Inside the cabinet were a few thumbtacks and I remembered that when I bought it, there had been wallpaper lining the inside, held in place with those thumbtacks. I'd just pulled out the paper and didn't get all of the tacks apparently. As I painted I got to thinking about the woman who had put that paper in there, and those thoughts led to this story. Which is why I like old-stuff--there is always a story with it, either real or one I can create in my imagination. So here is the story of Ella and her cupboard.
Sweat ran down the back of her neck as Ella stretched on tiptoes to spread flour paste inside the cupboard. It wasn’t yet full daylight, but she had grabbed a few minutes before starting breakfast to start putting paper on the rough wood shelves. Jim would be down any minute so she worked quickly, listening for his foot on the stairs that led up to their bedroom. She grabbed the roll of wallpaper and cut a strip, pushing it carefully into place.
August was a month of hard work on the farm. The threshers would be coming soon with their big machine to harvest the wheat. The corn was ripening and the hay would soon be ready for another cutting. Tomatoes, beans, corn, squash and cucumbers filled her days with steamy heat in the kitchen as she put up jar after jar of colorful produce for the coming winter. The cabinet was not a necessary chore and she knew it, but she yearned for a pretty place to put the dishes left to her by her grandmother, and now she had it. All it needed was a little pretty paper to brighten up the dark interior.
A door closed upstairs and Ella flew to the stove. She was pouring boiling water over coffee grounds as Jim stomped downstairs. Ella pulled bacon, biscuits, and gravy from the warming oven, put the bowls on the table and began cracking eggs into a heating cast iron skillet.
“Morning, Sunshine.” Jim gave her a quick peck on the cheek and grabbed a mug. The aroma of strong coffee filled the room. He sighed and took a long sip as Ella lifted her cup and saucer from a shelf and poured her tea from a china teapot. She had never acquired a taste for the bitterness of coffee, preferring tea with milk and sugar to start her day.
“The threshers are over at Nelson’s this morning,” Jim said. “I’m going over to give them a hand after we get our chores done. They’ll be here to help us later when the machine comes to our place. Do you want to go along and visit with Mary?”
Ella shook her head. “I’d like to but I really can’t. I have two bushels of tomatoes in the cellar waiting on me this morning, and I really want to finish this cupboard today and get it put in place.” She glanced at the cupboard. The wallpaper really was going to look good.
Jim laughed. “You and that cabinet. I can’t see the use of it, really I can’t. You would have been better off to keep those blackberries for yourself. Why, you could have made us a dozen pies with those buckets of berries!” He winked at her.
“You think only of your stomach, Mister. I know you think its woman’s foolishness but I have wanted a place to put Grandma’s china for ever so long. What good is it to keep it stored away in crates in the attic?”
“What good is china anyway, Honey? These old crock plates are good enough for me.” Jim thunked his fork on the heavy brown plate in front of him. ‘But don’t overdo it today. The threshers will be here this week, and you’ll have a lot of cooking to do. Those fellas eat a powerful lot of food, you know. Will you be up to it, in your condition?” He glanced at her softly rounded belly.
“I’ll be ready. The ladies from church are coming over to help, and they’ll be bringing plenty of food with them, thank goodness. Oh, you can take these two peach pies over to Mary today when you go. She’ll be pleased to get them, I know.”
Jim finished eating and pushed back from the table. Ella watched him walk to the barn and listened to him calling to the horses. It was going to be a hot day, that was certain. Heat shimmered on the dusty road already. She went back inside to clear away the dishes. A shout called her to the porch and she carried the pies out to Jim and waved goodbye as the wagon jounced up the road and out of sight.
While dishwater heated on the wood cookstove she worked on papering the inside of her new cupboard. Well, not new, she thought, but new to me. I wonder how long it’s been around, and where Mr. Jonesy got it? He’d been a bachelor all his life, so perhaps it had belonged to his mother. He had seen her walking home with her buckets of berries last week and had offered to trade the cupboard for the berries.
“I don’t need the thing, I sure don’t. It’s just in my way. I remember how you admired it once, so I would be glad to swap you for those fine berries.”
Ella didn’t hesitate. “Deal!” she said, laughing. Mr. Jonesy brought the cupboard over that evening, staying for supper and some cobbler out on the cool porch afterwards. Jim was puzzled but he said after all, they were her berries and if she wanted to trade her hard work for some old cabinet, who was he to argue?
Now Ella sat on the porch in her rocker, hands folded neatly in her lap. All around her people bustled in and out, talking in quiet voices, looking at the furniture, dishes, tools and farm equipment spread out on the lawn for the auction to be held that day. The old cupboard was under the maple tree, its well worn finish dull in the harsh light of day. Ella remembered how pretty it had been filled with white china, and how proud she had been of this showpiece in her kitchen.
Over the years the china had been broken, piece by piece, and as the decades passed the delicate English pieces were replaced, first with pink and green Depression glass, later with Homer Laughlin’s cheaper lines of dinnerware, and finally with plastic Melamine. Thin china cups gave way to Fire-King mugs. Children, five of them, were born, grew up and eventually moved on to homes of their own. The flour paste had dried out over the years and Ella had used thumbtacks to hold the paper in place. Now the faded design was barely discernible and the paper hung loose here and there. She hadn’t had the energy or the desire to fix it after Jim got sick. After he died she tried to keep the farm going but it was too much for her and she had finally agreed that it was time to sell out and move in with her oldest son and his family.
She sighed. It was going to take some getting used to, being with other people and in another woman’s home. Hardest of all was letting go of the things she had loved all these years, especially that cupboard. Her son had offered to bring it over to his place when she moved but Ella knew there was no place for it, and truth to be told it did look pretty bad. It hadn’t fared any better than she had, Ella thought. The years had worn them both down, but they were good years and she had been blessed. She had to remember that. At least she had family willing to take her in, instead of whisking her off to some nursing home.
A young woman had wondered over to the old cupboard. Ella watched as the woman pulled open the doors and lifted the peeling paper.
“Cathy, are you seriously looking at that?” A man, looking to be in his late twenties, sauntered over and put his arm around the young woman. She looked up at him and smiled.
“Oh yeah! Look at this thing! See how someone whittled a piece to keep the doors closed? And some lady put this paper in here to make it pretty, but it’s in bad shape. She tried to keep it in place with thumbtacks when it came loose. It’s rough for sure, but I can fix it up, David, I know I can.”
The man shrugged. “Suit yourself. Are you going to bid on it? I can’t see what we need it for but if you want it go ahead.”
“I want it. You wait til you see how pretty it will be with my grandmother’s china in it.”
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.