Lillian Sets The Table
“Now you remember that today is the day the union men are coming to speak with me.”
“Yes Unc … I mean Father Pat. I baked two pies last night.”
“Apple and rhubarb.”
“Yes, as you requested. I also made some of the chicken soup you enjoy.”
“Not too meaty I hope.”
“Good. We want them to know the Lord is bountiful but also that we aren’t foolish with his bounty.” He wiped the last of the egg yolk up with a crust of the bread.
“This is very good bread, Lillian. You have learned very quickly. I’ll never forget that first loaf.” He laughed as she blushed. “I’m still using it as a door stop at the church.”
“God finds a use for everything.” She forced a laugh. It was all she could do not to run from the room to cry.
As he got up, she took his plate for her own use. Once he was gone, she sat at the table with her egg on a thin slice of bread. She held her breath till she heard the gate swing shut. This meant he was gone. She looked down at the yellow yolk of the egg and screamed. She beat the table with the palms of her hands.
She stopped abruptly and ate her breakfast.
There was much to do before the union men arrived for their lunch. This would be first time anyone had been into the house other than Mary Francis who would bring them fresh vegetables and milk once a week.
She didn’t know what her father had told her uncle but it was clear she was not to leave the house unaccompanied. He would walk with her to his church where he did trust her enough to help with the children in the Sunday school rooms.
She took her mop and pail into the dark dining room. The window faced St. Agatha’s Church and very little light came through at any time of the day. No matter how much she cleaned, the house was never clean enough for her. Coal dust from the mines would be caught up by even the slightest breeze and get into the house. Even as she washed and wiped things down now, she knew by lunch time there would be some grime to catch her Uncle’s eye.
She continued from that room to the front parlour. Not much could be done to the over stuffed settee. She took the doilies off it and the other arm chair and shook them in the sun. She wiped the mantle piece and the sideboard twice. There was a rough wooden crucifix with a gleaming silver Jesus over the mantle where a mirror might have been. On one end of the mantle in a less-gleaming silver frame was picture of Pope Pius XI in white vestments. His hand raised in blessing. She lifted it gingerly to wipe behind it. Before she continued she genuflected before the portrait.
She then dusted the heavy legs of the dark wooden chairs that flanked the front window. The window looked out on Upper Victoria Street. The window panes had been imported by a previous parish priest. They were thick but clear with beveled corners. Lillian looked forward to cleaning them to enjoy the refraction of light that came though the bevel angles. This room was the most ornate in the house.
Father Patrick kept their private quarters as if they were cloister but here, where he might receive members of the parish, he allowed some ostentation. The furniture had been shipped from Boston from the estate of an aunt who had willed it to him.
Was it her fault that her father had money while all Patrick had was religion? Was it her fault she had been brought up with servants – a cook, housemaids – who did all the chores in their home so she never had to do them herself. She had never cooked, washed a floor, or even had to worry about doing laundry. Now here she was doing all these things.
Now here she was having to be careful that her private things weren’t seen by anyone. Washing her undergarments in secret, as if sunlight might reveal them to be what … she wasn’t sure.
The memory of her uncle’s reaction to them when he examined the contents of her trunk was even more shaming to her than her first attempts to bake bread.
The morning passed quickly. Lillian found she worked better without the help of Annie. Not that the local girl was slow but Annie never had the hurry or the need to please as deeply as Lillian did. Her uncle would rail at Annie for small things and she would stand there blank faced and nod and keep on doing what she was doing the way she wanted to. After two months it was deemed that Lillian had the skills to do what was required and Annie had been reduced to being used only when needed.
When her uncle railed at Lillian she was fearful. She didn’t want bad reports going back to her father in Boston. The better she did here the sooner she hoped she would be able to return to her comfortable life. Her brothers’ letters were full of events and people she longed for plus there was the tantalizing suggestion he might be getting married in the fall. Surely she would be allowed to attend the nuptials.
She had made a simple chicken soup for the lunch. There was enough for several people as she wasn’t told how many were expected. Soup was easy to stretch out with a bit of water and a pinch of salt if there wasn’t enough. There would be sandwiches.
She carefully buttered the bread. If there was too much butter spread, her uncle would chastise her for being wasteful. Bread was good on its own, he told her, but for company he requested the butter along with thin slices of hard cheese.
She slipped a wedge of the pale yellow cheese into her mouth. This was another of the foods that were rarely served in the house. Even with its lack of taste the cheese delighted her. She was grateful that the meals her uncle enjoyed were simple and did not tax her limited kitchen skills.
As the soup simmered she went back to the dining room to make sure the table was set properly. One skill she had brought with her was the ability to set a table for guests. Knives, forks, wine glasses and soft linen napkins all in their proper places. The china and silverware were the few expensive things her uncle owned.
The china was from a Royal Worcester set that had come into her family and been split amongst her aunts and uncles. Her uncle had a serving for six, almost, as over the years various plates or bowls had been broken. The ten-cup tea pot was serviceable. It pleased her to run her fingers over the thick roped gold edging of the soup bowls. The soup tureen she had to use wasn’t part of the set though, but she trusted no one would notice.
“Lillian!” her uncle called as he came through the front door. “Lillian!”
“Yes Father Patrick.” She put the soup bowl carefully back on the table and stepped into the parlour.
“Here is some wine from Mrs. Donati.” He handed her a glazed earthen ware jug. “You did clean the wine glasses.”
“Yes.” Did he think she would neglect his pride and joy.
He followed her into the dining room. He took the wine glasses off the table and set them on an oval silver tray around an empty crystal decanter. These had been left by the last priest.
“We’ll only need, let me think, three, no four including me.”
“There’ll be four for lunch then Father Pat?” She began to remove the unneeded place settings from the table. “You won’t be crowded.”
“These are a wonder.” her uncle held one of the heavy crystal glasses up to the window to admire it in the dim light. “Father Guinness had an eye for good crystal. Such a wonder.”
A wonder to keep clean she mused. “Is there anything else I should tend to? Before your guests arrive?”
“No. I’ll pour this wine into the decanter. Bring me something to strain it with. Mrs Donati’s wine is delicious but the sediment can be distracting.”
She brought him the piece of cheesecloth she often used. She knew it was porous enough for the wine.
“Those pies smell heavenly.” he said taking a deep breath.
“Thank you Father Pat. I put them to warm as you suggested.”
There was a knock at the door.
“I’ll let them in.” Her uncle took the tray with the glasses and wine into the parlour and set it on the side board. “Don’t come in until I call for you.”
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