To Elsa, Saturdays mean bliss. Saturdays are the morning of her entire week. They are the crowning glory the cherry on the top of the sundae. A week without Saturdays to Elsa would be a week without happiness. She takes what she can get. And she gets Saturdays.
All week long, she taps her patent-leather-clad toes. She fidgets and she flutters. She doesn’t have the patience to button her dresses or shirts, or zip up jackets. She’s a blur, she’s a nuisance. She’s waiting for her Saturdays. Her parents smile fondly, and her sisters scoff. But what can they do? The brownstone at 23 East Hampshire Street is the kingdom, and Elsa is the miniature queen. Mother, Father, Clara, Heidi, and Tanya, they all jump to her commands. The eldest, Lena, does too. And can they help it? Just a frown from the little dancer casts a shadow over the whole day. Even Palinka, the brown-and-white dog, is devoted to Elsa. No treat tastes as good as bacon from Elsa’s pudgy, dimpled hand.
Elsa’s treats are Saturdays. Friday night she comes home from dance class, and plops her little four-year-old self by the dining room window. She sits, all by herself, in the velvet crimson window seat, and carefully lets down her bun of red-gold hair. She slips off her dance shoes and her scratchy tutu, and lets them fall to the floor like unheard whispers. The dining room is glossy, decadent, and dark. Books from the mahogany shelves brood over Elsa, thinking important thoughts. Elsa is a little scared by the picture of Great-Grandmother Marguerite that overlooks the window seat, who has the hooked nose of people who died very old a very long time ago. But Elsa has learned to look defiantly back into Great-Grandmother’s flat brown eyes.
Elsa herself has bright blue eyes, like well-tended violets or pieces of spring sky the fairies forgot to collect. She has a little upturned nose sprinkled with cinnamon freckles, and soft pink lips. Her upper lip is dented with a little scar, from when high-spirited Heidi dropped her on the hearth. Elsa has never quite forgiven Heidi for that. But she loves Heidi anyway. Elsa is a person who loves naturally Even Heidi, who is all long legs and jutting elbows and who can be hard to love. Some people can sing and some people can run, but Elsa can love.
Elsa leans her red-gold head against the mahogany paneling, and taps her fingers in a rhythm. She hears Clara practicing at the piano. Music fills the house like piney smells, grand and booming. Clara, who is fifteen, loves the piano. Clara wraps her whole soul in music, like a down blanket. She hums all the time, even in her sleep. When she walks home from school, her long gangly legs in their navy-blue-uniform tights skip to the tune of an unheard violin.
Elsa hears Tanya with Mother in the kitchen, banging oven doors, stirring, whirring the beaters. Heidi is groaning in the living room, angry with math. Heidi takes up so much space, with long legs and arms and wild auburn hair and flashing green eyes. She vibrates with contained energy. Elsa doesn’t. Elsa radiates peace.
Elsa watches the people go by, bundled up and warm. They wave at her fairy image in the windowpane. She waves back, and then turns to Lena. Lena smiles at her little ballerina of a sister, bringing her cinnamon cookies. Lena stretches her lean arm along the mantelpiece, and lays her glossy brown head on it, and watches her sister.
“Elsie, how was ballet?”
“It was good.” Elsa takes a deep bite of cinnamon-raisin cookie. “We did plies. I’m to be a Snowflake in the Nutcracker.'”
“That’s grand,” Lena says. She smiles, her green eyes calm and comfortable, laughing at the little miniature witch of a girl. “And are you waiting for Saturday?”
“Oh, yes,” says Elsa.
And then Mother comes in, moving quietly, a candle in her hand. “Elsie, liebchen, hand me the matches.”
Elsa does so, scrambling, a little monkey in her tights. She hands Mother the box of heavy matches, and everyone watches as Mother lights the Friday night candles. Puff! The candles bloom like chrysanthemums in the darkness, Mother’s hand shielding them from the wind.
* * *
Saturday morning Elsa wakes up early, and she lets twelve-year-old Tanya help her dress. Elsa buttons her red coat, and she takes her blue hat into Lena’s room. Lena and Heidi are just waking up, fresh-faced in the early morning dawn. Lena brushes Elsa’s hair, the brush sure and strong in her hands. She strokes Elsa’s tangles into a red-gold halo of curls.
Elsa scrunches her blue tam-o’-shanter on her head, and Heidi frowns at her. Elsa smiles back, angelic and content. And then all the sisters walk out the door. They walk hand-in-hand, tall and dignified Lena, fiery tomboy Heidi, dreamy musician Clara. Plump and motherly Tanya holds hands with Elsa. One by one, they file into the corner deli. They get their bagels, they get their lox. The owner smiles at the Saturday morning regulars, and hands them free moon cookies.
Elsa hates moon cookies, but she wouldn’t have any other cookie for the world. She licks off the brown-and-white icing, careful not to mix the two. She waits to lick the brown icing until all the creamy moon part is licked off, and the hard, tasteless half-cookie is slick and shiny in her mittened hand.
The sisters walk to the park, and eat the bagels there. Elsa’s heart is singing and dancing. She thinks her chest might burst open with how happy she is. Lena smiles at her, thinking her own private thoughts. That Elsa. Always staring at something in the distance, something that pleased her and made her rose-pink lips twist in one corner.
“Keep your fairy lands, Elsie,” Lena whispers.
Elsa eats her moon cookie.
They walk all over Boston on Saturdays, a fresh-faced sight straight from Sweden. Old women smile, old men ask wise Lena for help in their sidewalk chess game. Elsa and Tanya scatter crumbs for the pigeons, and Heidi balances on the fences. Clara taps her long skinny fingers, sounding out tunes and melodies on walls and trees and fence posts.
By three o’clock, they are always at the launderers. Billowy sheets piled in tubs, drying in the scent of lavender. The atmosphere is fresh and clean, warm and dry. The laundress fetches the laundry for the Olsons, asks after their parents. She hands each of them, even seventeen-year-old Lena, toffee from the caramel-warm basket on the counter. The waxed paper slides off, and the slick shiny candy melts on your tongue like afternoon sunlight. Elsa holds a bag of laundry and wishes she were old enough to carry her mother’s clothes. The silk and taffeta dresses, the net and sequined shirtwaists, the velvet feathered opera capes. Lena carries those. Heidi is not to be trusted with her father’s suits, so solemn Clara holds the crisp black-and-white ruffled cummerbunds and vests. Heidi, like Tanya and Elsa, carries socks, pinafores, and the girls’ checked gingham dresses in a laundry sack.
From there, they go to Nightingale Park. They lay the laundry out on the grass, and they amuse themselves. Clara lies on the sunny grass with some sheet music, and Lena sews and Tanya mends. Heidi runs around the fountains, with Elsa on her back, skipping on the marble, her skirts flying up. She runs and Elsa screams in laughter until both are too tired.
But there are other things to do. There are swings, and there is the newspaper man, and there is the cigarette man, and there is the chimney sweep. Elsa runs and plays and explores every nook, every cranny. She plays with rocks as fairies, and she makes wildflower wreaths. She drinks in the grass and the lake and the sun, and this feeling. She sits, still clean, in the midst of a golden light. Nothing bad can happen today. Not today.
At five o’clock, it is time to go home. But on the way there, they stop by the carousel. Elsa’s favorite part! The music and the painted horses, going up and down, lights like around a movie star’s mirror. They arrive, and the ticket man looks up from the paper.
“Sorry girls, not today. It’s broken.”
Broken! Elsa’s bottom eyelids fill with tears. Her lashes are glued in triangles, her lips tremble and bow.
“Elsie,” Lena says, bending down, but Heidi moves her out of the way.
“Elsa,” she says, taking the small girl’s hands. “Elsa, we will have our own carousel.”
Elsa looks up. The golden light did not protect her. “Heidi…” she sobs.
“We will,” Heidi says firmly. “Climb on my back.”
Elsa does. Then Clara gets into the spirit of the thing. She takes out her penny harmonica and begins to play “Waltz of the Flowers.” Lena begins to dance, bending and twisting and extending her ballet-cultivated body, up and down, up and down. Tanya sings along.
And they proceed, the Olson sisters, in their own carousel. And so it goes, the Waltz of the Flowers, all the way home.