Linda squeezed her mother hard around her waist, not wanting to let go. She got a whiff of her mother’s skin, still damp from her morning shower, the fragrance of violets from the talcum powder dusted on her shoulders and neck.
More than her mother’s sweet smell caught her attention. Jo’s reddish-blonde hair was pulled into a twist, held in place by several large bobby pins. Her freshly ironed white cotton shirt was stiff from starch, and her new navy broadcloth skirt had box pleats instead of her usual gathered waist.
Linda was careful not to muss her up. She released her grip so Jean could say goodbye too, suddenly shivering from the bite in the outside air.
She was finally ready for her mother’s departure to Billings, eighty miles away. All weekend, her mother had been preparing her, showing her little things she needed to know to take care of the baby during the week–where she kept extra formula and how to sterilize the bottles if she ran out. She already knew how to do most everything, but her mother kept pointing things out, just in case.
“You can always run to Virgie’s house to get help.”
Virgie was their closest neighbor. Looking past her mother, she could see the big cottonwood tree in her front yard.
“I know, Mom. Don’t worry.”
“And Christopher. If he gets sick…” Her voice trailed off.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll take good care of him.”
“I know you will, honey.” She rubbed Linda’s shoulder and drifted away.
“Jean and I are going to have a big surprise for you when you come home Friday night.”
“Hmm. How about a hint?”
“No, Mom. You’ll have to wait.”
“Oh my!” She sighed. Her slender figure trembled in the cold air.
Jean tugged on mother’s skirt, oblivious to the conversation. ”I’ll miss you, Mommy!”
Jo didn’t seem to hear Jean. She shoved her arms into her tweed coat, pulling one side over the other to shut out the morning chill.
“You take good care of your baby brother and yourselves too.” Her eyes darted away as she searched for her car keys.
When her mother turned on the engine and pulled away, Linda was relieved that she hadn’t choked up. After all, her mother had taken the job to help the family get on its feet again. She wiped her sleeve across her cheek to clear some tears and grabbed Jean’s hand. As they trudged into the house, she started thinking how long it would be until Friday night.
As she pulled out a plastic bag full of corn flakes from the bottom kitchen cupboard and poured some into the bowls for her and Jean, she listened for Christopher’s cries of hunger. Her mother had filled eight bottles of formula for him and put them into the fridge. All she had to do was put a bottle into a pan of hot water for five minutes and squirt a few drops of milk on her wrist to test the temperature.
By mid-morning, she started thinking about the surprise she had promised her mother.
“Look at that, Jean.” She pointed to the wall above the sofa in the living room.
“What’s the matter?”
“It looks bad. Hasn’t been painted in years. You can tell that.”
Years of sun streaming through the living room window had bleached out the center part of the wall behind the couch. The rest was a slightly darker hue, like the cream that Mom used to skim off the fresh milk in the metal bucket each morning on the ranch.
Jean was unfazed. “It looks fine to me.”
“Come on! Can’t you tell that wall is faded and dirty? We could surprise Mommy by painting it before she comes home on Friday. David told me we have some yellow paint in the cellar. We might have enough for the living room.”
They found three gallons of paint in the cellar. Two had never been opened. It was white paint, not yellow, but they decided it would work anyhow. She and Jean could start painting after her father and David left for work on Tuesday.
She told her father about the painting project when he got home that night. He grinned. “Good idea, honey. Your mother will be tickled.” He ordered David to bring the paint cans and brushes from the cellar for his sisters. After making a couple of runs, David staged everything on a big canvas tarp in the middle of the living room.
The next morning, after David left for the Fraker ranch and her father took off for his road job in the Big Horns, she called to Jean. “We’ve got to move this furniture out of here, Sissy.”
Jean groaned. “All of it?”
“No, just the couch and chair and coffee table. We need to shove them against the wall so we can paint that one.” She pointed to the front wall of the living room. It was the most complicated because of two windows and the front door.
As they shoved one end of the couch across the linoleum floor, they heard the baby rustling in the crib. Linda peeked into her parents’ bedroom. Sure enough. He was whimpering. He must be hungry again.
She handed Jean some butcher paper. “We can finish this after I feed Christopher. Why don’t you put some of this next to the wall to catch the paint drips?”
Linda hadn’t expected Christopher’s feeding to take so long. He was still wide-awake way past his naptime. It was almost noon before he fell asleep in his crib and they could move the furniture again. The sofa, coffee table, and two floor lamps formed a furniture wall in front of their parents’ bedroom so they had plenty of room to paint.
Linda let Jean paint the bottom half of the wall while she stood on the yellow vinyl seat of a chrome kitchen chair to paint the top half. Jean used a three-inch brush and Linda used the big paint roller. They were awkward at first, and some big globs of paint fell to the baseboard and the floor, but they were getting better at it. They made good progress until the baby woke up from his nap. At first, they ignored his whimpers.
“Let’s get this part done,” Linda said. They had only a few more strokes to finish the wall next to the front door. As the baby’s cries got louder and more insistent, the girls painted faster, trying to ignore him. Linda tried to calm him as she used up the fresh paint on her roller.
“I’m coming sweet baby. We’re almost done out here,” she hollered.
“Okay, he’s not going to stop. I’ve got to give him a bottle now,” she said. As she jumped off the chair, she remembered the bedroom door was blocked.
“Oh my gosh!” She looked at Jean. “I can’t get to Christopher. Help me shove this sofa back so I can get through the door.”
The baby wailed until the doorway was clear and Linda scooped him up from the crib.
It was a long week. One day Linda accidentally dumped some paint on Jean’s hair as she tried to dip the roller into the pan while stepping on the chair. Jean was furious with her.
“What do you think you’re doing? How am I going to get this paint out of my hair?”
“We’ll get it out later. We can’t do it now because it’ll take too long to rinse it out, and we need to finish this pan of paint.”
“That’s stupid! You better get this out of my hair now, before it gets hard,” Jean yelled at her.
It took ten minutes of rinsing to get the paint out. “You’re drowning me,” Jean screamed. “That’s enough!” She spit out the murky water and ran out of the room, her wet hair dripping.
By Friday, the girls had painted all the walls in the living room and their parents’ bedroom. They tossed the old newspaper into the garbage can, bunched up the paint rags, and moved furniture back into place.
“Help me take these paint cans to the basement,” Linda said, stopping Jean from drifting away from the job.
“Only if you promise you won’t make me do one more chore before Mommy gets home.”
“Alright. Stop complaining. I promise,” Linda said.
The afternoon stretched out forever. They made a big batch of oatmeal cookies but ended up eating most of the dough before baking some in the oven.
“I feel sick,” Jean groaned.
“Me, too. That dough sure was good, though.”
Hours before their mother arrived home, they had made their bed, picked up the house, and washed the dirty dishes from the cookie making. They put Christopher in his crib so Linda could braid Jean’s hair special for the occasion.
It was dusk when they caught sight of the car lights beaming into the front room. The girls sprang for the door.
“Welcome home, Mommy!” they hollered outside.
Their mother clutched them to her chest. Linda felt like she couldn’t breathe as Jean’s warm body was squeezed in between. But she held still until she felt her mother’s gentle release. The girls jostled one another for position, waiting for Jo’s reaction to their paint job. But their mother was distracted by gurgling sounds coming from the bedroom. She dropped her purse and coat, and ran to get the baby.
“Mommy, wait! Don’t you notice something’s different?” Linda said, her voice quivering with excitement. Jean pointed proudly to the living room wall.
Jo paused. Her eyes moved up and down the newly painted wall as if she were painting it herself. She was looking at the uneven rows of new paint, some barely covering the old paint, others opaque from three or four coats. The baseboard had blotches of paint here and there. Linda squirmed, wishing she could end the inspection.
“You girls painted these two rooms, didn’t you? Is that your surprise, Linda?”
“Yep, it is. What do you think?” she asked breathlessly.
“It’s very nice. Nice job, girls.” She heaved a deep sigh. Her eyes welled with tears.
Jean shrugged her shoulders in bewilderment. “What’s the matter, Mommy?”
Linda pulled her arm and whispered, “I think Mommy’s tired.”
The girls trailed behind their mother as she edged her way again to the baby’s crib. Their eyes were fixed on Jo’s back as she picked up the baby and smothered him with kisses.
Linda waved Jean away. “It’s okay sissy. Mommy’s had a hard week.” But she knew it was about their paint job. Maybe they could do better next time.