Heileen - Ch. 11
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.