From Milk to Music


Third Place Winner—Relief Society Short Story Contest 1974

From Milk to Music

The words of President Foster came again and again to Belle’s mind during the late afternoon walk home from her Sunday meetings. She was trying to keep up with eight-year-old Billy, but trying not to get too far ahead of her girls—Emily, Nell, and Mae—who dawdled along picking wild flowers and chasing butterflies. It had been an unusually dry spring throughout Oklahoma, and Belle Parker had to walk carefully to avoid the dust-filled ruts in the road.

“It was just as if he had been speaking to me alone,” she thought, “instead of to the whole branch.”

She heard the words again.

“Brothers and sisters, we need some real music in our meetings. There in the corner sits a piano, and the schoolteacher says we may use it as long as we’re meeting in her room. Let’s make it a matter of prayer in our homes that the elders can baptize someone who can play it. We try hard, but our singing just isn’t enough. We need music before our meetings and accompaniment for our hymns.”

Ever since her first child had been born, Belle’s heart had harbored a dream. She wanted that daughter, and the two who eventually followed her, to love music as she did. But more than that, she wanted them to have a piano to play and lessons, too—opportunities that were denied her during her childhood on a farm. She knew they were talented, for they easily learned the songs she taught them as they worked and played together.

“What I wouldn’t give for a piano!” she had said from time to time as her tiny daughters grew into young women.

The year was 1934. Times were difficult everywhere, but for the Parker family, life continued on at a familiar pace common to rural life. They worked hard and they got by. Around them the search for oil was changing their world—derricks stood on the horizon and the families of the pumpers lived nearby. There were no frills and no refinements except those that were within people; Belle saw to it that her children had clean, home-sewn clothes and nourishing meals. Those who lived off the land could at least provide that much.

Belle’s eyes left the road, and she saw her son running through the gate; she knew he’d change his clothes before bringing the cow in to be milked. He was almost a man around the farm, helping his father so they didn’t have to keep a hired hand any longer.

Behind her, Belle heard her daughters singing, and her thoughts returned to the problem at hand.

“It’s just like a call from the Lord … just like a call, and if I accept it as that, maybe he’ll help me find a way to fill it. We don’t need anyone new in the branch to play that piano. My girls could do it. … My girls will do it!”

With that resolve she turned in at the gate and found her neighbor, Flora Jackson, waiting on the porch.

“Been waiting long, Flora?” Belle asked.

“No, I knew you’d be at your church meetings ’til four. Just wondering if you have extra milk today? We’re out, and the store’s closed. I’d be much obliged to buy a couple of quarts from you again.”

“There’s always a bit more than we can use, and you’re welcome to it,” Belle said, as she led her through the house. She took a large can from the icebox and poured a steady stream of milk until Flora’s pitcher was filled.

As Flora slipped two dimes into Belle’s hand they tinkled. The soft sound made her think once again of the piano, and an idea came to the surface, a new idea that couldn’t wait to be carefully thought out before Belle worded it.

“Flora, if we had enough milk all the time, would you consider buying it from us regular-like? I mean, if I had the girls bring it over every day, would you be able to pay for it and use it?”

Belle was surprised by her own question, but when Flora assured her they would be happy to buy their milk, it seemed like the next decision had been made before Belle had even considered it.

“Well, you just plan on it from now on,” concluded Belle. “We’ll deliver it early in the evening.”

Flora Jackson wasn’t the only oil pumper’s wife who had come buying milk in recent weeks. The Parker’s cow produced more than enough for one family, and selling the milk brought in money to buy yardgoods at the general store or to send away for shoes from the catalog.

But this was the first time Belle had tried to include another family in the regular supply of milk, and she soon discovered that she would have to closely watch her own family’s use of milk if there was to be enough for the Jacksons. At the week’s end, she had a dollar to stuff inside an envelope in her top bureau drawer. The envelope was marked: “For our piano.”

Once again it was Sunday, and by the time the meetings were over, Belle had worked out an entire plan for fulfilling the call. She sent the children on ahead and waited for her husband to clean and rearrange the schoolroom where the small branch met.

She had to walk quickly to keep up with his long strides. Maybe that was why the words flowed so fast as the plan, so exactly thought out, finally found its way into words.

After telling him of her arrangement with Flora Jackson, she explained, “I want to do this myself, with your permission, of course, and the children’s help at delivery time. Tomorrow I can go talk with Mr. Jamison at the bank, and if he will take Betsy as collateral, we can go and buy a second cow on Saturday. It won’t be much more trouble to milk and feed two cows, and I’m sure we can sell the milk. After the new cow has paid for herself, I’ll go again to Mr. Jamison and put both cows up for enough money to buy a piano.”

William Parker was not usually the kind of man to let his wife get involved with business transactions. Level-headed she was, but it didn’t seem quite right to let a woman get involved with bankers and the business of buying and selling livestock.

“We’ll pray about it,” he said at length. That evening he called the children together. He let Belle tell them what she wanted to do and how they’d have to help. Then he led them in prayer, telling the Lord in his plain words about the plan and seeking His confirmation that this truly was a call for their family. At the prayer’s end, the children and their mother waited a long time on their knees to see if William would make the answer known.

Belle hurried home from the next Sunday’s meetings, all four children at her side. The sessions had been extraordinarily long, and with two cows waiting to be milked she could hardly get home soon enough. She thought of the five families who were now depending on the fresh milk delivered by her children. Betsy had been a good milker, but so far Princess was outdoing her by a half-gallon morning and night. Belle considered this a sign that the Lord approved of her plan.

The early summer months were hot that year, and the dry spring became even more dry as summer approached. William was greatly concerned about his crops. Belle used very little well water for the weekly wash and tried in every way to save enough for the trough where her cows drank their fill. They waited anxiously for the usual mid-summer thunderstorms. There was always danger that the storms would spawn tornados that damaged crops and property, but they still hoped for the relieving rain. July came and went; then August came, and all the earth was still dry.

The Parkers heard of farmers loading their families into trucks with all their belongings and leaving their land. They heard there was rich land for farming in the west, land that could be irrigated when it didn’t rain. But they had more at stake than their land—two cows, the note at the bank, and a call from the Lord. Instead of considering a move, they tried harder to save water for the cows, and William found work in the oil fields. Daily they knelt in prayer and petitioned the Lord to let them stay.

It was nearly September when the rains finally came. There were no crops to harvest, but the cows were still producing.

Belle’s envelope had become a shoe box filled with many dimes and dollar bills. The $100 note at the bank was due October 1, and, as she had every Saturday evening all summer, Belle sat at the table the last Saturday in September and counted the savings.

“Let’s see—$98.60, $98.70, $98.90.” She was $3.10 short of her goal, counting the two dollars she needed for interest. If she collected in the middle of the week, there would be enough.

Belle went alone again to the bank. The children were back in school and couldn’t even come along for the ride into town. She was nervous about approaching Mr. Jamison this time. He’d thought it only a little unusual for a woman to come to him with a request to borrow on one cow to buy another. She didn’t know if he would go along with the next part of her plan.

“Mr. Jamison,” she began softly, “are you a cultured man? I mean, do you enjoy music and literature and other fine things like that?”

When he replied that his parents’ home in the East had been filled with books and that his greatest joy as a young man was attending concerts in the city, she knew her request for another loan would be granted. Yes, two cows could be mortgaged for enough to buy a piano for the Parker family.

It was spring again, the third spring after the call had come. It was also Sunday, a district conference Sunday, and Belle was grateful that everyone was either sleeping or in a quiet mood as they drove the 60 miles home. She had been inspired by the messages from the mission president, his wife, and their own district leaders. But one small event had been most significant, and as she thought of it she recalled the series of events over the past three years that seemed to climax today.

She remembered another trip into the city with the $250 from the bank in her purse. William drove and the high school music teacher, Mr. Johnson, sat in the back seat. He had seemed eager to accompany them on their piano-buying excursion, and Belle was certain he had recognized the musical talent of her daughters. After all, he had not only agreed to help them choose a piano, but he said he’d come to their home every other week to teach their lessons.

A week later 32 people gathered in the yard to see the truck from Harmon’s Music Store arrive with the precious piano. The five neighbor families (each of whom were helping buy the piano with their milk purchases), several relatives, and two families from the branch were there to see that it was safely carried inside and placed in just the right spot. Everyone crowded into the parlor to watch and listen as Nell, the middle daughter, opened the keyboard. Ceremoniously she played the simple tune she had learned during her recesses on the school piano just for this great occasion.

It wasn’t long before Nell and Mae could pick out the top hand melodies of the branch’s favorite hymns. Maybe Emily could have, too, but after just a few lessons on the piano Mr. Johnson had let her borrow a violin from school. She loved it so much she never again cared to play the piano. Nell and Mae began alternating at Sunday School and sacrament meetings. One would play the melody while the other led the congregation in the song. President Foster was pleased; of that there was no doubt.

William had said very little in the time since he had agreed to Belle’s plan. At her wish, he had let Belle carry it out. She milked the cows, directed the distribution of the milk, and now she watched over the girls’ practicing and paid for their lessons. William was trying to keep the farm going and continue his work as an oil pumper, and he was so busy that Belle wondered if he ever noticed how much progress Nell and Mae were making in their third year of lessons.

District conference was an important day for the Parkers. It wasn’t just the spiritual uplift that made it so, it was also being able to feel the love of the Saints, their true brothers and sisters, who were scattered throughout the state. They always arrived early so they could spend time renewing acquaintances and discussing the gospel programs. Often they would be reunited with relatives, whom they only saw at conference time, and there would be missionaries there who had stayed in their home.

Belle paused a moment in her reminiscing as she turned to look at her daughters in the back seat. They were lovely girls, neatly dressed, their dark hair fashionably waved. It was Nell, just turned 17, who had today fulfilled the call.

Billy had gone ahead of his parents into the morning session to find a seat for them. Belle supposed each of the girls was with friends or cousins. As she and William made their way to the seats next to Billy, they stopped frequently to shake out stretched hands. In spite of the whispered words of greeting, there was a beautiful feeling of reverence sustained by a medley of hymns that was being played on the piano.

Once in their seats, William listened a minute to the music, then turned to Belle.

“Do you know, I’d give anything if one of our daughters could play as lovely as that.”

Belle couldn’t answer, for the music had ended, and as the district president stepped to the pulpit, their own Nell turned around on the piano bench to listen as he opened the conference.

Belle’s peace was deep. There would be other springs, other Sundays, other conferences, and many other calls from the Lord. Today, however, Belle doubted if ever again she would feel such a great harmonious chord in her soul.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Harston

Janet B. Seegmiller, homemaker and writer, serves as spiritual living leader and nursery leader in Brigham City 17th Ward, Brigham City Utah Stake. The story is based on an incident in the life of her grandmother.