by Michael Massee
We are all prisoners of the age in which we are born. Meredith Olsen was no exception. While she was able to bend some of the links of the chain issued to her by society, for the most part, she wore it as did everyone else (with the exception of a few poets and artists.) She followed the rules as laid down by her parents, by her school teachers, by her church, by her doctors and by her government.
As a young woman, during the Great Depression, she grew up not in abject poverty but close to it. She was always sure that it was hiding somewhere just around the corner. This fear, coupled with not having any money to waste on the frivolous things a young girl wishes for, colored her perception of life clear up until her death. The memory of only one dress, one coat, one pair of shoes, until her feet grew too big, no money for sweet treats or silk hose or that little bottle of Evening In Paris perfume she lusted over at the Five And Dime, haunted her forever.
By the age of 17 she was fully indoctrinated with the rules and regulations of being a woman. A wife, a mother and a house keeper was the number one goal. If, for some unfortunate reason, this was not attainable then one could try to find employment as a sales clerk, waitress, maid, factory worker, beautician, typist, telephone operator or laundress. Of course, if you could scrape the money together for college tuition, you could begin a career as a teacher or a nurse. But as Meredith’s mother pointed out, it was best to find a fine man who would take good care of her. ‘The husband brings home the bacon, the wife cooks it.’
“It was true in my day and it is still true today. A woman’s place is in the home,” lectured Amelia Olsen nee Johnson, “Your father and I have been married 25 years, raised four children and none of you have starved. Life is hard, as well you know, but it’s a lot harder if you’re on your own. ‘Two by two’ like in the bible, that’s God plan and it’s a good one.” Meredith would listen patiently to her mother and then escape to the movies.
Meredith loved the movies. Taking the quarter she’d saved in her piggy bank she would go downtown to the Kuhn Movie Theater and buy a ticket to paradise. Sitting in one of the plush red velvet seats, she would enter the black and white world of the rich and glamourous. The clothes, the jewels, the food, the night clubs big enough to accommodate a herd of elephants, the drawing rooms with handsome men and women standing around saying witty things. And some of the women in these films even had careers! They were pretending to be famous authors or singers or artists or dancers or even business owners. They had these wonderfully successful lives. But then, by the end of the movie, they gave it all up to get married. She didn’t like it very much when that happened but she understood. That was the way it was. But she bet the actresses, who were hired to play these rolls, didn’t give up their careers for their husbands. No way!
When she got back home, all dreamy eyed and breathless, it was her ritual to tell her mother the story of the movie and act out the various parts.
“I wish I could be a movie star!” she said, one Saturday afternoon, after returning from seeing ‘Roberta’ with Irene Dunne. Amelia reacted as if Meredith had decided she wanted to become a prostitute.
“Meredith Olsen, are you out of your mind?! Do you know what kind of life an actress leads? I won’t even waste my time discussing such a ridiculous idea. What’s more, even though you’re pretty enough, in a mousey sort of way, you are certainly no beauty and that seems to be what it takes to be in the movies.”
Amelia was wrong. Meredith was very beautiful. True, she wasn’t as thin as her favorite actresses but she was tall and blond and curvy where it was important. However, she knew her chances of becoming a star were a million to one. She hated it when her mother was right. She was a ‘plain Jane’ from the hick-town of Lebanon, Oregon who’s only hope was to marry the right man.
Husband Number One
Whittaker Smallwood was a fellow student at Meredith’s high school. She had known him since freshman year and she had become his official girlfriend in their junior year. At graduation, Whit surprised Meredith by asking her to marry him. Her mother was ecstatic.
“How wonderful!” Amelia gushed, “He’s such a nice young man. And the Smallwoods are a very important family. His grandfather was once the mayor, did you know that? And his father owns the largest farm in the county. Oh, my! Aren’t you the luckiest girl!”
Meredith nodded and said all the appropriate things, like ‘I am very happy’ and ‘I feel very lucky’ but underneath it all there was wisp of doubt. Yes, Whit was very handsome and kind and polite but---
The wedding took place in July. It was a simple ceremony with only the two families in attendance. Although the Smallwoods were comfortably well off, they were careful with their money (some town folk used the terms ‘tight’ and ‘Scotch’ to describe Walter Smallwood.) Therefore, the burden of the cost of the reception fell on the shoulders of the Olsens. The bride wore her mother’s wedding dress which she had altered radically and Amelia had made a dress for herself using some maroon silk she had been saving for just this occasion. She also cooked all the celebratory food.
The atmosphere at the reception was a bit chilly due to the fact that Whittaker’s mother, Lavinia, was not very happy with his choice of a wife. She also made a few acidic remarks about the cuisine.
“It seems the menu is a little heavy on the starches, but I suppose that is the Scandinavian influence,” and then she went on to discuss her daughter-in-law’s physique;
“While she carries her weight well, I’m sure working on Whit’s farm will help remove some of that baby fat.”
This last comment also brought up an uncomfortable topic. While Whittaker Smallwood was supposed to start a small farm in a corner of his father’s many acres, with the expectation of his taking over the old man’s estate after Walter passed on, Whit had other plans. He wanted to open a garage, a top notch, full service establishment that could do repairs on automobiles, trucks, buses and even tractors. He loved tinkering on his Chevrolet Confederate Coupe and kept it in excellent running condition.
“We’ve got one garage in this town and, to be brutally honest, Jacob Hessmeyer is a lousy mechanic. You have to drive all the way up to Portland if you want to get any really decent work done.”
Walter Smallwood was not impressed. He knew Whit would come to his senses eventually. His great grandfather had created Smallwood Farms eighty years ago, therefore, the love of the soil had to have been passed down to him through his grandfather and then Walter. Whittaker was meant to be a farmer.
There was no real honeymoon, just a weekend at the beach inside a sleeping bag inside a tent. However, Meredith found herself surprised by what her mother had called ‘a woman’s duty.’ It was a little uncomfortable at first but then it felt pretty good. She found---
My apologies if I offended you, whoever you are. I’ll try and be as accurate as possible but please remember this is just a story, a work of fiction. I started writing this because of my interest in how women have, over the centuries, been treated as second class citizens. I created you to represent the many women I have met in my research. In all honesty, I was surprised when you popped up on my computer. I mean, you are more than welcome to join me on this journey but please believe me when I say I don’t know where it’s going. Now, let’s continue.
I’d rather not disclose anything about the persons I interviewed. Now, back to our story.
The newlyweds moved into Whit’s parent’s large farmhouse and, although it was temporary, Meredith found it almost unbearable. They slept in Whit’s bedroom with all his school pennants and sport trophies and his twin sized bed. There was really no room for the few possessions she brought with her. But the hardest thing to endure was her treatment by Lavinia Smallwood. She was used to spending long hard days helping out on her dad’s dairy farm but working on the Smallwood Farm was much worst due to Lavinia’s constant criticism of her every step.
“Close the door behind you! Were you born in a barn?”
“Not that way! This way! For heaven’s sake, pay attention.”
“Hopeless, just hopeless!”
When Whit got home late, after a day of bringing in the last of the harvest, he would find Meredith in their room weeping. He would wrap his arms around her and try and console her with promises.
“It’s going to be alright. I’m looking for a place so I can start up the garage. I’ve seen a couple of possibilities and any day now we’ll be able to move into town. Just hold on, honey.”
And she did hold on, all through Winter, clear into the next Spring. By then there was still no garage but there was a baby on the way. Whit was busy helping with the Spring planting and his father was starting to design the small farmhouse that was to become his and Meredith’s new home. Meredith worked with Lavinia, and her hired girl Greta, in the kitchen preparing the three meals that were needed each day to feed the six hired hands and Walter and Whittaker. That meant cooking and serving up 24 plates of food a day, 168 plates a week, if you counted Sunday, and then washing all those dishes, including the pots and pans. Meredith would fall into bed at ten o’clock at night only to be awakened by Lavinia at four in the morning to start preparing the breakfast.
The baby was a boy, a big boy---ten pounds. On the way to the hospital, Lavinia sat with Meredith in the back seat of Whit’s Chevy and explained what was happening. When Meredith moaned in agony Whit’s mother talked to her about her own suffering for forty-eight hours before giving birth to her son.
“I can assure you it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.” Thanks a lot.
But she was right, as Matthew Smallwood was very reluctant about entering this cold and noisy world. He held on for hours. The doctor finally needed to use forceps to pull him out of the warmth of his mother’s womb. As a result his skull was slightly askew, with a tendency for the top of it to tilt a bit towards the right. It remained that way the rest of his life.
In June of 1936, Whittaker Smallwood signed a rental agreement on a two story building on East Elmore Street in Lebanon. It had originally been the shop of a carriage and harness maker but had been sitting empty for many years. While it would need a lot of updating, it was of solid stone construction and Whit was very happy.
“The second floor had been used as an office so, with some renovation, it’ll make a great apartment for you and me and the baby.”
As was to be expected, Walter Smallwood was furious.
“Why was I not consulted about this foolishness?!”
“Because that was exactly how I knew you would react, dad.”
“And how do you plan to fund this business venture, may I ask?”
“I’ve been saving most of my work pay for many years and I also used the generous gift you gave me for graduation.”
“But that money was to help you get started on your own farm!”
“And it is helping me to get started---in the business I want to create.”
“This is nonsense. Times are bad. The economy is a disaster and you want to start a new business! And what about your obligation to Smallwood Farms?”
“I plan on helping you through the season and then, when everything is in the ground, I’ll concentrate on the garage.”
When you are young you feel you can do anything, and, in most cases you can. Whit worked on the farm from dawn to dusk and then drove into town to work on his garage, sometimes until one in the morning. On Sundays, he and Meredith and the baby spent many happy hours turning the second floor into their new home. They added a little kitchenette and a small bathroom and Whit did all the plumbing and wiring himself. Meredith painted and papered and also sewed a coverlet for the new double bed that they had ordered from Montgomery Wards.
When the downstairs garage space was finally clean and cleared of all the detritus of it’s years as a buggy shop, Whit repaired the concrete floor, filling in the cracks and making sure it was smooth and level. The next step was the ordering of all the modern equipment he would need to make the Smallwood and Son Automotive Garage the most modern facility in Linn County. He had contacted Texaco about the installation of a pump and a tank and the delivery of gasoline. Now all he needed was cash. He hoped to get a loan from his father and was pretty sure that, after his dad saw all the progress he had made on the building, Walter would help him out.
It was not to be.
“ Very impressive,” Walter said, walking around the large open space, “You’ve done a great job, so far. But then you always were hard worker.”
“Thanks dad,” Whit replied, “So let’s go upstairs and we can talk about the loan.”
“I have to get back to the farm. Your mom is bringing the Taylors home from church for one of her luncheons.”
“Listen, Whit, your mother and I have been discussing this whole deal and I’m afraid a loan is out of the question. I can’t be lending you money that I know will only be disappearing down the drain.”
“Aw, dad, come on, you know—”
“Now, if this were about money for your farm there would be no problem.”
“That’s not fair. I know I can make a go of this---”
“You aren’t even twenty years old yet. You don’t know how to run a business. Do you realize how hard we have worked to keep the farm profitable ? What it takes to run---
“I’m very aware of what it takes as I have been working by your side since I was seven. All I’m asking is for you to believe in me enough to lend me the money to buy the equipment---”
“The answer is no. Please understand that I’m doing this for your own good.”
Loans were very rare during the Depression but because of the importance of the Smallwood name the loan was ultimately approved. On Saturday, October 3rd, 1936, the Smallwood and Son Automotive Garage officially opened. Business was brisk, although that might have been helped by the free apple cider and donuts being offered to customers.
The next few months were touch and go. It would take time for word of mouth and testimonials to spread through Lebanon and eventually around the county. By January, however, Whit had more business than he could handle by himself and so he hired another mechanic. He had never intended for the garage to also be a gas station, but out-of-towners kept stopping at the bright shiny new pump to fill up, so he engaged a recent high school drop-out to take over that duty.
By Spring the garage was bringing in enough money to pay the rent, the salaries and the mortgage payments and to put food on the table. However, there was nothing left over for anything else including deposits into a savings account.
It was during the Fall of ’37 that it all began to unravel. Meredith’s father was killed when his tractor overturned and crushed him to death. Meredith’s three older brothers assumed responsibility for the running of the dairy but her mother became deeply depressed. For Amelia, this was not the way it was supposed to be. The two of them were supposed to grow old together.
The next event was when Whit was sued by one of his customers for damage to the man’s prize Packard. Whit was sure the long wide scar along the passenger side of the vehicle did not happen in his shop but he had no way to prove it. It was several hundred dollars he didn’t have.
When Meredith developed a cough and a fever, that turned into Pneumonia, they began to feel that maybe there was some kind of curse involved. It was touch and go for a while and Whit really feared he would lose his wife of only two years. But after three weeks, of driving up to Corvallis every evening to be with her in the hospital, he brought her back home, weak but alive. He figured he would have to pay all the medical bills in installments.
Finally, there was an early frost that hit Lebanon and most of the county and wiped out ninety percent of the crops waiting to be harvested. In an economy already eviscerated by the Depression this was a disaster on a monumental scale. It affected everyone from the farmers to the owners of the few stores still open, to anyone depending on the income from the harvest. This included the Smallwood and Son Automotive Garage. Business dropped off precipitously as most folks quit using their cars and trucks and tractors. No money, no gas, no repairs. Whit had to let his mechanic go. He kept the kid on for awhile but ended up pumping gas all by himself for the few travelers that came motoring through Lebanon.
Meredith moved in with her mother, temporarily, to help her mom adjust to widowhood and to help keep the household together. She and baby Matthew slept in her old room and, as she stared at the wallpaper with the pale pink roses, she wept over the loss of her father and she worried about Whit and how he would work through this mess.
Whit was, at the same time, lying alone in their new Monkey Ward’s double bed, staring at the ceiling and worrying about the upcoming mortgage payment and the overdue rent. Looking at all his options, he found he was tempted to approach his father again about that loan, the loan Walter had refused to give him before. Maybe now his dad would relent. But, he quickly dismissed the idea knowing how stubborn Walter could be. The only other answer seemed to be one of complete defeat. He would have to default on the loan and let the bank take everything, his car and his twenty acres of farmland.
A week later it seemed his luck was improving when Howard Royer, the person who leased him the property, was willing to forgo his rent until Whit was back on his feet. He said he recognized what a great job the young entrepreneur had done and, besides, he wouldn’t be able to rent the place to anyone else due to the disastrous Winter frost, ‘a bird in the hand is better’ and so forth.
The next hurdle would be the payment due on his mortgage. He planned to visit the loan officer at the Umpqua Bank and ask if the payment schedule could be adjusted. For instance, could he postpone paying for six months? He knew this wasn’t realistic but you never know.
“What do you mean, no fire insurance?!” exclaimed Walter, staring in disbelief at his son. They were together in the privacy of Walt’s office in the Smallwood farmhouse. Whittaker was seated with his head in his hands. His clothes reeked of the black petroleum smoke. His father stood in front of him like a prosecuting attorney.
“I don’t understand! You couldn’t have gotten a mortgage without proof that you had an insurance policy on the business!”
“I know, I know. I had fire insurance. It’s just that--I---I cancelled the policy---”
“Well, I had to reduce expenses somehow, you know, when the frost hit. Business was slowing down so I thought---”
“But you didn’t think! This is what I was talking about, you being too young and inexperienced to run a business. So what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I’ll still have to pay on the mortgage even though the garage is gone. I hope Howard will just cancel my lease so I won’t owe him as well. Then there’s the contract with Texaco---"
“I hope you aren’t planning on me bailing you out. I hate to say it but Howard Royer is probably going to sue you for burning down his property, unless, unlike you, he has a good policy on the place. And you’ll have to make some arrangement with the bank about a payment plan on the loan that you can afford. I’ll talk with Seth Granger and see what he suggests. Once you get back to building your farm I’m sure they’ll see that you’re a good risk---”
“I put the deed to the land up as collateral on the loan.”
Now this is where in the fairy tale the father is supposed to throw up his hands and give in. He pays all the son’s debts, forgives him his youthful stupidity and helps him start over. Together, they build a brand new garage and the son becomes a very successful and much sought after mechanic. He and his wife provide many grandchildren and live long and happy lives.
The journey south led them to the Oregon/California border. Meredith had never been out of the state and this was a milestone for her. She had expected the scenery to change radically when they crossed over but for a long time it was just like Southern Oregon. As it began to get dark Whit pulled the car over and they ate some of the provisions. Meredith nursed Matthew and then she curled up with him in a sleeping bag in the back seat and Whit covered them with an extra blanket. He sat up in the front seat with the other sleeping bag tucked around him and kept watch.
This routine was repeated for several nights until they were near San Francisco. It was here that they finally ran out of food. Whit had packed two metal containers of gasoline so they had enough fuel but he had no money for meals or lodging. They had taken turns washing up in the service station rest rooms but now they were living in dirty clothes and getting very, very hungry. They felt like the hobos they had seen passing through Lebanon, begging for food or for a nickel or two.
After a long day of driving, without anything to eat since the night before, Whit knew he had to do something. As the night closed in around them he saw a light coming from the window of a house sitting in the middle of a vineyard. He turned off the highway and drove up the road leading to the house. When he reached it, he parked and got out of the car.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
“What are you going to do?”
“See if I can get us something to eat.”
He walked away toward the porch and had just stepped on the first stair when the front door opened. A tall woman stood silhouetted in the opening.
“Can I help you?” she asked with a slight accent. It sounded like Italian to Whit.
“Ah, yes, maam. I’m sorry to intrude like this,” he began, feeling awash with shame, “but I’ve got my wife and our baby in the car and we are in need of something to eat. Anything you can spare.” There was a moment of silence. “At least something for my wife. She’s nursing my son.” After another tense moment she extended her hand.
“Bring the mother and the bambino in. All we have is oatmeal but we got a lotta. Please, come in.”
The woman was Sophia Martinelli, the wife of the owner of the vineyard and she was living there alone with her six kids while he was away in San Francisco. Things were not good for the wine business. Prohibition had nearly destroyed their livelihood but, with Repeal, they were starting to get back on track. Next Fall’s harvest would help but until then her husband was working in the Bay Area.
“He is help build this big bridge now for two years. My sons and I are running the winery while he is away.”
After several bowls of oatmeal she let them wash up and, after a change of clothes, they prepared to continue on their way.
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Martinelli. We will never forget your kindness.”
“Prego. Now, you take good care of each other.”
“And you stay well,” Whit replied, and then added, “ Mrs. Martinelli---”
“Sophia, you said your husband is working on a bridge in San Francisco. Would that be the Golden Gate Bridge?”
“Si, the Golden Bridge. It is going to connect us with the city. No more ferry boats.”
“Yes, imagine. Do you think I could get a job on the bridge?”
“Well, it’s almost finished. They want opening it this next Spring. But they have a lot yet to be done, so maybe.”
When they reached the Marin County side of the new bridge Meredith found herself holding her breath as she saw the two red towers thrusting up out of the bay. It was like King Neptune had thrown his tridents high into the sky.
There was a diner near the ferry depot and, knowing how hungry Meredith must be, Whit ushered them inside. While Meredith took Matt into the ladies room to change his diaper and to freshen up, Whit approached the woman behind the cash register.
“Excuse me, miss. I’d like to speak to the manager.”
“Well, that would be Pete and he’s busy in the kitchen. Can I help you?”
“I really need to talk to somebody in charge.”
The cashier must have heard the urgency in his voice. “Just a moment,” and she headed off to the kitchen. A moment later, she returned, trailed by a skinny middle aged man in an apron with his bald head covered in a bandana.
“What’s the problem, buddy?” he asked, wiping his hands on his apron, which seemed to be stained in many spots by some unidentified substance.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. But I’d like to make you a business proposition.”
“Jesus Christ, if you pulled me out here to sell me something I’ll give---”
“Oh, no sir. It’s simply this,” and Whit hurriedly told him about being broke and needing money for the ferry, “I have this watch,’’ he said pulling a shiny pocket watch and chain out of his jacket. “It was my grandfather’s, it’s sterling silver and it keeps perfect time.”
“Listen, my friend, this is not a pawn shop---”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry, but my wife and I and our baby need to get to San Francisco.”
By this time, the manager had turned away and was heading back to the kitchen. Whittaker started to follow him but stopped, realizing it was a lost cause.
“Can I see that watch?” came the voice of the cashier. She beckoned him over to the counter. Whit was taken aback and it took him a moment to finally move toward the woman.
“May I look at it?”
Whit handed her the engraved silver timepiece.
“It’s very beautiful. Probably worth a lot. More than I could ever afford.”
“I just need enough to get over to the city.”
“How about we do this. I’ll give you two dollars and I’ll hold on to the watch and when you come by next time you can pay me and get your grandfather’s watch back.”
Whit was stunned. “I---I---I’m---thank you.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Meredith carrying the baby and coming toward him from the restroom. “Please. I don’t want my wife to see the watch.”
“Gotcha,” said the cashier as she slipped the watch under the counter, “and how about I throw in a couple of dinners to sweeten the deal?”
Whit got a job as a mechanic working on the trucks used on the building of the bridge. He earned four dollars a day. He and Meredith stayed at a local boarding house for the next six months. When the bridge finally opened, his job was over and it was time to start looking for more employment. There was nothing available in San Francisco. Everywhere he looked there were signs; NOT HIRING or NO JOBS. Finally, he packed up the car and, with Meredith and Matthew, who had doubled in weight and seemed very healthy, headed off toward the San Joaquin Valley.
Whit continued to pick up jobs at various farms and things improved minimally. He eventually moved, with the family, to Sacramento and found work as a mechanic at a service station. Meredith was kept busy raising little Matthew and trying to make a comfortable home for Whit out of the tiny dark basement apartment they had rented. She wrote often to her mother and received letters back full of hometown gossip. At first Amelia wrote a lot about the scandal Whit and Meredith had caused by leaving town like thieves in the night but as the months passed she moved onto other subjects.
“The Smallwoods have really shut themselves away. We never see them in town anymore.”
“Your brothers are concerned about how milk prices keep dropping.”
“I’m making a crazy quilt.”
“We miss you so much. I wish you would come back.”
1940 rolled in and Whit took on a second job. He worked days at a service station and then drove off to a creosote factory and stirred the noxious smelling goo until midnight. Meredith found the odor nauseating and would hang his overalls outside to let them air out. Early one morning her upset stomach led her to wonder if maybe it wasn’t the creosote. The doctor at the county hospital confirmed her diagnosis---she was pregnant again.
Marie Amelia Smallwood was born July 28, 1940, seven pounds eight ounces. Whit got promoted to manager at the service station and things were looking up. He quit working at the creosote factory and he and the family moved into a two bedroom apartment on Sutterville Road. Meredith continued her role as housewife and put her creative juices into mothering, cooking and looking after Whit.
December 7th, 1941 everything changed.
While I understand you wanting to make it simple so we can get through it quickly, there are a few things our readers need to know. For example, the war helps the economy and puts an end to the Great Depression. Your mother moves with you and your children to Los Angeles where you get work in Burbank, at the Lockheed Aircraft factory, helping build P-38 fighter planes.
The war years in the United States were years of almost zero unemployment, decent salaries (especially for women) and, although there was rationing, very few people were going hungry. The downside was that millions of young men were marching or sailing or flying away from family and friends, many never to return. Over 400,000 Americans lost their lives in Europe and the Pacific.
The frustration of never knowing where your son or father or brother or husband was, except to be told ‘somewhere in the Pacific’ or ‘somewhere in Italy’ and to not hear from them for months, was immense. The worst, however, was the arrival of a telegram from the war department.
Would you like me to write about it?
The war in Europe ended on Tuesday, May 8th, 1945, V-E Day. On Wednesday, May 9th, Whittaker Smallwood hitched a ride on a Sherman Tank heading back to his unit. They were somewhere between Hamburg and Berlin when a German soldier, who evidently hadn’t heard about the surrender of the Reich, fired a bazooka at the tank. It killed everyone including Whit.
Husband Number Two
It seemed so unfair. To have survived the war and then to die when it was all over. Meredith got the terrible news three weeks after V-E Day. To have celebrated the end of the war in Europe (the battle with Japan would go on until August) and to have waited for the return of your loved one, only to receive that dreaded telegram instead. A very cruel cosmic joke. Meredith mourned for Whit the rest of her life.
Meredith’s job at Lockheed ended and she, her nine year old son, her four year old daughter and her mother, Amelia, moved back to Oregon, this time to Portland. She got a job as a night operator for the phone company and finally started day classes at the Rose City School of Beauty. Amelia looked after the children.
Upon graduation in 1947 Meredith began to work at Roberto’s House of Beauty on SW Salmon Street. While she had finally achieved her dream, like all dreams, it wasn’t very close to the reality of the job. She hadn’t calculated on the tired legs and sore back from standing all day or the pain in her neck from bending over washing the hair of a dozen clients. But she liked transforming a tired housewife into a vivacious vixen or turning a head of gray into one of chestnut brown.
Within a year the most popular beauty operator at Roberto’s was Meredith. It wasn’t just because she was very skilled at cutting and coloring but that she was so outgoing and pleasant. And, most importantly, she listened, not pretend listening, but compassionate listening. One could bare their soul to her and Meredith would understand.
In 1950, she received a letter. It was postmarked Seattle, Washington.
Meredith remembered the cute boy from the farm next door and realized he was probably her first crush as well. Everyone called him C M (See Him) because he hated being called Clarence. “I know I’m in trouble whenever my dad calls me “CLARENCE!” He was quiet, not really shy, just quiet. And even at twelve he acted very grownup and looked very handsome.
Meredith showed her mother the letter and asked her if she thought she should reply.
“Of course, silly. He seems to be a very polite gentleman and it sounds like he’s got money.”
“Mom, it’s just us getting together to talk over old times. For heaven’s sake, I’m not marrying the man!”
But she did. Five months later she stood with C M, in front of Justice of the Peace, Amos R. Smyth, and became Mrs. Clarence Mulligan. She quit her job at Roberto’s, much to the dismay of both staff and clients, packed up her kids and her belongings and moved into C M’s modest bungalow on Angeline Street up in Seattle. Matthew was very upset about the whole thing, losing all his friends, inheriting a step-father, a new brother, a new high school. His sister Marie was just confused.
As I said earlier, this is a fictional story and it’s going where ever it wants. I’m sorry if it doesn’t jibe with your version of your life but I can only let my pen go where it wants to go. However, feel free to jump in at any time, as you have been doing, to clarify or argue a point. Now, moving on.
From the beginning there were complications. The first was Samuel. Sam was C M’s son from his first marriage. Understandably, he, like Matt, was not happy about the changes brought about by the marriage. He now had to share his room with this older guy who treated him like a little kid. Marie had her own room and began to turn it into a girly place with her collection of dolls, enough pink accessories to qualify as an ad for Pepto Bismol and her photo of the daddy she never knew. She was not impressed with the pretend father her mom had married.
Meredith hoped that the dynamics of this new family would eventually work out, that the boys would become great pals, that Marie would accept, and finally come to adore, her new father and that C M would give his new bride the love and support she needed.
The first crack in this imaginary picture of domestic bliss was Meredith discovering that C M was not well off. His cigarette vending machine business made just enough money to cover the mortgage on the house, the payments on his van, house and auto insurance, the utilities and, finally, pay for food in the pantry. Anything after that was on an ‘as needed’ basis. There was a small savings account but that was for emergencies only.
Next, was the ongoing feud between Matt and Sam. It came to the point where they were beating up on each other. After Matthew gave Sam a bloody nose, C M laid down the law and used a line of masking tape to divide the boy’s room in half.
“Sam, you stay on this side,” C M ordered, “and Matthew, you on this side. You may step over the line only to leave or enter the room. You got it?”
Marie did not take to Clarence Mulligan at first---or even at all, really. It’s weird how one can meet someone for the first time and there is an immediate arc of dislike between the two strangers. This was the case between Marie and her step-father. She found him cold and distant and he found her spoiled and snobbish. She was ten years old. He was thirty four.
And then there was the marriage itself. The honeymoon was over very quickly due to the necessary adaptations that had to be made. There was registering Matt and Marie for school. There was applying for a Washington State drivers license. There was learning about the neighborhood, where the Safeway was located, the pharmacy and the gas station.
Meredith found herself up to her elbows in laundry and dishes. There were floors to be swept and mopped, beds to be made and windows to be washed. Most daunting was the preparation of the meals. Finding a menu that pleased all five members of the newly formed Mulligan family was impossible. No eggs for Sam. No broccoli for C M. Bread without crusts for Marie. Matthew liked only smooth peanut butter for his sandwiches and hold the jelly, please.
It was obvious that chores needed to be assigned and that helped a little bit but sometimes Meredith felt like she was back in Lavinia Smallwood’s kitchen. By bedtime she was wiped out.
The bedroom was off limits to the children and was intended to be an oasis from the chaos of daytime activities. Meredith would come---
I’m sorry to hear that but I sort of had an inkling that something like that was going on. Thank you for being so open and honest. May I continue?
Meredith was beginning to wonder what she had gotten herself into. This was not working out to be the beautiful future she had envisioned when C M was courting her. It was not that she didn’t know that family life was complicated and messy and often painful but she felt she had been deceived. Most men, when they are wooing a prospective partner, present a very different persona from the one that will appear after the wedding. Clarence had been thoughtful and respectful, quiet but attentive. He had done all the right things, flowers, chocolates, dinner (somewhere other than the local greasy spoon) and an engagement ring.
Now, several months into the marriage, he was a completely different person. Silent, sullen and not interested in anything else going on with the rest of the family. Most of the time, when he was not at work, driving around feeding packs of cigarettes into machines, he was in the basement repairing said machines. On the rare occasions he came upstairs, it was to eat, sleep or use the bathroom. Once in awhile he would lie down on the living room couch and indulge in one of his favorite pastimes.
“Mom,” asked Matthew, “What is C M doing on the sofa?”
“He’s reading the phonebook.”
“He likes to look up names in the telephone directory.”
“I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
C M’s hygiene routine left a lot to be desired as well. He didn’t believe in deodorant or toothpaste but he did take a bath once a week whether he needed it or not. However, the thing that really upset Meredith the most was the truth about her engagement and wedding rings.
“C M, Sam said something to me about my rings.”
“He seems to think they were his mothers.”
“You mean to tell me you gave me your dead wife’s wedding rings?!”
“Yeah,” C M replied, turning a page in the phone book.
“Clarence Mulligan! You actually slipped those rings off Irene’s dead finger and saved them to give to the next woman you planned to marry? Why didn’t you let them be buried with her?”
“Well, that would have been a waste, now, wouldn’t it?”
“Okay, then why couldn’t you just have put them away for safe keeping, like for when Sam got married?”
“They fit your finger, right? I had them sized to fit.”
Meredith began to realize that C M saw the world very differently from the way she did. She also understood why he had married her and that it had nothing to do with love. He needed a mother to handle his son, a housekeeper to clean and cook for him and a woman to satisfy him in bed. She was stuck in Seattle, away from any friends she had in Portland, away from a job she had loved. She felt unable to figure out a way to extricate herself from this disastrous situation.
But you were dealing with this in 1953. Surely things had changed enough by then.
You mean about the physical abuse.
So you filed for divorce.
In the divorce settlement, Meredith was given the house, along with the mortgage, in exchange for not receiving alimony. That was fine with her, ‘A small price to pay’ for her freedom. C M moved himself, his son Sam and his business equipment into a warehouse in Bothell. There he would live and work for another eight years until he would grow ill and die from lung cancer. He smoked four packs a day. He certainly stood behind his product.
Everyone smoked in the early years of the 20th century, or at least it looked like that. Believe it or not cigarettes were cheap. Before the Second World War a pack of cigs cost 15 cents. By 1950 they cost 20 cents a pack, and by the time of Meredith’s divorce the price had jumped to an astronomical 25 cents a pack. And they were good for you. Ads with photos of physicians appeared everywhere claiming ‘Nine out of ten doctors recommend Camels, the fresh cigarette.’
The rules about women smoking were changing by 1958 but it was still considered not a very ladylike habit. True, the ladies in the movies smoked but only the ones with a slightly harder edge like career women, vamps, high society females, the dame with the heart of gold or the misunderstood artist. Never the girl next door or somebody’s mother. And yet 41% of the smoking population were women and that’s a lot of mothers and girls next door.
Meredith smoked and had been smoking since she was 16. She would eventually stop but that was to happen in the future. For now, she was addicted to Kool’s, feeling that the menthol helped cut down on the sore throats and coughing.
Husband Number Three
With Marie still living at home and the bills starting to pile up Meredith knew she had to find work. She began contacting Beauty Salons, either in person or on the phone, and inquiring if they had any positions open. None of them did but many said they would contact her if and when that changed. Realizing she couldn’t wait around, she started scanning the want-ads for anything that she thought she could handle; ‘Dental Hygienist,’ no---‘Stenographer,’ no---‘Assistant Window Dresser,’ no. After a week or so, with no viable leads, she almost gave up until she saw this ad in the Seattle Times:
How would you like to make $500 a week?
Work from home.
No skills required.
Just a pleasant personality.
Call JUniper 5 3804
She figured she was pleasant person, most of the time, so she called the number. It was answered on the third ring by a female voice all chipper and excited.
“Grayson Employment Agency! Dot speaking. How may I help you?”
“Uh---I’m calling about your ad.”
“Which one, honey?”
“The one about working from home, no skills---”
“Oh, yeah. The Mortician’s Guide Magazine.”
“They need someone to sell ads for their bi-monthly magazine.”
And so Meredith was introduced to that 50’s phenomenon (that is with us still) the telephone solicitor. After filling out the appropriate forms, the agency sent her to the offices of the Evergreen State Publishing Company for a brief interview and, much to her surprise and relief, she was hired on the spot.
For the next three years she called and talked to every undertaker in every county in the state of Washington. Not only did she find she was good at selling advertising space but she also increased the magazine’s number of subscriptions. Something about her voice and the way she really listened to the person on the other end of the line, similar to the way she listened to her clients at Roberto’s Beauty Salon, seemed to inspire trust and helped to loosen the purse strings. She never made $500 a week but she got by and she even helped Marie pay for college.
It was around this time that she began attending the local Lutheran church, mainly to revitalize her social life. At Hope Lutheran she became friends with a couple of young housewives and this led to some interesting discussions about love and marriage. While talking about her recent divorce, one of the young ladies, Maggie Walsh, asked her if she planned on getting married again.
“When hell freezes over! Twice was enough. If I ever get married again I give you permission to shoot me.”
On Sunday, June 16, 1963, Meredith Olsen Smallwood Mulligan wed Curtis Howard Bright at Hope Lutheran Church. At the reception, Maggie Walsh shot Meredith with her son’s cap pistol.
Curtis Bright had charisma. He looked like a living 8 by 10 glossy publicity photo. He dressed impeccably, his teeth were blazingly white and not one of his flaming red hairs was ever out of place. To top it all off, his sky blue eyes sparkled with a wicked sense of humor. That is what first attracted Meredith to him, his sense of humor.
It all began as a simple business relationship. Curtis had heard about Meredith from a friend who knew somebody at the company that published the Mortuary Guild Magazine. They were talking about this amazing woman who could talk the cheapest Scrooge into buying an ad. Curtis was working, at the time, as a salesman for an aluminum siding company. This was the era of the door to door salesman selling everything from encyclopedias to vacuum cleaners. Curtis didn’t like making ‘cold calls’ but preferred working leads given to him by a telephone solicitor who had compiled a list of possible customers from the calls they made.
When he heard about Meredith he immediately asked for her number because she sounded like just the sort of telephone solicitor he needed.
Curtis Bright was not like Meredith’s other husbands. Whittaker had been a boy, almost as innocent as she had been. C M was a strange, insensitive, abusive lout but Curtis was the total opposite. He showered Meredith with gifts, with candle lit dinners and trips to Las Vegas and weekends at the beach. Most importantly, however, he flooded her with praise and love and she blossomed.
She eventually quit her job with the Mortuary magazine and worked full time finding possible leads for Curtis. He was an amazing salesman and convinced a lot of Seattle homeowners to re-side their houses. He and Meredith made a great team. And then the roof caved in.
Meredith got a notice that the bank was repossessing her house and when she called, in a panic, they also informed her that she was overdrawn on their joint account. When Curtis walked into the house, after a day of unsuccessful sales calls, Meredith was ready.
“Why did you get a second mortgage on our home?!”
“I don’t remember signing any papers, so you must have forged my name.”
“Oh, babe, I didn’t want to worry you---”
“Well, I’m plenty worried now. What the hell is going on?!”
“Just a little financial set back. I’m on it. I’ll have it cleared up in no time.”
“Every check I wrote to pay this month’s bills bounced. What happened?”
“Well, I had some debts I had to take care of.”
And then it all came out. Curtis had a ‘slight’ gambling problem. Seems some of his afternoons, when he was supposedly following up leads, were spent at the racetrack. Evening visits with prospective clients could turn into a good-ole-boy’s poker game. That Aluminum Siding Convention in Las Vegas was a chance to try his hand at Blackjack. And he was adept at playing the numbers even if that was kind of illegal.
“How much do you owe?”
“Not a lot. It’s manageable.”
“Curtis, how much?”
“Ah---Just a few thousand?”
“JUST A FEW! How many is a few?”
“Oh, my god!”
“It’s okay, it’s okay! I’m taking care of it.”
“Who do you owe this money to? These ‘few’ thousands?”
“Well, that’s where it gets a little dicey.”
“What do you mean?”
“In order to pay off some of my debts I consolidated them into one large debt.”
“What does that mean?”
“ I borrowed enough to pay off most of what I owed and that way I only had one person I had to reimburse.”
“And who was, or is, this generous person?”
“Yeah, who makes private loans.”
“Curtis, please don’t tell me you borrowed from a loan shark!” The silence that followed affirmed the situation. “And now we owe the bank and our account is overdrawn and they’re threatening to repossess the house!”
“It’s not going to happen. I have an appointment tomorrow morning that will take care of everything.”
“What kind of appointment? With whom?”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head. Let me surprise you.”
And surprise her he did. He left the house the next morning and was never seen again. Whether he had just driven off into the sunset or was sent to the bottom of Puget sound she would never know. When she contacted a different bank, about the joint savings account she and Curtis had opened there, she was told he had closed it out. Her signature, forged of course, along with his, was on the paper work.
With the loss of her house, her husband and her job, Meredith returned to Portland to live with her mother. Marie had finished college and was living in a hippy commune somewhere in the wilds of the Cascade Mountains. Matthew was East in Chicago working at an ad agency.
Her prayers were answered on the day her divorce (her second) was granted. Due to having been abandoned, the decree was issued promptly with no complications. And at the same time a job opportunity appeared out of nowhere. A friend of Meredith’s mother mentioned that the beautician at Providence Hospital was looking for an assistant. Meredith applied and got the job and her life began to change for the better.
Providence was one of the first hospitals to dedicate a room to be used as a beauty shop. They realized that when a patient was stuck in a hospital bed for days or even weeks they would need to, at least, get their hair washed. What they discovered was that after a person had been wheeled down to the shop, had a shampoo and a comb-out or, as in the case of the male patients, a haircut, they felt better and seemed to heal faster.
Beverly Compton ran the beauty shop and was great in the hair department but a little behind the times in the makeup area. She was also becoming unable to handle the volume of patients that wanted to avail themselves of her services.
“Honey, I am so glad to have you on board! Now, you say did makeup out at Roberto’s?”
“I did it all, cut, dye, and perm as well as makeup.”
“Well, that’s just great. You know, we get these poor sick women whose skin has turned the color of day old oatmeal. A little makeup magic, you know, rouge, lipstick, a bright eye shadow and they really perk up!”
It was true. As the months went by, Meredith watched many of her patients look in the mirror, after she had styled their hair and carefully worked on their makeup, and smile at what they saw in the reflection. She sometimes felt like she was actually a practicing Nurse---of Cosmetology.
The years flew by, as they are want to do, and Meredith became firmly established as the person to go to for a makeover of both body and spirit. Even the hospital nurses made appointments to have their hair done and their makeup improved. Eventually, Beverly retired and turned the business over to Meredith.
One afternoon, a patient was wheeled in and Meredith’s path in life changed once again. Margo Francis Stearns was in her 70’s and was one of Portland’s grand dames. She was a descendent of a lumber baron and was a cousin, many times removed, of one of the Du Ponts. She was very rich---
But that changed, as the monthly visits to the beauty shop continued, and one day she invited Meredith to a Sunday brunch.
“Nothing fancy, darling. Just a chance for you to get away from the hospital for a bit. A little girl time for the two of us. I might even give you a sample of my piano playing. Shall we say eleven?”
Meredith was stunned and when she got home and she told her mother, Amelia was astounded as well.
“She invited you up to her house, her mansion?”
“I guess that’s what she meant.”
“Margo Stearns is the richest woman in the city!”
“I know, I know! What am I going to wear?”
On the appointed Sunday, Meredith took a taxi to the Forest Park address of Margo Stearns. Stepping out of the cab she looked up from the open wrought iron gate to the French Renaissance-style chateau that sat at the top of the drive. It was like the exterior of a set for a movie version of The Three Musketeers.
Adjusting her coat, newly purchased at Meier and Frank’s Department Store, she climbed the slight incline and, reaching the grand entrance, ascended the steps to the large iron clad oak front door. There was a door knocker attached, with the head of a bear, and, at the side of the door, a white mother-of-pearl doorbell. Door knocker or doorbell? Oh, dear! Which should she use?
The dilemma was solved when the door opened, on its own, to reveal a young woman dressed in a simple navy blue dress.
“Good morning, miss. Mrs. Stearns is waiting for you in the sunroom. May I take your coat?”
Meredith quickly slipped out of her new acquisition, a little disappointed that Margo wouldn’t see her in her beautiful camel hair overcoat. But she was glad she had gone ahead and also invested in a new dress, an pseudo Yves Saint-Laurent sack dress in emerald green.
She was led by the young woman past a massive marble staircase, down a hall lined with paintings of horses, and horsey looking people, until they entered a brightly lit room made entirely of glass. Meredith figured this was what the mystery novels referred to as ‘The Conservatory.’
“Meredith, darling! You made it!” Margo effused, rising from a round cloth-covered table nestled among large tropical plants, and planted a kiss on each of Meredith’ cheeks.
“Please sit here, across from me. Oh, and this is Maria,” she said, indicating the young lady in blue, “my very own angel. I’d be lost without her.”
“Very pleased to meet you Maria,” responded Meredith, “My daughter’s name is Marie.” The young lady in blue gave her a dutiful smile.
“Maria, if you would bring out the coffee, please,” Margo requested, as she led Meredith to a seat at the table. On it was a centerpiece of roses that was surrounded by many different dishes (Flora Danica china to be precise) of fruits, pastries, cheeses and cold meats. A far cry from the coffee and oatmeal that Meredith wolfed down every morning before she rushed off to work.
“This looks so beautiful---and tasty!”
“Not very fancy. I could have cook whip you up some eggs if you’d like.”
“Oh, my no! This is fine---more than fine. It’s fabulous.”
The brunch proceeded with Maria pouring coffee and refilling bowls and plates as they emptied. Margo and Meredith spent several hours sharing stories about their early years, Margo growing up in Barton Hills, the richest neighborhood in Michigan and Meredith surviving in Lebanon, Oregon, whose claim to fame was the yearly Strawberry Festival.
“Lebanon is the nation’s largest producer of strawberries.’
“ My word, very impressive. Maybe these berries came from there.”
And so started a friendship between two very different women. What united them was their loneliness and---
What I was going to say was that they were united by loneliness and fascination with each other’s life style. For Margo, who had grown up in a world of private schools, debutante balls, ski trips to Switzerland, yachts on the Mediterranean and shopping sprees in Paris, Meredith’s life seemed pleasantly simple, bucolic, quiet and very down to earth. But, of course, unless you have actually lived the other person’s life, which we can never do, you don’t really know what it was, and is, like.
“I remember how guilty I felt during the Depression,” Margo confessed, “I was married and a mother and living in a twenty room mansion with a staff of servants and a nanny and reading the daily newspaper about the bread lines and the soup kitchens and the unemployment rate of 25%. I knew I was very lucky. I did see to it that Leo, my husband, donated to various charities but he did so reluctantly. I think he feared we could end up losing everything. Fear and greed, an evil combination of emotions, and, for us, totally irrelevant. Between our two families we had a fortune that would serve us well even if we lost three-quarters of it.”
Meredith still had trouble imagining that kind of wealth. “It is good that you appreciated your situation. However, you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being poor. You wouldn’t have liked it. Poverty doesn’t make you noble or strong. It just makes you hungry and miserable and you feel hopeless, which you are. Growing up poor in the country was an experience I could have done without and it has permanently colored my outlook on life.”
Margo was embarrassed by the way she had fantasized about what she thought was the unpretentious life of a country girl; dirndl skirt, milkmaid braids, running through fields of daisies and square dancing in a barn. Feeling the need to move off such a depressing topic, Margo led them into the music room where she played a couple of piano pieces for Meredith.
By late afternoon, Meredith was on her way home to the two room apartment she shared with her mother. Amelia was excitedly waiting for her daughter to share the highlights of her brunch with the richest woman in Portland, Oregon. Amelia had aged a lot, in the last few months, and was feeling her mortality but she still looked forward to a juicy bit of gossip.
“What did she serve?”
“What was she wearing?”
“How many servants does she have?
“What’s the house like?”
“What did you talk about?”
Meredith answered as many of the questions as she could and then begged off with the excuse she was tired and had to go to work the next day. She reminded her mother that, unlike Margo, she had a job.
Margo spent the evening thinking about the brunch and how pleasant and informative it had been. After some soul searching she determined that she wanted to do something special for Meredith. A party, maybe. Or a trip to Mexico or Hawaii. She was feeling so much stronger physically. This friendship was much better medicine than all those pills the doctors were feeding her.
Margo began sending little tokens of her appreciation to Meredith. Most of her gifts were decorations for the beauty shop; porcelain flowers, original oil paintings of birds and butterflies, decorative mirrors in gold frames. However, during one of her visits, to have her hair done, she heard Meredith complaining about one of the hair dryers, “The poor old thing is consumptive, hasn’t enough breath left to blow out a candle.” A week later a beautiful hot pink General Electric hooded-hair-dryer arrived. Meredith was stunned. She phoned Margo immediately.
“Margo, I thank you but I can’t accept this---I understand but---yes, it’s lovely. It’s standing here looking like a space ship---well, if I keep it, I insist on reimbursing you---”
Of course, Margo wouldn’t think of it and Meredith learned she had to keep her equipment replacement plans to herself. But the generosity and the gifts didn’t stop. Margo took her to lunch at Meier and Frank’s, with a little clothes shopping thrown in. And then there were visits to Best’s Apparel and Nordstrom’s, ‘just to look around’ and maybe pick up a few things. Meredith’s closet began to fill up.
Margo also began to introduce Meredith to various cultural events like the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Ballet and to the road shows that played at the Civic Auditorium. It was at the Civic where Meredith saw her first Broadway musical, ‘The Music Man.’
Margo guided her through the Portland Art Museum as well as some of the private art galleries. There were dinners at Hillvilla, where the view was as delicious as the meal, and jazz at the Mural Room where the music was better than the food. There were profiteroles at Lipman’s Chocolate Lounge and there was lobster at Canlis, high atop the newly built Hilton Hotel. Meredith added an inch to her waistline while Margo never seemed to gain a pound. In fact, she looked like she was losing weight.
“No, no, it’s an illusion. I have the most amazing dressmaker who could make Kate Smith look slim. In fact, I’d love to have her make something for you. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Well, I don’t know---”
“Listen, every year I host a charity ball up at the house. It’s for Mental Health America and it’s the only time I hob nob with the bores of this town. They may be shallow but they have deep pockets so I provide the venue, the food and drink and the dance band. This year it’s a musical group called The Fireballs. God knows what they’re all about. Anyway, I want you to attend and since you’ll need something formal, dressy---you know, splashy, we’ll have Rosella whip something up for you.”
Husband Number Four ??
The party was in full swing when Meredith descended the wide marble staircase, feeling like Audrey Hepburn in ‘My Fair Lady.’ However, once on the dance floor, she felt her age as she watched people wildly gyrating to ‘Wooly Bully’ and ‘Sha La La.’ She was about to head for the safety of the refreshment table when the music shifted to “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” Was that a waltz or a fox trot? She might be able to maneuver her way through that. As if her thoughts were heard, a distinguished silvered-hair gentleman stepped in front of her. “Pardon me, but may I have this dance?”
Lewis Nestor Stearns introduced himself as they moved counter clockwise around the parquet floor.
“Yes, I’m the progeny of Mrs. Margo Stearns, the glamorous hostess of this debacle. And I know who you are, Miss Meredith Smallwood, the makeup magician and hair stylist extraordinaire who works out of Providence Hospital.”
Meredith felt somewhat embarrassed by this description and didn’t quite know how to respond. She wished Margo had prepared her by first introducing her to her son. In truth, he was proving to be a good dancer and he certainly was pleasing to the eye. Tall, broad shouldered with grey green eyes and a crooked smile, he spoke with a rich, cultivated baritone voice.
“Mother says you have brightened up her life.”
“Well, I don’t know about---”
“Don’t be modest. I think she feels like you’re the daughter she never had.”
“Oh, my no! We’re just friends. She’s been very nice and---”
“So that kind of makes me your brother, eh sis?”
Meredith was getting more and more uncomfortable with this conversation. She couldn’t tell if Lewis Stearns was being sarcastic or sincere. When the music stopped she told him she was thirsty and was going to go over to the bar. He insisted that he escort her and asked her if she would like some champagne.
“That would be lovely.”
As the evening proceeded, along with more dancing, dining and appeals, from Margo, for contributions to MHA, Lewis stuck close to Meredith. Several glasses of champagne had helped her relax and she even began to enjoy his company. He was wickedly witty and kept her chuckling with his sotto voice comments about various members of the evening’s guests.
“He’s President of the First National Bank and yet has trouble counting to ten.”
“What she has paid for plastic surgery over the years would end the National Debt.”
“Can you believe he has a twin? One of him is more than enough.”
“Yvonne? The blond? She just celebrated her 35th birthday. Really. She’s been celebrating it for the last twenty years.”
While Meredith found his social commentary somewhat humorous it made her wonder if he said these unflattering things about everyone, including herself.
As the party began winding down, Margo finally took time to join Meredith and her son at one of the small tables she had set up on the patio. She looked tired but elegant in the wine colored culottes gown she had chosen to wear. An intricate necklace of garnets, set in gold wire filigree, was the only jewelry she wore.
“I’m so sorry to have neglected you, darling, but I had to keep shaming the reluctant guests into making a contribution. I see Lewis has introduced himself. I hope he has taken good care of you.”
“Absolutely. I’ve had a very pleasant evening.”
“He’s here visiting me,” Margo continued, talking almost as if he wasn’t there sitting in front of her, “all the way from Michigan.”
“ Hello, mother. I’m over here, next to Meredith, if you need to reach me for anything.”
“Don’t be silly, Lewis. But, as long as you’ve offered, why don’t you go get us some coffee.”
“Aye, aye, mon Capitan,’’ Lewis replied, rising up from the table, “This means she wants to have a little private tete-a-tete with you, Meredith,” he whispered as he headed off to the bar.
“He’s incorrigible---but under that veneer of sarcasm he’s really just a marshmallow. He’s very sensitive and we’ve been through a lot together. It’s one of the reasons I chose to support Mental Health America. They have helped us so much---a great organization. He’s suffered from anxiety most of his life, along with a little paranoia once in a while, but that all seems to have faded away recently.”
“Well, he’s been very charming. I’m sorry if you had to struggle---”
“Oh, sweetheart, don’t concern yourself. Things are fine now. Ah, here comes our coffee.”
Lewis arrived with the angel Maria carrying a tray upon which sat a coffee pot and three cups. After he was seated and the coffee had been served the conversation turned to the success of the evening.
“We did better than we did last year although the tally isn’t finished.”
“Did mater tell you about my vacation at The Oregon State Mental Hospital?”
“Lewis, don’t start!”
“Actually, it was at the Dammasch branch, out in Beaverton. We called it the Damn Ass branch. Boy, what a wild party that was!”
A large manila envelope arrived two days before Amelia Olsen passed away and three days before Margo Stearns succumbed to her disease. Occupied with her mother’s funeral arrangements and with moving the equipment and supplies from the beauty shop into storage kept Meredith from spending any time perusing the package’s contents. It was only after a week of looking at her mother’s dishes and nightgowns and photo albums and crying herself to sleep that she finally sat down and had a serious look at the documents sent to her by the late Margo Francis Stearns.
The first page was a personal letter from Margo thanking her for being such a good friend. This was followed with a contract indicating that Meredith was being hired as manager of the household of one Lewis Nestor Stearns, 266 Geddes Ave. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her salary was to be $250,000 a year (Meredith nearly passed out when she read that.) Her duties were to run the household, (funds would be provided monthly, up to $10,000), pay all bills, (checking account established with renewable balance of $25,000), maintain a budget for Mr. Stearns, (his monthly allowance of $5,000) and supervise all medical treatments for Mr. Stearns. She would be responsible for the upkeep of the two automobiles (a Rolls Royce Phantom V and a Ferrari 250 GTO) and for the maintenance of the Chevrolet Corsair that would be her personal vehicle.
Enclosed, in the envelope, was a ticket for a roomette on a train to Chicago where she would be met by a chauffeur and then driven to Ann Arbor. There was also a check for $1500 for travelling expenses.
‘A promise is a promise,’ was something her father used to say, ‘Never make a promise you can’t keep,’ and so Meredith sublet her apartment, packed up her clothes and mementos and headed East. She also realized that in four years she could become a millionaire and that was a big incentive as well.
Let me. Lewis was prescribed several medications and it was your job to see that he took them. The most important one was Miltown, a tranquilizer, and unfortunately he would either forget to take it or he would take too much. An overdose would lead to drowsiness and confusion. Withdrawal would lead to unsteadiness and depression. Once, he even had convulsions and his heart almost stopped.
His general behavior, even when his meds were being managed correctly, was erratic. One day he would be quiet, polite and introspective. He’d sit listening to one of the hundreds of classical LP’s that made up his private collection. The next day he would become this wild man, verbally abusive, throwing things and screaming like a banchee. “Who stole my ID bracelet!!!” “Why are you staring at me?!!”
It began to dawn on Meredith that what Margo had described as ‘anxiety’ was really a serious mental condition. Lewis was very sick. The carrot that had been dangled in front of her face, living in the lap of luxury, was a ruse. She was hired to be nursemaid to a mad man.
Things really began to come apart at the seams when Lewis started to appear at her bedroom door in the middle of the night. At first she would let him in, seat him in the overstuffed armchair and let him talk, thinking this would help him exorcise some of his demons. But then he became a bit aggressive and that scared her enough to start locking her door.
The next upsetting series of events were the love notes slipped under her door. It seemed he had become fixated on the two of them becoming lovers, maybe even man and wife. Meredith was not unaware of the irony. Her dream, of marrying a wealthy man, of never having to worry about paying the bills, of being able to buy that bottle of Evening in Paris perfume whenever she wanted, was possible. All she had to do was to agree to spend the rest of her life locked in a marriage to a crazy person.
The notes became more vividly obscene with descriptions of what he wanted to do with her---to her. They were illustrated with anatomical drawings of body parts much larger than those of any human being on earth. Meredith was horrified.
And you are?
So you drove to Michigan and what happened then?
By the time they were in Iowa, Matt had gotten most of the painful details. When they stopped for the night in Cedar Rapids they both collapsed on their motel beds, too tired to continue the conversation. The next morning, after breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, they resumed their journey west on Interstate 30, the old Lincoln Highway. They were both very quiet, recovering from the shock of the events of the day before. Matt was the first to break the silence.
“I guess so. I feel like I’m finally breathing after suffocating for a very long time.”
“I’m a little confused about all this. I mean, Marie said you were married to this Stearns guy. So are you going to file for divorce when you get back in Portland?”
“Oh, good lord! I never married that maniac. I don’t know where your sister got that idea. I didn’t love him, in fact I never really liked him. It was purely a business arrangement.”
“Well, mom, you have to admit you’ve often told us how it’s just as easy to love a rich man as a poor one and---”
“Matthew Smallwood, I have never---”
“---how you’d like to find a millionaire and become a woman of leisure---”
“Well, if I ever said such a stupid thing, and I really doubt I did, then I deserve all that I’ve been through.”
This ended the conversation for the next several miles. After lunch in Ames, and filling the gas tank, the getaway car continued on it’s merry way. Meredith seemed more relaxed so Matt felt brave enough to resume the conversation.
“Mom, I’ve been wondering if you’ve ever thought about your history with men---”
“Matthew, don’t start!”
“Please, please hear me out. You’ve been married four times---”
“Three! I did not marry Lewis.”
“Right. Three. There was dad, then C M and then Curtis. I was eight when dad was killed but he’d already been away for three years, he went off to war when I was five, so I hardly remember him.”
“Your father was a wonderful man. I miss him every day.”
“ The next two gentlemen were something else, you have to admit.”
“I did the best I could. I thought it was important for you kids to have a father figure.”
“I understand. But, let’s be honest, they weren’t the greatest of choices, right?”
“How old are you now, Matt? Thirty two?”
“And you’ve been in and out of love a lot, right?”
“Yeah, I guess. What has that got to do---”
“How many of those encounters turned out the way you expected?”
“Okay, I get your point. However, I have this theory about what keeps happening in your life. Can I share it with you?”
“Can I stop you”
“Probably not. Now, don’t get mad. It’s just something I’ve thought about quite a bit.”
“Okay, Dr. Freud, if that’s what’s going on, what should I do? What’s the cure?”
“I’m just trying to be helpful, mom. I want to see you happy and not stuck in a situation like you just got in with this Lewis guy.”
“That was a business arrangement not a marriage.”
“In a way that’s a shame,” Matt said with a chuckle, “You could have divorced him and taken him to the cleaners.”
“Just joking, ma.”
As dinner time approached they found themselves near North Platte, Nebraska. Feeling hungry and travel weary, they opted to make this their stop for the night. They found a mom and pop motel with a restaurant attached and, after a meal of fried chicken and biscuits they settled down for a good nights sleep. The plan was to get a really early start.
At seven the next morning, Matt’s green Volvo was speeding it’s way along the sunlit highway. The fields around them were flat all the way to the horizon line, the road ahead as straight as the proverbial arrow.
“Did you sleep okay?” Matt asked his mom.
“Like the dead, thank you.”
“Good. Listen, I didn’t mean to upset you yesterday.”
“That’s okay. It gave me something to think about.”
“Good, I’m glad.”
Matt smiled and looked at Meredith out of the corner of his eye. She was a beautiful woman in the prime of her life and she deserved better than she was getting.
“Mom, you’re fifty now, right?”
“Shame on you. You know a woman never reveals her age. But, yes, I’ve reached that half century mark. Fifty one to be exact.”
“You look great.”
“Why, thank you, kind sir.”
“You know, mom, the times are changing. The old rules don’t apply anymore. You don’t have to be subservient to some man. You don’t need a man to give you validity.”
“Wow, my son the feminist! Look, I’ve been keeping up with what’s going on. I’ve read Gloria Steinem.”
“Mom, you have always been so strong. One of the strongest women I have ever known. You don’t need a permanent relationship with some guy---”
“So I don’t need a husband is what you’re saying.”
“Well, yeah, I guess that’s what I mean. You know, you could play the field. Date.”
“Are you telling me to be promiscuous?”
“Jesus, mom! I Just don’t want you to get into another unhappy marriage.”
“The heir of the Stearns fortune allegedly ran over his young wife in the driveway of the Stearns Mansion in Ann Arbor Michigan. It appears he hit her with his automobile, knocked her down, and then drove over her twice.”
For the next decade Meredith concentrated on her work. The new beauty shop was twice as large as her old one, with lots of natural light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows. She tinkered with the idea of hiring another beautician but decided that she could handle the work load alone if she cut back on the number of appointments per day. She did install a second hydraulic chair and one more hair dryer to stand beside the pink one Margo had given her all those years ago.
Once again, her shop became the place in the hospital to hang out, where nurses and staff could get away from the grind for a little while and where the sound of laughter competed with the snip of the scissors and the whir of the hair dryer. Meredith always had time for the latest bit of gossip or to listen to someone’s tale of woe.
Meredith dated a few times but there weren’t that many men interested in a woman of somewhat advanced years, even if she looked ten years younger than her actual age. Being a cosmetologist of great skills, she played up her good bone structure and flawless skin. Her blonde hair became even more blonde and increased in volume with the use of falls and extensions. Her figure remained slim but not skinny. She never gained any extra pounds, claiming her work kept her thin. “Being on my feet all day is my exercise. Better than any diet.”
One of the nurses, Paula Newcross, became a close friend of Meredith’s and encouraged her to spend a little more time outside the world of the hospital. ‘There is a life beyond these walls, you know.’ They attended the movies, had a drink or two at Huber’s Café and shopped at the Lloyd Center Mall. Paula was a ‘joiner,’ which Meredith certainly was not, and she belonged to a book club and a knitting circle as well.
“Where do you get the time to do all those activities? My god, after a ten hour day here in the shop, I just want to soak my feet and then go to bed.”
“I don’t know, just lucky I guess. I’ve always had more energy than brains,” Paula replied, laughing, “In fact, tonight, I’m taking a ballroom dance class.”
“Oh, my lord! You are a glutton for punishment!”
Over the next six weeks Paula exchanged her sensible nurse’s flats for her high heeled dancing shoes and learned the waltz, the tango, the rumba, the cha cha, the samba and even a few of the more modern disco dances. She kept trying to get Meredith to come to one of the classes but to no avail.
“It’s so much fun and you meet the nicest people. I’ve partnered with some very interesting men.”
“Don’t you even start, Miss Newcross. You know my policy about men.”
“Boring! You just dance with them, for god’s sake! You don’t marry them.”
After Paula graduated from the GoodTimes Dancing School she began to look around for places where people could go to dance. Saturday night was a big deal at Earthquake Ethel’s Disco, out in Beaverton, with drinking, dancing and other more X rated activities. It was the sexy seventies, for heaven’s sake! Paula made an exploratory trip and was blown away.
“Oh, Merri, you have got to go! It is so much fun. They have this sound system that literally shakes the building like an earthquake!”
“I hate it already.”
“No, no! You’ll love it. The music is great, the drinks are cheap and the pizza is---well, it’s pizza.”
Between the level of the music and the noise of the crowd at the bar and on the dance floor, Meredith couldn’t hear anything Paula was saying. She had to rely on reading her lips. They wedged their way through the crowd until they were close enough to the bar to order drinks. After a few minutes a young man (it looked to Meredith like everyone in the place was still in grade school) approached Paula and she guessed he was asking her for a dance. Paula nodded and mouthed to Meredith, ‘Are you okay?’ and Meredith waved her off to the dance floor.
About an hour later, Paula finished dancing with what was probably her umpteenth partner and rejoined Meredith, who had found a place at a small table. Meredith felt the beginning of a headache and was so ready to leave. Paula grabbed herself another vodka tonic and collapsed in the chair next to Meredith. It was at this moment that the floor began to rumble.
“Oh, good! Here comes one of Ethel’s earthquakes! Yeah!” shouted Paula.
Meredith watched, terrified, as the whole room shook, glasses rattled and people cheered and laughed. After a minute or so, a very long minute, the shaking subsided and the music returned.
“Wasn’t that amazing?!”
“You know we live along the Cascadia fault line, right? Remember the big quake we had ten years ago?”
“Nope. I was still living in Arizona.”
“Well, if you’ve ever experienced a real quake you’d know how truly unfun it really is. Now, I hate to be a party pooper but I really would like to leave.”
This would have been the end of the evening, much to Paula’s disappointment, if not for what happened next. A middle-aged man appeared out of nowhere and stood in front of Meredith.
“Excuse me, but may I have the honor of this next dance?”
First of all, that there had been a gentleman closer to her age lurking somewhere among the youngsters, all this time, and secondly that he was asking her to dance, left her speechless. Paula had to elbow her to get her to stand up and reply.
“Ah, er---I guess so,” and they were off to the dance floor. Roberta Flack was singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and, as Meredith recalled years later, this became their song. They danced on into the night until Paula had to point out that it was almost two in the morning. Meredith made her apologies and, after she and her dance partner exchanged their contact information, she and Paula got into the bug and headed back to Portland.
“You know who that was you were dancing with, right?”
“He said his name was Brad,” Meredith replied, trying to read what he had written. His last name is---Holiday or Halloway, hard to tell in the dark.”
“You are so funny. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Halloway’s Appliance Stores. They’re everywhere. You were dancing with Bradley J. Halloway, the multi-millionaire owner of at least ten appliance stores. You’ve seen the commercials, right, with the Halloway jingle? ‘Make Halloway, the only way, to never pay too much.’ He’s got stores in Seattle, Portland, Salem, Spokane, Tacoma, Yakima---I don’t know where else.”
Meredith was not thrilled with what had just been revealed by Paula. In fact she was very disappointed that this pleasant, rather ordinary guy, kind of like a shoe salesman or a grocer, was actually a titan of industry. Pass him on the street and you wouldn’t give him a second glance. And this millionaire business, ‘been there, done that.’ She didn’t want to go through all that again. When they say the rich are different than us, boy, are they right!
“But they’re separated.”
(So what?! I’ll probably never see him again, nor should I.)
However, she did see him again, several times, when he invited her to go dancing. He was an excellent dancer and she felt very comfortable in his arms. As if by osmosis, she became a better dance partner and she began to look forward to the weekends and being swept around the floor by Brad. He was always the perfect gentleman, no improper placement of the hands, no innuendos or off-color jokes and no suggestive movements other than what might be required to make the dance better. It was if he and Meredith had a business arrangement, partners in dance, nothing more. He wasn’t much of a talker but, over the months, she learned a few things about him. He came from a poor farming family, left school at twelve to find work, at seventeen joined the Army and fought in the Korean Conflict. After coming home, he used his army training to get a job repairing appliances, was good at it, eventually opened his own shop, began selling restored washers and stoves and such, moved on to selling new appliances, opened another store and before you knew it he had a whole chain of stores.
Meredith wanted to ask him about his personal life but didn’t want to make him uncomfortable so she turned to Paula to fill her in.
“All I know is that he and his wife live separately. She has an apartment somewhere near the Columbia River and he lives out on a farm near Troutdale. They have four grown kids. I don’t believe they have any grandchildren yet.”
Husband Number Five?/Four
Matthew and Marie did not attend the wedding of Meredith Smallwood to Bradley J. Halloway. Matt had a deadline on an ad campaign that kept him in Chicago. Marie had a---well, to be honest, she just didn’t want to be there.
Romance finally bloomed between Meredith and Brad a couple of years after their first encounter on the dance floor. It happened when Brad was dropping Meredith off after an evening fox trotting at the old Organ Grinder Restaurant. Besides serving decent pizza, this place served up live music on a giant Wurlitzer pipe organ rescued from an old movie theater. It also had a large dance floor. On this night, Instead of the usual peck on the cheek, Meredith gave Brad a full, on the lips, kiss. Inviting him up to her apartment, one thing led to another and a love affair began that would last up to their marriage seven years later.
Meredith felt very modern being a ‘kept’ woman. Only, of course, she wasn’t being ‘kept’ as she still worked at the hospital beauty shop and Brad hadn’t installed her in a fancy apartment. While he slept over quite often, he never moved in with her. He never showered her with furs and jewelry. There were no trips to Paris or Honolulu. It was a simple relationship based on dancing and Meredith was fine with that. At first, his children were not pleased that he had a mistress but eventually they saw how happy he had become. As one of his daughters admitted, ‘Mom was not very loving to us or to dad. Meredith, on the other hand, had a lot of love to give and she shared it with dad and all of us.’
Brad’s wife, Lorraine, would not grant him a divorce. It was kind of like, ‘if I can’t have him, no one else can.’ However, fate stepped in, as she is wont to do, and Lorraine was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer. After a long and painful battle she succumbed and Brad was free to marry Meredith.
At first, Meredith was reluctant about getting married again. She found the existing situation perfectly acceptable. With the exception of her first marriage, weddings didn’t seem to work out very well for Meredith. She was concerned that they might lose what they had right now---pleasant companionship.
“You stand to lose a lot more if you don’t get married,” advised Paula, as Meredith finished her comb-out, “What if, god forbid, he finds someone else? And, what if he dies? You will have no legal right to his fortune!”
“Oh, Paula. I don’t want his money.”
“Ah, you say that now. But, just wait. Come on, girl, don’t tell me you haven’t thought about those millions sitting in the bank.”
“Look, Paula, money isn’t everything.”
Wow! I’m so sorry. I guess I did get this last part wrong. I think both of us forget that this is just a story, a bit of fictional fluff based on lives of many different women. But thanks for setting me straight.
So Meredith wed Brad on February 14, 1984, Valentines day. She was sixty six and Brad was sixty. It was a simple ceremony held on Brad’s farm out near Troutdale. His four children and a few friends attended. The reception consisted of lots of champagne and barbequed ribs. The honeymoon was spent at the lodge up on Mount Hood.
The divorce took place on August 11, 2004. Meredith was eighty six and Brad was eighty.
Meredith got the farm and half of Brad’s fortune. She would go on to live another ten years and spent the time turning the farm into a safe ranch for abused women and their families. When she passed she willed a quarter of her wealth to each of her two children and the rest to Mental Health America.
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