Authors: Jeanne Birdsall
For David, Amy, and Tim
HEIR MOTHER HAD BEEN HERE
in the hospital with the new baby for almost a week. Though the three little Penderwick girls had been to visit her every day—sometimes twice a day—it wasn’t enough. They wanted her to come home.
“When, Mommy?” asked Jane, the youngest of the three.
“You’ve asked her five times already, and she doesn’t know.” Rosalind was the oldest and felt the responsibility of it deeply, though she was only eight. “May I hold Batty, Aunt Claire?”
Aunt Claire, their father’s sister, carefully handed the baby over to Rosalind, who thought that holding babies was one of the great joys of life, even when the baby was asleep and didn’t know she was being held.
“Mommy, can you at least come home for a visit? You don’t need to bring the baby with you.” Skye was the sister between Rosalind and Jane, and the only one who had inherited their mother’s blond hair and blue eyes. The other two had their father’s—and Aunt Claire’s—dark curls and brown eyes. And while the baby so far had only fuzz, it looked like she was going to be dark, too.
“When I come home, honey, I’m afraid Batty’s coming with me,” said their mother, laughing. Then she stopped laughing and pressed her hands to her side.
“The gift shop!” said Aunt Claire, jumping out of her chair. “Why don’t you three go to the gift shop and get yourselves treats?”
“We don’t have any money,” said Jane.
“I’ll give you money.” Aunt Claire pulled a bill from her wallet and handed it to Skye. “Rosalind, better leave Batty here. She’s still too young for the gift shop.”
“Maybe we can get her a present, anyway.” Rosalind reluctantly laid the baby into the white bassinet beside her mother’s bed.
“There’s not enough money for her, too,” said Skye.
“Manners!” said her mother.
But Aunt Claire smiled and handed several more bills to Skye. “Now get going, my greedy pirates!”
Aunt Claire was that most perfect kind of relative—she loved and understood children but had none of her own to take attention away from nieces. So the sisters didn’t mind when she called them names. Indeed, Skye seemed proud of being called a pirate, heading off to the gift shop with a bold, seafaring strut. Rosalind took Jane’s hand and followed less boisterously, saying hello along the way to the many nurses they’d befriended during the week.
The shop was just up the hall and around the corner—the girls knew the way, for they’d been there many times, but never with so much money. Aunt Claire had been generous. There was enough for each girl to get at least a small treasure. Skye went straight to the watches, for she’d been yearning for a black one. Jane looked at everything—she always did—then ended up at the dolls, just as she always did. Rosalind picked out a stuffed black dog for Batty, then headed over to the jewelry case. Her best friend, Anna, had just gotten a new turquoise ring, and Rosalind thought nothing would be better than to have one like it.
When she got to the jewelry, her eye was drawn not to the rings, though, but to a delicate gold necklace with five dangling hearts—the largest one in the middle, with two smaller hearts on either side. She looked at the price, did a quick calculation on her fingers, did it again to make sure, then called her sisters over.
“We should buy that necklace for Mommy,” she said.
“It would take up all of the money we have.” Skye had already strapped a black watch onto her wrist.
“I know, but Mommy would love it. The big heart is her, and the four little ones are us three and the baby.”
“This one’s me,” said Jane, pointing to one of the small hearts. “Rosalind, is Mommy still sick?”
“Because of Batty?”
“Because of the cancer,” answered Rosalind. She hated that word, “cancer.” “Remember how Daddy explained it to us? But she’s going to get better soon.”
“Of course she is,” said Skye fiercely. “Daddy said the doctors are doing everything they can, and they’re the best doctors in the universe.”
“All right,” said Jane. “I vote we buy Mommy the necklace.”
“Rats.” Skye disappeared, then came back without the watch and with a saleslady who put the necklace in a box with a bow on top.
Rosalind was now anxious to get back to her mother and Batty. Skye and Jane, though, had spotted their favorite nurse, Ruben, who always had time to give them a wheelchair ride. Knowing they’d be safe with Ruben, Rosalind hurried back down the hall, slowing down only when she got to the right room. But instead of going in, she hung back, for she could hear her mother and aunt murmuring together—and it sounded like one of those conversations grown-ups had when children weren’t supposed to be around. It wasn’t bad manners to listen, Rosalind knew, because the murmuring was too low to be understood. But then the two women raised their voices, and Rosalind couldn’t help understanding every word.
“No, Lizzy, no,” Aunt Claire was saying. “It’s too soon to talk about this. It sounds like you’ve given up.”
“You know I’ll never give up until there’s no hope left, Claire. Please just promise me that if I don’t make it, you’ll give Martin my letter in three or four years. You know he’s too shy to start dating without encouragement, and I just can’t bear to think of him being lonely.”
“He’ll have the girls.”
“And someday they’ll grow up and—”
The sentence was broken off, for Ruben had arrived with Skye and Jane squashed into a wheelchair, squealing and giggling. They tumbled out and ran into the room while Rosalind followed more slowly, trying to puzzle out what she’d heard. What did her mother mean about not making it? And why would her father be dating? She felt so cold inside she was shivering, which only got worse as she saw Aunt Claire sliding a blue envelope into her pocket. Was that the letter her mother had mentioned?
Skye and Jane were so noisily excited about the wheelchair ride and about handing over the necklace, and then their mother was so pleased with the necklace and looked so lovely wearing it, that no one noticed that Rosalind was off to one side, pale and quiet. And then, too soon, a nurse arrived with a frightening-looking cart and made it clear that mother and baby both needed their rest. Reluctantly, the girls kissed their mother good-bye.
Rosalind took her turn last. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mommy,” she whispered. Maybe by then she’d have the right questions to ask—about hope, about Daddy being lonely, and about that scary blue letter.
But Rosalind never got to ask her questions, and soon they’d been pushed aside and forgotten, for when tomorrow came, her mother was suddenly getting weaker instead of stronger. Despite the best efforts by the best doctors, within a week hope ran out altogether. Elizabeth Penderwick had enough time to say good-bye to her husband and girls one unbearable evening, but only just enough. She died before dawn the next morning, with baby Batty nestled, calm and quiet, in her arms.
Rosalind Bakes a Cake
OUR YEARS AND FOUR MONTHS LATER
Rosalind was happy. Not the kind of passionate, thrilling happy that can quickly turn into disappointment, but the calm happy that comes when life is steadily going along just the way it should. Three weeks earlier, she’d started seventh grade at the middle school, which was turning out not to be as overwhelming as rumored, mostly because she and her best friend, Anna, shared all the same classes. And it was late September, and the leaves were on the verge of bursting into wild colors—Rosalind adored autumn. And it was a Friday afternoon, and although school was all right, who doesn’t like weekends better?
On top of all that, Aunt Claire was coming to visit for the weekend. Beloved Aunt Claire, whose only flaw was that she lived two hours away from the Penderwicks’ home in Cameron, Massachusetts. But she tried to make up for it by visiting often, and now she was arriving this evening. Rosalind had so many things to tell her, mostly about the family’s summer vacation, three wonderful weeks at a place called Arundel in the Berkshires. There had been many adventures with a boy named Jeffrey, and for a while Rosalind had thought that she might be in love with another boy—an older one—named Cagney, but that had come to nothing. Now Rosalind was determined to stay away from love and its confusions for many years, but still she wanted to talk it all over with her aunt.
There was lots to get done before Aunt Claire arrived—clean sheets on the bed, clean towels in the bathroom, and Rosalind wanted to bake a cake—but first she had to pick up her little sister Batty at Goldie’s Day Care. She did so every day on the walk home from school, and even that was part of her happiness. For this was the first year her father had given her the responsibility for her sisters after school and until he came home. Before now, there had always been a babysitter, one or another of the beautiful Bosna sisters, who lived down the street from the Penderwicks. And though the Bosnas had been good babysitters as well as beautiful, Rosalind considered herself much too old now—twelve years and eight months—for a babysitter.
The walk from Cameron Middle School to Goldie’s took ten minutes, and Rosalind was on her last minute now. She could see on the corner ahead of her the gray clapboard house, with its wide porch full of toys. And now she could see—she picked up her pace—a small girl alone on the steps. She had dark curls and was wearing a red sweater, and Rosalind ran the last several yards, scolding as she went.
“Batty, you’re supposed to stay inside until I get here,” she said. “You know that’s the rule.”
Batty threw her arms around Rosalind. “It’s okay, because Goldie’s watching me through the window.”
Rosalind looked up, and it was true. Goldie was at the window, waving and smiling. “Even so, I want you to stay inside from now on.”
“All right. But—” Batty held up a finger swathed in Band-Aids. “I just was dying to show you this. I cut myself during crafts.”
Rosalind caught up the finger and kissed it. “Did it hurt terribly?”
“Yes,” said Batty proudly. “I bled all over the clay and the other kids screamed.”
“That sounds exciting.” Rosalind helped Batty into her little blue backpack. “Now let’s go home and get ready for Aunt Claire.”
Most days the two sisters would linger on their walk home from Goldie’s—at the sassafras tree, with leaves shaped like mittens, and at the storm drain that flooded just the right amount when it rained, so you could splash through without getting water in your boots. Then there was the spotted dog who barked furiously but only wanted to be petted, and the cracks in the sidewalk that Batty had to jump over, and the brown house with flower gardens all around, and the telephone poles that sometimes had posters about missing cats and dogs. Batty always studied these carefully, wondering why people didn’t take better care of their pets.
But today, because of Aunt Claire’s visit, they hurried along, stopping only for Batty to move to safety a worm that had unwisely strayed onto the sidewalk, and soon they were turning the corner onto Gardam Street, where they lived. It was a quiet street, with only five houses on each side, and a cul-de-sac at the end. The Penderwick sisters had always lived there, and they knew and loved every inch of it, from one end to the other. Even when Rosalind was in a hurry, like today, she noted with satisfaction the tall maples that marched along the street—one in every front yard—and the rambling houses that were not so young anymore, but still comfortable and well cared for. And there was always someone waving hello. Today it was Mr. Corkhill, mowing his lawn, and Mrs. Geiger, driving by with a car full of groceries—and then Rosalind stopped waving back, for Batty had broken into a run.
“Come on, Rosalind!” cried Batty over her shoulder. “I hear him!”
This, too, was part of their everyday routine. Hound, the Penderwicks’ dog, always knew when Batty was almost home, and set up such a clamor he could be heard all up and down Gardam Street. So now both sisters were running, and in a moment Rosalind was unlocking their front door, and Hound was throwing himself at Batty as though she’d been away for centuries instead of just the day.
Rosalind dragged Hound back into the house, with Batty dancing alongside in an ecstasy of reunion. Down the hall they all went, through the living room and into the kitchen—where Rosalind opened the back door and shoved the joyful tangle of child and dog into the backyard. She shut the door behind them and leaned against it to catch her breath. Soon Batty would need her afternoon snack, but for now Rosalind had a moment to herself. She could start on the cake, which she’d decided should be a pineapple upside-down one.
Humming happily, she took the family cookbook from its shelf. It had been a wedding gift to her parents, and was full of her mother’s penciled notes. Rosalind knew all the notes by heart, and even had her favorites, like the one next to candied sweet potatoes—
An insult to potatoes everywhere.
There was no note next to pineapple upside-down cake. Maybe if it was a great success, Rosalind would add her own. She did that sometimes.
“Melt a quarter cup of butter,” she read, then put a skillet on the stove, lit the burner under it, and dropped in a stick of butter. Almost right away the butter started to melt, crackling a little, and filling the kitchen with a delicious bakery-ish smell.
“Add a cup of brown sugar.” She measured the sugar and dumped it into the skillet. “Stir butter and sugar mixture until dissolved.”
The sugar all melted into the butter, Rosalind took the skillet off the stove, opened a can of pineapple slices, and arranged the slices atop the sugar mixture. She stood back and admired her handiwork. “Looks magnificent, Rosy. What a fabulous cook you are.”
She went back to the cookbook, humming again, and then noticed a suspicious lack of noise in the backyard. With a glance out the door, she understood why. Batty and Hound were crouched in the forsythia border, peeping into the next-door neighbors’ backyard. And not the neighbors to the right, the Tuttles, who’d lived there forever and wouldn’t have cared if Batty and Hound watched through the kitchen window while they ate. No, they were spying on the neighbors to the left, the Aaronsons, who’d just moved in. There had been great hopes for these new neighbors. A large family would have been perfect, for there can never be too many children in a neighborhood. The Aaronsons, however, turned out to be a small family indeed—a mother and a little boy just learning to toddle around, but no father, for he’d died before the boy was born. Both the mother and boy had red hair, which was good, as there were no other redheads on the street, but an interesting hair color only goes so far. Mr. Penderwick already knew Ms. Aaronson slightly. They were both professors at Cameron University—he was a botanist and she an astrophysicist—but the rest of the family had not yet been introduced.
Rosalind didn’t think that spying should come before introductions.
“Batty!” she called out the door. “Come here!”
Batty and Hound wriggled out of the forsythia and dragged themselves reluctantly to the house. “We’re only playing secret agents.”
“Play something else, then. The neighbors might not like to be spied on.”
“They weren’t in their backyard, so they wouldn’t know. Anyway, we were actually looking for the cat.”
“I didn’t know the Aaronsons had a cat.”
“Oh, yes, a large orange cat. He usually sits in the window, and Hound loves him already.”
Though Hound thumped his tail in agreement, Rosalind had her doubts that love was what he had in mind. She’d never seen him with a cat, but she knew how he felt about squirrels, as did all the squirrels that tried to make their home on Gardam Street. There was, however, no point in arguing with Batty about Hound’s innermost feelings, so she changed the subject.
“How about your afternoon snack?”
Batty was never one to turn down a snack, especially when it was cheese, pretzel sticks, and grape juice, and when, like today, Rosalind let her eat it under the kitchen table, which happened to make an excellent hideout for secret agents.
With Batty settled, Rosalind went back to her cooking. “Sift a cup of flour—” But once more she was interrupted, this time by her other two sisters arriving home from school and storming the kitchen.
“Something smells good.” This was Skye, her blond hair crammed messily into a camouflage hat. She stuck her finger into the skillet and scooped out a blob of the sugar mixture.
Rosalind tried to wave her off, but Skye dodged around, laughing and licking her finger.
“Call Daddy,” said Rosalind. “You’re the last one in.”
That was the rule after school. While Rosalind was picking up Batty at Goldie’s, Skye and Jane were walking home together from Wildwood Elementary School, where they were in sixth and fifth grades, respectively. Whoever was the last to arrive at the house called Mr. Penderwick at the university to let him know all was well.
“Jane, call Daddy,” said Skye.
“I’m too distraught about English class,” said Jane.
This was unlike Jane, who loved English class more than anything, even soccer, which she adored. Rosalind turned away from the cookbook and looked hard at the third Penderwick sister. She did look upset. There were even traces of tears.
“What happened?” asked Rosalind.
“Miss Bunda gave her a
on her essay,” answered Skye, reaching under the table and swiping some of Batty’s cheese.
“My humiliation is complete,” said Jane. “I’ll never be a real writer.”
“I told you Miss Bunda wouldn’t like it.”
“Let me see the essay,” said Rosalind.
Jane pulled several crumpled balls of paper out of her pocket and tossed them onto the kitchen table. “I have no profession now. I’ll have to be a vagrant.”
Rosalind smoothed out the pieces of paper, found page one, and read, “
Famous Women in Massachusetts History, by Jane Letitia Penderwick. Of all the women that come to mind when you think of Massachusetts, one stands out: Sabrina Starr.
” She stopped reading. “You put Sabrina Starr in your essay?”
“Yes, I did,” said Jane.
Sabrina Starr was the heroine of five books, all of them written by Jane. Each was about an amazing rescue. So far, Sabrina had saved a cricket, a baby sparrow, a turtle, a groundhog, and a boy. This last,
Sabrina Starr Rescues a Boy,
had been written during the summer vacation at Arundel. Jane considered it her best.
“But your assignment was to write about a Massachusetts woman who was actually once alive.”
“Just what I told her. Ouch!” Skye jumped away from the table, for Batty had just pinched her ankle as revenge for the stolen cheese.
“I explained all that,” said Jane. “Look at the last page.”
Rosalind found the last page.
“Of course, Sabrina Starr is not a real Massachusetts woman, but I wrote about her because she’s more fascinating than old Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton,”
she read. “Oh, Jane, no wonder Miss Bunda gave you a
“I got a
because she has no imagination. Who cares about writing essays, anyway, when you can write stories?”
The phone rang and Skye raced for it. “Hi, Daddy, yes, we’re all here and we were just about to call you…. We’re fine, except Jane’s upset because she got a
on her essay…. Really?” Skye turned to Jane. “Daddy says remember that Leo Tolstoy flunked out of college and went on to write
War and Peace.
“Tell him I’ll never even get into college at this rate.”
Skye spoke into the phone again. “She said she’ll never get into college…. What? Tell me again…. Okay, got it. Good-bye.”
“What did he say?” said Jane.
“That you don’t have to worry because you have
tantum amorem scribendi.
” Skye said the last three words slowly and carefully, for they were Latin.
Jane looked hopefully at Rosalind. “Do you know
—whatever it is?”
“Sorry, our class hasn’t gotten much past
” answered Rosalind. She had just that year started studying Latin in a desperate attempt to understand her father, who was always tossing out phrases in that ancient language. “So far, I’ll only know if Daddy says something about being a farmer.”