Chapter 2: God Will Take Care of Us

HollyTreeHouseStoneyBrook
Holly Tree House in Stony Brook, Long Island, where the Johnstons lived. Isabel Johnston, Aggie’s sister, lived there most of her life.

Summary: Aggie and Izzy witness a terrible argument between their parents, and the father hops a stagecoach out of town on Christmas morning.

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Mama had good reason not to trust Papa. “I’ve trusted you too many times on things that have gone up in smoke, and if you think I’m going to take all we’ve got left—the only real home Aggie and Izzy have ever had—and throw it into the ash can, you’re just plain daffy,” she said.

“All right, all right,” Papa bellowed. “And why haven’t I been able to make a fortune? Because you’ve always fought my schemes for making big money. Because you’ve never had faith in me.”

Mama couldn’t answer for her sobs. She ran out of the room, her shoulders hunched together. Papa stomped after her. I could hear them shouting at each other on the stairs and in their bedroom.

I stole a look at Izzy. Her face was blank, her eyes fixed on her book, but her eyes weren’t moving so I knew she wasn’t reading. I didn’t say anything. That’s the way we always were about Papa and Mama’s quarrels. We never let on to each other that we noticed them.

“Izzy, “ I said. “We’d better get a wriggle on and do the dishes,” She raised her head and looked at me with pained blue eyes. “My stomach hurts,” she said.

Izzy was the beauty of the family–big blue eyes, fair skin and golden hair. I was dark and skinny, with brown eyes and stooped shoulders. My newly protruding breasts embarrassed me and I leaned over to try to hide them. Mama considered Izzy “delicate” and was always excusing her from household tasks. Usually I resented this, but tonight I knew she felt bad about Papa and Mama quarreling and I wanted to protect her. I patted her on the shoulder and said, “Oh, go back and sit down.”

I went to the kitchen, but before starting the dishes I sat down in front of half of a chocolate cake left over from dessert. Mama had made it when she heard Papa was coming home because it was his favorite. She had forbidden me to have more than one piece. Too many sweets were apt to upset my stomach and I’d have to take castor oil. Now I recklessly cut myself a big slice, hoping it would make me sick. Then Papa and Mama would be sorry for making me feel bad with their quarreling.

The rich cake felt heavy in my stomach. My mind drifted into brooding imaginings, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I would be the one who saved our home and kept the family together. I ‘d go to my parents in a touching “little child shall lead them” role. I’d tell them they were breaking my heart by their quarreling. And, if that didn’t bring them together, I’d take a water glass to sever the veins of my wrists—by this time my imagination was roaring full blast—as Petronius and Eunice had done in “Quo Vadis.” What a beautiful way to die! No pain, it was said. I’d take Papa and Mama by the hands—No, I couldn’t do that with my wrists slashed, could I? Well, at least I could gasp out a dying plea with my eyes sorrowfully tragic. I picked up a water glass and tentatively pushed the rim against my wrist. But then the chocolate cake caught up with me and I had to go outside and be sick.

The next morning, Mama cooked a specially nice breakfast for Papa. His favorites, ham omelet and French toast. I knew she was trying to make up to him for the quarrel the night before. He came downstairs, wearing his business suit and carrying his suitcase. Mama, bringing in the coffee pot, saw him from the dining room. She called to him, “Parry, breakfast’s ready. Everything you like…” She saw his suitcase and her face fell.

He looked at her, his face stony. “Don’t want any breakfast. I’m not going to eat another meal in this house till you show you have some faith I me and let me get that second mortgage.”

At that moment came the sound of the village stage rattling up on the road outside and the harsh voice of Mr. Davis, the driver, shouting “Giddy up!” to his horses. Papa rushed to the front door and stuck his head out to shout to him to stop, then came to give Izzy and me hurried goodbye kisses. Mama started toward him but before she could reach him, he was out of the house, banging the door behind him. I was afraid to look at her, thinking I couldn’t stand the pain on her face. But her voice was angry. “Now that gossipy Mr. Davis will have it all over town that your father left us on Christmas morning.”

I’ve always wondered about Papa and Mama. He was a minister’s son, wild in the minister’s son tradition. Mama came from a church-going  Methodist family. It was hard to understand what brought them together in the first place, much less made them marry. Perhaps some strong sex urge had temporarily broken through mama’s primness and made Papa forget his conviviality  They must have loved each other at times to have Izzy and me, but, if so, the glow was gone before I was old enough  to have any memory of it. Poor Papa and Mama! If they had lived nowadays, a good psychiatrist might have broken down the barrier between them and let them have the happiness together I’m sure they really wanted.

Papa didn’t come back and he didn’t send us any money. But Mama said, “We can get along without him. God will take care of us.”

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