Good Morning Doctor! - Chapter 1
There were ten of us, Mother, Father, seven boys, and one girl--and another baby coming. I knew we were a big family, but I didn't realize until that summer when Mother was sick just what it means to care for then people, to feed them and keep them clean, to give them shelter. I had turned twelve in January and as second from the oldest it had been my lot, ever since I had been old enough, to help around the house. So when Mother took to her bed it was only natural that I should take her place as best I could.
I was a husky youngster for my age; so work didn't hurt me. In Davenport where I was born I had done all manner of odd jobs; when the family got so big that Dad couldn't support us pegging shoes and we moved out onto his forty-acre patch, I did my share of field work, weeding onions and cultivating potatoes. We all worked. We had to. But we were happy to make a living, raising most of what we ate and selling enough to buy other necessities.
It was the summer of the seventh year on the farm, when Mother got sick, that I became the hired girl. The three older boys helped Dad in the fields while I stayed at the house, taking care of Mother, looking after the three little boys and the little sister. When I wasn't watching them or getting something for Mother, I was cooking or washing or scrubbing. Yet in all of it there was just one thing I couldn't stand--it wasn't the work--it was having the boys call me Mary.
Now that I look back it sounds funny but it wasn't then.
One wash day, I remember, I had had a worse time than usual. Even though I had put the water on to heat before breakfast, it was dinner time before all the clothes were on the line. Mother called from her room. "You better get dinner started, son. Just let that last tubful soak until after you've eaten."
"All right," I answered, trying to sound cheerful.
"Why not stir up a batch of pancakes," she suggested. A good idea I thought; pancakes are quick and filling. So she gave me the directions, with me running to her door after each operation was finished to get directions for the next step. In that way I made many things that summer.
I got the little folks in and started on their meal before Dad and the boys came from the field. When I heard them, I poured out their cakes on the sizzling griddle and was just running the pancake turner around their bubbling edges when a grinning brother popped his head in at the door to inquire, "Pancakes today, Mary?" Ordinarily I might had paid no attention, but that day I was just tired enough to let it bother me.
Turner in hand, blazing mad, I rushed for him; but he turned and with a whoop of glee was founding out toward the barn. Then Dad appeared and the fracas was over almost before it began. Still smoldering, I went back to my pancake griddle and at least had the satisfaction of giving that taunting brother of mine some cakes that were doughy in the middle!
When I finally got the dishes washed and the last tubful of clothes hung up, my hands looked as if they were made of puckered pink sponge. Scrubbing the kitchen floor didn't help their appearance any, so that when I took Mother a drink I wasn't surprised that she looked at them. I grinned and she smiled.
"You've had a pretty hard day, Willie," she said. "Better take it easier tomorrow. You can just as well as not put away the bedding and the overalls and towels and such things without ironing. Then you might soak some beans tonight and have them for dinner tomorrow."
"Sure, I'll soak the beans. But don't you be worrying about what we eat; I'll take care of that. You just rest and get well," I told her.
Taking my puckered, soaked hands in hers she patted them. Then, with a very solemn and strange look on her face, she said slowly, "They are the hands of a helper, son. I hope they will be--ways."
My weariness melted in the glow of that idea--hands of a helper! That's what mine were! Even doing dishes, thereafter, wasn't so hard.
That was more than a half century ago. Today, with most of my life behind me, I look at my hands and wonder if Mother would still say, "Hands of a helper."