Mrs. Nathaniel

December 20, 2007
By Courtney Jespersen, Ripon, CA

Marie Jones slowly wrung out the damp cloth into the metal washbasin on the ground. It was October 25, 1911. In the sleepy, small town of Ripon, California, this was how mothers spent their days. Drip, drip, drip. Water squeezed out of the cloth quickly fell down into the soapy water below. A rigid metal washboard sat propped up against a wall in the corner.

Marie knew she had to hurry. She still needed to run down to the drug store before picking up her two children, Alyssa and Nicholas, from their lessons. Her husband, Bill, would soon be home from work, expecting a steaming, delicious home-cooked meal. Everyday had become so hectic lately.

Walking with swift, deliberate motions down the street in the brisk October air, Marie wrapped a sky blue, knit shawl around her shoulders. As she passed the bakery, the sweet aromas of fresh bread and raspberry pastries reached Marie’s nostrils. If only money was not so hard to come by these days. Maybe just a loaf of sourdough bread and a few…

Marie shook off the thought. There was no time for her to lose focus. The drug store, get to the drug store. After covering a few more blocks, the town’s quaint drug store came into view. With the skill of a professional shopper, if ever there were one, Marie sped in and out of the store, necessary supplies in hand, in less than ten minutes. Upon leaving the large, wooden doorway, a paper sign, filling the entire front window of the storefront, caught Marie’s eye. It was a Maytag advertisement. Written in bold black letters was the catchphrase, “Operates easily. Any woman can do it.” Marie’s round green eyes stared up longingly at the photograph of the Maytag Multi-Motor Washer. She suddenly felt something deep inside of her, something she could not quite pinpoint, drawing her to own that machine. If only the Jones family had enough money to afford modern luxuries that could make life and work so much easier.

Nonsense, thought Marie. I love working for my family. I work everyday, except for my birthday of course. She looked forward to October 30th each year. Usually, on that day, Marie’s children would have saved up their weekly allowances to surprise her with a little something nice. The thought alone made all of Marie’s hard work every other day of the year worthwhile. Alyssa, ten, and Nicholas, twelve, were the best things to ever happen to Marie in her life.

Speaking of Alyssa and Nicholas, what time was it? Three o’clock! Alyssa and Nicholas’s school lessons ended at three o’clock. Where had the time gone? Now, carrying bags of groceries, Marie had to cut across the park, scurry through the spooky, deserted cemetery, and trudge over a hill if she was to make it to the one-room schoolhouse in a short amount of time.

“Where is Mom?” asked Nicholas, sitting on the front steps of the schoolhouse, navy blue book bag slung over his shoulder. “She is always here really early. Never has she forgotten to come get us and walk us home.” Alyssa stood on the edge of the road, pacing back and forth, searching the surrounding areas with her eyes, creases forming above her brows. Since she was just ten, Alyssa became nervous instantly whenever her mom was not around.

After ten minutes of running for Marie and an equally excruciating ten minutes of worrying for her children, Marie finally made it to the school. “I am so sorry you two. I meant to be here, but I ran some errands, saw an advertisement, and lost track of the time somehow.” “What ad did you see?” asked the always curious Alyssa. “A poster for the Maytag Multi-Motor Washer. My, wouldn’t that be a treat for us to own? Maybe someday.”

While Alyssa continued to interrogate her mom, Nicholas stood at a distance, taking in and pondering the bigger picture. Here stood his beautiful, intelligent, kind, loving, hard-working, and never-complaining mother expressing her desire for a simple machine. Well, maybe not simple, it had to be expensive, but why couldn’t she get it? Was Alyssa blind to the fact that his mother’s birthday was only five days away? Of course they did not have even close to enough money, but wasn’t it worth trying for? Wasn’t their mom worth working for?

Right then and there, a wide smile broke across the face of Nicholas Jones. Standing in front of his school, his curly brown hair blowing in the wind, this determined twelve-year-old boy’s mind began racing at a mile a minute. It would not be easy, but his mom had always taught him that nothing was impossible. Maybe this year, 1911, would go down in the Jones family as the year when a seemingly impossible dream came true.

Careful not to reveal his interest in his sister’s and mom’s conversation, Nick, as he was called, casually made his way over toward the pair. “Come on. Let’s go. It’s getting cold out,” he remarked, almost smirking to himself with pride at how sly and nonchalant he could act. Marie and Alyssa agreed, tying their sweaters a little bit tighter, before beginning the journey home.

Later that night, sitting around the dinner table, Alyssa informed her dad, Bill Jones, of how Mom almost forgot her children and left them alone at school. Nicholas, who had remained unusually silent throughout the entire meal, asked to be excused before clearing his plate, while pulling on his raincoat, and heading outside for a “walk.”

Casually strolling down the nearby deserted lanes, Nick took in the sights, smells, and feelings of autumn: orange pumpkins, red leaves, freshly baked pies, and light, cold rain. Mentally, Nicholas was struggling to create his own light bulb moment, a time when he would come up with the perfect and logical way to raise money. Twenty minutes passed. There was still no hallelujah chorus playing in his head.

“This is useless,” Nicholas said aloud to himself, “What was I thinking? Mom will just have to get the standard dress again this year.” Just as he rounded the corner onto the next street, a faint yellow beam of light caught Nick’s eye. Down the street in what he thought was an abandoned building, a light had been illuminated. Overcome with curiosity, Nicholas took a little detour and was drawn to the building now occupying the shadow of a dark figure scurrying about inside.

As Nick neared the old brick storefront his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he could make out a wooden sign. ‘The Museum’ it read in harsh black painted strokes made to form letters. Peering in through a foggy window, Nicholas observed the shadowy figure carrying boxes in the mostly empty room. He thought to himself, I wonder why someone would choose to set up a museum at night in the pouring rain.

While he was busy peering into ‘The Museum,’ Nick lost sight of the mysterious figure. That is until he heard quick, heavy footsteps running towards him. Just as he turned, he was confronted by the face of a mysterious, elderly woman, lighted only by the small candle she was holding.

“What do you want?” the woman bellowed sternly. “If you’re not here to work, then go away.”

Nick stumbled on his words, “I’m, I’m sorry…I was just…I wanted to…wait. Did you say work?”

“Yes, I said work. Now if you’re not here to do that, then let me get my work done,” the woman snapped. “Yes, please,” replied Nick, “My name is Nicholas Jones, and I really need to earn some money. Could my sister and I both work for you?”

“My name is Mrs. Nathaniel,” said the woman, “and you’d better not be late. Six o’clock tomorrow night you start. Now, off with you.” The elderly woman then made her way back into the museum. Nick started to run towards home, as instructed. Although he was ecstatic about finding a way to earn some money, there was a certain uncomfortable feeling he could not seem to shake about the whole scene: an abandoned building, a museum, a hand painted sign, the single dim light, the unhappy woman who called herself Mrs. Nathaniel. Something did not seem quite right. But, at this point, when money and his mom were involved, Nick would do anything. Nicholas Jones slept with a smile on his face that night.

The following morning, after having kissed his mom goodbye, Nicholas took off for school with Alyssa. It was on that stroll through the town that he informed her about all of the happenings of the previous night. Alyssa was excitedly on board for the challenge right away, plus, she always liked things that had a little mystery to them. “So we’ll start tonight,” Nick concluded. “I wonder what we’ll be doing.”

The grandfather clock finally rang six o’clock. Nick had been nervously watching those ticking wooden hands for an hour. He knew it was time to go to ‘The Museum,’ but he was afraid. Alyssa nudged him, pointing first to the clock, and then through the doorway to the back-view of their mother standing in the washroom folding clothes. Nick swallowed nervously, gathered his courage and whispered, “Okay, let’s go.”

“Hey Mom, is it okay if we go downtown? We’ll be back in an hour or two.” Marie replied, “Okay, sweetie. Take care of your sister and have fun. I’ll be on the porch waiting for you when you get back.” Nick smiled. He was lovingly reminded about who and why he was doing this. “Thanks Mom. I love you.”

Once they got outside, Alyssa started firing questions out of her mouth like the sound of a fusillade. Nick eventually silenced her, gesturing that they were approaching their destination with a point of his finger. There was Mrs. Nathaniel, unloading more boxes inside the stark facility. Faintly knocking on the already open door, the Jones children stepped in. The kids looked around the place and took in quite a scene: a small, musty room, barely lit by small candles placed sporadically in corners, old furniture covered by ghostly white sheets, cobwebs hanging from the low, enclosing ceiling, and, of course, odd, ancient-looking items laying about the floor.

Mrs. Nathaniel hurriedly set Nicholas and Alyssa to work. They moved boxes, carried used army uniforms, labeled foreign looking objects and musical instruments, and hung signs on bare walls. When Mrs. Nathaniel announced her absence for the upcoming few minutes to fetch supplies, the children were left alone. The museum was eerily dark and seemingly lifeless. Still working hard, despite the mysterious aura, Nicholas noticed two candles were extinguished simultaneously. “It must just be the wind,” he said, before the door slammed shut. An army hat fell noisily to the floor. The strings of a violin were plucked by no visible force. Alyssa screamed as a mouse scurried by her.

“That’s it!” she yelled, “I am leaving. This place is way too scary for me.”

“What about Mom and the washing machine?” Nick protested.

“I don’t care about your stupid plan to buy that washing machine. I’m going home!” Alyssa, dropping the dress she had been hanging on the wall, fled the building, leaving Nick all alone.

Lonely, frightened, and rejected, Nick began to cry. He started to doubt his plan and what he was willing to do. His dream seemed hopeless. Never would he be able to do it. What was he thinking? The negative thoughts invaded the usually optimistic corners of the young boy’s mind. Just then, the sound of a sputtering engine pulled up outside. It was Mrs. Nathaniel. For the first time, Nick got a clearer view of Mrs. Nathaniel’s usually shadowy form. She drove a new, blue Ford Model T and she wore a fancy lace and velvet dress along with a bonnet usually reserved by simple women only for special occasions. She was obviously a wealthy woman. I’ll bet she has a washing machine, thought Nick.

Getting up off the floor, Nick dejectedly attempted to leave, wiping tears from his dark brown eyes. As he went through the doorway, Mrs. Nathaniel grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back inside. Over the next hour, Nick explained his whole predicament to the suddenly kind and caring museum owner. She would nod occasionally, listening intently to his every word.

It seemed as though she truly understood his feelings and could genuinely appreciate what he was talking about. What had happened to the seemingly bitter old woman he had come to know before? Now, Mrs. Nathaniel acted sincerely concerned for the boy, encouraging him to open up to her. At one point in the conversation, as Nicholas started to tear up over the thought of not being able to provide the best birthday ever for his mom, she lovingly offered him a tissue, wiping his wide, saddened eyes. When Nicholas finished, she started to talk.

“You know,” she said, “people told me I would never be able to achieve my dream - opening a museum. After a while, I started to believe them, too. Look at me now, though. I have worked my whole life, traveling the world, collecting treasures, and earning enough money, to make my dream a reality. And look, as I am finally accomplishing my dream, I meet you. I think you were meant to work here, Nick. I’ll tell you what. If you work hard for me each day until your mom’s birthday, I’ll make sure both of our dreams come true. Okay?”

For the second night in a row, Nicholas Jones slept with a smile on his face.

The next two days, Nick went to work for Mrs. Nathaniel. The museum building underwent a complete renovation. Lit by several beautiful lamps, it was now sparkling clean, and had some interesting artifact to look at everywhere you turned. Nick knew the work was almost done. At the end of the 28th, Mrs. Nathaniel declared, “Tomorrow we will finish early. When the museum is ready, we will stop by the store to purchase the washing machine.”

The following day, the day before his mom’s birthday, Nick arrived, exactly on time, a wide, toothy grin spread across his young face. Surprisingly, Mrs. Nathaniel was not there, so Nicholas took advantage of the situation by finishing up on his own, fully anticipating the look of admiration on her face when Mrs. Nathaniel walked in to see what he had accomplished. After two hours passed, Nick had everything done and was beginning to worry, when he saw a car pull up outside. A tall, well dressed man walked out, his shiny shoes coming towards the door of the museum.

Attorney Joseph Santin proceeded to tell Nicholas of the tragic state of his client, elderly Mrs. Nathaniel. She had fallen ill during the night, and, not sure that she would ever fully recover, sent her attorney to speak with Nicholas. He told Nick that the museum was her pride and joy and she greatly appreciated the work he had done for it. In between loud sobs, Nick screamed, “Will she ever get to see her dream come true?” before he ran home as fast as his long, slender legs could carry him.

On the day of October 30, 1911, the Jones family celebrated the birthday of Marie Jones. The occasion was complete with cupcakes, home-made decorations, and gifts. Bill bought his wife a beautiful necklace, while Alyssa bought her mom a bag full of her favorite candy. Nicholas had scraped together some money from his piggy bank to purchase a pair of earrings. Although Marie was so thankful that she was overcome with emotion, Nick knew that the day could have been a whole lot better. A deep aching feeling filled him the entire day. He felt as though he had failed. He was a failure as a son. How could he have not gotten her the one present she so eagerly desired? Why did things turn out the way they did?

That evening, the doorbell rang. The whole Jones family went to the door to answer. Standing on their porch they found a well dressed, middle-aged man. It was Joseph Santin. “Hello Nicholas,” he stammered. “I almost forgot. Mrs. Nathaniel wanted me to tell you that having you work at her museum was her dream come true and that she hoped your dream would come true as well. I’m not sure what that means, but she said you would know.” The attorney handed Nicholas an envelope filled with a note and a thick stack of money. Silently reading the loopy cursive handwriting, Nick saw the words ‘Wish your mom a Happy Birthday for me. Love, Mrs. Destiny Nathaniel.’ “Destiny,” Nick whispered.

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