The sun’s rays peeked through the huge plate glass picture window, falling across Katie’s face, burning through her eyelids. The harsh insolation revealed the milky white complexion of a woman whose skin tone suffered from too much time spent indoors.
Somewhere in the distance of dreamland came a jarring voice, howling her name in a soft whisper. “Katie, Monday morning. Another day at the office waits for you.”
“Vat time, Old Man?” she uttered groggily to the figure standing in the doorway of the master bedroom.
But instead of a reply she heard the gentle thumping of feet on the stairs, returning to the morning routine.
Katie stretched, squinted her eyes several times, gently allowing the brightness to penetrate the nearly-closed slits of her eyelids. She wiped the sleep from their corners, stretched, and slowly left the coziness of her soft bed. The silky teal blue comforter fell to her ankles as she kicked it aside and strode to the dresser to wash her face in the basin sitting atop the chest of drawers.
She turned and studied her reflection in the full-length mirror. The Rubenesque figure, considered attractively plump in the early twentieth century stared back at her; an alluring woman, pretty without the waif-like body and athletic build she’d brought from Croatia. Had Katie Novak lived in the seventeenth century instead of the twentieth, she certainly would have graced the canvas of artist Peter Paul Rubens. But she knew nothing of such things. She knew only of her business, her husband, and her children.
The early twentieth century was a time of great social and cultural change in America. War raged in Europe and President Wilson had been elected twice with the promise of keeping the country out of war. In the half century since the Civil war immigrants populated the industrial areas and women began taking a more active role in work and politics. Though still in her infancy, the modern, independent woman had been born.
“Things be look up for me,” mused Katie Novak in her unique broken language, speaking to her reflection. “When I come this country, I was little girl with big dreams. Now I big girl with big business, two baby, old man for take care house and baby. I got nice life. Worst ting is get dressed in fine lady’s clothes for work. Need help for dat.”
She pulled the full skirt over her ample hips and called out to her husband, “Hey Old Man, come lace me up.”
Pete, feeding their two children breakfast, reaches across the table to wipe both chewing mouths with a dish cloth “Finish eating, little ones. I’ll be right back,” he uttered in his native Bosnian language as he wiped egg drippings from gooey chins and oatmeal from the table. Little Ruža, age three, and eighteen-month old Little Petey smiled as they watched their father’s every move.
Hanging the soiled dish cloth over the back of his chair, Pete hiked up his Blue Buckle Overalls and took the steps two at a time. He loved this time of morning, family all together and early morning chores completed. He’d already milked the cow, fed the chickens, and gathered eggs for breakfast. Now he hurried to help his lovely Katie dress for work.
She listened as the thumps on the stairs grew louder until he reached the top step, turned into the master bedroom and gave thought to his good fortune. During his childhood days as an indentured servant, and even his early days in America he could not have imagined this; owning his own house, two wonderful children and a determined wife.
He walked into the bedroom, picked up the discarded comforter and tossed it on the bed that he would make after she left for work. “Okay, my beautiful wife, we will get you ready for your customers.”
The late summer day promised to be sunny and cloudless. Rays beckoned the couple through the large window of the second story bedroom, spilling over the unmade poster bed. An expanse of beauty stood before them; steel mills belching smoke that meant prosperity for their community. Behind the bustling mills ran the mighty Monongahela River, its forward surge making a mad dash downstream toward Pittsburgh. Beyond the river, the sandy bank lies shaded by a hillside of green grass, trees of a yet-unmanned, unnamed hollow. The stunning view before them is one of the best in the bottom land of Clairton, Pennsylvania.
Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian languages, all Balto-Slavic are similar enough that a speaker of one comprehends the others. Most immigrants to the area spoke a pidgin conglomeration that all understood. Katie had struggled to learn the English language needed to operate her business. She’d mastered the message if not the syntax.
“You men so lucky. Pair pants, shirt, work boots. Take you two shakes of lamb’s tail for get dress. I haf take all morning. One day womens gon’ haf easy job dress. Like man.”
The husband spoke practically no English, choosing instead to use his native Bosnian, or in a pinch, German. Whenever Katie prodded him to learn more English he responded, “I speak two languages. That is all that fits in my brain. I’m too old to learn another. Besides, I’m a farmer. My plants understand me. My animals understand me. My family understands me. Anybody else with a question in English can ask you.”
“You crazy, Old Man. Help me finish dress. I no want be late for work.”
Pete dressed Katie as she peered out the large window. Across the river and along the rolling hills stood several huge oak trees. A breeze created a whirlwind that scooped up a pile of leaves that lay scattered among the trees. She watched the leaves dance as she held in, twisted and contorted her body to help her husband with his task. She moved in time with the blowing leaves that hinted of fall colors to come; yellow, orange, red, and brown waiting to replace the green of late summer.
After pulling and straining to wrench the long skirt over her head, the stubborn garment fell into place over her white starched blouse and the dance wound down. Pete helped cinch, tie, tug, hook, clasp, and otherwise serve as an expert clothier for his young bride, then kissed her on the cheek and returned downstairs to finish feeding the children.