My Forty Years Scribblin's
Other Ramblin's
The Greater Need

Although Mildred writes mostly historical non-fiction, this 1962 entry won her a top place in the annual Short, Short Story contest sponsored each year by the Writers Digest Magazine. A new Remington typewriter convinced her that "she didn't dream it all."


There was a patient quality to the silence of the old farm house, as though it knew a chapter of its life had ended and it awaited the beginning of a new one.

"Like me," Andrew Carney thought. He too was old and gray and weathered by the years. Yet, unlike the house, he could not stay on the land to await time's slow attrition. The doctors at the clinic had made him the provisional promise of several years, but only if he left the farm and its temptation to work. He must neither drive his old car again nor climb the stairs to his bedroom.

Between his doctors and his children, the decision had been made for him. It was his crony, Ben Johnson, who had arranged for him to take a room at Mrs. Saunder's boarding house in town.

"We've done our share of this world's work," Ben had said. "We'll play some checkers and, come spring, we'll do a lot of fishin'."

The mechanics of ending a way of life and beginning a new one had proved simple enough; disturbingly simple when he considered that the battered suitcase and one cardboard carton, already packed and standing by the door, represented all that he would be taking with him, the harvest of over a half-century of toil.

No, he thought, that wasn't fair. There were his memories and there was the love of his children. His faith in them, in their loyalty and devotion, was what was left to him, the priceless treasure that would go with him to the end. He nodded to himself, comforted to know how much greater were his blessings than any inventory of mere things could bring.

Andrew had dealt with his son and two daughters with all the fairness of which his simple heart was capable. Robert was glad to be taking over the farm and the two girls had not concealed their pleasure when presented with their share of the money.

He looked out the east window and down the gnarly orchard rows, his eyes blurring a little. The trees were naked, old and lonely looking, their twisted arms covered with the first fall of snow. Julie had helped set out those trees. The children, Robert, Peg and Edithann, had helped to see them through the early years of punishing drought, carrying hundreds of pails of water, hand pumped from the well.

He compressed his lips and shook his head. Perhaps it was just as well he was leaving. The land harbored too many ghosts to remind him that the years of laughter, of children's voices, and of Julie's gentle hand on his, were gone and could never come again.

He turned his attention to the living-room table. It was stacked with three evenly divided piles of linen; one for Robert and his new bride, Freda, one for Peg and one for Edithann. Julie's own hands had made the quilts and the embroidery work, and the children would love them for the fact that they had been their mother's.

There was only one thing left, a thing quite indivisible. He shuffled to the corner cupboard and, with knobby, toil-twisted hands, lifted down a glass fruit bowl. It was the Company Bowl. He'd saved it especially as a welcoming gift for Freda. To Andrew, it reflected the tints of rosy apples, yellow pears, the wink of blue, pansy faces and an aura of all the bounty that Julie had garnered to heap above its fluted rim.

He felt particularly good about giving the bowl to Freda. Robert had brought her home with him from Germany. Andrew knew that Peg and Edithann had still not wholly accepted the sturdy, blonde girl but he felt a certain empathy with her and hoped the bowl would make her feel more welcome. Besides, that she should have it was in the tradition. Andrew's own mother had brought the bowl from Denmark when she had come to America to wed Andrew's father, and it had been her present to Julie on Julie and Andrew's wedding day. It had come to be called the Company Bowl by being never taken from the cupboard except when there had been company for dinner, nor had Julie trusted the girls to wash or dry it.

Best of all, Andrew thought, it would not have to leave the Carney farm. He somehow knew that Freda would sense its meaning for him and that it would grace the table when Peg or Edithann brought him but for Sunday dinners, as they had promised.

His reverie was interrupted by the sound of a car. It was not Robert and Freda, as he had expected, but the mailman. Andrew went out to take his letter from the box. It was from Peg.

"Dear Dad: Just a note to ask a special favor. Will you please save the Company Bowl for me? Thought I'd get ahead of Sis and Robert. Big joke on them. See you tomorrow. Love, Peg."

Andrew's shoulders drooped. He'd wanted the bowl for Freda. He stood looking after the mailman, his pale eyes troubled. Would it be right now to give the heirloom to Freda when Peg wanted it so much? The sound of Robert's pickup brushed the question from his mind. Close behind the truck came Peg's new, station wagon. With her was Edithann. The years that had been crowding Andrew moved in now, sure of their prey. They pounced triumphantly and the hour was at hand, the hour he had dreaded.

Peg linked her arm through his and led him up the walk. She was bright, poised and sophisticated. Sometimes, when he looked at his daughters, he felt bewildered, unable to establish the link between them and two girls in pigtails who had once played in the hayloft, or gathered eggs for their mother from the henhouse. As soon as all of them were assembled in the house, it was Peg who brought his problem back into focus

"I got ahead of the rest of you," she announced defiantly. "I asked Dad to save the Company Bowl for me. He's going to let me have it, aren't you, Dad?"

"I don't see why you should have it," Edithann protested angrily. "Your stuff is all modern. I wanted the bowl to go with my Early American."

"Well, then you should have gotten your word in first," Peg retorted, her voice shrill. "The antique shop wanted to know if Dad would sell it. If it's worth money to them, then it's worth money to me, too."

"Do you two have to fight about an old glass dish?" Robert asked in disgust. "Anyway, it belongs right here. Don't forget, I'm the one who bears the name of Carney."

Andrew stood in shocked dismay and disbelief. They were quarreling! At a time like this, they were quarreling over Julie's beloved bowl! How could he give the bowl to Freda now, or to any of them, without turning them against each other and against him as well?

"How about it, Dad?" Peg insisted. "Don't you think I should have it? I was the first to ask."

Andrew hesitated. When they had been small, he had turned them over his knee, or had taken away the objects of their childish squabbling.

"I thought I'd take it with me. It's kinda hard to part with. I hope you understand." His heart was pleading with them.

Edithann broke the silence. "Why of course, Dad. Certainly you should keep it." She gave Peg a look of triumph.

Andrew turned and went out through the kitchen door. While regaining his calm, he pretended to search for something on the back porch. He noticed that Freda had removed herself from a family quarrel in which she felt an outsider. She was walking in the yard.

When he started to re-enter the room, they were unaware of his return and were carrying their heated argument even to the day of his death.

"...and when he's gone, it's mine!" Peg's voice was choked with anger.

"Oh, pipe down, you two. You might wait until you get something worth fighting over. When he's..."

That was Robert, who bore the name of Carney.

Andrew scuffled his feet and there was a quick, light change in the conversation. "If you don't mind, we'd best be on our way," he said, trying to keep the quaver from his voice.

Their guilt took the form of instant agreement and anxiousness to please. Robert picked up the suitcase and cardboard box. The girls ran ahead, making a fuss over opening doors and escorting him. Freda held the old, iron gate open. Clutching the Company Bowl to his side, Andrew started down the steps. He hesitated, swallowing hard. He looked up at the dull, leaden sky and there was a moment of silent communication with his Julie, a certainty that she would understand. He let his burdened arm straighten a little. Four pairs of eyes turned in stunned horror at the sound of shattering glass.

Deep sorrow lined his face as he forced himself to look at the shards of scattered color at his feet. Freda was the first to reach him, to lay a comforting arm across his shoulder, then Robert, then Peg and Edithann. They were all around him, compassionate, loving, and ashamed of themselves. They were his children again, making him feel secure in the knowledge of their love.

"Oh, Dad! Don't feel bad."

"Poor Dad! One of us should have carried it for you."

 

"We're all so sorry, Dad."

"You go now," Freda said. "Robert and I, ve pick up the pieces." She looked hard into his gray face "And you come soon to spend time vit us, ya?"

Andrew nodded, not trusting his voice to answer. He brushed at his eyes and climbed into Peg's station wagon, a measure of peace coming to him. They were good children after all. They still needed correction, still needed punishing sometimes. They still needed him. Nothing now could spoil his wonderful memories. He sighed and fixed his gaze on the muddy ruts that wound down the valley to town.

Ben Johnson would be waiting to play checkers.