As Clean As Soap and Water, First Place Adult Division
By Sherri George
“Well,” said Mama as she looked out the kitchen window, “here they come again. Just in time, of course.”
I knew who “they” were. My aunt and uncle had started showing up for dinner every Sunday a few months before, bringing my cousins with them. Mama sighed. “Marie, get us another jar of beans from the cellar. And some applesauce, please.”
As I went out into the May sunshine and lifted the cellar door, our visitors drove up in a shiny black car I hadn’t seen before. They got out, straightening their Sunday clothes: Daddy’s brother Uncle John in a dark suit and fedora; Aunt Louise wearing a green dress coat and black straw hat; fat eight-year-old Willie in knee pants and a white shirt; and Katherine, twelve like I was, in a pink frock and patent-leather shoes. Katherine came straight for me. “Marie, look. Papa got us a brand new car. A 1933 Chevrolet.”
I didn’t care a rap for their new car, but I tried to smile the kind way Mama did. “That’s nice.”
“When is your papa going to get you a new car?”
I could have kicked her in the knee. Our 1919 Model T truck waited in the barn, refusing to start. We rode to Twin Falls couple times a month in a wagon behind our draft horses Primmy and Pet. “Pretty soon, I guess. You want to come down in the cellar with me?”
Katherine shrank away as if I had showed her a snake. “That nasty old place? No!” She sashayed into the house.
I went down the steep wooden steps and pulled the string on the single bulb. Sure, the cellar was dim and shadowy, with a dirt floor and dark concrete walls, but jars shone on the white-painted shelves: cucumber and beet pickles, peaches and applesauce, pressure-canned corn and beans and beef. Bushel baskets of potatoes, apples, and onions lined the floor. On August days when heat rippled across our crops, I crept into the cellar’s damp coolness with a book and a glass of lemonade. Not nasty at all. I picked out a quart jar of string beans and one of applesauce, and added a pint of bread-and-butter pickles for Daddy.
I brought the jars up from the cellar. As I went through the door, our cattle dog Sophie and her six half-grown pups scrambled into the kitchen. Aunt Louise hugged her fur collar closer around her. “Oh Ann, how can you let those filthy creatures in the house?”
“The boys sneak them in, and they think they’re allowed in any time. Get out, Sophie, shoo. Shoo.” Mama herded the pups down the back steps.
“I want one of those puppies!” cousin Willie said.
“Oh no, darling, we shall never have a dog.” Aunt Louise’s lip curled. “They carry horrible germs. Especially in the mouth.”
“I guess some parts of them might have even more germs,” Mama said. “Louise, we’re just sitting down to dinner. I hope you’ll join us.”
Aunt Louise took off her coat and started unpinning her hat. “Well, if you insist.”
Mama had already set the dining room table with her wedding china. I had laid the silver, admiring its shine. Usually, even on Sunday, we ate in the kitchen from our regular mismatched dishes. But nowadays my brothers Junior, Charlie, and Forrest and I perched on the big straight backed chairs with their prickly horsehair seats and tried to mind our manners.
Willie and Katherine didn’t try. They refused the green beans, made pills out of Mama’s fresh baked bread and threw them at each other, and helped themselves to the best pieces of chicken, though they only took a bite or two. I watched Mama’s mouth harden into a line and promised myself that I would never, never allow my brothers to act that way.
“Ann, you always set such a lovely table,” Aunt Louise said. “How do you get your china so spotless?”
“It’s as clean as soap and water can get it,” Mama answered.
“It’s a miracle, on this farm with all the dust and dirty animals.”
Daddy cleared his throat. “Hmmm. So, John, how was the sermon this morning?”
Uncle John peered through his spectacles. “The preacher spoke at length on ‘when Adam delved and Eve span,’ and the fitness of men and women keeping to their appointed tasks.”
“I hope he added a line from Proverbs,” Daddy said, looking at Mama. “’Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.’”
Mama nodded to him, lowing her eyes, then picked up a serving dish. “More potatoes, anyone?”
Finally Mama brought dessert: applesauce warmed on the back of the stove, topped with cinnamon and whipped cream. My brothers and I loved applesauce, but Willie hollered, “I hate that! I hate that!”
“Now Willie dear,” said Aunt Louise, “I’m sure it’s very nice.”
“I won’t eat it!”
I glanced at Uncle John. Daddy would have dragged us from the table by whatever body part was closest to him, but Uncle John lowered his eyes and gnawed at a chicken bone.
Katherine tossed her head. “I’m sure I saw a cake in the cupboard.”
My heart jumped like a toad. I had made that cake myself earlier in the morning, beating the egg whites by hand until they foamed and glistened. It was meant to be a surprise for Daddy tonight while we listened to the radio.
“Ann, you wouldn’t mind if the children had a bit of cake? You know how delicate their digestion is. I’ll just get it, you needn’t trouble yourself.” She reached into the cabinet and took a couple of china bread plates, then clattered into the kitchen on her high heels.
Mama kept dishing bowls of applesauce and cream for the rest of us, her cheeks red in her white face. My brothers and I ate in silence while Willie sniffled. Aunt Louise returned with a plate in each hand, heaping with my butter cake.
Katherine nibbled hers daintily. Willie pushed his away. “I want chocolate! I want chocolate!”
“Just try a bite, Willie dear,” Aunt Louise said.
“No! I hate it!” He shoved the plate aside. It teetered on the edge of the table, then clattered to the floor. Butter cake and shards of china flew.
“Hmm, hmm, we really must be going,” Uncle John said, laying down his napkin. “Delicious as always, Annie. Delicious.”
Aunt Louise took the still-bawling Willie by the hand. “Come along, my poor tired boy. A nap will be just the thing for you.”
“A switch would be just the thing for him,” Junior muttered.
Mama frowned at Junior, but I saw the smile in her eyes.
Uncle John fetched my aunt’s hat and coat, then followed her, Willie, and Katherine through the kitchen. Then came the clatter of toenails. Sophie’s pups boiled into the dining room and dived for Willie’s portion of cake.
“It would serve you fuzzy little fools right to cut your tongues to pieces,” Mama said.
“Guess we won’t need the carpet sweeper,” Charlie said. “They ate up every crumb.” He and Forrest scooped a pup under each arm. Junior herded the rest out.
Mama bent to pick up the broken china. Daddy stood and went to her. “You need some help clearing away, Annie-girl?”
“Marie and I can get it.” She stood staring at the shard of plate in her hand, then ran her finger over it.
I was used to cleaning up after our Sunday visitors. They never offered to help. Mama and I cleared the table, scraped the plates into the hog bucket and set them in the dishwater. “Sorry about your cake,” Mama said.
“There’s still enough for tonight. We can put applesauce and whipped cream on it.”
“You’re a good girl, Marie.” Mama bent and kissed my cheek. She looked again at the pieces of broken china, then tossed them in the trash can.
That evening we gathered around the radio in the front room. Usually we listened to Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy on Sunday nights, but tonight President Roosevelt spoke to us straight from Washington, DC. After a few minutes I picked up my new library book, a Nancy Drew mystery called “The Sign of the Twisted Candles.” The boys played dominoes on the rug. Daddy listened, smoking his pipe, and Mama mended one of his work shirts. After president finished speaking, music played and Bing Crosby began to sing. Mama kept sewing. “We have to do something,” she said. “If they can afford a new car, they can afford their own Sunday dinner.”
“We will not turn anyone away from our home or our table,” Daddy said. “Times are hard all over.”
“I know… but the canned goods are running low. And I hate to see the hogs eat meat and cake of a Sunday night while the kids make do with bread and milk.”
“Well, tonight we had a very fine butter cake with applesauce and whipped cream, thanks to Miss Marie.” Daddy stood up. “Boys, put the bones up and let’s have a song at the piano before bed. The President may be putting young men to work all over the country, but in Idaho young men – and women—already rise early and do honest toil.”
Sometimes Mama played popular songs like “Beyond the Blue Horizon” and “When I Take my Sugar to Tea,” but tonight she opened the Stephen Foster book. “Just a few more days for to tote the weary load,” we sang, and “Ring, ring the banjo,” and finally, “Many days you have lingered around my cabin door, oh, hard times come again no more.”
On Wednesday I went to the barn to milk before school and found that our work horse Primmy had foaled. The boys and I admired the wobbly-kneed creature before we went in for breakfast. “Won’t this be something to show Willie,” Junior said as Mama dished up oatmeal and fresh cream. “He’s got a lot of stuff, but he doesn’t have a colt!”
“We’ll be sure to show him this Sunday,” Mama said. “But keep it a surprise until after dinner, boys.”
The boys waited at the end of the lane for our relatives to arrive that Sunday. As Mama and I set the table, she sang under her breath. “Hard times, hard times come again no more.” Then she looked at me. “Marie, no matter what happens today, you must act as though everything is normal. Like it’s what we do every day. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mama.” I wondered about the warning, the same way I had wondered about the chocolate cake with buttercream icing which she had baked yesterday.
The boys led our cousins in, already playing a game of “Bigger than a Breadbox” with them. Mama and I brought dinner to the table while Daddy and Uncle John discussed President Roosevelt’s farm bill. Katherine and Willie behaved better than usual during dinner, and everyone had a big piece of cake. Finally Mama said, “Why don’t you boys show your cousins the surprise? Ben, maybe John would like to see the new arrival, too. Louise, come in the kitchen and keep us company while we tidy up.”
Aunt Louise sat and watched while Mama and I carried the plates back and scraped them. Then Mama started laying them on the kitchen floor. She nodded to me, and I followed suit.
“Ann, whatever –“ Aunt Louise started.
“Marie, let in the dogs,” Mama said.
I opened the back door. Sophie and her pups bounded in. Pink tongues flew across Mama’s wedding china until not a spot or morsel remained. Aunt Louise made noises of choked horror. Then Mama handed me a dishtowel and bent to pick up the plates. “In the cabinet as usual, dear.”
I made a few swipes at the plates, then stacked them in the china cabinet. Aunt Louise puffed like a bellows. “Ann – Ann – oh dear. Oh.” She put her hand to her throat and staggered out the door. Pretty soon their car started up, and tires crunched gravel.
Daddy came in. “Louise grabbed those kids and stuck them in the car, and kept hollering for John to take them home so they could all gargle with Listerine. What do you think got into her?”
“Hmmm. Maybe something didn’t agree with her. Ben, would you chase these dogs out of here? They’re like the plagues of Egypt.” Mama poured hot water from the boiler into the dishpans. She smiled at me. “Marie, let’s wash those plates properly.”
I didn’t see Katherine at school that week, and the next Sunday, four places sat empty at our table. We ate chicken legs and white meat rather than necks and wings. And after dinner, to my surprise, Daddy stood beside Mama at the dishpans. He lifted the plates out of the steaming water and put them in the drainer. “It was a nice peaceful dinner today. And these are nice clean dishes, Annie.” He grinned.
Mama winked over her shoulder at me. “As clean as Sophie – I mean soap and water can get them.”