I had mixed feelings about going back home. I wanted to, of course, and I now realized that there was nothing else I could have done. I loved Paul, and I had never stopped loving him and needing him. I was afraid, though, about the reception I would get. I had gone away, and I would have to accept the consequences of my act. What would Paul’s parents think? It must have been a difficult decision for them to welcome me into their house even before we got married, and I knew they had really loved me as the daughter they had not had. What about his brothers then, and Laura, and little Mary Ann? She was used to seeing me, and to spending time with little Bobby and me. How would she feel now? I was thinking all these things and many more, as the bus climbed the winding road to our town. Paul remained silent most of the time, respecting my need to think. He was happy to just have me there with him, my head resting on his shoulder, my hand in his and on my lap. I remember I could smell his familiar scent, and was so happy, because I had almost forgotten how it felt. Could it be we had gotten married just a little more than a year before? We had been together for two years and a half, and yet it felt like a lifetime. I felt very young and very old at the same time, and I was just seventeen.
Kevin had come with the truck to pick Paul up. He certainly did not expect to see me, but looked very happy nonetheless, and kept talking excitedly about how happy his parents would be. He was so taken by his display of affection that he forgot we were supposed to pick up Brenda on our way home. We had to go back and drive to her house. Brenda was very welcoming, too, and set about to organize an impromptu reunion at Paul’s house. So in the end she did not come with us at all, but resolved to walk to Mark – who lived nearby – to give him the good news and to inform the others in one way or another. She would certainly find a ride to our house. I took it as a good sign. Everybody seemed really very happy to see me, and it looked like they did not harbor any ill will. When we finally arrived, Ann and Frank were waiting on the porch and were delighted. They had to contend with Broomstick the right to hug me, though. He kept barking and wagging his tail in front of the open door of the truck – making it impossible for me to get off, and for them to get any closer.
The evening turned out to be a big happy party. Everybody was there: Mike and Laura with little Mary Ann, Kevin and Brenda, Mark, Trisha and Paula and their respective partners. Ann kept the food coming, and Frank provided a bottle of his beloved apple cider for the occasion. I felt like the prodigal son – or better I should say daughter – who had returned home and had been welcomed back by her father.
Going back to our room was more of a shock. Paul had taken out the crib, and everything else that had been Robert’s, and stored it in the barn. All that remained now was a picture of him hanging on the wall where his crib had been. It was one of those pictures parents take of babies. He must have been three or four months old and was lying naked on the blanket on our bed. He was looking at the camera and smiling. He had the plumpness of well-fed babies, but was not immobile. He seemed ready to move – it had actually proved difficult to keep him still to take the picture; he would keep crawling on all fours across the bed. That picture brought many others to my mind, and my eyes filled with tears. I wondered whether I would get used to it one day – the pain kept coming back, and I felt helpless. We kissed silently, and, although it was already late, I set about to unpack my small suitcase. I knew I could have done it the day after, but I did not want to delay. I wanted things to be where they belonged. And so Windy found his place on the chair in the corner, and the poodle Paul had carved for my seventeenth birthday found itself surrounded by the gifts he had given me in the past months. My beloved boxes were now filled to the rim with letters, dried petals or leaves, and the strangest things I had taken with me. He was already in bed and almost asleep when I finally got into it myself. We fell asleep side-by-side, holding each other’s hand.
So I got back to life on the farm. The violent storm at the end of July had severely damaged the corn in the fields and the peaches on the trees, so that very little could now be harvested. The peaches had already been picked, of course, but they could not be sold. They were good to eat, though, so Ann had made a lot of jam and preserves – many more than in the past years – in the hope of selling them at the market in the following months. All this meant that money would be short soon. The extra laborers had been laid off already, and everybody was trying to think of ways to increase the income of the farm. The cows had calved, and two calves would be sold as soon as they were ready for the market. Ann was planning to use the milk for the making of cheese and yogurt, which could be sold. She was also increasing the number of chickens and ducks. This had meant that the family had to do without her cakes for a while, but the livestock would be sold at the market, too, and meant more eggs in the future, anyway. And – as far as cakes were concerned – she hoped the Lord would not resent her decision to sell them for profit this year, instead of devoting them to the cause of the poor. It was harvest time, and Frank and his sons were working hard to gather the corn the storm had spared. From it depended the next year’s crop, and they hoped they would have some to sell, too. Given the present conditions, I realized it must have been difficult for Paul to leave his family during the weekends to see me. With the seasonal workers gone, they all had extra work to do, and they could hardly afford to spare him, even for just the weekends. And then there was the work in the garden. The vegetables had been spoilt, too, but Ann had replanted them, and they had to be picked and processed for use in the winter months. There were not enough to be sold, though – the vegetable patch was small and had always been used only to meet the family’s needs. Everybody had his or her hands full, and I was a welcome help, at least for Ann.
We all worked very hard that fall. The men would rise very early at the first light of dawn to work in the fields and tend to the animals – to come back to the house only to take their meals; at night they barely had the strength to stumble to their beds and fall asleep. Ann and I could afford to take it a little easier, but we knew a lot of work awaited us, too. Besides taking care of the house, the small livestock and the vegetable garden, we would devote every spare moment to the production of the food that could be sold at the market. We would go there every Saturday. The place Ann had at her friend’s stall had become larger; moreover, everybody knew and liked her products, and demand for them was always high. So we would start at the beginning of the week with the making of the cheese, leaving the other days for the yogurt and the cakes, which needed to be consumed quickly. The fruit preserves were a big hit, too. There was peach jam to be spread on bread or biscuits, or peaches in syrup that could be used for the preparation of tarts. The jam was also great in the yogurt, some of which came with honey. Every farm had at least a beehive, because it’s so good to be able to produce your own honey. In the past it was also the only source of beeswax. Now electricity had supplanted candles, but they came in handy from time to time. Ann knew how to make them (I was beginning to wonder what it was she didn’t know how to make), and had her own little project in view of the coming winter holidays. All in all, I must say we all did a good job.
The first snow of the season was a welcome change. It meant the end of work in the fields for the year. It also meant that life was going back to normal. Paul and Kevin would start work in town, of course, but we would finally have a little more time for ourselves. What with the hubbub of activity of the previous month and a half, and following my stay with my family, I had completely lost track of my friends. Also Paul had had no time to dedicate to his, and so we were happy to indulge in a bit of social life. As he was working in town, I would sometimes go there in the evenings and pick him up. We would then spend some hours at Trisha’s, or Mark’s, or Mike’s house. Or they would come to us. It was the occasion to chat and keep us informed about our friends’ life.
Trisha had found a job at a tailor’s shop, and was taking typing and bookkeeping lessons twice a week. It was a temporary job, and she planned to work as a secretary as soon as the course was over. She was going out with Ian, who was two years older than she, and they seemed to get along well together. Also Paula had found a job; it was at a supermarket, but she had other things on her mind. She dreamt of acting, and she was thinking of trying her luck away from home. Her parents were trying hard to discourage her and to keep her in the family, and she was postponing her decision from one week to the next. She had left her boyfriend – the one that did not let her see her friends – and had none at the time. Many boys kept calling at her house, though, and she was always surrounded by admirers. I personally thought she was the prettiest girl in our group – maybe not a real beauty, but what she didn’t have in looks was more than made up by her liveliness. Also Mark was a handsome guy. I used to think that they would have made a nice couple, but somehow they never got together. He certainly had no problem in finding a girlfriend – what was hard for him was to be with her for more than a week! And since we were all still very young, he was having the time of his life. Mike and Laura were expecting their second baby. Little Mary Ann would have a brother or a sister some months after her second birthday. They had told her, but she was of course too young to understand. She would keep saying “sitter, sitter” while running around the house with her favorite doll in her hand.
Paul and I were doing fine. We were slowly getting over the pain for the loss of our dear Bobby. There was the occasional nightmare, or the fretful waking in the middle of the night during a heavy rain, for instance, but we were taking life one day at a time, and were happy to have each other. It was as if I had never left. The previous months had been hard, but I had made it a point to see him regularly during the day, and had found any excuse to go to him. I needed to touch him, or just to see him smile. It was like he had described in his letter: he could feel my presence, and would then turn around to see me coming, and I could tell he was happy; those encounters were as dear to him as they were to me. Besides, we saw so little of each other, and we were so tired when we went to bed at night, that those were the only real occasions to be together. It got better, of course, and then it was good to lie in bed side by side, and take our time. We were not making plans for the future. We had put aside all thought of the cabin; it was too painful to think about. I didn’t feel like going there and had even refused to accompany him when he went there with his father and brother to hunt. We had not returned to the wood, either. It had been a matter of lack of time, and now it was not the right season for an excursion, but the happenings of the last July had taken their toll, and I knew the wood would never be the same to me. I felt sad about it – it was a part of my life that had gone forever. It didn’t mean that I would literally never set foot in it again – how could I? It would never have the same meaning, though, and I would never find in it the comfort it had given me as a young girl.
It was with a lighter heart thus that we celebrated Thanksgiving Day that year. Everybody was present, and – although we all felt Robert’s loss – we also knew it was the right time to give thanks. We had a family, a house to live in, and the means to support ourselves. And we had been able to cover the losses significantly, although the year had been a bad one. Now we just needed some rest, and then we would be ready to move on to whatever life had in store for us. Everybody was present – of course – as they had the previous year, and it was also an occasion to strengthen family relationships. Our parents spent a lot of time with one another – my father enjoying for once a bit of farm life, and Mom finally having many people to cook for. Cooking had always had a soothing affect on her, and I think she was really happy to be able to prepare food in large quantities. And then there was little Mary Ann, and I could see they were happy to hold her and play with her. For the first time I began to think about having a baby again. The pain was still recent and strong, and I knew it would never go away entirely – it couldn’t. Time mends a lot of things, though, and I was sure that – in due time – I would be ready again. Bobby had come as a surprise and had obviously not been planned, and after his death I could not bear to think of having another baby. I believe also Paul felt the same and understood my feelings. He had silently asked permission the first time we had made love after Bobby’s death, as if implying that I would get pregnant again sooner or later – it was just a matter of time. If it was true that I could not refuse him – nor did I wish to – I had wished at the time never to remain pregnant again. I realized now I did not mean it.
Paul had been able to save less money, but he was now earning again. Moreover, he was carving wood. The idea had come from the little artifacts he had done for me. He was very good at that, and had started to carve figurines that he was planning to sell as Christmas gifts. And – since I wanted to do my part – I started to work with the needle. I would embroider little mats, collars, or aprons, or would likewise crochet little items. So we would sit on the couch in our little sitting room in the back, and work together before going to bed. It was good to be doing something for ourselves. And while our hands were working, our minds were free to roam, either in silence or not. We would speak of a lot of things. At first it was about nothing in particular – maybe the events of the day, or a friend we had met. Slowly but surely, though, we started to speak about ourselves. We still did not dare make definitive plans for the future; our conversations included small things we wanted to do, like read a particular book, or visit a particular place. It was a way of gaining insight into what we really were. At the same time we also began speaking of our past, and we enjoyed telling each other what we used to do as little children; what were our favorite toys, and so on. We had never done that before, and we devoted a lot of time to it. We would take turns – one evening each – and tell about a particular moment in time. The following evening we would compare our lives, adding bits of information, or the ever present “Do you remember…?”. We found those conversations so interesting that we would go to bed late at night, and it was difficult to wake up the following morning.
If all that talking meant sleepless nights, it was good for our little projects. From the second week of December we started selling our crafts at the Saturday market, next to Ann’s cheese, yogurt and – given the coming holiday season – candles. The idea had come to her some months before, while making honey. She had put the wax aside, and she had crafted beautiful decorative candles. The neighbors and inhabitants of our little town welcomed our initiative, and it became a nice source of income. Also, we did not need to go around town shopping. That year we handcrafted all our Christmas gifts, and – if it was maybe a little hard to keep the gift a secret from one another – we enjoyed the novelty. We also got together and combined our different skills, and so Paul would carve one of Ann’s candles, and I would embroider a doily to go with a particular figurine.
Mary Ann turned two in December. She had started to talk in earnest, although it was somewhat difficult to understand all that she said. She had very strong ideas about what she liked and didn’t like, and she would be sure to let her opinion known to anybody who cared – or did not care for that matter – to listen. Laura’s pregnancy was showing, and she was becoming heavy – heavier than when she was expecting little Mary Ann, I was given to understand. She had frequent backaches, and her legs were troubling her, so that she would spend a lot of time in a sitting position. For this reason she took to spending time with us. Mike would accompany her to the farm before going to work, so that she could take it easy, and we could look after little Mary Ann. Sometimes I would ride to town with Paul in the morning and spend the day at their house, helping her with the chores, and taking the little girl out for a stroll. It was very pleasant; I’ve always loved the holiday season, and this was no exception – at least at the beginning.
As Christmas drew near, I started to think about Robert again, who would have been one year old soon. Everything reminded me of his birth: the decorations, the tree and the sweets I had bought in the shops the year before. Even being with our friends did not help, and I would find myself suddenly leaving to dry my tears surreptitiously. The nightmares – that had slowly disappeared – returned, and Paul would have to shake me awake in the middle of the night and hold me tight until I went back to sleep. It was probably for this reason that it was decided we celebrate the occurrence in a somewhat subdued tone. The family met at church in the morning and then got together for the exchange of gifts, but there were no big lunch and no loud cheering. Mom and Dad were with us, of course, and did everything to lighten my mood. I just hoped that – given time – I would be able to look forward to Christmastime as I had always done. Moreover, I also felt guilty for having spoilt the occasion for everybody else. In the end, Paul and I retreated to the back early in the evening. We then spent Boxing Day mostly by ourselves, silently holding each other. It was like we owed it to Robert to take some time to remember him. He would have turned one this very day, and the family would have been happily reunited in his name. Paul had carved a toy during the many evenings spent on the couch before Christmas, and we now took it to his grave and left it there close to his name. It was the figurine of a dog lying contentedly at the feet of a little boy. It was as if Broomstick were still at his side to take care of him. The cemetery was close to the church, but we did not go there frequently; Ann used to visit a lot and leave flowers on Bobby’s tomb. I personally think that graveyards are very dismal places, and that the best way to remember our dead is in our hearts; little Bobby was my first son, and I will always have a very special place for him there; this is where he belongs. I do not need to go to a cemetery to show my feelings, and I am sure he does not need me to go there either. Paul understands this, and partly shares my feelings, although he has spent more time at Bobby’s grave than I have.
Christmas Day was a Friday that year, and that meant that we did not take part in the market the following day. It was just as well: we needed to be by ourselves, and Ann didn’t need my help anyway. The people that went to the market were not buying much – having already spent their money on Christmas gifts. Besides, my parents were also there, so that she was not alone. It was a good occasion for them to see a lot of their friends and catch up on the local gossip. They left in the afternoon the following day, whishing – as always – that they could stay longer.
I had not told Paul about my wish of having another baby. Actually, I was not sure about it myself, and I did not know whether I should talk to him or not. Of course it would make no difference – it could happen any day – but I knew it would make him happy. It was as if it was all right for us to speak about either the present or the past; making real plans for the future was something else. My New Year’s resolution was that I would change this state of affairs, and take life more firmly into my hands, but the days went on one after the other, and I did nothing. I would wake up early in the morning and go to bed at night, feeling that nothing was really happening. Not that I had time to be idle – there was always much to be done around the house – but I felt no driving force behind it. Paul looked happy to go to work and find me home when he came back, and I did not have the heart to tell him how I felt. Also the visits to our friends became less frequent. It was as if we couldn’t find anything new or interesting enough to be worth doing.
The only thing that made me feel better was caring for Mary Ann. Her liveliness gave me energy, and it was a pleasure to have her around. Laura’s pregnancy was getting harder, and she was afraid that something was wrong. The doctors kept reassuring her, telling her that the baby was doing fine, and that all she needed was rest. We all sympathized with her, and did our best to make her feel at ease. Sometimes she would leave Mary Ann with us for more than a single day. Of course the little girl loved to be with us, and took advantage of the situation to be with her grandparents as much as possible. I felt that the role of aunt fitted me very well, and we got along well with each other. I would read her a lot of stories, or – when the weather permitted it – I would take her around the farm. She loved to see the animals, and was very interested in the horses we had. So we would spend time in the barn, taking some small treat with us, and Pearl was patient enough to let her sit on her back for a while. It was good to be in the barn, which was warm and cozy. I’ve always loved the smell of hay and animals, and it was an occasion for Mary Ann to see Frank at work. He would let her stay at his side when he fed the animals, and he used to teach her how to do things, even if she was too little to do them herself. Laura would feel guilty soon, though, and Mike would then come to pick her up, and the house became very quiet again.
All things considered, we were all very happy when Laura finally gave birth to a healthy ten-pound five ounces baby boy. The labor was difficult and very painful, but mother and son were soon fine, and life got back to normal for them. It was the middle of March, and the family reunited a few days later at their house to welcome little Charlie into the family. He was named Charles after his grandfather – Laura’s father – who had died during the Great Depression a little after Laura was born.
I do not remember the following days. I was very quiet. I could not bring myself to cry. I felt incredibly tired, as if all strength had been drained from me; I just wanted to lie on the bed and rest. The couch was even better: it felt so good to lay my head down and curl up on it. The back room had always been very quiet – the noises coming from outside hushed – and that lack of noise now suited me very well.
Ann had immediately phoned to my parents, and they had come soon after. I could not bear to look at them, though. I didn’t want to be with anybody. I felt that It had been my fault. I had been selfish in my need to go to the wood. What did I want to prove? What had I done? Paul tried to break through to me; I remember him coming and going, because he needed to take care of things, but he was also frequently there with me and tried to talk to me and arouse me from the indolence I had fallen prey to. I realized only later how much he obviously needed me then, but I just couldn’t be there. My mind was a thousand miles away. I didn’t want to think; I did not want to be roused and talk; I just wanted to lie down and sleep.
Robert was buried two days later in the church’s graveyard, but I don’t really remember any of it. Up to this day, I know the sequence of events because they have been related to me, but I can’t remember being there at the grave next to Paul. Oh, I’ve had nightmares about it. They came and went for quite some time, but it was always in a different setting – in a different place, with a different dress, or other people around me. I’ve tried hard over the years, but my mind has remained blind. Maybe it is better so. A mother should never witness his son’s death; she should never have to stand by his grave.
Also the next days are blurred in my mind. We went back home, and my parents suggested I spend some time with them. Since I didn’t care, they decided for me, and I left with them the day after. The first thing I remember clearly is the stricken look in Paul’s face. He had called for help – screamed for it – in his comings and goings, but I had not wanted to listen – I could not, how could I? That look has haunted me in the following days; the remorse for having been deaf to him is probably what roused me in the end.
And so my life changed for a short while. This is what I consider the darkest period of my life. Up to this day, I can only say I am glad it’s over. Unfortunately it’s far from forgotten. Mom had packed a small suitcase, taking what she thought I would need, which was mostly clothing. She took Windy, though, and set it on the chair next to the couch in the room upstairs. On the shelf in the same room there was a copy of the book my father had had published, but it was their copy and lacked all the tiny mementos I had collected over the years, and that were as part of it as the words themselves. I did not feel like reading, anyway, nor did I want to be involved in any activity. Father had to resume his work immediately, but Mom was able to take some days off – although not many. She would wake me up personally in the morning, and had to literally drag me off the couch and to the bathroom. I must have been a very poor sight, but I didn’t care. It was with difficulty that I followed her on her errands, or sat at some neighbor’s house, who had been so kind as to invite us, just because they knew I needed to see people. Why didn’t they leave me alone? At times I even thought this was all a punishment: I had refused to accept the move to the new house and had run away to the wood instead; now the events had taken me forcibly to the same house I had not wanted to live in. It was as if things were trying to set themselves back to the way they should have been: I was not pregnant; I had no child, and I could behave as if I were not even married.
Paul would work all week long on the farm and catch the last bus on Friday afternoons. I was polite to him, and of course I did not object to him sleeping with me, but I was distant – very distant. He would almost always bring me something – either from him or from the other members of the family. It could be flowers, or a cake Ann had baked specially for me, or yet again the peaches we grew in our orchard. I said thank you and put the flowers in a vase, or tasted the cake and the peaches. Together with the gifts there was always a letter. They were from Ann and Frank mostly – some from Kevin, or Trisha and Paula. After a couple of weeks he wrote one himself, obviously thinking that – since I would not listen to him – maybe he could get through to me in writing. Together we would walk around the neighborhood, visit with friends, and go to church on Sundays – of course. I remember very little. He was always very nice to me, and I followed him without questioning – but without caring, either. He would leave just after lunch on Sundays, hugging me hard and kissing me on the forehead.
And so the days passed. Mom had to go back to work, and I was free to stay home and do what I wanted – which amounted to nothing. I would spend hours at a time sitting on the couch and simply staring at the wall. I would then go down to the living room and might decide to listen to the radio for a while. I never ventured out by myself, and was reluctant to open the door when a neighbor knocked. Most of the times I would pretend not to be in; sometimes I would open out of guilt. I would be polite, making tea, or offering some other kind of refreshment; it was clear, though, that I wished they would leave soon, and they most often did. Mom and Dad scolded me for that, pointing out how kind these people were, and how important it was for me to do things. Of course I understood well they were being very kind, but I was in no mood to notice at the time. Mom began to ask me to make myself useful around the house, so that I would not remain idle all the time. It was right, of course; she was a workingwoman, and it was just natural that she would ask me – who had a lot of free time – to help. So I did my chores because it was asked of me, but I did them hastily, and it showed.
After a month or so I think something began to change. I would still spend my days in the house, but I would now hold Windy in my lap when I was upstairs, and I started to talk to it again, like I did when I was a kid. I did look so much like a kid, and as such I had to be told what to do, how to dress, and what to eat. I had lost weight, and I must have really looked like a scarecrow. Mother did her best to change the situation; she would go out of her way to cook my favorite dishes, or to raise my interest with something, but it was all in vain. I just wanted to be with my favorite teddy bear. I talked to it about Robert, and slowly detailed to him the events of his last day. I opened my heart to him, in the hope of finding absolution. Of course none came, but I was slowly feeling better. That’s when the nightmares began. I kept reliving Bobby’s burial, but never in the same way. I wouldn’t recognize the place, or the people next to me; sometimes it was hard even to understand where I was at first. What was common about those dreams was the terror and terrible pain, and then the guilt that came with them, and I would wake up sweating – to remain awake for the rest of the night. That’s also when I understood for the first time that I did not actually remember the events; the realization increased my guilt; how could a mother not remember? It was my beloved child lying there in the dark forever!
A little later I put aside my reluctance to read the book my parents had provided, and I started to look for the pages I had marked in mine. It was time consuming, and I spent a whole day at it, forgetting my chores, but feeling a warmth I hadn’t felt in weeks. My mother came home that afternoon while I was crying in my room, and we embraced and held each other long and hard, until also Dad arrived and found us there. The book kept me company for many days, and I started to put new bookmarks into the pages – a photograph, the petal of a flower, or a leaf. It was good company; I knew I could rely on it to whisper the right things to my heart.
“… Do not shun sorrow;
It’ll stalk you forever.”
I could not keep the pain away much longer; the time had come for me to feel the sorrow, so that I could move on.
“The heart and the mind are closer than we think, and love is the key to them.”
I had tried to do without Paul’s love, but I was losing my mind as well as my heart because of it.
“You were here in my mind, and now you’ve gone forever.
I think of what you could have been, and never will.
And my heart grieves.”
After I was born, Mom was told she could not bear any more children. She must have grieved for them the way I was grieving now. At least I had had mine for seven months, and could have others.
Later that month I finally read all the letters Paul had brought. The first ones – from Ann and Frank, or my friends – were all in the same tone: it had not been my fault to start with, and I should reconcile myself with the situation and come home. I was young and had a whole life in front of me; I could not waste it – I owed it to myself and to Paul.
I actually did not know what to do with my life. It’s so much easier to do nothing – things tend to become blurred, and you feel less pain. I wanted to feel no pain, and I assumed that I could not feel pain for something I was not thinking about. As I was beginning to understand reading Mom’s book, I had been wrong, because those days kept coming back to me. I kept seeing little Robert as if he were still alive, and the look on Paul’s face the day of my departure was very vivid and kept nagging at me. I read those letters over and over again, slowly trying to believe in what was written in them. Some – the later ones – were even entertaining. They were from Trisha or Paula; in them they told about their lives. I remember Trisha had left her boyfriend at a certain point, and was trying to make me understand why she had to do it. Paula and her boyfriend, on the other hand, seemed to be very much in love, but that precluded her from seeing her friends (I remember I wondered why, but I never asked her).
The summer went by without me; of it, I remember the nights – when the nightmares and the heat kept me awake – more than the days. These were now passing faster, but I still could not bring myself to open Paul’s letter. I dared not see in writing what I assumed he was thinking of me – that it was my fault, and I was the only one to blame. Summer was drawing to an end, and I could feel the change in the air, as the days were getting cooler, and the hours of light fewer. Paul kept coming over the weekends. He hadn’t written any more letters, and had never mentioned that one. He kept bringing presents, though – a small carving, a flower, or some sweet. Those little thoughts were as dear to me as he was, but I would not let my feelings show. Only in the solitude of my room could I bear to look at them and cherish them. And then one day I opened the letter and started to read:
Thursday, August 6, 1959
My dear Heileen,
It’s hard for me to commit my feelings to paper. It’s never easy to express clearly what’s inside oneself.
I work at the farm and come back in the evening to an empty seat at table and a cold bed.
I don’t mean to be reproachful, mind! I keep asking myself what it is I did wrong. How could I not find a way to touch Your soul in those days after our dear Bobby’s death? A man’s supposed to give strength to his family, and I failed. I failed to be there and hold You tight; I should have never let You go!
Everything here reminds me of the life we had together. I can see Bobby’s face looking up at me from behind the couch, or smiling from his crib in the morning. And I am afraid to go to our room at night because sleep is so hard to come!
I miss him, and I miss You. In the middle of the day I take a short break from work, and I can almost feel You there beside me – little Bobby in Your arms – like You have been so many times. Sometimes I think I can hear You coming from behind, but then I turn around, and I realize it was just the wind mocking me. At other times I wake up in the middle of the night and call Your name.
Will You ever forgive me, Heileen? I need You so badly it hurts, and I don’t have the strength to go on hurting this way.
It will be hard, and it will take a long time, but I know that – if we are together – we will be able to accept Bobby’s death. God has tried us hard, but we must have faith in Him, and go on with our life. TOGETHER. We have each other, and I love You.
Do You remember the day I found You in the wood? I promised then that I would always stand by You, and I failed in my promise. I am sorry, so very sorry! But I swear that, if You have me again, I’ll always be at Your side. This is my sweetest dream – that I may one day come to Your house, and see that Your face has changed – that You don’t hate me anymore. I need to look into Your wonderful eyes, and have them look back at me, like they used to.
As the days pass, and our wedding anniversary draws near, I am overcome by contrasting emotions. We have been happy together, and I was looking forward to celebrating this day with You. But then I remember that it was its celebration that brought about our son’s death. Any time I hear a thunder, I can’t help crying, and I weep for him, for myself, and for You.
But if You can’t bring Yourself to love me still, I beg You to say it. Just state it clearly, and I promise I’ll never bother You anymore. I’ll stop coming to your house, and You’ll never hear from me again, if this is Your wish.
I love You, Heileen. I’ve loved You since the first day I saw You, and my love has grown, and my heart feels broken and empty now that You’re not here.
Please take me back.
I am sorry.
I finished the letter with eyes full of tears. He was sorry, and he thought I hated him! How could that be? I had let almost two months pass and had said nothing at all to him. He had kept coming; waiting for something – anything – that told him he hadn’t lost me. I had been so blind! I was so taken by my hurt that I was unable to see his, and I realized now that it must be at least as great as mine. After all, the kid in the grave was his son as much as he was mine. I retreated to my room early that evening – barely touching my dinner. My parents said nothing; they had given up hope, I think, of changing my behavior. I had refused to go out, to see people, to interact with them. And I must have looked like a very bad wife. Paul had stood by me when I had needed him, but I had not done so in his time of need. And I had let misunderstanding seep between us. I felt that nothing would be well again. It was Wednesday. I would have liked to run out of the house and walk all the way to the farm to see him. On the other hand, I felt so ashamed that I was not sure I should have gone back at all. And so I waited. Time never passes when you’re waiting. It was just two days, but I did a lot of things in those two days. I was active around the house, and I started to go out on errands. My mother was the first to notice the change, of course, and – having divined the reason for it – simply said nothing and welcomed my new mood. With father it was a little different. Of course he knew, but he kept wary – as if he needed to see to make sure. I would catch him looking at me during dinner, or he would stop in the lawn when he came home, and glimpse inside to see what I was doing.
Finally Friday came, and as always Dad went to the bus station on his way home. I was in the kitchen as Paul stepped off the car. Mom went to the door to say hello, and then remained with Dad, so as to give us privacy. Paul came into the kitchen and busied himself in helping me with whatever I was doing – making light conversation, as he had gotten used to doing lately. He probably thought that it was better than keeping silent. He hated it when we didn’t talk. I kissed him hello, but was too ashamed to go further. I wanted to throw myself into his arms, and yet it was so difficult. In the end I just told him that we needed to talk, and that we could do so after dinner. Fool! Why was I being such a fool? And so we talked later. We retired to our room after dinner. He must have understood something from the way Mother was behaving. The house must have felt too cheerful to him – such a strange thing as of lately. I told him I was sorry and begged him to forgive me. As I opened my mouth to talk, all the words that had been left unspoken rushed out of me, and I kept speaking – repeating myself – saying a thousand things together. I do not remember exactly what I said, nor do I know what he replied – words kept bumping into each other. At the end he just held me silently, stroking my hair, and whispering endearments.
We did not make love that night. We were too exhausted, and – as it was hard to fall asleep – we just lay side by side. We had negotiated a truce, and I think we needed to get used to each other again. I knew I was guilty for not having stayed by his side, and I wanted him to understand this. It was not – could not absolutely be his fault! At last I must have talked myself to sleep. We made love the next day, and then we knew it was all right, and that the dark days were over. We left on Sunday afternoon to return home, with the promise to visit my parents again soon, but – as my father pointed out – never to return to stay, unless we both agreed on it. Dad had held me on his lap that afternoon and had asked me to stand by my wows, as I should have already done. He had grown fond of Paul, and he did not like the way I had hurt him. My place was next to him and not with them – his love for me as a father notwithstanding. He would look forward to our visit, of course, but he would not put up with any women’s tantrums, as he called this.
My relationship with Paul had strengthened over the months. After the forced chastity following Robert’s birth, we rediscovered our bodies with renewed passion. Sometimes I felt bemused: at the time nobody talked to young girls – or boys for that matter – about sex. You got the impression that it was a necessity brought about by marriage, and that you had to accept it and live with it as best as you could. It was a man’s need, and nobody had ever told me I would enjoy it. Of course we all loved to read romances, or watch those wonderful movies where love was paramount and won over everything, but that was not real life. Men and women married and had children and that was that – what else? Well, I found out with utter joy that there was so much more to it, and that that “much” could be well enjoyed! It was a pleasure to see him come in from the door after work, and a delight to sit with him and little Robert on the couch before sleep. I couldn’t wait for the chance to spend some moments during the day alone with him – to exchange a kiss in the field or the barn, or simply to feel his touch on my shoulder in passing. And of course to sleep with him. It was a fortune Robert was nursing vigorously, or I would probably have gotten pregnant again already! As it was, we were very happy to take pleasure in each other.
We were also making plans for the future. As promised, Frank was paying Paul for the work done on the farm. It amounted to only about two hundred dollars a month, to which you had to add the money earned during the winter. It was not a lot, but we didn’t need to spend it and could well save it. We wanted to have a house of our own. We hadn’t even started to look for one, of course, but we had our own views about it. For instance, we would have liked to remain outside of town. That was probably going to be more expensive, though, unless we could build a house of our own, or refurbish an old one. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed feasible: why not extend and renovate the cabin in the wood to make it fit our needs? It was the property of Paul’s family already, and had a special meaning to us. We could work on it at our own pace, and it wouldn’t matter if it took a long time. We had all the time in the world. This line of thought kept us dreaming for many days. We would meet in the barn or somewhere else around the farm and talk about the number of rooms we needed, or where exactly the kitchen should be. At night, we would lie in bed after having made love, and the discussion would go on to window orientation, or the color of the curtains. We would talk ourselves to sleep without having made any progress, but happy about having a project of our own to work on.
Our first anniversary was drawing near, and we wanted to do something special. Mostly, we felt the need to be on our own. Not that we minded the presence of others generally, and it would be very ungrateful of me to say I wanted to do without Ann and Frank’s company. They were doing so much for us! It’s just that we felt the need to stress the existence of our family in itself, and that meant just the three of us. The choice of where to go lay in front of us, and was clear from the very beginning. There was still a while to go, and so we planned our retreat to the wood carefully. Our base would be the cabin, of course. We did not want to camp out with little Robert. Conditions in the cabin were primitive enough – without running water and electricity. Besides it would be a great occasion to be on the spot and asses the location for the works we were planning to do on it. From there, then, we could roam the wood on horseback during the day, and come back to the cabin at night. Since the weather would be cool in mid-August, though, we planned an earlier visit – say around the end of July – in order to enjoy the best the season had to offer. Besides, we did not doubt our parents were planning something for the occasion, too. We didn’t want to make them feel let down. It was only right that they be included in the festivities.
The work on the farm was proceeding well, and was employing three other laborers, besides the members of the family. It was with some difficulty, thus, that Paul could take four whole days off, around the last weekend of the month of July. A mild June had given way to a warm July. July is the warmest month of the year in the area, and this is one more reason why we chose to leave then. The wood would lessen the heat of midday, but the temperatures should remain high enough during the night. We would take the horses – Champ and Pearl – and Bobby would ride with me. Ann had sewn a baby sling, made of different patches of cloth; I had tried hanging it from my shoulders on the front, so that Robert would be comfortably cradled on my belly. It was not very common at the time, and I was very happy we had had the idea, which I found very convenient. Some days before, then, Paul had taken some supplies and the baby carriage to the cabin, so that Robert could have a place to sleep in. The carriage had actually already become a little too small for him to be comfortable, but we thought it would do for another few days. When we were in town, we would use the stroller to carry him around, but it was difficult to use it on the farm, where I generally used to carry him on my arms. He was growing heavy, though, and I couldn’t wait for him to finally start walking, so that I wouldn’t have to carry him so much. I wondered whether the idea of the sling could also work for our strolls around the farm, since I would not be sitting on a horse. I promised myself I would try.
We left on a Tuesday morning, riding eastward from the farm. The weather was sunny and the air of the morning was already warm. Ann waved us goodbye from the door; Frank and the others were already in the field, and we waved to them in passing. Broomstick was with us, of course, trotting alongside the horses. I felt elated; I rode for the first half hour as in a dream, trying to take in all the sights and sounds I had so much missed. Paul had to put a hand on my shoulder in passing to draw my attention. It was so beautiful! After that we rode in comradely silence for quite a while. The horses were walking slowly, and we’d let them pick the way for us, steering them only in a general direction. Both of us knew the wood well enough not to get lost. Little Robert had fallen asleep a few minutes after leaving the farm. He seemed to have accepted his new means of conveyance, which looked very comfortable to me. And it was so for me, too. I could feel his warm, soft and soothing weight on my belly.
Around the middle of the morning we stopped by the stream. The baby needed to nurse, and it was a good occasion for us to rest a little and let the horses drink. So we slid down from the saddle, and I made myself comfortable in the shadow of a tree. Paul sat next to me, enjoying the particular moment of intimacy when a baby feeds at his mother’s breast. The look in his face made it clear he wished to be there in his place, or – at least – in mine. There were so many things he would never be able to experience personally, as far as having a baby is concerned. Later in the years he wouldn’t be so curious, but with his first son it was as if he needed to know how it felt like, and I was at a loss for words; the best I could do was to let him watch. Once, when Robert was a few days old, I had held Paul to my breast, and he had sucked some milk. He had told me later that he had felt a little guilty, but that it had been a wonderful sensation – as if he had gone back in time and had been for an moment the child at his mother’s breast. He stroked little Robert’s head now, and the child opened his eyes for a second, to close them immediately in the abandon of feeding. He then kissed me gently on the lips and smiled. We rose to go some minutes later. I had changed the baby and washed the clothes summarily in the water of the stream: I would wash them properly at the cabin.
We rode on until midday, when the heat of summer made us look for the shelter of a thicket. We dismounted and Paul set about to building a fire. We had brought sandwiches for ourselves, but Robert had started to eat solid food, and I needed to prepare some rice meal for him. He didn’t like this change in his diet very much and would have wanted to go on breast-feeding, but I was planning to switch to cow milk soon, and he needed solid food, anyway. In general it took me a long time to feed him with the spoon. Today, though, he was so taken by the new surroundings that he seemed not to notice; he just kept opening and closing his mouth at intervals. After this welcome change of attitude we settled comfortably on the blanket we had brought, eating our sandwiches, chatting, and holding each other. Robert fell asleep very soon on my lap, and I laid him on the blanket next to us. Broomstick spent the time running around and chasing birds and little animals; I wondered where he could find so much energy, after having walked beside the horses all morning. Thus we enjoyed our first day in the wood. We did not ride further, but lay lazily in the shadow, until it was time for us to ride back.
The horses recognized the place, and were content enough to be tied to their posts and be able to eat and drink. After Paul had lighted the fire and collected water, I set about to cooking a warm meal and washing the baby’s clothes. It’s incredible how much work there was to do before disposable baby diapers came in use. The baby’s nappies had to be changed and washed frequently, and they tended to leak a lot, making it necessary to wash also the other clothes the baby was wearing. I had settled Bobby on the bed, and he was looking at me intently, while holding his favorite toy – a rag dog his cousin Mary Ann had given him. I had been a little sad to see that he had not even taken Windy into consideration: I had been so fond of it (and still was) that I had taken it for granted he would love it from the beginning. He was now trying to pick up his toy; he would hold it and then let go, admiring his hands in the process. Babies could be very funny sometimes. He used to spend a lot of time admiring little “common” things, like the movement of his hands, the rays of the sun coming in from the window, or a particular reflection in the mirror. And he bore such an intent expression; I could barely keep myself from laughing. After dinner we went to bed – little Robert in his crib – and fell asleep quickly, wishing to enjoy – with Bobby’s help – all the rest we could get.
That’s more or less how we spent the following day. We left in the morning heading east again. This time we were more to the south than the day before, and we kept going east for the whole morning. The day was great and it felt wonderful to be in the sun. It was not too hot – just perfect. We stopped in the middle of the morning, and then again for lunch. This time we found yet another stream, and Paul sat by it after lunch. He was able to catch three fish, and we decided to carry them home. We came back in the evening, when the sun was setting. We ate the fish for dinner, and then lay long on the bed holding each other in silence. At the end we made love, the fire burning low in the fireplace, and little Robert snoring softly in the carriage by the bed. We hadn’t had time to think of the works on the cabin we had so much dreamt about, and we resolved to leave the last day – a Sunday – for that. We had thus one more day in the wood.
The next morning we decided to ride northeast. This was the part of the wood I knew less, but Paul had been there more than once on hunting expeditions with his father and brothers. There was no particular difference, nor did I expect any. Thickets gave way to clearings, and vice-versa, with no discernible pattern. The ground was sloping down as I had expected, and I was curious to see whether we would reach a developed area soon – we were, after all, in the general direction of the urban area. The morning was hot and humid, and we tried to keep to the thickets, so as to find some coolness. There was none to be had, though, so we rode along in silence. I could feel little Robert twitching in the sling, and I felt clammy where his weight rested. At midmorning we stopped at a pond for the usual break. It was a relief for both of us to take the baby out of the sling and away from my belly. We sat longer then usual, even after he had finished feeding, and moved on later in the day. Around midday we saw some clouds forming in the north, and we welcomed them heartily. At the next thicket we stopped and laid our blanket. This time the fire Paul had built would serve also for the food we had brought along. I prepared Robert’s meal while the fish was cooking on a stick, and didn’t have trouble feeding him again. I mentally resolved to find a way to distract him also at the farm (maybe I could move the chair outside?) until he got used to eating from the spoon. After lunch we lay on the blanket, and went to sleep. After disposing of the leftovers from the fish, also Broomstick curled at our side. It was a little cooler in the shade, but I had to admit the clouds were not doing much to mitigate the humidity. After a while we all fell asleep.
I was awakened much later by a loud thunder. It had started to rain, and we were thoroughly wet. I quickly checked Robert, who was screaming, and changed him in the shelter of the blanket that Paul was holding over our heads. Since there was no way to escape the thunderstorm, we resolved to go back to the cabin as quickly as possible. The weather was cooling considerably (my prayers had been answered somewhat too enthusiastically!), and Robert was at present the only dry one among us. Paul helped me to mount, and wrapped the blanket around us, to keep us warm. So we rode back as quickly as we could. There was a terrible noise from the storm, and Bobby could not keep still and kept screaming. There was not much I could do for him, though. Also the horses seemed frightened, and we had to hold on to the reins and spur them on. Broomstick was leading the way. He seemed the only one to know exactly were he was going, and we relied on him to lead us home. Visibility had dropped, and it was pouring. It was hard to follow him, and he had to stop at intervals, barking and retracing his steps until we could spot him again. It looked to me we were not making any progress. How far had we gotten before stopping at the thicket? It couldn’t have been very far, since we had rested longer at midday, and had stopped early. I had no way to judge the time, and did not dare look at the watch for fear of falling down the horse. I did fall down eventually; I fell on the side, and quickly turned on my back in order not to hurt Robert. He was not hurt at all, fortunately, but he had gotten wet, and I had no spare clothes anymore. Moreover, my leg hurt badly, and it was with difficulty that I sat on the horse again.
We arrived at the cabin late in the afternoon. The sky was utterly dark, and it was still raining hard. Paul helped me down and into the house, and I lay on the bed, quickly taking care of little Robert, while he was seeing to the fire and fetching water to be heated. The baby looked exhausted; he had stopped screaming some time before, and he was now hiccupping. His face was pale, and he was cold to the touch. I quickly undressed him and – moving awkwardly because of the pain in the leg – dried him as well as I could; I then wrapped him in a blanket and laid him down on the bed. It was time to take care of myself; my teeth were chattering, and I was shivering with cold. I too undressed quickly and got into bed, pulling Bobby close to me. He was still cold, so I held him tight to my bosom and offered him my breast. He had to be hungry, because he had missed his afternoon meal. Instead of suckling, though, he remained motionless and simply kept looking at me. After a little while he fell asleep.
Paul had come in and had set the water to boil. He was now mixing hot and cold water in a pail, so that we could wash the baby and ourselves; the fire was burning brightly and sending a welcome heat. The wind outside was strong, and the shutters were banging loudly. I rose and sat close to the fire with a blanket around my shoulders and Bobby in my arms. It was time for Paul to undress and warm up; he looked very pale and was – like me – very cold. The touch of him reminded me of the baby in my arms. He was still cold, so I put his blanket aside and laid him gently in the warm water. He didn’t stir for a little while, and I was starting to seriously worry, when he finally opened his eyes and began screaming again. So I dried him, and I once more offered him my breast. This time he suckled vigorously, making small gurgling noises. He was also warm – finally – and sending off a nice heat. Paul had undressed and was sitting in front of the fire with his feet in the hot water, so I drew near and imitated him. Oh, it felt so good! We sat there for a long time, holding each other’s hand and slowly warming up. The baby had stopped feeding and had fallen asleep again, so I laid him in his carriage with an extra blanket. My leg was still hurting, and my ankle had swollen noticeably. I knew cold water would have helped, but I couldn’t bring myself to using it right now. The damage didn’t look bad, though; it was probably just a sprained ankle. Paul had poured water in the kettle and tea was brewing. We had some vegetables, and I decided to cook some soup. I was not hungry myself; I felt exhausted, and I just wanted to lye down and sleep. I felt as if I had been awake for days. Also Paul didn’t look well. He rose, though, and – putting some clothes on – went to tend to the horses. He had tied them to the post, where they were partially sheltered by the slanting roof of the house, but they needed to eat.
I had forgotten about Broomstick! He was lying on the floor, discreetly close to the fire – head on his paws – and was looking at me. Tears overcame me. It was thanks to him that we had found our way back. He had led us home – never faltering and never leaving us behind. His fur had dried, and he looked none the worse for wear. I stroked his hair gently, and he stretched luxuriously, wagging his tail. I started talking to him, telling him a thousand things and yet nothing in particular. After a while he licked my hand and rose. I fed him, taking care of being particularly generous. Paul had returned in the meantime and had undressed again. We sat companionably sipping tea and waiting for the soup to be ready. We barely kept our eyes open until the end of dinner, and then collapsed on the bed and promptly fell asleep.
I was awakened in the morning by a low crying. The weather was still bad; it had stopped raining, but the wind was strong, and it looked like the rain would soon start again. I rose and walked to the crib. I picked little Robert up, and took him to bed where I could nurse him. He was very hot to the touch, and badly needed to be changed. He had had diarrhea in the night. So I washed him and changed him, rekindling the fire. I woke Paul up, because I was very worried. His eyes were watery, and he was crying lowly – like a kitten, I thought. I held him to my breast, but he drank very little milk. And he was so hot! Paul was worried, too. Bobby had always been in good health. True, he had had diarrhea a couple of times before, but it had been nothing serious, and Ann had been there to give advice. I wished she were here now; she would know what to do. I thought I remembered that children must be kept warm and given a lot to drink, so I tried giving him some water with the spoon. He drank some, but not much. He was restless; he kept moving his arms and legs back and forth, and crying. I held him on my lap, and put cold compresses on his head to bring down the fever. We took turns in holding him, so that we could both dress and have some breakfast. By midmorning the situation was the same – maybe worse – and he still would not nurse. We needed help and fast, but we couldn’t risk taking the baby outside in this weather. It had started raining again, but the wind had let down. So we decided that Paul would take the horse and ride to the farm, from where he could come with the truck to pick us up.
He left soon after, and I sat by the fire holding Bobby – and watching him slowly die.
It was not a quick thing. I kept rocking him and whispering endearments to him, until Paul and Ann arrived. We drove immediately to the hospital, and he was still alive when we got there. He died of pneumonia a little later. I just knew. I don’t know how, but his imminent death had become clear to me, as we were alone in the cabin. He had stopped moving, and then crying, and simply kept looking at me; he had difficulty breathing, but I could not help him. I could just rock him, and tell him that everything would be all right. But it was not all right, and would never be again. He was just six months old; he hadn’t grown his first tooth yet. He would never walk, never talk, and never scamper around the house, like I had envisioned him a thousand times. And I would never see his charming smile again. I kept thinking these things while Paul was talking to me. I must have looked really pale, because the doctors had me sit down and visited me; they also took care of my ankle. Then we went back home.
December came, and with it the lights and colorful shop windows downtown. Putting aside for once my unwillingness to move from the house, I spent a couple of afternoons walking around the streets with Trisha – and later with Paul – and enjoying a bit of social life. Together we went to the movies, ate at one of the soda shops, met with friends, and did some shopping. The windows were all decorated for Christmas, bulbs flashing. Garlands hung from the walls, and wreaths from doors. Many shops had one of those new transistor radios going, or – better yet – a brand new stereo music recorder, and I remember my favorite rock and roll songs playing alongside Christmas tunes. It had finally snowed, and a white thin mantle covered the streets. I was jolly and merry, and would have hopped my way around had my bulk permitted it.
We bought some presents for the members of the family. There remained for me to find a gift for my husband – but what? Upon much thought, I resolved I would make him a shirt - no small accomplishment for an unskilled teenager. It was difficult, all right! Not just for the actual making of it – Ann helped me a lot, as with everything. The difficulty lay in keeping it a secret from Paul, who – luckily – was away from the house most of the time. So I carried it with me to school – taking advantage of recess to work – and I worked at home before he came back in the evening, or at night, when my back – or my bladder – forced me to get up. I would then sit on the sofa in our little sitting room, and concentrate on my stitching. Broomstick would get up with me on those occasions, and curl at my feet – a very nice thing since the house was colder at night. I had asked Trisha to buy a length of checkered woolen cloth, and had used one of Paul’s old shirts as a model. Now I just hoped I would finish it in time. Christmas was exactly four weeks after Thanksgiving, and I regretted not having thought about it before.
But before Christmas it was time for Mary Ann’s birthday. She was born on 12 December 1957, and this was an important day for her. It was on a Friday, so it was decided we all meet on the next Sunday at Mike and Laura’s house. We spent the day there, arriving slightly before lunch, and staying for dinner, too. The three grandparents fiercely contended with one another for the baby, who – of course – was more than happy to take advantage of it. She had grown quite tall for her age, and was beginning to walk. She would grab a chair in the living room – which was carpeted – and would push it forward, using it for balance. In a few weeks she would certainly run around the house! Paul and I had bought her a small rag doll that she kept carrying about and showing to people. She didn’t talk yet, but uttered the cutest noises, that only her mother – sometimes! – understood. To me it was like going forward in time, when it would be Wanda’s turn to scamper around the house and try to talk.
Preparing for Christmas meant again a lot of planning and work; three important occasions in less than five months – and all at our house – represented no small accomplishment. The weather was cold and it snowed almost every day – although always lightly – so that it was nice to stay indoors. And with all the cooking going on, the kitchen was warm and cozy – the windowpanes covered with steam. Paul and Kevin decorated the Christmas tree that year. Kevin and Frank had gone to the wood a couple of days before, and had come back with a medium size fir tree, that was now standing proudly in our sitting room. There were plenty of bulbs and plastic globes in the attic, and I had a thing or two I had brought from my house that I wanted to hang from the tree. And of course we had decorated the whole house, putting a wreath on the door and garlands on the windows. Mother and Father arrived on Wednesday evening and stayed all through the weekend. The next morning was spent in church, of course, and then the guests started coming. They were the same as the last time, except for Brenda, who would have lunch at her house with her relatives.
Mary Ann was making steady progress, and would now scuttle around the house on her two quick legs. She would also spend a lot of time under the tree, either tugging at the decorations, or trying to open one package or another, and had to be watched at all times. She had woken in the morning to find a present under the tree at her house, but she knew there were more for her here, so she couldn’t – obviously – keep still. As for us, we were as curious as she was, and we barely waited for everybody to arrive before unwrapping the presents. That day I received a lot of things for the baby. Mom and Dad presented us with a brand new baby carriage. I knew it must have cost quite a lot of money, and was dumfounded. Paul gave me a wonderful little poodle carved in wood. Poodles were the fad of the time. You could see them everywhere, and every girl had at least one poodle skirt – that is a skirt with an appliquéd poodle on it. I had had one myself for a couple of years. I wondered whether I would wear it again in the spring – or would feel it to be too frivolous for my new status. Paul was very happy to receive his brand new shirt. I had finished it just the day before, and I must say I was proud of myself. Even Broomstick had his present – in the form of a bone so big he could barely lift. With that in his mouth, he retired to a corner in the kitchen, where he happily spent the rest of the day chewing on it.
After the opening of the presents it was time for lunch. Ann was kept busy going back and forth from the kitchen with the dishes. As for myself, I remember I did not feel well. The baby had been restless all night long – making me restless as well as a consequence – and I felt strained and edgy. Everybody could see that something was wrong, and kept asking about my health, but their kind concern was making me even more nervous, if possible. I did not want to leave the table for fear of appearing unkind, but I knew I could not last long in that condition. Eventually I did stand up from the table, and was accompanied by Paul to our room, where I lay down for a while.
Mom found me there a couple of hours later, when she came to look in on me. I had just woken up, and was lying on the bed with my hands on my belly. The contractions were coming and going at long intervals, and I spent the rest of the day in my room, with people going back and forth, inquiring about my welfare and giving advice. Paul was by my side most of the time, and left me only to say goodbye to the guests. I must admit I was taken by surprise. Even if I knew that the baby could be born anytime now, I was not ready for it. I guess nobody is the first time. And the pain… If it’s true that over the years the body tends to forget how intensely painful labor can be, labor it was anyway – and a very long and slow one at that. As time passed, I was not nervous anymore. I just understood that things were going very slowly and relied on Mom and Ann to do what was needed. It was a long night. As the last of the guests departed, Paul came back to me and spent the night holding my hand. I would grasp it as the contractions arrived, and let it free again as they ceased; I must have left indentation marks on it, so hard I was squeezing, and I remember Paul complaining about the pain in the hand a few days later. After some time I grew tired and even managed to doze off intermittently – at least I think I did. Also Mom and Ann spent the night by my side, while their respective husbands were trying to get some rest. Broomstick was banished from the room and kept whimpering in front of the door, which was kept shut most of the time. We went to the hospital in the morning, when my contractions were judged close enough to one another. By then I just hoped it would be over soon.
Robert Thomas Bothwell was born on 26 December 1958 at 11:50 in the morning. He had arrived a couple of weeks in advance, but was healthy and full of energy. After all the waiting and wishing the baby were born soon, I did not feel ready to cope with it, and I must admit I even felt a bit left down – I had so much gotten used to calling him Wanda, that it was now hard to realize he was actually a boy. His father was of course very proud of him, and could not wait for the time when he was brought to me for nursing, so that he could hold him in his arms and admire him. What enthralled him most were his tiny feet – so small and yet so perfectly shaped. He would remove his little socks and lose himself in contemplation. It was difficult for me at first – my breasts were small, and so were my nipples, and it was hard for the baby to suckle. Moreover, at first I had little milk of my own, and I hoped I would make more soon. Baby formulas were not common – the first ones were being developed just then – and I hoped there would be no need.
After three days we were both back home. Mom and Dad had left the day before, with the promise to visit again as soon as possible. Mom had spent a lot of time with me, giving all the advice she could think of, and I could see she envied Ann the privilege of being with her grandson. Paul was a very apprehensive father. Probably we are all so with our first child. He would get up at night and stand over the crib to catch the baby’s breath, or would hold him and rock him long into the night after his last meal, even when I felt it was time for Bobby to lie in his crib – and for me to finally get some sleep! We had put the crib next to our bed. The day we had come home, I had taken Windy from its place on the shelf and had put it next to the baby. I was a Mom now, and did not need a teddy bear anymore. It would be his first toy.
I recovered quickly from the birth, but was always tired. That’s what I remember most of that period. Even when children are good and sleep at night, they still wake you up a number of times. They need to be fed frequently, and washed, and changed. And you have your own life to live, and work has to be done around the house. Even with Ann’s help, the first months were difficult. With what I hoped was the correct nutrition, I managed to produce enough milk for Robert, who was growing well and fast. Mostly – though – I seemed to have lost all sense of time. There never seemed to be enough hours in a day to do everything and still find time to sleep properly. At the same time, the days – if taken one by one – all looked the same and seemed to slowly drag me along.
I was so taken by my new duties as a mother that I completely forgot about my birthday. That year the tenth of January was a Saturday. Paul had invited some friends to dinner – among them Trisha, Paula and Mark – but I thought nothing of it: maybe they just wanted to see the baby, or spend some time with us – it was a weekend night after all. After dinner we all gathered in the sitting room in the back, where we could be closer to Robert, who was sleeping in his crib in the bedroom. After a while Ann rose and went to the kitchen, coming back a few minutes later with the cake and seventeen candles. I felt so grateful tears came to my eyes. I hadn’t realized I was living just for the child and forgetting about everything else. This instead was just for me – a seventeen-year-old girl who tented to take things a bit too seriously.
Going back to school was very difficult. I have to admit that, were it not for Paul’s family, I would have probably dropped out. It was a strange situation: I was a married woman and a mother, but – in most respects – remained the teenager I had been a year before. As such I was quite subject to the will of others – notably my parents and Paul’s. And so I went back. I did not mind leaving the baby with Ann for a while – I knew I could trust her – but I felt as if too much was being asked of me. I would wake up in the morning and nurse the baby, squeezing my breasts afterwards to collect some milk for the eleven o’clock feed. I would then rush to school, come back for lunch, feed the baby again at three, do my homework, work in the house, feed the baby at seven, have dinner with Paul and the others, nap a while on the couch, feed the baby at eleven o’clock at night, go to bed, and nurse again at three in the morning. If you felt breathless just by reading the sentence, imagine how I felt! I doubt I could have made it without everybody’s help. Paul was a very good father, and did everything to help me whenever he could, but he was there only at night, so much of the work fell on Ann. As time passed – though – things settled into a kind of routine, and it was easier for me. I think it is safe to say that by the end of February things had gotten definitely better. Robert needed now to eat five times a day; in a couple of months he would soon go down to four, and then I could start to wean him. Paul and I had lost the awkwardness that comes with inexperience, and I had learned to take things with less stress.
I was beginning to understand what Mother had meant by saying that only becoming a mother yourself can you understand what it means. You have to experience it all, starting from morning sickness – going through backache and swollen ankles – to the pain of labor and the following tiredness and sleepless nights. At the beginning I think you do it out of ignorance of the cost, and because that’s what’s always been done. After a while – though – there grows a link with the being in you, and you don’t mind the pain anymore (well – maybe some of it!), nor the sleepless nights. And when the biggest part of it is over, then maybe you feel ready to start it all over again. That’s what my mother would have liked to do and couldn’t; perhaps it was going to be different with me. I promised myself I would write her a long letter as soon as I had time, and tell it all to her. I never finished it tough, and it never got in the mail.
Trisha and Paula began to spend many afternoons at my house, taking turns with the baby, and helping me with the homework. It was fun studying together – the three of us in the sitting room in the back – little Robert in his crib, and Broomstick on the floor next to him. He had grown a lot in those few months – putting on weight and muscle – and it was hard to see in him the thin hungry puppy he had been on Thanksgiving Day. He was very fond of his new little friend. He would spend a lot of time next to the crib, and later – when Bobby would dangle a hand from its side – he would be there to lick it.
At the end of March it was finally time for us to visit my parents. What with the work and the winter weather, they had not come back to our house anymore, and were eager to see their grandson again. As for myself, I was more than curious to see their house. It was, after all, the house where I would have lived had nothing happened. So we left on Good Friday afternoon. We planned to stay over the weekend, and come back on Monday. I packed everything for the baby and Frank accompanied us to the bus stop in town. It was hard to convince Broomstick that he could not come with us, and he stood for a while on the curb, looking at the leaving bus and barking furiously. My parents’ was a nice two-story house just outside the city. There was a small garden around it, where my mother had planted rosebushes and other flowers, and a garage in the back. The house itself consisted of a kitchen, a large living room and a bathroom on the ground floor, and two bedrooms and another bathroom on the first floor. We would sleep in the second bedroom, which – as it was not going to be my room after all – my parents had transformed in a small sitting room with a sofa bed. That’s where we slept, leaving little Robert in the baby carriage next to our bed.
My parents were delighted to see the baby, and were thrilled to see how much he had grown. He was now three months old and was starting to smile at people. He had the most charming smile; you could forgive him everything because of that smile, even the most restless night. And he was good – even on the bus he had slept almost all the time in my arms. Mom and Dad insisted we leave him with them for some time, and so we had time for ourselves, which we spent exploring the city. The town was the seat of the University, and it attracted a lot of young people, who came to study. That’s where Dad had started college, and Mom had had her nurse training. We went to visit the campus, and I must say we felt attracted to it. It was all very strange. Until a few days before, I hardly felt like going to school and get my diploma. Now, though, after seeing the library and the different classes – and all the young people who were staying at the campus – I understood that studying might not be the boring activity I had thought it was. These people seemed to really have a purpose in life. Moreover, they seemed to enjoy what they were doing. The city itself was lively and very interesting. There were more things young people our age could do, like going to the theater. There were many movie theaters – not just one as in our town – and dance halls, bowling rooms, museums. My parents told us that it was not difficult to find a job here, and that many were doing so. I was beginning to understand that maybe they had been right in moving, and that they had wanted me to have a different perspective on life – a better one in their opinion. They introduced us to their neighbors, many of whom were young couples with small children, and we spent time with them talking about our experiences with children. It was very instructive. In the evenings we would gather in the sitting room – Paul and I on the couch, Mom and Dad on the two armchairs – and we would talk about the past months. Mom wanted to know everything about Robert: if he slept at night; how much he ate; if he had had any fever. She encouraged me to tell her everything, reliving in tiny detail the days spent nursing and rocking him to sleep, and the nights – luckily only a few – when he had kept us awake with his crying. Dad – on the other hand – wanted to know everything about the farm. He had been a farmer most of his life, and now missed living in the country. They had left less than a year before, but it felt longer to him. Paul had to do his best to recollect the details. Mom and Dad had kept in contact with the Tailors, of course, but it was not like running the farm themselves. The animals had been left there – except for Champ, who had been mine to start with, and who was now living in the stable next to Pearl. Here there wasn’t even a small patch to plant vegetables in – they had become citizens. Of course that had been what they wanted. Thinking about it, I wonder how I had never noticed they were planning to leave. A move like that takes time to organize, and surely they must not have rented the house without seeing it first! They told me they had been thinking about it for at least a year, before getting in touch with people in the city and applying for jobs. And they had taken advantage of my weekends at Trisha’s house (now that I though about it, I had to admit I had spent quite a few nights at her house) to drive here and assess the situation. The house hadn’t been hard to find. The company Dad was working for had suggested the name of the owner, who had been happy to rent it out to them. The move itself had taken quite some time, and it had been hard for them since they were working already, but the people on the farm had been of great help. And the neighbors had helped, too. There seemed to be a very strong relationship with the families living nearby, although they were in general of a different age. Some of them had come in during the weekend to clean up or do some chore or other while Mom and Dad were at our house, and many had helped Dad with the little works that had to be done around the house. All in all, they were happy with their new accommodation. They liked the work they were doing. Dad used to drive to work every morning, accompanying Mom to the hospital on his way. The company he was working for was a fairly big one, and he worked together with other four colleagues in a large office. Mom was very happy about her job; she said it made her feel useful – something that had never really happened to her. Also, she felt somewhat in control: although she was just a nurse, she felt she could have power over disease or pain in some measure.
We left on Monday morning with the wish to see one another more frequently. Frank picked us up in town, and Broomstick delightfully wagged his tail back and forth and frolicked round us in welcome.
As the weather turned warmer Paul stopped working in town and remained on the farm again. So he would pick me up at school, and it was common to see him and the baby waiting for me outside. He would come with the truck, and Broomstick would ride in the back as always. He would then put little Robert in his carriage, and walk with him for some time, while waiting for me. They made a nice trio – the two of them and the dog. Everybody knew them, of course, and many parents – the ones who had come to pick up the younger children – would stop and chat with him, enquiring about the baby’s health, or my progress in school. The older students, then, would come looking for us on their way out, and stopped to say hallo to their former high-school friend and admire the child. If we had time or were in the mood, Paul would drive to town and stop at Michael’s house. We would have lunch there, and then drive back with little Mary Ann with us. Other times I would be invited to Paula’s or Trisha’s house. He would then drive me there and leave Robert with me, and would return home and work on the farm. I would walk home from Trisha’s house in the evening, or find a ride from somebody.
Even the mood of the school seemed to change along with the weather. I found myself talking to people that had snubbed me before, and even Mr. Bartlett – could you believe it? – was so kind as to let me change place in class and move closer to the front. I was working hard to prepare for the final exams, even if my grades remained somewhat low. Sometimes I found it hard to concentrate on a difficult lesson. On those afternoons, when it was difficult to commit any notion to mind, I would rise from the desk in our sitting room, take Robert with me and walk with him for a while around the property. We would go visit the animals in the barn, or say hello to Dad in the field; sometimes he would even give us a ride on the tractor. After an hour I could return to my studies with a lighter heart and greater peace of mind. Also Mary Ann would spend more time with us. She was very fond of her cousin, and liked to stay by the crib and simply look at him. She was walking now, and with the good weather it was nice for her to stay outside and enjoy life on the farm. Laura would come to us for lunch or right after it, and leave her daughter with us until the evening. That meant more work for us, because a toddler needs a lot of attention, but Ann loved it. She was a very good grandmother. As soon as the time was right, she started to work in her vegetable patch again, which was promising an even better yield then the years before. She also kept herself busy with the preparation of cheese and the baking of cakes. She had become very active in the community, and it was not uncommon to see her outside the church on Sundays selling her products for charity. And then of course there was always the market on Saturdays. She used to go there maybe three times a month. A friend of her had a stall, and she was welcome to occupy a small corner of it. The people in town appreciated her cheese and yogurts, and it was a very good occasion to chat and spend a few hours away from the house. Robert was still too young to be kept long at the marketplace, and so I would accompany Ann, but then go back to the house. As time passed, though, my visits to the marketplace became more frequent.
Paul turned eighteen in April. The family gathered for the occasion on the porch in the evening – a very mild one for the middle of April – and enjoyed yet another of Ann’s many delicious cakes. I was getting the hang of it myself, and would bake some on occasion, although mine would never rival with Ann’s. Mike and Kevin were with us, of course. Kevin and Brenda seemed to be getting all the more close to each other. We wondered when they would announce their marriage. Also Mark was there. He had a new girlfriend, Sara, who never left his side and kept whispering endearments to him. We thought she was rather too mellifluous, and judged they would not last long as a couple – he was generally very straightforward and didn’t like this kind of behavior.
I could not wait to go back to the wood. I was too busy now to be able to do it – what with little Robert and the school. Moreover – although the winter had been mild, and spring was promising to be so, too – I felt it was not time yet to venture far from the house with the baby. Later, though, when school was over and the weather warm, I promised myself I would find time for it. I really missed the long walks I used to take; it felt good to be alone with myself and in communion with Nature. I was sure Robert would love that too. I felt I needed to show him the places I had known. Sometimes, when we were alone, I would talk to him about the wood. Of course he could not understand what I was talking about, but it was good to open my heart to him. It’s so much easier to talk to young children; you don’t expect them to understand or give an opinion, and so you don’t feel embarrassed by what you say – your thoughts can wander, and you can let them out freely. Wood or no wood, I could still enjoy the warmer weather, and did so whenever I could. I would open the back door to let fresh air in, or, later, move the desk outside and do my homework there. Ann had taken on her more work than she was supposed to, so that I could take care of Robert and study properly. And I can’t deny I really needed that; I hardly had time for anything else as it was – I wondered how I would have managed without her.
And so June arrived, and, with it, the end of school and the final exams. Later, after the years spent in building a family, I have felt somewhat guilty of my grades, which were none too flattering. At the time, though, I was happy it was all over, and that I could go on with my life. I was after all the wife of a farmer; what did I need good grades for? Trisha and Paula – who had the advantage of being just teenagers – managed of course much better than I. They were now looking forward to a well-deserved carefree summer, before they started to think seriously about their future. They were very busy these days with their new boyfriends, and their visits became less frequent. I must admit I resented that a bit. I had gotten used to seeing them around the house. They were my only source of distraction, and I missed that. Also Robert seemed to miss them, mostly Trisha – whose presence he was very accustomed to. Little Mary Ann, then, would frequently enquire about her – blabbering “’Isha, ‘Isha” incessantly. Sometimes I wish I were like her – free to call out single-mindedly to my friends.Copyright 2003-2012 Adriana Oberto