Our only may amelia, p.1
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       Our Only May Amelia, p.1

           Jennifer L. Holm
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Our Only May Amelia


  For my mother and father


  for my grandfather Michael Hearn,

  who told me to follow my heart.


  A lot of research went into the telling of this tale. Most of that research came straight from my dad, William Wendell Holm, M.D., and his Long Memory. And it is priceless.

  For additional research assistance many thanks to: Elizabeth Holm for her meticulous archiving of pioneer life in the Naselle River Valley; Louise Hunter and Mitzi Hunter for their Finnish-American culinary knowledge; Bruce Weilepp and the Pacific County Historical Society and Museum for terrific photo and historical research; local Naselle historian Carlton Appelo; and Louise Espy and Wede Espy, for paving the way with Oysterville.

  I have been most fortunate to have friends and colleagues who supported my writing. For their support and good advice I’d like to thank: Sara Cleary-Burns; Stanley Burns, M.D.; Alvin Calderon; Paul Najjar; Ruth Cruz; Adam Cruz; Arpad Baksa; Mitch Galin; my attorney, Joel Shames; and Helenrae Grover.

  And special thanks to: my editor Ginee Seo for her insightful editing; the whole gang at HarperCollins, especially Kelsey Stevenson for her patience and Emily Hahn for her good humor; my terrific agent, Jill Grinberg, for her wise guidance; Jill Siegel for her great support and friendship; Wendy Wilson, who laughed out loud when she read the manuscript; my mentor Ralph Slotten for his quiet encouragement; my brothers Jonathan and Matthew Holm for their great support; and most of all to my sweet husband for his excellent suggestions, love, and ability to put up with me and my cat.

  Last but not least, many thanks to my mom, Penny Holm, who told me to Pay Attention.







  My Brother Wilbert Tells Me


  There Ain’t No Gentlemen on the Nasel


  There Are Miracles and There Are Sheeps


  No Kind of a Brother


  Grandmother Tries Our Patience


  How to Be a Proper Young Lady


  Bad Days Indeed


  Mothers Grow Up Young Here


  What Happened on the Smith Island


  The Things I Have Seen


  A Sorry Girl Indeed


  A Lucky Doll


  Happy to Be Here









  If you don’t go, you can’t return.

  —Finnish proverb


  My Brother Wilbert Tells Me

  My brother Wilbert tells me that I was the first ever girl born in Nasel, that I was A Miracle. He tells me this as we stand at the edge of the water, on the Nasel River, watching it rush by crazily. He is trying to cheer me up.

  Wilbert has found me here on the Baby Island where I have run away on account of Pappa being awful to me. Even Wilbert says it is terrible that Pappa was awful to me today, on my own birthday. Wilbert is thirteen and my favorite brother which is something indeed since I have so many brothers, more than any girl should have. My secret birthday wish is to get a sister but I don’t know how likely that is.

  These are my brothers:

  Matti is eighteen.

  Kaarlo is seventeen and one half and is really our cousin but I guess he’s sort of a brother.

  Isaiah is sixteen.

  Wendell is fifteen.

  Alvin is fourteen.

  Ivan is fourteen too. He is Alvin’s twin and they look as alike as two blackberries. Only Wilbert and I can tell them apart, even Mamma has trouble.

  Wilbert is thirteen.

  May Amelia Jackson is twelve. That is Me.

  We live on the Nasel in the state of Washington. It is 1899.

  Pappa is always yelling at me Don’t Get Into Mischief May Amelia when all I’m ever doing is what some other boy has done first. He says that I am a Girl and because I am a girl I cannot be doing what the boys are doing, that there is danger everywhere. Wilbert tells me that Pappa has had a Hard Life. That you can see the hardness in the lines of his face, what with coming all the way to Washington after being pressed into the Finnish Navy and leaving Finland. That’s why he’s hard on me. But Wilbert’s wrong. Pappa doesn’t like little girls very much in general, and me in particular.

  Mamma has a baby in her belly and Pappa said Children I sure do hope your mamma gives us another boy ’cause I don’t think I can stand another May Amelia. He said this in front of all the boys, after hollering at me for going up to Ben Armstrong’s logging camp by myself. I said But Ivan and Alvin go up by themselves and he said May Amelia, I will not abide any arguments.

  But Pappa— I said.

  Then he hollered so loud I’m sure they heard him over at the Petersen farm.

  That logging camp’s a dangerous place for a young girl! he hollered. I don’t want you running around there, Do You Hear Me? Then his eyebrows got all fierce-looking and met in the middle and he shook his finger at me and That Was That.

  I hate it when he scolds me so I ran away. I took the little rowboat onto the Nasel and went to the Baby Island and hid in the old sorcerer tree until Wilbert came to fetch me home. He’s the only one who knows about the sorcerer tree. It’s all hollow-like and fits a small child like me just fine.

  I say Wilbert I reckon I would like to be buried in the sorcerer tree when I die, and he says Fine May but you’re not likely to die anyways. You’re only twelve and you hafta to be old to die didn’t you know that?

  I say I did but was just a-planning.

  And now Wilbert is fooling around with Bosie, trying to get Bosie to jump into the water and chase after the little fishies. Bosie’s a scruffy dog. His hair is missing in places from where it’s been lost in fights with the mean raccoon who lives behind the milking barn.

  It is starting to get hot, it being nearly June, and here on the Nasel the breeze is hiding, and the mosquitoes are trying to bite me the way Bosie is trying to bite the little fishies in the water. Bosie’s a strong swimmer but the Nasel is rough, and the water is dragging him downstream.

  Wilbert, I say. Fetch Bosie out before he washes into the Shoalwater Bay.

  The Nasel runs into the Shoalwater Bay farther downstream and then into the wide ocean. To the south overland is the mighty Columbia River, and on the other side of the Columbia is Oregon and Astoria. Astoria is the only real city in these parts and it’s a wicked place full of shanghaiers and seamen and all sorts of fancy folks, not like out here in Nasel where the only fancy thing is a new pair of shoes. At least that’s what Wilbert tells me—I have never been there myself. Our Aunt Alice lives there and she is very fancy indeed. She is coming to visit on account of my birthday, and so are my Aunt Feenie and Uncle Henry. I am turned twelve this very day and I have spent most of it hiding in a tree.

  Wilbert whistles for Bosie.

  Bosie is not a very good fisherdog. He has caught one fish only, and a small one at that, not enough even for a small child’s supper. When he gets out of the water he shakes his scruffy fur and gets Wilbert all wet.

  Stop It Bosie! Wilbert yells.

  Wilbert scowls fiercely and the scar crinkles under his eye from where Kaarlo decked him in a fight.

  Let’s try and fish, I say. We can get some salmon and surprise Mamm

  Now that Mamma has a baby in her belly she is worn out all the time so I have to help her a lot around the house with the cooking and just about everything. That is why I hope the new baby will be a girl. Then all the hard work will be worth it.

  Not to mention I sure am tired of being the only girl around here.

  The Baby Island is a very small island in the middle of the Nasel River down from our farm. When I was a small child, I used to believe it was where all the babies came from on account of its name. It’s a good place for fishing even though it is where the Chinooks bury their dead. I have never seen a dead Indian here but I expect they keep them hid. Those Indians sure are clever.

  Wilbert swears to me that the Baby Island is accursed on account of the Chinook spirits that wander there but I think he is only just scared and he calls things names when he is scared of them. He tells me our teacher Miss McEwing is a Witch and she is the most loveliest woman I have ever seen. Why she is sweet and nice and kind to us children, not at all like old Mr. Barton who used to whip our hands with pine branches. No indeed. Miss McEwing even lets us take off our wet clothes and sit by the potbelly stove to dry off when the weather is bad which is almost always it seems.

  Wilbert doesn’t like studies and cannot speak English very well, only Finnish, and Miss McEwing is always correcting him, saying Speak English Wilbert Jackson. Mamma says all us children must learn to speak English or else we will always have trouble even though she and Pappa speak mostly Finnish. Nearabout everyone around here speaks Finnish. Our real last name is Juntilla, but when Pappa came over from Finland, they said it would be better for him if he had an American name and that is why we are Jacksons.

  Wilbert has a hard time with the English and one time he peeked at my answer sheet when Miss McEwing was clear across the room looking the other way. No Wandering Eyes Wilbert Jackson, she said and ever since then Wilbert has been convinced that Miss McEwing is a Witch.

  Even though Wilbert gets scared it is okay because he is only afraid of Miss McEwing and the Chinook spirits on the Baby Island. Nothing else scares him, not even Pappa’s belt. He has come all the way to the Baby Island which he thinks is cursed to find me, May Amelia, a no-good girl.

  I have plenty of brothers but only one Wilbert.

  We go to the part of the island where the water is slow, where the fishies are fat and lazy. The breeze blows gently here and I think it is not a bad thing after all to be spending my birthday fishing with Wilbert. There is nothing I like better.

  My line is in the water and right away it seems I feel a tug. The line tugs hard and I tug back. A salmon’s silky fin slip-slides in the water.

  I got one Wilbert! I yell.

  Hold on May, he says and drops his own line and runs over. He helps grab the pole but the salmon is strong. It’s pulling hard and Bosie’s barking and barking and then all of a sudden Bosie jumps into the water and bites my fish.

  Bosie Let Go! Wilbert and I say together.

  But dumb ole Bosie has caught only the hook. The fish who is smarter than our dog has gotten away. Bosie’s yelping and whining on account of the hook that’s stuck in his cheek. Wilbert dives right into the Nasel, clothes and all, and brings Bosie back to shore.

  He is a sad dog indeed by the time Wilbert drops him on the bank.

  Hold him down May, Wilbert says. I gotta take the hook outta his cheek.

  Bosie’s plenty mad—the hook must hurt terribly—but still I hold him down. Wilbert just sticks his hand right into Bosie’s mouth and pries the hook out. Bosie’s bleeding, but he’s happy to have the hook out of his mouth. He yelps and licks Wilbert’s face.

  You sure are a dumb dog Bosie, Wilbert says.

  We live in a valley on a homestead along the Nasel. Our land snakes from high upriver near Ben Armstrong’s logging camp right down to a bay by our house, where we have a small dock so that a body can tie up a rowboat which is very handy indeed. There are big fat mountains to the north full of tall pine trees and all sorts of Chinook secrets. Our farm has cows and sheeps and pigs and a fat barn cat named Buttons. We make milk and sell it and the cream too to the Sunshine Mill downriver.

  Aunt Alice is at the house when we get home. She has come all the way from Astoria on account of my birthday. It is a long journey and she hardly ever visits because of the distance. But she always comes on my birthday.

  You are my only niece, May Amelia, and that is cause for celebration any day, Aunt Alice always says.

  Aunt Alice is Mamma’s sister from Boston and hasn’t got a husband but still she looks just fine to me. I may not have a husband if I can live like Aunt Alice in her lovely house in Astoria. Wilbert says that it has a flower garden in the back and real photographs of folks on the walls and always smells like a lady, not like a cow.

  Mamma looks real tired when we come in; her dark hair is drooping out of the bun and her shoulders are sagging. She is rubbing the place on her belly where the new baby is growing. Mamma takes one look at Wilbert and me and Bosie standing there dripping wet and says, I sure hope you children caught some fish if you took a dunk in the Nasel.

  Yeah, says Kaarlo nastily. You were gone long enough. Sure you weren’t up at Ben Armstrong’s camp May Amelia? he says, trying to get me into trouble.

  Shut up Kaarlo, I say.

  Don’t be mean to May, Wendell says, it’s her birthday. Wendell is such a good brother; he is always sticking up for me.

  What did you catch May? Matti asks gently.

  Did you catch salmon? Ivan and Alvin say together.

  Hush boys, Mamma says. Did you catch any fish at all, May?

  I shrug.

  No, Wilbert says with a grin, but we caught a dog.

  Aunt Alice shoos Wilbert and all the boys out of the kitchen and says, May, why don’t you and I fix supper and let your poor sweet mamma rest awhile before she drops that babe of hers right here on the rug?

  Aunt Alice is wearing a fine rose-colored silk dress with real shell buttons and her hair is shiny and golden and tied up in a fancy bob with ribbons. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mamma in a dress as pretty as Aunt Alice’s. She most often wears a black cotton skirt and a white blouse. And since Aunt Alice looks so pretty and Mamma is sitting down drinking the cider that Alice has brought, I go about fixing supper real quiet-like so that they can talk and tell secrets. Aunt Alice treats me as if I am all grown up and not only twelve, which is fine by me because I mostly feel as if I am practically a hundred years old.

  Aunt Alice says to Mamma, Dear Alma, why you’ve had some child in that stomach of yours forever it seems, haven’t you had enough? I thought you weren’t going to have any more.

  Mamma just sits there and says, Alice are you here to help or to hinder ’cause I ain’t abiding any hinderers right now.

  I’m a helper Mamma, I say.

  You sure are darling. Thank God for May. Alice, I swear all these boys put together wouldn’t know how to butter a slice of bread if there wasn’t a woman in the room.

  That’s just their nature Alma, says Alice smoothing down her fine skirt. After seven boys I would’ve thought you’d be used to them by now.

  I hope you have a girl Mamma, I say. We can call her Little Alice after Aunt Alice.

  Aunt Alice smiles at me. Why May Amelia you really are a dear, she says. Who would’ve thought there would be such a lady way out here in the middle of nowhere?

  Nasel is truly in the middle of nowhere—why, there’s nothing here but land and trees and elk and sheep and bears and boys. Mostly boys though. There haven’t been any girls born out here since me and I am the only young girl in the Island Schoolhouse. Sometimes I see Chinook Indian girls when I am in the woods but the closest Finnish girls my age are near Knappton, too far for playing.

  The front door opens and Uncle Henry and Aunt Feenie come in carrying a box with a yellow bow. Aunt Feenie is Pappa’s sister and she is married to Uncle Henry and they are my favorite relations after Aunt Alice because they are so nice to
Wilbert and me. Uncle Henry is much older than Aunt Feenie and Pappa says Feenie married him for his riches although I cannot imagine what Pappa means because they have no more money than us and we do not have hardly any at all. Mamma says Pappa is a stubborn old Finn who doesn’t like foreigners and not to mind him.

  Uncle Henry is Scottish, not Finnish like everybody else around here, but I don’t think it matters one bit because he is the smartest person I have ever met. Why, he can speak five languages on account of being a famous sea captain. His real name is Neal McNeil and Mamma says that he changed his name when he came to America because of some trouble he had back in Scotland. Now he is just Henry Smith, which is very American indeed. He has a room in his house filled with nothing but books. We don’t have enough books to fill even one shelf. Pappa says they have a room for books because they could not have a baby on account of Uncle Henry always being away at sea.

  Well, if it isn’t my favorite niece! Uncle Henry says with a smile, swooping me into his arms for a bear hug. He even looks like a bear, with his bushy red beard and broad chest and big belly.

  I am all sticky and my braid has come undone and my shirt has got mud on it from the dunking in the Nasel. I do not look like a birthday girl, and in Wilbert’s old torn dungarees I don’t think I look much like a girl at all. Uncle Henry eyes me and shakes his head.

  May Amelia, you look like you’ve been shanghaied! Uncle Henry roars with a laugh.

  Aunt Feenie hands me the box. This is for you, May. Happy birthday dear.

  Uncle Henry wanders off to the porch where Pappa is smoking his pipe and I tear open the box.

  It is a baby doll. She is the most beautiful baby doll I have ever seen with a real china face and a white silk dress. Truly, it is the loveliest thing I have ever owned.

  Do you like her May? Aunt Feenie asks anxiously. Aunt Feenie is not as pretty as Aunt Alice, but she has a kind heart. Her eyes are gray as a gull’s wing and have a sad pull to them. I think she wishes she had a child.

  It’s a fine doll, Mamma says.

  Wilbert, Wendell, Ivan, Alvin, Kaarlo, and Isaiah crowd around me.

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