Our only may amelia, p.14
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       Our Only May Amelia, p.14

           Jennifer L. Holm
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  Lonny is just setting on his porch mending an old net of his pa’s when we walk up. He looks sort of mangy, like his clothes haven’t been washed in a long time and there is a long streak of dirt on his cheek. His face lights up when he sees us.

  Hiya Lonny, Wilbert says.

  I peek inside the front door of his house. It’s a real mess. It looks as if a woman has not been in this house for the whole winter. I don’t ask Lonny where his pa is because from what Kaarlo heard, it seems that Mr. Petersen has taken to working at the lime quarry out near Knappton. Lonny’s left by himself all day from what anyone can tell, doesn’t go to the schoolhouse anymore since his ma’s not there to tell him to and has nearabout forgotten any of the English that he learned.

  I tug Wilbert aside. Wilbert, I say, we gotta clean this place, it’s not fit for Bosie in the state it’s in now. Lonny can’t do it on his own and his pa’s sure not been paying it any mind.

  Wilbert and I set about helping Lonny clean his house. It smells awful bad and there is washing needing to be done everywhere. I send Wilbert and Lonny off to our house to fetch some lye. I sort things out, put all the washing to be done in a big basket by the door, open the windows to air out the rooms, and scrub the floors downstairs. After I have done the upstairs I will polish all the floors with skim milk so that they have a shine.

  In the kitchen there is no food, just baskets of old rotting vegetables, mostly tideland grasses from the looks of it. I suspect that Lonny has not had a proper meal since his ma died and probably has been eating only goosetown greens, which are stewed tideland grass roots. They are nasty tasting.

  When the boys get back, I send them out to fetch fresh hay from the barn for the mattress ticks and to pick daffodils although Wilbert puts up a bit of a fuss about having to pick flowers.

  You can always do the washing, I say, setting a big copper pot to boil on the stove. He thinks better of it and grabs Lonny’s hand and leaves. I put the cotton sheets in the boiling water and hope they come out looking better than they did going in.

  I clean the house slowly, room by room, and have the boys take out the old hay, which is full of bugs and the Lord knows what else.

  When I get to Lonny’s ma and pa’s bedroom I stop and wonder if I should go in, then decide that it probably needs to be cleaned. But it’s clean as a whistle, the cleanest room in the house. There is truly not a speck of dirt in the room, not a cobweb, nothing. Maybe Lonny’s ma is haunting this room, coming back and cleaning it herself. It’s a very nice room, actually, with a fine pine sleighbed and a big wardrobe and a small ladylike dresser, which I suspect was hers.

  I imagine Mrs. Petersen, with her wide hips and white hair, smoothing the top of the dresser clean with the hem of her apron, the same apron she used to wipe the corner of Lonny’s mouth when he was a baby. Whenever I think of her, I picture her in that same white starched apron and I wonder if they buried her in it or if maybe Lonny’s pa simply burned it in the fireplace, burned it away so he wouldn’t be reminded of how soft her cheeks were and how she never got the hang of speaking English.

  After I look through all the cupboards in the kitchen, it’s clear that there’s not a bite of food in the house, so I decide to invite Lonny and his pa over for supper.

  Supper is a festive occasion, and I for one am a sorry child indeed that not one of us thought to invite Lonny and his pa over sooner. Mr. Petersen is just bursting with things to say, he’s practically babbling and he devours every bite of food that’s put in front of him, and Lonny does too. Come to think of it, the two of them are looking a little thinner than I remember. Lonny’s pa seems specially happy to see Mamma.

  He says My Alma How Fine You Are Looking.

  Mamma just blushes, like a girl really, like one of those girls who used to chase after Matti.

  Thank you Oren, she says.

  Pappa tugs at his beard, a sure sign that a storm is brewing.

  And Ivan and Alvin and Wendell and Kaarlo and Isaiah and Wilbert and me? Why, we know better than to say anything at all.

  Mamma sends Lonny and his pa home with bowlfuls of venison stew and bread and eggs from our hens and cream and even a blackberry pie. They will not be eating tideland grasses for a while from the looks of it.

  Pappa is an ornery mood and when I ask him if I can take the little boat out on the Nasel he says, May Amelia, can’t you stay out of trouble for two seconds? Girl I swear you are more work than all your brothers put together. You’re more trouble than you’re worth.

  But Pappa— I say. But he is getting all worked up.

  You can’t take the boat out unless one of the boys is with you, how many times do I hafta tell you May Amelia? I should have just left you in Astoria! he hollers.

  I just stand there looking at him and I can see Pappa thinking I’m gonna run away and hide like I usually do, but he’s wrong, I’m never gonna hide again, no matter what. I just stare right back at him and finally he turns in disgust and Slam! he’s gone out the door.

  Nothing’s changed, I say.

  He’s just in a mood, says Wilbert.

  He’s always in a mood, he hates me, I wish we were back in Astoria.

  Wilbert doesn’t say anything.

  I say, Wilbert take me to the Smith Island, I want to see Baby Amy’s marker.

  Pappa couldn’t afford a fancy marker May, there’s only the small cross Isaiah carved, Wilbert says.

  I cannot bear the thought of it.

  Let’s pick some flowers, Wilbert says, but I just shake my head, my heart is too sad for words.

  Wilbert picks some daffodils and we row down the Nasel to the Smith Island and walk to the cemetery. It’s a fine day and the wind is blowing right off the water, all warm and sweet, not like the day we buried her. When we get to the grave, I feel so sad that she is lying beneath all that dirt that my heart nearly breaks.

  I say, Wilbert I am the saddest girl that ever lived.

  He says, Cheer up May Amelia, Baby Amy is most likely smiling down at us from heaven and she’s not sad. Why I reckon she has a pair of wings and all sorts of nice things to eat like we had at Aunt Alice’s house.

  I am still a very sad girl.

  He says, Come on May, the only cure for sadness is a swim in the Nasel.

  We decide to head back home and swim upriver from the house, and Bosie comes with us. Bosie’s more excited than us children, he loves a swim, he’s barking at my feet, and so I undress down to my drawers and dive into the water.

  I say, Come On Bosie Jump In Boy.

  Old Bosie looks at me once or twice—who can tell what he is thinking—and then without a lick of warning he just jumps right in and starts paddling around.

  Well I’ll be, says Wilbert. That dog actually minded you.

  I say, Come on in Wilbert, the water’s fine.

  I forgot my sailing boat, Wilbert says, I’ll run to the house to get it.

  Me and Bosie swim way out to the center of the Nasel and paddle around. Bosie’s biting at the water, trying to catch the little fishies.

  Bosie, all you’re catching is water, I say.

  I float on my back and look up at the sky. It’s blue as can be and the Nasel water smells so fresh and sweet, like my beautiful Baby Amy. The water tugs and pulls and swirls around me and I think about how I’ll never get to teach her to swim or catch fishies on the Baby Island or go to Astoria or have adventures. She is gone forever, deep in the ground. I’ll always be the only Jackson girl out here. I will always be alone.

  And then, all of a sudden I hear Wilbert screaming and he is running toward us from downriver, running as fast as Matti or Kaarlo even.

  Wilbert is hollering and yelling at me, screaming May May Get Outta The Nasel! They’re sending the logs downriver, The Dam Is Open Get Out May!

  Bosie’s yapping beside me, yapping like mad and when I look upriver, sure enough there is something coming downriver in the distance. Huge round logs are rushing down the Nasel from Ben Armstrong’s logging camp, r
ushing straight at us, straight at me and Bosie.

  It seems that time slows down to a crawl and that the wind blowing over the Nasel has never been as sweet, and that the valley has never looked as bright and yellow and crowded with daffodils. And that if I look hard with my heart I can see down the Nasel to the Baby Island and around the bend to my very own snag and farther down to the Smith Island and remember a time not so long ago when I wished myself gone, far away like Baby Amy, far away in heaven with the angels.

  And then I look at the bank, at Wilbert waving at me and yelling May May What Are You Waiting For Hurry Up and I know that I’d be very sad indeed if I wasn’t around anymore.

  I grab Bosie by the piece of rope around his neck and swim as hard as I can to the bank, but the logs are coming fast as salmon. The water is pulling at me and the river is dragging and I can’t seem to make my arms move quick enough. I hear the loud rush of the logs banging each other and I think, I am not going to make it after all, I am going to be dead and buried with Baby Amy on the Smith Island and it will say on my marker May Amelia Was Not Paying Attention As Usual.

  Then all of a sudden I see that Wilbert has climbed the tree on the bank as fast as a monkey, and he swings down from a branch and hoists me up and Bosie too, and when I look down I can’t see any water at all only logs crashing down the Nasel. Wilbert pulls me up and we climb down the tree to the ground but I can’t catch my breath, I just sit there dripping wet, Bosie yapping away and shaking and shaking, and Wilbert standing over me, gasping too, and then he grabs my shoulders and shakes me hard, like he can’t believe I am sitting here with him on the bank, all covered with mud and whatnot.

  I say Wilbert, the Nasel almost got me that time.

  He doesn’t say anything, just shakes his head, a real GoodLordMayAmelia look on his face.

  And I look over his shoulder at the Nasel raging by full of logs, crashing down, the water like an angry waterfall, and imagine Me, May Amelia, lost in that fearsome rush of water, and then I hear Bosie yapping and there are Mamma and Kaarlo and Ivan and Alvin and Isaiah and Wendell and even Pappa running up the bank.

  Pappa reaches us first and his face is dark as thunder. I know I’m gonna get a whupping for sure but instead he just pulls me into himself, into a big bear hug. He squeezes the breath right out of me, and when he lets me loose his eyes are all watery.

  Oh May, Mamma says.

  Wendell, who’s still looking frail on account of getting over his fever, is holding Susannah and he says May Amelia We Thought You Were Dead, we thought you were drowned there in the Nasel with all those logs. Didn’t you see the boy running by to warn you that they were opening the splash dam?

  I shake my head. I did not see any child run by.

  He throws Susannah at me.

  I just hold Susannah, tight like a baby and look down the river, down the Nasel, to the Smith Island. And I look at Mamma and Pappa and Kaarlo and Wendell and Ivan and Alvin and Isaiah and Wilbert and think of Matti so far away, starting a new life with his Irish bride Mary O’Casey. And I think maybe I am a lucky girl after all, to live here, live on the Nasel, even though it is in the middle of nowhere.

  Bosie shakes his fur and barks at me.

  I look at Wilbert and say, I am happy to be here Wilbert.

  May Amelia, he says on a sigh, I believe we are all quite happy that you are here. After all, you’re the only May we’ve got.

  And he was right. I was the only May Amelia Jackson they had.


  Six years ago the diary of my grandaunt, Alice Amelia Holm, was discovered in an old suitcase in my grandmother’s house. As a Christmas present my aunt, Elizabeth Holm, transcribed the diary and gave copies to family members. It was one of the best gifts I ever received. The entries began in 1900, when Aunt Alice was twelve years old, and ended six years later when she became a teacher. She wrote about everything from playing tricks on her brothers to visiting cousins along the river to going fishing. Although Aunt Alice died before I was born, the diary made me feel as if I knew her—or at least identified with her. I had always been intrigued by my father’s stories about growing up on the Nasel River, but suddenly I wanted to know more about my heritage. As I began to delve into my family’s history, I kept imagining what Aunt Alice’s life must have been like—and I started writing what would become Our Only May Amelia.

  My great-grandfather Charles Holm emigrated from Finland in the early 1870s and was one of the first settlers in the Nasel River Valley. The Washington Territory was one of the last stretches of unsettled frontier at the turn of the century. Unlike Oregon, immigration to Washington did not begin in earnest until the late nineteenth century, with the boom of the lumber industry in the 1880s and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1893. The settlers who came to the southwest coast of Washington, along the Columbia River, were not Americans from the East who settled in other western states such as California and Oregon. For the most part they came from Sweden, Norway, and Finland—immigrants lured by the promise of good fishing, timber, and land.

  Nasel was settled primarily by Finnish immigrants, and was known locally as Little Finland. However, the Chinook Indians were the first true residents of the Nasel River Valley. “Nasel” comes from the Chinook word Nasil, which means sheltered and hidden. A small Indian tribe and their chief were named Nasil, which is how the river came to bear that name. The spelling changed around the end of the nineteenth century to Nasel, and today the river is known as the Naselle.

  The Finnish settlers carved out new lives in this harsh wilderness where everything—from chopping down the mighty trees to transporting an iron cookstove—required sweat and ingenuity. The river and swinging bridges were the primary means of transportation until the 1920s, when roads and cars finally became dominant. And like the Jacksons, nearly everyone (including non-Finns) spoke Finnish well into the 1930s. Children typically did not learn English until they began their schooling, which was often sporadic because everyone was needed to help with the farmwork.

  In writing this book, I relied heavily upon oral histories from family members as well as local historical societies. I learned that people really did polish the floor with skim milk, eat laxloda (which I still eat), and use bear grease and spruce-gum pitch as ointments. The Gleaner did sink on the Columbia River during a terrible storm in 1888. The Smith Island, a tideland with a raised knoll on the Nasel River, is named after my granduncles Isaiah Smith and Henry Smith, who homesteaded there in the 1870s. And the May’s Snag incident really did happen. Lucy May, a cousin of my grandfather’s, was a notoriously chatty girl, and one of her brothers threatened that she would be left on a snag in the river if she didn’t stop talking. If you look closely at a detailed map of the Nasel River today, you will find May’s Snag, though for the purposes of this story I had to move it closer to the Jackson farm.

  And whatever happened to Aunt Alice, my inspiration for May Amelia? She grew up to become a much-beloved teacher in the Nasel area. Her first teaching post, for which she earned $40 a month, was in 1905 on the Smith Island. The last entry in her diary reads:

  Feb. 28, 1906

  I am a teacher. I studied real hard and passed the exam. . . . Although I think it is nice work, there is so much responsibility about it. . . . I am to begin another term in the Finn country in two weeks & will take this book along so think I’ll write some in it there.


  Alice Holm


  Glimpses of the Past: Oral Histories from Naselle, by Ruth Busse Allingham (South Bend, WA: Pacific County Historical Society, 1998).

  Remember Where You Started From, by Susan Pakenen Holway (Portland, OR: C&D Publishing, 1992).

  Fantastically Finnish: Recipes and Traditions, edited by Beatrice Ojakangas, John Zug, and Sue Roemig (Iowa City, IA: Penfield Press, 1985).

  The Pacific County Historical Society in Washington.


he grandniece of Alice Amelia Holm, a Finnish-American girl born on the Nasel River in Washington state during the nineteenth century. The recent discovery of her grandaunt’s diary and her ancestors’ adventures in the Pacific Northwest inspired the character of May Amelia. Ms. Holm produces television commercials and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is working on her next book.

  Discover great authors, exclusive offers, and more at hc.com.


  Cover design by Karin Paprocki

  Cover art © 2001 by Patrick Faricy

  Cover © 2001 by HarperCollins Publishers Inc.


  Map drawn by Elissa Della Piana

  Photographs here, here, and here from the collection of Pacific County Historical Society: PCHS #5-19-90.1.11, PCHS #1998.57.1, PCHS #1996.83.12. Photographs here and here courtesy of Archive Photos. Photographs here, here, and here courtesy of Timothy Hampson. Other photographs from the private collections of Jennifer L. Holm and Nicholas Krenitsky. Special thanks to Barry Leo Delaney.

  OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA. Copyright © 1999 by Jennifer L. Holm. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

  * * *

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Holm, Jennifer L.

  Our only May Amelia / by Jennifer L. Holm.


  Summary: As the only girl in a Finnish American family of seven brothers, May Amelia Jackson resents being expected to act like a lady while growing up in Washington state in 1899.

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