When I was a young girl, I read a story about a woman and the actions she took, simple as they were, to hold her home together. For some reason that story has remained with me. The message of the story is still relevant today, I think, for it speaks to the importance of the image we present to those in positions of authority over us, and the powerful influence that image holds, good or bad.
There’s still value to be found in putting our best foot, or face, forward. Of portraying ourselves in the best light possible, no matter our circumstances.
Time was, a man’s good name was the only collateral he needed at the bank. It was his bond, and his best asset was a good wife. Times have changed, but the importance of good impressions remains.
In the story, the man’s good name had been squandered for he had fallen upon hard times. Being without work or income, his savings had quickly disappeared, and the family had gone through a long, difficult winter. The wolf was practically at the door, so to speak, in the person of the banker, coming any day to evict the man and his family from their home, because the mortgage was long overdue. I will call that man’s wife, Anna, and fortunate he was to have her.
Anna sat beneath the big sycamore tree by the road, in front of the small house which she and her husband had purchased ten years before. They had signed a twenty year mortgage, hoping to pay it off sooner. They had not missed a payment either, not in all that time, until now. Her husband had fallen ill, and after two weeks of not being able to work, his boss terminated his employment at the pipe foundry where he had worked since they had been married. He had been unable to find employment, for the whole country was in a depression and many were without jobs.
They had no family to help them, nowhere to go. The pantry was practically bare; her three small children, one only a baby, were hungry and needed shoes and clothing. Her husband had become despondent, filled with despair, without hope. Anna was just about at her wit’s end. She held in her hands, the last letter from the bank, an eviction notice. They had three days to make payment. Her husband had left the house at dawn without a word about where he was going and when he would return. Anna was terrified.
Anna lifted her tear-stained face, her attention drawn to the approaching car. She remained seated there on the ground as the car came to a stop a few feet away. A pretty, well-dressed lady, the lone occupant of the shiny black Ford, came to stand in front of Anna, looking kindly into her red, swollen eyes. “What troubles you, my dear?” Anna saw the woman glance away, toward the children on the porch. “Would you like to talk about it?” Her voice was soft, gentle, as her eyes fell to the letter in Anna’s lap.
Anna wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and attempted to smooth her tangled hair, becoming self-conscious in the company of such a fine lady. She started to stand, but the woman stopped her, and sat down next to her on the ground, waiting for Anna to speak.
Anna handed her the letter. “Tomorrow is the third day.”
The lady read quickly, and placed the letter back in Anna’s lap. Anna could smell her perfume.
“Well, then, my dear, you have work to do! No time to sit here fretting, worrying. That never solves anything!”
“I don’t know what to do!” Anna wailed, more tears spilling from her eyes. “My husband hasn’t worked in months, and now he is gone, who knows where!”
“Your children are depending on you. Their home is at risk here, so you must gather your bearings, your strength, and your pride. You will be surprised what you can do!”
Anna noticed for the first time that the yellow jonquils along the driveway had bloomed over night. She took a deep breath, and turned her head to look directly into the other woman’s pretty face.
“What would you be doing under normal circumstances, had none of this befallen you? Take stock of all your resources, Anna, and use them to save your family.” The lady stood, brushing away the dried grass from the back of her lovely blue dress. “Be strong, Anna.”
Anna sat there on the ground for a minute longer, watching the lady drive away. Then she pushed herself up, brushed off her hands, and went to her children on the porch.
The next day when the banker arrived, he sat in his car for a few minutes, surveying the house in front of him. The home appeared to be in good condition, the lawn surrounding it neat and well-raked with patches of new green poking through the remaining brown of winter. He could see laundry on the clothes line in the backyard, snow white sheets flapping in the warm spring breeze. There was no sign of a car, but the front door was open. Obviously, the occupants were home.
He left his car, briefcase in hand, walking briskly toward the porch, admiring the freshly tilled flowerbeds bordering it. A sturdy, comfortable-looking rocking chair occupied the space at one end of the scrubbed clean porch, a large swing, the other. He raised his hand to knock, just as Anna and her daughters greeted him.
“Morning, ma’am,” the banker said, with a tip of his gray flannel hat. “Is your husband home?”
“No, sir,” Anna pushed the screened door open. “You must be from the bank.”
The smell of baking bread wafted out to the porch, blending with the delicious aroma of more food cooking. “Do you expect him shortly?”
“No, sir, but won’t you come in?” Anna stepped aside, allowing him to enter the living room. She gathered her daughters close to her. The toddler was down for his morning nap.
The banker found it curious, if not disgraceful, that the man of the house was absent in the face of such a momentous problem for his family. The image of the young woman, her thick, dark hair pulled neatly away from her face, tied with a pretty bow at the back of her neck, wasn’t at all what the man was expecting. Anna stood in front of him in her starched and ironed print dress, wearing a white organdy apron and a pretty smile upon her otherwise ordinary face. Her daughters were dressed in frilly little pinafores over pink gingham dresses, each wearing white stockings and shiny black shoes. Their honey-colored hair was braided tightly, and secured with matching satin bows.
The mother and daughters stood in the center of the well-organized, though obviously well lived-in, room. The windows were shiny and clean, not a streak or a speck of dust anywhere. Neatly arranged, colorful pillows were tucked here and there, giving the faded and worn furniture a homey comfortable appearance. Crisp, white tieback curtains adorned the open windows. A large pot, its lid jingling, simmered on the stove in the kitchen.
“Sure smells good,” he said, trying to ease his own tension, more than anything else. The three in front of him seemed perfectly calm.
“Just some potato and onion soup,” Anna replied. “The girl’s like it.”
Getting right to the point, the man removed his hat, sat down on the sofa, and opened his briefcase. “I’m sure you know why I’m here, ma’am. The bank has been very patient, given your husband plenty of time to make the overdue payments.” He paused, something capturing his attention in the other room. “We can’t continue to carry the mortgage on your house,” he continued, his eyes sweeping over the perfectly made bed, glimpsing the large handcrafted cloth rug on the linoleum floor beside it. The man hesitated for a moment. An old sewing machine in front of another open window captured his attention.
“I know,” Anna said, “My husband has tried so hard to find work, and he does have some prospects.” She kept her voice steady, surprising herself with the ease of the lie coming out of her mouth. But her heart raced.
The banker listened, pulling his attention away from the bedroom.
“I know you have your job to do, sir,” she continued as confidently as possible, “but if there is anyway you could give us another month. That’s all. Just one more month.” Anna hugged her children, looked the man squarely in the eyes, and waited.
The truth was, she had no idea where her husband was, or of any prospect of work. The loaf of bread on the table had taken almost all of the flour in the bin. The soup on the stove would have to be rationed, for the potatoes and onions were all that remained in the store house. She had some beans, very little cornmeal, and a handful of rice in the pantry. The cow hadn’t freshened yet, and the two remaining hens laid sparingly. She had not planted the seeds saved from last year’s vegetable garden. What would have been the point, with the impending eviction? The truth was, the clothes they wore were the best they owned, last year’s Easter dresses, the shoes well-worn, carefully repaired and polished. The truth was, Anna hoped for a miracle, for in her pounding heart she knew that was all that could save their home.
Again, the man looked toward the sewing machine. “Do you sew?” He asked.
“Yes, of course,” she replied, something quickening in her brain. “I’ve been sewing my clothes since I was a girl, and now I make everything we wear. Everything in the house. Nothing is store-bought.” She shrugged of her shoulders, laughing a little at the absurdity of store-bought dresses.
“Have you considered sewing for the public?”
Anna shook her head no, all the while wondering why she had not thought of doing that.
“Well, ma’am, you obviously have a real talent, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to earn a living putting that talent to work. I know my wife needs a seamstress. Her dressmaker has retired.”
He closed his briefcase. “I can send you more work than you can handle, if you’re willing. And yes, I’ll give you a month’s extension.”
Anna gasped, but quickly regained her composure, as the man continued. “If all goes well at the end of the month, we can refinance your mortgage. If you can pay the overdue interest on the loan by this time next month, we can bring your account back to current status.” The man stood, replaced his hat, picked up his briefcase.
“I look forward to doing business with you, ma’am,” he said, offering his hand to Anna.
“Likewise,” she replied, shaking his hand firmly.
Late in the afternoon, the fine lady in the black car returned, this time pulling into the driveway. Anna was surprised, but glad that she would be able to give the woman her good news. She also was pleased to have a chance to present herself more favorably, ashamed that the woman had found her in such a sad state before. On the porch, Anna greeted her visitor, noticing the large basket on her arm, piled high with beautiful fabrics.
“I’m Jeanette Hart,” the woman said, flashing a brilliant smile, “the banker’s wife. And I need a dressmaker.”
Anita Stubbs ©2007