.”
Maria hurried with the others through the great gates, up the ramp, through the station, and out into the night again. The bag was heavy. She found herself gasping for breath. Phillip kept getting in front of her, so that she stumbled on him with every step.
They hurried the bags into the back of Cousin Frederick’s car. They hurried inside the car, and even the automobile seemed to catch their nervousness and hurry itself along the wide, bright streets.
Maria flattened her face against the window, trying to keep the pictures from sliding by so quickly, the beautiful stores, the lights, the many, many cars … a girl in a red coat who smiled at her at an intersection, a group of tall young men in blue sweaters striding down the street. But she could not keep the pictures in her mind; they tumbled into oblivion, pushed away by smaller streets, houses, a glimpse of a family around a dining-room table. Maria marveled at the uncurtained window. Her mind fled back to the years of shuttered windows, of hushed voices, the dreadful waiting for the booted foot upon the stair, the pounding fist. It was obvious that no such terror lived in these wide streets.
Karen’s hand was making blue ridges on her arm. “Maria! Just look at the houses! We shall have one just as beautiful. I will stand at the gate … like that girl … see. Oh, we went past her too fast.”
“I saw her,” said Maria dryly, “and the young man. I suppose you will have one of those, too, swinging on the front gate?”
Karen pointed. “Oh, you! I won’t be as hopeless as you when I’m seventeen. I’m not going to be old-seventeen like you. I’m going to be like the ones on the train, laughing and singing and swirling their ruffled petticoats.”
“Old seventeen?” Maria sat back, one hand on her throat. Dismay shook her. She hadn’t thought about herself until now. It hadn’t seemed important. It hadn’t been important at all beside those years of horror and of flight, of the armies before them and behind them, and the hidden terror of the enemies among them, tracking them down for the crime of being “unsympathetic to the cause.” All her childhood a nightmare of her mother’s tears and the stealthy whisperings of phantom feet pursuing them, as loud to Maria’s childish ears as the scream of bombs and the bursting of buildings. Old seventeen. She thought of her friend Mathilda, who would never walk again; of Jennie, blind. What did it matter what kind of seventeen she was? She was here in America, safe with Mamma and Papa, with gay, reckless Karen, whom she had shielded so fiercely, with little Phillip, who was too young to understand any of it. It was enough.
“Oh,” cried Karen in despair. “Look at the street. I might have known!” She slumped against the seat.
Maria sat up. They had turned into a narrow street, where the houses were either flush with the sidewalk or had pocket handkerchiefs of lawn.
“I might have known,” moaned Karen again.
“It isn’t much of a street,” said Frederick apologetically, “but rents are very high, and not knowing whether or not the plant would suit you, Chris, I thought it better to go a little slow.”
“You did exactly right,” said Papa. “You have done so much for us already. Now we do for ourselves.”
“We are strong,” said Mamma. “We can manage.”
“Mr. Henderson said to bring you down in the morning, Chris. The job isn’t much for you who have been a doctor most of your life, but it was all I could get.”
“It is fine,” said Papa, “fine. It is the law here that a doctor from a foreign land must go to school again before he can practice medicine here. Is fine. We keep the law.” He laughed. “Think of the people I save by changing my life-work.”
“No, sir,” said Cousin Frederick. “I have heard only of the many you have saved by being their doctor … in the camps they said you were magnificent.” He shut off the ignition and opened the door. “Well, this is the house.”
Maria waited until they were all out of the car, then she looked up. The house was red brick and tall, with an ornate front porch railing from which palings were lost. “But we can fix the porch,” she said. “I can fix it myself.”
“No,” said Mamma, “we do not start on the porch. We start in the basement, then we go to the closets and the drawers. To fix the outside first is a lie, it says we are all neat inside … is not true at all. We begin in the center and work out … then we are right.”
Maria and Karen exchanged deep glances of resignation and despair. It was always like that. Even in the camps with nothing, Mamma had insisted on order and fought fiercely for what cleanliness she could obtain.
“It isn’t bad on the inside,” said Cousin Frederick.
They trooped after him up the walk and through the front door. It opened on a tall, narrow hallway with stairs leading upward to the second floor. On the right of the hall was the door that opened to a great, high-ceilinged living room with a fireplace. The furniture was old and battered, but comfortable. Karen ran ahead to open the double doors that led to a dining room, beyond which was a vast kitchen linoleumed in blue and white squares, with a gas range, blackened by age, in one corner. There was a square oil-clothed table in the center of the room.
Maria looked at Mamma hesitantly. Mamma had voiced her wistful dreams for so many years, of an American kitchen as she had heard of them, gleaming with porcelain and chrome. How could this battered room compare?
Mamma’s cheeks were wet with tears. She went over to the range and caressed it with heavy, gentle hands. “I tried to believe, always, that I should have again my own kitchen, my own stove. Many times I could not believe at all, four families in one small house.”
“But Mamma,” Karen protested, “it isn’t what I dreamed about at all. I thought we would have a house like the American magazines.”
Mamma patted Karen’s cheek. “That is the human part of us, to want everything at once, the castle, the big car, the famous friends, the safety, the jewels, the good times, the happiness, all in a moment of time. But God in his goodness sends some of us blessings a few at a time that we might enjoy each.”
Maria went to her mother and laid her head on her Mother’s broad shoulder. Through all the terror and the violence and death, Mamma had stood like a rock, believing, rebuilding, planning, rejecting despair and defeat.
“I love you, Mamma,” Maria wanted to say, but the words seemed so inadequate for the torrent of emotion she felt.
Now that Mamma liked the house or what she had seen of it, Cousin Frederick relaxed and became almost jovial. “Not knowing her time was today, Hilda made the dinner to celebrate your coming. It is all here.” He opened the refrigerator. “She had me bring it down. A goose yet, roasted.”
Maria stood aside so Papa, too, could come and admire the shining white depths of the refrigerator and the contents so temptingly displayed. There was the goose, brown and crusty, needing only to be warmed up. There were a pie and an apple cake and sour cabbage and green beans.
Cousin Frederick rubbed his hands. “You have only to warm it up. I wish I could stay.”
Mamma remembered Hilda. She pushed Frederick out of the room. “Not a moment more do you spend with us. Is too long already.”
There was a great silence when she came back to the kitchen. They looked at each other with wide, anxious eyes. The strange sounds of a strange place drifted in from outside, voices in argument, a small boy calling his dog, the slamming of a gate.
Maria saw Mamma’s fingers tighten on her throat. “Is a big country.”
Karen came close to Maria. “Suppose nobody likes me. Suppose they hate me?” she whispered.
“It will be strange not to carry my bag,” said Papa wistfully.
I am not like their girls, Maria thought fearfully. I am different. I am an old seventeen.
Suddenly Mamma laughed and clapped her hands. “Why are we standing here so solemn? We have a feast waiting for us. Maria, find the dishes and the silver. Karen, help her set the table.”
It is strange, Maria thought, how you can coax happiness to come to you, in the sound of a bubbling kettle, or the unfolding of a clean cloth, or new bread on a flowered plate. How many other ways are there? I will search for them, then I will be stronger than any loneliness.