The Road to Tower Hill

by Jeanne Gowen Dennis

Annette rubbed her hands together to warm them, then clipped a handkerchief to the clothesline. Mama bustled beside her, hanging two pairs of knickers and a shirt in the time it took Annette to hang the handkerchief.

“Mama, how long will this cold weather last? It’s already April.”

“Be grateful, child. Spring will come to Massachusetts, and with it crocuses, jonquils and irises.”

“And then roses, your favorite.”

“Yes, but they won’t bloom until later this year.”

Annette thought of the gift she planned to buy for Mother’s Day. Will it even be possible? How will I ever earn the money?

“Hurry along,” Mama said. “We must heat water for Saturday night baths. I’ll need you to bathe the little ones while I start Sunday dinner.”

Annette loved Sundays, the only day Mama didn’t work. “When the family comes, I hope Grandpapa tells my favorite story.”

Mama smiled. “It’s a story worth retelling.”

Annette carried pail after pail of boiling water up the steep, wooden stairs. She tipped the heavy pail over the side of the claw-foot tub. Then she gathered her six little brothers and sisters.

“Us first!” Claude and Paul yelled, their faces streaked with dirt.

“No, it’s our turn!” Marie said.

Annette held up her hands to silence them. “The girls go first.” She sent the boys to the bedroom and gathered Lucie and Emilie in her arms.

Marie and Sophie were old enough to bathe themselves, so Annette focused on the babies. If she hurried, the water might still be warm when her turn came. She grabbed a tattered towel and dried the babies. Then after struggling to get the wriggly boys clean, Annette tucked the children into bed in the room they all shared.

As she finally slipped into the lukewarm water, she thought of the night she was born—that frigid night 11 years ago, so cold that water spilled on the floor froze instantly. It was the night that Grandpapa took his long, long walk. She shivered in the dim light of the candle and quickly finished her bath.

The Long, Long Walk
“Before the Depression, we ate meat every day,” Uncle Lucien said, digging into Sunday dinner.

Annette hoped—if Papa could find enough work—they might have a beef pot roast with carrots next Sunday. And peas! Oh how she longed for peas.

“Before the Depression, no one had to wait in line for bread,” Aunt Helene said, taking a slice.

Annette felt bad remembering the children she had met with Grandpapa in the bread lines that week. They were even poorer than her family. She silently apologized to God for not being grateful.

After dinner, the family told stories.

“Please, Grandpapa, tell us about the night I was born,” Annette begged.

“That story again?” he teased. “Very well. There was a coal strike, and we had nothing to heat our homes. Word came from your father that our grandchild was about to be born. I couldn’t bear to think of my daughter shivering in the cold—and the new baby with nothing to keep it warm. I’d heard that one store in Tower Hill had coal available, so I set out.”

“With that asthma of yours,” Grandmama said. “I was so worried about you. Three miles in the bitter cold and then back again, wheezing, with 100 pounds of coal on your back!”

“Weren’t you afraid, going so far alone in the dark?” Marie asked.

“No. God was with me. He gave me the strength to carry that coal all the way home and start a fire in the furnace. And then, at 7:15 in the morning, we heard one of the most beautiful sounds in the world: the cry of our granddaughter, Annette.”

As Uncle Henri began a new story, Annette wondered if she could ever be as brave as Grandpapa—or as unselfish. She watched Mama gently rock Emilie to sleep, her beautiful red hair falling loosely across her shoulders.

No matter what it takes, Annette thought, I’ll make sure Mama has a good Mother’s Day.

Nickels and Dimes
Over the next few weeks, Annette put her plan into action. First, she collected bottles, newspapers and cans from the alleys in town. Each bottle would bring 2 cents. Milk bottles, a rare find, would get 5 cents. It took several tin cans and newspapers to earn a penny, but every penny counted. Annette thought of the many times her mama had sacrificed a penny so she could buy some candy.

On Saturday, Papa gave Annette and Marie each a dime for a movie. Annette saved hers, which brought her total to 68 cents. She felt rich when she visited the flower shop.

“How much will it cost for a dozen roses for Mother’s Day?” she asked.

“Most roses aren’t in bloom yet,” the owner answered. “That makes them very expensive: $2 a dozen.”

Two dollars! How could I ever earn so much? Annette thought. Papa only makes $18.20 a week, when there’s work.

“Could I sweep up or deliver flowers for you after school?” she asked the storekeeper.

“I’m sorry, I can’t afford help,” the woman said. “I can barely afford to stay open. Would you settle for violets?”

“No, thank you. It must be roses. Pink ones. They are Mama’s favorite.”

“The only place you might find pink roses this year is Tower Hill. The florist’s brother owns a greenhouse.”

“Really?” Annette’s hope returned.

“But they still cost $2 per dozen.”

Only seven more days to go. Annette tried to think of other ways to earn money. She didn’t own anything nice enough to sell. None of the shopkeepers needed help. She searched the alleys, but they had never looked cleaner. She guessed other children were trying to buy gifts, too.

The morning before Mother’s Day, Annette counted her savings. Ninety-five cents. It was a fortune, but it was still not enough.

She went back to the florist. Perhaps she could buy some bruised roses for less.

When Annette approached the counter, the woman recognized her. “I don’t have pink roses. Red or white ones still cost $2 a dozen.”

Annette tried to blink back her tears.

“However,” the florist said, “a man on Alden Court came in last week asking about pink roses for his mother.” She wrote down an address. “I’m not promising anything, but maybe he’d pay you to fetch them from Tower Hill. You might earn enough to buy your mother’s roses, too.”

“Oh, thank you.” Annette shook the lady’s hand. “I’ll go right now.”

Annette stopped at home to tell Papa where she was going.

Papa nodded. “Mama’s at the mill, and I have to work this afternoon,” he said. “The other girls can take care of Lucie and the boys, but you’ll have to take Emilie with you.”

Emilie couldn’t walk yet and was heavy for her age. But Annette would do anything to give Mama roses for Mother’s Day. She gathered a couple of diapers and tied Emilie to her back.

“OK, sweet girl, let’s go find Mama some roses.”

A Gift for Mama
The man on Alden Court still wanted pink roses. He offered Annette $1 to fetch them.

“Could you possibly make that $1.05?” Annette asked.

He laughed. “Of course.”

With Emilie on her back, the three-mile walk to Tower Hill was much harder than Annette had imagined. She was out of breath when they reached the flower shop.

“You arrived just in time,” the florist said. “This is my last dozen pink roses.”

Annette’s heart sank. “The last?”

“I’m the only florist for 20 miles that had any.”

Annette paid for the roses, trying to hide her tears.

“Why, you don’t seem at all happy,” the florist said.

“These are for someone else. I was hoping you’d have enough for my mama, too.”

“I’m sorry. Perhaps some violets?”

“No, thank you.”

Annette left the store, gently carrying the bouquet. She had nothing to give Mama.

Emilie started fussing, so Annette set her down to change and feed her. When she stood back up, Annette noticed some beautiful, enamel hair combs in a store window. One set had pink roses on them! “Oh, Lord,” she prayed, “please let me have enough money to buy those.”

The set of combs cost $1.50. Annette clutched them tightly in her hands and began the long walk home.

I can do this, she kept telling herself. Grandpapa made this same walk with 100 pounds on his back. I can do it with Emilie on mine.

Several times she had to stop to rest. It was nearly dark when she reached Alden Court.

“Thank you so much,” the man said. “But I thought you were buying roses for your mother, too.”

“Twelve was all they had.”

The man pulled a single rose out of the bouquet. “Please, take one of mine.”

“I couldn’t do that, sir. Besides, I found another gift for my mama.”

“Then this can be a gift from your sister,” he said, nodding at Emilie.

The next morning at breakfast, Mama found a pink rose on her plate, the hair combs on her chair and 50 cents in her teacup.

“Where did all of this come from?” Mama asked.

Annette smiled. “It’s a story worth retelling.”

This story first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Clubhouse magazine; used by permission. Illustration © Terry Julien.