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historical, novel, multigenerational, women,
struggle, family, faith, grit, spirit, empowering

Read a few pages. - Enjoy!

 

Chapter One

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

A muffled cry pierced the night on a small Indiana farmstead. The sound shocked her awake: she heard a scream. Her sleepy eight-year-old mind remembered the happenings earlier in the day and she was troubled. Things had seemed normal walking home from school, being teased by big sister Juda: “Sarah got caught talking before the bell today. Her new name is Miss Windbag!”

Brother Will ran past, grabbing her hat from her head. “Miss Windbag, the wind blew your hat off.” He ran ahead, laughing and throwing her hat in the air. She could never keep up with ten-year-old Will, who kept growing out of his overalls. He barged into their two-room log cabin, then stopped short when he noticed Papa fixing harness at the wood slab table. Papa never came up from the field in the middle of the day.

“Quiet, Will. Mama doesn’t feel well. She’s in bed.” Standing, Papa stretched, running his hands through his frizzy salt-and-pepper hair. “You and Sarah do the milking tonight, Will. Juda, after you finish your chores, boil up some potatoes for supper. Mrs. Hazen will be coming to be with Mama.”

Turning toward the bedroom, Sarah asked, “Can I tell Mama I got perfect on my spelling test?”

“No Sarah, she needs to rest. It may be a long night,” Papa replied.

Sarah changed to work clothes and walked to the barn. She was glad she had Sol to milk, though she didn’t like that she swung her manure-clumped tail around her neck while she milked. She liked doing chores with Will because he made her laugh. This time she teased him, “Susana told me at school today she thinks you’re good looking. She says because of your dark skin and black hair you look like an Indian.”

Will laughed, tapping his hand to his mouth, “O-E-O-E-O-E, get my tomahawk!”

“Susana takes a shine to you,” she taunted.

As Will and Sarah walked back from the barn, Mrs. Hazen came in her buggy. She had a bustling, no-nonsense personality and was the one sent for when neighbors got sick. Though she was older, she was Mama’s best friend.

Papa and Mrs. Hazen were with Mama while we ate our supper. We heard her muffled moaning. Mrs. Hazen spoke gently, “There, there, Lucinda." Soon Mama called out, sounding angry. Papa came out of the bedroom, pacing while he ate his potatoes and bread. “Where is he?” he muttered, striding from the fireplace to the bench across the room. He fanned his fingers back through his hair and pawed at his beard.

Will kept reaching across the table to poke Sarah’s hand. Papa yelled, “Leave her alone, Will. Can’t you just eat?” Will looked miserable as he took his plate to the dishpan on the cupboard.

Papa opened the bedroom door, “I’m going to get Dr. Ott. He should have been here two hours ago.”

Mrs. Hazen agreed. “That’s good. Things aren’t moving here.”

“Juda, have everyone in bed by nine o’clock,” Papa called as he grabbed his coat and hat while running out the door. Sarah dried the pottery dishes then swept the rough wood floor. Will brought in wood for the fire. It was April, but still cold and drafty in the cabin. Sarah practiced her letters while Will and Juda did schoolwork. They were quiet and uneasy, listening to Mama moan and cry.

“Is Mama bad sick? Why is Papa getting the doctor?” Sarah asked.

Juda stood up. “Let’s wash and get into our bedclothes. Then I’ll tell you a secret.”

They climbed the ladder into their attic bedroom, taking their brick foot warmers. Sarah loved Juda’s secrets. Last time she told Mama’s secret that there was Indian blood in the Zumbrun family. Since then, she and Will teased about being Indian, but they didn’t want anyone to know and call them a Redskin.

The three sat on the straw tick mattress that Juda and Sarah shared. Juda undid Sarah’s braids and brushed her dark, wavy hair. “Have you noticed Mama’s tummy has grown big and round? She has a baby in her tummy. It’s time for the baby to come. This is painful and someone must help the baby be born. Mrs. Hazen knows how to do that. Sometimes doctors need to help too. Sarah, I’m so excited! We’ll get to take care of the baby. We can hold it and rock the cradle. Will, you can change the baby’s diaper,” she laughed.

“PeeUuu!” Will held his nose. “Babies are women’s work. I’ll teach him how to fish.”

“Let’s say our prayers now. Ask God to keep Mama safe and maybe when we wake up, we’ll hear a baby crying,” Juda said as she knelt beside the mattress. After prayers, Sarah and Juda cuddled together and fell asleep.

These memories of the day were interrupted by another scream as Sarah’s mind returned to the present. She could hear Mrs. Hazen moving about and speaking softly. For several minutes she listened to the sounds below. Unable to sleep, she slipped from Juda’s arms, tip-toed to the attic opening and peeked down. Through the soft kerosene light, she watched Mrs. Hazen hurry from the bedroom, check a large pot in the fireplace, put out towels and clean rags, and carry her case into the bedroom.

She heard noise outside, then Papa burst in the door with old Doctor Ott, who staggered to his knees, dropping his bag and scattering his instruments. His hat and glasses went flying and he crawled around trying to collect his things.

“Thank goodness, you’re here,” said Mrs. Hazen as she bent to assist Dr. Ott. Looking at him, she said, “The baby is breech. I haven’t been able to turn it. Lucinda is pert near out of it from such a long labor. Did you bring the new gadget, the forceps? She’s hardly aware. I don’t think she’ll be able to push.”

Doctor Ott crawled over to the bench, attempting to pull himself up. He was holding his head as Papa reached and shook him. “You’ve got to do something, doctor. The baby’s in trouble. Get up now; you need to help her!”

Mrs. Hazen grasped the doctor’s arm. She sniffed, then looked disgustedly at Papa. “Uriah, he’s drunk. He’ll be no use to us. Lucinda will die if we don’t do something NOW.”

As she spoke, Mama wailed desperately. Doctor Ott’s head snapped at the sound, and he tottered into the bedroom with Papa and Mrs. Hazen rushing behind.

Sarah’s body was numb. She couldn’t believe what she saw. As her eyes lifted to the attic, she noticed Juda and Will were peeking out the opening too. The three were frozen with dread, not saying a word. Mrs. Hazen rushed in and out of the bedroom carrying the steaming pot and the things she had gathered. Glancing at Juda, Sarah saw her eyes were closed and her mouth was moving silently. Sarah whispered her own prayer, “Dear God, take the hurt away from Mama. Make her all better.”

Juda quietly led them back to bed, her arms shaky. Mama became quiet, her sounds more like a mewling kitten. Finally, everything was quiet, too quiet. Sarah reached for Juda’s hand.

When she woke, she didn’t hear the usual bustling sounds downstairs. Each of the children went to a corner to dress, to be alone with their thoughts. Sarah put on the long dress and apron Mama had stitched from a feed sack. It was still cold enough for her to need brown underwear and long stockings. Will didn’t tease this morning, running around and hiding her stockings. When Juda braided her hair, Sarah saw tears sliding down her cheek.

After climbing down the attic ladder, she noticed the bedroom door was closed. Papa was just now stoking the fire at the hearth. No Mama. No cornmeal mush bubbling in the pot. In her heart everything felt wrong. As they walked outside to do chores, Will took her hand, not saying a word. She went to the privy, fed the chickens, and gave mash to the calves while Will milked.

Returning to the cabin, Sarah washed her face in a dishpan of cold water before sitting at the table. Papa washed his face, bent over the dishpan, washing again and again, like the cold water was soothing. Juda, her eyes swollen and red, brought us bowls of warm milk with bread and butter. Because Papa couldn’t hear well, he spoke loudly as he said the morning prayer:

 

Our Father in Heaven, we thank You for this new day. We are grateful for the blessings You have bestowed upon us: our warm home; food to eat; and land for sowing and reaping. Dear God, be near to us this day as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

 

As Papa finished his prayer, Will sobbed. He jumped up from the table and climbed the ladder to the attic, tears running down his face. Then Sarah cried, standing to leave with Will. Juda put her arms around her and wiped her tears with a hanky, “Leave him be, Sarah. He wants to be alone. Let’s have some bread and milk.”

Papa, Juda, and Sarah tried to eat the bread soup. Sarah spooned a little warm milk. Papa and Juda drank their coffee. Without Mama it didn’t feel like their family. After a while, Will came down and sat at his place. It was an uneasy quiet.

Papa lowered his head to his hands. “Children...”

Sarah stood up. “No!” She looked at Papa, “Don’t say it.”

“Come here, Sarah,” he held out his arms. His voice seemed to blare, “Children, Mama died last night and went to Heaven. We were going to have a baby, but something was wrong. While you were asleep, the doctor came but nothing could be done.” He jumped from the table, pacing the small room, his hands clasped behind his head, “If only I’d brought the doctor earlier. I didn’t know until it was too late...”

For a time, all you could hear was quiet crying and sniffles. There was no question now. Mama was gone. Will laid his head in his arms. Juda covered her face with her hanky.

“But Papa, where is our baby?” Sarah cried.

“There is no baby, Sarah,” Papa said sadly.

With a heaving sigh, Papa said, “Now we must go on. We need to be strong and dry our tears. Mama wouldn’t want us to cry. This is God’s will, and we must be thankful that Mama is in a happier place where every tear will be dry.” Sarah went to sit on Juda’s lap; she rocked her like when she was a baby.

Speaking to himself, Papa said, “Mrs. Hazen will come in the morning to prepare Mama.”

Then with resolve, “Juda, you will be the Mother now. Wash Mama’s church dress and clean her shoes. John Hazen and I will make a coffin and prepare the grave. I’ll go to Blue River and see if Reverend Hill can have a service for Mama tomorrow afternoon.”

“Do Uncle William and Aunt Caroline know about Mama?” asked Juda.

“Oh dear God,” Papa said, shaking his head. “My mind is muddled. Ride the donkey to Uncle William’s. He was Mama’s favorite brother. I wonder if Aunt Caroline will be surprised. Last month when she saw Mama, she knew something was wrong because of the brown spot that came on Mama’s face.”

Papa sat on the bench beside Sarah. “You muck Boss and Sol’s stall and put the manure on the garden.” Shaking his head, he muttered, “But who will do the garden now anyway? Don’t forget to gather the eggs and feed the calves this evening.” Papa put his hand on Juda’s shoulder, “Things will be different without Mama. We’re all going to have to do our share. When it’s time for planting, you, Will, and Sarah will all need to quit school. We’ll need you at home to help get seeds in the ground.”

Juda drew in a sharp breath, “Papa.” This was the worst possible news. All three children loved school. Most girls quit school at age twelve, but Miss Banks had told Mama Juda was especially gifted and should get special instruction. Mama agreed, believing school the most important thing, even for a girl. Leaving school would break Juda’s heart; Sarah and Will didn’t want to quit either.

“We have much to do today. We’re all sad and it will be easy for us to feel sorry for ourselves. The Bible says, ‘let not your heart be troubled and heavy laden’. We remember Mama being cheerful and singing as she worked. That’s the way she would want us to carry on. Let’s get busy now.”

Juda heated water to wash clothes while Sarah chipped soap and pushed the arm on the rocking washer to slush about the clothes. Even though Papa said not to be sad, Juda and Sarah hardly talked, and then they only whispered with quavering voices.

There were so many things Sarah didn’t understand. “What does it mean to die, Juda?” she asked, handing her a shirt by the corners.

Grasping the shirt and pegging it to the clothesline Juda said thoughtfully, “I learned in school that your heart stops beating, and you don’t breathe anymore. Nothing in your body works. Then you die.”

“Does it hurt to die?”

The next shirt dropped back into the basket as Juda bent to hold herself, remembering Mama’s screams, “Yes Sarah, I think it hurt Mama to die,” she said in anguish.

“I know Mama is in Heaven but where is Heaven? Will we ever see her again?”

Juda straightened up, stomping her foot and yelling, “I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know! Nobody tells me anything either,” she cried. She grabbed Sarah in her arms as they settled to the cold hard ground, rocking and crying, wondering what would happen to them without a mother. When Juda could speak again she said, “Sarah, I know Mama was going to have a baby and something was wrong with the baby when it was being born. Mama and the baby both died. Remember Aunt Nellie died when she had a baby? I think mothers get sick with babies sometimes. I know Mama went to Heaven ‘cause she was a good person and she was saved by the blood of the lamb. Heaven is a special place in the sky where people go when they die. You never come back from Heaven, so we’ll never see Mama again.”

It felt good to cry with Juda and let their sadness be real. There was still a lot Sarah didn’t understand but she knew Juda would tell her what she knew. Sitting on the ground, crying with Juda, felt like a relief to her.

“Sarah, Mama isn’t with us anymore, but we can still love her and remember her. We should never forget that she loved us. I’ll remember how she sang to us and combed our hair. She would kiss the top of your head and call you Sarah Cake. She didn’t make me eat dandelion greens ‘cause she knew I didn’t like them. Always remember Sarah, that Mama loved you very much and where she is in Heaven, she still loves you even if she can’t be with you. I think Mama would say to me, ‘Juda, you take care of Sarah and help her not to be scared’. That’s what I’ll do, Sarah. I promise you.”

It was quiet while the two rocked and thought about losing Mama. “I make a promise to take care of you too, Juda,” Sarah said with eight-year-old pride.

That afternoon Juda rode the donkey to Aunt Caroline’s. Papa and Mr. Hazen were working in the shed. Sarah had finished her jobs and was poking around the fire. She thought how everything had changed in one day—would things ever be the same?  Why was the bedroom door still closed? No one had told her not to go inside. Was Mama still there? Could she see her…talk to her? She slowly opened the door and peeked in. There was Mama, as if she were asleep. She had on a clean nightgown and a blanket covering to her chest. Her long black hair was spread on the pillow.

“Mama?” She crept to the bed and reached to touch her face. It was cold and hard, not warm like Mama. She didn’t reach to hold Sarah. Her eyes were closed; she didn’t see Sarah. She wasn’t like Mama. “Mama?” Sarah said timidly. Her combs, the ones that looked like pearl, held her hair back. Sarah reached and took a comb from her hair. “Bye, Mama. I’ll remember you, just like Juda said,” and she backed out of the room and closed the door.