A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
"Dad, what does Mother really think?""Breakfast! Breakfast is being served in the dining car!"
He had looked at her over his eyeglasses, and once again she smiled at the memory of his face. It was an old-fashioned face, but she liked it that way, the way his teeth showed through his beard when he grinned at her, gold-framed glasses slid down his nose.
This one had been a particularly wistful grinshe knew he didn't like the idea of her going so far from home, but he accepted her decision the way he had always accepted everything from her.
"Your mother's way of thinking is different from yours, chickadee. Here, scoot over."
She had a page of advertising laid out on the big composing desk in his office; he needed the space for yet another ad. She carefully transferred the first ad to a side table, then helped him with the newest page, a one-page spread for Markham's Armistice Day celebration and sale, an ad she had helped him design and compose.
"You ought to be writing copy for an ad agency," he'd told her once, but she couldn't bear the thought of having to shill for people day after day. She wanted to write honest things, stories that would make people laugh or cry or change their views, not fulsome words to con them into buying haberdashery or...coffee! But yet she couldn't blame him; it would be a safer job in a slowly recovering economy than throwing chance to the wind and working in radio.
Dad understood, though, even from back in the days when she would write alternative endings to her favorite stories because the conclusion didn't please her (she'd made certain Miss Minchen ended up scrubbing floors for what she'd done to Sara Crewe!) or sequels to her favorites. Her ambitions didn't flag as her tastes expanded from Burnett and Nesbit to Bronte, Austen, and Burroughsshe knew it was her Dad's private joke that someday she would write the ending to Dickens' Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Well, of course Mother thought differently. She spent her days in the kitchen and in the garden, ceaselessly caring for the house and raising vegetables for them to eat both summer and winter. She was an artist with a needle and a sewing machine, and already a doting grandmother to sister Patricia's new baby.
She, however, was definitely not Patty, the miniature of her mother, or George, who Dad claimed was a throwback to his grandfather the sodbuster...
Betty Roberts' eyes popped open, the close newspaper office dissolving around her to reform into the equally close space of a railroad car. The elderly man who had been snoring endlessly in the seat across from her was gone; she'd been the one asleep this time.
The conductor had strode past her by now, bellowing his message a second and third time before vanishing out the door on his way to the next car. Betty wished she could follow him to the dining car or anywhere to get something to eat; her stomach was already beginning to cramp in protest. Struck by hungered inspiration, she checked the purse tucked between herself and the arm of the seat, fantasizing sparing a few cents for a cup of soupbut no. No taking chances on this. There was just enough to pay for a place to stay until her first paycheck came through; she had realized several miles out that she would have to resign herself to asking for a salary advance or starve for the next few days.
Her mind drifted back to the sandwiches she had finished off last evening; thick slices of Mother's home-baked bread with freshly cured ham and homemade mayonnaise and crisp lettuce and garden tomatoes. Even in her imagination she could smell the rich sugar-cured ham so vividly that her mouth watered.
She told herself she was silly, that she'd be in Pittsburgh in a few hours and she'd have her meal there; perhaps Mr. Comstock would be kind and treat her to lunch. Dad always treated new employees to lunch.
Betty touched the winning script tucked in her purse, unable to believe her luck. She had dreamed of writing professionally, and to have the chance to travel to Pittsburgh, to try her luck at a radio station...it was all like a fantasy come true. Of course WENN wasn't exactly a big station. In fact, she'd been told outright it was usually barely afloat, and she didn't expect her salary to be high.
Well, that was fine. She didn't mind not being able to afford a fancy apartment; she could live frugally, eat beans and shop for less attractive produce. And she wasn't afraid to work hard. She drifted back into a doze to keep her mind from rising hunger, thinking back on her dream.
Oh, Dad was worried. She'd always been his shadow, following him to the newspaper office from the time she'd been old enough to go on her own. Patty wanted someone to play dolls with, but she'd been happier in a world of paper and pens and typesetting equipment, learning to read before she entered school, and continually badgering the librarian for more books. Dad had given her permission to borrow from the adult section long before he would have even though of giving it to her sister or brother.
He'd found as she entered the latter stages of grammar school that she had a good instinct for words, and he'd started allowing her to help out writing simple neighborhood stories. You might have thought she was in heaven, writing about new babies and prize livestock, local politics and reopening stores.
Mother would fret behind closed doors, words of dismay for her future that still remained uncomfortably in memory, but she hardly thought her adolescence was "neglected"there were hay rides, dances at church suppers, and even later trips to the soda fountain with one of several boys. And she had to admit some of them might have tempted her to stay behind when she had the chance to go to college.
"You broke Mike Wasser's heart!" Patty told her the spring of her senior year.
If so, he was bearing up pretty well, she thought several weeks later, observing him squiring an pretty blonde from South Bend.
No, it had been better to take advantage of the opportunity Dad had offered her. He'd managed to keep head above water during the Depression and saved enough to send her to college. It was just barely enough for tuition and books, and she'd been forced to work weekends waiting tables and tutoring to make ends meet, but energy and stubborn determination had gotten her through.
The contest, thoughthat was sheer luck! Uncle George had come breezing into town, driving his rattletrap old Reo, with his usual high-handed stories for his sister and her husband. Helping clean out the car, Betty had found souvenirs of his most recent sales trip, ragged newspapers from everywhere in Pennsylvaniait was there she had read about the writing contest.
For several days she'd upset even her brother, who looked upon her writing as nonsense, by not even going to the newspaper office. Had Dad an inkling what she was up to, especially when she retreated to the office once her thinking period was over, night after night, typing the manuscript in a style she hoped was appropriate?
They certainly hadn't been prepared when she'd come dashing in the house one afternoon waving an envelope. Dad had been sitting at the table having his midday meal, his sleeves still rolled up from a morning of paste-ups, Mother serving him second helpings of the good ham and thick mounds of mashed potatoes. George was concentrating on his food, not even glancing up when she bounded in, and although he'd washed his face and hands he was still grubby from working in the gardenbut nevertheless she hadn't cared, but hugged them all in turn, nearly dancing as she passed around the letter.
"But you don't want to do this, darling," Mother had said, her tone of voice as effective as a hoseful of cold water.
"Of course I do!"
"Go all the way to Pittsburgh? Live among strangers-"
"I did it at college!"
"But it was always understood-"
"-that I'd be coming home? Home to find a nice boy and settle down and be married?"
Her voice had grown slightly sharp as she said the words and she'd been sorry for it. She calmed herself, said more reasonably, "Well, of course, I'd like that someday, Mother. I don't want to go through life alone. But for right now, it's a wonderful opportunity. Just look at the experience I'd get!"
And then Dad had spoken up, his voice belying the expression in his eyes."It is a wonderful opportunity, Clare. She can't turn it down."
They'd had more words later, she knew, some of them unpleasant, but in the end it was her decision.
She opened her eyes again. The landscape had changed from last night, sprawling farmlands given away to rangy countryside dotted with pastureland and rickety mining towns. The Depression had caught this area of Pennsylvania with a particularly brutal slash. Some of it looked beyond recovery.
It was so easy to be hopeful at the supper table in the glow of soft electric lamps, eating pork roast and lima beans slathered with freshly-churned butter and new bread, yet another to keep it up on a swaying train and nursing an empty stomach.
She glanced at her watch, startled at the time. Pittsburgh was only minutes away.
"I'll make it work," she promised herself, and leaned back to enjoy the rest of the ride.
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