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The English House Wife, 1668
As soon as I stepped into the kitchen, Mother started her lecture.
"Too much sleep is bad for your health, Matilda." She slipped a freshly made ball of butter into a stone crock. "It must be a grippe, a sleeping sickness."
I tried not to listen to her. I had not cleared the wax from my ears all summer, hoping it would soften her voice. It had not worked.
"You should be dosed with fish oil. When I was a girl..." She kept talking to herself as she carried a steaming pot of water outside to rinse the butter churn.
I sat down at the table. Our kitchen was larger than most, with an enormous hearth crowded with pots and kettles, and two bake ovens built into the brickwork beside it. The size of the room did not match the size of our family. We were only three: Mother, Grandfather, and me, plus Eliza who worked for us. But the roomy kitchen could feed one hundred people in a day. My family owned the Cook Coffeehouse. The soon-to-be famous Cook Coffeehouse, Grandfather liked to say.
My father had built our home and business after the War for Independence ended in 1783. I was six years old. The coffeehouse sat just off the corner of Seventh and High Streets. At first we were lucky if a lost farmer strayed in, but business improved when President Washington's house was built two blocks away.
Father was a carpenter by trade, and he built us a sturdy home. The room where we served customers filled most of the first floor and had four large windows. The kitchen was tucked into the back, filled with useful shelves and built-in cupboards to store things. We could have used a sitting room, truth be told. Father would have added one on if he had lived. But he fell off a ladder and died of a broken neck two months after the coffeehouse opened. That's when Grandfather joined us.
A coffeehouse was a respectable business for a widow and her father-in-law to run. Mother refused to serve spirits, but she allowed card games and a small bit of gambling as long as she didn't have to see it. By midday the front room was usually crowded with gentlemen, merchants, and politicians enjoying a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and the news of the day. Father would have been proud. I wondered what he would have thought of me.
"Good morning," Eliza said loudly, startling me. "I thought you were going to sleep the day away. Have you eaten?" She set a sack of coffee beans on the table.
"I'm starving," I said, clutching my stomach.
"As usual," she said with a smile. "Let me get you something quick."
Eliza was the coffeehouse cook. Mother couldn't prepare a meal fit for pigs. I found this amusing, considering our last name was Cook. In a manner, though, it was serious. If not for Eliza's fine victuals, and the hungry customers who paid to eat them, we'd have been in the streets long ago. Mother's family had washed their hands of her when she ran off to marry a carpenter, a tradesman (the horror!), when she was but seventeen. So we were very fond of Eliza.
Like most blacks in Philadelphia, Eliza was free. She said Philadelphia was the best city for freed slaves or freeborn Africans. The Quakers here didn't hold with slavery and tried hard to convince others that slavery was against God's will. Black people were treated different than white people, that was plain to see, but Eliza said nobody could tell her what to do or where to go, and no one would ever, ever beat her again.
She had been born a slave near Williamsburg, Virginia. Her husband saved up his horseshoeing money and bought her freedom right after they were married. She told me that was the best day of her life. She moved to Philadelphia and cooked for us, saving her wages to set her husband free.
When I was eight, she got a letter saying her husband had been killed by a runaway horse. That was her worst day. She didn't say a word for months. My father had only been dead two years, so Mother knew just what lay in Eliza's heart. They both supped sorrow with a big spoon, that's what Mother said. It took years, but the smile slowly returned to Eliza's face. She didn't turn sour like Mother did.
Eliza was the luckiest person I knew. She got to walk from the river past shop windows, market stalls, and the courthouse up to Seventh Street every morning. She told stories even better than Grandfather, and she knew how to keep a secret. She laughed once when I told her she was my best friend, but it was the truth.
She dished up a bowl of oatmeal from a pot that hung by the side of the hearth, then carefully set it in front of me. "Eat up," she said. One corner of her mouth turned up just a bit and she winked.
I tasted the oatmeal. It was sweet. Eliza had hidden a sugar lump at the bottom of the bowl.
"Thank you," I whispered.
"You're welcome," she whispered back.
"Why is Polly late?" I asked. "Have you seen her?"
Eliza shook her head. "Your mother is in a lather, I promise you," she warned. "If Polly doesn't get here soon, she may need to find herself another position."
"I bet she's dawdling by the forge," I said, "watching Matthew work with his shirt collar open."
"Maybe she's ill," Eliza said. "There's talk of sickness by the river."
Mother strode into the room carrying wood for the fire.
"Serving girls don't get sick," Mother said. "If she doesn't appear soon, you'll have to do her chores as well as your own, Matilda. And where is your grandfather? I sent him to inquire about a box of tea an hour ago. He should have returned by now."
"I'd be happy to search for him," I offered. "I could look for Polly, too."
Mother added wood to the fire, poking the logs until the flames jumped. The delicate tip of her shoe tapped impatiently. "No. I'll go. If Father comes back, don't let him leave. And Matilda, see to the garden."
She quickly tied a bonnet under her chin and left, the back door closing behind her with the sharp sound of a musket shot.
"Well," said Eliza. "That's it, then. Here, have some veal and corn bread. Seems like you've a long day ahead of you."
After she cut me two slices of cold veal and a thick piece of fresh corn bread, Eliza started to make gingerbread, one of her specialties. Nutmeg and cinnamon perfumed the air as she ground the spices with a pestle. If not for the heat, I could have stayed in the kitchen for an eternity. The house was silent except for the popping of the applewood in the fire, and the tall clock ticking in the front room. I took a sip from a half-filled mug on the table.
"Ugh! It's coffee!" Black coffee, bitter as medicine. "How can you drink this?" I asked Eliza.
"It tastes better if you don't steal it," she answered. She took the cup from my hands. "Pour your own and leave mine be."
"Are we out of cider?" I asked. "I could get some at the marketplace."
"Oh, no," Eliza said. "You'll stay right here. Your mother needs your help, and that poor garden is like to expire. It is time for you to haul some water, little Mattie."
Little Mattie indeed. Another month and I'd be almost as tall as Eliza. I hated to be called "little."
I sighed loudly, put my dishes in the washtub, and tucked my hair into my mob cap. I tied a disreputable straw hat atop the cap, one I could never wear in the street, and snatched a bite of dough from Eliza's bowl before I ran outside.
The garden measured fifty paces up one side and twenty along the other, but after six weeks of drought it seemed as long and wide as a city block, filled with thousands of drooping plants crying for help.
I dropped the bucket into the well to fill it with water, then turned the handle to bring it back up again. Little Mattie, indeed. I was big enough to be ordered around like an unpaid servant. Big enough for mother to grumble about finding me a husband.
I carried the water to the potato patch and poured it out too fast. Big enough to plan for the day when I would no longer live here.
If I was going to work as hard as a mule, it might as well be for my own benefit. I was going to travel to France and bring back fabric and combs and jewelry that the ladies of Philadelphia would swoon over. And that was just for the dry goods store. I wanted to own an entire city block -- a proper restaurant, an apothecary, maybe a school, or a hatter's shop. Grandfather said I was a Daughter of Liberty, a real American girl. I could steer my own ship. No one would call me little Mattie. They would call me "Ma'am."
"Dash it all." I had watered a row of weeds.
As I returned to the well, Mother came through the garden gate.
"Where's Polly?" I asked as I dropped the bucket down the well. "Did you pass by the blacksmith's?"
"I spoke with her mother, with Mistress Logan," Mother answered softly, looking at her neat rows of carrots.
"And?" I waved a mosquito away from my face.
"It happened quickly. Polly sewed by candlelight after dinner. Her mother repeated that over and over, 'she sewed by candlelight after dinner.' And then she collapsed."
I released the handle and the bucket splashed, a distant sound.
"Matilda, Polly's dead."
Text copyright © 2000 by Laurie Halse Anderson