Read an Excerpt
The Saturday Family
The Saturday Family
Mama looked out the kitchen window and said, "Time to get these beans on the plate, Charlotte." Charlotte knew that meant it was Saturday night, and Papa and the boys were walking across the road from the smithy. Papa would stop in the lean-to to wash his hands and face, and then Lewis and Tom would take their turns. By the time they had all scrubbed off the soot of the shop, Mama would have loaded each plate with a steaming heap of baked beans. Baked beans were part of the special supper that belonged to Saturday night.
Ever since Charlotte had turned four, nearly a whole year ago, it had been her job to take the pewter plates off the cupboard shelves and carry each one to Mama at the kitchen hearth. Lydia, nine years old, had the more important task of carrying the full plates to the table in the parlor. Charlotte didn't mind. She liked to climb up on a chair to reach the row of plates lined up on their ends, reflecting back a funny, blurred girl with green eyes big as saucers and a chin even pointier than Charlotte's real one. She liked to climb back down and open the cupboard doors to see all the things inside the neatly stacked bowls, the candlestick holders, the big round tin that was always full of sugar cookies. It felt comfortable to know what was inside the tin without looking.
Saturday night had that same cozy, comfortable feeling. A Saturday supper was special, for it was a hot meal. Most evenings supper was simply a cold tea of bread and cheese and leftovers, for the big meal of the day was dinner, at noon. Mama seldom cooked at night -- except on Saturdays.
Saturday night meant thickpools of cornmeal pudding on the plates beside the baked beans. It meant coffee for Mama and Papa instead of cider. And it meant three things in the middle of the dinner table -- the three members of what Charlotte secretly thought of as "the Saturday family." There was the mother, a tall, delicately curved cruet of cider vinegar; the father, a squat redware molasses jug with a jaunty handle and a friendly chip on the rim; and between them, cradled in a china dish, the butter baby.
Charlotte had never told anyone about the Saturday family -- it was nice to have a secret all her own. Besides, her brothers would tease her about it. Twelve-year-old Lewis would tease because he was a teasing kind of per-son, and Tom, who was seven, would tease because he did everything Lewis did. Lydia never teased, but she would be either not at all interested in the secret or much too interested, and she would take over the game and change it. Charlotte did not want it to be changed. Like Saturday night itself, the Saturday family was perfect just as it was.
Papa came inside, smelling of coal smoke and horses. His face was red from the scrubbing and from the heat of the forge in his shop. He went to the hearth and kissed the back of Mama's neck below her white linen cap. Mama turned and smiled her special Papa-smile that made her eyes crinkle into crescent moons.
From the lean-to came the splashing, jostling sound of the boys washing up. Papa tugged Lydia's thick red braids to say hello, and he stretched out one of Charlotte's dark ringlets like a spring. Then he bent down to baby Mary, who was playing with a rolling pin on the floor at Mama's feet, and swept her up into his arms.
Mary crowed with delight and tugged enthusiastically on Papa's side-whiskers. Gently he freed her chubby hand and carried her to the lean-to to tell the boys to hurry up.
"Take the sugar bowl, Lydia," Mama said, "and Charlotte, you put the bread on the table, there's a lass." Carrying the breadboard, Charlotte followed Lydia along the narrow hallway, past the stairs and the front door, into the parlor, where another fire crackled and the late-afternoon sun slanted between the blue curtains.
Soon Mama came into the parlor, tucking wisps of her red hair back into place beneath her cap, and just behind her was Papa, with Mary still in his arms. Mama set Mary into her special high chair and was just scooting it up to the table as Lewis clattered in. Tom came behind him, stout and sturdy as an ox, as Mama always said.
Lewis's red hair was wet around his ears, and his hands dripped from the hurried washing he'd given them in the lean-to. Mama sent him to dry off before Papa said grace. Tom sighed impatiently, eyeing the beans before him.
Everything was just as it always was. Charlotte listened to the fire pop and sigh beneath the sound of Papa's quiet voice as he spoke the words of the blessing. She heard Mary clinking a spoon on the table and Mama softly hushing her. Then Papa said, "Amen," and that was when Charlotte opened her eyes and realized at once that something was not right.
The Saturday father was missing. The vinegar mother (who could be a little bit sour but had a nice tang to her) was there in her usual place, and the fat, dimpled lump of butter was beside her in its little china crib. But the jolly redware jug wasn't there.
Before Charlotte could say anything, Lewis noticed it too. "Lydia forgot the molasses for our pudding!" he announced.
"I did not either forget!" Lydia protested. "There isn't any. Right, Mama?"
"Aye," Mama said. "You ought to be careful about letting your tongue set sail without a compass, Lewis." She winked at him and everyone laughed, because that was just what Mama always said about herself.
"But what happened to the Sat -- to the molasses?" Charlotte asked. She had almost said "the Saturday father" but caught herself just in time.
"There isn't any," Mama said. "I fear we'll have no more until the blockade is lifted; not even Bacon's store can get it right now. I'm sorry, Lew," she said to Papa. "We'll have to eat our pudding without it."
Cornmeal pudding with molasses was Papa's very favorite of all the new foods he had learned to eat since he had come to America fifteen years ago. He had never eaten molasses in Scotland, where he and Mama had grown up.
But Papa shrugged, smiling his quiet smile. "We canna expect to go withoot makin' some sacrifices noo and then, when there's a war on," he said.
War meant fighting, Charlotte knew, but what did that have to do with molasses?
"What's a blockade?" Tom asked.
Lewis spoke up quickly. "It's when someone blocks a harbor so no ships can get in or out. Those blasted British have got Boston Harbor closed so tight, you couldn't get a rowboat through, let alone a merchant ship."
"Lewis!" Mama said sternly, and Papa raised his eyebrows.
"Beg pardon," Lewis mumbled. "But I'd like to know what I should call 'em. They're our enemies, after all."
"Still, that be no excuse for rough language," Papa said.
And Mama demanded, "Have you ivver heard your father usin' such a word?"
A funny look came over Lewis's face. "No, not Papa . . ." he said, letting the sentence trail off.
Mama stared at him a moment and then burst out laughing. "Meanin' you've heard me use it, I suppose. Och, my mother always said a day would come when my quick tongue would get me into trouble. And here it is, my own son tellin' me I'm a bad influence." She smiled a rueful smile. "All right then, young man, I'll guard me own tongue and you'll guard yours. We ought both of us to follow your father's example and keep our mouths closed more often."
"But then how would you get any work done?" Charlotte asked. Everyone laughed again, and she looked at them in puzzlement. She had not meant to be funny. Mama said the secret to getting work done was knowing the right song to go with it. She had a different song for every task. Even if she was hemming a dress and had her mouth full of pins, she hummed in time to the pinning. Mama said she had gotten the habit as a little girl in Scotland.
Papa and Mama and Lewis went back to talking about the war. Charlotte had been listening to war talk almost her whole life, for the war with England had begun way back in 1812, when she was only three years old. She knew it had something to do with sea battles, and a place called Canada way to the north, and that Mama thought it was a foolish thing and spoke of it scornfully as "Mr. Madison's War." But until tonight it had never seemed to have anything to do with her own life, and Charlotte had not paid much attention to all the talk. Now this mysterious war had taken all the molasses from Boston Harbor. It was the reason the poor father jug had to sit empty in the pantry tonight. Whoever Mr. Madison was, Charlotte did not think she liked him not if his war kept away all the molasses and made people fight.
It was a new idea, and an unsettling one, to think that someone who lived far away and did not even know her could change things right on her own dinner table. No molasses! Charlotte hadn't known molasses came from ships she'd thought it came from the general store, or the stores in Boston. The comfortable Saturday-night feeling was gone, and the world seemed very big outside the weathered brown door of the Tucker house.
Charlotte looked around the table. No one else seemed to mind. Lewis and Tom thought the war was exciting. Lydia didn't care one way or the other; Mama always said Lydia lived in a world of her own. And Mary was not yet a year old. She didn't even know what molasses was, much less a war.
At least the war had not changed everything about Saturday night. After supper things went on just as they always did: Mama washed the dishes, Lydia wiped them, Charlotte swept beneath the table. Then she put the Saturday mother back on the pantry shelf beside the Saturday father. (The butter baby lived down in the root cellar, where it was nice and cool.) Charlotte felt better when the vinegar cruet and the molasses jug were lined up side by side, even if the jug was empty. And then it was time to help Mama put the salt cod to soak for tomorrow's dinner, which was one of the very best parts of Saturday night. The war began to feel far away again.
Mama took the lid off the codfish barrel, and Charlotte lifted out five of the stiff, dried fish. She laid each one into the big pan of water Lydia had filled. The fish would soak all night, and by tomorrow morning they would be soft enough to cook. Salt cod was Sunday's special dinner, just as baked beans and corn pudding belonged to Saturday night.
Soon it was bedtime. Mama sent Charlotte and Lydia upstairs to their bedchamber to put on their nightclothes. Lydia went carefully ahead of Charlotte, holding a tallow candle in a pewter candlestick. The flame made a yellow circle in the dark. Lydia set the candle on the table by Mama's loom and opened the big wooden press, where the nightgowns were hung. Mama came in to dress Mary for bed. The baby slept with Mama and Papa in the parlor, but her clothes were kept upstairs with Charlotte's and Lydia's.
Charlotte went to the back window and stared out at the blue dark. She could see little bits of darkness waving and quivering in the yard, and she knew it was leaves shaking in the wind. If she stared very hard, she could see the dark shapes of the barn and the privy. The rail fence around the sheep pen made black slashes against the night.
Behind her, Mama was singing a funny song about a corbie and a crow as she wrestled Mary into her nightdress. Charlotte didn't know what a corbie was. She would ask Mama later. Right now her mind was still turning over the strange new thoughts that had crept into it at supper.
Things were happening in the world, far away. Until now she had not thought of the world as something that spread far beyond Boston. There was her own house on Tide Mill Lane. There was Papa's blacksmith shop across the way, and Washington Street that ran it front of it. There were the other things on that street: the gristmill, the potter's shop, other houses, and down the road the meetinghouse and Roxbury Common. If you kept following the road, Charlotte knew, you would get to the city of Boston. Boston seemed to be a kind of grown-up Roxbury, with even more houses and shops and mills. If you needed something that couldn't be found in Roxbury, you went to Boston to get it.
But now it seemed that there were things that came to Boston from other places. They came on ships that sailed from other harbors. Molasses was one of those things. Charlotte wondered where molasses started out. That was another thing she must ask Mama.
A clattering noise came from behind her. "Och, Mary!" Mama cried out. "You wee minx, how do you move so fast?"
"I'll get it, Mama," Lydia said.
Mary had knocked a shuttle off the loom; it happened so often, Charlotte could tell without looking. She knew all the house's sounds. That scraping noise, there -- that was a chair being pulled across the floor downstairs. Papa liked to sit near the parlor fire and listen to it crackle in its dry, whispery voice. The bumps and thumps next door were the comforting sounds of Lewis and Tom getting ready for the night. Everyone was where he should be. Turning her back on the dark outside, Charlotte went to help Lydia fish Mama's shuttle out from under the loom.Little House by Boston Bay. Copyright � by Melissa Wiley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.