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The Wee Shawl
a Short Melodrama about The Depression, Trickery and Triumph
by Amy Kenneley

What a long winter it had been!

Mary Margaret poked the dead coals and sighed, putting a handful of precious nuggets from the coal bucket into the fire to stir it back to life. Only black dust remained at the bottom. Enough warmth left to get J.P. up, and the oldest children off to school...then what?

Work at the docks was at a standstill, but J.P. went every day to stand with the others, watching the lake, waiting for it to crack and for the shipping season to begin.

And talking the rest of the morning at Moriarty's, no doubt, a pint in one hand and mouthful of Moriarty's pretzels in the other, she thought immediately. Mea Culpa, she said to herself, tapping her breastbone. At least he's eating something and I don't need to worry about that.

There was always enough change for a pint, and she'd never begrudge a man that, especially when it had been such a defeating winter. The Depression had hit everyone hard-at least everyone Mary Margaret knew about.

She remembered the tales of the famine years in The Old Country from her own grandmother's lips when she was a girl, and Mary Margaret knew that these times might be bad, but not insurmountable.

She wasn't a large woman, but she drew herself up to her full height of 5 feet 2 inches, knowing that carriage was everything. If she walked with confidence, then she would have confidence, she decided, pushing back the stray wisps of dark brown hair.

J.P. came out to the small kitchen, rubbing his head and looking out the frost-patterned window. "Snow again-I'll shovel before I leave" he said, turning around and giving his wife a hug as she made a pot of tea. He rubbed his hands in front of the now-glowing coals in the small black stove tucked in the corner.

His red hair was already starting to gray early, like his dad's, she remembered someone saying. Being idle the winter hadn't added any extra pounds. Mary Margaret suspected he really stayed away from home so he wouldn't be eating up the thin portions. Supper was his luxury "Maybe I'll stay home today" he mumbled, half to himself, half to her.

"James Patrick!" she turned and scolded, "You'll do no such thing! What if there is a job to be had at the docks today and you miss it?"

"Ah, Mary, you know there's nothing until the ice breaks. I'll be stamping my feet in the cold...and my shoes are worn as it is"

This she knew well, but she wasn't about to have Himself underfoot all day. Best he jaw with the men while she did her own work. She looked ruefully at the pile of mending in the basket beside the little work table tucked in the corner of the kitchen.

The network of women who cleaned and "did for" the rich folks-Mary Margaret's friends and neighbors-had contrived to provide her with a small but steady mending business to make up for the lack of J.P.'s pay.

Lucky for her she was skilled in handwork. She could repair a torn lace tablecloth lickety-split, an she could mend the finest of clothes. The mending brought in food for the table, with a little left over for coal.

It was lucky they could depend on the benevolence of J.P.'s uncle Jim. He owned several houses in the old neighborhood. Uncle Jim used the rental monies for his retirement, but he had allowed them to miss several months' rent with J.P. out of work for the winter and little other work for him to pick up.

"Well, you can shovel the walk on down the street and maybe pick up a few pennies."

"Ah, Mary, you know the young boys will be doing that, and they need the pennies themselves to bring to their own families." He grinned as he finished his cup of tea, grabbed his cap from the hook on the panel near the back door, and shrugged into his huge pea jacket. "I think you're trying to get rid of me, and if that is so, I am co-operating. Goodbye my love, I go to do battle with wind and weather, and all the foes of winter."

"Yes, and they'll all be waiting for your battle orders down at Moriarty's won't they?" she quipped as quickly, giving him a quick kiss before he closed the door on her, both grinning at one another.

She stirred up the porridge on the stove, calling for the children to come for breakfast. The three oldest were in school, and she had only little Willie still at home, but next year he would start school as well. Perhaps then she could find some employment somewhere to bring in more money.

As they worked their way through the porridge, with only the tiniest dollop of milk from the windowsill "icebox" to help it along, Mary Margaret surveyed her brood. Bridget, Helen, Robbie and Willie, a fine set of children, even though they were a little ragged around the edges.

She wished she had the nice clothing she mended to give to them to wear, instead of the corduroy pants all worn through, the elastic on the legs worn out so they drooped. The boys didn't mind, but she did. Bridget and Helen always had freshly pressed ribbons for their hair, but the wash dresses were second or third hand from a relative, the colors faded.

And the shoes! She wouldn't think of anything as disreputable as them, she decided. She had chosen not to look below their knees when she inspected them.

Clean and paid for, her mother used to say, and she told herself that they were better off than many another family. She was grateful for that. They could make do until spring. Despite the elbows they gave at the table, their little fights and whines, they were basically good children, she decided, even if she was their mother. You can buy clothes, but you can't buy quality, she thought.

Off the oldest ones went to school, and she gave Willie a washbasket full of wooden ends from a lumber company to play with, where J.P. had had a day's work.

Picking up the lovely crocheted collar that was torn, she began to chain back to the first formation of the pattern with her tiniest crochet hook. There was a soft tap at the back door, which she almost missed, as the tea kettle was just coming to a whistle.

"Oh, Uncle Jim! How good to see you, and on such a cold day as this. I'm just making some tea, so sit down and I'll find some..."

"Oh, don't bother now, Mary Margaret, I was just stopping by-"

"Nonsense! Can't let you go off into the cold without something to keep you warm, can I? But you missed J.P. by half an hour. He's down to the docks again, but I don't think there'll be anything until the ice breaks, do you?"

Uncle Jim eased himself into the creaky chair by the porcelain-topped table and agreed that yes, there would be nothing until the ice was gone. And maybe nothing even after. Times were bad.

"Oh, yes, but they will get better, I am confident of that, aren't you?"

Uncle Jim eased his finger around his collar.

"Well, now, Mary Margaret, that's what I've come about" Again, he stretched his neck, looking at the tin ceiling in the old kitchen, reminding himself that it would need painting...someday.

Mary Margaret poured the hot tea from the teapot, allowing a double spoonful of sugar into Uncle Jim's cup because she knew he was had a huge sweet tooth. She pulled the sugar bowl back to her, so he wouldn't see that it was now empty.

He began again, his face taking on a dangerous shade of red as he struggled for the words. "You see how it is, Mary Margaret, with this house and the two others I have being the only means of supporting me in my declining years...well..."

Her hand stilled over the teacup, as she strained to hear, or more to the point, understand what he was trying to get out .

"It was one thing for me to let J.P. and you stay without paying the rent for a few months. I could get along with a little less and what use is it if you can't help your own kin? But now the other two of my renters have gone off leaving me with their back rent-5 months for the one, and 3 months for the other. The bank is threatening to foreclose on all three of these houses unless I get caught up on my mortgage payments."

Her hands were in her lap as she quietly said, "But Uncle Jim, we thought-that is, J.P. said-well, we were under the impression that you owned the houses." A huge laugh, a very nervous one of confession and bravado came from him.

"Oh I do, I do! Just as soon as they are paid for! A little circumvention of mine, you see. No harm meant but now you know the truth."

"And the truth is...?" she asked, knowing what was coming but afraid to voice it herself.

A huge sigh escaped his body, and he hung his head a little in shame as he told her, "The truth, Mary Margaret, is that unless you can reimburse me for the last 4 months rent and then continue to pay it on time every month afterwards, I am going to have to evict you."

The breath went out of her and he sat back, the breath out of him as well. "Is there no way?" she began, but he stood up, his task finished, he wanted to get outside as quickly as possible before the tears and the carrying on began.

"As I said, Mary Margaret, it breaks my heart to do it, but what can I do? I have no way to provide for myself except from the income of the houses, and if I get no income from you and the others, how can I pay for the mortgages on the houses and provide a living for myself-and the poor wife and my own son and family who have no living either?

You have until the end of the week, and then-well, I don't want to have to bring the police, you know that dear. Poor J.P. will hate me forever now-"

"No, No, Uncle Jim! don't even think it! You have been too kind to us already! Never think we would hold it against you!" She sighed, walking him towards the door he was frantically trying to get to.

She gave him a swift kiss on the cheek. "We understand, so don't fret. If we haven't the money by Monday next, we'll be gone."

She closed the door behind her, the apologetic face of the old uncle lingering like a ghost in the room. She picked up the lace again, but her fingers wouldn't bend to the rhythm. Monday next. Monday next and we'd be gone. Gone to where, she wondered, for surely they couldn't find the back rent for 4 months missed, not to mention the months to come as well.

She stared at the full cup of tea still sitting untouched by Uncle Jim's place. She hated sugar in her tea, but she drank it cold anyway. It might be a long time before she had sugar again.

To be Continued: Mary Margaret Saves The Day


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