“Mama, wait for me.” Helen picked up the basket of wilted greens, dust puffing around her bare feet as she followed her mother through the parched garden.
“Catch up, love.”
“These greens are so droopy, Mama.”
“I know, but they’ll be fine.”
“You always say that. The greens will be fine. We’ll be fine.”
For answer, Mama pulled at the spindly, limp stalk of a potato plant. Dust rose like smoke, wrapping both of them in choking clouds. Mama clawed through the powdery soil, but found only two shrivelled, scabby potatoes in the dry dirt.
“Could you check Baby Carolyn, please.”
Helen sprinted toward the weathered house beyond the garden, dodging stones and brittle grass with her bare feet. Mama smiled and shook her head as the screen door slammed. Moments later, it slammed again as Helen reappeared with the baby.
“Papa’s still sleeping.”
“Mmm. Well, sleep doesn’t cost anything.”
“Why does Papa sleep so much?”
“He’s tired, love.” Mama added another wizened potato to the pitiful pile she’d already dug up.
“But, Mama, he doesn’t do anything.”
“Helen,” warned Mama as she gathered up the pathetic tubers and made a spot for them in the basket next to the greens. Together, they took the sorry vegetables to the house.
“Now, my dear girls, let’s get the baby carriage and some bowls and see if we can’t find some wild strawberries,” suggested Mama.
Carolyn squealed with glee when Helen pushed the deep carriage into view. An outing, even if it was just across a barren field was cause for excitement!
Helen pushed for a time, but soon grew weary, so Mama took a turn while Carolyn chortled and pointed at trees and sky.
“You, poppet. What do you see?” Mama began to sing a merry tune to amuse the girls. Carolyn clapped, but Helen frowned at Mama with a querying look in her eyes.
They came to a shaded glen, a place that, in better years, always produced wild strawberries in abundance. Now, with any luck, in spite of the scarcity of rain, there might be a few berries.
“There’s some here, but they’re small.” Mama hunkered down. The grass was sparse, like an old man’s thin pate.
Helen picked the tiny, ruby-coloured berries, but she looked at her mother’s nimble fingers, stained, nails rimmed with dirt, blue veins showing through transparent skin. Mama hummed her tune as she searched beneath yellowing leaves.
“Mama, how much longer will this wretched Depression last? When will the drought end?”
“I don’t know.”
“When will Papa work again?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
Carolyn suddenly shrieked, and they both turned to see, but instead of alarm, Carolyn’s face was suffused with delight. A sparrow was perched on the handlebar of the carriage, looking at the baby with what appeared to be curiosity, cocking its head to the side, bright eyes fixed on Carolyn. Carolyn clapped and bounced in glee, but the bird was not perturbed.
“How amazing!” exclaimed Mama.
The little bird swooped down next to Helen and gazed upon her, then bobbed over to Mama, eyes bright and shiny. Movement on their parts did nothing to startle the creature. It pecked in the dust, found a few mites, then flew up to the handlebar of the carriage again.
Speechless, Mama and Helen watched the sparrow, scarcely able to believe their eyes.
“Mama?” began Helen again. “Is Papa mean to you because of the Depression? Is that why he says bad things to you?”
“Yes, because he can’t work and provide. I don’t let his words hurt my heart, honey. It’s his own hurt speaking. If I let its poison touch me, it’ll harm us all.”
The only sound was the soft plop, plop of strawberries falling in the bowls and Carolyn’s merry laughter as the sparrow strutted back and forth on the handlebar.
“That’s why you say everything’s fine. Bad potatoes. A few strawberries.”
“It’s what we’ve been given, honey. And we have each other. I see blessing in that every single day.”
“And that’s why you sing?”
“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, His eye is on the sparrow... * I’m happy, Helen, because I have you and Carolyn, and I am free of the horrible things your Papa says. And God’s eye is on us. Helen, do you think...?”
Helen and Mama turned to look at the sparrow. It gazed at them intently, then flew away.
* “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” Words: Civilla Martin, 1905. Music: Charles Gabriel.
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