Read an excerpt from All Waiting Is Long by Barbara J. Taylor
Today we’re pleased to feature an excerpt from All Waiting is Long — the latest novel from Barbara J. Taylor — as well as a short statement from the author on writing the book.
Barbara J. Taylor: On Writing All Waiting Is Long
I wrote All Waiting Is Long because I was curious to see how the tragedy in my first novel, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, affected my characters over time, particularly Violet, who was eight years old when her sister’s accident occurred. All Waiting Is Long opens in 1930, and Violet is twenty-five.
Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night was loosely based on the death of my great-aunt Pearl. On the day of her baptism, she and her friends were playing with sparklers when Pearl’s dress caught on fire. Her younger sister Janet witnessed the accident, and though she lived into her eighties, she didn’t have the happiest life. I always wondered how much of that stemmed from what she saw that day.
While I can’t answer that question for Janet, I decided to do the next best thing—answer it for my character, Violet, who was with her sister during a similar accident.
As soon as I knew what question I wanted to explore, I started researching the 1920s and ’30s. Along the way, I came across materials advocating “practical eugenics” in America. Medical books focused on “social hygiene,” recommending such ideas as “Eugenic Marriage Licenses” and “Sterilization of the Unfit.” Country fairs held “Fitter Family Contests,” selecting winners based on animal breeding principles, and the American Eugenics Society sponsored sermon competitions, encouraging clergymen to promote the movement through scripture. Much of this material inspired a secondary story line in All Waiting Is Long.
from All Waiting Is Long
Violet and Lily trudged to the rear of the Good Shepherd Infant Asylum and entered through the kitchen. According to the widow Lankowski, who’d made the arrangements, only benefactors, adoptive couples, physicians, and members of the clergy were allowed to use the front door. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary instituted this practice years earlier in order to protect the identities of the expectant mothers they served.
“Don’t let the door slam!” a fireplug of a girl yelled from across the room.
Lily pressed her hand against the oak panel and eased it shut. A stripe of fresh snow spanned the length of the threshold.
“The latch catches.” The girl stood at the sink with her back to the newcomers. A tangle of red curls settled just beyond her shoulders. “Don’t want to lock out all of our gentlemen callers,” she laughed, throaty and low. “Names?”
“Violet Morgan. And my sister Lily.” Violet stepped onto a rag rug and stomped her boots. Lily remained on the bare linoleum; water puddled at her feet.
“The Protestants are here!” the girl called out as she washed the last plate in the dishpan and dried her hands. “No rest for the wicked.” She turned and smiled at the pair, exposing her swollen belly. “So which one of you is in the puddin’ club?” she asked. Her eyes darted across their stomachs.
“That will be all, Muriel.” A tall woman robed in dark blue serge glided into the room. “If you hurry, you’ll just make confession.” Her brittle voice cracked on the word confession, as if failing to hit a note out of range.
Embarrassment ignited the girl’s cheeks as she started for the doorway. “You can’t tell, is all.”
“Our mother carried small,” Violet explained.
“Confession,” the nun repeated, patting a gold crucifix that hung from a chain around her neck.
Muriel winked at Lily from behind the nun, crossed one swollen ankle behind the other, grabbed the sides of her dress, and bowed.
Without looking back, the nun added, “You might want to save that curtsy for His Holiness should he visit us here in Philadelphia.”
Muriel slinked out of the room.
“I’m Mother Mary Joseph.” The woman took a step forward, and the rosary beads at her waist rattled in time. “Reverend Mother. You must be the young ladies from Scranton.”
“Yes ma’am.” Violet let go of the two suitcases she’d carried from the train station and pulled her younger sister Lily onto the rug. Even with nine years between them, the Morgan girls shared a strong likeness. Fair Welsh complexions, small even teeth, dimpled left cheeks. Yet in spite of their similarities, people often referred to Lily as “the pretty one.” Her large round eyes were blue instead of brown; her features soft, not angular like Violet’s; and Lily’s hair, a warm chocolate, not that unforgiving pitch. It was as if an artist had sketched the same face twice, opting for a lighter hand the second time.
“It’s most unusual for us to house both a charge and her sister.” The nun poked her hand out from a fan of sleeve and motioned the visitors forward, past a pallet stacked with brushes, paint cans, and thinner. “But Father Zarnowski from St. Stanislaus in Scranton requested the arrangement.” Mother Mary Joseph sat down at the head of a table in the center of the room and nodded for Violet and Lily to each take a chair on either side of her. “And then, when your friend Mrs. Lankowski made her generous donation to the Good Shepherd,” the nun waved toward a freshly painted wall, “well, how could we say no?” She pressed her lips into a thin smile and reached for a small brass bell on the table. “Have you had your supper?”
“On the train.” Twenty-five-year-old Violet noted the absence of wrinkles on the woman’s pale skin and wondered about her age. Under the dark veil, a starched band of white fabric stretched around her forehead and another one framed her cheeks and neck. A large bib-like collar circled her chest and shoulders in that same stiff white material. This woman possessed a confidence suggestive of age, but Violet could not see it on her face.
“A cup of tea, then,” the nun said, ringing the bell. “To take the chill off.”
“Thank you.” Violet kicked Lily’s foot under the table. Lily, head bowed, fingers tracing the tablecloth’s blue and red roses, seemed not to notice.
Muriel appeared in the doorway. “Everyone’s at chapel.”
“Not everyone,” Mother Mary Joseph sighed. “Make yourself useful then, and put on the kettle.”
The girl scurried halfway across the room before she seemed to remember herself and her ungainly body. She stopped for a moment, caught her breath, and took measured steps toward the sink.
“Let’s see, now.” The nun began pulling items from the folds of her garment: a pair of eyeglasses, which she positioned halfway down her nose; a small ledger, leather-bound in black; several pencils, newly sharpened; and two handkerchiefs embroidered with the letters I.H.M. She opened the ledger to the day’s date, Saturday, February 22, 1930, licked the tip of the closest pencil, and pushed a handkerchief toward Lily. “How old are you, child?”
“Sixteen.” Lily’s gaze remained fixed on the tablecloth. “One week from today.”
“Look at me when I speak to you.” Mother Mary Joseph lifted the girl’s chin and studied her swollen eyes. “That’s better.” She offered another flattened smile and made a notation. “It’s my understanding that your confinement should be for a period of three months.”
Lily glanced across the table at her sister, then back at the nun. “Yes ma’am.” Her lower lip quivered.
“You’re absolutely certain?” The Reverend Mother pulled back Lily’s coat and studied her belly. “Six months along?”
“As near as I can figure.”
Under the table, Violet pressed her right pinky against her leg. When counting off, she always started with the pinky. March. April. May. Her index finger and thumb remained aloft, aimed in Lily’s direction.
“I’ve ruined everything!” Lily reached for the handkerchief and burst into tears.
Air charged from Violet’s nostrils. Lily had ruined everything. Violet was a forgiving person, goodness knows she had to be, but enough was enough. Lily never considered the consequences of her behavior. She only thought of herself. Had she even wondered what her delicate condition would do to their nervous mother? Had she ever weighed the cost of hiding it from their ailing father? And what about the widow Lankowski? How humiliating it had been when Violet’s mother dragged the woman into what should have been a family matter. The widow had practically raised Violet, but Violet was embarrassed all the same. And then there was the matter of her promise to marry Stanley, a secret only the widow was privy to. Violet would probably still be at the Good Shepherd Infant Asylum long after Stanley returned home to Scranton, and hand to God, that was Lily Morgan’s fault.
“Don’t be cross with me.” Lily blew her nose into the handkerchief and refolded it.
“Not now,” Violet pushed both words through gritted teeth.
“Stanley will wait,” Lily continued, dabbing her eyes with a dry corner of linen. “You’ll see.”
“Stanley?” Mother Mary Joseph tugged off her glasses and pursed her lips.
“Hush.” Violet glared at Lily. “Don’t drag him into this.”
“The widow Lankowski’s son,” Lily explained. “Adopted.”
“More of a son than most.” Violet dug her fingernails into her thigh.
The nun picked up her glasses, curled the wires around her ears, and started to write. “So this Stanley . . .” She looked up at Lily. “He’s responsible for your trouble?”
“No!” the pair responded in unison.
“He’s Violet’s intended,” Lily said, as if she had an intended of her own.
Violet slapped her palms on top of the table. “You knew?” she whispered, as if saying the words too loudly would make them true.
“Stop yelling at me.” Lily looked over at the Reverend Mother. “She’s always yelling at me.”
Violet parceled out her words quietly, evenly. “I’m . . . not . . . yelling.”
“You’re yelling at me in that low voice of yours.” When no one came to Lily’s defense, she continued: “Mother found out you were planning to run away with him.”
Violet started up from her chair and leaned toward her sister. “And just how did she find out?”
The nun patted Violet’s hand, encouraging her to take her seat.
Lily gulped and squeezed her eyes shut. When she finally spoke, her words charged forth on a single breath. “I heard you and the widow talking on Christmas Eve.”
Violet cursed herself for being so careless. “And you couldn’t wait to tell Mother.”
“She made me.”
“She didn’t know about it!” Violet stamped both feet, rattling the table. “How could she make you?”
Lily’s eyes popped open wide. “I didn’t want you running away with Stanley. I didn’t want to be left alone.”
“Well, you got your wish. We’re together now.”
“It was your idea to come with me.” Lily’s cheeks flushed. “I certainly don’t need a keeper.”
“You’ve done a fine job so far.”
“Oh, and you’re so perfect.” Lily turned to the nun. “Our parents don’t approve of Stanley, him being Catholic and all.” She cleared her throat conspiratorially. “Not to mention Polish. But that doesn’t seem to matter to her.” She tossed her head toward Violet.
Silence filled the room as the Reverend Mother considered the matter. When she finally spoke, her words lacked any trace of sentimentality. “Our Lord in Heaven commands us to honor thy father and thy mother.” The nun pushed the second handkerchief toward Violet. “And experience cautions us against mixed marriages.”
Experience? The word reverberated in Violet’s ear like a sour note at the piano. What experience might a nun have? How could someone married to Jesus understand real love? Violet twisted the hanky, as if wringing it out to dry. “I’ve honored my parents all my life,” she finally managed. “You’ll not find a more devoted daughter.” She shot a look at both Lily and the nun, daring either one to dispute her claim. Lily’s lips parted briefly, but without result.
“Tea’s ready,” Muriel said, breaking the silence. She placed the teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, and spoons next to three cups and saucers already on the tray, and carried them to the table. A fourth cup sat cooling on the stove behind her. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’m not even here.”
Mother Mary Joseph emptied the tray and poured the tea. Muriel backed away from the table, hoisted herself onto a stool near the wall, and quietly sipped her drink.
“Now, in the matter of the child,” the nun warmed her hands over her cup, “we seek good Christian homes, and try to consider creed and appearance when making a match. For instance, a towheaded child in a family of Turks would cause a stir.” The Reverend Mother fixed her gaze on Lily, but cast her voice in Violet’s direction. “We find it best to keep them with their own kind.”
Though reeling from the nun’s comments, Violet couldn’t bring herself to argue. Truth be told, from the moment she knew Lily’s baby would be adopted out, she pictured the child being raised by a family similar to her own. Welsh. Protestant. Fair-skinned. The father, a hardworking miner, and the mother, a dark-haired beauty. They’d probably be poor like most, but no matter, as long as they raised the child to fear God.
“But enough of that.” Mother Mary Joseph closed her notebook and slipped it into her pocket. “The two of you must be exhausted from your trip.”
“Yes ma’am,” Lily answered when Violet remained silent.
“Muriel, will you show the girls to their beds after they finish their tea?” The nun turned and stared at the girl. “Since you’re still so close at hand.”
Muriel’s cheeks reddened again, as she lowered herself from the stool. “Gladly.”
“Get some rest now,” the Reverend Mother said as she rose from the table. “Six thirty comes early.”
“Pardon?” Lily’s head snapped up.
“Mass begins promptly at seven.” Before Lily had a chance to object, the nun added, “And attendance is required. Here at the Good Shepherd, we’re all God’s children.”
BARBARA J. TAYLOR lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania, home of the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country. She has an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She is the author of Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night and All Waiting Is Long.
Posted: Jul 27, 2016
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