From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1957 –
Two of a Kind
Sally Harding was struggling with her damp hair, trying to put it up in pin-curls. It was just wavy enough to be stubborn.
In the mirror she could see Mother Harding, Jim’s mother, watching her with polite interest. But without offering to help. Immaculate as always, in a smart blue suit and small blue hat, Mother Harding had stopped in to wait fort the bus, saying, “I thought I’d go into the city for lunch and the style show at Simmons’. It’s such a lovely day!”
Mother Harding might have been a fashion model herself, Sally thought wistfully as she looked at her – “What the Mature Woman Will Wear.” So slim and straight, hair smoothly waved, every detail perfect. Definitely ungrandmotherly … it was a disappointment, a hurt that Sally had not been able to overcome. She glared at her own wet brown locks and jabbed the last pin in viciously, so that it pricked her scalp.
“It never looks right, somehow. Especially the back curls. No matter how hard I try!”
“I was never very good at fixing hair, either, Sally. But Muriel used to be very clever with it. She did mine while she was at home. And she decided that I should always wear it this way.” She touched the smooth gray waves. “It is more becoming, I guess. But sometimes I’d like to try some other style.”
Muriel was Jim’s sister. Thirtyish, a reporter on a New York daily, capable of managing the entire city if she had to, Sally thought. Muriel had come to see them last fall, just between planes. But while she was there, she had arranged her mother’s furniture in the small cottage at the end of the garden, had outlined the winter’s activities for her mother, making numerous lists and schedules, marking the calendar with blue pencil. She designed the new rose garden for Jim and Sally, decided on the exact shade of wallpaper for their living room. “The only possible color for this room!” It was right, too, perfect. Sally admired her efficiency and was more than a little afraid of her.
Now Mother Harding reached down and brushed a tiny speck of lint from her skirt. “Never mind, Sally. Your hair will look nice – it always does. And when the children are grown, you’ll have lots of time. Then you can go to the beauty shop. It sort of relaxes one, I find.” She smiled brightly, pulled on white gloves as she went down the walk toward the bus stop.
Sally stood in the doorway and waved to her as she got on the bus. She admitted to herself that she was almost envious of her mother-in-law. Jealous of her smart daintiness, of her leisure, her interests. It must be nice to have the whole day free, to dress up and go places.
I wish we could be real friends, Sally said to herself.
Sally’s clear gray eyes were clouded as she thought, she doesn’t need me, or the children. Not with her concerts, her shopping …
Briskly Sally whisked the breakfast dishes into the sink, turned on the hot water and said to herself, “Well, Madge says I don’t know how lucky I am! A mother-in-law who doesn’t interfere, doesn’t try to run my house. Mother Harding certainly doesn’t.”
Madge Jones was their nearest neighbor, Sally’s only friend since the Hardings had moved to The Acre.
The day was perfect, without the humid Midwest heat that would come later in the season. Sally decided to work in the garden. Jim was on a buying trip to Des Moines and wouldn’t be home for another three days. The new rosebed needed attention.
She might as well get started on it today as any time. The baby was still asleep, Judy and Jim Third were playing contentedly in the orchard, their two apple trees. She tied a scarf around her head and went happily to work.
But before night the early May warmth had changed to sultriness. The eastern sky was ominously black. When the first white glare of lightning streaked the clouds, a deafening clap of thunder followed. Sally shivered, listened to the next crash rip through the airless dusk and rumble to a slow silence. The first big splatters of rain struck the window as she looked out to see if Mother Harding was home yet. Yes, there was a light in the cottage.
The flashes came faster now, closer together, with no space between their brief brilliance and the immediate thunder.
Sally hurried to the wall plug, disconnected the TV. The children weren’t watching it. They were too excited and thrilled by the storm. Hardings, both of them – afraid of nothing.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Jim Third turned toward her, all excitement, elation.
Then Judy piped up, “It was a tree that time, Mommy!” She turned from the window to demonstrate with her thin arms just how the lightning had forked. “A great big fire-tree in the sky! it filled the whole sky, Mommy!”
Judy at six was something of a poet. Sally wished miserably that she could see some of the beauty in it. Well, at least they weren’t frightened, thank goodness for that.
When she spoke, she managed to keep her voice level, matter-of-fact: “Don’t stand so close to the window, children. You – you – might catch cold!” Just how silly can you sound? she wondered.
Paying no attention to her, probably not even hearing her, they pressed closer and closer to the glass.
The next glare was brilliant, changing to an eerie blue – white as the jagged streaks shot up across the sky. Sally felt her hands grow damp, numb with terror, not knowing what to do next.
To calm herself, she walked across the room and pulled the plug of the iron cord and put away the board. No ironing tonight. “Now I wish I’d gone ahead with it this morning. but who would imagine? This early? The first week of May?” she said aloud.
She had purposely left the ironing for tonight, so they could watch TV while she worked. That was one of the few jobs she could manage and look at TV. This was the night for the Disney program, and she had planned that they would all watch it together, a nice family thing to do. She had even thought of asking Mother Harding to come and sit with her and the children, but gave that up. She would probably be bored.
Together. To Sally that togetherness was all important. All the family doing things together. Something to remember all their lives.
Her thoughts went on. If Mother Harding were only a little bit like my Granny! I thought the children would mean so much to her … If she were a normal Grandma, she would be here with us. Right now. She wouldn’t let us stay here alone … about to be struck with lightning! Sally looked again at the cottage. Mother Harding had drawn the Venetian blind, but the light still showed through the slits.
She wished again that Jim were home. I wouldn’t be half so scared with another grownup in the house. I’m always sensible – well, almost sensible – when Jim is here.
Wham! Another earth-rocking crash. I can’t stand it, she thought, I can’t. But there was nothing else to do.
Maybe there was. Maybe Madge Jones would come up and stay with her, if she knew. She stumbled to the telephone, dialed frantically. No answer. Again. Still no answer. She listened, realized that there was no dial tone. The phone was dead.
She placed the receiver back in its cradle, straightened it carefully. At that moment the lights went out.
She ran through the dark to the back door, knocking her knee on a chair on the way, opened her mouth to call to Mother Harding, to scream for help, and remembered just in time. No screaming, fear in front of the children. Now, with the lights out, she couldn’t even see the cottage through the rain. The cottage where Mother Harding lived her own secure and worry-free life. Sally swallowed hard and forced herself to go back into the living room.
It was because of the cottage that they had bought The Acre. After Jim’s father had died, Sally had wanted Jim’s mother to come to live with them.
“Why couldn’t we be all together, Jim, as a family should be? She’ll be so lonesome, and I get lonesome, too, Jim, sometimes. We always had so many at home.” She had added, “I’d love your mother, Jim. I know I would. And she could stay with the children sometimes, so we could go out. I’d know they were safe with their Granny!”
She had stopped, looked at Jim. He had been smiling queerly.
“Oh, not often, Jim. I don’t mean for her to do a lot of babysitting. But just once in a while, for something special. Jim, I – I can’t bear to leave them with a stranger. Not while the baby’s so little.”
He had leaned down and kissed the top of her head lightly. “No, Sally, it just wouldn’t do. Mother is different, independent, and keeps very busy,” Jim grinned.
“But, Jim, I don’t care. She’s the children’s Granny. They’d love her. And she’d love them. I know she would.”
“Of course. But, Sally, Mother wouldn’t have time for babysitting. She’s always going somewhere, concerts, meetings, and lectures. You’re so domestic, darling. You wouldn’t know about women like Mother!” he had hugged her.
Oh, wouldn’t I? Sally had thought. I’m no more domestic than anyone, Mr. Harding. But how could I go to concerts? Just how? She had bitten her lips to keep the words inside, unsaid.
Jim had continued, “And I’ve always heard that no house is big enough for two women, Sally. I’m not taking any chances with my women!” he had grinned happily and the subject had been closed.
Except in Sally’s mind. That’s all you know about it, Jim Harding! My folks all lived together and worked together and had a wonderful time. Granny lived with us always and what would we ever have done without her? And Aunt Jennie part of the time, and old Uncle Tim, too, until he died. That’s all a mistake about families and getting along together. And I happen to know what I’m talking about!
But it was settled as Jim decided, of course. So they had bought The Acre, out in the country, but on the bus line. With a separate cottage for Mother Harding.
When Mother Harding moved in, Sally could see what Jim meant. Always busy, always smartly dressed, the older woman lived in a different world from Sally’s. Even here, where she knew no one, Mother Harding found plenty to keep her interested, apparently. Plenty of things to do, places to go. Always calm, pleasant; but never helpful, never just “family.”
At the second loud crash of thunder within as many seconds, Sally ran upstairs to see if the baby was all right. She carried a flashlight, played its light over the crib and whispered, “There he is, bless his heart, sound asleep through all the racket!” She shivered at the next blue-white flare that highlighted the room.
Downstairs again, hunting for matches and a candle, Sally listened to the downpour and the excited chatter of Judy and Jim third.
Judy shouted, “There it is again, Mommy! That fire-tree, I mean!”
Then Jim Third’s loud roar, “Bang! Bang-bang! Roar-r-r-r! Rum-m-m-m-ble.” He was dramatizing it.
Sally reached out vaguely till her hand touched a chair. Then she let herself down carefully, her legs feeling limp, boneless. She couldn’t take much more of this. Without someone to hold to, someone to talk to, she was finding out exactly how worthless she really was. Not the sensible, self-confident mother she wanted to be, pretended to be. She finally found a stub of a candle, lighted it, set it on the mantle.
Jim was the only one who knew about her terror of thunderstorms; and even to him she had never let go entirely, never dared break down and cry, which is what she felt like doing right now. How Muriel would despise her.
Now why should I think of Muriel at a time like this? Because Muriel is such a Harding, I suppose. And I’m not. I never will be! Muriel would think her brother had married a regular little simpleton!
The next crash was a rending detonation, a resounding catastrophe of sound. Close, close. It must have struck the house. Sally ran to the window, looked out past the children’s heads. No, but it had struck the old elm. In the glare of the next flash she saw the huge limb torn from the trunk, lying lopsided across the gate.
Well, that does it! she thought. I can’t take this any longer. Not alone I can’t. I’ll go get Mother Harding. No matter if she despises me forever! Aloud she said, “I’ll be right back, children!” She grabbed up Jim’s old coat, threw it over her head and, with the dimming flashlight in her hand, ran pell-mell across the garden, sploshing through rain and puddles, straight for the cottage. Why didn’t Mother Harding light a candle? There wasn’t a glimmer of light through the glass door.
In her panic, Sally pushed the door open without knocking, turned the flashlight wildly about the room, and saw Mother Harding. She was on her knees by the bed, her arms stretched out on the spread, two pillows stuffed tight against her ears. At Sally’s voice, she jumped, startled, and let out a stifled scream.
Her face was strained and swollen with tears, distorted with fear. In the weak light from the flash, she looked ghastly. Her hair, always so perfect, was rumpled, wild, where her fingers had run through it.
“Oh, Sally – I’m so ashamed. You’ll think I’m terrible! Scared of lightning. It’s so silly. But, Sally, I always have been horribly scared.”
Her words stumbled over one another, poured out frantically. “When the children were little, I had to hide my fear.” She was sobbing against Sally’s wet coat, shaking spasmodically.
Sally put her arms right about her. “Come, come, now, Mother. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’ve got me, right here.” She felt her tremble, hugged her closer. “But we must get back to the children. Come on, let’s make a run for it. It’s a regular cloudburst!” she actually managed a laugh. Her voice sounded firm and cheerful, as if she were talking to Jim Third or to Judy.
Holding onto each other, they hurried through the rain and got to the house just as the flashlight gave out completely. They slammed the door against the storm.
Together, they put the protesting children to bed, then sat in the living room. The stub of candle had burned out, too. The only light was from the brief flames of lightning.
Mother Harding was talking, saying things she would never have said in daylight. “Muriel was always strong, Sally, different from me. Never afraid of anything, a Harding. She warns me in every letter not to interfere, not to bother you and Jim. To keep busy.” She sneezed.
Sally put her son around her and rubbed her cold hands. Sally’s fear was gone, completely gone.
She listened to the words that were pouring out. “Muriel’s a dear girl, of course, gets me the concert tickets, reserves the seats, everything.” She drew a long breath. “But I always have such a hard time to remember what I hear and I get tired of going out.”
“Why, Mother!” Sally giggled. “And here I thought you loved to go! I’ve been so ashamed because I knew so little about things!”
“Sally, all I really want is to be a good, comfortable grandma. To stay home evenings. read stories to Jim Third – cuddle little Judy. And I’d love to rock the baby …” Then, quickly and timidly, “but I know the book says you mustn’t!”
“Not my book Mother. It says rocking’s wonderful for them. Gives them security.”
“Then you – you wouldn’t mind leaving them with me? Sometimes? Let me take care of them, when you and Jim go out, I mean?”
Could this be he reserved, poised Mother Harding?
Sally thought happily, so you are like my Granny, after all! Aloud she said, “Why, Mother, I’d love it! And so would the children. of course, we would!”
The rain lessened and then stopped. There was one last brief flash of lightning.
“And, Sally, I’ll never let them know that I’m scared of thunder. Not ever!” Mother Harding promised.