Willowdean Prescott was a shy, seventeen year old who was wise beyond her years. She had two rambunctious and mischievous little brothers who did not yet know the meaning of the word poverty but Willowdean knew it all too well.
Wearing hand-me-downs from gracious neighbors and spending the summer running around barefoot was all her brothers had ever known. Willowdean wore her mothers’ hand-me-downs, re-sized to fit and wore a pair of shoes that her Papa had found on the side of the road.
Her Papa had called her Willie since the day she was born. When she got older, she said “Papa, when you call me Willie, people are going to think I’m a boy!” He laughed when he said “there is no danger of anybody ever mistaking you for a boy, because you are a beautiful young girl who is going to grow into a beautiful young woman, just like your mother.”
Willowdean was the spitting image of her mother, whose name was Enez. They were petite women, blessed with thick black hair and eyes the color of rich, dark chocolate. Set against porcelain complexions, they were a striking sight to behold. Willowdean, like her mother, stood just over five feet tall, had a tiny waist and delicate features that were almost doll-like.
Enez had died some five years back from pneumonia and there had been no time for Willowdean to grieve. The care of the family had fallen to her at the tender age of twelve and she had never faltered. Her brothers were too young to remember their mother but she did and she knew she had to be strong for them and for her Papa.
Her Papas’ name was Harlan and she knew he missed her mother terribly, as did she. She also knew that he quietly visited her grave every night after work and seemed to find great comfort in talking to her as if she was still alive.
Harlan wasn’t the only one who to talked to her mother. Every night when Willowdean went to bed, she always said “goodnight” to her.
Harlan had spent most of his life working in the shipyard, loading imports and unloading exports. He worked from sun-up to sun-down. He went to work when he was sick, injured or so tired he could hardly move but she never heard him complain.
He looked far older than his 36 years. Life had beaten him down and taken its toll but there was still kindness in his eyes and they beamed with joy at the sight of his children. His hands were rough and calloused but his touch was gentle. Even with his weathered face, furrowed brow and deep lines carved by grief and sorrow, you could see that he was once a handsome man.
Every night just before bedtime, he’d put a boy on each knee while Willowdean read a chapter from Enez’s Bible. The pages were wrinkled and yellowed with age but Willowdean felt as she touched every page, she was touching a little part of her mother.
Her Papa had told her many times that “the best part of a person stays forever” and she desperately wanted to believe it.
The boys didn’t really understand the context of the stories she read but Willowdean had a soft, velvety voice that never failed to lull them to sleep. She smiled at her Papa when they rested their heads against his chest and drifted off into a dream world she hoped was better than the one they lived in.
One day Willie boldly told her Papa that she was going to go to work at a factory. Her Papa had always been slow to anger and that’s not what she was seeing. She was seeing disappointment. She had never before made a decision without first speaking with him.
She had fortuitously overheard a conversation while at church. The nighttime cleaning girl at the Middleton Factory had abruptly quit and they were looking for a replacement. It was unlike her to be so bold but she asked about the possibility of gaining employment and was told to go talk to the foreman.
The Factory apparently had trouble keeping a long time worker in the position. Three other girls had tried and failed to be successful. The foreman explained that the overnight hours proved to be too demanding. She assured him that he could depend on her to get the job done and he agreed to give her a try.
Rarely did Harlan raise his voice but he did when he said “I forbid it.” He had worked since he was ten years old and didn’t want any of his children to have to go to work before they ever got the chance to really be children.
Willowdean put her hands on his face and said “Papa, we need the money.” He had tears in his eyes because he knew she was right. He knew the reality of the world they lived in. Not admitting defeat, he told her he would have to discuss it with her mother.
As he talked to Enez, he reflected on the life that his children were having to endure, especially Willowdean. He knew that she had suffered the indignity of standing in bread lines when there was no food to put on the table and more than once, she was suddenly not hungry when there wasn’t enough soup to fill even half of their bowls.
Talking to Enez seemed to put him at peace. He asked Willie what she would be doing at the factory. She told him that she had been hired to clean after the workers had gone home. Her duties would include dusting the sewing machines, emptying the waste baskets at every station and sweeping and mopping the floor. She would work from sun-down to sun-up.
“Don’t you see?” she said. “This means that I will be here like always, to look after the boys while you are at work and you will be here at night, while I’m at work.”
“But when are you going to sleep?” he asked. She said “don’t worry Papa. I’ll be okay and I’ll sleep when I can. You know how the boys fall asleep when I read a story.” She laughed and said “I expect I’ll be doing a lot of reading.”
Her Papa gave her a kiss on the forehead and hugged her a little longer than usual. Then he gave her his blessing and delighted in the squeal she let out as she said “oh thank you, Papa.”
To be continued_______________