The New Day
by Hazel K. Todd
Synopsis: Lynn Marlow, a dress designer, who lives in Chicago and is engaged to David Talbot, returns to Springdale, her home town, to visit her Aunt Polly, and to find out if she has really forgotten her love for Johnny Spencer. Johnny had married a Southern girl who had died, leaving two children. After her arrival in Springdale, on her way to her aunt’s home, Lynn meets Johnny’s children.
By the time Lynn reached the turn in the trail where she must leave the path along the stream, and climb the little hill which led to the small brown house where she had grown from childhood, she was very much ashamed for allowing herself to be so disturbed. She had mostly replaced the pounding of her heart at seeing Johnny’s children, for the new excitement of meeting Aunt Polly. And again the dread arose in her of finding something wrong.
She had reached the top of the hill now, where the orchard was. My! How the trees had grown! She looked at the apricot trees that she had helped Aunt Polly transplant from seedlings. And there was the big apple tree with the limb sticking out where she had swung as a little girl. The blossoms had come and gone, leaving tiny green knobs hanging among the new leaves.
Beyond the fruit trees was the garden. Lynn looked, expecting to see it filled with last year’s dead stalks and weeds. But it was as she had always known it, neat rows of rich black soil hilled into long columns. The green things were barely showing through the black dirt. Lynn paused a minute and bit her lip thoughtfully. Aunt Polly must not feel too badly.
Then, before she knew it, she had reached the door with the low knob. It was half open and the sun shone in on the rose-patterned rug. She sniffed. That pungent odor of ginger and molasses could come from nothing else but Aunt Polly’s fresh-baked gingerbread. She opened the screen door and went in with a beating heart. The old-well-known articles about the room loomed before her in sweet nostalgia. Aunt Polly was not there. But there was the red velvet sofa, the tall china closet with the dear familiar dishes, the high-backed rocking chair with the basket of needlepoint roses. How often she remembered as a child sitting on the floor and leaning her head against that basket of roses.
“Aunt Polly,” she called excitedly.
There was no response.
Lynn walked into the kitchen. There was the high red stool where she had sat and peeled the potatoes for dinner. She went over and sat on it with her feet on the round. Her eyes traveled over the cupboard, with its rows of blue china plates, its teakettle stencils. There was the old ceramic cat hanging on the wall, with the length of string dangling from its whiskers. The kitchen was spotlessly clean, as she had always known it. And there on the cupboard was the gingerbread, Lynn slid the long bread knife from the varnished flower pot holder, and cut off a generous piece.
Sitting there eating spicy gingerbread, after so many years, seemed very natural to Lynn. She should have come back long ago – when she first met David. David would fit perfectly in this pleasant old kitchen, with his quiet serenity, his easy congeniality. And he would love the gingerbread. She wished he had come with her. She paused a minute in the bite she was about to take. Just why, for sure, wouldn’t he come with her? She looked at the door without seeing it. Aunt Polly would love David. She could see her fussing about doing things for his comfort.
The door was opening now, and Aunt Polly was standing there looking at her, her apron overflowing with green dandelions.
Her round face was flushed with wonder, but full and pleasant, with only a few added wrinkles. for a minute she stood, and then she slowly let go her hold on the apron, allowing the bright green foliage to tumble about her feet.
“Lindy! Lindy!” she gasped. “Where did you come from?”
Lynn gulped down the mouthful of gingerbread, and then they were in each others’ arms, crying and laughing and saying foolish things.
Finally, Aunt Polly wiped her face with her apron and dragged Lynn into the living room. “Land sakes alive, child,” she exclaimed, “we act like two old fools or a couple of kids instead of two grown women.” She pulled Lynn down on the sofa beside her. “Now, young lady, tell me what in the world brought you back to Springdale after all these years of staying away on purpose!”
Lynn was looking Aunt Polly over lovingly but closely. “Because you dear old Auntie,” she said, “you let me believe you were ill, so I would come home.”
Aunt Polly ignored the accusation. She patted Lynn’s hand. “It’s wonderful, just wonderful,” she kept saying over and over.
When, finally, Lynn found herself alone in her old bedroom with the sloping ceiling and the window with the ruffled curtains where the early morning sun used to peep through in summertime and awaken her, she sat down on the gay patchwork quilt and wondered.
Seeing Aunt Polly and the home of her childhood was so sweet, but seeing Johnny’s children had awakened in her an ominous fear. Again and again she told herself she would not let it bother her. Those years belonged to her no more. Or did they? The gray depths of a child’s eyes so like his father’s, a squirming little girl with tangled curls – and what of Johnny? Was he really just a part of the past? Or were the old ashes of that past burning, lying smoldering, ready to be fanned again to open flame?
Lynn buried her face into the feather pillow and shed a few, unsummoned tears. “Oh,” she said, “something is happening to me. I must go away before it hurts all over again.”
So she turned her face toward the flowered wallpaper with a resolution that on the morrow she would return to Chicago and Uncle Merideth, to her dress designing, and to David whom she would wed in the fall – no, it would be an earlier wedding.
She was awakened by spring sunshine streaming through her window just as it used to do. She looked about her in bewilderment. The soft ruffled curtain, the blue columbines climbing the wallpaper, and the sounds of pots and pans somewhere couldn’t belong to her world. She lived in a wide brick house in Chicago where she looked through her window to see rows of houses and tall skyscrapers. She lifted her hand from the bright quilt and let it slide softly down the blue columbines. Yes, they were there. They were all there – the flowers on the wallpaper, the sun peeping through the window, the …
She sat up and slide her legs over the low bed so that her feet rested on the firm braided rug. She gazed at the sun streaming in. It was a bright spring day with birds chattering in the apple trees. Down across the hill she could see the houses of Springdale settled quietly there where she had seen them so many times before. Beyond it the road wound away like a gypsy ribbon. Her gaze shifted to the line of willows that hid the creek and the path where last night she had met Johnny’s children. And then, unbidden, across the meadow to the mill. And in a moment she had found what she involuntarily sought, a house that looked tiny and far away from her bedroom window. She looked searchingly at it as though from this distance she might know what was inside.
The faint sizzle of bacon frying came to her. Aunt Polly would have breakfast waiting. She must get dressed. Then she remembered that her things were at Mr. Jensen’s drug store.
She looked instinctively toward the closet where her clothes used to be. It would be interesting to see what still might be hanging there that she could wear.
Opening the door was like meeting old friends after a long separation. There was the green striped skirt that she had worn to the Girls’ Day matinee dance. And the pink plaid gingham with the rosebud buttons. And there – Lynn caught her breath. There was her graduation dress with the rows and rows of pink ruffles. She had saved it for a special occasion that never came. Impatiently she pushed it farther back into the closet and slide the pink gingham almost roughly from the hanger. With trembling fingers she buttoned the rosebud buttons down the front of the yoke. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She paused a minute and smiled. Then she went closer and with one hand, pulled back the hair. Yes, that was the way she used to look. She fumbled in the dresser with her free hand and pulled out a red ribbon which she tied in a bow around her hair.
Out in the kitchen where Aunt Polly was preparing breakfast, she gasped at Lynn standing in the door. “Why, child,” she said, the egg turner in mid-air, “you’re just like you used to be.” And she wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron.
With the old impulsiveness Lynn went to Aunt Polly and threw her arms around her neck. “Oh, Aunt Polly, it is wonderful to be home again with you and all the dear things in this house.”
For a minute Aunt Polly stroked the brown hair and then she took her handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her face. “Mercy sakes alive, Lynn, come and eat your breakfast before you have me crying like a baby.” She pushed her toward the chair where Lynn sat half crying and half laughing.
“Oh, what a pair we are, Aunt Polly!” she laughed. “But after all, shouldn’t we be allowed a few tears in celebration!” And then she thought to herself, I can’t leave her today. It would break her heart. I’ll wait until tomorrow. It will be easier that way.
But each day found it no easier, until there were five tomorrows gone, each with a broken promise to herself that she would return. On each day Lynn had avoided the willow path, nor did she look in the direction of the mill.
And then David called.
“Oh, David,” she said. “I meant to come back the next morning as soon as I found Aunt Polly was not ill. But it has been wonderful to see her again.”
He didn’t answer at once, and then he said, “Lynn, have you seen all your old friends?”
She was silent, then, knowing without his saying.
“I – I … I have just visited Aunt Polly.”
“Lynn,” his voice was tender, “I want you to see Johnny. Will you?”
She stood a minute more without answering. And then slowly she realized she must do as he asked, for both of them she must.
“Very well, David,” she said. “I will see him.”
“Lynn, darling …”
“Don’t forget to call when you want me to come. And …”
“I just want you to know that I love you very much and I will be waiting.”
And then the receiver clicked and that was the end of it.
Lynn stared at the telephone hanging on the wall where it had hung ever since she could remember.
“Is something wrong?”
It was Aunt Polly standing in the door with an armful of rhubarb.
“Oh,” Lynn said, and pulled herself back to reality. “No. No. … David just called. He …”
A quick frown puckered Aunt Polly’s forehead.
“He isn’t trying to get you to come back already, is he?”
Lynn gazed out the window. “No,” she said. “He wants me to see Johnny.”
There was a moment of silence. And then Aunt Polly went over and laid the rhubarb in the sink. “What did you tell him?” she was turned so Lynn couldn’t see her face.
“I said I would see him.”
Aunt Polly started breaking off the big green leaves of the rhubarb. “I wondered if you still like fresh rhubarb pie as you used to.”
Lynn walked over to the sink beside Aunt Polly, and began breaking the long pink stems thoughtfully.
“Aunt Polly,” she said, “what is Johnny like … I mean, what does he do?”
Aunt Polly paused a moment, a big leaf in her hand. She was gazing through the window.
“He is lonely,” she said.’
“But doesn’t he ever go out, do things, I mean?”
“I think he never goes anywhere he doesn’t have to.”
“Mr. Jensen says he comes to the drug store.”
“Yes, but not much else.”
“Doesn’t he ever come here, Aunt Polly?”
“No. I have tried dozens of times. But he always makes excuses. He has never been in this house since you went away.”
Lynn looked mutely out the window.
“We used to try to take things to him after his wife died, but he refused to answer the door. Once MayRee and I took some things to the children, but he wouldn’t accept them and sent us away.”
Lynn let the rhubarb slide slowly into the sink. “Aunt Polly,” she said, “would you mind if I went for a little walk? I … I want to think.”
Aunt Polly’s hand touched Lynn’s tenderly. “It’s a wonderful day for walking,” she said. “There’s a little breeze that just makes your feet itch.”
Lynn looked at her gratefully. And then she reached over and kissed her cheek. “You’re a dear, Aunt Polly. How did I ever live without you for so long?”