(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
It was a cold morning and she just couldn’t make herself throw back the covers and get up. She’d heard her grandfather come into the house through the basement door and then shovel the coal to throw into the furnace, but the house hadn’t warmed up much yet even though the radiators were starting to make their reassuring little noises. Her mother was stirring in the kitchen but hadn’t started upstairs as yet so Lois buried herself further under the lovely, warm covers just a while longer. Oh, there was her grandmother coughing again. She was always bringing some sickness home from school and MomKate would get it. This one had been especially bad. The doctor had quarantined the house for two weeks, so no one but family could come in and they hadn’t seen anyone. Pop had gone to the bakery to work, but it was harder for Mother as she couldn’t have ladies in for fittings. She had now finished all of the dresses she had been working on before the doctor visited and slapped the quarantine sign in the window. Mother’s ladies were beginning to ask how much longer they would need to wait to get their clothes. Mother was making the best excuses she could, but as long as MomKate and Lois were sick and Pop was at the bakery she wouldn’t leave the house. They all relied on the income from her sewing so she had to be able to keep the ladies coming back with more alterations and dresses to make. Her Mother came up the stairs with her quick purposeful steps. Almost before the board in the landing at the top of the stairs gave its warning creak to announce her arrival, the bedroom door opened.
“Good morning, Sleepy Head. Just stay where you are for a minute or two more. The house isn’t very warm yet.” As usual, Mother was dressed and had done her hair already. It was important to her to keep up appearances. Today she had on a big house sweater over her housedress and pocketed apron to ward off the chill. As she spoke she was opening dresser drawers and getting out clothes for the day. The under clothes she laid very carefully over the radiator, the dress she draped over the back of the chair next to the radiator where her doll was sitting. Lois peered over the covers and out the window beyond the radiator where icicles were hanging from the roofs of all of the houses across the street. They sparkled in the sun, but she knew that it must be really cold out there for them to be that big.
“I’m going across the hall to see how your grandmother is feeling. I’ll be back in a minute. Just stay in bed till I get back.” Katherine left the room as quickly and with as much purpose as she had entered. It wasn’t easy for her to stay cheerful. Her husband was in the hospital again. It was a long ride to get there and she didn’t always have the carfare, so she could only go a few times a month. When he first came back from the war he seemed to be OK, except that he got sick a lot. Especially in the winter. Now, a dozen years later, his trips to the hospital were more frequent and each one seemed longer. The doctors told her that Ted was suffering the effects of the mustard gas the enemy had used during the battle of the Argonne in the Great War. She didn’t want to say Germans had done it because many of her aunts, uncles, and cousins still lived over there. Softly she asked her mother how she was doing this morning. Scarlet fever this time. MomKate had insisted on nursing little Lois so that Katherine could continue with her sewing. The result was that MomKate was now sicker than Lois had been and was having a more difficult time. She was still fighting the fever and seemed more tired than she ever had. After assuring her mother that though she was missed she should stay in bed, Katherine quietly closed that bedroom door so her mother could rest. She would take a tray up later. It was time for Lois to get up and begin her day. Katherine walked to the radiator and began picking up under clothes and slipping them under the covers to the lump curled in the middle. “Put them on while they are still warm. Then wash your face and comb your hair before coming down to the kitchen for breakfast. We have a lot to do today.”
One of the best parts about cold mornings was having clothes warmed and then wiggling into them getting out from under the covers. The warm clothes were like armor against the cold air. It was one of the few luxuries that Katherine could give her daughter. Lois slipped on her dress and shoes and rushed to the bathroom, always a cold room, to finish getting ready. Before going downstairs she quietly opened the door to MomKate’s room. Her grandmother had gone back to sleep so she closed the door even more quietly and slipped down the stairs.
“Good morning, Leibchen. Come here and give your Pop a hug.” With that Pop scooped her into his arms tickled her with the whiskers of his mustache. The strong scent of his cherry pipe tobacco clung to his whiskers. It was a pervasive and reassuring scent just like being enveloped in his strong arms. Even in his early sixties he had more vitality than many younger men. After a bout of typhoid when he was a young man have had lost all of his sandy brown hair. When his hair grew back it was black and had stayed that way.
Pop and MomKate had come to live with them a year ago last summer when frequent hospital stays had caused Lois’ father, Ted, to stop working. No employer wanted someone who had to be absent as much as Ted did. Even when he was well enough to be home, he had less and less energy. One house was less expensive to run than two, and this one was less than two miles from the bakery. Pop could bring home the day old-goods from the bakery, where what hadn’t sold was thrown away. At least they had bread and rolls. Katherine had become very clever at stretching the food they had, but sometimes there just hadn’t been enough. Toward the end of the month they would have rice for most of the meals during the week. She had boiled it, fried it and baked it. She had gotten to know the butcher at the farmers market very well. He would save the bones for her. The marrow had helped make rich soup with barley and carrots that felt warm and filling going down. When she could afford a chicken it would feed them for three days. She would roast it, making most of her portion of the crispy skin. Lois needed the meat to grow strong. The giblets and wing tips went for stock. Second night she would chop it into a casserole. Third night was soup. She had learned many of her mother’s recipes. One that helped expand the food budget was spätzle. If they had any leftover meat she would put a pinch in each noodle, otherwise, boiling it in the stock from the bones and a quick fry when it was time to eat would do. Just now she was packing down the rolls that Pop had brought home with him.
“Lois, I need you to do the downstairs dusting when you finish your breakfast. Then I you to take some dresses around for me.” Dusting was not one of her favorite ways to spend Saturday, but taking dress to different houses was fun. As soon as she finished eating, she got her dust rag and began in the dining room. First she took everything off of the sideboard and server. Then she dusted all of the surfaces being careful to get the dust from the grooves in the feet, because she knew her mother would look there. Then she carefully picked up each piece and gently dusted it before returning it to its place. Before moving to the living room she crawled under the dining table and wiped the legs and feet there as well. There were many knick-knacks in the living room. Every one had something that teased a warm memory of some event. There were demitasse spoons with markings from all over, a multi-shelf showcase for the little folk statues from Germany called Hümmel, and vases, and ashtrays. So much to move and dust. Little pieces of lint or threads that fell to the carpet needed to be picked up. By the time she was done, Katherine had wrapped three bundles in brown paper for her to carry to neighbors.
“This package is to be taken to Mrs. Johannsen. Take it there before lunch. Remember to ask if she has anything else she wants me to do now. Don’t forget to wait for the money. Let me look at you.” As she brushed a speck of dust from Lois dress, Katherine took a comb from her apron pocket to neaten the little girl’s hair. Then as Lois buttoned her coat, Katherine tied a scarf around head and neck.
Mrs. Johannsen’s house was next to the railroad tracks. Lois counted the cars of a freight train that was passing as she walked up the street. The row houses here had been built just before the depression started and were still all neatly kept. Most of the families on this side of the street still had fathers who went to work each day. On their own side of the street three families had no one working and Mr. Hill worked some weeks but not others. Reaching Mrs. Johannsen’s front door, Lois rang the doorbell and then stood tall as her mother and grandmother had taught her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Johannsen. How are you today? Mother sent me with your dress. Is there anything else you would like her to do for you just now?”
“Oh, Lois. Come in this instant. You can’t stand out there in this cold after having been ill. How is your grandmother?”
As she was talking, Mrs. Johannsen reached for an envelope on the table next to the door. Before handing over the payment, she reached for the candy dish filled with peppermint pinwheels, which was sitting next to it. “Have a candy to suck on as you walk home. I have nothing to give you today. Tell your mother that I am going into town to get fabric for a new dress for church next week. If your grandmother is well enough. I’ll come by after that to see what is to be done. Watch your step now.” And with that Lois was ushered out the door.
After lunch she was sent to the house furthest away. She walked down the hill and across the bridge. The houses on this side of the river were single-family homes. She walked up to a large brick house with dark shutters at the windows. Either side of the walkway was guarded by a large tree that at this time of year had no leaves. Mrs. Coggins asked her in and opened the package while she waited. Mrs. Coggins shook the dress out and checked the seams and hem. “Your mother’s work is so fine. I have this package for you to take back with you.” She then detailed what she wanted done. For one dress, a blue faille, she gave no instructions. “I can’t seem to wear out this fabric, but I won’t wear the dress even one more time. I’m just sick of it. Take it. Maybe your mother can do something with it.” Katherine often undid the seams and re-cut fabric from dresses like this. Then she would turn them into new clothes for Lois and herself. They took the brown paper from the dress she had brought and wrapped up the three she was to take back. Lois buttoned up her coat and started for the door with the larger package. “Oh, and here is a little something for walking all this way.” With that, Mrs. Coggins put two nickels in her hand and Lois began her cold walk home.
Down the pretty street to the main road and back toward the bridge she went. At least the air was still with no wind to blow her body heat away. On the way she peeped into the windows of the stores that were between the bridge and the hill. In front of the dime store stood a Salvation Army lady next to her kettle, ringing her bell. Just seeing her made Lois feel good. Three years ago at Christmas time, her Dad in the hospital, they had no tree and no presents for anyone. On Christmas Eve a man and lady from the Salvation Army had rung their doorbell and brought her a gift. It was a doll. The most beautiful doll she had ever seen with a sweet face and eyes that closed when you lay the doll down. The only other gift they got that year was her father coming home from the hospital in time for New Year’s Day. Since then she had learned to sew by making clothes for the doll from the scraps her mother had. It was the doll she carefully sat on the chair next to the radiator each time after she played with her. She played with the doll less and less now, but still liked to see her near. Lois carefully felt the two nickels she had slipped inside her mittens. This year her father was due to come home today, they had Pop and MomKate living with them. There was even a small tree in the sun porch. She rubbed the nickels together one more time and carefully slipped them from her mittens. As she dropped them in the kettle and the lady thanked her, she thought that some other little girl must need a gift this Christmas. For the rest of her life Lois would put change in the Red Kettles at Christmas.
The last word:
The Lois in the story is Suzy’s Mother, who continued to drop coins in the Salvation Army kettles every year. Now Suzy does it.
May your 2014 be happy and prosperous.
Keep your sense of humor.