FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE
Bettye H. Galloway
Since Nell had lost her father and Ella had lost her husband, things had gotten progressively worse in the New’s household. Ella’s attitude toward Nell, never good, was even more mean-spirited, and with no paycheck coming in, food was in short supply. Christmas had been no different from any other day, except that Nell didn’t have to go to school. That was no treat, because she enjoyed the classes, but most of all the school day gave her some measure of relief from Ella. Her days were pleasant, but her afternoons were something else! She listened to Ella’s tirades, brought in the firewood and milked the cow, cleaned the house and helped with the meals. Finally she would fall into bed, tired and still hungry—there never seemed to be enough to eat. Several times a week her only supper was a bowl of bread and milk, and sometimes there wasn’t much bread.
The school bell rang, and a stampede of seven-year-old feet ran to the coat rack. Nell joined the parade, struggled into her coat, picked up her books, and walked out into the cold to begin the trek home down the frozen ruts of the dirt road. Her breath formed white puffs in front of her as she walked. Oh, how good the fire will feel, she thought. As she arrived home, she carefully brushed her shoes on the mat, turned the knob, slowly pushed the door open so it would not squeak, closed it behind her, and laid her books on the table. Her fingers were stiff with cold as she fumbled with the buttons on her coat. She had one arm out of her coat before she realized that the air in the house was as cold as the air outside. She crossed to the living room and stared at the dead ashes in the fireplace.
“Momma?” No answer was heard.
“Momma?” She called, louder. “Momma, are you here?” Her voice echoed through the empty rooms, and a quick check failed to locate her mother. She returned to the cold hearth and scraped the ashes out of the fire box . The wood box was empty; she went to the woodpile to gather wood to start a fire. Then she retraced her steps to gather the makings for the kitchen stove fire. She found a bowl of turnips and two pieces of cornbread from the night before for later warming.
She pulled on her boots, took the milk bucket, and went to the barn where the cow was waiting for her. She pushed the nose of the cow aside, entered the barn, filled the basket with cow feed, and, squatting in the slush, began her evening ritual. When she finished, she gripped the warm bucket by the handle and returned to the house. The first thing Nell saw when she opened the kitchen door was her mother sitting at the table.
“Don’t come in the house with those muddy boots!”
“I was just going to set the bucket inside.”
“Well, hurry up and shut the door—that draft is cold! What do you mean, anyway, not changing out of your school clothes? Hurry up and get your clothes changed,” said Ella. “I’m starved!”
Nell went to her room, quickly changed her clothes, and returned to the kitchen where she put the warmed food on the table and sat down with her mother.
“Ugh, I hate turnips!” said Ella.
“I thought you liked them, Momma…..”
“Sometimes I like them, but I am so sick and tired of them that I hope I never see another one!”
“But we have a few more left….we’ll have to eat them again tomorrow.”
“Maybe not after that, though,” said Ella smugly.
“What else do we have?”
“Nothing right now, but I’ve been making some plans.”
“Is that where you were today?”
“Yes, I caught the mail truck into town, and I got a job in the court house!’
“You got a job?” Nell asked wonderingly.
“Yes, it’s not the best-paying job in th e world,” Ella continued, “but it’s decent, respectable work, so I won’t have to be ashamed of working in an office. A lot of people from good families work in offices. Okay, enough! I’ve got to get to bed so I can get to work in the morning.” Ella stopped abruptly.
“But, Momma, the court house is in town!”
“I know it’s in town, silly!”
“But how will you get to work?”
“I’ve taken care of that. Haven’t I always had to take care of everything?”
“But , how…..?”
“Mr. Allen said he would let me ride in his mail truck the rest of this week, and on my lunch hour I’m going to find a place to live.”
“Live in town?”
“Yes, live in town.”
“You’re not going to live in this house anymore?” Nell’s heart almost stopped. She knew what it meant for someone to leave her---she still suffered from her father’s absence, and now her mother was leaving. And there was nothing in the house to eat. What would she do? “Are you going to take the cow?” she asked.
“No, I’m not going to take the silly old cow; you can’t keep a cow in town, and I’ve already sold her to Mr. Allen to get enough money to move and pay rent until I get my first paycheck”
“But what will happen to me—what will I eat?”
“The same things I’ve always given you to eat, I guess.”
Nell digested this for a moment. “You mean I’m moving, too?” she asked with a measure of relief in her voice.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to take you,” Ella sighed. “ I don’t know anything else to do with you.”
“I won’t be any trouble to you,” promised Nell.
‘Ýou’d better not be!”
“I won’t, honest. Can I go to school in town?”
“You’ll have to,“ said her mother. “Heaven knows, there’s enough wrong with you now—at least maybe they can teach you something at school there. Now clean up these dishes and get to bed. I’ve got to get up early to catch the mail truck.
The next few days passed in a frenzy. Each afternoon Nell built the fires, did her chores, fixed the meals, and, at Ella’s instructions, packed the New’s belongings in cartons she lugged from the store each time she passed it on her way home from school.
Ella had found an apartment in what she considered a “good” neighborhood, and she hired a man with a cattle truck to move them into town. While the men were unloading the furnishings into their new home, Nell had an opportunity to look around.
“Momma,” she raced excitedly to the porch, “is that a toilet in the house?”
“Sh,” her mother scolded with a finger to her lips.
“Not now, Nell!”
“I said ‘not now’! I’ll talk to you later.”
“Yes’m” Nell continued her inspection. There was no fireplace, but it was warm inside. Maybe, she thought, town houses don’t get cold like country houses. The presence of a small white stove in the kitchen explained why they had left their cast-iron one at the old house, but although she searched carefully she could find no place to put wood in it. Nell was bursting with questions, but there was nobody to listen.
The movers finished and left. Nell sat in the kitchen floor emptying cartons of dishes onto lower cabinet shelves.
“Nell, come here!” her mother called from the living room. Nell got up and walked to her mother. “Okay, young lady, let’s get something settled right now. Come on, I want to show you some things.”
Nell trailed behind her mother. Ella walked to the bathroom. “These are light switches,” she said, flipping one off and on. “When they go out, we replace the bulbs. This is a commode, not a ‘toilet’! When you use it, you push down on the handle to flush it.
“Where do you put in the water?”
“Will you just shut up and listen! The water is already there, and in the tub, and in the lavatory, and in the kitchen sink. You turn the handle,” she demonstrated, “and it goes on and off.” Nell was enthralled—no more pouring kerosene, trimming wicks, carrying heavy buckets of water, or going outside in the rain to use the toilet! “Now come in the kitchen.”
“Now let’s get another thing straight. Don’t you ever—and I mean EVER—embarrass me again by asking questions like you did on the porch, understand?” Nell did not understand. “Just because you are a red-neck country brat doesn’t mean that everybody has to know it”
“Is it bad to live in the country, Momma?”
“Like the way I had to live, it is. But that’s going to change now. I’m going to be able to look people in the eye again, and you’re not going to mess up my plans, understand?”
Nell’s first days in her new school were uneventful. Making new friends, however, was not as easy for Nell as adjusting to the classroom activities. She was constantly alert to her mother’s warning, and she was afraid to say much to the children for fear of saying something wrong and having to endure her mother’s wrath. Only when they were playing on the swings or seesaws at recess she would occasionally join in.
Ella, meanwhile, was enjoying her status as a newcomer in town. She had met many people and the neighbors had paid their courtesy calls. During their visits, Nell sat on the sofa, smiled properly, and said “Yes, Ma’am,” “No Ma’am,” “Please,” and “Thank you,” as she had been instructed. And the guests were duly impressed.
Nell learned rapidly, and each time she encountered something new she made a mental note to ask her mother for an explanation. During one recess, two of the boys were up to their usual horseplay at the swings. “Push me higher,” yelled Andrew, as he pumped with his legs, ‘I want to do a loop-the-loop!”
“I’m pushing as hard as I can, yelled Mike back to him.
“Higher!” demanded Andrew.
“I’m afraid the swing’ll hit me”
“Yellow-bellied coward!” taunted his friend.
“Okay, you asked for it!’ Mike grabbed the swing by its seat and allowed himself to be carried backward by its momentum before thrusting it forward again with a mighty heave. The swing soared high into the air before it peaked.
“Higher!” yelled Andrew. As Mike clasped the board and began to raise his arms to heave, Andrew kicked his legs under the seat. His heels caught Mike under his chin, knocking him backward onto the ground. Blood trickled down from his tongue which he had bitten as Andrew’s feet connected with his body. Andrew glanced over his shoulder and giggled at his friend’s misfortune.
“Bastard”! muttered Mike, as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and started toward the school house.
Nell had been standing near the fence observing the episode and had missed nothing.
Ella had an afternoon off from work and was taking full advantage of the free time to get better acquainted with her new friends by inviting several ladies to her home. She had timed their invitations carefully so that they would be ready to leave as soon as Nell arrived home from school. One of the ladies had already left, and Ella was fetching the belongings of the others when Nell entered the house.
Nell stepped inside the door, saw her mother standing in the hall, and said, “Momma, I heard a new word at school today….what does ‘bastard’ mean?”
Ella, aware that the ladies were hearing every word that was spoken—as Nell was not—answered carefully, “A bastard is a child who has no father….”
“Oh,” responded Nell proudly, “Then I am one!”
The back-handed slap across her face was unexpected, even from her mother.
Nell quickly ran down the hall, her hand covering the reddening mark on her cheek, totally oblivious to the gasps of the ladies in the living room who had heard the conversation between mother and daughter but not the ensuing altercation.
Bettye Hudson Galloway