Thanksgiving Crossroads

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XLIV No. 11 (November, 1917)

Amelia Armstrong had come over to call on Mrs. Lucius Streeter, and had brought her work. A soft mass of blue wool in her lap emphasized the blue of Amelia's eyes. Amelia had pretty blue eyes and a humorous smile. Otherwise she was a simple, commonplace village woman, frankly elderly. Mrs. Streeter belonged to the same type, but she was not quite as accentuated as Amelia. She had a long, gentle face framed in dim blond hair. She wore a gown of black so rusty that it was almost gray. From time to time she glanced apologetically at the long folds over her knees.

“I haven't any business to wear this dress when you are here,” said she. “I'm wearing it out at home. It turned rusty in no time, but it ain't a mite worn out, and I don't feel as if I could afford to give it away; but it does look so rusty I always feel like saying something about it when folks come in.”

“I guess folks understand,” said Amelia. “Almost everybody has had black goods turn rusty before they were worn out. Black ain't as economical as lots of folks think. Phebe May won't wear it. She is a good deal older than I am, but she says she don't care. She says she don't like it and she won't wear it. She wanted this shawl bright blue. I'm knitting this for her. She likes bright blue, and if she wants to wear it I don't know who's got a better right.”

Mrs. Lucius Streeter nodded. “I say so, too. If folks can get any comfort out of little things like bright colors, in this hard world, I think they ought to. You keep right on living with Phebe, don't you, Amelia?”

Amelia laughed. “Of course I do,” said she. “I never would have struck the crossroads to Thanksgiving if it hadn't been for Phebe.”

Mrs. Streeter stared at her, mildly wondering. “I don't know just how you do get along with Phebe and her tongue,” she remarked hesitatingly.

Amelia laughed again. “You would know if you had been as uneasy and miserable as I was last year when Thanksgiving was as near as it is now. You've got your married daughter and your grandchildren, and you don't know how a woman who is alone in the world feels at Thanksgiving. Last year I wasn't thankful when I thought of Thanksgiving coming. I didn't mean to be wicked, but I had to be honest. I couldn't see much that I had to be thankful for. Of course I might have been worse off, but thinking of folks worse off has never made me a mite happier. I've never been quite so sure that many of the folks who were worse off really sensed it. There's Nancy Slosson, poor and dirty and shiftless, with a lot of children and a miserable husband — we all know what Silas Slosson is — and I've seen the whole of 'em stream by to a circus as happy as clams. Catch me going to a circus, let alone taking any comfort in it, if I was situated like Nancy Slosson! I've about made up my mind that you can't lighten your own burdens by thinking of somebody else's that seem heavier. Maybe they ain't heavier for her, or she'd be squashed flat as a flounder. No, last Thanksgiving I had to be honest before the Lord, and it didn't seem to me that I had much to be thankful for, and had any sensible reason for keeping the day.

“Of course I had a roof over me, if it did leak, and I had enough firewood; but it was a pouring rain and muggy as a dog-day, and I didn't need any fire anyhow. I began to wonder if I ought to be thankful because I didn't have to keep a big fire to roast a turkey, instead of complaining because I hadn't any turkey to roast, but that was like being thankful because I didn't have something that I didn't want. That morning I got in a dreadful muddle in my mind. I wasn't thankful, but I couldn't seem to see just what I was growling at. I didn't have any folks to come to Thanksgiving, but that wasn't anything new. I hadn't had any since I was a girl. Nobody had asked me to dinner, but nobody ever had, and there didn't seem to be much sense in fussing over that. I didn't have a turkey, but I hadn't had one for years, and I didn't mind that. I might have stewed a hen — I had some hens that didn't lay, and I'd been thinking of eating 'em — but somehow I'd got attached to those hens. Those hens and the cat were all the live things I had for company, and it did seem sort of ridiculous to keep Thanksgiving by eating 'em up — the hens, I mean, not the cat. I went out the day before and looked at an old Plymouth Rock hen that I knew would make a good stew if I cooked her long enough, and I felt like a cannibal. Instead of killing that hen I fed her. ‘For the land sake,’ says I, ‘let something around here have a Thanksgiving if they can. Don't take away Thanksgiving from a hen, for you don't know how much sense a hen has got to be thankful with. Nobody knows much about hens.’

“I did sort of worry about the cat, with no chicken bones; but she likes squash and I cooked a whole squash the day before Thanksgiving. When I waked up Thanksgiving morning and saw the windows streaming with rain, thinks I, ‘A pretty Thanksgiving, real pretty!’ I saw a damp place in the ceiling, and I ran up-garret in my nightgown and set pails around, for I didn't want the ceilings coming down. I know that I might be worse than unthankful, I might be hopping mad; and, do you know, seeing somebody hopping mad was how I came to be thankful, after all.

“You know what an awful temper Phebe has got. As you say, everybody knows her. Well, Phebe got in one of her worst tantrums that day, and she was a godsend. I got up and dressed and fed the hens. They were all huddled in the coop, and didn't seem to be taking much comfort, if they weren't killed, and that made me feel more upset. I gave the cat some squash, but she didn't seem to care much about it, and I wondered how much cats knew; if they were unthankful and miserable because they didn't have everything. I made a cup of tea for myself, and I ate a slice of bread and butter, then I sat down by the sitting-room window and was honest and unthankful. There was I, getting older, and with hardly enough to live on after the taxes were paid, and me, being a woman, having nothing to say about the taxes anyhow. I wasn't strong enough to work and earn money; I never was, you know. I haven't been bedridden, but I have never been strong. I might have been deformed, but that morning it didn't make me any more thankful to see my face in the looking-glass, yellow and wrinkled, and my hair gray and thin.

“I sat there thinking how dreadful everything was, and how it didn't make things any better thinking they might be worse, because if they had been worse most likely I wouldn't have minded it any more. I actually thought of the women in the poorhouse. Of course I'm proud, and wouldn't want to go on the town, but I really wondered if, after I had gone on the town, I wouldn't have liked it better, sitting down to roast pork and apple sauce and mince pie with a lot of other women just as bad off, than sitting all alone looking out at the rain.

“Then I saw Phebe coming. At first I didn't know who she was. She was all wrapped up on account of the rain. She didn't have any umbrella, but she had tied a little black shawl over her bonnet, and her petticoats were pinned up so you could see her ankles, and she was dragging a little boy's express wagon, with ‘A Good Boy’ painted on the sides, red letters on yellow, and she had a great basket, and she could hardly get along. I couldn't hear her, but I could see her mouth going and I knew she was scolding. I jumped up and got my umbrella and ran out. I was at the gate when she reached it. She was scolding, sure enough, right out on the street, at the top of her lungs. I guess I was a little bit thankful then that I had sense enough to keep my mouth shut if I wasn't thankful.

“‘What on earth is to pay, Phebe?’ says I. Phebe, she looked up at me, and if ever I saw a woman's face that was mad clean through, it was hers. She was so mad that she spit just like a cat when she talked, and she talked so fast I couldn't make out much at first. I grabbed her basket and the wagon handle. ‘For goodness' sake, go right in out of the rain,’ says I. ‘What have you got in this little wagon?’

“‘A fifteen-pound turkey and two chickens and a roast of pork and one of beef and a great pumpkin and a peck of potatoes and one of onions,’ sputters Phebe.

“‘You run right into the house, and I'll drag the little wagon round through the shed door,’ says I.

“Phebe, she scuttles in, scolding all the way, and I dragged the wagon round through the shed. It was all I could do, and the basket was as heavy as lead. When I got into the kitchen Phebe had taken off her things, and she was standing over the stove, steaming, she was so wet. I put another stick on the fire, and made her go into my bedroom and take off her wet dress and put on one of mine. When she came out she was talking just as fast as ever.

“‘Now, Phebe,’ says I, and I tried to speak kind of calm and firm, ‘you just hold your hosses and speak a little slower, and don't act quite so mad, and let me find out what the matter is.’

“When Phebe told me I didn't much wonder that she was mad. There she was, living in that little room that she rented of Mrs. Henry Jones, and she hadn't any stove except a little kerosene one, and she had to ask Mrs. Jones for oven room when she wanted to bake bread; and there Phebe's nieces and nephews — she's got a slew of them — had sent her that fifteen-pound turkey and all the other things. They had just come, and she'd had to pay express on them, and she didn't know what to do.

“‘Mrs. Jones's father sent her a turkey, and her oven's full,’ says Phebe, ‘and I'd like to know what I can do with all this stuff, anyway? If they'd sent a little money! Oh, my stars, to be as I am, all alone in the world, except for a lot of far-off relations who don't care a mite about me. They only want to save their own souls, and they don't quite darse take no notice of me. Oh, my stars! to have things flung at me, 'stead of given, more than I want! Want! They don't care what I want! They just want to give so's to save their own souls. It isn't me they're giving to, it's themselves. I ain't a mite thankful, not a mite. Oh, my stars! Amelia, what can I do with all this truck?’

“Well, in spite of me, I began to laugh, and that made her madder. ‘Laugh, if you want to,’ says she. ‘You always were snickering at something.’

“‘Now look here, Phebe,’ says I. ‘Don't you scold any more. We've got enough here for a hotel, and we're going to take some free boarders. You pick over those cranberries quick, and I'll get the oven hot and the turkey stuffed and ready for roasting.’

“‘Two lone women with a fifteen-pound turkey and two chickens and all the rest of the meat,’ sniffs Phebe, ‘and there's a plum pudding, too; there's all the fixings! Oh, my stars; they ought to have a high seat for this! Oh, my stars!’

“Phebe couldn't help scolding. I didn't expect her to. She had some reason, and, anyway, she was a natural scolder, so I let her scold. After a little I began to think it was real entertaining. I worked and she worked, I'll say that for her. She turned off a good deal, scolding all the time, too, and we got everything started. The turkey began to smell real nice, cooking.

“‘Now, Phebe,’ says I, ‘you just sit right down in front of the stove with that spoon, and you baste the turkey real often. I'm going out a little way.’

“‘Where to?’ says she.

“‘I'm going down and tell Nancy and all those Slosson children to come up here and eat all they want for once in their lives,’ says I.

“‘Those Slossons are awful low-down,’ says Phebe.

“‘I don't care how low-down they are; they have never had enough to eat;’ says I.

“‘Ain't it better for such folks to starve to death and done with it?’ says Phebe. ‘Oh, my stars! a poor lone woman having things flung at her this way!’

“‘Well,’ says I, ‘we'll fling things at the Slosson children.’

“Phebe looked at me, and then she sort of smiled. It seemed to her she was going to get even with something. I don't know whether it was Providence or her nieces and nephews.

“Down she sits with the spoon, and I put up my umbrella and went out in all that rain. I found Mrs. Slosson and all the children at home. Mr. Slosson had gone off the night before and hadn't got back. ‘He's got drunk, most likely,’ says Nancy, as easy as could be.

“‘What are you and the children going to have for Thanksgiving?’ says I. Nancy, she smiles and kisses her baby. ‘There's a little 'lasses in the house, and by and by they're going to make candy,’ says she. All the children shouted. They were pretty children, what you could see of them. They were certainly dirty. Well, I made Nancy wash some of the children, and I washed the others. I tackled the dirtiest. I was rather suspicious of Nancy's washing. Poor Nancy had only one washbasin, so I used an old tin dish. It leaked, and it took me longer, because I had to allow for that. Then we dressed the children in their best clothes — that wasn't saying much. And we wrapped a lot of things around them so they wouldn't get soaked to the skin, and we set out. Those children went on a dead run. I never saw anything like it in my life. They whooped and screeched, and I began to wonder what Phebe would say when she heard them coming. But I do believe you never can tell where you are at when it's a woman with children. There was Phebe standing in my door smiling, and I never thought she could smile. And she grabbed the Slosson children and took off their wet things, and she laughed to kill when they sniffed the turkey and hollered, they were so glad.

“Phebe was as nice with that brood of children as if she had been the mother of twelve. She managed them better than I could. She set them all to work helping about the dinner, and they were as good as kittens, and minded every word she said.

“When the dinner was ready, they sat down. Then Phebe, she raised her hand sort of impressive, and she asked a blessing. I was never more astonished in my life. I didn't dream of her doing such a thing. She asked a beautiful blessing, too. She just said, ‘Oh, Father in Heaven, make all thy children, those who take and those who give, worthy of Thy bounty, which is for takers and givers.’

“The children stared, but they behaved real pretty. Poor Nancy almost cried. Then they ate. I never saw children eat until I saw that Slosson brood. For once they certainly had all the dinner they wanted. They stayed all the afternoon, and they made candy. Phebe knew how to make lovely molasses candy. They had candy to take home, and Nancy had a basket full, chicken and turkey and cake and pies and pudding and nuts. They went home about as happy as I ever saw human beings.

“As for Phebe and me, we certainly had thankful hearts when we went to bed that night. Phebe stayed all night. I wouldn't let her go home in that soaking rain. She slept in the spare bedroom, and when I waked up in the night I felt real happy thinking she was there. Next morning I said to her, ‘Phebe, you and I have been acting like a pair of fools. Here we are, two lone women, and there isn't any need of it. Here you've been paying more than it's worth for that little room at Mrs. Jones's, and here am I with my nice spare bedroom, lonesome as I can be, with nobody but the hens and the cat, that can't do a thing except cackle and mew, for company. Now,’ says I, ‘there isn't one thing to hinder your living with me, and you can pay me the money you've been paying Mrs. Jones for room rent, and that will make us square about expenses, and we can both take a lot of comfort.’

“Phebe, she begins to cry. Poor Phebe, there's a good many worse than she is. She's had an awful hard time, and it saves her from having conniption fits sometimes to scold about it. And goodness knows, I'm willing to listen.

“The very next day she came over, and we've got along together as well as anybody could want to. Phebe, she scolds, and I kick against the pricks. Then we both settle back peaceful-like. It seems to us both as if we'd reached thankfulness for the blessings we have, and the trials we don't have, by a special crossroads.

“If Phebe's nephews and nieces send her as much this Thanksgiving as they did last, and she says they're sure to — they're so rich they're worried about their souls' salvation — we're going to ask the Slossons over again. And there's going to be a Thanksgiving again this year for somebody else besides hens.”