Fiction

Red is for the Living

By rights you couldn’t call the Hyatt kids motherless. All nine of them had a mother. His name was Jake

JEAN HOWARTH May 1 1949
Fiction

Red is for the Living

By rights you couldn’t call the Hyatt kids motherless. All nine of them had a mother. His name was Jake

JEAN HOWARTH May 1 1949

Red is for the Living

By rights you couldn’t call the Hyatt kids motherless. All nine of them had a mother. His name was Jake

JEAN HOWARTH

WASN’T eight-thirty, and I hadn’t put the porridge dish to soak, when a great big horn blew off on the road; I put my head out the kitchen window. The young ones are coming home to Jake Hyatt’s today. There was young Bill, hanging half out of his fine new car and waving his hand like mad.

“Hi, Aunt Jal!" he yelled, the old grin splitting his face in half, "set* you later!’’ And then lie was tearing off up the road to the old farm, laying the dust out behind him like a plume. Never could go anywhere slowly, young Bill.

Even from the kitchen window I could see the red carnation in his lapel.

Bill was the tirst. Bill always did get places first. But come six o’clock, all Jake Hyatt’s kids would be there.

After Bill came Esther and her husband and their little boy up from Crystal Creek in the truck. Esther’s putting on a bit of weight, but she suits it; held the little boy up to wave to me through the cab window. Nice little boy—takes after old Jake, his grandfather.

They were both wearing red carnations.

Cass and Johnny Hyatt went past at eleven.

They’ve got the Henderson’s farm now, over to Barton. Making a good thing of it, too. Put up a pig palace last year. That’s what Johnny calls it the pig palace. Newfangled idea he got down at agriculture college. They put little pigs in one end and a few months later they take them out the other all ready for market. Just like clockwork. Wouldn’t believe it, would you?

Sam, the sixth one in the Hyatt family, was up on crutches. Last May he carne in a wheel chair. Broke his back in the Air Force and they were afraid he’d be flat for life; but Jake Hyatt gave him a talking to. “Sam,” he said, “you’ll get up from that, bed if you want to. Don’t lie there being sorry for yourself. Lie there thinking that you’re going to make your big toe wiggle.”

Sam says it took six months and then one day it wiggled. He says by next May he’ll be getting along with nothing but a couple of canes.

He was swinging ahead of the girls when they went off down the road to the farm.

They were all wearing red carnations.

Peter, another son of Jake’s, and Julie won’t be in till the five o’clock bus.

Peter’s interning now at the hospital where Julie’s nursing in the children’s ward. Jake sure was pleased

when one of his boys went in for a doctor, though he had to sell the east quarter section to help put him through.

It’s funny, watching them all gc past up the road to the old farm, and thinking back on the years.

First time I ever saw Jake Hyatt was the day he came to Hilton to run the grain elevator. He got down from the train at our station and he turned around and handed Bertha, his wife, down; and my Henry and I—we were sitting in the buggy waiting for the mail to come out—we couldn’t help laughing, because Jake was a little wee man not more than five-foot-two, and Bertha, his wife, was a great strapping woman.

Only after you got to know them you never thought about that.

They moved into the old grain elevator man’s house. Jake was a good elevator man. It’s odd how one elevator man’s scales will weigh a lot more for a farmer than another elevator man’s scales. Jake’s weighed more.

Pretty soon after they moved to Hilton, Cass was born. Cass was their oldest; and then the others came so fast the town almost lost count. But it never was an accident, Jake and Bertha having nine. Right from the start Bertha said there were going to be six anyway; and then when there were six she said there was lots of room for more.

We always were best friends, Bertha and I. We both wanted big families. Had eight myself.

SHE WAS out at my house the day it happened.

The Church Aid had been having a quilting bee, and she’d stayed after to help me with the dishes. She had Jessie asleep in her basket on the front porch—Jessie was six months at the time — and when we finished I shouted out the back door for the hired man to bring her buggy around.

I remember it all so clear. Bertha putting on her hat in my front bedroom, and laughing at her big homely face in the mirror, and saying, “Lil, they ought to make hats that would cover more of faces like mine.” And saying, “Don’t forget to tell Henry to drop by and pick up the doughnuts for the Young People’s concert. I’ll make them up tonight.” Then she went out through the house to where her baby was sleeping in the basket on the porch.

The buggy was down at the foot of the steps, with the little sorrel mare that Jake had given her because Jake never did think it was right for a woman to be stuck at home all day.

And Bertha carried the baby down, and set her in her basket in the bottom of the buggy. And she had the reins knotted around her wrist and was just stepping up, when suddenly the mare shied.

It threw Bertha off balance, and then the mare was running, dragging her. Not far, just down to tne gate where the sorrel reared and stood.

But when we got there Bertha was lying with her face turned up to the sky, not knowing us, and the reins were still knotted around her wrist, and her neck was snapped clean.

And the baby was still asleep in its basket in the bottom of the buggy.

There aren’t any words to say what it was like after that. It was just as if somebody had took a knife and cut the heart out of the Hyatt family. We did what we could. All of us in the countryside did. We took Bertha home, and after a little while we took her up the hill and left her there with the sun and the flowers. And us women took turns staying nights w’ith the children, and baking great batches of cookies and cakes for them, and running over with pots of soup and legs of ham.

Funny how a woman always tries to heal a hurt heart with a good meal.

After a bit Jake got a Mrs. Crosby from Barton to come and keep house. She wasn’t what they needed, but she was all they could get. Housekeepers aren’t fussy about a job where there’s nine children.

Jake, he’d got all of a sudden old, since his wife died. He didn’t cry any, but he shriveled up, like a little old monkey, and when he

looked at you his eyes didn’t seem to see you at all.

They got along in a manner of speaking, with us women pitching in and helping, and Jake getting home as early as he could every day from the grain elevator. But then one day—in November it was —Henry came rushing in to say the Hyatts’ house was on fire.

We galloped the horses into town, taking all the buckets we could lay our hands on fast. The fire was out when we got there—just a chimney fire, it was; but Jake was standing on the front porch, looking alive at last, and so angry it scared me.

“Henry,” he said, “will you find Mrs. Crosby and tell her to catch the train to Barton this afternoon. If she came back here I might kill her.”

And he took us in the house and showed us where Jessie was asleep in her crib, and the next three were shut up in the back room playing.

“The bolt was shot,” he said. “She went off shopping and left them like that. And the furnace on full.” My Henry just took one look at his face and went out the door.

He put Mrs. Crosby on the train for Barton himself.

That night Jake came out to our place. He was just as little as ever, but that night he looked big, somehow. He sat down in the parlor with Henry and me and he told us what was in his mind.

“I been wrong,” he said earnestly. “I got to change things. What those kids of Bertha’s need isn’t somebody to wash their faces and fill their lunch pails. It’s somebody to love them and be with them, like Bertha was.

“If I was a smart man I could maybe earn enough money to hire a good woman, but I’m not that smart. So I got to do the job myself. I got to be their mother, not as good as Bertha would have been, but the best I can do alone.”

He had a plan.

“I own the house in town. I want to sell it and put the money on your old farm, Henry,” he said to my husband, “you been looking for a buyer.

I can’t pay you the whole thing right off, but I will in time.”

“But, Jake,” I said, “the house on the farm is all run-down. Hasn’t been anybody in it for years.”

“I’ll fix it,” he said, looking down at his hands and smiling the first smile in a long time. “I still got these. It’ll be the cooking I’ll need help with, Lil. And the sewing.”

SO THAT was the way it was. Jake sold the house in town and the ten of them moved to the old farm a mile up from our place. Jake and young Cass fixed it up first. Cass was fifteen then. They laid new floors and they built cupboards in the kitchen and put in a sink that drained out under the lilacs. They papered all the rooms. You could see paste streaks on the first ones they did but the last ones were just fine.

They took the young children with them every day they worked, and with all those children running around the old farmhouse was just like that shoe in the nursery rhyme.

Jake took his job real serious. Soon as they were settled in he came over one day and got me to show him how to make bread. I’d have made the bread for him, been glad to; but he wouldn’t have it that way.

“Absolutely no reason, Lil,” he said, “why I can’t make my own bread.”

And pretty soon he was doing it, too. Fifteen loaves every Wednesday and fifteen loaves every Saturday. Nine children can eat an awful lot of bread.

He did his baking nights. Days he worked the farm, with the help of the older boys when they got home from school. Cass wanted to quit school and work full time with his dad, but Jake wouldn’t let him.

“Never got enough education myself,” he said, “but my kids are going to get it. High school, anyway. I won’t Continued on page 35

Continued on page 35

Red Is For the Living

Continued from page 11

make you go to university if you don’t want to. Not that I can see just now how we’d afford it anyway.” He grinned at the lot of us - Henry and I were visiting them that night. “Rut we’ll see about that when we get to it.” It was kind of funny to see a man settle so to a woman’s work. He was good at it, too. I remember one night I dropped by for a visit, and there was Jake, perched up on a stool in the kitchen, doing the ironing. He was working on one of Julie’s school dresses —she was seven then—and his hands fairly flew, and the dress came out sweet and crisp.

“Looks just like a woman done it,” I said. He looked at me kind of odd, and then he looked back at the ironing and he said, “When I’m starting a new job, I think back, and I see Bertha’s hands working ahead of me, and I just do what they do.” Then he turned the subject quick, and started to tell me about how well Julie was doing with her reading at school.

THAT first fall after they moved to the farm Jake took up sewing. There was a Woman’s Institute instructor going around to all the towns teaching dressmaking and such, and she came to Hilton on Thursdays. Jake came over to see me just before the first lesson. He was kind of embarrassed.

“It’s this way, Lil,” he said. “I got to learn to sew. The kids need clothes and it costs too much, buying them out of the catalogue. But I can’t go to these Institute classes because the other kids might tease my kids if they heard their dad was going to a woman’s meeting. So I just wondered if maybe I could come over here Thursday nights after the classes and sort of find out what you’ve learned.”

Well, 1 was more than glad to help, but I thought he’d tire of it soon. Never figured a man would take to sewing. But I was wrong. In next to no time he was better at it than 1 was. I can do good plain sewing, hut Jake had a touch. Things he made looked like something.

My girls were real jealous the next summer when Jake turned out his three youngest in yellow and pink and blue organdie dresses, with frills on them, and little frilled hats to match. Cute as a bug’s ear they were. Several of the women in town borrowed Jake’s pattern, that he had made up himself out of brown wrapping paper.

Things were going along well for the Hyatts by then. Not financially, I don’t mean. That way they were always pretty close to the line, though Jake spun the money out so careful you’d hardly guess. But in the happiness they had they were almost like before Bertha went.

In fact, it was funny, but sometimes it seemed to me like she really hadn’t gone. I’d be sitting in the kitchen talking to Jake, and the children would be playing around all over the house and out on the lawn; and I’d get the feeling that Bertha was there, too. Not right in the room with us, but somewhere in the house, in the next room, maybe, working along with Jake.

1AKE worked hard at being a mother, ** in little things, like always being there when the children got home from school, and always listening to their stories and troubles that were important to them, and sitting up late on the night before St. Valentine’s, helping them to make up verses for their homemade valentines.

But he was firm, too. As soon as they were big enough they all had their

chores. And he taught all the girls to cook and sew.

“Your mother and I want you to grow up to have happy homes of your own,” he’d tell them, “and being a good housekeeper’s a good start.”

Things didn’t always go smooth, of course. It was a terrible blow for Jake when young Bill got in that trouble.

Hilton isn’t a big town, just big enough to have quite a few boys and not much for them to do. They’d get together in the evenings and hang around the drugstore or the pool hall.

The Hyatts’ farm was just a couple of miles out of town, and after he’d done his chores young Bill used to go down to the highway and catch a ride in. Not in a wagon or a buggy. He’d wait for a car every time.

Bill was fifteen then, and crazy about cars. There were quite a few of them around by that time, but of course the Hyatts didn’t have one, and it was a car Bill wanted more than anything.

One night he went into town and was fooling around the drugstore with a couple of other boys when Jack Hallet parked bis car in front of the place. They saw him go along to the pool hall, and they knew he’d be there for a good long time and they went out to have a look at the car.

They didn’t mean to steal it. We all knew that. But I guess they thought Jack wouldn’t miss it for a while if they took a little spin. And then on the highway they got going faster and faster, and they didn’t know very much about driving, and they hit the ditch.

It was an awful shock because nothing like that had happened in Hilton for a long time. The boys weren’t hurt, just, shook up, and the car wasn’t badly damaged, hut it was the idea of the thing.

Jack Hallet didn’t call the police or anything. He knew the boys and their families, and was friends with them, and he knew the parents would make good the damage.

Jake didn’t say much when the telephone operator called up to tell him what had happened. He just took his buggy into town and paid Hallet what he owed him, and brought. Bill home.

But the next day he took the wagon out to where Henry was pulling down an old barn and paid him $50 for tin; lumber and took it down to the flats near the creek just out of {.own and dumped if. Then he sent word to the school that he’d like the high-school boys to meet him at the creek after school.

When they got there Jake was sitting on a keg of nails beside his carpentry kit.

“That’s lumber,” he told them. “Build yourselves a clubhouse. And if you dammed up that creek it would make a swimming hole in summer and a hockey rink in winter.”

Then he got in his wagon and went home.

The hoys painted their clubhouse barn-red after they finished it, and that winter they beat Barton at hockey. We never did have any more juvenile delinquency in Hilton.

And that fall Jake saved the money from the hogs and bought a car. It was pretty old and run-down. But it was a car.

7T1HE FIRST young one to leave JL Jake’s farm was Esther. She met Syd Crofton from Crystal Creek at a barn dance, and she fell in love with him. She was eighteen by that time, and a big help to Jake with the younger children; and although she was pretty unhappy about it she told me she was going to wait to get married till Jake d'dn’t need her any more. I thought that was right and proper.

But Jake didn’t when he found out.

He was mad. fíe was real mad.

“Esther Hyatt,” he said, bristling up like a little Bantam cock, “these here children are mine and Bertha’s. You go and have some of your own.”

He sat up nights making her wedding dress. It took three weeks.

It was the most beautiful dress. It was made of white satin with a little pointed collar, all hand-tucked, and a pointed train just like it, hand-tucked too. Esther wore her mother’s veil with it, and her mother’s orange blossoms, that »Jake had been saving all those years in his trunk.

Jake gave her away at the wedding, and he was shining with pride for her; if he felt sad to see her go he shut it up inside himself. Jake was odd about his children. He loved them like they was his whole life, but he wouldn’t hang onto them, not like I and other mothers do.

When I mentioned that he just said, “Bertha and 1 didn’t bring them up for us. We brought them up for themselves.” He always spoke about Bertha that way, as if she were standing right there at his elbow.

And what he said was the way it was. He and Bertha brought up those nine children, and when they were grown they let them go.

WHEN Cass was twenty-two, and wanted to marry Beth Hansard, Jake put a mortgage on the farm and helped them to buy the Henderson place because he thought they ought to have their own farm. Cass was a good worker. He paid that mortgage off in tw-o years.

And when Johnny wanted to go to agriculture college and learn the scientific things about farming, like that pig palace, Cass helped his dad to send him, and then took Johnny into partnership. They work well together, those two.

Bill never wanted much out of life, except cars, and IK; got that, after he went away for five years with the Army. He used his gratuities to buy a garage at Bayer’s Lake.

Sam and Peter went away to the war, too, They joined the Air Force together. I remember the last night they spent at the farm before they went overseas. I went up to say good-by, but when l got there 1 didn’t go in. They hadn’t drawn the blind, and 1 could see into the front room, and Jake was sitting at the piano, playing and singing and the boys were harmonizing with him, like they always used to when they were little boys.

They were singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” That’s supposed to ÍK» a funny song, isn’t it? I sat down on their front steps and had a little cry, and then I went home.

Jake sent them parcels every two weeks while they were overseas. He baked fruit cake and cookies, and he canned turkey. He always put a wishbone in the top of each can of turkey. Just for luck.

1 guess he was doing about as muc h baking then as he ever did, because he was sending parcels to Julie, too — she was in training for a nurse— and to Jessie. Jessie was going to art school in the city.

He let them all go; and when their trains pulled out he was always there on the platform, waving and smiling. Even though the smile went quick w hen the train was gone.

I wonder sometimes if that’s why they all come back. Because they do. Whenever they get the chance.

If it’s slow season on the farm, and Cass and Johnny could take a run up to the city for a week end, they don’t: they drive over to Jake’s. If Peter’s got a day off from interning, or Sam’s doctor will give him leave from the

hospital where he’s learning to walk again, or Jessie has a little holiday, I see them going past on the road to the old farm-all nine of them.

ON THIS particular day, it’s Mother’s Day, of course. I guess Jake Hyatt and the kids like to get together and remember Bertha.

And today they go past, one by one, waving at my kitchen window, or putting their heads through the door for a quick hello. All of them, and all wearing red carnations.

It used to be Jake’s geraniums when they were little and didn’t have any money for boughten flowers. But it was always red.

I asked Esther about that once, when she was a grown woman and the question couldn’t hurt any more. I said, “It’s usual, you know, for children to wear white flowers when their mother isn’t with them any more.” She looked at me gently. “It’s all right, Aunt Lil,” she told me. “My mother didn’t die. My dad just loved us twice as hard, for both of them.”