Winter of 1917
By Brenda Birch
Frigid winter air seeped through the cracks in the walls of our old mountain house and sent shivers through us all. Fire roared from both the potbellied stove in the front room and the cook stove in the kitchen, but if we left either of those two areas, we could see our breath.
Pa had already scolded my twin brother Merric for taking a loose stick from the wood box, holding it to his mouth, and acting like he was smoking. He'd laugh as the hot air roared out of his mouth into the cold room.
I stood at the door and watched them disappear into the white cold to do their morning feeding. Merric walked behind Pa and still pretended to smoke. My baby sister Ruthie crawled over to my leg, grabbed hold, and attempted to stand up. I scooped her up and closed the door. She gurgled as I carried her into the front room and sat her back on her quilt by the stove.
Ma was moving slow. My older sister Macy and I did our best to clean up after breakfast so she could finish her knitting. We couldn't do a whole lot, though. Merric had taken the footstool out to the barn to help Pa milk the cows a few days back, so I couldn't use it to reach the shelf where the dishes went. Macy wasn't much taller and Ma laughed as she watched us struggle. I ended up on Macy's shoulders. We were wobbly but we didn't drop one dish.
Macy kept yelling at me to quit pulling her hair. There was a long strand stretched tight under my thigh and I pulled it each time I reached up into the cabinet. Once I knew it hurt her, I squirmed just a little more, just to increase the pain.
"You did that on purpose," Macy cried.
"Did not," I yelled back and ran in the front room by ma. Macy swatted at me, but missed. I turned around and stuck my tongue out at her. She stuck her tongue back out at me. Ma saw her.
"Macy Ellen!" Ma yelled. "Don't you stick your tongue out at Mattie."
"She stuck it out at me!" Macy cried.
"Did you?" Ma asked Mattie.
I confessed, wearing my most sorry face, but I didn't feel sorry at all.
"Come here," Ma said and put down her needles. "Both of you."
I found room on her lap despite her large belly. Macy leaned against her on her other side.
"Now, it's almost time for the baby to come and I can't have you two fighting all the time," Ma said. "I need you to help with Ruthie. You know how it hurts me when your pa takes the strap to you."
She was right. It did hurt, and Ma always looked like she took the beating with us. It hurt especially bad after Pa had been drinking from his special jar, which seemed like most of the time anymore.
"Now, promise me you two will behave," she said.
"I will, mama," Macy said.
"I'm sorry Macy," I lied.
"Now, if I could just get Merric on the right path, you father would have nothing to be upset about, would he?" Ma laughed.
Pa was in and out of the house all morning. Merric was with him and Pa made him carry an armful of wood for the wood box each time they returned. Pa was already a little off balance but at least he didn't say much.
I worried about Merric. He was the only boy in our family and was barely old enough to help Pa with the outside work. All us women worried. Pa sometimes forgot things and one time he forgot Merric. He had a little too much drink too early and left Merric outside alone. He was nearly frozen to death by the time he made his way from the pasture, through the snowdrifts, and back to the house. Ma cried for two days after that happened. She told me and Macy to make sure Merric was with Pa when they came inside.
I waited until Pa went outside and then I scampered back up on Ma's lap. Macy followed. She put down the ball of yarn she was winding and held us close to her. She wasn't getting very far with the blanket.
"Do you want a brother or a sister?" Ma asked. She asked us this question all the time but we never got tired of answering it.
"A brother," I said.
"Me too," said Macy.
I told her once, when Macy wasn't around, to make sure the baby was a boy. I really didn't like Macy too much. She was awful bossy and my younger sister Ruthie didn't do much but cry. Macy probably said the same thing about me.
I waited by the window for Merric. I kept my crocheted shawl snug around my shoulders to keep out the cold. I'd peek out off and on to look for Pa. It'd been snowing all night and I could barely see the tops of the fence posts through the drifted snow. Sunlight reflected off the ice crystals and I had to squint to see past the glare. As bright as the sun was, it offered up no warmth. They never did come and I got tired of waiting so I went back and sat with ma who sat with Ruthie sound asleep on her lap.
I heard Pa and Merric on the porch knocking the snow off their boots and I hurried down off Ma's lap. He'd holler at me something awful if he caught me. He said I shouldn't be climbing on Ma and the baby. I was happy when I saw Merric struggling with his shoelaces. That signaled he was done for the day and could stay inside with me.
The day passed slowly. The skies grayed again. Snow blanketed the ground and blew across the porch. Ice covered the glass panes. Merric and I sat at the windows and blew our hot breath on them to make little peepholes. Soon the ice got too thick for us to melt with our mouths.
Merric put his finger on the glass. I laughed as his flesh stuck to dry ice and he had to wait patiently for the water to drip down the glass as the ice melted with the body heat. Merric looked a little scared for a moment.
"Stick your tongue on it," he whispered.
"No," I whispered back.
I liked the patterns the ice made. It reminded me of the snow-covered trees when I had to walk through the woods after a big snow to get to school and seemed almost magical.
The wind blew the snow through the gap under the door. Ma put down her knitting but I told her I could take care of it. I fetched the rug and put it up against the crack to keep it out.
It was getting dark and we all had to help Ma with supper. I got to knead the dough for biscuits. Macy had to go to the cellar with a poke to get the potatoes and a jar of green beans. Merric fetched the salt pork from the meat house. I begged Ma to let me peel the potatoes but she said I was too young to use a knife. Macy got to do it, but I got to put wood in the stove and I didn't even burn myself.
Pa was quiet at supper. In fact, he never said one word after grace. We all ate in silence and talked only with our eyes.
I'd look at Merric and he'd look at me. Then we'd look at Macy. My, the conversations we had without saying one word! It was usually about Pa. One time, Pa caught Merric making faces and took the strap to him. It didn't stop us though. Sometimes Ma would talk with us, but tonight she said nothing. She didn't eat much either. Macy and me cleaned up and I took the slop out to the hogs. It took me awhile to get there and back because the snow had really gotten deep.
When I got back Ma was lying on the bed by the window. I could see her shivering. I took off my boots and climbed under the covers beside her.
"My sweet Mattie," she whispered. I kissed her forehead and snuggled up close.
I could feel her body tensing up and I knew she hurt. She put my hand on her stomach and smiled at me.
Pa yelled at me to get out of that bed and put my nightgown on. I didn't hear him come in and he scared me. I got up even though I didn't want to leave the warmth of her side. He made me, Macy, and Merric go upstairs to bed even though we weren't sleepy. Ruthie was already asleep in her bed.
It wasn't long after we were sent upstairs that I heard the commotion. I recognized Miss Eula's voice. Macy and Merric were already asleep. I got up, crept to the top step, and peeked through the rail. I sat, hidden in the shadows.
I watched Ma as she lay on the bed writhing. Her face was twisted in agony but not one sound came from her lips. I saw Miss Eula put her hands where no person's hands should be.
"You're doing just fine, Mary," Miss Eula said. "It won't be long now." She wiped the sweat off Ma's forehead with a damp rag.
Ma smiled at her, all the time wearing the pain on her face.
My eyes moved across the room when I heard Pa snort and spied him sitting in the chair by the fire. He still had his boots on. He lit his pipe and I watched the smoke rise up, knowing I'd soon smell the sweet tobacco. He got up, put on his coat. I heard the door squeak as he opened it and close again behind him.
"It's time," Miss Eula said. "It's time to push."
My heart pounded. The baby's coming! I pressed my face as far through the rail as it could go. I didn't dare blink -- too afraid I'd miss something.
Ma pulled her knees up to her chest. God, there was so much blood. It'd soaked the sheet and it didn't seem like Miss Eula could sop it up fast enough.
"Push, Mary," Miss Eula pleaded. "You've got to push harder."
"I'm trying," Ma said through her clenched teeth. Her long brown hair was soaked with sweat and hung loose into her face.
I wanted to run down the steps to her, but I was too scared Pa would catch me out of bed. I folded my hands, locked my thumbs, and prayed.
Miss Eula kept yelling for Pa, but I never heard the door open.
"I can feel its head," Miss Eula said. "Oh, dear God..."
Miss Eula yelled for Pa again but I never saw him.
Tears streamed down my face and I looked at my ma. She was looking at me. I didn't know whether to run back to bed or run to her.
I saw her whisper, "I love you, Mattie," through pained lips, but the sound of her words never reached my ears.
"Oh Mary no!" Miss Eula cried.
I heard Pa rush through the door. I saw the jar he carried, the one with the liquid that looked like water--the one Ma called the Devil. Ma would never allow him to bring it in the house. He put it to his lips and closed his eyes as the drink poured down his throat.
There was not a sound. I was afraid to breathe. Eula sat on the edge of the bed with her back to me. I could see she was crying by the way her shoulders shook.
"She's gone Abe," Miss Eula finally sobbed. "We've lost them both." Her hands trembled as she wrapped up the baby in fabric from an old feed sack and handed it to Pa. She closed Ma's eyes and pulled a blanket up over her head.
"What was it?" he asked and put the bundle under the blanket beside Ma. He opened the stove and tossed another piece of wood on the flames. The light of the fire reflected in his hollow eyes and reminded me of the images of Satan I'd seen at church.
"A boy," she whispered and wiped a tear from her eye.
I couldn't watch anymore. I couldn't see anything for the tears streaming from my eyes and I was afraid Pa would see me.
I tiptoed back into the icy bedroom, grabbed my quilt off the bed that Ma made just for me. I climbed into Macy's bed with her and covered us both with all that was left of Ma's gentle love.
Winter of 1917 © 2004 by Brenda Birch
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