The two Deans sisters have always lived together. They are, however, different: Mary is ‘visionary and sentimental’ whereas Martha is ‘practical and straightforward’. They are ‘very much respected’ and though ‘tailoresses by trade’, the growth in readymade garments meant that their principal business is now small sewing and mending. Martha is often called upon to ‘keep house’ for people, as she is ‘strong and vigorous’. Mary is believed to be the gentler choice to aid the sick, but Martha’s no-nonsense approach is also appreciated: ‘sometimes you wanted one and sometimes the other’. ‘They lived together on a hilltop just outside the village’ which suited Mary, ‘who loved quiet more and more as she grew older’; however, Martha ‘fretted’ about being so far out of the village, and as she did most of the errands, it was an ‘inconvenience’ to her.
Martha raises the fact that a sewing machine would make their lives much easier as they could then have ‘steady work at home in winter.’ Mary is aware of the sense in this argument, and looks at her sister, seeing her for the first time as ‘almost an old woman.’ Martha’s lover had died suddenly ‘years ago’, and although Martha had become accustomed to seeing the tragedy as ‘all for the best’, Mary ‘felt the loss of the lover more than Martha herself,’
It is coming up to Thanksgiving, and Mary suggests that they invite their cousin, John Whitefield, to join them for the occasion. There has been a family rift for years – their ‘father thought that this cousin’s father cheated him of his rights in the old home farm.’ They had not even spoken as children. Martha is dismissive of Mary’s idea, even when Mary reminds her ‘this’ll be the first Thanksgiving since his wife died.’
Martha relents, and sends a letter inviting the cousin. Mary is ‘filled with fear’ for the tension and hard work the visit will bring to her sister. Mary welcomes their visitor whilst Martha bustles in the kitchen, but she does warm to the occasion, noting that Cousin John ‘had grown to look like her own dear, honest-hearted father’. She leaves the socialising to Mary and John, who is ‘pathetically glad to come;’ By ‘the time dinner was ready they were warm friends.’
Martha contents herself with the practical aspects of the dinner, using ‘the best tablecloth and the best dishes.’ The three of them agree to ‘let bygones be bygones’ and Martha deftly mends her cousin’s worn coat. Cousin John asks if they have a sewing machine, and finding that they do not, offers his wife’s machine to them. The sisters know that this will solve the problem of their winter’s work as they will be able to produce items for Mr. Torby’s shop.
The cousin stays overnight, and Martha acknowledges her sister’s courage in reuniting the family. Mary, in turn, praises her sister’s organisation of the dinner. They joke about having their house ‘on runners’ to slide down the snowy him into town, and Mary points out that the sewing machine had earlier been a mere wish, but was now a reality.
The story has Biblical allusions, which help to enhance the characterisation within the story. Mary and Martha are directly compared to their Biblical counterparts, who are the sisters of Lazarus. Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, and it appears in the story that the relationship with the sisters and their cousin John is similarly resurrected.
Mary and Martha are loved in their community, but it is obvious that their advancing age and the wheels of progress mean that there are fewer and fewer requests for their mending and hand sewing, and there is a concern as to how they will get through the winter.
Mary’s kind heart means that at the time of Thanksgiving her thoughts turn to their family, and their widowed cousin. She is able to have an appreciation and love for the things around her, as she is much more positive than her sister is. She is more attuned to nature and to intense feeling, though Martha is the one who interacts most with people.
Mary is afraid when her suggestion to invite the cousin is met with hostility from Martha. She is conscious that Martha does feel the need for company, and Mary is more sensitive to the loss of Martha’s lover than even Martha is. The close bond between the sisters is evident when Martha announces she has written to invite Cousin John, and busies herself in preparing a respectable feast. She finds the initial meeting a challenge, but acknowledges her sister’s valuable work in thinking of their guest and making him welcome. Martha’s own response is through action rather than words: she sets the table with their best wares and quickly mends the cousin’s coat. Jewett seems to suggest that the benevolent words and deeds are needed to make the reconciliation a success.
The promise of the sewing machine is an unexpected reward for the sisters, but one that is earned and needed. The sewing machine is a metaphor for progress, independence and family unity as it passes from the Whitefield family to the Deans. It seems to atone for the issues of the farm inheritance, which had blighted the two families many years before.