By Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 33 - Problems
Copyright Scott Dunbar 2010
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Throwing mail into numerous pouches aboard a train while it thundered through the night was not a vocation calculated to promote good health. Turning night into day, consuming dubious food against time at railroad eating houses, then loafing till the run began, took its toll on Maynard’s health. Mother was the first to see the warning sign. When Brother was home she always baked specialties that he liked.
“Why don’t you eat the nice piece of pie that I made specially for you?”
she inquired of him one day.
“Oh, I’m not quite so strong on pie as I used to be, Mommy. I’m getting as critical of my food as a spoiled puppy,”
Mother was suspicious.
“Maybe the railroad travel has something to do with it?”
“That’s no joke!”
“When you’ve only ten or fifteen minutes to eat, and a greasy lay-out fit for a ditch-digger is set in front of you, you bolt the stuff and wash it down with scalding coffee and my stomach’s just too darned particular for that kind of abuse.”
Mother didn’t forget. Before he left on his next run she implanted the seed.
“What would you think of trying for another position? I’m sure Mr. Abbott would help you get one. You think it over.”
Mother had a strong influence over Mayne and her suggestion bore fruit. When his next lay-off arrived, Maynard went to interview Mr. Abbott and decided to try for a position in the postal department in Washington, D.C. He had had experience in the railway mail service and previous to that had worked in the Springfield Post Office. Now he gathered his credentials from men who had known him all his life and forwarded them to the capital of the Nation. Months slipped by; then official notification that a place was waiting for him arrived, and the family went into alternate thanksgiving and mourning. His service was to begin as soon as possible. We women snapped into position and began the assembling of his personal belongings. The proverbial stitch in time was taken, and articles were packed that would help make a furnished room in a strange city seem a little bit of home.
The train left at night from North Springfield and the members of the family accompanied him to the station. I can still see clearly the small kerosene lamp smoking in its socket on the streetcar drawn by two mules that plied between our end of town and the depot. We were sunk in dejection as we sat close together and tried to be gay. Though we believed that the Washington post was a promotion for Mayne and a door to adventure, we had no illusions as to our own lot without him. We reached the station platform early and while we waited in the summer night for the whistle that heralded the ‘Frisco’s’ coming, we walked up and down the station platform in an attempt to seem casual about the affair.
“Write us as soon as you get there,”
Mama instructed as Mayne swung himself and his bag on to the train and the conductor called:
We stood on the platform as long as the train was in sight, waving hands that Maynard could not see as we swallowed lumps of grief that had collected in our throats. There was no need now to conceal our tears and we clung together and climbed aboard the mule car for the return trip home. It was unthinkable that Mayne might be leaving us for all time and before the end of the streetcar jaunt we had shaken out our silver linings. We were a cheerfully-inclined lot by nature.
Letters immediately began to fill the mailbox. Mayne was a facile correspondent and, knowing no one in Washington, he explored interesting places and shared them with his family. His letters were events and we passed them out among our friends, and the newspapers published them.
At home we didn’t fare so well. Father felt uncomfortable over Maynard’s removal to Washington, though he only half shared the old Welsh tradition that sons should earn their living at sixteen or be turned out of the home. He had talked so much about children’s duty to their parents that it was impossible for us or him to forget.
To add to Mary’s and my personal anxieties, the school situation in which we found ourselves was not to our liking. The golden aura that lights school days I have always regarded as an illusion. Certainly never in my most sentimental moments have I wanted to relive mine. School was so colored by my teacher’s mood (a fickle thing at best) that I only enjoyed it when for brief moments I felt secure in her approval. One of Mother’s Presbyterian friends, an enormous woman who led Bible class at church, also taught sixth grade at Central School. She had a rubber overshoe, which she used in exasperated moments. Without regards for proprieties, she turned big boys and girls across her lap as if they were babies. When she said ‘good morning, Una’ to me as I passed upstairs or down the hall, my feet all but tripped over one another in the eagerness to get me out of her zone of terror. When I looked back at her from the stairs I imagined that I could see a witch’s peaked hat perched over her masculine features. Another teacher, Mary Bell, had a habit of tying the girls to her table. Every day I was afraid that I would be the next victim to be on a leash. Such thoughts polka-dotted my school days like smallpox. I never told of these things at home. I tried to forget them and if I had a peevish answer from a teacher I never committed the error of asking a question a second time. I asked a less horny person to clarify my problem. For the most part I went along swimmingly. I was quick and interested in acquiring information. When something came up that I didn’t understand I asked Lilly or Mother about it; not Father, his answers were too elaborate. I confess that I hadn’t much confidence in their way of doing things. They never computed like the teachers but they could clear up the commoner mysteries.
Mary was even more scared than I to ask questions, and when she was studying percentage Lilly discovered her with her cuffs all marked with figures.
“Mary, what under the sun are you doing with all the figures on your cuffs?”
“I can’t work my problems any other way,”
Mary said frankly.
Lilly was horrified and led Mary to tell her the whole story. It seems that Mary was afraid to admit that she hadn’t mastered the fundamentals of the process so she had been copying the problems of a girl who stood next to her at the blackboard. Then one day her model made a mistake so Mary did too. The teacher must have discovered her plight but if so she did nothing to alleviate it and Mary became more and more enmeshed.
Lilly saw her duty quickly and clearly. That night she sat beside Mary until the whole bewildering process was cleared for all time. After that I am sure that she preached a small sermon. Lilly was deadly moral. Then Mary’s cuffs were scoured and she went to be ready to take a fresh start on the morrow. Mary’s mathematical slip terrified me and I wondered how I would ever get along. Fortunately the things I worried about were seldom as bad as they had been painted. It was the unexpected that cause my palpitations.
One of Lilly’s friends had a banjo he was not using and, thinking I might have fun with it, he brought it to the house and showed me a few chords. Father was pleased to have me do something different so he engaged a teacher for me but the teacher knew so little about music that he was dismissed. However I picked up enough information by myself to play accompaniments and with the aid of a wire frame to support my harmonica I was able to blow the ‘Irish Washerwoman’ and ‘Ole Black Joe’ right into eighth grade. I must have looked like an animated cartoon while I was in action. The banjo was several sizes too large and when I’d get a running start, the bridge was sure to fall with a snap that scared me. Then I would catch my breath on the intake and run my mouth along the harmonica that was set between two pins like corn on the cob. My face purpled under the strain too but I didn’t mind. I was having such a grand blow. In a pianoless schoolroom this stunt proved a popular diversion and about Christmas time I was invited to repeat it at, what was to me, an important school function. I was so delighted I gave somewhat the effect of a lighted candle and set about mastering a new Spanish Fandango for the occasion.
I hadn’t thought about clothes until I learned that most of the girls were having new dresses for the show. The slipknot on Father’s purse had been discarded for a more impregnable one and since I was no Houdini, I had scant hope of untying it in time for a new frock. I put the problem to Mother and rummaging among her possessions she found some organdy and out of it fashioned for me a charming embroidery-trimmed apron. Aprons were stylish for girls at the moment and if I couldn’t have a new dress, I could have an apron. Then one day in a flash of anger, Father locked my apron away in his library table. Depriving us of things was one of Father’s pet minor punishments. He was a great gift giver but after the first blush was over if our conduct fell short of expectations, he would take it back again (‘Indian giving’ we called it) and we might not see it again. That was what I feared now.
I was heartbroken as the important date drew near.
“Never mind, dear, we’ll manage some way.”
Mother said by way of encouragement. I had unlimited confidence in Mother but I was unhappy to the core of my being. Both our parents had the Biblical attitude of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child,’ which they freely sidestepped without apparently being aware of it. Mother was the true ‘female of the species’ too and when the happiness of her offspring was concerned would draw weapons with anybody.
Father did not relent and up to the day before the performance, no solution seemed clear. All the way home from school I wondered what we would do and when I reached the house I went straight to Mother.
“Mommy, I don’t want to play tomorrow if I have to wear my old clothes,”
I said, close to tears.
“You won’t have to, dear,”
Mother said getting up from her chair.
“We’re going to get your apron right now.”
Up the stairs she started and I wondered how she could be so confident. I followed close behind as she walked into the room that she and Father occupied. Father’s table had two tiers of drawers above and two below on each side, with a shelf between. We tried a number of schemes unsuccessfully, then opened one drawer that was not locked and juggling through the top, poked the precious apron out through a crack. I think Mother enjoyed outwitting Father but I didn’t. I hated doing such a thing. I wore the apron, however, with eclat, whammed out the Fandango on the banjo, blew soft airs over the company and wished I could be indifferent, but I wasn’t. Father never mentioned the incident nor did we.
Cymric Strain, by Una Howell (USA - circa 1880)
Chapter 1 - Introduction
Chapter 2 - Father
Chapter 3 - Dartmouth
Chapter 4 - Killolog
Chapter 5 - America
Chapter 6 - Arrival
Chapter 7 - Gracious Living
Chapter 8 - I Am Born
Chapter 9 - My Name
Chapter 10 - Neighbors
Chapter 11 - The Cyclone
Chapter 12 - The Old Cemetary
Chapter 13 - Music
Chapter 14 - Religion
Chapter 15 - The Circuit
Chapter 16 - Hero No. 1
Chapter 17 - Pageantry
Chapter 18 - Mommy
Chapter 19 - Mental Quirks
Chapter 20 - Decoration
Chapter 21 - Domestic Animals
Chapter 22 - Episode
Chapter 23 - Barn Life
Chapter 24 - Vanities
Chapter 25 - Happy Hollow
Chapter 26 - New Horizons
Chapter 27 - Disciplines
Chapter 28 - An Experimenter
Chapter 29 - Health
Chapter 30 - Murder
Chapter 31 - Misunderstandings
Chapter 32 - Charm
Chapter 33 - Problems
Chapter 34 -Coming Events, Etc.
Chapter 35 - The Wedding
Chapter 36 - At Home
Chapter 37 - Cross Currents
Chapter 38 - A Baby
Chapter 39 - Dr. Winston
Chapter 40 - The Visitor
Chapter 41 - Buffetings
Chapter 42 - Agenda
Chapter 43 - David
Chapter 44 - Exit