Our only may amelia, p.7
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       Our Only May Amelia, p.7

           Jennifer L. Holm
 
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  Grandmother Patience takes the cup from me and sips it slowly and we all hold our breaths. One, two, three. She licks her lips and looks around at us children.

  This is terrible tea, she says. It’s not sweet enough and it’s cold. Make me a fresh cup immediately.

  I just stand there.

  She bangs the floor with her cane. But I’ve had all I can take.

  There isn’t any more honey you Greedy Old Witch! I shout.

  She stands up to her full height and shakes her cane at me. She is big, bigger than I thought and she is full of fury. Her mouth is twisted in an evil snarl.

  How dare you defy me, you little brat, she says. Go And Make Me A Cup Of Tea.

  I won’t! I say.

  Wilbert and Wendell stand up at the same time like they are going to do something but this seems to infuriate her more.

  Fine, she says. Have it your way, you evil child.

  And time seems to stand still as she raises her wicked new cane in the air at me, and I flinch away, but she swings it with all her might and brings it down hard, not on me but on my beautiful china baby doll sitting in the rocker, smashing her into a million pieces.

  I cry myself to sleep.

  When I wake up it is dark and I’m cold; my teeth are chattering.

  I am cold every night it seems now that summer is gone no matter how many flannels I put on me or the bed. Wilbert complained this morning at breakfast that my chattering teeth kept him up half the night.

  Mamma said she was making a new quilt for us on account of ours being threadbare but that it would be spring before she’d be finished. She can’t get a stitch sewn with the baby kicking at her all the time.

  The wind is whistling in the room. I think of my poor broken baby doll and whimper, I am so cold and sad.

  Wilbert whispers, It will be all right May.

  I don’t think it will ever be all right again.

  I roll over and shiver some more. I am the saddest coldest sorriest girl ever. I wish I’d never been born.

  And just when I think my bones have frozen into place Pappa comes in. I am afraid I am in trouble, that Grandmother Patience has blamed me for the broken baby doll somehow. I cannot bear it and pretend to be asleep.

  Pappa sits down on the bed and brushes the hair back from my cheeks. He sighs heavily and says, I sure am sorry about your baby doll May Amelia.

  I just lie there, still as a mouse. And then I shiver. Pappa leaves the room and a moment later he is back. He lays his good tweed coat on me, the warmest coat ever, it smells so fine, like an open field, or the breeze blowing off the Nasel.

  This’ll keep you warm my little May, he says. After all, you’re the only May we’ve got.

  And wouldn’t you know, I am as warm as any of Buttons’ kittens, that big old tweed coat of my pappa’s keeps me warm as a summer day and I say, I believe you are right, Pappa, I believe I am the only May you’ve got.

  CHAPTER SIX

  How to Be a Proper Young Lady

  It seems like everyone is conspiring to make me a Proper Young Lady.

  Our teacher Miss McEwing who is young and nice and always has a kind word has even started on me. She is not a Finn and doesn’t know much Finnish at all. She has come all the way from Pennsylvania to teach us children. I cannot imagine why she wants to be here on the Nasel but Mamma says we are lucky to have anyone at all. Wendell says that she is sweet on Ben Armstrong on account of her always visiting him and bringing him pies and such.

  Now that it is October and the harvest is in we are back at the schoolhouse.

  Why all the Jackson children are here. This is certainly a miracle, Miss McEwing says.

  Miss McEwing is forever saying that the Jackson children are the tardiest in the valley. We often miss school because of the farm. That and the boys not liking school very much at all, except Wendell. Wilbert has the hardest time and is always getting into fights with the other boys at the schoolhouse on account of them teasing him about his white hair. They are real mean to him and call him Whitey Wilbert. Pappa says that Wilbert must go to school to learn and not to fight.

  We finally got the hay in, Wilbert says.

  Well now that you are all here let’s move on. What do you children want to be when you grow up?

  I want to be a sailor, I say.

  A sailor! Miss McEwing exclaims. She seems shocked.

  Yes indeed. I am gonna travel with my Uncle Henry, he is a great sailor did you know? I suspect I will travel to faraway places like China and whatnot.

  Well, that’s quite exciting May but do you think your family’s going to want a young lady like you traipsing all over the world? Why don’t you stay here in Nasel and be a teacher like me?

  Why would I want to stay here in Nasel? I don’t want to be stuck here forever. You know I’ve been reading and there sure are a lot of places to go in the world.

  But May Amelia, Miss McEwing says, Proper Young Ladies don’t go gallivanting around the world on ships.

  Well I sure ain’t no Proper Young Lady Miss McEwing, you can ask any of my brothers here.

  And every child starts laughing and Wilbert laughs so hard he falls off his chair.

  Miss McEwing tries to look serious, but finally her eyes crinkle merrily and she laughs too.

  No matter what Miss McEwing says I do not think being a Proper Young Lady sounds like any fun at all. Why everyone knows that Young Ladies must stay home all the time, and do embroidery and keep clean. I think I would have the hardest time with the keeping clean part. I get dirty quick like the boys. Boys have more fun, there’s no two ways about it.

  Why, Wilbert says that he has gotten work upriver at Ben Armstrong’s logging camp and I cannot think of a better thing. He is going to help out on the splash dam. The logging men make a dam across the river and put all the cedar logs they intend to get downstream behind the dam. The Armstrong dam is a big one, Wilbert says it’s fourteen feet high and forty feet at the base. When it is time for the splash dam to be released, a whistle sounds and the dam is opened—the water floods out, and the logs with it. It can be real treacherous.

  The Nasel is real rough and wild high up near the logging camp so when the splash dam is opened, the logs pop clear into the air and shoot down the Nasel, flying dangerously downstream until they end up in the bay by our house. Then the logs are rafted downriver to the boom where they are sorted and stored before going on to the Sunshine Mill. They must sag the Nasel after the splash dam is released. Sagging is when the men clean up all the logs that get stuck in the banks or on folks’ farms.

  Usually some boy must run down the Nasel and warn all the families that they are sending down the logs. Otherwise you never know, somebody might be doing their washing in the Nasel or setting a line to fish or taking a bath and when they look up here come all these logs barreling downstream. Sometimes Ben Armstrong hires Ivan or Alvin to be the boy who runs and warns everybody.

  When I was a small child, Lonny Petersen was playing in the Nasel and his ma didn’t know he was there and they opened the splash dam and the logs came down and he was swept down the Nasel and banged up by the logs. He was hurt real bad and Mamma says He Almost Didn’t Make It. Pappa says he reckons that’s why Lonny hasn’t been right in the head since.

  Pappa says, May Amelia you listen for the boy who tells you that the logs are a-coming down the Nasel, you don’t want to end up slow in the head like Lonny, now, do you?

  Wilbert is going to be a Whistle Punk, the boy who gives the whistle that it is time to open the dam. It’s a very exciting job.

  I wish I could be a Whistle Punk like Wilbert.

  They’d never let you, Wilbert says. On account of you being a Young Lady and all.

  It’s not fair, I say.

  Mamma overhears me and says, May Amelia, you are not supposed to be working the splash dams with the men. Proper Young Ladies simply don’t do such things. Lord knows there’s nothing more dangerous than that logging camp, between the accidents and
fires. It’s a miracle they get any work done.

  I wonder about Mamma sometimes. Mamma is a lady but not the usual kind. She is very strong I know on account of helping Pappa run the farm all these years and organizing the boys. She has a mind of her own and doesn’t hesitate one bit to give you her opinion. Wilbert says she is as tough as Pappa, but just has a kinder way of showing it.

  I look at Mamma’s belly and something is pushing the front. She lets me touch her belly. The little baby’s kicking and it feels like kittens tumbling.

  Mamma, I say, that little baby in your tummy is wrestling like Ivan and Alvin.

  She says, May Amelia, I believe you are right.

  Grandmother Patience comes clomping into the kitchen and gives me a mean look. She won’t talk to me anymore, not since Mamma yelled at her for smashing my baby doll. Mamma said that Grandmother Patience Went Too Far and that if she was going to stay in our house, she’d have to abide by Mamma’s rules and That Was That.

  Hello Mother Patience, Mamma says.

  Grandmother Patience caresses her wicked cane and eyes me like she wants to takes a swing.

  Mamma looks between the two of us and just sighs. She knows there’s gonna be trouble for sure.

  Cut my hair Wilbert, I say.

  Have you gone crazy May? he says.

  Cut off my hair, that way I can get a job with you up at Ben Armstrong’s. If I wear my overalls I’ll look like just another boy.

  But you’re a Young Lady May, you heard Mamma.

  Don’t you start too Wilbert. I never get to have any fun like all you boys, it’s Not Fair.

  I don’t know May, Wilbert says, shaking his head.

  If you don’t help me I’ll do it myself.

  Fine May, Wilbert says. I’ll cut it off.

  And snip-snip, my long brown hair is gone.

  I go up to Ben Armstrong’s camp. I have to sneak out of the house so Mamma and Grandmother Patience won’t see my hair. The men are getting ready to send a load of logs down the Nasel. It is dangerous work indeed, and so they have brought in Lars the Swede to tell them how to do it properly, to show them how to construct the splash dam. Lars the Swede is an old man but he is a real expert. He was a bridge maker in Sweden until he married a Finnish girl and came to America. He has the fiercest eyes with pointy brows and a great white beard that Wilbert says he got from scaring children.

  Lars says, Hello May Amelia what are you doing up here? We don’t usually get young ladies a-calling.

  I want a job, I say.

  Well I don’t know about that. We have plenty of help right now with the cooking, what with Nora Fuller and Mrs. Petersen lending a hand since your Aunt Feenie left.

  Not cooking, I say, exasperated. I have to do that at home. Maybe I can be a whistle punk, I suggest.

  A whistle punk? Lars says looking puzzled.

  Yes, like Wilbert.

  I don’t think your pa would be too happy about that May. We don’t generally hire on young ladies as whistle punks.

  But there’s got to be something, I say.

  Lars scratches his head thoughtfully.

  I suppose you could be the child that runs on down the Nasel and sends the warning, he says.

  I say Sure, sure, fine. I can run fast as any boy, just watch me.

  Lars laughs and says, You look like a boy with that hair of yours. I believe you can run May Amelia, I’ve seen you run away from those brothers of yours when you’ve gotten into mischief.

  How much will I get paid? I ask.

  Lars rubs his beard like he is thinking seriously. One penny seems fair, he says.

  Fine! I say.

  All right, Lars says, get going May Amelia. Go run on down and let the good folks know that logs are a-coming so that we don’t send logs crashing into their Sunday washing.

  And so I run and run down the Nasel, down past the Widow Katja Krohn’s farm and Jacob Clayton’s. It is a long stretch along the Nasel, and in the distance I can tell that they have released the splash dam, that the logs are racing down the Nasel with me, and are almost catching up.

  The Dam Is Open! Logs a-coming! I holler as I run past every person, but I don’t stop I keep going because the logs are simply shooting down the river. I reach the Petersen farm and Lonny is in the field and gives me a wave.

  Hi Kaarlo, he hollers to me and I stumble realizing that Lonny has mistaken me for Kaarlo on account of my short brown hair.

  I get up and keep on going, I run until I am nearabout out of breath and then I am back at our house and Bosie is jumping and yapping at my feet, wanting to play.

  Bosie go lie down, I say. No tricks today—I’m all worn out. It’s heaps more fun not being a Proper Young Lady.

  Tonight is the dance at the Finnish Hall for all the Young Ladies and Gentlemen. There is a dance every fall, after the harvesting’s done. But I am not allowed to go and have to stay home with Mamma and Pappa and Grandmother Patience and Bosie and Buttons while all my brothers get to go, even Isaiah. Pappa is making him take a bath so he doesn’t smell like a sheep.

  But I’m a Young Lady, I say to Mamma. Everybody’s been telling me so. Why can’t I go?

  Young Ladies don’t look for work at logging camps and cut off their hair, Mamma says. Mamma is real upset with me.

  But when your hair is up in a knot it looks short too. What does it matter? I say.

  You don’t look like any Young Lady I’ve ever seen, Grandmother Patience says meanly. You look a fright.

  Mother Patience, Mamma says exasperated.

  I say It’s Not Fair. Wilbert’s going and he’s no gentleman and neither are the rest of the boys.

  Mamma shakes her head and says Just Be Patient, May Amelia. There’s time enough for boys.

  I say I’m not interested in boys, I just wanta go to the dance.

  No, May, Mamma says firmly, and goes back to crocheting a blanket for the new baby with bear-bone hooks. It is clear that I am going to have to sit at home with the animals and grown-ups and have no fun at all.

  The front window is open and all of a sudden a seagull flies in through it, flaps madly around, and then flies out with a loud squawk.

  We all freeze.

  Every Finn knows that it is bad luck for a bird to fly into your house and die. It means that someone in the family will die. Finally I break the silence.

  It surely was alive when it left, I say.

  Yes indeed, Mamma says, relief in her voice.

  The girl’s right, Grandmother Patience agrees.

  We all laugh nervously.

  It’s just superstition anyway, Pappa says.

  It may be superstition, Mamma says shakily, but it certainly gave me a scare.

  She pats her round belly, looks over at me, and sighs.

  The boys had to milk the cows and then walk all the way to the Finnish Hall for the dance on account of the Nasel being plumb full of logs. The Hall is a long walk past the tidelands on the way to Knappton. There is always a lively time to be had at the Hall, and it is where all the wedding feasts and parties are held.

  Pappa said that the boys had best be back by dawn for milking time or there’ll be the Devil To Pay.

  And sure enough, those brothers of mine barely find their way home by the time the sun is peeping out over the valley. I am downstairs in the kitchen when they sneak in. All the boys are real cranky on account of getting no sleep at all, especially Kaarlo.

  I see you are home just in time for the milking, I say.

  Kaarlo fixes me with a sour look and says, Go away, May Amelia. You’re a sorry sight after a night of dancing with Tyyni Honko.

  Bosie’s nicer-looking than that horrible Tyyni Honko, I say.

  At least she’s a real lady, not like you May Amelia with that hair of yours, you don’t even look like a girl no more. You’re no kind of Young Lady.

  Even mean old Kaarlo wants me to be a Young Lady.

  Well you’re no Gentleman I say.

  Pappa comes out and says That’s
Enough Stop Bickering and get to your chores.

  And that is that.

  Later that morning Lonny comes by and his eyes go all wide. What happened to your hair, May? he says.

  Wilbert cut it off.

  Oh, he says. My cousin Thymei needs some help harvesting the cranberries. Do you and Wilbert wanta come?

  Lonny’s cousin Thymei has cranberry bogs and he sells cranberries back east where they are very popular. He lets us children pick the cranberries, and we get a penny a bucket. Some of the boys call Thymei One-Eye on account of a mean old bull goring out one of his eyes. Not me though, Thymei is mighty big and has a real fierce temper and I stay outta his way.

  It’s quiet now that the hay’s been brought in but I have to be back to fix supper. Mamma’s been feeling bad all morning.

  Sure Lonny I say. I’ll round up some of the boys.

  Isaiah won’t leave his sheeps and Wendell is collecting herbs and no one can tell for sure where Ivan and Alvin have gone off to. So just Wilbert, me, Kaarlo, and Lonny head out to Thymei’s cranberry bogs.

  It’s a fierce autumn day, the kind that lets you know that winter is just around the corner. It is wet and cold and all misty like. The bogs are on the Nasel upriver maybe three miles away. Kaarlo is skipper.

  Kaarlo says, This weather is awful I can’t see a thing on the river.

  Logging makes the Nasel real hard to navigate sometimes. Why logs and broken branches will pile up and overnight there will be snags where there weren’t any before and that’s the end of your boat.

  We round a bend and Wilbert says, We’re not too far now.

  Kaarlo is not right about much, but he is right about this weather. It is certainly awful and the closer we seem to be to the bogs the farther away they seem to get. It’s all foggy and thick but real quiet, the only sounds are water lapping and scraps hitting our boat. Wilbert and Kaarlo start fighting over who gets to be skipper on the way back home.

  Wilbert says, You always get to be skipper Kaarlo, it’s not fair.

 
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