A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
December 22, 1930
She was eternally glad her frugal mother had taught her to adjust to walking about at night without lights. Now more than ever it was important to save.
Betty Roberts padded from the bedroom she shared with her sister, flinching at the cold of the wooden hall. She had slipped on the knitted slippers her grandmother had given her on her birthday and was wrapped tightly in a calf-length quilted robe. In the daytime, the heat from the kitchen range and the parlor stove penetrated the upper story; along with the sun it made the unheated second floor bearable, but at night all one could do was curl up under innumerable quilts and hope nature wouldn't call.
Unfortunately tonight it had.
She was, she reflected as she made her way down the hall using fingers to the wall as her guideGeorge's room, then the post of the stairway, now down the steps, one by one, counting as she went luckier than some of her farm friends, who still had outhouses on the property. The Roberts' bathroom was an afterthought, tacked on the back of the house back when Dad had inherited the property in 1918, but was at least indoors, a comfort on a frigid December night.
As she turned the corner on the stair, she was startled by the faint glimmer of light from under the double doors that led to the back parlor. She couldn't believe her mother had left a light burning; After all of them had gone to bed, Clare wandered from room to room like the ghost of Hamlet's father, making sure things were turned off, burnt out, locked and bolted.
Betty tentatively padded forward from the foot of the steps, reaching out until she touched the solid bulk of Grandmother Armstrong's sideboard and hutch, which had sat in the entry hall as long as she could remember. Clare inherited it when her mother died, and, already having a sensible china cabinet in the dining room, had placed the old-fashioned carved piece against the long wall between the doorless entry to the dining room and the front door. Family knickknacks and framed snapshots sat on its narrow surface and upper side shelves, and, in a place of honor on the carved center bracket, was a beautiful flowered Limoges china plate Betty's great-great-grandmother had brought to the United States from "the old country." During holidays and family visits it held bowls of candy or men's hats from the overflow of the coatrack in the opposite corner, and was a favorite place for the Roberts children to lay schoolbooks, lunch pails, and the odd prize from class after schooluntil their mother saw them there, of course.
Curiosity having gotten the better of her, she stepped toward the back parlor and peeked through the crack between the doors. The feeble light was coming from a kerosene lamp seated on the end table next to one of the armchairs that flanked the fireplace"mother's chair" on the right as opposed to Dad's on the left, with her inevitable sewing box closed and pushed to the back of the tableand in the chair itself was her mother, bundled tightly in her own quilted robe over a woolen nightgown that peeped out to half cover her slippered feet, her head tilted on one shoulder as she slept.
The lamp's illumination told Betty the rest of the story: it was after one o'clock, she could make out on the mantel clock. Mother was waiting up for Dad again.
Her other thoughts overridden now by need, she abandoned the door for the chill of the bathroom. A year or two ago she might have brought a book with her, but now, more conscious than ever of pinching pennies since she'd been working after school with her father, she sat in the dark and brooded instead.
Could she ever, she wondered, live up to Mother? Gentle, creative David worked hard and brought the money home, but it was kind but firm and sensible Clare that kept the works going. How odd to see her dozing in a chair! Mother was always moving, cleaning house, mending, cooking. When she wasn't inside she was outside with the vegetable garden, or supervising the hens and their one cow. True, George had calmed down lately and was doing half the work in the gardenhe loved that sort of thingplus all the milking now that Susan was starting to go dry, and she and Patricia cleaned, mended their own things, helped with canning and in the kitchen. But Mother was the dynamo in the family.
Sometimes Betty wished she was more like Pat, who was more like Mother, but she knew she didn't want to be "a stick in the mud" like her older sister. Betty did her chores first, quickly and efficiently, to get them out of the way, like a dutiful child, while Patricia enjoyed housekeeping, if not the sheer donkey work of the harder tasks. When Pat wasn't doing chores, she was sewing to help augment their income or to fill her "hope chest," while between school, the newspaper, and homework, Betty squeezed every inch of time she could reading or writing. She was "David's child for sure," as her Grandma said.
As she padded from the bathroom, shivering again as she re-belted the robe around her, the thought of Pat, up there warm in her bed, complacently waiting for tomorrow's chores, gave her the irresistible urge to do something forbidden. Mother was asleep, Dad wasn't home...
Most of the families in the area still followed the traditional custom of putting up the family tree on Christmas Eve. But Dad loved Christmasfor years he had "jumped the gun" and they had trimmed their tree anywhere from three days to a week early and spread the house with fragrant greenery as well.
The tree was already up in the front parlor, although they had not yet opened the sliding doors that connected that room with the back parlor to make one big room, as they would on Christmas Eve to last all through the holidays. They had put it up two days earlier, Dad's excuse being that decorating the tree would help cheer them up, as it had been a particularly hard week: he'd lost some subscribers, Pat had a fever and had been unable to go into work, news had come of a close friend in trouble with his business.
Betty slid one of the double doors leading to the front parlor open just enough that she could squeeze through. Grandfather Roberts had loved sliding doors, and, so her grandmother said, would have put them in every room of the house had she not intervened. In this case, Betty loved them as well; the well-balanced doors worked noiselessly, and she had it shut behind her in a trice. Heaven help her if she got caught! Someone wandering around downstairs would ordinarily leave Mother impatient enough, but she'd been particularly hard to please this evening when Betty arrived home for supper. She seemed preoccupied or upset about something. Pat was still in bed and couldn't tell her much when Betty brought her a tray, but she mentioned in her still hoarse voice that "that man" had visited, and it was probably why Mother was so annoyed.
Betty knew who "that man" was and certainly couldn't understand. He'd visited before and Mother had always turned him away with a cool smile and cooler words. Today shouldn't have made any difference.
The moon was still up, and its stark white light filtered through the sheer curtains of the front window to dance on the freshly-cut tree, hung with baubles gathered or made over the years. They still had some of the original ornaments Woolworth's had imported from Germany, the flat "Dresden" figures that had been fashionable when her mother was a girl, more modern glass ornaments from a few years ago, and trinkets homemade by herself and her brother and sister: gilded walnuts, wooden blocks painted and sprinkled with powdered isinglass, construction paper cornucopias with hand-scissored "lace" around them, hung with yarn and filled with shelled hazelnuts, candy being "too dear" that year. A silver, spirelike "tree topper" finished the tree, and of course the branches were draped with silver icicles. Dad loved "tinsel" and would put it on strand by strand to get the best effect, had not Mother stopped him.
These strands of silver glittered the most now, trembling in the movement of the cold air that came in around the window frames. It was chillier here than in the hall or bathroom. Betty had resolved to stay only a few seconds, just to smell the spicy goodness of the tall fir, but she was compelled to step forward, stroke the tinsel, brush a finger against the smooth surface of an ornament...
The sound of the front door closing with a smothered click brought her out of her reverie. Dad!
She peeked out from between the double doors, but at first all she could see was a darker shadow in the dark, looking vaguely hunchbacked. She knew he would be removing his boots–
and now she could see him doing so, for Mother had come out from the back parlor with the lamp, pushing her braided hair off her shoulder. How had she heard the silent click of the front door and not Betty entering the front room was something the girl would never know, but she was grateful for it.
Dad finished removing his other boot, then smiled and said mildly as he slipped out of his coat, "Up again?"
"It seems like it," her mother said wearily.
"You don't have to wait up for me," he pointed out. "I can make my way in the dark just as well as anyone in this house."
"No one should have to come home to the dark after working an eighteen-hour day," was her tart response. Once he had removed all his outerwear, she handed him the lantern, which he already had his hand out to accept. It was only then Betty realized what she was seeing was a ritual. "I've got a nice hot drink for you. Go sit down for a bit."
"I'll get my own drink, for heaven's sake. You'll have to be up again in four hours."
"Having a warm drink will only take a few minutes," her mother said soberly, giving him a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, then vanishing into the hall that led to the kitchen.
For a brief moment Betty's heart leaped with the thought that he might come into the front parlor, but her father took the kerosene lamp and moved instead into the back room. Now the light reappeared under the connecting doors. Betty moved there, peering through the crack; when Mother returned and shut the doors, she would make her way back upstairs and no one would be the wiser.
She watched her father sag into his own armchair, becoming seemingly boneless in relaxation. He sighed for a moment, then groaned, sat up, unlaced his shoes and pulled each of them off with a grunt of satisfaction. He stretched stocking feet toward the fireplace, as if absorbing heat from a nonexistent blaze.
Her mother's voice said, "Should I stir the fire?" and Betty shifted her attention to the doorway. Clare was standing, highlighted in the yellowish light from the kerosene flame, holding a steaming mug in either hand.
"Waste of good firewood," he objected. "We'll be going to bed soon, or so you said. More warm milk?"
"Milk's about all we have. I've been trying to save the tea and coffee for breakfast when we need it." She paused as she handed the mug to him, and then, to Betty's horror, she didn't return to close the door, but sat down again in her own chair. "Grocery bill's come due."
"I'll have some cash to give Fred toward the bill on Saturday," he said comfortably. He sniffed the warm beverage and Betty saw him start. "Cocoa?"
"I thought you deserved a little treat," her mother answered, then added, softer. "I hate having to shop on credit."
"It's no sin, Clare," he said, settling back into the chair with a sigh. "The whole town's on credit, from what I can see, except for the families on the Square."
Betty sighed silently. She was trapped now, until they went upstairs. There was no way she could pass the open doors of the back parlor without one of them seeing her. And seeing seemed to be what Mother did best. She shifted from one icy foot to the other, knowing she shouldn't listen.
"How is Fred?" her mother asked.
"Robbing Peter to pay Paul, like half the small businessmen in town. Fred's a good juggler. We won't starve."
"And Ben Allen?"
For a moment the quiet tick of the mantel clock overwhelmed the room.
"His wife and children are moving back to Highland Park to live with her family. Ben's going to move in with his brother in Cleveland. Says he thinks he'll find some work there." Betty saw him drop his arm for a moment. "Ben was the last person I thought would go belly-up so quickly. From the time we were in school he was always able to talk his way out of everything."
"Will he get anything from the store?"
"Probably not. It's in the bank's hands now."
Betty, behind the doors, found herself trembling. The bank couldn't take their property, of course; Grandfather had made sure it was free and clear when his boys were young. But there was the newspaper, Dad's livelihood and his lifethere were always bills there, always a note due on one thing or the other.
Emma Allen was a classmate of hers. Now she was moving to Illinois and she'd probably never see her again.
David had put the mug down. "Thanks for the cocoa, Clare. At least we have the milk."
She said absently, "Susan's starting to go dry. I hope we can hold out until she freshens."
"We'll have a little veal for the table then, at least," he returned. "Perhaps we should raise the calf? Grass is cheap and we'd have a steer to slaughter in the fall. Or we could get lucky and get a heiferif we can find someone who can afford to buy her." His voice became reflective. "I wonder if Ed Sims will let me trade for Susan's bulling. Maybe some vegetables later in the year...we could always expand the garden"
Then he laughed. "Listen to me. Sounds like someone opened the door and let my father in." He lifted his eyes, blinked at his wife. "Clare? Would you want to keep another cow? It's more work for you."
"What?" she returned, as if coming out of a dream. "Oh. I suppose it would be expedient. We could use the beef. And George can take care of it. He's gotten to be very handy in the yard. For heavens sake, he can strip better than I can now. I'm sure we could expand the garden with the children helping out." She smiled suddenly, a genuine but wistful smile that left Betty with a pang. "George has changed so. Just a harum-scarum little scamp last year. I supposed Edgar's dying over the summer was part of it."
Betty's throat contracted when she heard the name of their collie, who had been killed by a truck. He had come to be George's special pal in the end, but she still missed him.
"Perhaps part, but not all," David agreed. "He's a smart boy. He knows we need all hands and he's always loved working outdoors. My father seems to have skipped a generation."
"You and Rick do very well!" Clare defended, sitting up in her seat.
He sighed, took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Ah, well, it was Curt who was supposed to be the farmer in the family, after all."
"If you were a farmer now, David," she pointed out, "we'd probably be starving. People do best what they do well." She paused, then asked briskly, "And speaking of that, how is Betty working out?"
The girl stiffened.
"She's doing very well. I couldn't ask for a better assistant," he said, and Betty grew warm with the praise. "In a few years she'll be writing circles around me. But I don't think newspaper work is what she's cut out for." He added resolutely, "She must have some way to get to college."
"One can get secretarial jobs without going to college," her mother reminded him. "Or do you think she would be better as a teacher?"
"I don't see her in either position," he admitted, to Betty's relief. She couldn't imagine being cooped up in an office copying someone's letters or leading a group of children in arithmetic lessons. "College can give her more direction."
"Beggars can't be choosers in these times," Clare pointed out.
"'People do best what they do well,'" he responded with a grin.
Betty wondered if her mother would anger at having her aphorism tossed back at her, but to her surprise her mother's face softened as she rose from her chair, empty mug in hand. "How like you, David, to use my own words against me." She crossed in front of the fireplace to take his mug. "I'll just take these into the kitchen and rinse them. You go up to bed. I'll be right up."
Instead, to his daughter's astonishment, he took the mugs from Clare's hands to set them on his own side table, then pulled her down so she was seated on his lap, kissing her behind the ear. There wasn't enough light to see, of course, but Betty was certain her mother was blushing by now, because she protested in a loud whisper, "David! What if one of the children comes downstairs to use the commode?"
"Then they'll see their father sparking with his best girl, won't they?" he teased, and when he kissed her this time, she kissed back, a long passionate kiss, like the lovers at the picture show, totally astounding Betty. Mother was always so reservedwho would have imagined this?
"Pretty Miss Armstrong, in her shimmering white dress with the blue sash at grammar school commencement," he laughed. "And all that lovely taffy-colored hair falling down her back, tied with a blue silk bow. I fell for her the moment I saw her, the sweetest, loveliest Clara-"
"You know I hate that name," she protested, all the while laying a light kiss on his forehead. "I can't believe you still remember that dress! You hardly know what you put on in the morning."
"How could I forget the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen?"
"David, you need to be turning over in bed instead of turning a phrase and turning my head," she said stoutly, slipping from his grasp, and he snorted to keep from laughing aloud. She realized what she had said and accused, "Now look what you've doneI'm starting to sound like you. On to bed with you."
"Yes, ma'am," he answered seriously and rose reluctantly from the chair. His wife started for the kitchen, then halted in the doorway. "David? You are still paying the interest at the pawn shop, aren't you?"
There was a stunned silence, then he asked, mildly, but voice a bit shaken, "What?"
"Your watch," she answered. "You did pawn it, I hope, and not sell it."
"Y-Y-Yes," he replied, in a long, drawn out word that was the closest to a stammer Betty ever heard from her father. "It's at Mick's."
"Well, don't forget to keep paying on it. After the new year we'll manage to scrape up a few extra dollars to redeem it."
"It's all right, Clare," he protested, but she said with her usual steel, "Nonsense. It was the one personal thing your father left you. You should have it."
And with that she left for the kitchen and after a few minutes to catch his breath, he picked up the lamp and followed her through the door.
Betty crossed to the double doors leading to the hall as he did so. Her father had stopped in the hall, waiting with the lamp, holding it up high so that Clare could see on her way back from the kitchen. Betty's heart caught in her throat and she nearly gasped aloud as her mother returned, her expression half disapproving, half smiling.
"Didn't I tell you to go on upstairs?"
"I can't let my best girl come upstairs in the dark, can I?" he defended, then asked, "How did you know?"
As they began climbing the stairs, she shook her head. "David Chapin Roberts, for nearly twenty years I've watched you dress every morning and undress every night. Did you think I wouldn't notice that you aren't putting that watch away at night or slipping it in your pocket in the morningor the fact that your vest pocket is flat, period? Especially after your daughter comes home the night before Thanksgiving with food that came from spare money you 'just happened to have,' or whatever nonsense you told Betty."
He laughed, deep in his throat, "She guessed, too. Smart and circumspect, just like her mother..." and then their voices faded out on the stairs.
Betty counted thirty before she emerged from the front room, gently closing the door behind her. She let her eyes get used to the darkness of the entry hall, until she could make out the dark shape of the stairs, the arch of the entry into the dining room, Grandmother's sideboard.
Her ears strained for any noise from upstairs. She wondered if her parents were still teasing each other and the thought made her smile. She'd seen a side of her mother that night that she'd never expected, a side of her father never allowed in public. The "sweetest, loveliest Clara" indeed!
People were already saying "Everyone will be poor during this Depression," and that wasn't so. Most people were touched by it, but the rich and the well-to-do who had their money in firm investments had not been. They had money to spend while everyone else scraped for a living, enough money so that people like "that man"Mr. Byron Hodges of the Illinois Antiquities Societycould survive in good style. Hodges knew the old farmhouses of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were filled with relics of the past, antiques his wealthy clientele paid good money for. He'd stop by once or twice a year, making offers on certain pieces he knew the Roberts and their neighbors owned. Lately, she remembered her mother saying acidly, he'd added a postscript, with an oily gleam in his eye, that he knew the money would come in handy.
What would Mother say when someone finally realized, as she had when Dad lifted the lamp, that the Limoges plate was gone? If they didn't notice it during the two hectic days before Christmas, surely someone would when she didn't use it as a serving platter for the holidays, for it was family tradition.
"When I took it off the sideboard to rinse it," she could almost hear Mother say regretfully, in a steady voice, "it fell out of my hands and shattered to bits. It was so clumsy of me." And when Pat or Dad or someone else expressed sympathy, she would add briskly, "Well, it can't be helped. No use crying over spilt milk," and artfully serve more food and change the conversation.
Everything seemed quiet, and now, silently, Betty began to climb upstairs. Mother, she figured, would probably wait until New Year's to give Dad his watch back. She'd have a plausible excuse for it as well: egg money she'd put aside, extra cash on his sales route that Uncle George had made his sister a handsome Christmas present of, some type of unexpected payment for the squashes and pumpkins she and George had sold during the fall. Whatever it was, Betty could imagine her mother doing it so artfully that Dad would never be the wiser.
She smiled to herself as she reached the bedroom door. If Dad found out, it wouldn't be from her. She would always be "David's child for sure."
But like her mother she could also keep a secret.
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