From the Relief Society Magazine, September 1940 –
Home of the Brave
By Christie Lund Coles
Eulalie Janson breathed deeply and braced herself against the porch rail. The really hard thing to do now was to go up these stairs, into the dingy apartment, to meet the eyes of her mother, her father, and younger brother.
At the office, it had been easy to smile, to pretend, to assume an air of “everything’s all right.” But here, her act was just that – an act. These who loved her could see through her assurance, because there really wasn’t any assurance. She knew and they knew how conditions were. There weren’t enough jobs to go around. Last year Father had lost his job; Jim had had to quit school. They were both doing odd jobs now wherever they could find them. Oh, the irony of it, when Father was one of the best cabinet makers in the entire city.
She was up the steps now, and once more she sighed deeply, threw back her shoulders and opened the scuffed, ugly door.
There was no opportunity to break the news until after the family had eaten their evening meal and were seated in the living room — her father with the help-wanted section of the evening paper; her mother with some lace she was crocheting.
She had attempted to read the society section, but her thoughts had been far off. She had dropped the paper to the floor and was staring absently into space when her mother said:
“What is it, Lalie? What is the matter?”
“Why … nothing,” she tried to assure them, “nothing, really.”
But her mother was beside her, insisting, “You’re sick. You were pale when you came in. Where does it hurt?
She smiled a little at that, shook her head, “Mother, I’m not ill. I’m just … tired.”
Her father interposed with, “They’ve been working you too hard. They’re nothing but slave drivers, and you’re little more than a child.”
She bit her lip, but the words came out almost hysterically, “Well, they won’t be working me too hard any longer. I got my notice tonight. I’m fired … through.”
“But why? Why? Haven’t you done good work?” questioned her father.
“I’ve done the best I could. There was talk that it was a relative of the vice-president who was going to take my place. But I doubt if that’s true. They’re just cutting down.”
But during the sleepless night it became increasingly easy to believe that a relative was to take her place, and it made a strange and powerful bitterness rise within her. The next day, when she was drying dishes for her mother, she said bitterly, thoughtlessly,
“So this is your America. Land of equality! Everyone equal, humph! It’s a land of class distinction, favoritism, snobs, money …”
Her mother’s thin, lined face flushed, her hands paused half-way out of the soapy water, a look of incredulity crossed her eyes. She said:
“Eulalie, how can you say such things? This is your country! You should be proud, so proud.”
“What do you mean, proud? Not when my country isn’t doing right by me. There are things that need changing here, and I’m going to help change them.”
“What do you mean?”
Both women were silent until the dishes had been put carefully in their places and the kitchen tidied up. Then Eulalie started toward her bedroom, and her mother said, “Wait, come with me into the parlor. Let’s talk this over, shall we?”
The girl shrugged, “There really isn’t anything to say, is there?”
“Yes, I think there is.”
When they were seated, Mrs. Janson picked at the folds of her gingham dress nervously before she began. She moistened her lips. “You see, my dear, there are many things I’ve never told you, things that lie deep within my heart. You … you modern young people always seem so sure of yourselves, so embarrassed when we speak of sentimental things, but …” she paused briefly, sighed, “but I must tell you these things now. When you speak lightly of your country, it is almost as if you struck me. It means so much to me. I gave up my home, my family, my friends, all – to come to America.”
“I know that, Mother.”
“Yes, but you don’t know that my love for this new country and my faith in it had to replace all those things. But here we have had opportunities we would never have had in the Old Country. Here we have made friends with many fine people. We have so many conveniences – lights, gas, and warm water. Even the better classes don’t have so much there.”
“Of course, Mother, but there is so much to have here. Everyone could be free of all worry, could be well-off …”
“A little worry doesn’t hurt. If everything was easy, we wouldn’t appreciate anything.”
“Oh, you don’t understand.”
“Maybe I don’t. But I wish you would try to understand how I feel. When you were born, I thought, ‘She is an American, not just an adopted child as I am. This is her own country, her heritage!’ Don’t let anything cheapen that heritage – ever.”
Eulalie arose, then bent and kissed the older woman’s forehead. “You’re terribly sentimental, Mom, but I love you.”
Nevertheless, a few nights later she visited a group of young people who had organized and were meeting in the basement of a lodge hall. Their ideas were similar to hers; they believed in making a better world, a finer America.
She listened intently as several of the young people spoke, told of their constitution, their ambitions. One boy said, “We refuse to be the spawn of a nation that has forgotten us, neglected us, betrayed us. We must go forward and take our heritage – the wealth and security that is rightfully ours.”
After the meeting, she walked home with a copy of their constitution under her arm. Perhaps now she could make her folks understand what she meant. America as they had know it had been all right in their day; but now there were bigger needs, and how were they to come about except through the youth with vision?
She said as much to her family when she arrived home, and her brother, two years younger than she, inquired tartly, “Yes, but are you sure these kids have the vision?”
“Well, at least they don’t sit back and say, ‘All’s right with the world.’”
“I’m not sitting back, my girl, I’m busier than a cat on a tin roof, trying to find work enough to get me to school. And I’m not doing so bad either.”
Her father had not said anything but had read the copy of the constitution over carefully. When he had finished, he went over to a lovely desk which he had built, rubbed, carved himself, and took out a volume of United States history. Opening it to a dog-eared page, he handed it to Eulalie, saying,
“I want you to read our Constitution. It isn’t as radical as this – this other thing; but then, it was written with all the people in mind. It was written after weeks, yes, months of prayer and thought. Even when it was finished, the Bill of Rights was added. that gives every one an equal chance, a fair trial, the right to achieve and go forward as far as each of us is capable. God himself can give us no more.”
Eulalie drew her dark brows together thoughtfully. “But you don’t understand. These young people, some of them, have never had a job. Perhaps they never will under the present system. Something has to be done or there will be revolution. The few can’t have it all …”
“Some things aren’t right,” agreed her mother, “but American will find a way. We may have to pray – and pray hard. But the light will come.”
Her father nodded, “Yes, we have come a long way in righting social wrongs. We’ll come out all right – not through rebellion and revolution, but rather, through faith and courage.”
“Oh, but Dad, look … you’ve had faith and courage. Where are you? You’re an old man and you’re beaten. It isn’t because you can’t work as good as you ever could. It’s just that the system has ruled you out.”
An almost visible tremor seemed to pass through her father, and he drew himself to his full height as he said slowly, “I am a thousand times better off right now than I would ever, ever have been in the Old Country. The trouble with you young people is that you want the world handed to you on a silver platter, and you don’t want to work for it.”
No one answered, and after a moment, he added, “And I’m not beaten. I had promise today of a job – an excellent one. I hadn’t meant to tell you – yet.”
The controversy was forgotten in the family’s sudden elation over his news. But when the others had retired to their beds, Eulalie sat with the volume of history and pored over the three-thousand-word Constitution of the United States. It was lofty and high-sounding, of course; but she was a little tired, and her eyes began to droop. As she lowered the book, a small clipping fell out upon the floor. She picked it up and looked at it. It was titled, America’s Creed. It was brief, so she began to read the words: “I believe in the United States of America as a Government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.
“I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to support its constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.”
She held it between her fingers a few moments, then put her hands over her eyes, murmuring, “Oh, it isn’t that I don’t love my country. I do, I do! I’m sure every member of my group does, too.”
The next Friday, she persuaded her brother to go with her to the hall, so that he could better understand what they were doing, what they wanted. He was reluctant and skeptical, but said, “If you say it’s okay, it must be,” and they walked hand in hand under the peaceful stars.
The room smelled close and damp. Jim whispered to her, “Nobody could have a healthy attitude in such a place.” She replied, “Hush!”
A sallow-faced youth began a dramatic, intense discourse on “What’s Wrong with America?” He began his enumeration of its ills, its weaknesses, its failures. He rose to a loud-pitched climax when he asked, “What chance has the blind, the deaf, the dumb? They’re doomed – inextricably doomed …”
Jim whispered to her, “Yeah. Like Helen Keller.”
He went on, “How are the Negroes discriminated against? They haven’t a chance, except perhaps in the prize ring.”
Once more Jim whispered, “Poor Booker T. Washington and Marion Anderson.”
And he concluded, “But most of you, what about our own young people – you and I? Can we find work? NO. When there gets to be too many of us, they stir up a war and send us off to be killed so there will be more fat profits for the successful business man.”
Before she could stop him, Jim was on his feet, asking in a steely voice, “May I ask if you have looked for work?” When the other young man shrugged the question away as too ridiculous to answer, Jim looked about the group and went on, “I’ve been watching the want-ads for nearly two years. I’ve gone wherever I thought there might be a sign of work. I’ve sat for hours with other young people – waiting. But I might say, I’ve never seen one of you there. I don’t think I ever will. You’re content to spout off at the mouth, to discourage other decent, liberty-loving young people, to …”
The chairman asked Jim to sit down, and Eulalie lowered her head under the many eyes turned upon them. Her face was flushed, yet she couldn’t help feeling proud of Jim’s courage and his sound convictions – proud of the strength and power of him. It was as it had always been with them. As children, she had discouraged him to fight; yet when he persisted, she ended by rooting for him. When they were older, she would be on the other side of the issue he was debating; yet always at the close, she was one hundred per cent with him.
Though she wasn’t entirely agreed now, she couldn’t help feeling that he was one up on the sallow-faced youth standing defiantly, a little hesitantly now, before them.
After the speech, they grouped about in a round-table discussions. Many crowded around Jim, eager for an argument, anxious to voice their views. One boy said, “I suppose you would contradict him on what he said of war, too?”
Jim nodded, “Perhaps. You see, I’ve got enough loyalty in me to stand back of the President of these United States. I’ve got enough faith to believe him when he says we aren’t going into war unless we have to.”
“Yeah,” said another, “Unless we have to. I, for one, won’t go even if we have to.”
Jim and Eulalie turned incredulous eyes upon him, simultaneously. Eulalie felt herself go weak. Jim asked, “Even if we were invaded?”
The other youth answered casually, “Why should I? This life is all I’ve got. I don’t intend to be shot down. They’ll have to think up something better to do with us.”
Another would-be wit said sardonically, “You should regret that you have only one life to lose for your country. Isn’t that the accepted tradition?”
She felt Jim’s fist clench dangerously, but she held to his arm tightly. Before he could move, she was on her feet talking rapidly, heatedly. “I’m ashamed of you,” she said, facing the group, “ashamed. I entered this group thinking we stood for something fine and worthwhile. Perhaps some of the ideals were that. But you are meeting your problems – your frustrations – with a destructive and vindictive attitude. We’re cowardly, all of us. We’re failing our country when it needs us most. We speak of our country. What is it if it isn’t us – you and I? It takes brave people to make a great country; it isn’t only brave to die for one’s country, but it is brave to live for it, to believe in it, to preserve it, and to defend it against all enemies.”
She realized suddenly that she had ended by quoting from America’s Creed. No matter, she was suddenly inexpressibly moved by the words. She closed her eyes, and all in a brief moment she understood what it meant to be an American. She knew what her mother and father had felt when they first saw the stars and stripes floating against the sky. She would never see the flag again without the same pride and joy and humility. She knew what Washington felt when he drove his sick and wearied men through the snow and ice, while he secretly wept for them. She knew what the framers of the constitution felt when they knelt to pray so that they would make no mistake. She knew what Lincoln felt when he walked the streets at midnight – alone and hated – and knew that America, the preservation and rightness of it, was what mattered. She knew what Francis Scott Key felt when he looked into the first rays of dawn, after a night of fearful waiting and wondering, and saw the flag untrammeled and flying high against the sky.
She wanted to go home and thank her mother and her father for having kept faith and for giving her her heritage.
Later, she and Jim walked homeward again under the starlight. There were no words said, but each understood. And she knew that whatever happened, the two of them would always, somehow, be going forward with America.