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At the age of twelve, Josephine Best had dreamed of being a hairdresser. Now, five years later, her dream had come true. She'd been styling hair since ten this morning, however, and the dream seemed more like a nightmare. Her feet were numb, her shoulders and back ached and the tips of her fingers were singed and tender from handling hot hair and even hotter curling irons. There was to be a big gathering at the church tonight to raise relief funds for the war effort, and every woman in town wanted her hair done; Josephine had serviced fifteen customers since opening up. Although many of the ladies had made appointments, others had simply rushed in with the hope that Jojo, as she was affectionately known to family and friends, would squeeze them in. In retrospect, Jo wished she hadn't been so accommodating. If she hadn't, she'd be at home now with her feet up, enjoying dinner with her mama, and Jo's sister-in-law, Belle. Jo had planned on spending a leisurely afternoon getting ready for tonight's festivities. Instead, she was putting curls in the sparse, graying hair of her last customer, Mrs. Harriet Donovan, a woman Jo didn't particularly care for because the widow Donovan never had a good word to say about anyone or anything.
"So, Josephine, I hear your friend Trudy's become engaged."
Jo eased the hot curling iron out of the curl and set the iron back on the brazier. "Yes, ma'am. She is. She and Bert are getting married next June. I'm sure they will be very happy." Jo used a comb to section off a small piece of Mrs. Donovan's hair, then fed the lock to the curling iron.
"And what about you?" Mrs. Donovan asked. "When are you going to marry?"
Jo had no trouble hearing the censure in Mrs. Donovan's tone. Jo and Trudy Carr had been best friends since the age of six, and now that Trudy's marriage plans were common knowledge everyone in town seemed to think Jo should be heading to the altar next. Never mind that Jojo had no beau, nor any desire to beat the bushes until she found one. Jo had plans for a career; she wanted to be a woman of business, not a wife and motherAt least not now. But when she attempted to explain her ambitions to those outside her immediate family, all she received in response were pitying looks, as if she were lacking in some way. "I'm not looking to marry anyone right now, Mrs. Donovan."
"Why not? Every other young woman your age certainly is."
Jo bit back her response. She'd been raised to respect her elders, even ones as nosy as Mrs. Donovan. So ignoring the rude question, Jo set the last curl, then put the iron down. After a few whisks of the comb and brush, she had Mrs. Donovan set for tonight's affair.
Jo handed Mrs. Donovan the mirror.
The portly widow turned the mirror this way and that, but instead of admiring what Jo thought to be fine work, the woman thrust the mirror back at Jo. "Surely, you don't expect me to pay for this!" she declared angrily. "Look at me. Why, a beagle could've done a better job."
Jo was so stunned her jaw dropped. She'd been slaving over Mrs. Donovan for more than an hour and the woman hadn't even had an appointment, for heaven's sake. Having never had a customer leave unsatisfied, Jo was at a loss as to how to proceed.
Mrs. Donovan took care of the matter. After gathering up her coat and handbag, she huffed, "I will never patronize you again, and I will be sure to alert my friends."
Jo couldn't believe her ears. "But, Mrs. Donovan, I worked very hard."
The woman waved her hand dismissively. "Goodbye, Josephine."
And she left.
A snarling Jo wanted to fling something across the room. How dare that old bat leave without paying! Jo stomped over to her cash box and counted up the day's receipts. She'd made almost five dollars from the fifteen paying customers; a good sum considering the war and the state of the nation's economy, but Mrs. Donovan should have paid her, as well!
Her face grim, Jo used a towel to shield her hands, then picked up the brazier and went outside to dump its coals. When she returned, she set it off to the side to cool, then swept up all the hair on the plank floor.
Jo's father and her brother, Daniel, were carpenters, and they'd built Jo's shop for her upon her graduation from the Women's Program at Oberlin College two years earlier. In reality, the place was nothing more than a small room with a roof on top, but it was her place of business, and she took great pride in both it and the services she provided. She finished cleaning up. Once done, she put out the lamps, and locked up the place. Still simmering, she headed across the field to her home.
Jo's mother met her at the door. "I was starting to worry."
"I'm sorry I'm late. Mrs. Donovan came in at the last minute."
Jo's twenty-one-year-old sister-in-law, Belle, came out of the kitchen. "Hi, Jojo. We were just getting ready to sit down to dinner. Shall I fix you a plate, as well?"
"I suppose so."
Cecilia Best peered into the face of her daughter and asked, "Why so glum?"
"Old Lady Donovan refused to pay me. She said a beagle could have done a better job."
Cecilia stared. "What happened?"
Jo shrugged. "Nothing. I did her hair, but when it came time to pay, she refused." Then Jo added, "And I did a good job on her, Mama. I truly did."
Jo was so mad she wanted to cry, but because business owners weren't supposed to bawl in their mama's arms, Jo held on to her emotions.
Her mother, not caring about Jo's occupation, came over and enfolded her into a motherly embrace. "You can't please everyone, darling."
Jo's arms instinctively hugged back. She then placed her head on her mother's shoulder. "I wanted to wallop her with the dustpan."
Cecilia chuckled softly, then looked into Jo's face. "The next time she comes in, why not ask her how she'd like her hair fixed? Maybe that will prevent any problems."
"I did that, but it didn't seem to matter."
"Well, some people are born difficult. Don't worry about it. You go get washed up, and we'll eat, then get dressed.
Belle's made some of her biscuits. That should put the smile back on your face."
"And with your brother off fighting for Mr. Lincoln, we should be able to get more than one," Belle quipped.
They all grinned. Everyone knew about Daniel Best's love for his wife's biscuits; he could devour them faster than anyone or anything.
"I really miss Daniel," Belle added wistfully. "When do you think we might get word from our men, Cecilia? I tell myself that Dani and Mr. Best and my papa can take care of themselves, but"
"I know, dear. I promised William I wouldn't worry while he was away, but I can't seem to help myself. I'll feel better hearing from them also."
Jo could only agree. Daniel, her father and Belle's father, Mr. Palmer, were mustered into the First Michigan Colored Infantry last winter. Their company set out for Annapolis, Maryland, this past April. A few days later, they'd written of their impending move to Hilton Head in the Carolinas, but those letters had been the last. Like her mother, Jo had promised her father she wouldn't fret, but it was hard not to after reading the newspaper reports of Confederate mistreatment of Black Union prisoners of war. Some of those captured had even been sent to the auction block and sold into slavery. Even though President Lincoln had publicly expressed his outrage over the practice and had promised dire consequences if the South didn't change its policy, Jo still worried, mainly because she loved her father and brother so much.
Later, after dinner, Jo was getting dressed in her upstairs bedroom. Her encounter with Mrs. Donovan was continuing to plague her when a knock sounded on her partially closed door.
It was Belle. "Are you ready?" She was dressed in a lovely gray dress with a full skirt and a little white collar.
"Almost," Jo replied. She had chosen a full-skirted blue dress with a black velvet collar. The gown was old and a trifle outdated, but the Bests, like other abolitionists both black and white, practiced Free Produce, a national movement that tried to affect slave owners' profits by boycotting any goods made by slave hands. Since American cotton was on the list of shunned items, women like Jo made do with their old gowns rather than fashion new ones out of fabric made from cotton picked by slaves.
Leaning down into the mirror on her vanity table, Jo hooked the small black earbobs in her lobes, then turned and faced her sister-in-law. "How do I look?"
Belle's affection showed plainly in her dark eyes. "Beautiful as always, Jojo."
"Thanks," Jo responded unenthusiastically.
Belle asked, "Are you still brooding over Mrs. Donovan?"
Jo couldn't lie. "She swore she was going to tell her friends."
Belle cracked, "Since the widow Donovan doesn't have any friends, your business is safe."
Jo grinned. Leave it to Belle to cheer her up. The two young women had been close friends since the day Belle Palmer came to live with the Bests five years ago. At that time, Belle had been a fugitive slave from Kentucky. Jo and Daniel had found her hiding in the brush near the side of the road and had taken her home. Later, the Bests learned that Belle had been separated from her father on the flight from slavery to freedom in Michigan. Many months passed before the two were finally reunited, but in the meantime, Belle and Daniel fell in love. They married August 1, 1860, on Belle's eighteenth birthday.
Jo went to her armoire and took out her good cape. She couldn't get Mrs. Donovan out of her mind. "Do you think I'm abnormal for not wanting to get married?"
"No. Why?" Belle replied.
"Mrs. Donovan said I was."
Belle threw up her hands. "Jo, Mrs. Donovan doesn't know her head from a bucket of paint. Why on earth should you care what she thinks?"
Jo shrugged. "I don't know. Do you think everyone sees me as she does?"
"No," Belle answered firmly. "And I'm not just saying that because you're my sister and I love you. You have plans for your life, Josephine Best. If you wish to be something other than a wife, there's no crime in that. Besides, there's no one around worthy enough for you to marry anyway."
Jo agreed. Even before the war took most of the men away, there hadn't been anyone she'd wanted to spend her life with. Most of the young men were looking for conventional wives, ones who cooked, sewed and had babies. They didn't want a woman who was educated and opinionated. One of her mother's church acquaintances even suggested that men didn't like women with strong minds. Jo knew that to be untrue because her mama had one of the strongest minds Jo had ever encountered, and William Best loved his wife to distraction.
Belle peered into Jo's face. "Forget about Mrs. Donovan. Everyone knows you're a fabulous hairdresser. Promise me you won't let that old sourpuss make you doubt yourself."
Jo smiled, then nodded. "All right." Jo wondered what she would ever do without Belle. Belle could always be counted on to pick up Jo's spirits, no matter what. It was one of the hundred reasons Jo loved her sister-in-law.
Belle asked, "Now that we've settled that, can we go?"
Jo dropped her head to hide her grin. "I suppose so." Belle gave Jo's shoulders a quick hug. "Then come on. Your mama's waiting for us."
When the Best women got to the church, they were not surprised to find the grounds filled with people. Towns all over the nation were contributing to the war effort and Jo's community was no exception. There'd already been drives to send the troops blankets, socks and toiletries.
Most of the people in attendance at the outdoor affair were women. Jo nodded greetings to the familiar faces, all the while searching the crowd for Trudy. When she spotted her, Jojo waved excitedly, then hastily excused herself from her mother and Belle.
Standing beside Trudy was Trudy's fiancé, Bert Waterman. Jo couldn't help but notice Bert's short, buxom mother, Corinne, at his side. Trudy had nicknamed her future mother-in-law the Dragon Lady. Jo thought The Shadow to be a more appropriate name since Mrs. Waterman rarely left her nineteen-year-old son's side. Bert had wanted to sign up for the war like the rest of the men in the community, but his mama had forbidden it.
Jo walked up and greeted everyone.
Mrs. Waterman glanced at Jo from over the lenses of her spectacles and droned, "Good evening, Josephine."
"Good evening, Mrs. Waterman."
Trudy instantly grabbed Jo's hand and exclaimed, "You don't have any punch. Let's get you some."
Bert protested, "Hey, I can get it, Trudy."
Trudy, already leading Jo away, replied hurriedly, "No, Bert, you stay here with your mother. We'll be right back."
Bert's mama gave the young women a look of disapproval. Jo offered a chagrined smile in reply, then let Trudy pull her into the crowd. Jo sensed that going for punch was just a ruse and that Trudy had something she wanted to discuss privately.
Her instincts were correct. Once they were out of earshot, Trudy turned back to Jo and snapped, "If I had had to stand next to Corinne Waterman one more moment, I was going to hurt someone. More than likely it was going to be Bert."
Jo shook her head with amusement.
"It isn't funny, Jojo," Trudy countered. "Bert and I almost didn't come tonight because his mama didn't feel well, and he wanted to stay home with her and make certain she was all right."
By now they were at the punch table. Jo took one of the small cups and handed it to Trudy. Trudy tossed the beverage back like a cowboy with a shot of red-eye. Jo searched her friend's tightly set face. "Are you all right, Tru?"
"No. I feel as if I'm marrying her, not him. I asked him if he planned to let his mama run his life after we married, and do you know what he said?"
Jo shook her head.
"He said, 'I don't know.' Can you believe that?" Trudy asked.
Jo could, but kept silent. She'd had serious misgivings about the engagement from the beginning; Bert wouldn't tie his shoes without consulting his mother first, but, wanting to support her friend, Jo hadn't offered her opinion. "Well, I'm sure the two of you will work things out."
"I hope so, because I love him so much."