From the Improvement Era, November 1944 –
By Lois Bodine
Ellen rearranged the roses in the center of the table for the third time. The table did look nice, she decided, standing off to survey it once more before going back to the kitchen to put the rolls in the oven. Oh, she did hope everything would be all right! Shank Rutherwood was the most interesting boy she had met in ages, but his dignity was rather frightening sometimes.
The front door slammed, and she heard the tinkling of twelve-year-old Ted’s ukulele:
Oh heh, oh ho, come see the beau,
Ell has caught a new date.
He’s tall and he’s thin,
But she’ll ask him in
And feed him chicken for bait.
Louder and louder grew the refrain as the little tyrant repeated his rhyme. Ellen knew a moment of impending disaster before she rushed into the hall. “Oh, Ted, stop that this minute!” she cried.”You’ll disgrace us. Who could entertain company with all that going on?”
But her tormentor pranced gleefully around the hall and into the living room, clutching his instrument under one arm. “Shanky is a stuffed shirt, Shanky is a —”
“Oh, Daddy, make him hush!” Ellen implored her father, who was seated in his favorite chair reading the evening paper. “Shank’ll be here any minute, and he might hear.”
“Can’t you children get along?” Mr. Long interposed mildly, glancing up from his page. “Quit paying any attention, Ellen, if you want him to stop. Why did you ask company while your mother’s away if you can’t manage it without all this to-do?”
In vexation Ellen hurried back to the kitchen. That was the way it always turned out. Dad never was much help in corralling Ted. Of course she could have waited until Mother came back from Aunt Jane’s, but this was the best chance she’d have to show Shank that she could really cook and act hostess.
“Ted, please be decent this once when I have company,” she begged, following him into his room.
“Oh, sure. I’ll act natural. But you’re not going to catch me putting on any airs for that corporal!” Red promised none too earnestly, and that was the best Ellen could get from him before she ran belatedly to see about the already too-brown rolls.
Just then the doorbell buzzed, and Ellen was introducing Shank to Dad. She had no fears about their not liking one another. Shank was a real man, serious and really grown-up about things, Ellen thought proudly, watching his broad shoulders in their freshly pressed uniform as he stepped forward to shake hands with the older man.
“El-len!” came Ted’s voice which sounded as if he might be in the attic. “Know where Mom put my baseball things?”
“Excuse me,” Ellen said as sweetly as she could but with exasperation mounting high. Everything would be ruined if they waited until Ted ransacked the attic, and she didn’t want him bursting in, craving soup while she was trying to serve the rest of the meal.
“Ted,” she called sternly, mounting the attic stairs a few steps, carefully holding out her newly cleaned skirt. “Will you please come down here and wait until dinner is over to start rummaging in that attic?”
“Aw, go ahead and eat. I’ll find them.”
“No. I’m not going to have you barging in and spoiling everything.”
“Oh, yeah?” Briefly Ted’s head appeared at the hole above her head. “Well, Ellen, I’m going to find my baseball things first. Who cares about Corporal Shanky Ruthergoody, anyway?”
“Ted!” Ellen gave an apprehensive glance toward the living room, but the blur of voices in animated conversation calmed her fear. She turned with a sigh toward the kitchen for a last minute inspection. Everything would be ruined if they waited any longer.
Quickly Ellen announced dinner and served the soup. The little toast bars were just the right brown, she was thinking elatedly as the diners took their places. Mother always served crackers, but this time everything had to be just right.
The food was good, Ellen knew, but somehow the conversation lagged. It was a strain, this business of serving the right food at the right time and making the casual sort of conversation right for the dinner table. Although Dad was courteous enough, he was always absorbed in eating and not particularly interested in talking just then. Her own self-consciousness increased the tension, and she felt warm and uncomfortable.
Just then the chords of Ted’s uke jangled discordantly from the back hall, and Ellen was thankful for Ted’s noisiness. But her relief was momentary, for almost immediately she recognized the same tormenting chant he had played before Shank’s arrival. Then she knew sheer panic as he drew nearer, humming with a taunting “Tum-de-tum-de-tum-m-m.”
“My pet peeve,”she murmured apologetically. “The little brother.”
“Aren’t they all?” I wonder she noticed Shank was laughing in deep appreciative chuckles.
“All what?” She knew it sounded stupid.
“All pet peeves!” He grinned in Ted’s direction. “Sounds good to me. Reminds me of home. My kid brother goes around tormenting the life out of the rest of us with something he calls a musical horn. I thought he was a peeve then, but I don’t think so now. Why, a kid brother, especially a natural warty kid brother, helps one appreciate his home life. He’s symbolical, somehow, of American freedom, where children are children, especially in our American home life.” He halted suddenly, earnest eyes embarrassed all at once at the inner feeling revealed.
Ellen, somehow, felt very childish and petty just then. “Oh, Ted,” she called out with a little rush of tenderness flooding her throat as she understood a little of what Shank was trying to say. Somehow, he made many little things seem unimportant and some little things seem very important.
“Ted!” she called again. “Are you ready for me to get your soup now?”