THE Larrabees lived two miles or so from where we did, but on another road. They had a big farm, much of it in wheat, oats, and corn, for farmers in those days grew the grain for their own stock and a considerable amount for their own eating as well. They had a large house which sat well back from the road, with two rows of rounded maples marching up to it and shading the drive. These Mr. Larrabee’s father had set out when he took the land from the government at a dollar and a quarter an acre. There were also huge barns, wagon sheds, tool houses, corncribs, and an orchard across the road. Beyond the orchard was a little lake where the boys swam and fished. The garden was behind the house.
There were eight children in the Larrabee family — the two oldest, Caroline and Phillip, married and living on their own farms not far away. The rest of the children were laddered two years apart as regularly as if arranged according to chronological scale. They were all older than I except Janey, the youngest, who was of my own age, and as they went to a different school from the one I attended there was but little intimacy between us until I was about ten. Mrs. Larrabee had, however, frequently invited my mother (and me) to the Ladies’ Aid meetings and the Sewing Circle, and we went to the same church. Mr. Larrabee bought plants of my father in the spring, and occasionally hired him to do a little carpenter work, this having been Father’s trade in younger years.
Sometimes Janey or one of the other children came to our house with their father, or I accompanied mine to the Larrabee place, but the year that Janey and I were both ten saw what had been a neighborhood acquaintance grow into a real friendship.
One Saturday afternoon in early winter my father went over to help Mr. Larrabee repair his sheep shed, and I went along. Janey and I had a great time playing in the haymow and watching the hired man run a grist of buckwheat through the fanning mill — such a good time that when dusk came on and my father called that it was time to go home I hated to go, and Janey set up a howl for me to stay all night. Now I had never stayed away from home in my life except once at my Cousin Adelaide’s, and I was not only skeptical of being allowed, but a little reluctant. To be thrust suddenly into the midst of this big roistering family for all night was a prospect somewhat overwhelming to a shy only child.
Mrs. Larrabee, who came to the door, added her plea to Janey’s, and further stipulated that my father and mother should come after me Sunday evening, after the chores were done.
To this my father instantly and vigorously demurred. He said he could n’t come out after dark because he would n’t want to leave the fires burning. Mrs. Larrabee thought the fires could be safely banked. He said my mother would think that was too late for me — she’d probably scold anyway because he had left me, and, come to think of it, I had better go along home with him.
At this I broke into violent despair and begged to stay, supported by Janey’s tears. Well, then, I might stay, but he would come after me right after dinner, maybe before. At this moment Mrs. Larrabee, apparently overcome with belated hospitality, remembered that she had a fresh gingerbread just out of the oven. Would he come in for a moment so that she could send some of it to my mother?
He could hardly refuse such a request — and perhaps he did not want to, warm gingerbread being a weakness with him.
We went in. Mrs. Larrabee’s kitchen was a beautiful room with a shelf of flowers in the middle of a sunny window, and it was so full of the spicy aroma of molasses and ginger as to invoke a spontaneous flow of eager juices.
There, on an oilcloth-covered table, was the gingerbread — two gingerbreads, one of which Mrs. Larrabee proceeded to wrap in an immaculate towel while my father and I stood near the door waiting. Tildy, the hired girl, was taking a pan of cookies from the oven.
’I know this gingerbread won’t be as good as Mis’ Thompson makes,’ Mrs. Larrabee said apologetically, putting a second towel around it. ‘I’ve had some of hers and it can’t be beat; but anyway this is fresh. I made it myself— Tildy’s bakin’ pies and cookies. Tildy, you get a plate and put some of those cookies on it. And get a pitcher of cider. Mr. Thompson, you set up here and have a cooky and some cider.’
My father mumbled a feeble objection, but Mrs. Larrabee had him in a chair — with me in another — before his hesitancy could take lingual form.
‘This is new cider,’ said Mrs. Larrabee, busily filling glasses. ‘We just got it home this week.’ She set cookies before us, and then, as a climax, brought a huge wedge of fresh mince pie and a generous chunk of yellow cheese and put these before my father.
‘I’m not giving Delly any,’ she explained kindly, ‘because I don’t want to spoil her supper.’
‘No danger spoiling my supper, I s’pose,’ chuckled my father, neatly fitting a slice of cheese to a piece of the pie with his knife. ‘Not with mince pie, anyhow.’
Mr. Larrabee came in and they exchanged salty quips in country fashion — a waggery which I was in no humor to appreciate, for as yet no decision had been reached as to my immediate future. My father’s weakness where good food was concerned, however, seemed to have traveled beyond the confines of the family circle; and when, his palate flattered, his heart warmed with neighborliness, he rose to go, Mrs. Larrabee held me within a possessive arm and said, ‘Now you and Mis’ Thompson come over after Delly tomorrow night, won’t you? The family will all be home and we’re going to have a reg’lar Sunday night supper. We want you both to come.’
Under the circumstances, with a still-warm gingerbread in his hands and his stomach milling the grist of hospitality, what could the poor man do?
To an only child brought up with grown relatives, — mostly nieces, nephews, and cousins in varying degree, of my father’s, — the Larrabee household, with its good wholesome noise and constantly flowing activity, was a never-ending source of delight.
For one thing, they were all what was called ‘musical.’ Elizabeth, twenty and through with school, ‘took voice’ and went twice a week to Spring Arbor Academy for lessons; Charlie, sharing the farm work with his father, played the fiddle — by ear; and young Henry could wangle a tune out of a mouth organ that would set even the preacher’s solemn foot to beating time.
And sing! Why, they all — including the father, the mother, and even the hired man — sang as naturally and almost as tunefully as the song sparrows that nested, summers, in the trees across the road. Even Tildy lifted up a rhythmic if resonant voice when the family joined in melodious praise to the Lord after morning prayers on the Sabbath. Hester, eighteen, had a really lovely voice, and little Janey caroled like a thrush. So the humming activity that constantly emanated from the Larrabee farmhouse had the same pleasant euphony as a hive of bees or a cote of birds.
My father was not of a gregarious nature, nor inclined to leave his own fireside for any social occasion whatever, much less one that took him out at night with encroachment upon his early bedtime hour. This time, however, he had been outgeneraled, and so on Sunday night he appeared at the Larrabee door properly appareled in an old long-tailed coat with satin revers, and fine cloth-topped calfskin boots, his short, stubby beard and fringe of white hair glistening like the snow he brought in on the old coonskin cap which protected his bald head.
My mother — younger than he by twenty years and more social by nature — met her hostess with a gleam of anticipatory excitement in her eyes, and a smile. I ran to her surging with delight and a new sense of appreciation. How pretty she was! How black her hair! And how glad I was to see her! If she had asked me then and there to get my wraps and go home I would have gladly gone. And yet I had never before even been conscious of her appearance, and I know now that she was quite plain of face.
But she did not ask me to go home. She smiled at me, she patted my arm. My father gave me a comradely glance, and they were off to lay aside their things in a spare bedroom. I, being one of the younger fry, returned to the position of spectator at what to me was a gorgeous pageant of color, sound, and odor.
Largely, it seems to me now, this all had to do with food. There was, of course, the fanfare of noise — voices, young voices, children’s voices, tender voices, shouting voices, frivolous, gay, commanding, fooling; the voices of serene, contented, assured people having a good time; voices that would never become ribald, because ribaldry was unknown; voices that would not thicken or blur as the evening progressed, because the beverages that were provided neither stimulated nor benumbed the tongue; voices of sane, happy people who would not wake to remorse on the morrow, nor become calloused beyond the reach of regret. Simple, uncultivated people, as culture is deemed to-day, but with a code of decency, not to say morality, and a few ideals of chastity and the sanctity of marriage and the home to which, in the main, they religiously conformed. If deluded, they enjoyed their delusions, which is more than can be said of those whose so-called modern nude realism offers neither enjoyment nor content.
We did not stay long that first Sunday night at the Larrabees’, although even so my father’s restless feet were held longer than either my mother or I had hoped. Nothing, however, — neither the comparative strangeness of his surroundings nor his avowed reluctance at being there, — could keep him from the kitchen. A kitchen, and the odors that emanated from it, were to my father’s nose what the earth was to the Newton apple.
Ostensibly he came looking for his small daughter, who was, with Janey, happily engaged in picking meats from a pan of butternuts. At sight, however, of the number of youngsters milling about the kitchen and into the dining room beyond, hands laden with platters of cold ham, pans of beans, plates of biscuits, he would have attempted retreat, but they were upon him.
‘Come on, Mr. Thompson,’ Elizabeth Larrabee called, ‘I want someone to open this bottle of pickles. None of these boys are strong enough.’
To my dismay and amazement she was thrusting the jar into his unwilling hands, laughing, pushing him farther into the room while others paused to laugh. My father! Shy, and ever fearful of his dignity because of that shyness! Father, who hated all that he called capering and cutting up, surrounded and playfully badgered by this gay hilarious crowd! It served him right for poking his inquisitive nose into the kitchen, but I could not bear it. It made me think of a woodchuck I once saw cornered by some boys and a dog.
Springing to my feet, — and so scattering the nuts in a dozen ways, — I ran to him, grabbed him about the knees, and sobbed, ‘Oh, Pa! Pa!’
Unintentioned as this panicky release was, it gave him reason for escape. He thrust the jar of pickles into the hands of some astonished bystander, took me by the shoulders, and shook me.
‘Stop it!’ he ordered. ‘What’s the matter with you? Ain’t you ashamed of yourself? Come along!’ Ingloriously he dragged me, not back through the crowded rooms, but out the kitchen door and through a woodshed.
‘Don’t believe I blanketed the horse,’ he announced with utter irrelevance to the occasion. ‘Better see to it.’ My hand warmly held in his, big and hard and full of assurance, I trotted beside his striding legs to the shed, where the horse was found, properly protected and sociably greeting us with velvety nicker.
By the light of a flooding moon he hitched the blanket here, hiked it a little there — and then we went back to the house, entering unperceived, or at least unnoticed, by the front door, and so into the parlor, where instantly my mother’s eye, piercingly suspicious but unquestioning, fell upon us.
In a few minutes the call to supper came, and, closely shepherding each other, we took our way to the long dining room.
Not every Sunday night, of course, in the Larrabee home, — as a later and more intimate acquaintance proved, — saw the long table stretched to its utmost, or its cloth laden with a plethora of food. On days when special company or a family gathering had occasioned a heavier and later dinner than usual, the evening’s refreshments consisted merely of apples, cider, and doughnuts, popcorn or a taffy pull; or, on a very cold night, of hot soup and crackers, with cake and coffee to top off with. But, often enough to become a legend in the memories of those who have only memory upon which to make like feast, the Sunday night supper in that hospitable home was a memorable affair.
In the first place, there was the table. Since there would be no knowing just how many would eventually draw around it, no attempt was made to set it properly, but it took time to prepare — and it took a lot of hands. No one sat off in the parlor waiting to be called to supper except Father and Mother Larrabee and their own guests. This Sunday night supper was the young people’s affair.
Laying the cloth, which would measure considerably over three yards, took two to four pairs of hands to manage. The centre decoration called for deliberation. When flowers were scarce, a handsome cake often had the place of honor — a cake made specially for the purpose by one of the girls on Saturday; perhaps a round layer cake, oozing rich dark chocolate, with a smooth glazed coat of the same; a moist and velvety bed of cake resting on a high-posted dish of glass with a slightly rolled edge to keep the cake in place.
The matter of ornamentation settled, a pile of plates or two were placed on the table with silver beside them. Huge pitchers of milk — or, in season, sweet cider — and a pot of tea or chocolate went at one end, with sometimes, on a cold winter’s night, a huge tureen of oyster soup at the other, and a dish of cole slaw at the side.
There would be, perhaps, a large pan of baked beans, lightly browned and with a slight exposure of the piece of scored salt pork that lent savory flavor to the dish. Beans for Sunday night, even if there had been beans for supper the Saturday night before. Michigan people did not easily tire of beans. They formed a sort of stabilizing background to the diet, as the oak groves did to the scenery.
There would be cold meat, — cold sliced ham smokily reminiscent of hickory stick and corncob; or headcheese smelling pungently of sage and spice; or a roast loin of fresh pork, the white slices rivaling in appearance and flavor the breast of turkey, — the kind of meat depending upon the season and the relative importance of the occasion. There would be plates of bread: bread baked in the huge oven of the old iron stove that had held more good food in its time than all the proud white beauties of to-day will ever boast; bread baked on Saturday and kept moist in a crock, its color suggestive of the creamy ears of wheat of which it was made, not too finely milled; bread made with ’east, and salt-risin’ bread. And butter: butter in pound pats — one at each end of the table, stamped with a sheaf of wheat and placed in a silver dish with its accompanying knife properly slotted at the side.
There would be pickles — peach and pear pickles, glazed with the rich red juice which had preserved them, and bristling with cloves; watermelon pickle, ripe cucumber pickle, crabapples or currants spiced. Not all of those at once, naturally, but varying throughout the year.
Sometimes there were salads — the girls were learning newfangled ideas in town; salads of apple chopped with celery; potato salad in a dressing made rich with cream; chicken or salmon salad.
There were cookies, and always there were cakes — not only the one cake in the centre of the table, but other cakes as well. Devil’s Food, and Angel’s Food, pound cake for Father Larrabee, Lady Baltimore cake for Mother Larrabee, whipped-cream cake for Henry — and so on, week after week, until it seemed as if variety were never staled.
And no one person in the family felt the burden of preparation, not only because of the pleasure it brought both in anticipation and in realization, but because it was shared. Mother Larrabee allowed no one to attempt competition with her in the making of ‘riz’ biscuits. She made a batch three times a week and counted an hour over the stove as only one of the cheerful contributions of her time to the pleasure of her family. Tildy cooked the beans and defied the whole county to equal the results, although my own personal opinion was that my mother’s beans were, as my father would have said, just a lee-tle mite tastier — owing, I think, to the fact that, in addition to the pork with which they were cooked, she always gave them a generous touch of butter.
We were frequently invited to be present at Sunday night supper after this. In fact, the Larrabees and my own people became quite intimate friends. But obdurately my father held to his refusal to go capering over there at a time when folks ought to be going to bed. Think he’s going to chase off two miles just to eat? What think he is? A pig? And as for staying around till all hours the night to hear a lot of yawping around the organ — no, sir! He’s going to stay home and go to bed — providing, of course, he can get anything to eat at home.
And so, much as I yearned to be one of that gay, noisy throng, and much as I knew my mother would also have enjoyed a little of the festivity, we stayed at home and went to bed.
Until one Sunday night just after Christmas. Mrs. Larrabee and Elizabeth drove over during the week to invite us. There was a whole huge roasted turkey, they said, and it would take the entire neighborhood to eat it up. My father was noncommittal as they left, but after they were gone he gave his ultimatum. No, sir! He was not going! He wasn’t going to have no ten-year-old daughter of his gaddin’ off into that crowd Sunday nights. What, he’d like to know, was my mother thinking of? First thing he knew she’d be traipsin’ her off to a dance!
‘So,’ said my mother, blandly, going about her work, ‘you think you won’t go.’
‘I know I won’t go,’ he stormed. ‘No “think” about it. Biggest tarnationfool thing I ever heard of!’
‘Well,’ interrupted Mother calmly, ‘I’m going. You can stay home and take care of Delly if you don’t want her to go.’
‘Huh!’ he said, smugly incredulous, and went out to milk.
Panicky, I crept to my mother’s lap. ‘Oh, Mother,’ I wept, ‘I don’t want to stay home with Pa.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ blithely admonished my mother, ‘till the time comes.’
I had not much faith in her confidence, although I had seen my father weaken once before in the matter of a church supper, and even follow us upon another occasion to a Sunday School picnic under cover of a ruse too patent to fool a goose. But that he would ever change his mind, once asserted, about going out in the evening was too much to hope for.
The week wore on and Saturday came. My mother made her usual batches of bread, friedcakes, cookies, and the pan of beans for Saturday’s supper.
My father, going about his own work, paid little attention to the usual routine of cleaning, cooking, and general preparation for the Sabbath. He was engaged in splitting up some nice dry pitchy tamarack logs that would snap and crackle when put in the stove, and I helped him. Armful after armful of the prickly, odorous sticks was carried into the kitchen and piled in the old wood box beside the stove. When this would hold no more we laid it in the woodshed. It was a mild winter’s day, snow falling gently upon a ground already white. Shop officiously gamboled before us as we walked. Odors, spicily sweet, floated out upon the sparkling air: odors that reminded me — but seemed to stir no like anticipatory reflections in my father’s mind — of the invitation that was ours for to-morrow night, and of my mother’s assertion that she, at least, would accept.
Nothing had been said during the entire week, so far as I knew, regarding it. Once, after ridding my arms of their load, I stood before my mother where she was sprinkling pink sugar on round, scalloped cookies and ventured to ask in tones muted to an open door, ‘You going over to Janey’s to-morrow night, Ma? Won’t Pa go?’
‘I could n’t tell you,’ said my mother, breaking the whites of eggs into a bowl and whisking them vigorously with a fork, ‘whether he’ll go or not. The less you say about it the better.’
Saturday night saw the usual rituals performed. We ate our supper, we had our baths — at least my mother and I held rendezvous with the washtub in the kitchen. My father had already been closeted behind a door with much sound of splashed water and stentorian grunts.
We put on our clean nightgowns and crept into our clean, cold beds.
On Sunday morning there was the sound of my father’s razor slipping, slap-slap-slap, against the strop a little earlier than usual. ‘You like to go over to church this mornin’, ’Miry?’ he asked genially. ‘ ’S good sleighin’ — and’t ain’t cold.’
My mother glanced quickly at him — breaking golden islands of egg into the crackling fat of roseate ham. ‘No,’ she said, blandly, ‘I guess I can’t. I’m goin’ to bake a cake this morning.’
‘Cake!’ my father echoed, staring at her as if she had declared an intent to cook a whale. ‘What you want to bake a cake for? Did n’t you bake yestiddy ? ’
‘Yes,’ she said briefly, ‘I baked — but I did n’t bake a cake.’
She did not look at him. For a moment he stared after her, then drew his chair to the table. We ate.
After breakfast he said, ‘I guess I’ll go over to Bouldrys’ — see how his apples is holdin’ out. You want to come, Delly?’
It was a poor excuse, but my mother made no remark. He hitched the horse to the cutter and we went over to Bouldrys’, sleighbells tinkling to the slow jog of a horse too fat for his own good.
When we came back, several hours later, dinner was ready. So also was a perfect mountain of a cake. Indeed, as we later learned, it was called a White Mountain cake. A white miracle of a cake, four layers high, each layer mattressed with a thick frosty pudding of sweet crystal snow, befeathered, befluffed with flakes of coconut white as milk; and over it all an argent thatch of shaggy glacial white spurtling over the edges like freshets caught and held by fingers of the Queen of Snows.
‘Ho!’ said my father, sniffing, bending, staring. ‘A coconut cake! When’s that for? Dinner?’
‘No,’ said my mother blandly. ‘It’s for supper.’
‘Whew!’ said my father, whistling softly. ‘Jiminy! Seems’s if I never saw a pertier cake. Why don’t we have it now?’
‘Because,’ explained my mother breezily, ‘we’ve got pie for dinner. Mince.’
‘Well,’ said my father, with what upon mature reflection I am convinced was false assurance, ‘I guess I won’t fill up too much on pie.’
‘I would n’t,’ said my mother, ‘if I was you.’
I felt sorry for him, for I knew that he liked coconut cake particularly, and I wished my mother would give him some.
To this day I do not know whether my father had forgotten the forthcom-
ing crisis or whether he and my mother were matching wits. All I know is that the afternoon wore away in restlessness. Old Man Covell, our next-door neighbor on the east, came over to borrow a go-devil with which to split a stubborn log, and he and my father spent some time at the barn — a longer time than my father was wont to spend with his shiftless, borrowing neighbor, whose ways he thoroughly disliked. Then Covell went home and my father went about his chores.
Evening approached — and dark. With no explanations, my mother set the huge beautiful cake in a big basket and threw a towel over it. She called me into the kitchen, brushed my hair, and helped me change my dress to my very best, a dark blue cashmere with fine red braid and bright buttons. My mother had on her brown alpaca and gold brooch with red coral in it. My heart quaked so that I could not speak. Questions were beyond me.
My father came in, set the milk on the table. My mother tied an apron about her waist, took the milk into the pantry and strained it. Shivering and prickly with apprehension, I watched my father. His blue eyes looked dark, his lips were thin.
‘Where you goin’?’ he asked, with some feeble attempt at lightness, as she came out.
‘Me?’ Mother looked at him brightly — but her voice was like slivers of ice in the horses’ tracks. ‘Oh, I’m goin’ over to Larrabees’ to supper. Delly’s goin’, too.’
My father walked over to the stove, lifted a lid, poked the fire. It was almost out. The teakettle barely steamed.
‘Well,’ he said, finally, ‘how you goin’?’
‘Oh, I’ll drive,’ said my mother, her voice still clinking. ‘I thought maybe you’d hitch up for us.’
‘You mean to tell me,’ he turned upon her sternly, his ruddy cheeks almost pale, ‘you’d drive off over there yourself, after dark?’
‘Why, yes,’ said my mother, still tinkling brightly, ‘I would. I’d have to — unless you come along. Don’t hit that basket — the cake’s in there.’
The look he gave her was that of a stricken boy of fourteen whose baseball bat has been taken away and given to a rival.
‘You takin’ that coc’nut cake over there?’ he demanded. But it was more of a suspicion confirmed than a question asked.
‘Why, yes,’ said my mother, busy with hoods, coats, and arctics, ‘of course I be. That’s what I made it for.’
He stood, immobile as the big black stove beside him, for what seemed to me, at least, an unconscionably long time. What might he do, his brows thundering, his eyes reproaching?
Then slowly he went to his bedroom. In a little while he came out, the clothtopped, calfskin boots on his feet, the old long-tailed coat on his back. He put on his shabby overcoat, picked up his coonskin cap and his knitted mittens, and at the door turned an accusing face toward my mother.
‘Come to a pretty pass,’ he said stonily, ‘if a man’s got to get out bedtime and go to the neighbors to get anything fit to eat.’ He went out and shut the door.
But my mother only laughed. ‘Put on your scarf,’ she said to me lightly, ‘and come along. Chances are he’s got the horse all harnessed.’