Baker Book House/Revell
Some folks spend their lives asking questions no one on earth can answer.
What will happen today? Next week? Next year? Will I get married? Will I have children? What will they grow up to be? Why are some people so awful and have everything go right, while others are wonderful and have everything go wrong?
I was contemplating these deep philosophical thoughts as I dangled my feet in the cool flowing waters of Bethel Creek. Trickling water tickled my toes like sprigs of new spring grass.
Foot dangling and pondering life’s mysteries were among my few pleasures in a reality marked by incessant responsibilities, tiring burdens, and unending chores. Little did I know, that hot September afternoon in 1918 when I was called upon by my mother, Mrs. Huldah Birdsong, to see to Miss Picklemeyer’s infirmities, that in a short while I would confront questions I would never have thought to ask in a thousand lifetimes.
Of course I didn’t know about Miss Picklemeyer. I just heard Mother hollering for me to get myself up to the house or I’d find myself doing not only my chores but those of my six brothers as well. That wouldn’t have been unusual because I usually wound up doing all their work and mine anyway. Boys always seem to get away with everything. Me, I couldn’t take five minutes to enjoy a little refreshment for my soul on a steamy afternoon if I tried.
“Wren Birdsong!” Mother’s shouting scattered birds from the trees, and not a few forest animals decided life might be more peaceful on the other side of the creek. “Time, child! You are taking too much time!” The volume and detail of Mother’s tirade grew with each passing moment. I sighed and pulled my feet from the current, drying them on the cool grass, tearing my mind away from my next planned topic—pleasant reveries of life beyond Bethel Creek—before snatching my stockings and making a run up the embankment.
“I’m coming,” I muttered, not willing to give her another piece of myself one moment sooner than necessary. Grabbing spindly pine saplings for balance, I made it to the bluff, where our farmhouse overlooked the creek basin with large open windows that watched over it like haughty eyes.
Mother sat in our surrey, wearing her usual black dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat adorned with a gigantic bow that stuck out on either side, making her look as if she had grown two elephant ears that flapped in the hot breeze.
“Wren Birdsong, one of our neighbors is in need of our help. When I call you I expect you to be at hand within moments,” she began as I climbed into the surrey. She shook the reins, and Jake, the old mule, flicked his ears and broke into an uncharacteristically brisk trot, probably fearing that she would reprimand him next if he didn’t hop to. “Folks depend on me, and I need your help. If you’ve got any interest at all in following in my footsteps, then you’d better get a move on from now on.”
“I’m not becoming a doctor, Mother,” I replied matter-of-factly, or so I thought. “I already told you: I’m planning to become a suffragette.”
She began laughing and quaking so that Jake nearly skewed us off the road. Steadying him, she shook her head. “Wren, you know those suffragettes are nothing but a bunch of dissatisfied rich ladies who don’t know a woman’s place is home with her children, serving her own kith and kin, instead of running around in the streets, getting those white dresses mussed, and showing themselves to be the immoral heathens they are.”
I sighed and commenced putting on my stockings, a challenge with that surrey scooting every which way. “Mother, our country gave the right to vote to the Negroes last century. If they can pass the test, they can vote. I believe women have a God-given right to the same privileges.” I raised up and watched a blackbird pecking at an ungleaned ear of corn in Mr. Flagler’s field as we passed.
My formal education had ended the previous May when I was graduated from Miss Lansdale’s Academy for Young Ladies in the nearby village of Bethel Creek. Mother and Papa believed all children should have a proper education, and, seeing as how I was the only girl in a passel of boys, they thought I needed to be among my own kind. At the florescent age of eleven, I was placed under the academy’s direction.
It turns out I received more education than they bargained for. I suppose they thought the academy would school me in the refined arts—arts that would help me get a husband, someone who would support me and take me from under their wizened care.
They didn’t bargain on Miss Lanie Lansdale.
Miss Lansdale was quite progressive. Self-styled after one of Charles Dana Gibson’s magazine portraits, she was Rutledge County’s own Gibson Girl. Beautifully coiffed, elegantly attired, she turned heads and swept through the streets as if she were a one-woman Fourth of July parade, be it January or October. Her looks were a clever cover for all the brainpower she disguised with a suffusive charm that made even the dourest codger break a smile.
Regarding education, Mother had her limits. She had no use for stuffy, arrogant professors—which Miss Lanie most definitely was not—nor anyone who didn’t have sense enough to tell the month of June from a june bug. And although my parents believed that knowledge learned from books had its place—goodness knows, they filled our house with volumes on every subject imaginable—they also believed books were no substitute for life’s classrooms, the tactile world of experience.
We girls worshiped Miss Lanie. She idealized everything we wanted to be—witty, intelligent, adventurous. When she wasn’t running the academy, she toured the United States and boarded ships to mysterious foreign lands. Rumor had it that Miss Lanie’s parents were among the wealthiest citizens of some city up North and upon their death, Miss Lanie had taken her inheritance, pitched the stuffiness of the big city, and removed herself to Bethel to enjoy the climate and, as she put it, “do some real good for those who need it most.”
So along with herself, she imported the idea of women’s suffrage, which I latched on to with all ten fingers and all ten toes. But the day I finished high school was the day my real education began, under the sometimes disorienting, intimidating, frustrating, but always fascinating, tutelage of Mrs. Huldah McRae Birdsong.
“Child, what are you thinking about?” Mother regarded me with a sideways look.
Mother rolled her eyes. “I don’t know what your father and I were thinking, sending you to be educated by that woman,” she said as the cotton fields, growing pregnant with bolls, rolled by. We were approaching Miss Picklemeyer’s house, which sat on the outskirts of town. I could already hear her crying out in German. I had only studied French and Latin, so I couldn’t understand what she was saying, although it sounded like a plea of some sort.
Miss Picklemeyer was on her back, flailing about the watermelon patch like a topsy-turvy turtle. Two neighbor boys stood there, watching her thrash among the last of the ripening watermelons. She grew them to sell at the local store and sometimes sold them from her front yard. Seeing all those melons put me in mind of a story Papa once told about how he picked a watermelon on a steamy day, sliced it open, and found the juices boiling inside.
“Getting scalded by a watermelon,” he said, rubbing his ear. “That’s one thing you’ll never forget if you live to be a hundred.”
Mother and I got out of the surrey and went over to Miss Picklemeyer, who stopped her flailing and became rather peaceful. She was quite flushed, whether from the sun or flailing I’m not sure. Mother put her hand on her chin and assessed the situation, then pointed to the boys, who were snickering behind their hands.
“Did it occur to you two that maybe she just needed some help to get up?”
The boys laughed louder and ran behind a row of camellias that lined the yard. I could see their feet below the foliage and hear their whispers.
“You help me up, Miss Huldah?” Miss Picklemeyer spoke quietly, having never shed her German accent. Her father had emigrated to the United States when she was a child of eight; however, her accent was ingrained by then, and so was her father’s wish that she maintain evidence of her heritage in spite of his move.
Mother indicated that I should take one of Miss Picklemeyer’s arms. I could barely get both my hands around it. Mother grabbed her on the other side, and we commenced pulling Miss Picklemeyer to her feet. After many grunts, groans, moans, and other assorted exclamations, on her part and ours, we managed to stand the woman up and walk her to a nearby bench, where she rested and caught her breath. I sagged beneath a peach tree, longing for the creek’s cooling relief, as I watched Mother examine Miss Picklemeyer.
I often accompanied Mother as she saw to the infirmities of the citizens of Bethel Creek. The nearest physician worked in a town twenty miles away. He was frequently too ill himself to make the sometimes treacherous journey into the pinewoods and swamps that typified our county. The military had drafted most of the state’s physicians into war service, so there was a shortage of trained practi-
tioners to care for the sick and diseased. Mother frequently commented that what we needed in Bethel Creek was a young physician who could tame Miss Lanie, purge her of her worldly ways, and keep our populace well and tended to at the same time.
Mother slapped a hand across Miss Picklemeyer’s forehead and quickly drew it away.
“You’re feverish,” she pronounced to Miss Picklemeyer as she dug through her bag for one of her fever remedies.
“Mother, it’s two hundred degrees out here,” I said, fanning myself with my hat. “How can you tell?” The question popped out, though I knew better. Mother preferred not to use a thermometer, claiming the back of her hand was just as accurate. She proved this on several occasions when I had questioned her authority. One thing I found out early on was that you never questioned Huldah Birdsong’s authority on anything, unless you were willing to suffer the consequences.
“When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, daughter, you can tell.” She motioned me over, and I reluctantly gave up my patch of shade. Taking my hand, she placed it first against Miss Picklemeyer’s forehead, then her cheek. Her face did have a different feel from one that is simply hot from too much time in the sun. “Help me get her inside.”
Miss Picklemeyer could barely walk. It was all the two of us could do just to get her up the three steps to the front door, then inside and down the hall to the daybed in the parlor. “Do you notice her color, Wren?”
We laid the woman down, and I observed her while Mother went to the kitchen and filled the basin with cool water. “She looks a little blue,” I said when Mother returned. Taking the basin and a rag, I began bathing Miss Picklemeyer’s face and arms. “And listen to how she’s breathing.”
Mother leaned down and placed her head against Miss Picklemeyer’s chest. Raising her head, she nodded. “Pneumonia,” she pronounced and commenced digging in her bag again.
From the time I could toddle across the yard, the contents of Mother’s black bag had fascinated me. It was just like the one real doctors carry and was filled with all manner of ointments and salves, tonics and elixirs, concoctions aimed at either curing what ailed you, making you comfortable if a cure wasn’t possible, or simply distracting you with a host of new miseries. Some of these were patent medicines that she purchased from the store in town, or through catalogs, and sometimes traveling salesmen who sought her out in her garden and spent hours giving her their personal medicine show.
Then there were the ones she formulated herself.
Mother was a student of many things, the foremost of these being the Bible, the lattermost being almost anything that grows, either wild or cultivated. I guess you could say her greatest passions other than salvation and service were the plants that grew in Bible times.
Mother plucked a vial from the bag, retrieved a medicine dropper, and began forcing the liquid past Miss Picklemeyer’s lips. After a few moments, the old woman’s breathing slowed. Mother and I watched as she fell into a fitful sleep.
“Are you sure it’s pneumonia?” I continued to regard her breathing as out of character with what I had previously associated with that illness.
“I’ve seen it a thousand times,” Mother said, packing her bag. “Let’s go. She’ll sleep for a few hours. In the meantime we’ll go home and get supper on the table. I’ll come back later and spend the night.”
“I can come back,” I volunteered, looking for any excuse to get out of the house for a night, even if it was to watch a sick old woman.
“No, Wren,” Mother replied as we made our way back to the surrey. “You’re not sufficiently ready.”
Mother still had this idea that I was going to follow her lead and become the community’s healer. As we got underway, I renewed my suffragette aspirations.
“I believe I can make far more difference by helping women gain the right to vote than by running around pulling out splinters and bandaging wounds that could be prevented merely by the wounded having been more careful in how they applied their ax or hammer.” The shadows had lengthened now, and a slight breeze threw little clouds of dust across the road ahead of Jake. “If women receive the right to vote, we can have a say in matters of national importance.”
“What matters might those be?” Mother made no effort to hide the sarcasm.
“Those espoused by the great women’s advocates of the past and present,” I replied. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. And Mrs. Inez Milholland Boissevain can’t have died for nothing.”
I could see that Mother was trying not to roll her eyeballs. Mrs. Boissevain was a favorite topic of Miss Lanie’s, and mine by association. I suppose Mother had been subjected to more information on this heroine of our cause than she cared to know. Mother firmly believed in not cluttering the brain to leave room for matters of true importance—God, medicines, plants, the wisdom of Solomon. At least matters that were im-portant to her.
Presently we arrived at the house to find my brothers outside in the yard engaged in their various interests and pursuits, save Micah, who rarely left the house. Sometimes he would go into the yard, but he hadn’t been past the front fence in years, for reasons we could not pry out of him. Mother liked to quote the verse about how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made but that Micah got more of the fearful part.
For my part, I spent as much time as possible trying to ignore all these males who surrounded me daily. Don’t get me wrong—I believe men are the equal of women in many ways, but in many ways I find our sex quite superior, and I did not wish to spend the bulk of my time trying to bring them up to my standards of behavior, which is all I seemed to do when I was around them. I trounced into the kitchen and began mixing up a batch of biscuits while Mother stoked the stove until it practically turned red, then put a pot of butter beans on to boil.
One by one my brothers—Charley, Theodore, Wilson, Micah, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah—filed into the kitchen and assumed their places at the long table. Charley, Theodore, and Wilson were older than me, and the other three younger. Why Mother switched to biblical names after my birth was not known to me at the time, although I later discovered that this was when she considered herself truly saved, not by the birth of a daughter, but by her recognition that the Son was the way to true salvation. Apparently, she had lacked in her previous religious training, or had come under the influence of a more evangelical minister who set her right. Mim, my grandmother, her mother, had strange notions about many aspects of life. Superstitions and old wives’ tales governed her daily activities, and while she believed in God, her deity was much different from the one my mother invoked. About why I got named for a bird, Mother said it was because a Carolina wren lit on the windowsill the moment after my birth, and she took it as a sign straight from the Lord that Caroline Wren was to be my name. So that’s my full given name: Caroline Wren Birdsong.
Mother blamed Mim’s beliefs on Odessa and Pandora, two ancient colored women who lived on Mim’s place just up the road from ours. Mim’s father had once owned Odessa and Pandora, and Mother seemed to think that their continued existence was some sort of curse and that they had somehow possessed Mim with their mixture of Christian beliefs and pagan African heritage. The sisters claimed they were descended from a slave named America, the only slave on the plantation who was sold away after his master died rather than willed to the children and grandchildren as were his own progeny. I often thought about America, what had happened to him, who had owned him next, and why someone had precipitated the cruel joke of naming a chattel slave after a land that symbolized freedom.
I noticed that Mother kept watching the door expectantly, waiting for Papa to come in from wherever it was he had gone that particular day. We kept cooking and soon had a table full of bowls of steaming beans and squash and rice, plates of hot biscuits with jars of homemade scuppernong and huckleberry jelly, and tall pitchers of lemonade that my brothers drank like horses after a hard run across a dusty field.
“Papa is here,” she said all of a sudden. She and I sat down, and we all became quiet as she gave the blessing.
“Our Father, who truly art in heaven, we beseech thy many blessings on this food and these children. I pray that thou wilt turn Wren away from her rash idea of becoming a suffragette . . .”
At this, my brothers collectively began to titter. I despised it when Mother would single me out to the Lord, as if I were the only one who had done anything that merited individual attention. I opened my eyes and glared at everyone, futilely.
“She knows not what she does, Lord, and fails to seek thy will. We pray thy knowledge and wisdom upon her, that thy grace may shine upon her soul. In the name of thy most precious Son, the Lamb of God. Amen.”
Everyone raised their heads and looked at me in unison. I glowered at Mother, who patted my cheek. Resisting the urge to slap her hand away, I began filling my plate.
“Mallon, our daughter has the most outlandish ideas,” she began, smearing scuppernong jelly on a biscuit for Jeremiah, who was only six and hadn’t quite mastered eating utensils such as knives. “She believes that the good Lord has called her to bring women the right to vote, as if we already don’t run everything now, only you men haven’t realized it yet.”
I covered a mound of rice with butter beans and pot liquor and wondered why it was called that, considering it contained no spirits of any kind and was simply the broth created by the mixture of water and cooked beans. As I began to eat, I decided it was not in my favor now to debate Mother, because I could never convince her to my point of view, no matter how many facts and details I had to bolster my argument. It was to my great relief that she turned her attention to my eldest brother.
“Charles, are you prepared for your journey tomorrow?” she asked, wiping Jeremiah’s face.
“Yes, Mother,” he answered with a full mouth. “I’m enjoying this meal because I’ve been assured that food at the camp won’t be nearly as wholesome as that which lies before me now.”
It pained me no end that Charley was heading off to boot camp, then to the war, which the newspapers so hyperbolically called “The Great War,” as if there is any such thing. Along with my views on women’s right to vote, I had also become an ardent pacifist. I believed there was nothing great or noble about war, which laid waste to lives and land and only, in my mind, went on to produce more hatred and distrust in the end rather than anything resembling lasting peace. I was constantly reminded of the War of Northern Aggression—Miss Lanie had been taken to task by many townspeople for calling that conflict the Civil War—by aged veterans who had nothing to do but sit on porches, rocking their days away, cherishing their memories of glories long past. This was the twentieth century, and I lived in the United States of America, not the Confederate States. That war was over. It was long past time for folks to quit fighting it.
“I think you should refuse to go on the grounds that you are a conscientious objector,” I said, watching my brother’s handsome face as he devoured biscuit after biscuit, dripping jelly down his chin as badly as Jeremiah.
“But I don’t object, Wren,” he said softly, smiling at me from the other end of the table. “I believe we are fighting for a great cause.”
“There is no cause great enough for thousands of men in the prime of youth to lose their lives.” I put down my fork and folded my hands under my chin. “I believe President Wilson is misguided in his insistence on involving us in the affairs of other nations.”
Charley shook his head. “It is a great cause, and one that I am honored to serve.”
“Serving for one’s beliefs is never dishonorable,” Mother said, her eyes sweeping across everyone’s plates. “Now finish up, everyone. I must see to Miss Picklemeyer.”
“I can clean up, Mother,” I volunteered. At least maybe if she left early, I wouldn’t have to endure any more uninformed opinions.
“Very well, then. I’ll take my leave.” She looked toward the end of the table. “Mallon, I leave them under your care.”
With that she rose from the table after a last swipe at Jeremiah’s face, and soon I heard the mule clip off down the lane.
My brothers dispersed, except Charley, who helped me remove the plates to the sink.
“When do you think she’ll accept it?” he asked, staring at Father’s plate.
“Perhaps never,” I said, removing the plate that I had set there every night for three years, the plate that remained empty, that sat in front of the seat he hadn’t occupied since the day he had quietly packed his saddlebags, mounted his horse, and ridden away from our home in Bethel Creek.
Mother refused to believe that Papa had left her for good, shut her mind against the thought, and barred any of us from even mentioning his absence. We were to go on as if he still lived with us, still ate with us, still got up every morning to check on his properties and workers and investments.
So we went on with our charade, much to the astonishment of Bethel Creek, who caught on after some time that Papa was no longer present and that no explanation of his mysterious departure would be forthcoming.
My father became an invisible man who haunted our lives. If he had died, it would have been another matter. We would have buried him, mourned him. After time had passed, we would have slowly stopped talking about him or to him every day and simply lived the lives we had left.
Yet my mother refused to let him go, although he had already gone. To the townspeople, she became a grass widow, a woman whose husband hadn’t even bothered to divorce her but had simply vanished and left her in much the same circumstances as a woman who had lost her husband through death.
For a long time, I didn’t know what to do. My brothers gave Mother a wide berth at first, refusing even to speak with her as long as she insisted on speaking to Papa as if he were standing there in the flesh. Poor Jeremiah, three years old at the time, couldn’t fathom what had happened to the man who gave him pony rides and twirled him in the air.
Papa was a man of strength and stability. We could set the old grandfather clock in the hall by his movements and habits. When he left, the household, like the clock, began running out of control, and it would take nearly a year before it became anything close to being regulated.
But it never kept good time again.
Mother kept up the charade, and we kept it up alongside, with no end in sight. I suppose it simply became a part of our everyday life, and we chose to go along in silence rather than opposition.
Charley and I soon finished taking care of the dishes, and I put Jeremiah to bed, while the others went about their own interests. Micah sat in the parlor reading Dickens while Theodore, Wilson, and Nehemiah pored over their scrapbooks. Each was fascinated with the burgeoning world of flight and were planning to build their own biplane, so they could swoop over the farm and frighten us all to death with their gravity-defying aerobatics. They frequently begged old newspapers from train travelers who disembarked in Bethel Creek for a respite. At home, they decimated the pages with scissors, cutting out every reference to aviation, military or civilian.
Charley and I sat in the corner, talking about war.
“President Wilson has no business sending you away,” I said, taking up my sewing basket and continuing a piece of embroidery I had begun the evening before. It was a pillowcase embroidered with pink roses that I planned to place in my trousseau on the off chance the man of my dreams came walking through Bethel Creek one day. He certainly didn’t live there at the time. I was convinced of that because I already knew about every potential mate who lived within a five-mile radius of town. Not that I was really all that anxious to be married, seeing as how I had spent all my waking hours looking after a houseful of men. I guess I hoped that I would have a family of girls to make up for the previous inequity of having only brothers who treated me the way I imagined Odessa and Pandora had been treated during slavery times, property at their beck and call.
“It’s for a greater cause than selfish interests, Wren,” Charley replied gently. I had begun to see him as more of a father figure since our real papa had left. He had overseen the farm and the sharecroppers who raised the crops, and he had provided some stability to our household since Mother always seemed to be going off to help someone else’s family rather than paying attention to her own.
“Nationalism,” I muttered, pricking my finger with the needle. “We have imperialism right here in America, when women can’t vote or have a say in matters. Women are the ones who bear the sons who get sent to wars. We should have some say in who is sending them there. I’ve seen what happens with the mustard gas.” I recalled a patient Mother and I had visited, a boy just back from the trenches in France. Huge sores and blisters covered his skin; he would probably bear the scars for life.
Charley smiled and leaned back as he lit his pipe. Mother liked the smell of the smoke—I guess it reminded her of Papa—so Charley only lit up when she was away to avoid feeding her delusion. “Nothing bad’s going to happen to me, Wren. I’ll be fulfilling my duty. Don’t tell me you won’t support me in our cause?”
“I don’t have a problem supporting you,” I said, bending to my work. “It’s the cause I have trouble understanding.” The stitches began to blur. “I’ll miss you.”
Charley placed a hand on my arm. “You’ll be all right. She’ll be all right.”
“When? He’s been gone for three years, and nothing’s been all right since.” I raised my head and looked into his deep brown eyes. It seemed sometimes that he and I had become the parents to this brood of dreamers.
“In time, Wren.” He rose and rubbed his hands together. “Well, I’ll be saying good night and adieu.” The boys came to attention and gathered around him. “I don’t want to have any letters from our sister telling me what a hard time you’re giving her.”
The boys looked at each other, and I could see the mischief in their smiles. “We’ll be good and help as much as we can,” said Theodore.
“We won’t even miss you,” echoed Wilson.
Charley frowned. “Sorry to hear that. I’ll try not to miss you, either.” He mussed Wilson’s hair before turning back and kneeling in front of my chair.
“Don’t worry, Wren. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.” He kissed me on the forehead and held my hand for a moment before standing and herding the boys upstairs before him.
I sat in the now silent parlor and put away the embroidery, lest my tears stain the fine linen cloth.
In the morning, I woke to discover Charley had left early to catch his train. I had missed seeing him off and was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten to truly say good-bye. As I prepared breakfast, I heard the surrey coming up the lane and looked out to see Mother pull up short beside the front door and sit staring into the distance for several moments before getting out.
She came in and sat at the table, running her palms across the wood grain and shaking her head. I poured her a cup of coffee, brewed strong and black the way she liked it, and placed it before her. She gulped it like springwater—I wondered that it didn’t scald her throat. It could have been whiskey, judging by the way she drank.
“What is it, Mother?” I wanted to sit down, but I had a stove top full of sizzling skillets to attend to. “How is Miss Picklemeyer?”
Mother set the cup down and pounded her palm against the tabletop. “Wren, in all my years I have never seen such as I saw this past night.”
I glanced back and could see the exhaustion and confusion that etched her face. Her hair had come loose from its pins, and wisps floated around her head like dandelion seeds on a breeze.
“You know those stories about dragons, Wren, the ones in the books your father and I read to you as a child and as we now do to Jeremiah? The dragons that breathe fire and death?” Mother’s formal way of talking had a way of becoming even more formal when she was about to tell a story.
“Yes,” I said as I removed sausages from a skillet.
“I believe I saw a woman become a dragon this past evening.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“Miss Picklemeyer. Her fever raged throughout the night. Then blood shot from her nostrils like fire from a dragon’s mouth.” Mother spoke in a whisper, as if she truly was telling a fairy tale. “Her skin, Wren, her skin turned purple as if she had formed a giant bruise that covered her entire body.”
“Heavens,” I said, laying the platters on the table. I couldn’t remember hearing such things. “What happened?”
“Then she died. As suddenly as she fell ill yesterday, she died.” Mother threw her hands up and then plopped them into her lap. “Nothing I gave her made any difference. Patent medicines, my own concoctions. Nothing. She simply spewed out her life and gave it up as I sat there in awe of whatever this pestilence was that struck her.”
I had never seen Mother so flummoxed. She had always been confident in her diagnoses, because she had learned at the knee of the best—her father, Dr. Seymour McRae.
Oh, how Mother wanted to become a physician herself. She had begged, pleaded with her father to allow her to attend medical school. But Mim had put her foot down—as Mother was doing with me now, I supposed—and Mother had been forced to settle on becoming Grandfather’s nurse.
She often told me how she had studied Grandfather’s medical books, much to Mim’s dissatisfaction. Mim had specific ideas for how a woman should lead her life, and this allowed for marrying a doctor, not becoming one. Nevertheless, Mother defied her to the extent that she could, learning all she could while she had the chance, until Grandfather’s own death, just as Mother married my father, Mallon Birdsong.
He was not the man my grandmother would have chosen, but he was my mother’s true love and a man who understood her ambitions and dreams. That is, until the day he suddenly left her without foundation or footing, with no one left who truly understood her. Except maybe me, and even I was often confused by her self-formulated beliefs and ideas.
I sat at the table, watching my mother close her eyes and pray silently, her lips moving, unable to discern the words she uttered to her unseen Lord.
Directly she opened her eyes again and focused on the plate I had set before her.
“Child, this sustenance is exactly what a woman needs after the sights I have just witnessed.” She began eating as if she had worked days in the field. My brothers filed in and ate silently. I decided they were sad about Charley’s departure—he was a father figure to them as well. I looked after Jeremiah, who viewed our mother with her wild hair and dazed expression with something akin to fright, but I reassured him she was only tired after having cared for a sick woman all night. She stopped eating for a moment and reached for her bag, pulling out a small package wrapped in brown paper and handing it to me.
“What is it?” I loved packages and always opened them slowly to maximize the pleasure gained from the surprise.
“I saw Charley off this morning,” she said, wiping her mouth. “He left that for you. He said he had forgotten to give it to you last night.”
Pulling off the wrap, I found a copy of My Antonia, a new novel by Willa Cather. Charley was especially sensitive to my interests and had probably noted my earlier admiration of Miss Cather’s works.
“He said he had ordered it for your birthday, but since he wouldn’t be here, he wanted to give it to you now.”
My birthday wasn’t until November, and Charley would likely be making his way to some European battlefield by then. I ran my hands across the cover and breathed in the aroma of the new leather binding.
“When do you suppose we’ll see Charley again?”
“Sometime in this life or the next.”
“Mother!” The callousness of the statement threw me off guard.
“We never know what lies in the course of a day, child. Last night was proof of that.” She got up and carried her plate to the sink before going over to Jeremiah and leading him away to prepare him for school. “It is all up to the Lord and his infinite will.”
I sat at the table and watched my brothers finish eating until they drifted away one by one. Left alone to consider the mysteries of God’s will, I wondered why, if God is in charge of what happens, he could not make this war stop and prevent one innocent lady from becoming a human dragon. More questions that had no answers. They seemed to be the only kind I knew to ask.