Contentment Is a Lovely Thing
By Dorothy S. Romney
Jed is coming home, Margaret’s heart sang. She had been too busy to realize how much she had missed him.
The next few days were busy ones. Then one afternoon Margaret came up from the barn after having fed the stock. She had gathered an apron full of fresh eggs, and before she had time to put them in a bowl the telephone rang. She clutched the ends of her apron in one hand and uncradled the receiver with the other.
“A telegram has just come in for Mrs. Jackson. Her telephone doesn’t answer, so I thought she might be with you,” the operator explained, knowing that Margaret was Mrs. Jackson’s nearest neighbor.
“Mrs. Jackson isn’t here, but I’ll take the message and deliver it to her,” Margaret answered.
She wrote on the telephone pad with a hand that wobbled slightly, “Arriving six p.m. Wednesday,” and it was signed “Richard Jackson.”
She was so excited that she almost forgot the eggs, but managed somehow to get them into a bowl without breakage before she flew down to tell Mrs. Jackson the news. She must be somewhere about the place.
Wednesday, she thought, as she ran through the orchard to the Jackson cottage. But today is Wednesday, and it’s already three o’clock.
She found Mrs. Jackson working n her vegetable garden, and told her the wonderful news.
When the six o’clock train pulled in, the Lansing station wagon was waiting, Kimmy gleeful at the sound of the “choo, choo,” Margaret hopeful for Dick Jackson’s physical condition, and his mother too happy to think of anything but that her son was returning.
Margaret strained her eyes for a first glimpse of Dick, and scarcely noticed the several other passengers who alighted. Dick, of course, would be the boy in the uniform, taller seeming, and certainly thinner than she had remembered him. His dark eyes looked enormous in a face whose pallor told of long confinement in a hospital. She turned her eyes toward his mother, wondering if she would notice how really sick Dick looked, but there was so much joy shining out of her face there wasn’t room for anything else.
Suddenly Kimmy clapped his hands delightedly and shouted, “Daddy, Daddy!” and before Margaret knew what was happening Jed’s arms were around her and Kimmy. She looked over Jed’s shoulder.
“Where are Mother and Dad?” she asked, the more familiar form of address coming easily to her lips.
“They’ll be down Saturday,” he replied. “I came as an advance guard.”
“Your father’s hand, Jed?” she asked anxiously. “How is it?
“He can use it,” Jed answered noncommittally. “I’ve talked them into spending the rest of the summer with us.”
“Oh, wonderful,” she said. Then, as Mrs. Jackson finally released her hold on her son, Margaret turned to welcome him home. She clasped his long, thin hand warmly and looked up into his face, old beyond his years, as she said, “We’re all so glad to have you back again.”
Jed stored his bag and Dick’s army gear in the back seat of the station wagon, and they all got in and headed for home. The sun was setting in a glorious blaze of color and the gardens along the way were brilliant with summer blossoms. Margaret was especially grateful for all this beauty, realizing what it must mean to the war-weary boy.
“I was sure glad to find Jed on the train,” Dick said.
“Let’s say that we were glad to find each other,” Jed replied. “I needed someone to talk with pretty badly myself.” His voice held an unmistakable earnestness, something of the terrific strain which he had been under.
Margaret could hold back her question no longer. “You said that your father could use his hand, but will he ever be able to operate again?”
“No,” he answered heavily. “And he knows the worst now. He will never be able to perform another operation.”
Jed’s parents arrived on Saturday, as they had promised. Naturally Margaret had expected to see a difference in them, but she was in no way prepared for what she saw. Mrs. Lansing was still beautifully groomed, with her blue-white hair in soft, sculptured rolls, but there were lines on her face, and her eyes that had been so serene now told of tragedy and weeks of anxiety.
As for Dr. Lansing, he was not only thinner, but he had lost his sprightly assurance. He moved now so apathetically that Margaret could hardly resist crying out.
We must do something for him, she thought. But what? What could anyone do to restore hope in a man when the best of his life’s work had suddenly been denied him?
Mrs. Lansing offered to take over some small tasks around the house, and while Margaret at first demurred, she soon realized that work was the best panacea she could have. She wished that Dr. Lansing would do the same. Actually there was plenty of work on the farm that he could have done, and Jed could certainly have used the help. Instead, he sat on the front porch and gazed stonily at the distant mountains until Margaret longed to shake him, just to get him to move.
Only Kimmy could draw any response that was much more than a monosyllable. The grandfather’s listlessness could not be proof against the child’s happy prattle, and for this Margaret was extremely grateful.
“If only we could get him to do something!” Margaret sighed for the hundredth time. “If he’d pick some fruit, or go fishing, or anything! It almost sends me out of my mind to see him sitting there so aimlessly. You’d never know it was the same man who was here in the spring.”
Jed nodded grimly. “Maybe something will happen to make him snap out of it,” he said. He paused a moment and then added, “Something has to happen.”
Each morning she asked the doctor to take Kimmy and walk down to the mailbox, pleading that she had no time to go herself. It was almost the only thing she could persuade him to do, and she was glad that Kimmy prolonged the walk by expending his curiosity on every bug and flower they saw along the way.
As she kneaded her dough this morning, she watched their slow progress down the long lane. “Hot rolls for lunch,” she called to Jed’s mother, who was shelling peas out in the coolness of the screened service porch.
“You’re spoiling us,” the older woman declared. “We’ll never be able to go back to city fare.”
“Must you go back?” asked Margaret, turning the dough over thoughtfully. “I couldn’t help hoping that you would like it well enough here to stay,” Margaret went on, a bit hesitantly. “Old Dr. Miller has long wanted to retire. If Dad could only be contented …”
“Oh, no! I’m sure he wouldn’t think of it,” protested her mother-in-law.
“No, I suppose not,” Margaret agreed regretfully. “But we couldn’t help hoping.”
Through the long, feathery branches of the willow tree Margaret could see Kimmy and his grandfather returning from the mailbox. Even with their frequent stops she knew that they would arrive back all too soon, and Dr. Lansing would resume his position of waiting on the front porch. Waiting for what? Simply for the day to end.
Covering the dough with a fresh cloth, she called to Mrs. Lansing, “I’m going to run over to Jacksons’ for a few minutes. Dick wasn’t feeling well last night. Will you please keep an eye on Kimmy? I’d rather not take him along.”
As soon as she knocked on the door of the cottage, she knew there was something wrong. There was the sort of hushed silence that spreads over a house when someone is seriously ill.
Mrs. Jackson’s sister opened the door and, in answer to Margaret’s surprised look, she said, “It’s Dick. He’s running an awful high fever. We’ve tried to get Dr. Miller, but he doesn’t even answer his phone.”
“But you must have help at once!” cried Margaret. “He’s in no condition to stand anything more right now. Perhaps Dr. Lansing – perhaps my father-in-law would … but no, I’m afraid not.” Then, as she noted again the anxiety in the woman’s eyes, she said, “I’ll ask him. I can do that much at least.”
She took the short cut across the field, stopping only to ease herself through the wire fence, thinking, as one does of small things during such an emergency, it’s foolish not to cut a gate here.
This might be the turning point for all of them, she thought. If Jed’s father could just be made to realize how much they wanted him and needed him, maybe – just maybe – there might be a chance of keeping him here. She ran breathlessly around to the front porch.
“Dad,” she burst out excitedly, “Dick Jackson is terribly ill, and Dr. Miller can’t be reached!” The words tumbled out, one over another. “Won’t you please go down and take care of him?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said immediately. “It wouldn’t be ethical for me to go in and take over Dr. Miller’s patient.” Then he added, a note of unmistakable bitterness in his voice, “Besides, I wouldn’t be of much help.”
Oh, she thought wildly, my blundering has spoiled any chance we had of keeping them here.
“I’m sorry, in my anxiety over Dick I suppose I forgot … everything else,” she apologized quickly.
The doctor seemed not to have heard her apology at all, but appeared to be deep in thought. Finally he said, “I’m the one to be sorry, my dear. I’m being both stupid and cruel. I was selfishly thinking only of my own feelings. Perhaps I can be of some help.”
He went into the bedroom for his physician’s bag and Margaret watched him walk along the hydrangea-bordered path, noting the proud lift of his shoulders. She realized that his decision to attend Dick meant more than changing into the role of a general practitioner. It meant his accepting of the bitter fact that his hand would never regain its skill, and that the facing of this fact had been the biggest hurdle he had to overcome.
She bent her head closer to her task of preparing lunch to hide the gleam of unshed tears in her eyes, as Jed’s mother came into the kitchen. “Maybe you’d like to walk down to the field and remind your son that it’s mealtime,” she said. “He never seems to know of his own accord.”
While the casserole dish she had prepared was baking, she fed Kimmy his special foods, then tucked him in bed for his nap. She set four places on the small table in the glassed-in patio.
It was a matter of twenty minutes or so before Jed and his mother came back from the fields.
“I was showing Mother how to run the harvester,” Jed explained with a chuckle.
“I was doing right well, too,” his mother smiled back. “Another lesson or two and I might be able to take over.” She glanced towards the front porch and asked, “Hasn’t Dad come back yet?”
“No,” Margaret replied, “and I’m terribly worried about Dick. His aunt said he had been running a high temperature all last night.”
Margaret served lunch, and they ate in silence. There were golden planes of sunlight slanting across the patio, as crystal clear as the blue of the sky through the emerald tracery of the nearby willow trees.
Luncheon over, Jed went back to the fields, after asking Margaret to walk down and tell him what news there was of Dick’s condition as soon as his father returned.
His mother picked up the mending basket, which was full to overflowing, as usual, and took up a vigil on the service porch, where she had a clear view of the Jackson cottage.
The hours passed slowly. Although neither had mentioned it, each of the women knew that the other had found the afternoon almost intolerably long. Finally Margaret said, “I’ll run down and let Jed know it’s dinner time.” She stepped outside, glad to get away from the lagging hands of the clock and into the fresh air.
She and Jed were quiet and thoughtful as they walked back to the house hand in hand. “This town could sure use a good doctor like Dad,” was Jed’s first comment, after Margaret had told him that his father was still at the Jacksons’. “Dr. Miller can’t hang on much longer. But I’m afraid Dad would never be satisfied here.”
“And I’m afraid your mother would be even less satisfied,” Margaret said, a trifle hesitantly, “to settle down to country life.”
“The more’s a pity,” said Jed, his eyes intent on the faraway mountains.
There was no mention of waiting dinner until the doctor’s return. They conversed but little during the meal, each being busy with his own thoughts.
Long after the sun had gone down in a blaze of glory and the sky grown dark, the Lansings lingered on in the comfortable farm kitchen. Margaret, clearing the dinner dishes from the table on the patio, saw the first stars appear, frostily aloof, in the velvet of the night sky.
They had all grown restless with waiting. Jed moved silently to the window. There was a lone light in the Jackson cottage. He watched for some time, then turned abruptly. “Isn’t it time Kimmy was in bed?” he asked, and Margaret noted the tenseness in his voice.
“Let me put him in,” his grandmother said immediately, and Margaret nodded assent. She knew that the greatest pleasure either of the elder Lansings had at the present was the association with their only grandchild.
She had just returned when the door opened and the doctor came in. His face was lined and weary, but there was a look of peace in his eyes that had been missing for many days.
“Dick! is he …?” Margaret’s voice broke.
“The boy is going to be all right,” Dr. Lansing replied, looking into the three anxious faces. “He has a virulent type of pneumonia that strikes quickly and hard. And, of course, he was already weak to begin with. But he has passed the crisis now – I stayed until I had made sure of that. All that will be required now is good care and a little time.”
“Well, with you around, he’ll get the best,” said Jed heartily.
Margaret’s relief for Dick was only secondary to her other feelings. For the first time since the accident Dr. Lansing had spoken like his old self again. Tired as he was, his step had something of the old resilience. There was a quiet triumph in his face, and it had come alive again.
“Thank goodness,” she murmured softly, and none of them knew that she was not speaking wholly for Dick.
“They’ll call me if they happen to need me again tonight,” the doctor said, as he moved towards his bedroom. “But I’m sure that he’s going to be all right.”
As they went to their own room, Margaret turned to Jed with shining eyes. “This may be the turning point,” she whispered. “There was something – surely you noticed it.”
“Yes, I noticed it,” he replied. “Dad was a doctor again – instead of just a broken man. All we need to do now is scare up another urgent case tomorrow.”
They awakened early, as usual, except for Dr. Lansing who had been wearied by his unusual exertions of the day before. Margaret slipped over to the Jacksons’ to reassure herself and learned that Dick had spent a restful night.
“I don’t know what we’d have done without Dr. Lansing,” Mrs. Jackson said, her voice breaking, “I’ll never be able to thank him enough. I just couldn’t have anything happen to my boy – not after all he’s been through.”
Margaret pressed her neighbor’s arm lovingly. “It did something for him, too,” she said. “Last night he was himself again for the first time this summer.”
She hurried back to the house where Mrs. Lansing was giving Kimmy his morning cereal. “Where is Dr. Miller’s office?” she asked.
“Around the corner from the church, on the northeast side. It’s that white stucco house, with all the flowers,” Margaret explained. “He plans to move to Arizona and live with a daughter if he can ever get away.”
“Could we drive over and see it this morning?”
“Oh, Mother!” cried Margaret. “Do you really mean it? Would you consider staying here? Could you be contented here?”
“It must be Frank’s decision, of course,” replied Mrs. Lansing. “But I think after our talk last night I might persuade him to stay …”
“Plotting behind my back, eh?” a voice interrupted, and they turned to see the doctor standing in the doorway. “So you think you would like to live in the country? Do you think you would be contented?”
“Yes,” she replied with decision, “I honestly think I could get along happily without city diversions. In fact, they all seem rather trivial compared to what we might find here – what we have already found,” she corrected herself.
“And you would like to see me go back to being a country doctor?”
“It wouldn’t be going back,” she replied. “The life you saved yesterday was as important as any you might have saved anywhere else. Wasn’t it now?”
“I’ve never been happier over any, as far as I can remember,” he confessed. “And do you really think these children of ours could stand having us so near?”
There was a twinkle in his eyes that brought a surge of joy to Margaret’s heart. “I think that we could bear up under it,” she replied.
“Then I think we’ll all go over and take a look at Dr. Miller’s setup. But first I must have a look at my patient! And I also might remind you that I’m ravenously hungry – if anyone cares.”
“I’ll deep-fry some scones,” said Margaret. “They will be extra good this morning, and there’s fresh butter and strawberry jam.”
“I’ll have some, too,” said Mrs. Lansing.
As she lifted Kimmy down from his high chair she held him long enough to say gravely, “You look well fed and contented this morning.” Then she added to no one in particular – certainly not to Kimmy, “Contentment is a lovely thing.”