Authors: Laura Amy Schlitz
Sunday, June the fourth, 1911
Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book. I vow that I will never forget her kindness to me, and I will use this book as she told me to — I will write in it with
“I’m so sorry you won’t be coming back to school,” Miss Chandler said to me, and at those words, the floodgates opened, and I wept most bitterly. I’ve been crying off and on ever since Father told me that from now on I have to stay at home and won’t get any more education.
Dear Miss Chandler made soft murmurings of pity and offered me her handkerchief, which was perfectly laundered, with three violets embroidered in one corner. I never saw a prettier handkerchief. It seemed terrible to cry all over it, but I did. While I was collecting myself, Miss Chandler spoke to me about the special happiness that comes of doing one’s duty at home, but I didn’t pay much heed, because when I wiped my eyes, I saw smears on the cloth. I knew my face was dirty, and I was awful mortified.
Then all at once, she said something that rang out like a peal of church bells. “You must remember,” she said, “that dear Charlotte Brontë didn’t have a superior education. And yet she wrote
I believe you have a talent for composition, dear Joan. Indeed, when I used to mark student essays, I always put yours at the back of the pile, so I could look forward to reading them. You express yourself with vigor and originality, but you must strive for truth and refinement.”
I stopped crying then, because I thought of myself writing a book as good as
and being famous, and getting away from Steeple Farm and being so rich I could go to Europe and see castles along the Rhine, or Notre Dame in Paris, France.
So after Miss Chandler left, I vowed that I will always remember her as an inspiration, and that I will write in this book in my best handwriting, with TRUTH and REFINEMENT. Which last I think I lack the worst, because who could be refined living at Steeple Farm?
Sunday, June the eleventh, 1911
Today I thought I might go up to the Presbyterian — mercy, what a word to spell! — church and return Miss Chandler’s handkerchief. It has been a bad week for writing because of the sheepshearing and having to stitch up summer overalls for the men.
I washed Miss Chandler’s handkerchief very carefully and pressed it and wrapped it in brown paper so my hands wouldn’t dirty it. I’m always washing my hands, but I can’t keep them clean. Sometimes it seems to me that everything in this house is stuffed to the seams with the dirt that the men track in. Even though I clean the surfaces of things, underneath is all that filth, aching to get loose. It sweats out the minute I turn my back. I scrub and sweep the floors, but the men’s boots keep bringing in the barnyard, day after day, year after year. Luke is the worst because he never uses the scraper, and when I look at him fierce, he smiles. He knows I hate to sweep up after him. Father and Matthew never think about it one way or the other. Mark is my favorite brother because he wipes his feet sometimes, and when he doesn’t, he looks sorry.
But it isn’t just the men. They bring in the smells from the cowshed and the pigsty, but I’m the one who has to clean out the chicken house and scrub the privy. My hands are always dirty from blacking the stove and hauling out the ashes. They’re as rough as the hands of an old woman.
But this kind of writing is not refined.
I put on my Sunday dress and took the packet with Miss Chandler’s handkerchief. I so hoped she would be in church. It seems a hundred years since I saw her last.
We don’t go to church at Steeple Farm. When I was little, and Ma was alive, she used to take me to the Catholic church in Lancaster, but that’s nine miles off, and Father says the horses need to rest on Sunday. They aren’t resting today; they’re harrowing the lower field. But the Presbyterian church is less than three miles away, so I can walk.
Ma married outside her Faith, but she told me Father used to be very pious and religious before I was born. That’s why he named my brothers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and if I’d been a boy, I’d have been John, instead of Joan. When I was a baby, we had three bad harvests in a row, and Father made up his mind that religion was hogwash. So when Father wants to work on Sundays, he does, and we never go to church anymore.
I find I’m in two minds about this. I remember how when I was a little thing, the services seemed so long. My legs hurt from sitting still, and I wasn’t allowed to swing my feet. If I fidgeted, Ma would put her hands on mine to stop me. But St. Mary’s had stained glass in the windows, and the light glowing through the colors was so beautiful it made me feel holy inside.
After the service Ma would light a candle in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, and I loved
because she was as slender as a girl, with a smile that looked as if she was teasing someone she loved very dearly. I still pray to her — I carry a picture of the statue in my mind — and sometimes she answers me back, though I’m never sure if the voice is hers or Ma’s, or if the whole thing is my imagination.
It was warm this morning. I tried not to walk too fast, because I didn’t want to look red faced and hot when I saw Miss Chandler. My Sunday dress this year is heavy cotton. I declare, that dress is a sore spot with me. Father always asks the storekeeper what’s cheap, and that’s what he buys. This year what was cheap was a chocolate-brown twill with little bunches of purple flowers on it. Something went wrong with the printing, and the flowers are all blotched and don’t look like flowers at all. Because the pattern was spoiled, the cloth was so cheap that Father bought the rest of the bolt and says it can be next year’s new dress, too. I was so despairing that I went upstairs to cry. One of my books
, Dombey and Son,
is about a girl named Florence and her awful father that she loves even though he never pays any attention to her. But Florence has pretty clothes and she doesn’t have to work as hard as I do, so I guess it’s easier for her to love her father.
Father says I grow so fast there’s no use wasting money on my clothes. He calls me an ox of a girl, and I wish he wouldn’t, because when I look in the mirror, that’s what I see. I wish I weren’t so tall and coarse-like. Even my hair is ox colored, reddish brown and neither curly nor straight, but each strand kinked and thick and standing away from the others. My braids are almost as thick as my wrists, and my wrists are all thick and muscled from scrubbing.
The Presbyterian church isn’t as pretty as St. Mary’s, because there is no colored glass. But it’s very clean and bright inside, and the morning was fine, and the ladies wore their best hats. I looked for Miss Chandler’s hat, which has the wing of an arctic tern on it, but I couldn’t see it. I saw two girls from school, Alice Marsh and Lucy Watkins. I sat down in the back and was glad they couldn’t see me. Alice isn’t so bad; she will speak to me quite pleasantly if Lucy and Hazel Fry aren’t with her, and she doesn’t tease. But I think Alice is a coward, because she lets Lucy and Hazel decide who her friends should be. I wouldn’t let another girl make up my mind for me like that. I can never decide whether to be grateful to Alice because she is kinder than the others, or whether I ought to despise her for being such a poltroon. So I do both.
Lucy Watkins and Hazel Fry. After Ma died I didn’t do the washing as regular as I might because there was so much else I had to do — all the cooking and putting food by. The men didn’t seem to mind so much if I was behind with the laundry, and I guess that first year I looked slatternly, because Ma wasn’t there to help me with my clothes. That was when the other girls set their faces against me. I remember we had to read a poem by William Shakespeare, and the part about spring was so beautiful, with flowers called lady’s-smocks painting the meadow with delight. But the second part of the poem was about winter, not spring, and it was about someone called Greasy Joan keeling the pot, and that’s when Lucy Watkins started giggling, and the other girls joined in. At recess they called me Greasy Joan. I told the teacher. It was Miss Lang then, and I loved her dearly, though not so much as dear Miss Chandler. Miss Lang said that now that I was growing up to be a young lady, I must work hard to keep my hair neat and my clothes pressed. She said — I remember how she lowered her voice when she said it — that my things were not so fresh as they might be. I knew she meant to be kind. But I also knew that what she meant was that I smelled bad. I was dreadfully ashamed, and I never felt the same toward Miss Lang after that. She must have rebuked Lucy and Hazel, and she made them stop calling me Greasy Joan. But sometimes they’d put their heads together and giggle, and I knew they were still thinking it.