From the Relief Society Magazine, 1933 –
The Little Lad
By Ida Powell Brown
Through the window drifted the murmur of voices, and Ladd, crouched on the back stairs, tried not to listen. Perched precariously on the step just below him, Rosemary, his four-year-old sister, was singing a wordless lullaby to the sadly dilapidated, but dearly beloved, rag doll in her arms.
There, the chair in the living room was creaking now. Mr. Dismore must be getting ready to leave, and mother was laughing again. Ladd thought that her laugh was like the little silvery tinkle of bells. It had been a long time since she had laughed like that, not since daddy died, and the boy loved the sound. He flinched, though, at the gruff rumble that accompanied it. Mr. Dismore didn’t laugh like dad at all. Father’s had been a clear, high laugh, like a boy’s.
With a little troubled sigh Ladd turned a page of his book. Almost twelve was quite young for problems, and he hadn’t been sleeping so well for the last two nights since mother had told him that Mr. Dismore was to be his new father. He remembered the queer sick feeling that had settled in the pit of his stomach on that morning. He saw again in his mind the two little red spots that had glowed on mother’s cheeks.
She had told him, faltering a little as she talked, of the plans that she and daddy had had for making a doctor of him. Plans that could be carried out now because Mr. Dismore was so willing to go on with them. She said that Ladd needed a man to help him fight his battles, to see him through college, and, as if it were an after-thought she had added, to take care of her and Rosemary.
To take care of her and Rosemary – Ladd had steeled himself with those last words, and had turned a resolutely cheerful face to her which had belied the ache in his heart. He knew how she’d been worrying over the insurance money stretching over all the needs of the little family. But even then he hadn’t dared to trust his voice, so he had just kissed her and gone to his room.
Rebelliously that night he had cried into his pillow. Fathers weren’t dignified, and middle aged like Mr. Dismore. They were young and straight and laughing like Dad. They had little smile wrinkles at the corner of blue eyes, and hard, yet tender, brown hands. They understood boys so that they loved you when you were noisy. They didn’t frown when you rattled chairs in the living room, or jumped at Rosey from behind the kitchen door.
But Ladd was old for his years, and father’s death had sobered him. There was a new serious look on the little brown face. There was rent to pay, and shoes to buy. Perhaps not having so many worries would bring back mother’s smiles for good. Ladd wished he knew. That was what bothered him so. Was mother doing this for him, or for herself?
The front door was slamming now. Mr. Dismore must have really decided to go at last.
“Ladd, Laddy,” mother’s voice, and Ladd lifting the protesting Rosemary in his arms carried her into the house.
Inside, the kitchen was warm and clean. The kettle was singing on the spotless stove, and mother, with a white apron over her best gown, was bustling about the room. She smiled at him as he entered.
“Will you wash Rosy’s hands and face, son?” she said. “It’s milk toast night for the Brays, so supper will be ready in a hurry.”
“And Ladd and I can use our blue bowls,” Rosemary said, as Ladd piloted her to the bathroom.
“Couldn’t have any eats that would suit me better,” Ladd called above the noise of the water in the wash bowl. He didn’t quite know what made him add: “Daddy used to love it too; milk toast was his favorite supper.”
Mrs. Bray stopped rattling the dishes in the kitchen, and came to the bathroom door.
“Laddy,” she asked, in a hesitating voice, “you – you’re sure you are happy about – everything?”
“Why – yes, mother,” the boy answered after a moment, clearing his throat. Fiercely he thought to himself that he wasn’t going to have his mother slaving to make a doctor of him when Mr. Dismore was so anxious to take over the job.
With a little dissatisfied look at the boy’s bent head the mother turned again to the kitchen.
After the supper work was over Mrs. Bray took Rosemary around the corner to Mrs. Ransome’s and Ladd was left alone in the fast darkening kitchen. He and Rex usually played until bedtime. But tonight his head ached and he felt so tired.
He wanted so badly to know that insistent question that kept buzzing away in this head. “Was mother marrying again for him or for herself?”
Suddenly with a little sobbing sigh Ladd switched on the basement light and hurried down the stairs. Groping in the darkness of the laundry room closet he brought forth an old bundle of clothes – daddy’s clothes – the old leather coat with the big patches on the sleeves – the high top boots with their leather lacing – the hat with its band torn away.
Tenderly he laid his cheek against the worn out coat, and the hot tears fell upon the fraying collar.
“I’m only eleven and a half, Daddy,” he said softly through his sobs. “and it’s – kinda hard for a fellow as little as me to know just w-what to do. There isn’t anyone will ever take your place – but it’s for her, Dad – you understand, dontcha? it’s pretty hard for mothers to make the grade alone when a feller isn’t old enough to help.”
For a few moments he held the coat in his hands. Then, obeying an impulse that he did not quite understand, he slipped his arms into the sleeves. Carefully, reverently, he pulled on the enormous shoes and pulled them to the top. Then, the boots clomping at every step, he sought the stairs, and dropping upon the lowest step he laid his head against the second one. Gradually his sobs subsided. The warm coat was comforting. It seemed strangely to be his father’s arms clasped close about him; and with a little contented sigh his head nestled against the heavy collar.
It was there that his mother found him when she came to the head of the basement stairs. On the lips that still held a hint of their baby curves a faint smile lingered, and the tear-stained countenance was strangely peaceful and content. She noted the huge coat about his shoulders, the little feet, so lost in the carefully laced boots.
“Ralph’s coat,” she whispered brokenly, “Ralph’s shoes, Laddy, my darling!” and her tears fell upon the upturned face so heartbreakingly like another face that she had loved and lost.
Laddy, awaking, found his mother’s arms around him and her soft, wet cheek pressed close to his.
“Why didn’t you tell me how you felt, Laddy?” she reproached him tenderly. “I thought that I was so wise and brave, working things out for you, and it wasn’t what you wanted at all.” She stroked the brown coat with gentle fingers, “and I wouldn’t have known but for this,” she said, “that it wasn’t what I wanted either; I was so blinded by the material things of life.”
“Then it’s just us three, Mother?’ the boy stammered, scarcely daring to hope; and as she nodded he went on excitedly, “I’ll just grow and grow, Mother; you’ll see, so that I can take care of you and Rosy like Daddy did.”
“Yes, you’ll soon be a man,” the mother said with a sad little smile; but life isn’t going to be easy with just you and Rosemary and me – and the memory of Daddy,” she added. “It will take courage, son. You’ll have to work hard, and fight every step of the way.”
Unconsciously the boy’s shoulders straightened in his father’s coat. “Almost twelve is pretty big, Mother,” he said bravely. “Don’t you worry; it won’t be long until I fit this coat, and then I’ll be a man.”