August 1943 - Sunday, Mid- Afternoon
"A watched pot never boils, dear." Helen Houtton said. "If you want to make yourself useful while you try to magically make that young man appear on the doorstep, you might want to get some Wright's Cream out from under the sink and get to work on the good silverware. I suppose this is occasion enough to bring it out of hiding."
Mary tore herself away from the window and slid open the bottom cupboard of the china hutch. She pulled out the aged mahogany box that held the antique flatware in shaped velvet-lined forms. She giggled as she imagined the forks and spoons squinting at the sudden light.
While polishing silver wasn't anyone's favourite job, Mary was glad of it today. She could take the chore out to the porch and sit on the step, cool in the shade, and watch the world go by as she wiped the Wright's Cream on the dulled surfaces and polished them to gleaming brilliance.
It was painstaking work - a soft bristle brush helped work the cleaner into every delicately sculpted crease and fold in the handles. But there was satisfaction in buffing the 70 year old silverware until it looked newer than new. Mary bent to her chore, glancing up occasionally to make sure she didn't miss anything (or anyone) important.
The prospect of a guest for dinner had put Mary's mother into a tizzy. Helen Houtton entertained rarely, and never spontaneously. Sunday dinners in the Houtton household - even in the heat of summer - were more elaborate that those earlier in the week, to be sure. But Helen's standards for entertaining went well beyond the roasted chicken and mashed potatoes she had planned for this Sunday.
With the short notice and no open market on the Lord's Day, Helen's creativity and skill in the kitchen would be sorely tested. And since it had been Mary's decision to rashly invite this random young pilot for supper, she was expected to pitch in with enthusiasm for whatever needed doing.
The news of Mary's young visitor had begun to travel up and down 72nd Street from the moment church let out and Helen had approached Verna Hextall to borrow an apple or two. Verna's eyebrows went up immediately.
"Makin' Apple Crisp, are we? That's pretty special on a Sunday in August ..." The trailing inflection left Helen no choice. The price of an apple or two was a nugget of gossip, and Verna was a hard trader when it came to information.
For parents of young women - Hugh Henry and Helen Houtton had four girls at home aged between 16 and 22 - a romance with a young serviceman was a delicate issue. On the one hand, these fine young men were going off to serve their country and deserved every benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, there were a lot of doubts to give them the benefit of.
Neither the girls, nor the young men, could say with certainty these boys would return unchanged. That lent an urgency to romance that would make any parent uneasy. With Edmonton being a staging point for the military, young soldiers, sailors, and airmen were arriving every day from every direction, and a young man with no ties to the community, no family here, no roots ... well, people act differently when they're away from home, don't they?
No parent could fail to see the hypnotic effect of a snappy uniform, how it turned even the most slovenly youth into a dashing hero. And dashing heroes went away and sometimes didn't come back; does any parent want a child to endure that kind of heartbreak?
So Verna Hextall could share a little of her friend Helen's pride and excitement, and a few of Helen's misgivings. But mostly what Verna Hextall could share was the news of this dashing young pilot Mary Lou Houtton had met the night before at the dance at the roller rink, and he was from Vancouver and don't we all know about boys from the big city and how they behave and don't you know she's always been quite the looker, that one, and he's shipping out tonight so I suspect old Hugh Henry will be watching them like a hawk.
And Verna did share all this, quite willingly, all morning and afternoon with anyone from the street who passed by. She shared it with Ann Archer, whose son Little Ricky tugged at her hand the whole time the adults were talking (the rude little beast, and wouldn't he benefit from some time under Verna's stern eye and quick hand?). By now Verna had come to the conclusion that this whole idea of entertaining a young man going off to war that very evening was a bad business indeed, and she would have to think a little more carefully about the Houtton girls, who had never seemed to her before to be little chippies but I suppose people do change, don't they?
Mary glanced up at the street as she polished the last fork. Ricky Archer was across the way, crouched down, digging ants out of the cracks in the sidewalk. Poor little guy - everyone on the street knew (thanks again to Verna Hextall) how Little Ricky's dad - Big Ricky - had joined up and been shipped to Winnipeg where he'd gotten drunk one night and beat up an officer and was now in a military jail. The shame and embarrassment was hard for Little Ricky's mother to bear, and with school coming in a week or two it was only a matter of time before Little Ricky came home crying and hard truths would be told.
Mary finished up the last piece and carried the flatware back into the house. Potatoes needed peeling, apples wanted coring, carrots and onions from the backyard garden had to be pulled from the earth and washed. On any other Sunday, this would all be drudge work, done as quickly and as haphazardly as could be gotten away with. Today was different. Mary wanted things to be perfect.
Helen understood, and if she worried about her Mary Lou, she didn't show it. The two chattered happily in the kitchen as they worked.
The phone rang - two longs and a short, their signal on the party line. Helen answered, rolling her eyes only a little at the several faint clicks she could hear along the line.
"Hello, everybody," she said - her own way of answering the phone - a little jab in the eye for the nosy neighbours. Mary grinned.
"Ah, hello, Verna. Yes. No, not yet. Oh, is that so? Well, perhaps I'll have Mary Lou take a look, then. I'm sure he is, Verna - I've never clapped eyes on him myself. Fine, then, thank you. Goodbye, everybody." Helen hung up the phone. Mary had stopped peeling.
"I suppose you better go have a look," said Helen. "Verna says there's a young man wandering around the street looking lost." Mary was already up and out of the room, jostling by her younger sister Edna in the doorway of the kitchen.
Helen smiled sweetly at Edna. "Well, dear, you're just in time to help. I think Mary's done enough in here for now."