Mrs. Appleyard in Novemrer
[The author asserts that any resemblance between Mrs. Appleyard, members of her family, or other characters in this paper, and any real person or persons, including the Scandinavian, is purely coincidental, and she can’t think how it happened.]
MRS. APPLEYARD is about as tall as the Venus de Milo and weighs a little more. That is, of course, if the Venus were not made of whatever she is usually made of. In Mrs. Appleyard’s youth it used to be plaster of Paris, and the Venus lurked in dark corners of parlors on Over-brook Hill. The Markhams’ Venus — Mrs. Appleyard was Susan Markham — got broken when they moved in 1904. Mrs. Markham kept the head on the library mantelpiece with Mr. Markham’s pipe, a Dresden potpourri jar containing tobacco, two brass candlesticks shaped like dragons, and a sepia photograph of Susan in her coming-out dress. There was also a vase with herons on it that supported — to a certain extent — three peacock’s feathers. One of them had acute curvature of the spine.
From this inventory it may be gathered that Mrs. Appleyard is now old enough so that she still wears a hair net, and that she is too young to wear a black velvet ribbon edged with steel beads around her neck.
‘I may take to it,’ she says gloomily over her orange juice, ‘ but it will have to be baby ribbon. My neck’s not long enough for a dowager.’
In this Mrs. Appleyard does herself an injustice. Her neck is quite long enough to reach from her chin to her collarbone.
Mr. Appleyard pointed this out to her and asked her what more she wanted.
‘A neck like a swan, blue-white hair with a natural wave, an Appleyard nose — like yours, darling’ (Mr. Appleyard tried to conceal a pleased expression by running his forefinger over the handsome aquiline outline of his profile) — ‘ a voice like a muted cello — I read that in a book — and a flashing green eye.’
‘Which one?’ asked Mr. Appleyard. ‘You’d look like a traffic light. I like you as you are,’ he added staunchly.
The nicest thing about Mrs. Appleyard is Mr. Appleyard.
His loyalty is cheering, but still she thinks it is a bad arrangement that people’s eyes keep getting smaller and their ears larger. Just keep it up, she said, and we’d all be elephants.
The Appleyards live in a house that was too small for them when the children were small, and that is too big now that the children range in size from five feet four to six feet two. There are four of them. Standish is painting murals in a post office in Texas. Hugh teaches school in Arizona. Cicely is married to Tom Bradshaw, a young architect who would like to build those houses like boxes with inserts of cellophane, but generally has to design Colonial-Byzantine filling stations. Sally is away at college.
They are naturally very remarkable children. Even Mrs. Appleyard admits it, and she ought to know if anyone does. She has no favorite: she simply likes best the one whom she happens to be thinking about. Of course she thinks about them most when they are the most trouble, so she loves them for some slightly odd reasons.
Stan has always been admired anywhere he happens to be for his wit and charm and good looks. He has that Appleyard nose before mentioned, very blue eyes under heavy black brows, and hair that sunburns in summer so that it is dusty gold. These, however, are not the assets that appeal to his mother. She loves him because in school he drew caricatures of the masters on the blackboard, and once filled his roommate’s washbasin with strawberry Jello just before going home for the week-end.
Hugh earned affection with the world outside by sweetness of temper and strength and willingness to turn his clever hands to almost anything. Mrs. Appleyard did not undervalue these qualities, but what she really enjoyed most were Hugh’s earaches and the struggle he had with fractions. Another thing about Hugh was that he was one of those adhesive children to whom dirt sticks at the slightest contact. And he made the Appleyards popular by building a cat hotel in the back yard.
Cicely was a frank and honest and friendly child, and the most companionable creature alive. She called herself to her mother’s attention — and affection — by her habit of reading by whatever light was available: daylight, lamplight, candlelight, the light from a street lamp outside her window, or a flashlight under the bedclothes. She read in the bathtub too. Tom Bradshaw is still trying to break her of it.
Sally won public approval by playing hockey with the energy of several swarms of bees and by turning out verses at a minute’s notice and by the effective use of a well-placed dimple. Her eyelashes have been favorably mentioned too. It is not for any such solid achievements that Mrs. Appleyard adores her youngest child, but because Sally has hives if she eats cucumbers and because she scatters her garments over northern New England and refuses to drive a car, on the ground that she would rather be driven.
‘Terrible children!’ thought Mrs. Appleyard. ‘How did they ever grow up?’
Well, they did, and people often say to Mrs. Appleyard: ‘It must be lonely for you with all the children gone.’
Just to be annoying she will never admit that it is. She says that she is glad she doesn’t have to bring them up any longer: they bring her up now instead. They drop in often enough from points south and west so that Cicely can censor her hats and Sally be firm about her shoes. Both are implacable about the relation between skirts and slips. ‘Darling, I see you are wearing a slip,’ is a remark that brings a blush to Mrs. Appleyard’s cheek.
Somehow the first cold days in November always catch Mrs. Appleyard unawares. In spite of past experiences, the ground always manages to harden up before she gets all the narcissus bulbs planted. She wakes in that chilly hour before dawn and remembers that the radiator of the car has not had its winter cocktail. Threatening flakes of snow fly through the air before she recalls that there are such things as overshoes. She has always been mildly resentful of the fact that just when she would really like to start hibernating she has to indulge in the alert sport of hunting up the winter things.
Of course Mrs. Appleyard knows that there are people who file away the flotsam and jetsam left from last winter as carefully as if these interesting prizes were to be collected in the Athenreum. At least she has heard so. She has not, as a matter of fact, ever actually penetrated into one of those impeccable attics where the family property is stored in immaculate boxes of uniform size, classified, card-catalogued, shelf-listed, crossindexed, and legibly labeled.
When any housekeeper tells about an attic like that, Mrs. Appleyard just takes it on faith. She simply pities anyone for such a monotonous arrangement; for after the first inertia is overcome, and she realizes that there is no use thinking that she can spend the winter before the fire pretending she is reading Pepys’s Diary, she finds no occupation more thrilling than raising the family property from its summer slumber.
Each bundle is a mystery in itself. Why did she think, on that hot and steaming morning last June, that she would recognize Stan’s hockey pads simply by the feeling of the parcel and the fact that it was in a paper decorated with Orphan Annie’s unchanging countenance? Mr. Appleyard, she knew, liked the Transcript, in those happy days when there was a Transcript, or the Times for his property, asserting that they wore better. That was why, a good many years ago, she thought that a certain flabby package must belong to him. It did, in fact, bear his initials in smeared red crayon. This was a thoughtful, if misleading, provision. When a small scarlet zipper suit slid out, she realized that Sally and Samuel began with the same letter and regretfully relinquished the idea of dressing Mr. Appleyard up as a miniature Santa Claus.
A minor disappointment was the idea that the bundle tastefully gift-wrapped in an episode in the life of ‘Terry and the Pirates’ might contain something for her own shivering form, and the subsequent discovery that a particularly sunbacked bathing suit of Cicely’s was all, absolutely all.
The dark closet under the stairs always used to yield a rich harvest: mittens in groups of three, a plaid muffler, not stolen, but something she had certainly never seen before — just a tribute to her personal magnetism probably. Then there was that splendid, indeed almost unique, collection of overshoes — no two of the same size, shape, or color. Would Henry Ford like them for his museum of transportation? Mrs. Appleyard wondered. Or would he prefer that particularly well-ventilated pair of rubber boots?
The dark closet was a kind of Appleyard calendar. You could always tell what time of year it was and how old the children were by taking soundings in it. Baseball gloves, tennis rackets, footballs, skates, marked the changing seasons. The children who had once shoved rubber lambs and fire engines into it had gone now, leaving ski poles and photographic enlargers behind them. Their names were on the labels under the four hooks on the door. Hugh’s was barely legible. Mrs. Appleyard could remember the small beaver cap with the earlappets hanging there. And his first football helmet. And the Boy Scout hat. And the first gray hat like Mr. Appleyard’s, worn to dancing school — under protest, of course.
The next hook was Cicely’s. It used to have a brown velvet bonnet with a lace frill and mink fur hanging on it. Inter a blue sailor’s cap with H. M. S. Valiant on the ribbon. Then a scarlet beret from Paris. On her visit this year a wisp of gray fur and a velvet strap.
This was the hat Cicely left in the movies. She knew she must have dropped it beside her seat on the aisle. She has inherited this habit of dropping things in the movies from her dear mother. Mr. Appleyard has often had occasion to mention this trait. The usher went hunting for the hat with his flashlight, but he came back and announced in the pleased way that ushers have under these circumstances that there was no hat anywhere near any aisle seat. Cicely has also inherited a certain firmness of character — probably from her father. Mr. Appleyard is the man who single-handed made a certain restaurant restore the ancient custom of serving a piece of cheese with an eclair. His letters make Senators shake in their shoes. He is happiest when conducting a vendetta with a railroad or the telephone company. . . .
Cicely went down the aisle herself the second time, the usher, complete with flashlight, attending.
‘ There it is,’ she said, pointing six rows ahead.
‘I saw that before,’ announced the usher in a hoarse whisper that drowned the voices on the screen. ‘It’s only a piece of dust.’
He may have been right, but anyway Cicely wore it home.
Mrs. Appleyard likes to think over the different phases of life in the dark closet. Once she put a bag of bananas there to ripen for Mr. Appleyard, who feels strongly about bananas. He thinks they ought to be ripened on the decks of schooners. No banana, he says, ought to know there is such a thing as ice in the world. Not having a schooner, Mrs. Appleyard has had satisfactory results with the dark closet. Sometimes Mr. Appleyard has said that one of its products tasted almost like a Vermont banana. It seems they grew a very fine type of banana in this remarkable state when Mr. Appleyard was a boy. Unfortunately, in dealing with this particular batch Mrs. Appleyard let two weeks elapse. No bananas, even in Vermont, can ever have been riper.
Mr. Appleyard was very nice about it. All he said was: ‘If we got a bunch of deck-ripes and hung them in the kitchen, you wouldn’t forget them.’
‘I will buy a schooner and moor it in the bird bath,’ Mrs. Appleyard said.
There is not much in the closet now but electric light bulbs and cameras and flower vases, but there are other wellstuffed places in the house. There is the old cedar chest with its pungent-smelling blankets and sweaters. Is there a color in the world that the Appleyard children have not had in sweaters? Mrs. Appleyard, in looking over this rainbow before distributing it to people the right size, decided that the only color lacking was that of mustard pickles. She found a silver porringer wrapped up in an orange sweater that had once been Sally’s. The linen closet yielded four silver candlesticks. Mr. Appleyard says it’s the first place a burglar would look; she says they were successfully hidden from her, anyway. She thinks there may be something thrilling in the cellar, because there is no doubt that things move around in an uncanny way during the long, lonely summer days. It must be the heat or the humidity, or something.
When Thanksgiving arrives, Mrs. Appleyard is always thankful. For a good many years this has made her seem mildly eccentric, because for the most part the holiday has seemed to mean a good deal of indigestion and a small amount of thankfulness. The more people had, the less grateful they seemed. The Pilgrims were appreciative of a few squashes and pumpkins; grateful for the fact that their friends and families had not all died of plague and hunger, for their pleasant social relations with their red-skinned neighbors, for shelter, such as it was, from the ferocity of winter, for freedom to worship in their own way, and to make anyone who didn’t very uncomfortable. For a good many years freedom, food, and shelter have been considered too much a matter of course to make much fuss over. It needed something really significant, such as an unexpected Picasso (what other kind is there?) or a new speedboat to arouse much enthusiasm.
Lately Mrs. Appleyard’s attitude has become fashionable again. It is like the contents of her attic. No Appleyard ever throws anything away. It was in an Appleyard medicine chest that a bottle was found labeled: ‘Calomel, I think.’ They know that if you keep a thing long enough it comes back into fashion. What was junk to one generation is a priceless antique to the next but one.
Just now the Pilgrim heritage of thankfulness simply for warmth and food and friends and freedom is being taken out of a good many mental attics, dusted, polished, and found to be a good piece of furniture. Mrs. Appleyard, though, was thankful all the time. Not from any superior virtue or even foresight, but because she belonged to a class that was always grateful on Thanksgiving Day — the mothers of football players. By dinnertime that day, in those happy regions where winter comes to the rescue, the season is over. The form of mayhem called hockey has not started, so many boys still have their front teeth. Mothers who can sit down with their families intact are as thankful to Providence as any pioneer woman who could look around her table and see her family clothed, fed, and miraculously preserved from sickness and savages.
There is a good deal of Spartan spirit in the mothers of football heroes, and just as much — more perhaps — in the mothers of those whose names and faces never occupy any space in the headlines. Probably there is not one woman who does not inwardly dread every play in which her son takes part; not one who sees a boy knocked out on the field without thinking, first, ’Is it Bill? ‘ and then
— if it is some other woman’s son — ‘How can she stand it?’ Yet from the day that her boy goes into his first game
— a small lumpy figure, all shoulder pads, his head almost swallowed in a cavernous helmet, his legs like pipestems in enormous boots — she keeps a calm face. Her attitude is always ‘With your shield or upon it.’ It is all she can do for him.
Both the Appleyard boys had come through without much damage. There was that concussion of Hugh’s, of course, and his shoulder. Stan emerged from his education with nothing worse than a collarbone that had been broken and very well mended. Stan always claimed that football was a quiet, safe game; the time he broke his leg he was playing ping-pong. Stan was too light to play football in college — a circumstance that gave his mother a warm glow of pleasure every time she thought of it. Hugh played. He was only a third-string end, but Mrs. Appleyard learned two plays — ‘Mother’s skull practice’ was a Sunday afternoon diversion, in which the right end was supposed to catch a pass. Generally he didn’t because of what Mrs. Appleyard could only interpret as personal spite on the part of the other team.
The other men on the field — except the officials in those ridiculous white rompers — always looked a good deal alike, but Mr. and Mrs. Appleyard could always pick out Hugh. Mr. Appleyard recognized Hugh once just by the back of his hand on another boy’s shoulder. Mrs. Appleyard knew him by the way he moved and the way he held his head. Mud on the football field — like other dirt—always stuck to Hugh, and if there was a torn jersey on the field it was his. When he sat on the bench, she could tell him by the way his hair stuck up and by his eager but relaxed look. He was never strung tight like Stan.
Mrs. Appleyard did not look at Hugh quite all the time when he was on the bench. Until he began to warm up with that long, springy stride of his, she could enjoy the game. She liked the singing and the antics of the cheer leaders and the large drum that made so little noise when they played ‘Wintergreen for President.’ She liked the funny hats that the debutantes wore. (It never occurred to her that, if a debutante looked at her at all, she would think Mrs. Appleyard’s last year’s model was a funny hat!) She liked the cheerful plaids of tweed jackets. She also enjoyed the wrinkled trench coats, whichever side out they were, and often wondered whether the occupants slept in them or whether there was a special beauty parlor in Harvard Square in which the coats were treated in a permanent wrinkling machine. She liked the small girls with bands on their teeth and pigtails sticking out under tartan caps. She liked their fathers, looking benevolent in the coonskin coats they had had in college. She even — while Hugh was on the bench — enjoyed the play.
There is something savage in us all. The savage streak in Mrs. Appleyard took pleasure in the tense moment just before the whistle blew, in the strong, swiftly moving bodies, in the thud of feet, and in the hoarse roar of the crowd. The sound of the ball being kicked, the neatness of blocking and interference, the patterns of red and blue on the green and striped field, all helped to make her one of the crowd. When they yelled, so did she. She did not mean to. She simply would discover to her surprise that her mouth was open and that her own voice was part of that great roar.
Mr. Appleyard, of course, always knew what the shouting was for. His wife knew sometimes. At others she forgot the game entirely and watched the crowd. The scarlet jackets and the blue coats, the bright mufflers and the brown fur and the gray hats, the feathers and flowers and the pinkish tan of thousands of faces, would all fade, as the afternoon faded, into a sort of misty purple. Drifts of thin blue smoke would blow across it. Flares from cigarette lighters shone through it like lighthouses in a fog. No, not lighthouses. That was a steady flash. These lights danced and flickered like fireflies in a June mist.
The sun would go down in a clear sky behind the Stadium. They would all be in shadow, but up above them a silver plane would still gleam in the sunlight. People would watch it without thinking much about it except, that it was like a fish floating in blue water — a flying fish that had a crimson tail which obligingly advised the hungry that there was food at somebody’s Hi-Hat restaurant. Perhaps the spelling may have aroused hostility in some hearts other than Mrs. Appleyard’s; but after all, quaintness in spelling, even in the air, is easier to forgive than some other air habits, and inattention was the harshest measure adopted toward it. The sound of its motor would be loud for a moment; then the crowd would shout again and the noise of the plane would be lost. It would be only a faint drone in the distance when the cheering was over. Suddenly one of those eerie silences that are part of a big game would fall on the cheering crowd. It would last only a few seconds, but they would seem long, and while they dragged on the shadows would grow deeper.
It was in one of those silences that Mrs. Appleyard remembers seeing Hugh drop his blanket and run across the field. She saw his number jiggle up and down as he ran. It was a short number — not the long one he has now. Only football players had numbers then, and automobiles and telephones. Mrs. Appleyard never could remember the number of her car, but she has no difficulty with Hugh’s draft number — 1893 — nor Stan’s, 2407. She woke the other morning sure that she had just seen them both in large white letters on crimson. . . .
For her the game began with Hugh running on. The figures on the field became only one figure — that of a small boy who always used to smile through the worst earaches, who had a hard time learning to whistle and do geometry, who listened seriously to other people’s troubles and never told his own, whose socks had such awful holes in them, and . . .
Mr. Appleyard was thumping her on the shoulder.
‘Did you see that? He caught a pass — Hugh caught a pass — Hugh caught a pass!’
She could hear his voice through the cheering. In spite of all that skull practice, Mrs. Appleyard had missed it. She did not dare admit it. Fortunately everyone else in the Stadium had seen it. They were still yelling, so she did not have to speak. She looked at the clock on the score board.
‘He’s still all right. Only three more minutes to play. Three more minutes . . . and next week’s Thanksgiving.’