Homefrontby Doris Gwaltney
For as long as Margaret Ann Motley can remember, she has been waiting and hoping for one thing a room to call her very own. And when Margaret's older sister leaves for college, it looks like Margaret's days of waiting are over. But then disaster strikes. Its form: an English cousin named Courtney who has been forced to flee 1941 London because of the
For as long as Margaret Ann Motley can remember, she has been waiting and hoping for one thing a room to call her very own. And when Margaret's older sister leaves for college, it looks like Margaret's days of waiting are over. But then disaster strikes. Its form: an English cousin named Courtney who has been forced to flee 1941 London because of the blitz. Not at all concerned with what's happening in Europe, Margaret Ann is soon fighting a war of her own as she watches her cousin Courtney get not only her room, but also the attention of her very own family and boyfriend. It's not until Margaret's only brother enlists in the navy that Margaret discovers an ally and a friend where at first she saw only a rival.
Poet and novelist Doris Gwaltney has crafted a detailed, spirited, sometimes humorous, and always deeply felt novel about two girls coming of age and becoming friends in the shadow of the biggest war in modern history.
Read an Excerpt
Back to Grandma's
Elizabeth's bedroom is all I ever hoped for. Beautiful curtains. And pillows. And the white organdy dressing table skirt. I actually use the dressing table as a desk to do my homework on. It is so great not to have to use the dining room table anymore. And it doesn't hurt that I can look at myself in the mirror from time to time while I'm studying. I've asked Mama to buy me some bobby pins, and she says she will. That's what most of the girls at school use to curl their hair. I can keep them in the little candy box Elizabeth left in a dresser drawer. That way the twins will never find them. Then again . . .
Speaking of the twins reminds me of the best thing about this room: the doorknob. I can twist it closed, all the time explaining the rules to Paige and Polly, just like Elizabeth used to do to me.
"You are never to cross this threshold without my permission. Is that clear? Whether I am at school or at home, you must never enter without my permission. Okay?"
I'm not completely sure the twins will stay out while I'm at school, but I do think they will clean up any messes they make. That's what I used to do when I was little.
So one day I go smiling off to school with something new to tell Joyce Darden. Mama says I can invite her to spend the night on the third Friday in October. And Johnny says he'll take us to Smithfield to the movie, and Bobby Holland can go too. Things are really great.
On Tuesday of the very week in October that Joyce is supposed to spend the night, everybody but Daddy gets a real surprise. For Grandma Motley and me, I think you can call it a shock. I step inside the pantry to find an apple to put in my lunch box, and I hear Daddy telling Grandma that my aunt Mary Lee Liveley is coming to visit. That might sound like a simple thing, but it isn't. In the first place, I'm not sure I had ever really believed there is such a person as Aunt Mary Lee Liveley. Not even when Elizabeth was whispering the whole story to me a year or so ago. Nobody ever speaks her name in front of Grandma. And since you never knew when Grandma is going to pop up, no one ever speaks the name Mary Lee Liveley at all.
So when Daddy tells her, Grandma gets real quiet for a minute, and I do too. I can't imagine what Grandma looks like, sitting quiet at the kitchen table. It happens so seldom. I'm barely breathing because I don't want Grandma and Daddy to hear me and realize I'm standing no more than ten steps away in the pantry.
"John Motley," Grandma says after the longest time, "I will not have it. She made her decision fifteen years ago and she can stick to it."
"Now, Mama, look here. This war in Europe has changed everything. Surely you wouldn't want her to stay in England."
"She's not in England. Don't think because I'm getting along in years that I've lost my eyesight or my brains, either one. I read the newspaper. I know how they've been sending children out of England for somebody to have to take care of in Canada. I know some of the mothers have come too. Besides which, I have seen those letters you hide in your desk drawer. She and that child of hers came to Canada near about a year ago."
"Not that long . . . ," Daddy tries to say.
Without making a sound, I look around the pantry door. And, just as I thought, there sit Daddy and Grandma staring at each other across the kitchen table. Exactly where I left them.
"Why can't she stay in Canada?" Grandma says, her eyes blazing.
I pull my head back quickly just as Daddy answers.
"Because I wrote her and asked her to come home. It's not some stranger's place to look after my sister. I want her here."
"Well, I don't. You know how Mary Lee is. She'll only make more work for Emily Ruth."
"Emily Ruth doesn't mind. She's more than glad to have her."
"We don't have room for her. Where would she and the child sleep?"
"Emily Ruth says they can sleep in Elizabeth's room. That used to be Mary Lee's bedroom when she was a girl."
I can't help myself. I whistle through my clenched teeth. What is Daddy saying? And Mama giving away my bedroom without even asking me one word about it.
"I have spoken, John," Grandma is saying. "There's no more to be said. You can write her and tell her not to come."
"It's too late for that, Mama. She will be here this afternoon on the train. I thought you might like to ride to Suffolk with me to pick them up."
"This afternoon? Indeed. I refuse to go."
"Then maybe you can look after things, and Emily Ruth can ride with me."
"John Motley, I don't think you have been listening to me. I said she isn't to come here."
"And I said she is, Mama."
I can hear Daddy's chair scraping back. He must be getting up from the table. And Grandma doesn't say one word. Daddy just keeps right on talking.
"I am going to Suffolk to meet the three o'clock train. And I will be bringing my sister and your granddaughter home with me. And they will sleep in the front bedroom until this war is over and she can go back to England to her husband."
Still Grandma doesn't say a word. I hear her chair scrape too, and then I hear her heels click across the linoleum floor. I wait, holding tight to my apple. Then I hear Daddy walking to the back door. I hear the door open and shut. But neither of them says another word.
When I walk out of the pantry door, Mama is coming down the back stairs into the kitchen.
"Why didn't you tell me, Mama?" I ask. "About Aunt Mary Lee and her baby. Grandma doesn't want them to come, and I don't either. It's not fair to take my bedroom."
"Oh, Margaret Ann, please don't be that way this morning. I simply did not have time to talk to you about it. Besides, they have to sleep somewhere. Where else can we put them?"
"They could have stayed where they were. In Canada. That's what Grandma says."
When I hear myself saying that, I get a real shock. To think that I'm agreeing with Grandma. But still, I'm not going to stand here and listen to Mama after she's given away my bedroom.
"I better go," I say. "I sure don't want to miss the school bus today of all days."
"Of course you don't, sweetheart. Hurry on down to the bus now. And don't worry about your books and things. I'll move them myself," Mama says.
That stops me right in my tracks.
"No, Mama. Let me do it."
"There's no time, Margaret Ann. The room has to be ready today."
"But Mama . . ."
Mama hands me my lunch box and my books and hurries me down the hall to the front door. When I get past the third cedar tree, I see the bus is already at the gate waiting. But I refuse to run. Maybe if I get left, I'll find some way to keep my bedroom. But no, that day Mr. Jones, the bus driver, just sits there and smiles and waits for me.
Joyce Darden, Bobby Holland, and I always sit together on the third seat back on the right-hand side. Joyce gets on first, me second, and then Bobby. Mr. Jones has a rule that whoever gets on first has to go to the back. That makes a lot of people mad, but it works for us.
"Hey," Joyce says, even before I can sit down. "What are you going to wear to the movie Friday night?"
"Oh . . . Friday night," I say. "I don't know. I haven't had a chance to think about it."
Joyce looks at me like I'm crazy, and I can't blame her. We've been planning this night for a long time. So, what am I going to do? How can I tell her I don't have a room to myself anymore? I don't think she'll want to come if we have to sleep with Grandma. And Grandma won't allow it even if she does.
I don't know what to do. I'm not even sure I should be telling anybody about Aunt Mary Lee and the baby. Good gosh, I don't even know how old the baby is or what its name is. Imagine having a cousin and not knowing its name. There has to be something disgraceful about having an aunt you've never seen and a cousin whose name you don't know.
I sure wish I'd asked Elizabeth more about it when she told me. She was whispering it like she didn't want anybody but me to hear her. I remember that. And we were standing in her bedroom by the window, looking down at Grandma and Daddy and my uncle Waverly Saunders and Aunt Janice. They were sitting there in the shade of the maple trees, on our white wooden lawn chairs, waiting for Mama and Sallie to bring out lemonade and cookies. And Elizabeth said that Daddy had a beautiful sister who had gone off to college and met an Englishman. And fallen in love with him.
"Grandma disapproved of him," Elizabeth had said. "I think it was because Aunt Mary Lee stopped going to church, and started smoking cigarettes, and saying curse words."
"Well, I heard somebody at church whispering about it. But it might not be true."
"Yeah. It might be something else. Maybe it was just because the man wouldn't do everything Grandma told him to."
I was serious about it, but when Elizabeth laughed, I did too. It always makes me happy to say something Elizabeth laughs at.
So I asked Elizabeth to tell me the rest of the story, but all she would say was that Aunt Mary Lee had run off with this man to England and got married to him. Elizabeth didn't know the man's name, and I don't think she knew they'd had a baby either. Or maybe it hadn't been born when she told me all this. I don't know, but she said she had seen a picture of Aunt Mary Lee once. So I got the idea of looking in Grandma's box of pictures while she was sitting under the maple tree, drinking lemonade.
There were lots of pictures of people I didn't know. Most of them had names on the back, but one or two weren't labeled. I decided that not even Grandma would throw away all her pictures of her own daughter, so I kept looking.
Way at the bottom I found her. It didn't have a name on the back, but it was a girl who looked a lot like Daddy. She was standing on the front steps of our house, dressed up like she was going to church. She was wearing a corsage, so it must have been Easter.
While I was holding it to the light, trying to figure out if her nose was just like mine, I heard Grandma coming down the hall. I stuck the picture way at the bottom where I'd found it. I closed the box. And I shoved it inside the drawer and closed it tight.
When Grandma opened the door, I was already sitting on the bed reading. Which goes to show I was scared out of my mind. Grandma doesn't allow anybody to sit on a made-up bed.
"Margaret Ann Motley, how many times do I have to tell you never to sit on a made-up bed? Besides which, you ought to be outside playing on a nice day like this. Now, straighten the covers and take yourself right downstairs and out the back door."
"And don't let this happen again, do you understand?"
I remember that I could hear Grandma fussing every step I took down the stairs. Just as plain. Even in the kitchen I could hear her. I never touched that box of pictures again. Never asked Grandma or Mama or anybody else if it really was Aunt Mary Lee. I guess I tried to forget I'd ever heard the name. But there is no doubt of it, this very afternoon I'm actually going to see her.
"Margaret Ann, is there something wrong?"
Joyce is leaning over the pile of books in her lap, looking me straight in the face, and Bobby Holland is grinning over her shoulder.
"Margaret Ann, you haven't answered a single one of my questions. Don't you feel well?" she asks.
"Oh," I say. "I'm fine."
I know I should come right out and tell her I haven't been listening. But Joyce gets her feelings hurt mighty easy. I decide to do what I always do, bluff my way through.
"I'm fine, Joyce," I say. "I was just thinking over our plans for Friday night. It's going to be great. Sallie says she'll make apple dumplings for supper. And Johnny says he doesn't even have a date. He's just taking you and me and Bobby Holland."
"Oh my gosh, Margaret Ann. It will be like a double date."
Oh Lord, Mama and Daddy will kill me if they think I have an actual date. And Joyce's eyes are shining and she looks so happy. I decide I have to tell her all about the change in plans. I can't let her go on thinking things are going to be so good. When I open my mouth, I am really planning to tell her the whole story. All about Aunt Mary Lee and the baby. And about how I am going to have to move back in with Grandma. What comes out is this.
"That's great, Joyce. That's just great."
All that day at school I keep thinking of how I'm going to tell Joyce about Aunt Mary Lee and the baby. Because I know as well as anything that Grandma will say Joyce can't come and that I have to be the one to tell her. But how can I? I don't know, so I keep on putting it off.
I haven't so much as spoken to Bobby Holland since we got off the bus that morning. He sits way in the back of the classroom because Miss Boswell says she can trust him to behave. I sit about in the middle, so I guess that shows what she thinks about me. Anyway, I worry all day long and I can't remember the answer to a single question Miss Boswell asks us. It's like my body is at school and my mind is at home. I can see Mama and Sallie cooking and cleaning. Mama always bakes a ham when company is coming. And Sallie will have to clean chickens and bake them. And make dressing. And cut turnip greens from the garden and cook them. And since Sallie has so much to do, Mama will probably have to clean the bedroom. And probably the living room. So maybe she won't have time to move my things to Grandma's room after all. Or maybe it's all a terrible mistake. Maybe Daddy will change his mind and not go meet the train and Aunt Mary Lee and the baby will go back to Canada.
I'm still mulling it over on the bus ride home so I don't hear a word Joyce and Bobby Holland say until Joyce pokes me hard in the ribs.
"Margaret Ann, answer me. I have asked you twice about what we have for homework in history."
My mind is a perfect blank.
"I think it's something about Virginia," Bobby Holland says.
"Of course it's about Virginia," Joyce tells him. "This whole year is about Virginia. But what is our homework for tomorrow?"
Suddenly I remember. I can hear Miss Boswell's very words.
"Miss Boswell wants everybody to find out something interesting about Isle of Wight County. Something like what your ancestors did. You know."
"I don't think my ancestors did anything interesting enough to talk about," Joyce says.
"Me neither," Bobby says. "What about you, Margaret Ann?"
"I don't know of anything. But, I'm thinking about looking in our family Bible."
"Oh, yes," Joyce says. "I'll do that too."
So we talk about family Bibles and what color they are and how big they are and what is written in them. I have no idea what I'm saying. I agree with whatever the others say. And when the bus stops at Joyce's gate, I almost shout hallelujah.
"Bye," she says as she gets up to go.
"See you tomorrow," Bobby Holland and I say together.
When the bus drives off, we wave for as long as we can see each other. Just like we do every day. But it seems like Mr. Jones is driving about three miles an hour and we will never get out of sight of Joyce's house. I wish I could stop the bus, jump off, and run all the way home. I feel like I could get there faster on my own.
Just as I'm thinking about the possibility of moving to the front of the bus, Bobby Holland pinches me on the shoulder and moves closer to me on the seat.
"Look . . . Margaret Ann . . . ," he says. "I mean, look at me."
I blink my eyes and then I look at him. He's smiling like he does when he has something important to tell me. He is so handsome.
"Yeah?" I say.
"All day I've been trying to tell you about Princess. I hope you remember Princess."
"Don't be sarcastic. Of course I remember Princess. Do you think I'm crazy?"
"No, I don't think you're crazy. But you're sure acting strange. Anyway, I just want to tell you Daddy says you can have a puppy when they're born. If you want one. I'm going to get one, and I thought it would be great for us to have puppies out of the same litter."
"Yeah. It would."
Just that minute the brakes squeak and the bus stops at our gate.
"Look, Bobby, I've got to hurry. I mean . . . this afternoon . . . it's just that . . ."
Bobby stands up quickly so I can get past him. I guess I've hurt his feelings. I can tell by the way his shoulders are slumping. But I can't help it. Not today.
"Good-bye, Bobby. Thank you. Really. We'll talk more about it later."
When I step down into the road and walk between the two brick gateposts, I can see our car parked at the front door. So they're home. Aunt Mary Lee and the baby are actually here. Because if Daddy had come back alone, he would've pulled the car up to the garage immediately. Two more steps and I can see the whole picture.
Daddy has his head poked through the front window on the driver's side. And Mama is coming down the front steps with Paige and Polly by the hand, laughing and calling out something, which of course I can't hear. I start to run. And then I stop. It's like I can't make my feet move. All I can do is stand there in the lane and watch.
Daddy takes his head out of the car window, turns around, and sees me.
"Come on, Margaret Ann," he says, real loud, so I can't act like I don't hear him. "Come on and meet your cousin Courtney."
That's the baby, I decide. I surely hope nobody expects me to hold her. Mama used to make me hold Paige and Polly, so I can just imagine her telling Aunt Mary Lee: "Oh, Margaret Ann is so good with babies. She had a lot of practice with the twins."
I hang back, even though Daddy is still motioning me to run. And then a young-looking woman who I figure must be Aunt Mary Lee gets out of the front seat on the other side of the car, throws her arms up in the air, then grabs for Mama. They look like they're dancing or something. Just twirling round and round and laughing. The twins are hanging on to Mama's skirt and stumbling over the tree roots.
While I'm watching all this lurching and screeching, I keep thinking, where is the baby? Have they left it asleep in the back of the car? When they quiet down a little, I look back to Daddy's side of the car. And there stands a girl. She looks like she's exactly my height. With hair the color of real clear honey like you eat on biscuits. Dressed in a dark green suit with a skirt halfway to her ankles. She's laughing too. And my Daddy, who usually won't look a chicken in the face, is hugging her and kissing her on that honey-colored hair.
"Come on, Margaret Ann. Come meet your cousin Courtney."
"My cousin Courtney?" I yell back to him. "Courtney the baby?"
Daddy laughs so loud that Mama hears him and says, "What?" And then they all laugh. Mama. Aunt Mary Lee. Even Paige and Polly. I am so embarrassed. My face feels like it's catching on fire.
So my cousin isn't a baby. She is probably my age. And she's the prettiest girl I have ever seen. Prettier than Elizabeth. Prettier than Mama. How am I going to explain this at school tomorrow? What will Joyce say? And what about Bobby Holland?
When I thought this cousin of mine was a baby, I didn't plan to actually dislike her. Of course I didn't want her here. I knew she would be a nuisance. And most of all she would take my bedroom. But this honey-blond girl the prettiest girl I've ever seen is a different matter.
While we're all shaking hands and being introduced, I hear Mama telling Daddy: "What a charming girl Courtney is." Nobody ever says I'm charming. Of course, I'm probably not. But still, for your own mama to say someone else is charming and have your daddy agree it's pretty hard to stomach.
The twins are hanging on to every word she says.
Probably because they can't understand her. She talks funny. Like somebody has taken scissors to the English language and clipped it to pieces. Almost every word she says is different from the way we talk. At least nobody asks me to go upstairs and help her get settled. Actually they ignore me completely, so I follow close behind Mama into the kitchen.
Mama always serves lemonade and cookies when company comes in the afternoon, and she always uses the same white china pitcher that has a couple of blue rings around it, underneath the handle. She always waits till the last minute to squeeze the lemons, measure out the sugar, and fill the pitcher with water. She says it tastes better when it's fresh like that.
Usually, I can drink the whole pitcher full. This day I'm not thirsty. I feel like I'm full right up to the back of my throat.
"What's the matter with you, Margaret Ann?" Sallie asks.
"Nothing," I say.
"I don't feel no hug this afternoon, so I thought something must be wrong."
Hugging Sallie is usually the first thing I do when I walk in the kitchen. Next is looking in the warming closet of the stove to see what she's kept warm for me there. So I go to the stove where Sallie is standing and she grabs me and hugs me until I get smiling.
"Now," she says. "Help your mama."
"Okay," I say, "but I want to know what's going on around here."
I take a lemon out of the pan of warm water, roll it around on the drain board of the sink, and hand it to Mama. She does look so tired. I shouldn't add to her worries, but I'm worried too.
"Did the twins move my things?" I ask her.
"Of course not. What makes you think that? Sallie moved your things when we were cleaning Elizabeth's bedroom."
"It's my bedroom."
"Margaret Ann . . ."
"I'm sorry, Mama, but I can't help it. Every time I think about it, I get madder. What am I going to tell Joyce about all this?"
"Oh my. Joyce is supposed to spend the night with you Friday, isn't she?"
"Yes, she is. So where are we supposed to sleep? In the living room? On the front porch?"
"I expect we'll have to postpone the visit."
"Postpone? For how long? How long do you expect them to be here? Aunt Mary Lee and Courtney, I mean."
"Lower your voice, please. They'll hear you."
"I don't care if they hear me."
"Margaret Ann, you are being unreasonable. How do you think Courtney feels? First she was taken to Canada, and now here. Put yourself in her place."
"Good gosh, Mama, I think you've got that idea exactly backward. Courtney is putting herself in my place. My bedroom."
"Look here, Margaret Ann, I don't want to hear you talk to your mama like that. Good as she is. You ought to be ashamed."
Oh, no. Not Sallie, too. There must be something going on here that I don't understand. Sallie and Mama are not the kind of people to make something out of nothing. I can hear it in Sallie's voice. It has kind of an edge to it. And Mama looks like she's seen something or heard something to upset her.
"Well," I say. "Okay. I'm sorry, Mama. What can I do?"
"You can help me carry the cookies to the dining room."
"Okay, but tell me why we're having refreshments in the dining room," I whisper.
"Because your grandma says " Mama is whispering too.
Just then Daddy pops through the door.
"Hurry up, ladies."
"Sorry, John," Mama says. "You direct everyone to the dining room and we'll be there in a jiff."
Mama takes the tray of glasses, and I take the lemonade in one hand and the cookie plate in the other. While we're walking down the little hallway and into the dining room, I keep asking Mama about what Grandma said. And where in the world is Grandma? Mama has plenty of time to tell me too, but she won't say another word.
Daddy insists that Courtney sit beside him, which is my place at the table.
"You sit between the twins, Margaret Ann," Mama tells me. It's a fate worse than death. Particularly since we're using the good glasses, the ones with little stems, and I have to keep the girls from turning them over on the tablecloth.
"I know you two are tired," Mama says to Aunt Mary Lee. "We'll have an early supper so you can get to bed."
I'm just about to say that I don't see why it should make you so tired to ride on a train from Canada to Virginia when Daddy reaches out and pats Courtney on the hand.
"How did you like Canada, sweetheart?" he asks.
"Not very well, thank you," Courtney replies.
"I'm afraid we were both a bit homesick, John," Aunt Mary Lee says.
"But you're home now," Daddy says.
Aunt Mary Lee smiles.
"Thank you, John. It is so good to be here and so good for Courtney to see where I grew up. And best of all, for her to meet her relatives. Speaking of relatives . . . where is she? Is she back there? In the kitchen?"
"I guess you mean Mama, don't you?" Daddy says.
"Of course I mean Mama."
"Mary Lee, I'm sorry. She's . . . well . . . you know Mama."
"What do you mean? Surely she was expecting me. Surely you didn't invite me here without consulting her."
"Look, Mary Lee, she'll come around. Give her a day or two."
"Mama has had fifteen years to 'come around.' When you invited me here, I was thinking it meant she had."
I look at Mama then, and her face is white as a ghost.
"Margaret Ann," she says, like she's out of breath from running to the mailbox or something. "You can take Courtney upstairs to her room and help her get her things unpacked. Take the twins too."
I don't want to go. I want to see what's going to happen next. I want to know what all this is about. But Mama looks at me like she does. She doesn't say a word, but she might as well have. "For me." Whenever Mama says that, "For me," I can't help myself.
"Come on," I say, and start for the door. I can hear Courtney behind me, walking up the hall to the front steps. The twins are behind her. At the bottom of the stairs, I feel like turning and running out the front door. I would if it weren't for Mama.
"Come on," I say again, and start up the stairs. So, I'm the one who has to take Courtney upstairs to my very own bedroom. It's just like I'm giving it to her.
Courtney walks straight over to the bed and takes a seat. The twins plunk down beside her and look up at her like they're adoring a saint or something.
"Do you like this room?" one of them asks. "It's really Elizabeth's. Margaret Ann has been sleeping here while Elizabeth is away at college. But now she's back with Grandma Motley."
Courtney looks up at me then. I'm still standing in the doorway. I have no intention of going inside. I have no intention of telling her how Grandma feels about people sitting on made-up beds either. Let her find out for herself.
"Margaret," she says. "I want to ask you something."
I nod my head, but I don't say a word.
"Where is Grandma Motley?"
Just as she is asking, we hear the sound of the tractor motor. The twins jump up and run to the front windows.
"It's Johnny," they say. "Come see Johnny. Look, he's parking the tractor out front. Under the trees."
Courtney doesn't budge. She doesn't take her eyes off my face for a second.
"Is she here? In this house?"
"I imagine so. I don't know where else she could be."
"Doesn't she want to see us?"
"Well . . . ," I say.
"It's true, then, isn't it? She didn't want Mother and me to come at all."
There are few things in this world that I want more than to tell her that Grandma doesn't want her to come, and I don't want her to come either. But it's almost like I can hear Mama right through the floorboards. "For me." Still, I don't want to lie. How can I manage to do what Mama does? She doesn't lie exactly, but she does what she calls "putting things in the best light."
"You never know about Grandma, Courtney. By next week she'll probably be saying you're her favorite."
By this time the twins are running back to Courtney. They take her hands and pull her off the bed and over to the window. I use that as the perfect excuse to leave.
What Mama wouldn't tell me is that Grandma says she isn't coming out of her bedroom until Aunt Mary Lee and Courtney leave. I find that out when I run in to put on a clean dress for supper.
"Is that you, Margaret Ann?" Grandma asks, all the while staring straight in my face.
"Yes ma'am." I can think of a lot of cute things to add on, but you really don't say things like that to Grandma Motley.
"You can tell Sallie to bring me a tray. I'll just have a piece or two of hot buttered toast."
"Aren't you hungry, Grandma?"
She shakes her head and won't say another word. Which is an even stranger thing for Grandma to do. By the time I get my clean dress on, I hear Mama calling from the kitchen.
"I'll tell Sallie," I say, and run for the back stairs.
After supper Mama says I have to take the twins to the living room while the grown-ups stay at the table, drinking coffee. Courtney offers to help me, and even though I insist she stay with the others, she doesn't catch on to the fact that I don't want her around. So the four of us go in and sit down. The twins ask Courtney a zillion questions while I stare into space. Finally Johnny walks in.
"Don't you want coffee?" I ask him.
"I've had three cups. That's enough for one night. Besides, I want to get to know my new cousin."
"She's nice," one of the twins says. "She can tell us apart too. And even Margaret Ann can't."
"So you know," I whisper.
Johnny completely overlooks me.
"Courtney must be pretty smart, then," he says. "What grade are you in at school?"
"Mother says I would be in the seventh grade here. But that isn't what we call it in England."
The seventh grade. My grade. What will Miss Boswell say? What will Joyce Darden say?
Johnny drags the small rocking chair that always stays by the fireplace over to where Courtney and the twins are sitting on the sofa.
"They tell me you lived in London before you came to Canada," he says.
"During the winter we did," Courtney replies. "Mother and I usually spent the summer at our house in the country. Father would come down on weekends. But now . . . we don't know for sure if the house in London is left standing."
"What do you mean?" I ask her.
"Don't you know?" she says. "About the bombing?"
"Of course I know about the bombing. I can read. But do you mean your own house might have been destroyed by one of those firebombs and you wouldn't know it?"
"Father flies for the RAF. He seldom gets to London. And Mother thinks he wouldn't tell us even if he knew."
After that, Johnny asks one question after the other about the war. I don't say a word. There's no way I can even if I wanted to. But I don't want to. And I don't want to hear the answers either. I get chills just thinking about it. Firebombs and plane crashes. Horrible things. I decide that being upstairs with Grandma Motley is better than sitting down here in the living room.
"Well," Grandma Motley says as soon as I close the bedroom door behind me.
"Well, what's she like?"
"Do you mean Courtney?"
"Is that her name?"
"Well, then, I mean Courtney."
"She's okay. The twins like her. And Johnny likes her. And Daddy is crazy about her."
"What about you?" Grandma asks.
I can't look at Grandma when I say it, and I can't say it real loud, but I tell her.
"I don't like her. I wish she'd go back to Canada."
"Maybe she will."
And then I look at Grandma, because it sounds to me like she's laughing.
"It just might be that Miss Courtney Liveley will be leaving this place sooner than she thinks."
"What do you mean, Grandma?" I ask.
But she won't say. She just sits rocking and smiling. I start to feel even worse than I felt downstairs in the living room. Like something really bad might happen to Courtney. Like maybe one of those firebombs is going to cross the ocean and find her and Aunt Mary Lee . . . and maybe us, too.
The very next day at school, I'm sitting in my desk, looking down at the floor and praying Miss Boswell won't call on me because I completely forgot to look up anything in the family Bible, when suddenly, the classroom door flies open. The first thing I see is Grandma's coat. There is no other coat like it anywhere. It is so old that what was once beautiful black chinchilla has started to look like a baby goat. So they're here, is all I can think. But how on earth did Daddy and Aunt Mary Lee get Grandma to come?
It's like a parade. After Grandma Motley there's Daddy. Dressed in his Sunday suit. On a Wednesday. Then there's Aunt Mary Lee, wearing Mama's best hat. Last of all is Courtney, and she's wearing my blue sweater and skirt that used to be Elizabeth's. I've never even worn it because I've just grown tall enough for it to fit me.
Miss Boswell looks at me first off, but I pretend to drop a book on the floor. I reach down like there's something really down there, and I don't come back up until Joyce punches me and whispers, "What is going on?" I whisper back that I don't know. But I do know I have to get back up before all the blood in my veins rushes to my head.
When I get back up, Daddy is shaking hands with Miss Boswell and introducing Aunt Mary Lee and then Courtney. Grandma Motley she already knows. Everybody knows Grandma Motley.
They talk awhile behind the teacher's desk, and then Miss Boswell calls me to the front of the room.
"Margaret Ann, I expect you'd like to introduce your cousin to the class while I go with your family to talk to the principal. It won't take long, but there are a few things we need to check on."
I stand up. I can feel everybody's eyes shifting from me to Courtney and back again. What are they thinking? I don't want to look at Joyce and I don't want to look at Bobby Holland, but when I get to the front of the room, it's like my eyes are drawn to both of them. Joyce is frowning. I want to go back to yesterday and start all over. Why didn't I tell her? And why didn't I tell Bobby? He's biting his lips like he doesn't know what to think or what to do.
"Go ahead, Margaret Ann. We won't be a minute," Miss Boswell says.
I watch my daddy and the others out the door, wanting more than anything in the world to leave with them.
"Well," I say. "This is Courtney Liveley. She's from England . . . and she has been in Canada for a while . . . and now she's here. In Virginia. At my house."
"How'd she get there?" Jack Hubbard asks. Jack plays baseball with Bobby Holland, and he lives on a farm a few miles away from us.
"Did she come on a train? Did she fly?" a couple of the boys ask.
"Who is she?" asks Joanne Cox, one of the town girls.
"Can she talk?" asks a boy in the back of the room.
"I can talk," says Courtney.
She smiles, and the room gets just as quiet. And then she starts to talk in that funny clipped way that I can hardly understand. But it seems like everybody else in the classroom can.
"Ask me anything you like. I should be glad to answer."
"Do you mean you live in England? Really?" says Joanne Cox.
"Really. But of course my mother and I had to leave some months ago because of the blitz."
"What's the blitz?" John Cofer, one of the town boys, asks.
"Well, it's actually from a German word Blitzkreig that means 'lightning war.' It was first used to describe Adolf Hitler's march through Europe when he was conquering Poland, and Denmark, and Norway. We English shortened it to 'blitz.'"
Courtney sounds like Miss Boswell when she's explaining history to us. But the class is listening even better than they ever listened to Miss Boswell. I glance at Bobby Holland. He's looking very serious, and I know he will remember every word Courtney says.
I walk back to my own seat, not looking at anybody, just seeing my saddle oxfords that used to be Elizabeth's before she outgrew them. I'm sure I look like poor old Johnnie Newby, who is crippled and works for us because Daddy says somebody has to look after him. Or like Sallie's husband, Junie, when he got into the hard cider last Christmas by mistake and got drunk. After I sit down and look around me, I realize I really could be crippled or drunk or anything else. Nobody would notice or care. Because every eye in the room is on my cousin Courtney.
When I get home from school that afternoon, I realize that I'm a fortune-teller. Because Grandma Motley stands right beside the kitchen sink and says right out that Courtney is the smartest and prettiest girl she has ever seen. Which means that she is Grandma's new favorite.
"What happened?" I ask Mama after Grandma has gone back upstairs.
"Well, things just worked themselves out, just like they do if you try to do right. I had taken your Grandma's breakfast tray up to her room when your aunt Mary Lee walked in and asked her forgiveness."
I know Grandma really likes to have people ask for forgiveness, but what I can't believe is that Aunt Mary Lee would do it.
"So what happened next?" I ask.
"So then Courtney came in, and we all cried and made up."
"Grandma didn't cry," I say.
Grandma never cries. Her tear ducts have dried up because she's old. She told me that one day when she came back from the doctor.
"I'll bet nobody cried, Mama. Now, tell me what really happened."
"Well . . . you're right about the crying. That was just a manner of speaking."
"So . . . what happened?"
"Well, as I said, I told your grandma that Aunt Mary Lee said "
"But she really hadn't said anything, had she, Mama?"
"Well . . . no . . . but I could tell what was in her heart. Just like I could tell what was in your Grandma's heart. So I simply suggested to first one and the other how it was."
"Mama, you told a lie. Maybe two lies."
"No, I didn't. All I did was tell the actual truth that was in their hearts . . . to everybody, and that made them see this was no time to be foolish. Anyway, it worked, didn't it?"
"Oh, Mama" is all I can think to say.
Anyway, now nobody seems to notice I'm on the planet. The only girl at school I can count on not to like Courtney better than me is Joyce. And she's wavering. But she did seem to understand perfectly when I told her the Friday night plans were off.
All the boys are in love with Courtney, and the town girls want her for a friend even though she does live in the country. "She's only there for the time being," Joanne Cox says about fourteen times a day. "Actually she's from London. In England." Even Bobby Holland ups and gives her his seat on the bus before Mr. Jones tells him to. And he actually told me one day that I ought to be nicer to my cousin.
Every night at supper, Daddy asks her to sit by him. And every night after supper Johnny comes to wherever we're doing homework and asks her questions about the war. I mean, Johnny never asks questions of anybody, and here he is talking like a maniac.
Sallie and Mama have learned how to make these scones that Courtney likes to have every afternoon when we get home from school. And Grandma brags about the good grades she makes and how she ought to be in the eighth grade, or maybe even the ninth.
I am so lonely that I'm even beginning to wish the twins would talk to me. But not really. So I write a letter to Elizabeth, thinking she'll understand. But when I get a letter back from her, all she can write about is how much she's looking forward to Christmas and meeting our cousin Courtney. Christmas is a long way off, and even having Elizabeth home isn't going to change things. Because she'll spend most of her time with Tommy Gray.
Copyright ©2006 by Doris Gwaltney
Meet the Author
Doris Gwaltney is the author of two adult novels, Shakespeare's Sister and Duncan Browdie, Gent. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in the Greensboro Review, Poet's Domain magazine, and other publications. She teaches writing for the Lifelong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University and resides in Smithfield, Virginia.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
I remember reading this book during my middle school years and fell in love with it! I recommended it to all my friends who loved it too and in turn, recommended it to others. It has a wonderful and heart warming plot. Please read this excellent novel. It is the perfect story of a typical American family living on the homefront with their loved ones fighting in WWII.
I loved this book so much. You can really see from margaret ann's point of view. At first i did not like courtney at all. She seeed very stuck up. When she got alot a of attention, i felt bad for margaret ann. Soon you learn more about courtney and then she and margaret ann are friends. I like how this book incorporates te war and how it affected everyone. This book is a must read
If you want a good book to hand to your middle school student, you can't go wrong with Homefront by Doris Gwaltney. The setting is accurately researched and the characters are true-to-life. As you read the book you feel transported into Margaret Ann's life, living her frustrations, sorrows and joys. While the author doesn't try to solve every difficult situation in the book, and doesn't sugar-coat reality, the book is ultimately a positive portrayal of family, friendship and art of forgiveness. Homefront has also received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal.