Willowdean Irene Prescott was a shy, seventeen year old who had to grow up fast, and therefore was wise beyond her years. She had two rambunctious and mischievous little brothers who did not yet know the meaning of words like death and poverty, but Willowdean knew them 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.
She had been called 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 anyone ever mistaking you for a boy, my love. You are a beautiful young girl who is going to grow into a beautiful young woman, just like your mother.”
Willowdeans’ mother was named Enez and Willowdean was her spitting image. They were petite women, blessed with a shock of 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 five years back from comsumption at the young age of 38. There had been no time for Willowdean to grieve, as the care of the family had fallen to her at the tender age of twelve. 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 comfort in talking to her as if she was still alive. He wasn’t the only one who to talked to her mother. Every night when Willowdean went to bed, after saying her prayers, she always said goodnight to her mother.
Harlan had spent most of his life working in the shipyard, loading exports and unloading imports. 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 he never complained.
He looked far older than his years, and time had not touched him lightly. 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 soft and 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 Enezs’ Bible. The pages were wrinkled and yellowed with age, but Willowdean felt as she touched each one, she was touching a little part of her mother.
Many times, her Papa told her, “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 in which they lived.
While walking home from school, she fortuitously overheard a conversation between Ardene Myers and Melba Moore. The nighttime cleaning girl at the Middleton Factory had abruptly quit, and they were looking for a replacement. For some reason, the Factory had trouble keeping a long time worker in the position. Three more girls had taken the position, and left without notice or explanation.
Willie felt as though she had wings on her feet when she hurried home to tell her Papa. He had always been slow to anger, and rarely did he 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 do the same 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 readily giving his permission, he told her he would have to discuss it with her mother.
That night, he lumbered as he made his way to the graveyard. As he talked to Enez, he reflected on the life that his children had 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. When he got back home, he asked Willie what she would be doing at the factory. She told him that she was hoping to be hired to clean after the workers had gone home. “Miss Myers and Miss Moore said the duties would include dusting the sewing machines, emptying the waste baskets at every station, and sweeping and mopping the floor.”
“I would work from sun-down to sun-up. Don’t you see Papa?” 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.”
She was both excited and somewhat nervous the next morning when she went to talk to the foreman. Above the door was a sign that said, “No Work. No Pay. No Excuses.” followed by “Mr. Digby, Foreman.” He was a large, rotund man with a grey beard halfway down his chest. He was also a man of few words. After she stepped into his office, he stared at her and gave her a full examination with his eyes.
After telling him why she was there, he said, “Young lady,” do you have any idea what this job entails?” She told him that she had a pretty good idea and was not intimidated. Refusing to sound as if she was begging, she simply said, “If you would just give me a chance, you will not regret it.”
As if trying to discourage her, he explained that the overnight hours and hard work apparently proved to be too demanding for most, and expressed concern about her youth. Willie was no stranger when it came to hard work so she felt more than armed for the position. She assured him once again, that he would not regret his decision if he chose to give her an opportunity. After a long few minutes of consideration, he agreed to give her a try.
To be continued__________________