“There is no cause to worry. The high tide of prosperity will continue.” — Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury in September 1929. Just one month later, the American stock market crashed into what was later called the Great Depression. The following is a fictional account of the impact of the historical events.
~ ~ ~
When I walked into the kitchen for breakfast, Mother stopped me. “You’re not going to school today.”
I blinked. Mother’s face was pinched was stressed, and I knew better than to interrupt.
“I need you to do something.” She took my hands gently in hers. “Mrs. Brathwaite knows of another house that needs cleaning.” Mrs. Brathwaite, my mother’s boss. The weight of that statement sunk in. “Now, you’d be just down the street from me, a few houses down, doing chores just like you do at home, except you’d be earning your wages, like me. She said you can start this morning. Can you do this for me, Evelyn?”
“Of course I can.” Several girls in my class had already left school to go work like their mothers and fathers. My chest puffed out in pride that I, Evelyn Stork, would be able to help my mother like the other girls help theirs.
“When you’re there, you can’t give her no back talking.”
I nodded. “But what about baby Faye?” I helped my sister in the mornings, after Mother went to work and before I left school.
“Grandpapa will look after your sister this morning, like he does during the day. Don’t worry about it.” She ran a hand over my hair, smoothing my obstinate fly-aways, and then she straightened. “I will walk with you this morning, on the way to Mrs. Brathwaite’s. Let’s go.”
My stomach growled just then, but I quickly pulled my arms over my belly, trying to muffle the noise. I knew that the ice box and the pantry were still empty, just as they were last night. I didn’t want Mother to hear my hunger and feel worse than she already did.
My first day as a cleaning lady was like most first days at school – awkward and bumbling. I was too short to reach some of the spider webs in the corners of the foyer, I didn’t polish the silver well enough, and I slipped once when I waxed the stairs. The lady of the house was kind, and when she told me she’d like me to stay on, I could have hugged the elegant, gracious old lady. I made mistakes that were perhaps worthy of being let go, but all day I thought of the grief – and hunger – I would cause my family if I didn’t have this job.
The hardest part of my day came as I walked home, in the fading light of the evening. Mother would be home already. Today was pay day for her, so we’d most likely have a feast tonight. A feast would only be a couple baked squash to share, but the thought made my stomach ache even more.
Suddenly shadowy figures appeared in front of me. I knew who they were before I saw their faces shine in the moonlight.
“Well, if it isn’t Evelyn Stork,” a voice purred.
It was Clifton and his crew of two idiotic sidekicks. I rolled my eyes at them and kept walking, but my heart picked up speed and my free hand was already clenched into a defensive fist.
“Didn’t see you at school today,” he said in a sing-song voice, following me.
“That’s because I wasn’t there.”
He glanced at the dusty apron I was wearing. “No more school for you, I see. Another school girl bites the dust.” He slapped his knee. “The dust,” he said between spurts of laughter. “How cute. Really, it is. You dropped out to help your cripple grandpop and your snot-nosed little sister.”
“Just because he used to have polio, doesn’t mean he’s a cripple,” I growled through a clenched jaw.
“Oh,” howled Clifton. “The cleaning lady can talk back!”
But he wasn’t done. He started to say some crude comment about my mother, and that was when something inside me cracked. I picked up a stick on the side of the road and held it in front of me as a weapon. I swung at him, purposefully missing – by a mere centimeter. “I’ve been cleaning cob webs all day, and I found I have pretty good aim when it comes to sticks.”
Clifton only laughed. “Hey now, you know I was just playing.” But he muttered to his two silent friends, “She’s not worth all this trouble.” The three of them scampered off in the opposite direction. I felt my fists begin to relax, and I tossed the stick back into the ditch.
I was grateful when I reached the warm halo of my home. The first thing Mother did when she saw me was pick the cob webs out of my hair. “How did you get all that on you?”
“Must have hit my head on the ceiling once,” I said, as if I didn’t remember how it happened. But I did. I was on a ladder, using a broomstick to collect the sticky web, when I was starting to get sleepy from being so hungry and started to doze off. I dreamt of Mother’s disappointed face if I got fired, and I jolted awake. I hit my head on the part of the ceiling I hadn’t cleared yet.
“Are you alright? Did you have a bump?”
“I’m fine, Ma. I have a strong head.”
“That’s true, you’ve always been headstrong,” said Grandpapa with a twinkle in his eye.
I knew I was headstrong, and even though everyone made it out to be a good thing, I longed for the day when I didn’t have to be anymore. I sighed, watching the three of them. My pinched-faced mother, limping grandfather, and gurgling baby sister. My first day of cleaning could’ve gone smoother, of course. And I already missed my friends from school. But strength is what kept my patched up family together. Looking at them, I knew I would be headstrong for as long as they needed me to me.