When Upon Life's Billows
by Alice Gubler Sabin
Illustration of a woman visiting another woman at a door from Relief Society Magazine

EDITOR'S NOTE: "When Upon Life's Billows" was originally published in The Relief Society Magazine June, 1965, vol. 52, no. 6, pp. 416-420, 1965.

Brigham Young University's Harold B. Lee Library has made digital scans of Relief Society Magazine available online as part of the Relief Society Magazine Digital Project. This article is online there in the original format at:

The article is reprinted here with permission.

I'll never forget the time that Aunt Lou got canned. Father says canned isn't the right way to say it. He says she was dismissed. But Aunt Lou insists she was out and out canned, fired that is.

We had finished our evening meal and were putting the last of the dishes away when our bell rang. Mother opened the door and there stood Aunt Lou, her face flushed pinker than the suit she was wearing.

"Elaine!" she stormed, "I'm a washout. A flop. A failure!"

"Sounds perfectly terrible," Mother said with mock seriousness. "Come in and tell us how you figured that out."

Father put down his newspaper. "Hi, Sis."

"Clint," she choked, "I could just die. I got canned today!"

"Canned!" Mother and Father both spoke at once.

"Yes, canned. Fired, and I'm through. My whole life is washed down the drain." Her chin trembled as she spoke, and tears threatened to fall.

Nancy, Craig, and I stood watching her in wonderment. Mother said, "You children run out and put the garden tools away."

"I haven't wiped the cupboards around the sink yet," I said.

"All right, Judy. Finish up and then go and help Nancy and Craig."

They didn't have a good excuse for not going out, as I did.

"I could just as well have lived the rest of my life without this happening to me," Aunt Lou lamented. "I can't understand. After working for fifteen years and loving it, to think I'd land in a spot where they'd fire me!"

A spot is exactly what father had called it, when Aunt Lou took that job. Nobody had wanted her to go to work for those insurance brokers, especially her husband Uncle Si. She could have worked forever in the news office, if his company hadn't transferred him; but they did, and, of course, Aunt Lou moved away.

You should have heard the folks at the news office lament when she served notice. After fifteen years I guess they thought she was an office fixture. She was mighty popular. Everyone loved her, and it looked as if the place would fold if she left; but it didn't. They hired someone else.

Then a funny thing happened. Uncle Si was transferred right back here again. That's when Aunt Lou took this insurance job. She said with Kenny in dental school, they could use an extra pay check. That's when she had started to be a career girl in the first place—when her boys and girls began to go off to college and on missions.

And now, after only two months in insurance she was canned. Mother and father were pretty serious now. They were sitting on the sofa, one on each side of her. I could hear her telling them how hard she had tried to learn the details of her new job. How much she had put into it, and still something went wrong.

"I'm washed up. Do you understand? I'm a failure. Can you imagine what it feels like to be a failure?" She put her hands over her face and sobbed like a little girl. She really isn't very big, you know.

I felt real sorry for her. I knew exactly how she felt. I remember once when I was a failure. It was terrible. It was when I had to make a poster for school and everyone laughed at it. The boy who sat behind me had said, "Judy, for an artist, you are a failure." My life was blighted.

I wanted to go comfort Aunt Lou. I wanted to tell her that success sometimes comes right after failure, because it did with me. The very next week, when my piano teacher had a recital, she reserved my number for the last because she said it was the most polished. She said my performance was a real success.

Aunt Lou was talking about something now that I didn't understand. The word was senility. Her supervisor had said it was harder to learn new things when senility was beginning to set in. Mother said "Humph!" and father roared with laughter.

Aunt Lou was on the defense. "It is not funny, Clint. It is serious. Nobody wants me because I'm too old. That's the real reason I got canned. They said a younger person would take to the countless details faster. They couldn't spend any more time trying to break me in." She looked totally crushed. "They became very gentle and kind when they handed me my pay check. 'Don't be discouraged, Lou. You have not failed. You weren't cut out for this job, that's all. You'll find a spot somewhere, where you will fit, we know. Goodbye now. Drop in and see us sometime. We'll want to know how you get along.' I felt like an old horse being turned out to pasture."

It was hard for me to keep polishing cupboards. I wanted to run into the living room, throw my arms around her and tell her that even if she did have senility, whatever it was, we loved her.

She sat staring miserably at the floor. "I have never tasted the bitterness of defeat before. I've always had faith in myself, that I could do anything I wanted to if I tried hard enough. My self-confidence is completely shaken. I won't have the courage to try again." Her heavy sob was almost a moan.

Father looked stern. "I suppose you are the first person to have ever been dismissed from a job."

She hesitated. "I can't think of anyone right now."

"Of course you can't," Mother said. "People are too prone to think they are the only ones who have troubles. What about Mr. Beahm next door? He lost one job after another until the employment office urged him to take a special training course. Look at him now. One of the main cogs in the wheel with his company."

Father said, "If everyone in our country who had been dismissed from a job refused to try again, we would all be swept out to sea under a tide of unemployment."

"But most of the people you have in mind are younger than I. I am being washed up just a few years before retirement age. My career is ending on a down beat, leaving me forever smarting under the whip of being canned."

Father said, "You must be a tottering fifty-six. Look, Sis, when you fall down, you can't just lie there. You have to get up."

Mother said, "It's no use to tell you to forget it. You're going to brood all night anyway. But there's one nice thing about it. You don't have to go to work tomorrow. You'll be free to visit with me and to see some, friends."

Mother is very practical. She can make good use of any situation.

Then Aunt Lou said forlornly, "Sweet are the uses of adversity. I may as well go along."

Mother looked as if she had scored a home run.

Wearily Aunt Lou arose. "It's time I was at home fixing Si's dinner. I must be going."

"I'll pick you up at 1:30 tomorrow," Mother said.

"I'll be ready," Aunt Lou replied.

The next day Father took Nancy and Craig to the ranch with him to help tie grain sacks. Mother had some peaches to put up and I stayed to help her. By pushing, we were through by noon.

After lunch I brushed my hair until it was soft as silk, and put on my yellow tissue gingham. Mother looked surprised to see me dressed up.

"Judy, you look fresh as a flower. Would you like to come along with me and Aunt Lou this afternoon?"

I was hoping she would ask. When I was little she used to take me with her when she made visits. I loved to go with her to see her friends. I had always liked older people.

When we picked Aunt Lou up she appeared tired. She got into the car and sat down with a sigh. There were shadows around her eyes. She apparently hadn't slept the whole night through. If mother noticed it she didn't let on.

"How long has it been since you've been to see Sister Karr?" Mother asked.

"Years," Aunt Lou confessed. "I know she lives alone, and I've always meant to go, but haven't. I always speak to her at church on Sundays."

We whisked around a few corners and stopped under the shade of a weeping birch alongside a white picket fence.

Aunt Lou brightened. "What a pretty yard."

"Yes. Sister Karr keeps it up herself."

Illustration of a house, roof, and ladder from Relief Society Magazine

We walked past tall blue spikes of delphiniums and masses of painted daisies. The garden was a medley of color. A movement on the roof of the house attracted our gaze. It was Sister Karr, scrambling down over the shingles to reach the ladder.

"What in the world are you up to?" Mother demanded.

Sister Karr paused on the second round of the ladder to push her hair back from her face. "I'm fixing my roof. It leaked a bit when it rained the other night."

"You should not climb up on the house!" Mother scolded. "Why didn't you call us. Clint would be happy to fix it for you."

"No," she said firmly, climbing to the ground. "I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself."

I had always enjoyed running errands for mother to Sister Karr's place. She was a spunky little woman. She used to tell me about the trees in her yard. She brought them with her when she moved from Idaho to Washington years ago. She had many kinds and each one had a sentimental value. She had poured the cement to make the stepping stones and walks in her garden, and had done a lot of the remodeling of the house herself.

"Come in and sit down." She held open the screen. "I'll fix us a cool drink."

We sank into deep velvet chairs. The living room was furnished with treasures from the past.

She brought a pitcher of cold grape juice. I knew she had prepared it herself from the Concords that grew on her back fence.

"We are in luck to find you at home," Mother said.

"I'm glad to be home," she answered. "I've so much to do here, I really don't want to go back to work."

"Work!" Aunt Lou almost choked on the word.

"Sister Karr has been living in with an old couple, taking care of them," Mother explained.

Sister Karr sat down with a sigh. "I'm glad their young ones took them home with them. They were a real care. Tried my patience some."

"How old were they?" Aunt Lou ventured.

"Both in their seventies. Now I know the next question you're thinking. I'm eighty-two. Young woman, when you've lived as long as I have, you'll discover years don't regulate your age. It's how interested you are in life."

If that's how age was gauged, one could see in a glance Sister Karr would never grow old. There were family group sheets on her desk that she had been working on, and a hooked rug underway in the next room. And I knew she was always baking good things for folks who were ill. She had brought me some cup cakes with pink icing on them when I had my arm in splints.

Aunt Lou's eyes twinkled.

"We'll see you at Relief Society Tuesday morning, then, if you're not working."

"I'll be there," Sister Karr smiled.

Mother says if you don't visit too long, folks will always want you to come again. Getting into the car she said, "We're going to see Jeanne Douglas next."

Jeanne met us at the door. She looked as though she had just stepped out of a jewel case. And that's almost how it was. She smiled into our eyes as she greeted us.

An oil painting of a mountain and autumn trees hung above her fireplace. It was the sort of a picure that draws you into it.

Aunt Lou spoke, "I have never seen a painting more real."

"Thank you." Jeanne looked pleased.

"Your name is in the corner. Have you always painted?" Aunt Lou asked.

"No. Only for about five years. I didn't try until after my sixtieth birthday."

"Why did you wait until then?"

"Too busy, I thought. Suddenly I realized I had reached an enviable age where I could do as I pleased. I was no longer under the discipline of childhood, the torture of adolescence, the uncertainty of youth, and my family was grown and gone. So I enrolled in an art class. There I found a lot of other folks, like myself, fulfilling belated dreams."

Aunt Lou brightened like a rose bathed in dew.

We admired other paintings of hers and visited quite awhile.

Mother wanted to call on Sister Hilton last. She has been in a wheel chair ever since I can remember. You never think of it when you're around her. She is so cheerful.

"Come in," she called gaily when Mother knocked. She was knitting a soft blue sweater.

She reached out and gave me a hug, then squeezed Mother's and Aunt Lou's hands. My eyes lit on a slim little book with delicate flowers on its jacket.

"Oh, Sister Hilton!" I cried, "This is your new book of poems, isn't it!"

"Yes," she smiled. "You may look at it if you wish."

Did I ever wish! Sister Hilton and I were real buddies. I had to run to her often with exciting tales of school. Mother would send me when she had a jar of jelly or some fresh rolls for her. Once, when I had a cricket in a little red box to take to "show and tell" at school, she wrote a funny little poem about it for me.

She has written poems for Church publications and women's magazines. She says they bring in enough money to buy yardage to make pretty things for her great-grandchildren.

As I looked at the book, the others visited. Sister Hilton told them about an old folks party she had attended. She said there were folks there from their middle fifties to ninety-three. "That ninety-three-year-old youngster was the liveliest of them all. He danced every set, but the one he sat out with me. 'Look,' he said, pointing to the exhausted middleagers sitting out, 'just look at them, sitting around getting old.'" She chuckled.

We were all three pretty gay on our way home. Aunt Lou sang, "When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed." Mother and I joined in on, "when you are discouraged thinking all is lost." We sang all the way home.

Aunt Lou got out at her house. "Thanks, Elaine and Judy, for this visiting," she said, "I have made an important discovery. I belong to an especially privileged group bordering on the golden years, filled with golden opportunities." She had a dreamy, faraway look. "There are things I've always wanted to do. Why not do them now?"

The next day she called at the publishing office of our local farm magazine.

That was a year ago. Do you know what she is doing today. She has just been advanced to editor of the home section of the magazine.