Thanks, as always, to everyone who read and especially those who took the time to review. It means a lot.
Language warning: this chapter contains an ethnic slur I felt was necessary to tell the story. Please skip if this will be distressing to you.
The first letter had been to his mother. That one was the easiest to write and the most warmly received. John assured her that they had arrived safely and that his new job was going well. Anna filled in the details, describing their two-story farmhouse with the gabled roof, the kind but curious characters living nearby, and the sweet, bumbling brown dog that seemed to have adopted them. A reply came promptly, wishing them well and asking to hear more about their new home. From then they made a point to write weekly and enjoyed an affectionate relationship for all of Mrs. Bates' years.
The next went to Anna's mother. It was long, disjointed, and put off for weeks. She tried to explain that she was settled, happy, and in love. She apologized as best she could, both for her departure and the manner in which it was carried out. A rumpled envelope eventually arrived from her sister. It said that her mother was brokenhearted, her brothers were disgusted, and that she had brought shame and disappointment to everyone. Anna staggered at reading this, and tried writing directly to each of them, telling them how much she loved them and how sorry she was for how things had to be. Months later another note came from her sister, tersely explaining that her mother and brothers preferred she did not write again. For her part, Ellie sent one letter every year at Christmas, to which Anna faithfully replied. It never got any better, but while it always stung, soon enough Anna had a new family, both of her own and adopted from friends, to love and care for.
Writing to Lord Grantham proved just as difficult for John. He considered telling him the whole story, but time and distance had made him wonder if his Lordship hadn't made the request for him to write out of politeness, or just a passing fancy. With that playing on his mind, the first message merely included an account of the crossing, his impressions of America, and an explanation of his work at the dairy. He was surprised to get a sincere and enthusiastic letter in return, sharing news from Downton and containing several questions about what he had written. At that, John knew he had to be candid, at least somewhat. He mentioned Anna in his response and commented about their home. The Earl expressed surprise at that news, but wished him well and didn't press for specifics. John didn't volunteer many details and they turned their discussion to matters more philosophical. Remarkably, their correspondence endured until Lord Grantham's passing in the spring of 1938.
She stopped and pushed her hair back off her forehead with an irritated grumble. Why had she done this to herself? She was glad to have invited Paul, Arabella, and their young son Anthony for Sunday lunch after church—it was the least she could do to repay all of their kindness and hospitality as she and John had settled in—but perhaps she had overestimated herself somewhat in the menu she had planned. Where had she left the butter?
"Is there anything I can help with?"
Usually Anna wouldn't let John lift a finger around the house. He worked so hard all day and often brought ledgers home with him to pore over after supper. Since it was just the two of them she insisted that he enjoy his leisure when he could. Today, however, she wasn't too proud to accept his assistance. She nodded toward a basket hanging by the back door. "I need the eggs."
"Could you also put down a bit of scratch while you're out there?"
He took the basket and opened the door. He turned back. "Where would I find that?"
"In the shed by the coop."
He returned a few moments later. "I don't think there are any eggs this morning, dear."
"No eggs? There are ten of them and they've been laying very well."
"I didn't see any."
Wiping her hands on her apron, she strode purposefully into the yard. He trailed after her. She marched right up to the coop and opened a little door on the back, revealing several eggs. She looked up at him strangely.
"I didn't know that's where they would be," he muttered.
"Were you expecting to chase the hens around and charm them out of them?" she replied, amusement plain on her face.
"I grew up in London, Anna. We got our eggs from a peddler that came by the back door."
"I see," she said with a giggle. "It's a good thing you brought me with you. You might have starved out here!"
"Oh, I definitely would have perished," he answered, catching her around the waist and making her squeal by tickling her side, "but it wouldn't have been from hunger." She darted out of his embrace, laughing as he advanced toward her again with an exaggerated waggle of his eyebrows. Never able to resist him long, she let herself be caught and sighed as his lips descended on her neck. None of this was getting her ludicrously ambitious lunch on the table, but she didn't mind a bit.
She was sure they wouldn't be two for long.
She'd never seen such a thing. It was so…big. The first time it landed on their doorstep she started at the thump and rushed out to see what had happened. The words Sears & Roebuck shone back up at her and it actually took some effort to pick the massive thing up. Inside lay all the treasures of the world—a thousand pages of things that could be purchased via post and delivered right to them. She showed John the moment he came home and he too goggled at it. In the following days one or the other always had it open.
After years of wearing the same two dresses, she lingered over the ladies' fashions. The current mode, with the long lines and dropped waists, suited her slim figure for the first time in her life. It was hard, but she resisted. They had set up their home modestly but comfortably and had plans to set aside a sum for a rainy day. She knew that was more important, but admired the fine frocks just the same.
He had a weakness for gadgets. He spent an entire supper one night trying to convince her they needed a combination weather vane and rain gauge with a wind speed meter. She couldn't help but laugh at his boyish eagerness and was almost softened enough to give in, but over dessert he caught himself. He already had more than he could have ever asked for and didn't need new purchases to add to his happiness.
She snuck looks at the baby section, running her fingers over the pictures of booties and bottles. He caught her one afternoon, and, embarrassed, she snapped the catalog closed so fast she gave herself a paper cut. He came to fuss over her and saw it had fallen back open, revealing the pages that had fascinated her so. He put it on his lap, pulled her close to him on the sofa, and together they looked through them all. They were captivated by a beautiful wooden cradle, oak with a pattern of leaves carved into it. It was expensive but exquisite and they both wanted it, for many reasons.
They made a game of marking every single item that caught their fancy, from her cut glass saltcellar to his electric powered apple peeler. Then they added it all up, laughed at the astronomical total, and put the catalog in the kindling pile.
Later that year they allowed themselves just one splurge. The cradle arrived at their door in just three weeks.
She liked to chatter at night. At first he'd found it endearing when sharing a bed was new, but after a while it got on his nerves when all he wanted to do after a long day was kiss her and fall into the sweet oblivion of sleep. Fortunately, by the time their third came along she was simply too tired to manage it anymore. He was never so grateful for Andrew.
She'd always thought he was a tidy man, but it didn't become clear until they shared a home that he tended to abandon articles—handkerchiefs, socks, newspapers—at whatever point they'd ceased their usefulness to him. She constantly tripped over them, or was cajoled into helping him find them later. It was not her favorite of his habits.
He could never understand why she got so upset when he used up the last of the milk. Did they not live at a dairy?
He grew to enjoy coffee. On especially good mornings, usually after equally agreeable nights, she presented him with a cup done just the way he liked it and prevented him from taking his first sip with the sweetness of her lips. Most days she at least made sure it was brewed by the time he made it to the table. About every other fortnight it was accompanied by sweet dumplings and jam. They were a favorite of his and he came to understand she made them as a silent apology for being out of sorts and irritable for a day or two. He kissed her cheek on those mornings and said nothing more about it. Once, after he bought a used Model T without discussing it with her, his cup, filled with a cold, black sludge, was slammed on the table with such force that half of the contents sloshed out. After that he learned how to make his own coffee, just in case.
He was a romantic at heart, prone to mental flights of fancy and a great lover of poetry. Most of the time she enjoyed this inclination of his. When he read to her that their children were the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself she thought it was beautiful. Sometimes, however, it could be a bit much. When he also quoted to her that there should be spaces in their togetherness to let the winds of heaven dance between them, she had to fight the urge to roll her eyes. Couldn't he simply say that he wanted to spend the afternoon in Paul's garage, tinkering with the boat they were building?
How many hats did one woman need? Granted, she did look lovely in them—the coy cloche, cheeky tam, and summery boater with ribbons—but they cluttered up the closet and she took forever choosing between them. When he complained she threatened to bob her hair. He supposed this was the preferable alternative.
Would it be that difficult to simply tell her when he finished the milk and remove the bottle from the icebox? Did he have any idea how irritating it was to have a cranky toddler on one hip and an empty bottle in the other hand?
He was far too indulgent with the children, especially Alice and even worse when June surprised them a dozen years later. They were both clever enough never to accept his first "no" as a final answer. Anna found herself slightly miffed. She used to be the only woman he couldn't refuse.
They loved each other more every day.
He sat at the kitchen table, sorting through the month's bills.
"How can one simple broken arm cost so much?" he mused.
"With your children, John, I would expect no less."
"My children? She climbed to the top of a tree to chase after Anthony Moss. That's your daughter, my dear."
She smirked at him and turned back to the stove.
He sighed. "It's going to be a bit tight this month, I'm afraid."
Tight was nothing new for them, not for the past few years. The country's woes were keenly felt even in their little corner. Folks had to scrimp where they could, so they bought less milk, less cheese, and precious little butter. At the same time the great droughts had caused feed prices to skyrocket. The dairy had survived, thanks to careful management during better times, but there'd been no money to increase wages for quite some time. Providing for a house full of growing children required more ingenuity with every trip to the grocer.
She did some quick mental calculations. It was getting warmer, so they could probably forego heating oil during the days. Her canning from last summer would get them through without needing to buy anything more if she made simpler meals. June's Sunday dress simply couldn't be worn any longer, but Anna thought she could rework one of Alice's old ones to do the job. "It's all right, John. I can make do."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, Anna." His voice was barely above a whisper and she knew what it cost him to say that.
She came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He leaned back into her and she rested her cheek on his head. "I'm not. It's the price we had to pay for this and I would do it all over again."
He pulled her around to the front, settling her on his good leg. She slid her arms around his neck. His hand slipped under her sweater and he grazed his thumb over the side of her breast, making her shiver. In all the years they'd been together and with all that they'd shared, it still thrilled her when he touched her so possessively. She could still remember back so long ago when they couldn't and he wouldn't and now that freedom was still the thing she treasured most. He kissed her deeply and she gave a little hum in the back of her throat, relaxing into him.
"Ugh! Mom! Dad! Must you? Honestly!"
"Do you think the Packers will win, Dad?"
John smiled at his son. "Let's hope so!"
Since starting school Edward had become obsessed with this American version of football, spending all of his time playing with the other boys in the park and chattering incessantly about the team from Green Bay. They'd won their way into the championship again this year and he'd begged his parents to take him to the game. John and Anna had looked into it and found it wouldn't be too expensive to take the family. It seemed most of the town had the same idea, and so an informal rally was being held in the square before they all departed en masse for the stadium.
When they arrived Alice had immediately run off to find her friends. Edward tossed his ball around while still talking animatedly at John about the game and Andrew followed his older brother's every move. June was always shy in crowds and so she clung to Anna's skirt and popped her thumb in her mouth, surveying the scene.
"Who is that, Edward?" Anna asked, nodding toward a boy on the outskirts on the crowd.
"Is he new? I don't recall seeing him before."
"He just started coming to school last week. He talks funny. Hank says he's a sheeny and we shouldn't play with him."
"Mom?" he asked, bewildered at Anna's strong reaction.
She took a deep breath and exchanged a worried look with John. "Honey, do you know what that word means?"
"I guess not. But it didn't sound good from the way Hank told about it."
"It's a very unkind word for someone who is Jewish. I don't want you using it again."
"Why would Hank say such a thing?"
"His father works in the barns," John murmured to Anna. "From what I've heard it's not much of surprise, unfortunately." He turned his attention to Edward. "Have you gotten to know Issac at all?"
"Not much. He seems all right, I guess, but I don't want the other fellas to get sore with me."
"It sounds like you have a few decisions to make."
"Like what, Dad?"
"Well, first off, you'll need to decide if you want to be the kind of man who lets other people tell you who your friends are going to be. And then you need to think about what sort of friends you really want to keep."
"I don't know..."
"You know, your mother and I talk funny too."
"But that's different!"
He opened his mouth to protest, but couldn't think of any answer. "Maybe," he started slowly, "maybe I could see if he wants to go to the game with us?"
"That sounds like a fine idea. Off you go."
Later that day, the Green Bay Packers defeated the New York Giants 36-21. John and Anna were relieved to see all of the boys cheering together.
"She's so young, John."
"I know. But we knew this was coming."
"I just didn't think it would happen so soon."
"If not for the war it mightn't, but I don't see how they have much choice. I would do the same in their shoes."
"He loves her. And Alice loves him. I don't blame them for wanting as much as possible. I know what it costs to lose out on even a minute."
"Are you sure we did the right thing, letting her do this?"
"Honestly, I'm not sure it was a question of letting. I don't know that we could have stopped her. She is her mother's daughter."
"I'm proud of her. She could stay home and wait, but I think it's better that she joined the WAVES. At least she'll keep busy and I know she wants to contribute."
"It's hard to think of our little girl at some naval base. I know we've all got to do our bit, but she's never been farther than Chicago!"
"She'll grow up fast, just like the rest of them. Plus, it might make it easier for her to see Anthony on his liberties if she's at a naval station."
"That's true, I suppose. God, did you ever think we'd be doing this again? And that we'd be sending our children into this one?"
"No. And Edward will be 18 in just a few months."
"Oh, I can't think about that. I'll go mad."
"Has he said anything to you?"
"Not yet. But I know it's on his mind."
"We should probably sit him down sooner rather than later. I don't want to find out he's joined up after he's already done it."
"I think it's about time to board."
"Where are you going? The platform for Chicago is this way."
"How would you feel if we delayed our trip home by a few days? Maybe took a little excursion?"
"What on earth brought this up?"
"I had a letter last month. Forgive me for not telling you right away, but I knew we'd be coming to New York and I had an idea."
"What kind of idea?"
"Do you think you could stand to attend one more wedding this week?"
"She gone. The solicitor's office confirmed it and sent me the papers. It's finally over."
"Oh my goodness!"
"Marry me, Anna. Let's go to Niagara Falls and find a little chapel. Give me the one and only thing I've missed in my life."
"Of course! After more than twenty years and four children I suppose I could consent to being your wife for good and proper."
"I'm such a lucky man."
"What about the children?"
"We'll telephone before we leave. Edward can manage Andrew and June for a little while longer."
"You know what this means, don't you?"
"I'm most certainly going to need a new dress for our wedding. And possibly a hat."
"I never doubted it for a moment, love. Let's go."