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A Bride Sews With Love in Needles, California
By Erica Vetsch
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Erica Vetsch
All rights reserved.
There is nothing so stubborn and exasperating as a headstrong Irish daughter."
"You only bring up my Irish half when I'm suggesting something you don't like. If I please you, you claim my Norwegian side." Meghan set her jaw, determined to stand up to Papa.
"How do I know this isn't just another one of your wild schemes? Like the mail-order candy or the door-to-door sewing notions? Remember how those ended? Flying high only to fall to earth with a thud after a few weeks." His huge boots clomped as he paced the sitting room floor, drowning out the sound of rain pattering against the windowpane as a late spring storm blew through. "You always start out with the best of intentions, child, but you don't think things through. Always you think you can whip the world, but you take on too much and come crashing down."
"It won't be like that. I was a child then. I didn't know what I was doing." Meghan Thorson poked the logs in the fireplace, sending a shower of sparks racing up the flue. "I won't be trying to start my own business. I'll be working for one of the most reputable companies in the country. And it's only for six months, not forever. If I don't like it, I can come home then. But I will like it. You'll see. You're the one who has been saying I need to find something to occupy my time, something that would help the war effort and keep me out of your hair. This job will definitely keep me out of your way. Needles is more than fifteen hundred miles from here."
Papa stopped pacing, stroked his reddish-blond beard, and studied her with somber blue eyes. "And how long will it be before I get a letter saying you hate it out there and you're coming home?"
"You won't get such a letter from me."
"Couldn't you find something closer to home? I thought you would get a job here in Mantorville, or even over in Rochester. California is too far away."
Mama's knitting needles clicked, a sound as familiar to Meghan as her own breathing. "You hoped it would be in Rochester so you could have an excuse to drive your new motorcar over there." She barely looked up from the sock she knitted. Socks, socks, and more socks. American soldiers in the trenches in France needed socks, and Mama's knitting needles never stopped.
I pray over every pair as if they were going to Lars himself. They are all my sons in that way, all those soldiers. And I know their mamas are praying for them as well. Mamas of soldiers knit and pray.
"I don't want a job close to home. I want to stand on my own two feet, do something bigger, travel, and" — she spread her hands — "I don't know how to explain it. I just know I need to do this. I knew it as soon as I saw the advertisement in the Tribune."
Mama sighed. "She needs to go. She's gone in her heart already." Click, click, click. "I'm surprised we were able to keep our little sparrow in the nest this long. She's always desired to fly. This is her chance." A faraway look invaded Mama's expression, softening her face in the firelight.
But Papa was not softened. "Mary Kate, I thought you would have agreed with me that Meghan should stay here. With us. She's too young to leave home." He thrust his hands into his pockets and stood square before Mama's chair. "She is barely more than a child. Not old enough to go so far away from home."
Mama's red lashes flicked upward from her yarn, showing eyes so green they seemed to glitter — the same eyes she'd passed on to Meghan, along with her red hair and freckles — and according to Papa, her Irish stubbornness.
"Look at her. She's twenty years old. When I was eighteen, I set out on a wonderful adventure. I sailed away from Ireland to America. And I met a handsome Norseman on the boat who swept me off my feet and carried me away to his new home in Minnesota." She grinned. "By the time I was twenty, I was already a mama to Lars."
Papa's brow scrunched. "That's different."
"Is it? I think it is very much the same. Let her have her adventure, Per. She's young, and there is so much strife in the world right now, so little for a young woman to be excited about. Who knows, perhaps she'll find a strapping, brave young man to call her own like I did."
Jabbing the poker into the coals, Meghan protested. "Mama, that's not why I'm going. Working for The Harvey Company means I will get to see more of America than this little corner. I'll get to meet lots of people and have a steady job that pays well. I want to be busy just now. I want to feel like I'm doing something important. Serving people, especially soldiers, in the restaurant will be my way of helping with the cause. The woman who interviewed me for the position said hundreds of soldiers pass through their eating establishments on their way to the war."
Papa made a gruff sound in his throat. "But it's so far away. If I had known you were going to apply at The Harvey Company while we were there, I never would've taken you with me to Chicago."
Meghan left her spot beside the fireplace and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek above his full beard. "Well, I'm glad you did take me. Seeing Chicago was a real treat, and so was getting this job. The interview nearly scared me out of my shoes, but I lived through it, and they hired me. Please, Papa, give me your blessing. It's only for six months."
He enfolded her in a bear hug, resting his chin on top of her head. "The women in my life will be the death of me."
She squeezed his waist and pulled back to look up into his face. "You know I wouldn't be going if I didn't think this was what God wanted me to do. It feels right."
His eyes narrowed. "Be careful how you throw that around, child. Many a foolish thing has been done in the name of God. And many a thing we want to do has been justified by calling it the will of God."
She bit her lower lip. Was she being headstrong and impulsive? It wouldn't be the first time. But she wanted this so badly. And it did feel right.
He tweaked her nose and let her go. "When do you have to leave?"
Meghan whirled and pounced on the letter that had come that day. "I'm to report to the offices in Chicago in three days. They'll provide the uniforms, the training, and the transportation to my new job."
"You will be homesick within the week," Papa predicted, crossing his arms once more. "You've never been away from home, and you love Minnesota. Your Irish and Norwegian heritage has given you a need to be surrounded by green, growing things. The desert won't feed your soul the way the fields and forests of this land do."
"I will miss you and Mama, but seeing different places and meeting new people is part of the fun. It wouldn't be much of an adventure if where I'm going turns out to be exactly like here."
"And you are sure you will be safe? You'll have someone to look after you?" The doubt-clouds returned to his eyes.
She rushed to reassure him. "All the girls must live in a dormitory, and there is a strict curfew, and there are lots of rules. Your little girl will be just fine."
"Will she?" Papa's mouth twisted, rueful and wry. "Lots of rules and my Meghan have never gotten along too well."
Mama chuckled and loosened more yarn from her skein. "That's a plain truth. How will you do following rules and behaving yourself?"
"I can do it," Meghan boasted. "I'll be the best Harvey Girl that company has ever seen. By the time my contract is up, they'll be begging me to stay."
* * *
"Needles, California, coming up!" The dapper conductor, brass buttons gleaming in two bright rows down his navy suit, rocked his way along the aisle as passengers stirred and began removing belongings from the overhead racks.
Meghan turned her attention to the window, eager to get a glimpse of the town that would be her home for at least the next six months, but she was on the wrong side of the train.
Empty wasteland swept by, punctuated by clumps of cactus and scrub. Jagged, rocky peaks and rounded piles of sand thrust upward into the sky, and occasional sparse green patches showed where someone was trying to scratch out a living in this inhospitable landscape. They had crossed over the muddy Colorado River which flowed sullenly, as if the heat had sapped its energy and the sand had choked its will to move.
"I knew we'd be living in the desert, but I didn't realize how stark it would be."
"It doesn't look much like Illinois. It's terribly hot, and it's only May. What must it be like here in July?" Natalie Daviot, a Springfield native, dabbed her temples again and nudged Meghan's arm. "Are you nervous? I sure am."
Meghan shook her head automatically, paused for a moment, and crumbled, nodding. Though they'd only known each other a few short days, she and Natalie had become instant friends. Neither had ever been away from home before, and they'd grasped onto each other like a lifeline in the huge, bustling depot in Chicago where they had been met by someone from the Fred Harvey Company to begin their employment as Harvey Girls.
Meghan was grateful to have Natalie with her, because instead of the customary four weeks of training in one of the Kansas Harvey House Restaurants that they'd been told to expect, they'd been whisked away on the train to fill vacant spots in Needles, California, that had suddenly opened up. They'd had no time to become acclimated, to make new friends, or to get their bearings. Instead, they'd had a brief orientation meeting, been measured for uniforms, and been all but tossed onto a southwest-bound train.
"Okay, so we're nervous." She sat up straight and squared her shoulders, lifting her chin to a confident angle. "But we won't show it. We're capable, independent, intelligent women employed by the Fred Harvey Company." Which sounded so much more impressive than she felt. And yet, the glow of accomplishment and pride at being hired by such a prestigious company remained. The company's high standards were well-known, and the pay was better than anything she could've expected to earn back in Mantorville. Not to mention the bonus pay Harvey Girls received for working in Needles during the summer. For the next six months, she was a Harvey Girl, subject to the company rules and expectations, and the recipient of the respect her new black-and-white uniform would command.
Natalie fanned herself with a folded newspaper. The air in the car had grown progressively warmer until someone had finally relented and opened a window. The trade-off for air circulation was the smoke and soot from the engine blowing in the window and coating everything with smuts and smudges. Still, it was better than suffocating.
"I'd be pleased to help you with your bags, ma'am." A gravelly voice had them both looking up. A scruffy man in a battered cowboy hat stood in the aisle. Sunshine had tanned his skin to leather and etched deep lines around his eyes and mouth. Those eyes lit with admiration as he looked at Natalie, and though Meghan couldn't blame him for staring at her friend's blond loveliness, she couldn't help but feel a prick in her heart. Her own wavy, red hair and pale, freckled skin never drew that kind of admiration. What would it be like to have men falling over themselves to assist her? What would it be like to be classically beautiful and capture every man's eye when she walked into a room? Not that she really wanted to be the center of attention like that any more than Natalie did. But it would be nice to know she could.
"That's most kind, thank you, but I'm sure we can manage." Natalie showed not the slightest interest in him, just as she had ignored the advances of every man they'd encountered on the journey. The hopeful stranger touched the brim of his hat and turned away.
Natalie leaned her head against the seatback and closed her eyes. Her profile reminded Meghan of the cameo Papa had given Mama as a wedding gift, delicate, regal, beautiful. The sadness in her new friend's eyes seemed only to add to her beauty. It made Meghan want to protect Natalie, to reassure her that everything would be all right. Was it simple homesickness, or did Natalie carry other burdens?
The train slowed and lurched to a stop, causing all the standing passengers to grab seatbacks to steady themselves. The conductor opened the door, and like a gopher trying to squeeze out of a too-small hole, folks crowded through. Not until the car had half-emptied did the girls file out of their seats and reach for their bags in the overhead racks. Meghan searched their seating area for any stray belongings.
"I need to see about my trunk." Natalie dug her luggage ticket out of her bag.
"The conductor will direct us." Meghan gripped the handle of her case, her only piece of luggage. With the company providing room, board, and uniforms, she had chosen to pack light. If she needed anything in the future, she could purchase it once she got paid. The thought of earning her own money, being able to buy the things she wanted, made her squeeze her hands together and bite her lower lip. No more asking Papa every time she wanted something from the mercantile. Twenty-five dollars a month, plus tips, room, board, uniforms, and travel vouchers. And a bonus on top. That was nearly as much as her brother made as a soldier on the front lines in France, and she wouldn't even be risking her life in a placid little railroad town like Needles.
She followed Natalie toward the end of the car. When they reached the door, the smart little conductor greeted them with a broad smile and a quick pattering tone that fascinated Meghan. He never seemed to pause for breath, and the words blurred together into one long sentence. "You the two new Harvey Girls I was told to expect? You look the type. This here's the back of the hotel, but you can reach the lobby through the center doors. You want to see Mr. Stock, the hotel manager, or Mrs. Gregory, the head waitress. Someone will direct you. But you'd do well to wait until after all these passengers are fed and back aboard the train before you bother them. Passengers have first priority, and the hotel staff will be busy for the next thirty minutes or so. If you have other bags, you can walk along to the baggage car. One of the bellhops will be gathering the hotel guests' luggage, and he'll see that yours gets to your room. That will fill some of the time. Good luck, and I'll probably be seeing you." He flashed a quick smile before hurrying to help other passengers disembark.
Meghan stepped down onto the sidewalk and got her first glimpse of the El Garces, the jewel in the desert crown of Fred Harvey establishments along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line. The heat hit her full force as she emerged into the sunshine, but she couldn't take her eyes off the imposing concrete structure throwing back the sun's rays from its blazing white exterior. She screwed up her eyes and shaded her brow with her hand.
"More pillars than the Parthenon." Though the building was impressive, she wouldn't really call it beautiful. Large, imposing, and a trifle daunting, but not particularly appealing. Majestic palms stood in little patches of emerald grass along the sidewalk. Surely the grass must take daily watering to keep it so green in this dry heat. Two stories high, the hotel stretched out before her to either side like a royal palace. Pairs of pillars marched across the hotel on both floors, supporting wide porches that must help shade the rooms and keep them cool. Or as cool as one could be in the desert. Iron-railed balconies cantilevered from the second-floor loggia in graceful scallops.
Beyond the hotel and spreading out on either side, lay the town of Needles — a straggly conglomeration of wooden, adobe, and brick buildings popping up between clumps of grayish-green brush and yucca. Electricity and telephone lines crisscrossed limply over the streets, and a jumble of automobiles and wagons lined the roads. Everything seemed to shimmer in the heat, and the few folks on the sidewalks moved slowly. Most curiously, Indians stood before the hotel with baskets, pottery, and blankets for sale, their faces solemn, patient, and long-suffering. Was it the heat or their nature that made them so stoic?
Meghan tightened her grip on her valise handle and headed toward the front of the train and the baggage car. The sooner they tracked down Natalie's trunk, the sooner they could get into the shade. She had expected to be battling a damp, sweaty feeling, but a dry breeze evaporated any perspiration instantly. She moistened her lips, only to find them dry a moment later.
They had to wait in line at the baggage car as cart after cart of luggage and US Mail and supplies for the hotel came out first. Finally, one of the workers was free. Natalie turned over her trunk ticket to the dark-skinned man with flashing, white teeth. "Shore enough, ma'am. I'll get your luggage over to the hotel with the rest. One of the bellhops will take it to your room." He accepted the nickel Natalie placed in his large, big-knuckled hand.
"Let's get out of this sunshine. I'm wilting." Natalie tilted her head so her hat-brim would shade her face. Meghan's own hat, a small sailor-style, offered little protection. Heat prickled her fair skin. Her face would probably be as red as an apple by the time they got inside. If she wasn't careful, she'd walk around with a red, peeling nose for the next six months. Sunshine always deepened the despised freckles covering her face. Not all the lemon juice in the world would lighten them if she spent much time out of doors here.
Excerpted from A Bride Sews With Love in Needles, California by Erica Vetsch. Copyright © 2012 Erica Vetsch. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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