Our only may amelia, p.10
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       Our Only May Amelia, p.10

           Jennifer L. Holm
 
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  We walk to the house, where Mr. Petersen is waiting for us.

  Oren, Pappa says nodding at Mr. Petersen. Sorry to disturb your dinner.

  Pull up a chair and have something to eat, Mr. Petersen says. And I think some vodka too. Never can tell how long it’s gonna take for a baby to come.

  Thank you kindly Oren, Pappa says, taking a glass of vodka. Pappa takes a big gulp and some of the color returns to his cheeks.

  Well Jalmer, Mr. Petersen says with a hearty laugh, the oldtime Finn doctors always said the best babies were born in the sauna, so there you go!

  Baby Amy is the prettiest little baby I ever did see, with her duck-feather blond hair and bright blue eyes. Mamma says it was only right that I got to name her on account of me being her only sister and all. I ended up naming her Amy because it’s MAY all mixed up. I named her second name after Aunt Alice just like I said I would so her full name is Amy Alice Jackson.

  Mamma has been in a real bad way since having the baby and Aunt Alice has come up from Astoria to lend a hand. She says it is because Mamma is too old to be making babies. Mamma took a fever after Amy was born and it has been left up to me to take care of the baby while Aunt Alice takes care of Mamma. I am staying home from school to help with the new baby.

  It is a lot of work taking care of Baby Amy, but I don’t care at all because now I have a sister, I will never be alone again. She is a real live Miracle come true.

  Baby Amy is crying so bad I fear she will split right open like Nora. She sucks so hard on my thumb that it is as wrinkled as the old Widow Krohn. I am beside myself; I don’t know what to do.

  The baby won’t stop crying, I say, and Pappa says, Don’t bother your mamma, she needs her rest.

  But she’s crying!

  The babe is only hungry and that is all, Pappa says. Your mamma isn’t strong enough to give the babe any milk and so we shall have to get some help from Old Liz the cow.

  Pappa takes a piece of oilskin and hangs it in a cone and straps on a teat to it like I have never seen before. It is an amazing teat, like a real woman’s, and I ask him where he got it.

  Why, he says with a laugh, we got it when you were born. Don’t you remember feeding at it?

  No, I surely do not remember any such thing, but I believe him.

  Pappa puts warm milk from the cow into the oilskin and I hold the teat to Amy’s mouth and right away the babe latches on and sucks and sucks.

  Ivan and Alvin and Wilbert and Wendell and Isaiah and even Kaarlo come around and watch me feed Amy with the milk teat and they say, My May Amelia, you sure are a good little mother.

  Why look how that babe is drinking away—you sure do have a way with babies, Wendell says.

  I believe I do have a way. At least with this baby.

  Baby Amy is the most perfect baby I ever did see. I am making a record of her growings because Mamma says that’s what she did when Matti and Isaiah were born.

  What about Wilbert and Wendell and Ivan and Alvin and me May Amelia? I ask her. Didn’t you keep records of all us?

  No—she smiles weakly—any amount of children after two doesn’t leave you any time to remember your own name let alone when they took their first step.

  Mamma is not feeling any better, and is still in bed so it is up to me to keep a record for Baby Amy. Well, I am going to keep a perfect record so that when Baby Amy is grown up she will say, Why I had the very best sister, May Amelia, she kept a record for me and everything.

  THIS IS THE RECORD OF AMY ALICE JACKSON

  Born on November 23, 1899,

  on the Nasel like May Amelia.

  Blue eyes like the boys.

  10 fingers. 10 toes.

  Drinks from Pappa’s milk teat.

  Enjoys sleeping all day and crying and fussing when hungry for the milk.

  No teeth to speak of.

  This is all I can think of to say. Babies are not very exciting, but they sure are a whole lot of work. This one likes to eat all the time and always needs changing and none of the boys will change her, but I wouldn’t let them anyway. Amy likes to sit with me in the rocking chair which Pappa has brought in to me and Wilbert’s bedroom, and be rocked and look out the window at the Nasel going by real slowly. I tell her stories and she listens, looking up at me with her big blue eyes a-blinking away.

  I say, Baby Amy, when you are grown up you and me are going to have such a wonderful time. You will be best friends with Wilbert like I am, he is the best brother and you will be my very best sister, and I know you’ll be so very pretty—I can already see you in a robin-blue dress like Aunt Alice wears with shell buttons down the front.

  Oh Baby Amy I wish you would hurry up and grow so that we can tell secrets and play hide ’n’ seek with Bosie and catch fishies on the Baby Island and everything.

  You must hurry up and grow Baby Amy for there is so much to do.

  I am not the only girl around here anymore.

  I am in the kitchen with Aunt Alice helping her fix biscuits for supper. She is wearing a pretty calico dress and it has got grease and flour all down the front of it and she even has a speck of grease on her face. Mamma still has the fever. It’s strange to see Aunt Alice in our kitchen. I know she is a fine cook but she doesn’t look like a lady who spends a lot of time in the kitchen.

  I don’t know how my sister does it, Aunt Alice says, wiping her brow. Taking care of this big house, feeding all those brothers of yours, managing the farm, and now a baby on top of it.

  Baby Amy’s no trouble at all, I say.

  No trouble at all? she laughs with amazement. May Amelia Jackson that is a fib if I ever heard one. That child is nothing but work. Why, I don’t think you’ve let her out of your sight since she was born. And I know she keeps you up half the night with her crying, just look at those circles under your eyes.

  She’s my sister, I say. I hafta look out for her.

  And you’re doing a very good job. You’re a real help.

  Grandmother Patience stomps into the kitchen. Her face goes all dark when she sees me standing there.

  How are you feeling, Mother Patience? Aunt Alice says carefully. Aunt Alice knows all about Grandmother Patience from me and Mamma.

  My leg is acting up, Grandmother Patience snaps.

  I have a poultice you can put on it, Aunt Alice says soothingly.

  Grandmother Patience stares at me.

  It’s acting up on account of the lack of sleep I’m getting with the babe up all night crying her heart out. May Amelia, you must be neglecting that child. All it does is cry.

  Now Mother Patience, you know very well that May Amelia is doing a fine job with the baby.

  If she’s doing such a fine job then why does it cry all the time? No good’s gonna come of her looking after the babe. This girl doesn’t have the sense that God gave her. Why, look at her.

  Mother Patience, you aren’t helping here, Aunt Alice says, her voice going up a notch.

  Grandmother Patience hits the floor with her twisted cane and I flinch. This girl is not taking care of the babe! she shouts.

  Alma’s sick! And I have my Hands Full with her and the boys! Aunt Alice hollers back.

  Then I shall care for the baby, Grandmother Patience says.

  There is no way I’m letting Baby Amy anywhere near the old witch. She’d think nothing of taking the cane to her when she cried, I bet.

  Mamma told Me to take care of Baby Amy, not You, I say.

  Alma’s not in her right mind, Grandmother Patience says, dismissing me.

  Pappa walks into the kitchen.

  What’s all the hollering about?

  Aunt Alice folds her arms across her chest and says, Jalmer, your mother here wants to care for the baby. She doesn’t think May’s doing a good job looking after her.

  Pappa sighs.

  You know I’m right Jalmer, Grandmother Patience says. That child will meet her end by May Amelia’s neglect.

  She’s my sister! I say. I know Grandmother Patience is s
o wrong. I’d never do anything to hurt Baby Amy.

  You are the most irresponsible child in this valley! Grandmother Patience shouts.

  Mother! Pappa says. May Amelia’s doing a fine job with the baby and it’s what Alma wants. As soon as Alma’s better, she’ll take care of the baby herself.

  But— Grandmother Patience says.

  Enough Mother! This is the last I want to hear of it.

  I cannot believe Pappa has stuck up for me, a no-good girl. I meet Pappa’s eyes across the room and smile with real thanks. He nods curtly and leaves.

  That night Baby Amy and I wake up to a real racket.

  Everybody in the house is sleeping when Wilbert says to me Wake Up May I hear something by the barn. Go get Pappa and wake him up.

  But before I can even get out of bed and fetch Pappa, there is a horrible roar and then all our cows are mooing. Wilbert jumps up and grabs his gun and says You stay right here, May Amelia, you understand? Tell the boys to get to the barn quick.

  I’m coming! I say.

  You gotta stay with the baby, he says, and runs out of the room.

  I stand in the kitchen and look out the window and cannot believe my eyes.

  There is a big black bear in our barn and it has our old milking cow Liz in his jaws and is dragging her out. I learned how to be a real good milker on Old Liz. She’s lame and can’t stand on her leg to kick out, so she’s a safe one to milk. She went lame on account of breaking her leg running when she heard the steamboat whistle late one night. She got scared and started to run across the field and fell in a hole. And now this mean old bear is trying to eat her up.

  Old Liz is struggling, trying to get away from the bear but she can’t on account of her lame leg.

  All my brothers fire their guns in the air but don’t get too close ’cause everybody knows that bears are real mean especially when they’re hungry which this one surely is if it is bold enough to break into our barn. I wonder if it is the same bear that chased me up the tree.

  The boys fire again, and the big bear growls and stands on its hind feet and it is real big, I cannot tell you how big, bigger than anything I have ever seen, and then Pappa goes running out of the house in his britches and takes aim and shoots the bear in the paw. The bear roars ’cause Pappa hit it, he’s a real good shot, and then it drops down on all fours and runs off into the night.

  Pappa comes in and sees me and Amy in the kitchen.

  You gotta watch out for wild animals, May Amelia, gotta mind the baby, Pappa says. You saw how that bear killed Old Liz?

  She’s dead? I say.

  Yeah, Wilbert says, that bear nearabout ripped off her head.

  Pappa and Isaiah must now mend the barn with latches on the door so that no bear can get our cows again.

  Baby Amy wakes up after everybody is back in bed. She is coughing something fierce, coughing like she can’t catch her breath. Wilbert is sound asleep, snoring away. I slip out of the bed and light a candle.

  Amy has rolled onto her belly and she is coughing away and when she sees me bending over the cradle she gives a wheeze. I pick her up and pat her on the back and she gurgles and her breathing becomes slow and steady.

  I think of the bear getting near Baby Amy and it gives me a real chill. I hug her tight to my chest and she snuffles a little and looks up at me, blinking. It’s just me and her in the light of the flickering candle.

  Don’t worry Amy Alice, I’ll take good care of you. After all, you’re the only Amy we’ve got.

  CHAPTER NINE

  What Happened on the Smith Island

  Wilbert says I am grief crazy sad and the only way to get rid of the sadness is to sleep it away.

  But I know that this sadness will never go away, it will tug me down with it into the box with the lavender velvet wedding dress and I don’t care none at all because that is where I want to be, far away from anything that remembers me, remembers my name is May Amelia Jackson, the sister of Amy Alice Jackson, and for now even my very own hands remind me of it all.

  I know everyone is worried about me, even Pappa, but I cannot help feeling this way. I want to disappear so bad, sink into the woods where no one can ever find me, not even the Indians, and I am not afraid at all of going away if they would only just leave me on the Baby Island that is all I would want, to be left on the Baby Island in the Nasel so that I can hear the leaves falling on the water and the crickets chirping and know the passings of the times. That is all I would want and it is not so very much.

  Wilbert is right I am grief mad but this hurt is so deep I did not think that I had a place inside me for it. I can’t eat or sleep, it keeps calling on and on, never stopping, like Grandmother Patience and her nagging and scolding. I know it will never change, it will never stop, like her gnarled cane, evil and bent the way it is and leaving dark-blue bruises and blood everywhere.

  This is what happened.

  I loved little Baby Amy like she was my baby, and truth be told she was my baby, Mamma so sick and all.

  She looked at me like I was her ma, she slept when I sang to her, smiled when I fed her from the milk teat, our poor mamma too sick to feed her. She looked fine, real pretty in the blanket I made for her and even though it was cold and bitter being winter and all, Wilbert found three snowflowers and put them on the dresser. Ivan and Alvin and Isaiah made her a cradle and I put it right next to me and Wilbert’s bed so I could be near her at night when she woke hungry and I had to feed her the milk. She was the most beautiful baby, everyone said she was so sweet-natured; even Kaarlo said so. At night I would wake up sometimes and just look at her sleeping in her cradle in the fine dress Wendell made her, like a real live angel come down from heaven.

  Mamma was feeling better by and by but I still was the baby’s mamma, caring and feeding and changing her and all. Wilbert helped me sometimes, although most the time he was afraid of dropping the little baby and I had to say Look Wilbert just hold the back of her head up like this. You got to hold up the back of the baby’s head, they’re real tender there.

  Christmas Eve morning I woke up all excited on account of Joulupukki, St. Nicholas, coming to visit us children and bring us gifts. I was feeling like a new-minted penny all fresh and fine ’cause Baby Amy hadn’t cried once all night. Come on little button I said, time to get up and eat, and so I picked her up but something was wrong, she was all stuck to the corner of the cradle, hard-like and cold, oh so cold and when I put my ear to her heart I couldn’t hear nothing, not the little pitter-pat, not the whispery breaths, nothing, and I started screaming Wilbert Wilbert Wilbert and everybody came running Isaiah Alvin Ivan Pappa Wendell and Kaarlo too but I kept screaming Wilbert Wilbert Wilbert and finally he came in from the barn I guess and said May what’s the matter and I screamed so loud my very voice broke, even God could hear me I swear, the words clear from my mouth to the angels in heaven.

  I said My Baby’s Dead.

  I cannot remember ever in my life being colder than on the day we buried Baby Amy in the graveyard out on the Smith Island across from the schoolhouse, where my Uncle Henry first homesteaded years ago, high on the hill overlooking the Nasel.

  Even the birds refused to chirp. Wilbert said it was too cold for the birds but I know it was because Baby Amy was dead and God tells every living thing when babies die and they mourn with us people.

  No preacher told me this but I know it is the truth.

  We put Amy in the dress Wendell had made her—it was real fine, so pretty-looking—and Mamma used her lavender velvet wedding dress to line the little casket Isaiah made. The box was a small one, much smaller than Nora’s, and I thought the velvet would keep Baby Amy warm. There were no flowers to put on the grave, it being winter, only tired geraniums.

  Everyone came from all around to the Smith Island for the burying. Wilbert said it was on account of Mamma having helped birth all the babes in the valley. Our poor sick mamma with the faraway look in her eyes who kept saying that Amy was the Loveliest Baby of them all.
r />   Grandmother Patience came to the Smith Island too, and after the preacher finished his piece and it was silent enough to hear clear across the Nasel she said Poor Baby Amy, too bad her mamma never got to care for her and only May Amelia. She might well be alive today and not lying there beneath a pile of geraniums if May Amelia hadn’t dealt with her.

  Pappa’s mouth dropped open and Mamma went all pale and all the boys looked at her with wide shocked eyes.

  Wilbert said, That’s a terrible thing to say Grandmother, there ain’t a lick of truth to it.

  It’s true as my name is Patience Jackson, she said, the babe would be alive if this evil girl of yours hadn’t handled her so.

  And that is when I ran.

  I ran so fast that Wilbert could barely catch up with me, ran and ran all the way to the Nasel—tossing off my coat it made me so slow—I ran ran ran to the little boat tied to the riverbank and jumped in with Wilbert shouting May May wait for me, don’t go out by yourself, May May, come on May. But I couldn’t hear him, I was far away already, far away from everything, so deep in my own memories of playing with Baby Amy that I barely knew I was in the middle of the Nasel in the little boat.

  When Wilbert reached the bank he took another boat off the tie-up, I don’t know whose boat, and paddled after me yelling and hollering May May come back stop and then he caught up, pulling his boat aside of mine and jumped in but I couldn’t see him all I could see was Baby Amy wrapped in Mamma’s wedding dress, the lavender velvet faded and so worn already, only threads in places, moth-eaten too, and I was wondering if she would be warm enough with only that tired old dress to keep her warm what with the sharp wind blowing off the Nasel and Wilbert started slapping me, slapping me hard saying May May come back May she’s a wicked old woman May it wasn’t your fault Baby Amy died because she just did babies die like that sometimes it’s not your fault.

  I had not cried, not one tear since Baby Amy had died and then all of a sudden I couldn’t stop them, I cried and cried into Wilbert’s neck. I cried and cried till my throat was sore and hurt so bad and I said Wilbert I ain’t never going back there, take me away. Take me away.

 
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