(Based on an actual story)
The mare rolled her eyes and shifted in her stall. “Son of a bitch,” said John under his breath as he tried to bend the ice-cold wire around the board. Just what he needed: damn horse to break the stall board today, in the middle of a Wyoming blizzard. John mentally chided himself. Yes, it had been loose and yes, he should have fixed it but there were so many things to do on the old homestead.
The house and outbuildings were owned by Big Bear Corporation, which financed hunting excursions into the Absaroka Mountains east of Yellowstone. John had been hired as camp cook, and offered the one-room house as living quarters. He welcomed the opportunity to have a place for his family to live, and had been repairing the outbuildings for the animals. The hard winter had required extra hours chopping firewood, caulking windows with rags and wading through the unending snow. He wondered if people would talk about the winter of 1919 in years to come.
“Whoa Babe,” he said as the horse continued to move nervously about the stall. What had spooked her? He listened to the moaning of the wind. Like an old woman groaning in her sleep, he thought. He was glad he had taken the precaution of using a rope to yoke the house to the barn when the sky had turned soot gray. Nebraska winters had taught him how quickly beautiful flakes became blinding and how easy it was for a man to become totally disoriented, even in the short distance from a house to a barn. He had seen entire yards crisscrossed with ropes, on the outskirts of Cody. Nebraska winters had been good preparation for the even colder winters of the high Wyoming plains.
Snow drifted in through the cracks of the barn and settled on his light red hair. John Rowlett was a small, wiry man, only thirty-years-old and yet worn by horse-drawn plows and icy winters. Worn by many days when he was so tired he fell asleep before he could eat supper.
It took him longer to secure the board than he had hoped. Fool horse, he thought. If he didn’t get her settled she would kick around in her stall, knock it loose, and get into the winter hay again. He couldn’t afford that. The winter hay had to last. It was all they had and all they would get. He knew the livestock would be in trouble if spring came late to the Wyoming plains.
He was about half way through milking when he felt a blast of icy air and looked up to see the bundled figure of his wife, Ellen, come through the door. The coal oil lantern hanging from the beam flickered, but didn’t go out. She struggled against the wind to fasten the door shut and walked over to him. Her gray coat was worn and she had tied her mother’s heavy, black scarf over her hair. He liked her hair, especially when it was loose at night. But he had never told her that.
She stroked the cow’s head. He continued his rhythmic milking and the warmth from the foam rose to his face.
“Did you have trouble with the cow?” she asked quietly.
“No, Babe knocked the stall board loose and was in the hay.”
“Did she eat much?” she asked, with concern in her voice.
“Naw. Caught her early and whacked her a good one.”
Ellen said nothing and although the cold wind continued to whisk down his back collar as he bent to the cow, he felt a warmth. Ellen had come all the way to the barn in the blizzard. Didn’t that mean she cared for him?
“I had one of those feelings,” she said with her hand on the cow’s back.
The wind reached through his thin coat. Her “feelings” made him uncomfortable. It was like living with a damn fortuneteller. And the problem was that her feelings usually amounted to something. Time and time again, something had happened — and it wasn’t usually good. Her feelings scared him, but he couldn’t tell her that.
“Huh,” he grunted.
“Something bad is going to happen,” she said simply. “When you took so long I thought maybe it was you.”
He shook his head and continued to milk. “Kids asleep?”
“Yes. The storm doesn’t seem to bother them.”
John thought of his two blond little girls – their round faces chapped by the winter cold. He would rather have had sons. Wyoming winters called for sons. Yet he couldn’t deny the pleasure he felt when his three-year-old daughter, Elsie, fell asleep in his arms. She was his oldest and she gave her love freely—but her mother . . .
Well, he didn’t know what Ellen felt. He remembered the first time he had seen her. It was the first warm day in May that he had walked over to the Wilson’s house to get Stan, his younger brother. Ellen was shelling peas in the front yard and Stan was talking to her. John noticed her soft brown hair but couldn’t see her face because her head was bent over the peas.
When Stan introduced him, Ellen looked up and he saw a pretty woman with green eyes, a straight mouth and firm chin. She didn’t smile but her green eyes appraised him and he felt uncomfortable.
“Stan said he had an older brother,” she said. “Come for a visit?”
He nodded and shifted his weight. Her busy hands continued. “I’ve been working in Missouri,” he said.
She nodded. The afternoon sun put a golden glow to the brown hair she pushed back from her damp forehead. John had never been good around women. He couldn’t seem to think of witty things to say, like some men he knew.
“Been working almost eight years now,” he said to the head bent over the peas. “Got me some money put away.”
Ellen nodded but she said nothing.
Was she impressed by this “older” man? He didn’t know. Later that night John had asked Stan about her and Stan had smiled and told him that she was seventeen and the oldest in her family. Her mother had come from Sweden and still spoke with a strong accent.
“She doesn’t say much,” Stan said, “but she is a good worker. I never see her just sitting. She’s always busy.”
During the days and weeks that followed, John thought constantly about Ellen and tried to arrange time to visit with her. He took her to a church dance but she was even more stiff and nervous than he was. He found excuses to sit on her porch in the evening but quite often he found himself smoking his pipe and visiting with Mr. Wilson rather than with Ellen. She was always working somewhere.
John had come home to Nebraska to see his family, but he had also come to find a wife. By the middle of April he had decided to marry Ellen Wilson, but he was at a loss as to how to proceed. Should he ask Ellen to marry him or should he ask her father? Ellen didn’t talk much. Her answers were short and curt. He had no idea how she felt about him and asking her was too risky. The man who had sat on the front porch and proclaimed that a president with the name of Wilson should be able to keep America out of a European war, seemed less formidable.
John remembered how nervous he had been that evening when he had sat with his hat in his hand while Mr. Wilson downed his nightly shot of whiskey. “I’ve got some money saved from working in Missouri,” John said. “I could support a wife now.”
“I want to marry Ellen,” he blurted out.
Wilson snorted, reached for the bottle of whiskey and poured another glass for himself and then one for John. As John drank he was aware of the appraising eyes on him.
“Think you’re man enough for her?” Wilson asked. “She can be as tough as a mule.”
John nodded, put the glass down and drew nervously on his pipe, trying to look casual and sophisticated, trying to look as if asking a father’s permission to marry his daughter were an everyday occurrence.
Wilson hadn’t asked Ellen what she wanted. He simply nodded his head, said “Yes,” and poured another drink. John had been elated, but he hadn’t counted on Ellen’s anger when he told her about the marriage agreement.
“Makes me feel like a cow or horse or something,” she spit out as she turned away from him.
Was it the way I asked, he had wondered. Would she have said “yes” if I had asked her instead of her father or was she sweet on somebody else—maybe Stan? John didn’t dare ask. He had gone after her and tried to explain his motives, but her face was hard and she stormed into the house.
The marriage had taken place but Ellen had glowered into the camera lens. She had Elsie a year later and Naomi a year after that. She performed her wifely duties, cared for the children, cooked the meals and worked hard, but seldom spoke. That had been four years ago. Was she still angry, he wondered. Did she love him? He could not risk asking. But she had come to the barn.
John smelled hay dust and realized Ellen was using the pitchfork to get the evening hay down from the loft.
She waited until he finished and then, carrying the lantern, opened the barn door for him. He carried the bucket of milk—no longer warm. The force of the wind almost knocked him off his feet. He put the bucket down to help Ellen close the door. Glancing in the direction of the house he could see nothing—only swirling snow.
Heads down, holding onto the rope with their right hands, they trudged towards the house. They were within a few feet of the door when Ellen stopped suddenly. Above the wind John heard a strangled sound. He could see a faint outline of the door. It was half-open and there was no light from inside. They stumbled into the house and Ellen held the lantern high, her frantic eyes darting around the room. John could see Naomi in her crib but the little bed next to it was empty.
“Elsie, Elsie!” Ellen called. Naomi started to cry and John hurried over and scooped her up, blankets and all. She was cold. The door had been open for some time.
Could Elsie be hiding under the bed? They looked behind the stove and then under the bed. The small room offered no other hiding places. Naomi continued to wail. Hurrying back outside they braced against the driving wind and called her name, over and over. John shielded his eyes.
“You shouldn’t have left her,” he said sternly and then seeing Ellen’s face, said nothing more. “Stay here,” he commanded, handing Naomi to her. “I’ll look for Elsie.”
He went back into the whiteness, holding the flickering lantern high, calling Elsie’s name. His head filled with a dozen questions. It seemed impossible that little Elsie could have opened the door. She was so small. But he remembered the low oval shaped doorknob. How else would she have gotten out? Could Ellen have left it ajar? No, Ellen was always careful.
John called Elsie’s name against the wind. How long had she been out in that freezing world? Where would she go? She probably woke up, realized they were not there and went out to find them. Which way would she go? He headed back toward the barn branching out on each side of the rope. Calling and looking. Nothing. He retraced his steps and saw Ellen holding the other lantern coming around the side of the house. They both stumbled back in. Naomi was still crying.
“I went around the house,” Ellen said. “Oh John, where is she? She has to be close.”
How far could a little girl get in the snow? He couldn’t bring himself to imagine her in the icy wind—in her nightgown with her little bare feet.
“We’ve got to get help,” he said as he closed the door behind him. “Maybe she went up to the Nelson’s.”
“That’s half a mile,” Ellen replied. “She wouldn’t go there.”
“We have to have help,” he said resolutely. “I’ll go get Horace and Sadie and their kids. Then we’ll all look. Stay in the house and I’ll be right back.”
Babe snorted as John led her out of the stall. He grabbed a handful of mane and swung himself onto her back feeling her warmth through his wet pants. He dug in his heels and whooped. She launched up the hill in the direction of the Nelson’s house.
He banged on the door and a disheveled Horace Nelson opened it. In quick bursts, John explained the situation, and the Nelsons were hurriedly throwing on coats as John rode Babe back down the hill.
As he approached the house he could see a figure through the snow a little to the east of the barn, walking and calling. Ellen hadn’t stayed in the house. He hadn’t really expected her to.
“We’ll spread out from the house and look in all directions,” Horace said. “Her footprints will be gone. Look for mounds of snow or anything that moves.”
John’s eyes ached. Everything was white and blinding. How had he ever thought
this country was beautiful? How long could someone survive in this weather? The lump in his throat grew with the frantic feeling in his stomach. “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” the blood drummed in his temples. He glanced at the others to his left and right. They trudged heads down, eyes searching.
Horace’s voice reached him faintly above the wind. “She couldn’t have gotten this far. Let’s head back and look again. She has to be closer to the house.”
John turned with the others and searched the whiteness. In some places the wind had created huge drifts, in others the snow was only about six inches deep. As the house loomed ahead of him he heard Horace’s fifteen-year-old son yell, “Here!”
John ran. Matthew was brushing the snow away from a small mound under a top-heavy clump of sagebrush. It was Elsie, and she was very still and white. John scooped her up and ran for the house. He deposited her in Ellen’s lap, which was occupied, at that moment, by Naomi.
Ellen embraced Elsie with her left arm and handed Naomi to Sadie Nelson. Her tears were falling on the white-blue limbs. “She’s alive. Thank God she’s alive,” Ellen breathed.
Elsie seemed to be struggling for breath and didn’t respond. Concern replaced relief on Ellen’s face. “Get a blanket off the bed,” she yelled. She tried to straighten Elsie’s rigid legs but they were pulled up tight against her small body.
Ellen undressed her, struggling to remove the wet clothes over stiff arms and legs. All the time she talked, “Elsie wake up. Mama’s here. Wake up.” The whiteness of Elsie’s little body gave John a sick feeling in his stomach. It looked as if even her blood had frozen, and turned white. Elsie opened her green eyes but the pupils were fixed. They didn’t focus.
Ellen held Elsie tightly, trying desperately to give the little girl some of her own body heat. “Wake up Elsie. Mama’s here. Wake up!” Ellen pleaded. Elsie struggled, but her eyes seemed to roll up in her head. Ellen caught her breath. She moved the blanket and rubbed the stiff legs gently.
John became aware of Horace, his wife and gangly sons standing awkwardly, crowded between the wooden table and the bed.
“Rub her with snow to get the circulation going,” Sadie suggested. “And you might try giving her some warm milk.
Horace nodded. Ellen continued to rub the little legs and talk to Elsie while John poured some of the milk from the bucket into a small cup and put it on the stove. Then he went outside to get some snow. He returned immediately with the snow in a bucket but Ellen looked at it doubtfully.
“She’s so cold,” Ellen said. “I don’t want to put any more snow on her. I can’t seem to warm her up.”
“Don’t warm her up too fast,” warned Sadie. “It’s better to warm her up slow. Frostbite won’t be so bad.” Ellen nodded, reluctantly rubbed a leg with a little snow, talking to her unresponsive daughter as she did.
John turned and walked abruptly outside. “Christ,” he said, slamming his fist into the wall. The door opened and Horace and his two boys filed out and stood looking out into the darkness.
“Maybe she got too cold,” Horace said. “It may take a while for her to wake up. We’ll go home, but Sadie will stay. Come on up if you need us.”
John nodded. He watched them mount the stamping horses and turned back into the small one-room house. Desperation grew as hour after hour passed with little change. If anything Elsie’s breathing grew shallower. She wasn’t awake enough to drink the warm milk and the blue tinge to her skin had deepened.
John thought about going for a doctor, but the closest doctor was fifteen miles away, and in this blizzard John knew he would never find the town. Besides, what would the doctor do? Probably nothing more than Ellen was already doing.
When he went back into the house, Sadie Nelson was sitting quietly holding the exhausted Naomi, and giving a few suggestions. Following her advice, they dipped Elsie’s rigid body in lukewarm water and bundled her up again. John put a few pieces of kindling on the coals to sustain the heat in the stove.
Beyond that, John didn’t know what to do. A man should know how to take care of his family. Elsie had made it through the influenza siege of 1918 when so many babies and older people had died. She had been fine, and now she was dying just because she had wandered out into the snow. He reached out to touch Ellen’s shoulder. “I’ll sit with her,” he said. But Ellen didn’t hear or feel him.
Suddenly Elsie gasped and stopped breathing. Ellen shook her. “Elsie, wake up. Wake up!” Elsie’s ragged breath caught, and she inhaled, but her breath was shallow and irregular. Then she gasped again and was silent. Ellen shook the little body again frantically. “Wake up! Wake up!”
John heard the frenzy and fear in her voice. Elsie didn’t respond. Ellen shook her again and called her name. Then her voice choked and he saw Ellen’s shoulders shake with silent sobs. It was then that he heard a high cry of anguish and realized that it was coming from his own throat. He clamped his mouth shut and watched Ellen as she held Elsie and rocked back and forth, back and forth.
Another emotion flooded his chest—beyond the grief, there was embarrassment. He glanced quickly at Sadie’s averted face, opened the door and walked outside. He felt the cut of the icy wind on his neck and he grasped the rope and walked to the barn. His fist slammed into the heavy board of the stall and Babe nervously moved to the far side—
eyes rolling. His eyes smarted and he swore. “Should have been a boy anyway,” he said as he kicked the stall. “Have to be tough out here.”
Then he cried. Deep, wrenching sobs in the darkness where no one would hear above the howl of the wind. Thirty minutes later, he calmed his breathing and forced himself to return to the house.
Sadie had her back to him and was mixing something in a tin bowl. Naomi had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep and the house was silent. The gray, muted light of dawn was still hours away. How could one night change the whole world? John wondered
Tears flowed unchecked down Ellen’s face but she was silent. He ached to reach out to her but he was not sure of her response.
“She was so cold. I just couldn’t warm her up,” Ellen said brokenly. “I should have stayed with her but I didn’t think she could get out. She was sound asleep.”
John nodded, knowing it was not her fault. If she hadn’t been worried about me, he thought. If she hadn’t come looking for me . . .
“I had that feeling,” she continued. John said nothing. He touched her hand on the arm of the rocking chair and she let it stay.
This story was published online in June of 2015 in Elsewhere.
Lunch at Romano’s Grill
Madeline walked out in the middle of sacrament meeting with her eyes blazing, her mouth set in a firm line and her hands gripping her large black purse. Her friends and fellow church members glanced at her casually, and then glanced back. She could see the questions in their eyes, but without a nod or a shrug, she looked away and resolutely focused on the chapel door.
By the time Madeline stepped outside the church, she was shaking. She wanted to attribute it to anger but she wasn’t sure she could fairly categorize her feelings. Anger? Frustration? Outrage? Still, she realized, it might just as easily be embarrassment, humiliation or old fashioned guilt.
She stood uncertainly outside the door for a few seconds, and then making up her mind, headed for her car. She had only taken a few steps when she realized she didn’t have a key. She usually left her key on the ring by the kitchen door on Sunday mornings. Frank always drove.
“What do you need a car key for?” he had asked and she had agreed that, at least on Sunday, she didn’t need a key.
In fact, since Frank’s retirement, she seldom needed her keys at all. While he was gracious about driving her to appointments and around town, he made a point of letting her know that he had “things to do.” But he assured her, he was “more than happy to drive her where she needed to go.” Madeline knew she should appreciate his kindness, but she missed the independence she felt while driving herself.
Her feet hurt and she leaned against a gray Camry and considered her options. She could go back into church and ask Frank for the keys. She would be a distraction again and she knew Frank would not surrender the keys without first putting his hand on hers, looking soulfully into her eyes and asking softly, “What’s the matter?” No, she would not go back and ask for the keys.
It was a warm day in May and she briefly considered walking the five miles to their home near the feed mill, but immediately dismissed that idea. Even if she could walk that far, she knew the pain in her arthritic knee would be unbearable and she would be taking ibuprofen for the next week as penance.
Going back into the church and sitting in the foyer was not an option either. There would be questions from concerned friends, and she didn’t have the words to make them understand. Leaning on the Camry, Madeline looked to her left and saw the storefronts of Manti. The church had been built on land just outside of town, but Manti was growing and would soon envelop the building.
She pushed off from the warm car and walked slowly to the sidewalk and turned left. She would walk toward town, maybe window shop. She would be back standing by the car when church was over. Hopefully by then, she would think of something to say to Frank.
Madeline’s knee was beginning to hurt by the time she reached the first store front. If I can find a drinking fountain, I’ll take a Motrin, she thought. She was always prepared. She carried Motrin, Advil, Pepto-Bismol and Imodium in her purse. All the stores had “Closed” signs posted in the windows. Two cars drove slowly down Main Street but there was no other activity.
Manti, Utah was a small town built under the imposing shadow of the stately Manti Temple. The temple stood on the only hill in the region and dominated the entire landscape. Driving home from Salt Lake, Madeline knew the exact curve in the road when the temple would come into view, hovering on the horizon. She had seen it in winter, set against the slate-gray sky and on hot summer evenings when it had the iridescence of an opal. She had seen its rich cream color offset by drifted white snow and cradled by flowering cherry trees. She had seen the pageant performed on its sloping lawns. The temple had been her heritage for the twenty years she had lived in Manti and she loved the beauty and strength it represented.
Did the proximity of the temple influence the decision of store owners to close their businesses on Sundays? Madeline wondered about that. She knew that many of the businesses in Salt Lake, Ogden and Provo, Utah remained open on Sunday. Even some of the stores in the small outlying communities had Sunday hours now. Manti was one of the last holdouts – and proud of it.
As Madeline neared the center of town she saw several cars parked along the street at the intersection of Main Street and Elm and a small group of people standing on the sidewalk, talking. She noted they were in jeans and tee shirts. Curious, she kept walking and suddenly she smelled the food. The aroma of herbs, garlic, tomato sauce, and freshly baked bread washed over her and her mouth watered. She knew she shouldn’t be hungry. It wasn’t Fast Sunday and she had eaten her bowl of Raisin Bran. Still, sacrament meeting had started at eleven o’clock and her stomach growled.
I know why the people are here, she thought. It’s the new Italian restaurant that just opened a couple of weeks ago – or was it a couple of months ago? Madeline couldn’t remember. Although she and Frank sometimes ate out, it was seldom in their hometown.
“Why pay money to eat out when your food is better?” Frank had asked with a smile.
So usually, the only time they ate out was when they were traveling. However, Madeline had friends that had eaten at the new Italian restaurant and had told her the food was good; but they hadn’t told her it was open on Sunday. A restaurant open on Sunday in Manti, Utah.
She walked slowly down the block until she could see the A-frame sign on the sidewalk. “Romano’s Grill” was written in calligraphy and the specials were written in black felt tip pen. Her gaze lingered on the sign. Lasagna was on the lunch special for only $4.99. Frank didn’t like lasagna so she rarely fixed it, but lasagna was her favorite Italian dish.
Madeline stopped walking and turned to face the window of the hardware store next to her. She needed to think. She had to get some water to take the Motrin. The café would have water, she reasoned. It would be perfectly acceptable to walk in and ask for a glass of water and leave, more acceptable than walking out of church. How was she going to face Frank after her striding out of sacrament meeting?
And then she allowed herself to think about sitting in that dark little café and listening to other people’s conversations – people wearing jeans and tee shirts on Sunday. She thought about eating the spicy lasagna, by herself, in her Sunday dress.
She shifted her weight off of her sore knee and her reflection in the window moved. The old woman in the window stared back at her. Madeline saw the beginning of jowls on the broad Scandinavian face. She saw a short, squat body with the telltale bulge over the belt of the blue floral dress. She saw the mother of six grown children and the grandmother of eleven. She saw the wife of the retired farmer, a farmer who wanted to go on a Church mission to some God forsaken place on Earth. She saw a mortal woman with a generous helping of rebellion in her eyes. What she didn’t see was endless years ahead.
She searched those defiant eyes for a moment and then walked resolutely down the block to the café. Madeline walked purposefully through the door while several customers glanced up at her and took in her Sunday dress and low white pumps. A thin girl in a clinging black tee shirt and tight black jeans directed her to a booth and returned with a glass of ice water and a brightly colored menu.
Madeline dug out her pills, took two, and then settled back to read the menu. She ordered the lasagna with garlic bread, and a pink lemonade. As the waitress was leaving she said quickly, “Wait, can I order dessert now?”
“Sure,” the girl said, and flashed her a smile filled with braces. “What do you want?”
“A piece of strawberry cheesecake,” Madeline said. “If I wait, I might talk myself out of it.”
The girl nodded and laughed. “The cheesecake is really good.”
Madeline looked around the café. Most of the people were young and dressed casually. One couple had a cute red-headed toddler who seemed intent on painting her highchair and face with spaghetti sauce. Madeline smiled — she remembered.
She had a few quiet minutes to think about the sacrament meeting and the spectacle she had made of herself. Brother Nelson was a good man. She knew that. He had enjoyed his mission to Kentucky and he wanted everyone else to have the same opportunity. She knew that too.
But his statement that older couples who enjoyed good health, were duty-bound to go on a mission, had hit her wrong. True, he had the right to his opinion but he hadn’t stated it as opinion. He had stated it as doctrine. He had gone on to ask how older couples could turn down such an opportunity when years before, they had encouraged their sons and daughters to go on missions. It was at this juncture that Frank had turned to her, squeezed her hand and nodded his head. There was a smile on his face but it was smug and knowing. He, the Lord and Brother Nelson were all on the same side. Then there was her side, and standing on that side was, who? Just me, she thought and grimaced. Just me. The smug smile and the nod of his head had made her furious. She had stood up and walked out. She hadn’t glanced at Frank’s face to see if he had any idea what had precipitated her exodus.
Madeline sipped her ice water. I’ll talk to him after Church, she thought, but I know what he will say. He will say he just nodded and smiled and I invented all the rest. And, anyone knowing Frank, will believe him.
Madeline sighed and looked at her placemat. Maybe I did invent it. What’s wrong with me? But she knew. It was the expectation that had wound around her like the silk thread of a cocoon. She had twisted and struggled but she was still wrapped tight, swinging from the branch, waiting.
It was the expectation that now that she had raised six active children and spent hundreds of hours in service to the Church, that she would be anxious to move away from her children and grandchildren and be a good example of unselfish service. That she would want to spend eighteen months working with strangers – children of God – she corrected herself, in Kentucky, or Tennessee or Iowa or some faraway place that she had no interest in seeing. She saw that expectation in Frank’s blue eyes, and in the eyes of her friends.
Some of those friends had confided that they would “love” to go on a mission but their husband’s health wouldn’t allow it. She knew there were others who had responsibilities that prevented them from going. But we could go, she thought. She bit her lip. Her guilt and anger were evenly balanced.
And then the lasagna arrived and Madeline forgot everything except the flavor of the fresh sun dried tomatoes and the mushrooms in the spicy herbal sauce. The garlic bread was slathered with butter and when she bit into it, the butter ran down her chin. She quickly grabbed her napkin and caught it before it dripped onto her dress. How would I explain that? she wondered.
She forced herself to eat slowly and savor each bite. It was a very different experience from the hurried meals she and Frank ate when they traveled. And as she had suspected, she was full before the cheesecake arrived. There’s no sense in wasting it, she reasoned as she pushed the uneaten portion of lasagna aside. The cheesecake melted on her tongue and she ate it all. She looked longingly at the remaining lasagna but didn’t know how she could stand by the car waiting for Frank to come out of church, with a restaurant box in her hand.
She settled back in the booth and glanced out the window to her left. She could see the temple from where she sat – serene and solid. “Yep, you’re still there,” she said softly, “Like Frank.”I need to be solid too, she thought. I have to find the words to make him understand that I don’t want to go on a mission out of duty, and right now that’s the only reason I would be going.
Madeline picked up the tab and looked at her watch. Relief Society is half over, she thought ruefully. I’ve missed Cindy’s lesson. Cindy, with her enthusiastic attitude and her well prepared lessons, was her favorite Relief Society teacher. Next month, she thought. I’ll catch her next month.
Madeline left a generous tip for the girl in black, paid for her lunch and then walked slowly back up the street toward the church. Do I smell like garlic? she wondered.
But as she walked, she wasn’t remorseful. The lasagna was a stowaway in her stomach. If Frank asked her where she had gone, she would tell him window-shopping. If he smelled the food and asked if she had eaten lunch, she would tell him she had. She knew, sooner or later, she would tell him about Romano’s Grill and the sacrament meeting exit. But later would be better.
Madeline’s knee no longer hurt as she walked back past the dark storefronts. Things change, she thought. There might be a time when I would want to go on a mission. There might be – but not today. She looked up at the temple and quit twisting, and the silk loosened. She felt full and comfortable and surprisingly happy. I shouldn’t feel happy, she thought. I shouldn’t. But she smiled as she walked steadily toward the church building.
This story was published on-line by Segullah in 2010.
Mocking Bird Song
“They’re the weirdest people I’ve ever worked with,” Diane announced, as she flounced into the real estate office and dropped into her designer office chair. If that exclamation hadn’t caught the attention of the other secretaries and agents; then the hot wave of humid Texas air, from the recently opened door, did.
“You know Reynolds just dropped the price on their house and. . .” There were blank looks from the listeners. “I emailed you,” Diane said impatiently. “Anyway they came down seven grand – sweet deal! And the Martins had to go home and pray before making an offer. Can you believe that? As if God cared where they lived or which house they bought. May as well shake the voodoo bones.”
There were knowing chuckles and nodding heads and one agent said, “I had a couple like that once. Had to pray over every decision – even their French fries.”
“Freedom fries,” one of the secretaries chimed in and everyone laughed again.
I had said nothing during the interchange, but I had joined in the laughter – after all, what did that hurt? Still, something nagged at me when I returned to my office – an itch that couldn’t be scratched.
I had been in the Houston area only six months and was still getting used to the southern humidity and the changes in my life. One of the big changes had been returning to the workforce, after spending fifteen years as a stay-at-home mother.
My husband’s company had suddenly downsized and he had been unemployed for six months. The job he landed in Texas, had been an answer to prayer, but the six months had taken its toll. I needed a job to pay our outstanding debts. I was grateful when my fifth interview landed me a secretarial position with a small real estate company and I went to work in a four agent office.
My boss, Diane Konklin, was the lead agent. She had been inducted into the “Million Dollar Club” in 2001, when she had sold more than a million dollars in real estate. Even though she was ten years younger than my forty-five years, her real estate knowledge and over-all confidence intimidated me. She lived in a large home in one of the more exclusive areas in Houston and dressed in smart suits and brand name shoes, but that wasn’t what impressed me. It was her quick wit, her financial savvy and her sophisticated lifestyle. And I knew right off that I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that biting wit.
It didn’t take me long to learn that she was recently divorced, loved golf and had no room for religion or other “nonsense” in her busy life. She was a long ways from my conservative Mid-west roots. Still, I wanted to make good on my return to the workforce, and I wanted Diane’s approval
During the days that followed, I thought a lot about my laughter and my response to Diane’s comment. Could I believe that the Martins wanted to pray before making an offer on a house? Of course I could. My husband and I had always prayed before making major decisions and I was teaching my children to do the same. Still, I had
joined in the laughter and said nothing. Nothing that might make me seem as “weird” as they were.
As I pondered, I realized that my real failing at work was not in what I was doing, but in what I was not doing. I wasn’t being open about who I really was – someone who prayed over everyday decisions, went to church on Sunday and tried to live a Christ-like life. When Diane and the other staff members talked about their weekends, did I mention that I had spent my weekend on an outing with a youth group from my church or that we had a great meeting on Sunday? No, I didn’t share my weekends. I laughed at jokes that were not quite appropriate and didn’t discuss practices or ideas that I thought Diane and my co-workers might find odd.
Was I ashamed? Of course not. It was just that I didn’t want to be annoying to my co-workers. I was showing them respect and being nonjudgmental about the way they lived their lives. At least that’s what I told myself. But in the quiet of my room at night, I had to admit that none of them really knew who or what I was – a practicing Christian. I was fast becoming the queen of rationalization and I was liking myself less and less.
It was the song of a bird that turned me around. We were renting an older home in the Houston area and we had large pecan and persimmon trees in our yard. Upon our arrival, we noticed the many birds in our trees and in the nearby park. My husband enjoyed them so much that he renewed his latent interest in bird watching. He had even purchased a book about birds that frequented the Houston area, and he was trying to educate me on recognizing the birds and their songs.
One evening as we were sitting on our back patio, waiting for our children to come home from an after-school activity, I heard a bird singing nearby. I listened intently and then turned to my husband, “Carolina Chickadee” I announced proudly.
Barry listened for a minute as the bird repeated the notes and then shook his head. “No,” he said. “Mockingbird.”
“How can you tell?” I asked. “It sounds like a chickadee to me.”
“It’s just a little different. A mature mockingbird can imitate almost two hundred bird songs and can even make mechanical sounds.”
“Wow,” I said. “But, don’t they have a song of their own?”
Barry put down the magazine he was reading and leaned back in his plastic chair. “Yes, they do. They have one of the most lyrical songs of any bird in North America and they’re the state bird of Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, as well as Texas,” he said, ticking the states off on his fingers. “I don’t know why they are so intent on mimicking other songs, when their own is so beautiful.”
I was about to respond when we heard the bang of the front door and Barry went into the house to see the kids. I sat in the fading light and thought about what he had said. Mockingbirds spend much of their lives mimicking other birds, instead of singing their own song. I was a mockingbird at work — trying to sound like something I wasn’t.
When I returned to work the next morning, I had made the decision to sing my own song – the special one God had given me. I began telling my co-workers about my weekends and other aspects of my life. I didn’t preach or judge, I just sang my own song. And my co-workers accepted me for who I was, and life in the office continued on its normal course. Diane might have been a little surprised at my sudden openness, but if she was, she didn’t say anything. Maybe she could tell the difference between a mimicked song and a real one.
This story was published in “War Cry” the magazine published by The Salvation Army