In a flashback, Mattie thinks of a morning at the end of March of 1906, in the kitchen at her home, as she's trying to feed her youngest sister, Beth, who is singing. She realizes that Beth is "singing to fill all the empty places in our house" (2.4).
Lou, Mattie's eleven-year-old sister, enters with the milk and tracks cow manure across the kitchen. A fight breaks out between Lou and Beth, there's literally some crying over spilled milk, and Mattie misses her mother, who died that past winter.
Abby, age fourteen, enters carrying eggs and tells the girls that Pa will be home soon.
Beth and Lou get Barney, the old hunting dog that Pa won't put out of his misery, to clean up the spilled milk, but Lou, who is a bit of a tomboy, says that Pa will know the milk spilled because Barney's farts smell really bad when he drinks milk.
Tommy Hubbard, the neighbor boy, comes to the house; because his family is so poor and destitute, he's hoping for a free breakfast before school, which he gets from Lou.
Cornmeal mush is a common meal for the family, and they eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because they are also poor.
It was different when Mamma was alive, Mattie reflects, and feels like she can't fill her mother's shoes; Lou and Pa feel the same way.
Lou and Beth bicker again, and Abby, the eternal peacemaker, distracts them by having Mattie pick the word of the day. Lou grumbles, and Mattie corrects her grammar. Again.
Beth picks the word fractious, which Tommy reads as being "apt to break out into a passion… snappish, peevish, irritable, cross" (2.63).
The children gather their materials to go to school, but Lou skips to go fishing; she's like Pa, angry, especially after her mom died and her brother Lawton abandoned the family.
Mattie and Tommy talk about his mom, Emmie Hubbard, who has a tenuous grasp of reality at best, and Mattie assures Tommy that she'll try to help.
She thinks of the happier times when her mother was alive and her father came home from a winter of logging; those times are over now, and money is tight.
Pa comes into the kitchen with news that the sow ate four of her piglets; Mattie serves him his breakfast. Pa says he needs her and the girls to stay home from school tomorrow to help make syrup from tree sap; Mattie says she can't afford to miss more school, but realizes that her father doesn't care.
Pa says that the only reason Mattie is still in school is because her mom wanted her to be; she won't be going to school after this year because he needs her to help run the farm.
Mattie asks her father if she can work at one of the camps this summer to earn money, but he, of course says no. What she doesn't tell him is that she wants to earn money to go to college in New York City.