Old Lady Kroll—we called her that because she was so mean.
“Maybe there’s a reason for the way she acts that we don’t know about, Mimi,” Mother said as we walked home from the grocery store, balancing our bags of groceries. We—Mother, my six-year-old sister, Carrie, and I—lived in an apartment at the back of Old Lady Kroll’s house. The only nice thing about the house was the yard full of oak trees. I enjoyed the green leaves in the spring and summer when the sun shone through the leaves. And in the fall, they were all red and gold and sort of pink, and they made the dark old house look almost pretty.
“She might have a real good reason for being so mean—like maybe she’s a witch or something!” Carrie said, her big eyes looking out under straight, blond bangs. Carrie could be pretty silly sometimes, and I hoped she’d have a little more sense in a couple of years, when she was my age.
“Carrie,” Mother said, “of course Mrs. Kroll’s not a witch. But she might be very unhappy living alone in that big house.”
Mom always found an excuse for everybody.
It was no wonder Old Lady Kroll lived alone—she hated everybody. Especially us. If we sat on her front steps, watching the squirrels, she’d open her creaky front door and yell, “Go on, now! You don’t belong there!” And she’d slam the door with a big whoosh. Even the squirrels were scared to death of her.
Carrie and I usually met Mom at the bus stop when she came home from work. We wished she didn’t have to go to work every day. But she said that she was lucky to have a job at all. Lots of people were out of work because of the Depression. Some people had lost everything when the banks ran out of money. We were pretty lucky, I guess, because we didn’t have any money to lose.
Our apartment had only one bedroom. We all slept together in one big bed. We were never afraid, Carrie and I, even when there was a storm. Mother told us stories about the squirrel mothers and their babies, all cozy and warm inside their nests in the hollows of the trees. And except for Old Lady Kroll yelling at us, we had a pretty nice life. Just like the squirrels.
After we put our groceries away that day, I put our paper dolls in the window seat under the bay window, and then Carrie and I set the table. The sky had turned dark purple, and the wind was plastering rain against the windowpanes. I hoped Mom would tell us our favorite story about the mice that lived in the hayloft of an old barn.
That night there was a terrible storm. Carrie and I tried not to think about it as we listened to the story about the mice. But lightning must have struck something, because there was an awful crash that sounded as if the whole world had split right down the middle.
The next morning on the way to school, Carrie and I saw what had happened. A huge limb had broken off one of the giant old oaks and was lying across Old Lady Kroll’s front porch steps.
“Carrie!” I yelled as she ran on ahead of me. “Get back here and help me move this limb!”
“Why?” she yelled back. Carrie wouldn’t do anything without first asking why.
“So somebody won’t break a leg or something, that’s why!”
Carrie dropped her books on the sidewalk and came back. “You mean somebody like Old Lady Kroll?”
“Carrie, for once don’t talk. Just take that end of the limb and lift, OK?”
When we met Mother at the bus stop that afternoon, she wasn’t smiling like she always did, and it seemed as if she wasn’t listening to us. Later, while she was making scrambled eggs for supper, she told us that she wasn’t going to have to go to work every day for a while. She was smiling, but she didn’t look happy. “I’ll only be going to work three days a week for a while. But it’ll be nice for us all to be home together, won’t it?”
Carrie and I nodded. We couldn’t say yes because our mouths were full of warm eggs.
We had oatmeal for supper the next couple of nights. We all liked oatmeal, but it seemed strange to have it for dinner twice in a row.
One night Mother said, “Tonight we’re going to play a game. Let’s pretend that we’re like the mice in the hayloft—that we’re very poor and don’t have anything to eat. Won’t that be fun?”
I wasn’t too sure, but I looked at Carrie, and she was smiling and nodding. So I did too.
The next morning we toasted the last three pieces of bread. By suppertime we didn’t want to play the game again, but we didn’t tell Mother. She didn’t look like she wanted to play it, either.
After it got dark, Mother just sat and stared out the window. Carrie and I played paper dolls on the floor. Once in a while we heard Mother sigh. Just as we started to get ready for bed, there was a loud knock at the door. We all jumped.
It was Old Lady Kroll. Carrie and I looked at each other. We were both thinking the same thing: What had we done to make her mad this time?
“Here,” she said, thrusting a big tan bowl at Mother. It was covered with a checkered napkin, and little swirls of steam puffed out around the edges. “I thought that you and the children might like this,” she said gruffly. “I had it left over from my supper. I guess I made too much. I didn’t want to throw it out—I don’t believe in waste!” And she turned and walked down the hallway, leaving Mother holding the steaming bowl and crying.
I never thought I’d like sauerkraut and spareribs, but it tasted better than anything else I’d ever eaten. And the mashed potatoes it nested in had butter running down the sides in warm little yellow rivers.
Later Mother told us that all the money and food were gone. Payday wasn’t until the next day, and she had been praying that we’d have something to eat before we went to bed. We all agreed that Heavenly Father picked a pretty good dinner. But what Carrie and I couldn’t figure out was why He picked Old Lady—I mean Mrs. Kroll—to bring it to us.
After that, we waved to her when we passed. One morning on our way to school, we saw her sweeping her front steps. Carrie and I yelled, “Good morning, Mrs. Kroll!”
She didn’t answer, and she didn’t smile. But she nodded to us.
And then she waved.