“The Survivors,” Ensign, Aug. 1982, 70
Morning gave off the damp earth smell of spring as Sister Tucker stepped out onto her front porch, letting the storm door slam shut behind her. Sunlight breaking through the patchy layer of clouds lit up the corners of the market across the street, glinting off the windshields of the two or three cars parked there, while March gusts blew plastic wrappers and squashed paper cups across the parking lot from the service station next door. The shrubs, whose untidy tops brushed her window ledges, cast moving patterns of shadow and light on her lawn, and the grass was growing shaggy and green again after a long winter. Time to call the Simmons boy to come and cut it—a sure sign that soon robins would be tiptoeing across her yard and she would be able to plant her tomato and onion sets and clear out the sun porch to make room for her begonias and African violets.
Pulling on her knit navy-blue gloves, she peered up the street in the direction Darcy’s car would come. Sister Tucker was a thin woman and spare; but bundled up as she was now in her furry winter coat, she looked like a bear emerging from hibernation. The coat had been an extravagance, probably more suitable for a much younger woman, but she hadn’t been able to resist the soft feel of the brown orlon fur under her hand in the department store, and the saleslady had insisted it looked good on her. Perhaps so, but the effect of youthfulness was certainly lost when one considered the veined legs wrapped in stockings like bandages and the heavy black old-lady’s shoes she had to wear.
Darcy’s car was nowhere in sight. Sister Tucker was early getting ready for church this morning, or Darcy was late—no surprise for a young mother with three little ones to get dressed and fed all by herself. Darcy’s husband was a policeman and quite often had to work on Sunday, or else so late Saturday night that he couldn’t make it to church the next morning.
Sister Tucker was in sympathy with all those young mothers she saw shepherding their families into church every Sunday morning, the boys’ hair all slicked down with water, the comb lines still sharp, white shirts tucked in neatly until halfway through Primary—or the little girls with their hair pulled back into French braids, feet dancing in black patent-leather sandals, and carrying their little purses self-consciously over thin wrists. The Church hadn’t been part of her life during those years when she raised her own daughters, struggling to buy the dresses and schoolbooks and pay the dental bills—and living with Gus. Maybe life would have been easier, maybe harder.
Darcy’s blue sedan pulled to a stop at the curb with a short honk of the horn. Sister Tucker touched her braided coronet of white hair with her glove to make certain all was still in place before slipping on the plastic rain bonnet and snapping it securely under her chin against any unexpected gusts of wind.
Darcy reached over to unlock the car door, and Sister Tucker lowered herself inside, placing her straw carryall and new triple combination and Bible on the seat between them before turning to pull the heavy door shut with both hands. A brief smile of greeting touched Darcy’s lips before she shifted out of park into drive and lurched into the street, gunning the motor slightly as she did so. “I’m late,” she announced flatly, glancing over her shoulder at the two boys and a girl sitting quietly for the moment in the back seat absorbed in picture books. “I’m teaching the Social Relations lesson and my room isn’t set up yet.”
Sister Tucker nodded, watching for a moment the play of light on Darcy’s long, pale hair as they moved through traffic. Darcy’s eyes frowned into the windshield, intent on the road. “I went to see my daughter Lucille yesterday,” she told Darcy. “Her little son, the one with Down’s Syndrome, had just been to the doctor. He needs surgery and they haven’t been able to get insurance. Poor Lucille. Her husband hasn’t been able to get overtime at the plant and they can’t find a house they can afford so that Jimmy can play outside without Lucille chasing him out of the street. He’s twelve years old now.” She took a breath.
“You kids stop your arguing over that book!” Darcy called over her shoulder. “Simon, you are not to call Moira a pig. That is her book and she’s allowed to share it with whomever she pleases. … However,” she added in steely tones, “those who share will be blessed.”
Sister Tucker chuckled, a dry rippling sound, as she looked into the back seat in time to see Simon surreptitiously pinch his sister. The girl winced and elbowed him in the side. Sister Tucker turned forward again, her face quite solemn.
“I remember when my girls were that small,” she said. “Lucille and Winnifred were always picking on Alberta. Of course, Alberta asked for it with her constant teasing. ‘You girls behave now,’ I used to say when they played. But it wouldn’t take ten minutes and they’d be at each other again.”
As she talked, Sister Tucker remembered the three little girls in their starched pinafores playing with salt boxes for cradles and wooden clothespins for dolls on the polished blue and gray linoleum of her kitchen. Their thick brown hair hung down their backs in the ringlets she had curled up in rags the night before; their dimpled hands darted back and forth in play, their thin voices rising and falling in laughter and quarrels. She’d watched them while she stirred her boiling jam with a wooden spoon or hurried back and forth between the well, the garden, the kitchen, and the sickroom where Gus often lay with his asthma attacks.
“Seems like they grow up so fast,” she said to Darcy. “My girls all have gray hair now, but they’re friends too. They’re all coming to see me on my birthday next month, you know. Winnifred and her husband are even driving in from the farm, which is hard for them to do these days because his mother’s sickly and they can’t get away.”
The car suddenly pulled off the road onto the shoulder, gravel spattering under its wheels, and Darcy turned around in her seat to rake her children with a glare. “If this quarreling does not stop now, instantly, this minute, I am going to let you all out of the car and you can walk home.”
Sister Tucker watched the faces of the three young children in the back seat grow very still, eyes rounding as they tried to guess whether their mother really meant it this time. Darcy’s face seemed as remote as the painted china figurines you see in drugstores, marred only by a vertical frown line between her eyebrows, though when she turned to glance at Sister Tucker she smiled in apology. “Sorry,” she murmured. “They’ve been on their worst behavior all morning. They must sense I’m in a hurry.”
Sister Tucker nodded vigorously. “They can tell, I know. It puts them on edge, too. I remember when I started working again because Gus couldn’t hold a job anymore. The girls would do their best to be late for school and make me late, too.”
They had dawdled, those girls, pulling on the red wool stockings that came up to their knees, fastening the buckles of their shoes. The tangles in their hair refused to unsnarl and their sweaters would develop spots and holes. She’d driven them to the bus stop in the ’39 Chevy, rattling over the jagged ruts in the dirt road, while Gus stayed behind in the house coughing and wheezing and she worried about what he would do if his lungs suddenly filled up. They’d been lucky though. Somehow God and good fortune had kept him alive until a year and a half ago—just before the missionaries came. Ah, well, two more months and she could go to the temple and have their work done.
Darcy plunged into the conversation. “They’ve asked me to give a breadmaking demonstration at Relief Society next month. Do you want to sign up for my class?”
Sister Tucker laughed heartily. “Oh my, no!” she gasped. “I used to make twenty loaves at a time for the field hands on daddy’s farm before breakfast. Goodness, those men could eat. We spent the afternoons bottling fruit. I got so fast I could do one hundred quarts of peaches a day all by myself.”
Darcy looked at the road as she pulled out to pass a slower car. The frown line had deepened again. “We’re also going to do English muffins and hamburger buns. You might like to learn how to do those.”
The car was rounding a corner and the children’s voices were rising again in a new quarrel, so Sister Tucker’s question seemed lost, not really needing an answer. “Well, who would I cook them for?” Before Gus had died he’d made her promise she would eat three meals a day and take care of herself. At first, before the missionaries came, alone in the echoing house and double bed, the cooking pots and full set of flowered dishes had seemed a mockery, but she had done it, just as he’d asked.
They were at the church, an unprepossessing structure built at a time when the neighborhood had been more prosperous. Now the surrounding houses looked run-down and weary, with paint peeling. Teenagers played basketball in a front yard across the street. Darcy pulled into the parking lot, quickly sliding out to let the three children spill from the back seat. She walked ahead of Sister Tucker into the church, shepherding her three children and carrying the box of visual aids she needed to set up before church started. The wind billowed her blue winter coat around her long legs. “I’ll see you after church,” she called over her shoulder. “Meet me at the car.”
Sister Tucker enjoyed church. She always sat through sacrament meeting and Sunday School with her scriptures and Relief Society manual held neatly on her lap. In Sunday School she liked to tell experiences from her past relating to the lesson. Everything the teacher said reminded her of something. It was good to feel her mind leaping and playing about, as if she were young again. How many memories she had! Each part of her life had taught her something.
Today in Relief Society she made a special point to sit beside Sister Hollis, a divorced woman in her fifties and an even more recent convert than she was. Sister Hollis still taught high school and was still young enough to wear lipstick. Sister Tucker thought that from a distance, with Sister Hollis’ blonde hair and her white hair, and the glasses each wore, the two of them looked remarkably alike, though Sister Hollis seemed more drawn to the younger members of their Special Interest group. Now she sat half-turned away from Sister Tucker, her polished fingernails and wrinkled knuckles placed on her open Relief Society manual.
Darcy’s lesson was well prepared, even if one of her posters did flap down from the board near the end, leaving the dots of masking tape exposed. The discussion was spirited, darting back and forth from sister to sister. Darcy’s face looked almost gay. Her pale blonde hair swung as she wrote on the chalkboard or pointed to acknowledge a questioner. After closing prayer, the women filed out of the Relief Society room in clumps, a few surrounding Darcy to chatter while Sister Tucker gathered up her scriptures and put them carefully into the straw carryall. She knew Darcy would have to take down her magazine pictures and posters, find her children, and encourage them into their coats before going out to the car. In the hallway she shook hands with the bishop and then her home teacher, located her coat, and moved to the back door.
The morning’s patchy layer of white clouds had sealed over, hiding the sunshine and producing a misting rain that drizzled down onto the grass and turned the sidewalks a darker gray—not good weather for standing outside by the car. She decided to go back to the Relief Society room to wait.
The crowd lingering in the hallway had thinned to a few parents still rounding up children as they passed back and forth from the coat closet to the cultural hall. Sister Tucker paused near the doorway of the deserted Relief Society room for a moment. Only Sister Hollis remained, sitting in a front-row chair and chatting while Darcy rolled up a large sheet of butcher paper.
“Your lesson went well today.”
“Thank you.” Darcy seemed pleased.
“Except for one certain party who can’t seem to keep quiet long enough for someone else to get in a word.”
Darcy looked uncomfortable, slowly dropping the roll of masking tape into the box. Sister Hollis went on, her voice carrying remarkably well. “I admire you for putting up with her as well as you do. You bring her to church all the time and she’s your visiting teaching companion, too, isn’t she?”
Darcy taped some papers together and dropped them into the box. “Well, she’s okay. She just likes to talk.”
“And talk and talk and talk,” Sister Hollis said laughing.
Darcy looked up then. Was it some movement, or an inner cry of pain from Sister Tucker that caught her attention? Darcy, staring hard at Sister Tucker, bit her lip, uncertain, the frown line now a groove between her pale eyebrows. Sister Tucker turned and walked away, heels clattering on the tiles in the hallway, through the door and out into the rain where she found Darcy’s car and stood waiting. Only when she felt damp trickles of water on her scalp did she realize she’d forgotten to put on her rain bonnet.
The pain of sudden self-knowledge had numbed her, but now thoughts like something angry and alive began to churn in her mind. She thought of how she had to get up alone every Sunday morning, throwing back the covers from the double bed, the drab room still gray with night shadows, of her one boiled egg sitting by itself on the flowered dish. She thought of how she’d had to depend on Darcy remembering to pick her up every Sunday morning, and how she had to carry her washing to the Laundromat and make frequent trips to the store because Gus was gone and she was too old to drive. She thought about the brief handshakes and perfunctory smiles of a few of the ward members, their sudden shifts in conversation when she paused for breath. Did they know how much easier it would be to stay home, to stay in bed, to stare at the wall, to give up the struggle?
Her life had gone on so long and it had never been easy, and here she was, faced with another battle. She’d learned a thousand lessons and survived a thousand battles in the past, from learning how to light that old wood stove in the farmhouse where they’d lived, to standing up and walking away after Gus’s funeral. But she was old now and daily heroics were harder to come by. But the Church was true—the Church was true. And deeper than the pain of humiliation, she felt the knife edge of loss if the hope that had reappeared on her horizon should fade and disappear. She thought about her plans to go to the temple and wanted to cry because she wanted to go home and go to bed; but if she did, would she and Gus ever be together again? She thought about how tired she’d been so long ago working and running the farm and taking care of Gus and the girls, of how in the evening she’d just kept doing one dish after another until the pile of them was done and she could finally go to bed. She was tired now.
And then she thought of Darcy’s frown line, that perpendicular groove between her pale eyebrows, and wondered suddenly about Darcy’s battles—and Sister Hollis’s too. After a while she got her rain bonnet out of her purse and snapped it into place, blinking into her rainsmeared glasses. She pulled her gloves out of her coat pockets and put them carefully on. She held the straw carryall tightly under her arm, shielded by her orlon coat so that her new scriptures wouldn’t get wet.
Several minutes later Darcy stepped out into the misting rain, carrying her box and hurrying her children along. Her eyes avoided Sister Tucker’s as the children climbed noisily into the car, grabbing at picture books and pulling their dampened coats closer around them. Sister Tucker waited for Darcy to unlock her door so that she could slide inside.
The car was silent except for the squabbling children as they drove through the rain. Sister Tucker supposed Darcy was wondering whether to apologize, fearing such an apology might bring her unnecessary pain if she hadn’t overheard. She decided to put the girl’s mind at ease. “It’s the twentieth of the month,” she said.
Darcy flushed, still tense. “Oh, yes, we still need to go visiting teaching.”
“Shall we go tomorrow?”
Darcy said, “I’m sure I can arrange it.”
Sister Tucker saw she was still uncomfortable, frowning into the windshield. She needed to make one more gesture. It took a moment before she could do it.
“I really enjoy our visits,” she began. “Sister Bird seems to need our company every month, doesn’t she? She reminds me of my sister, you know. She had an alcoholic husband, too. She finally had to leave him back in ’38 and get a job in a drugstore.”
And while the talk flowed, she saw Darcy sigh in relief—and Sister Tucker was able to smile a small, peaceful smile.