The Joy of Seven

Anja was homesick. She hadn’t heard the fiddles and accordions — music of her land — in five weeks. During that time, she had washed mountains of dishes, even more dishes than her family of seven could create.

She had mopped the restaurant floor more than 100 times.

She had gotten hundreds of guests’ orders correct and five orders wrong.

She was very lucky to have work. She knew that. She was helping her Papa and Mama stay in the house they got for their large family. And helping them put enough food on the table to feed all her brothers and sisters.

They were also very lucky to be together.

They had sold some of their instruments to come to America. And the one they kept, Papa’s fiddle, was destroyed in the boat on the way over. They had wanted to present it to him as they reunited with him after six long months apart.

“I am so glad to see my wonderful family again,” he said. “I do not need my fiddle.”

Anja was shocked when she saw him, even more thin and gaunt than when they left him at the dock in Sweden. So tired-looking, a spark of happiness lighting up weary blue eyes. Beautiful eyes that she remembered were always full of love for Mama and her siblings. But she said, “Papa, it is so good to see you! You look well.”

She was afraid to tell him of the dancing and singing of their own village, the one they said goodbye to months earlier. It would make him homesick. Surely someday, they could go back. Surely someday.

The house they fought so hard for was a house with a dirt floor and a mud roof. Five children and two parents crowded into its cramped, dirty quarters.

“It will get better,” said Mama. “Things always get better.”

Anja didn’t know if things always got better. They had gotten very much worse before Papa came to America. But she didn’t want to break Mama’s heart, so she nodded and smiled.

“I know, Mama,” she said.

At the restaurant, Anja peeled potatoes. Then she came home and peeled some more.

But that night, the tears fell into the potatoes. Sweden was so very far away. Life here was so different from what she expected.

She held little Hans that night as he drifted off to sleep by the one window their house had. She sang him a cattle song, what the Swedes called kulning, in her eerie, magical way.

All the little ones fell asleep to her kulning the cattle song.

But she stared at the moon through the little window, lying on a patchwork quilt stuffed with straw. Where did they belong? Would they ever feel safe and at home again? Would she ever bring the herd home again?

“Anja,” her mother’s soft voice whispered gently.

“Yes, Mama.”

“You are awake.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Of bringing the herd home over the mountain.”

“Oh . . . still the cows, Anja.”

Those were the good old days, before they lost their farm and were forced to separate their family so Papa could find work in America.

The next day, after seeing every little brother and sister eat at least some breakfast, and boiling the water for Mama for the day, she took a new route to walk to work.

She still felt heartsick though it was morning. The sun made her feel a little better. It is possible she would have felt better had she had more eggs and bread in her stomach. Maybe some good, stout coffee too. All day long, she watched guests eat big meals and leave some on their plates, and when the kitchen head wasn’t watching, she stole a few bites off their discarded plates before she threw the food away.

“So much horrible waste.” Anja always thought of her hungry brothers and sisters. “What a sin.”

Anja knew it was evil to waste food like that.

“Please,” she said, “can I take this food home?”

Fatima stared at her in surprise.

“Oh, not for me!” Anja laughed. “For our dog and horse.”

“Ok, sure, yeah. I guess so.”

So Anja brought the scraps of food home to her family that night. They ate them hungrily.

When Anja returned to work the next day, she felt ill. The teacups on her tray rattled together. She lost her breakfast, what little there had been, near the garbage behind the kitchen. Several times she saw Fatima look at her through worried eyes, one narrowed and squinting, the other with the eyebrow raised sharpy.

Anja could never tell if Fatima was judging her or feeling sorry for her.

Around 4:30 as Anja was getting ready to leave after the lunch rush died down, and after she had prepared for dinner, Fatima pulled her aside in the back of the kitchen.

There were two steel buckets sitting on the old wooden table. They were covered with white tea towels, embroidered with the emblem of the restaurant, the Blue Hen.

Fatima lifted the lid of one of the buckets without a word. There were biscuits and gravy and potato pancakes. There were fried eggs. She lifted the second. A collection of fresh brown and green eggs.

She pushed the two buckets toward Anja. “You cannot work well if you do not eat.”

The tears in Anja’s eyes were thanks enough. She took the buckets and began to walk away.

“Anja, will you not need scraps for your horse?”

“My horse will…he’ll make do,” said Anja.

Later that night, the joy of seven could be heard clear across the plains of Wisconsin, in that little prairie 45 miles southeast of Milwaukee.