Family Legacies Chapter 1

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Rural Nebraska, April, 1887

[Adeline Cullen lives in a shanty with her husband, James, and several children. On this day, she gives birth to her son, Simon.]

Adeline Cullen stared into the darkness. Sunrise would occur in less than two hours — she needed no clock. She took a moment to relish the quiet stillness. James, her husband, lay beside her, asleep and lightly snoring, creating a peaceful, rhythmic, humming sound. The children, silent in the other corners of the room, continued their dreams. Acutely aware that this would be her only moment of peace in the next twenty-four hours, she refused to rise or break the stillness. The early morning chill cooled her face, but she pulled her mother’s quilt up to her chin to keep the rest of her body warm.

She required no light to see the cramped, dingy space which she shared with her husband and seven children. I want my house, she thought. When will I get my house? The April-spring wind whistled through the cracks of the wall; she lifted her hand to a crack between the boards and felt it blowing lightly on her fingers. The walls leaked summer‘s dust and winter’s frigid air, despite her numerous attempts to cover the cracks with wet newspapers. At least Martha has a place of her own now, she thought. One less person in this awful cabin. Sometimes she thought she would scream if she had to look at the room one more time; she preferred the darkness. She closed her eyes and imagined her new house: outside, an all-white building with trees nearby to shade them, a walkway to the door which kept one’s feet out of the prairie mud, a large porch and a swing, and a garden out back; inside, windows in every room, a parlour for visitors, a private bedroom for her and James, a play room, and a large kitchen with cupboards galore.

The baby kicked within her and she fleetingly smiled, forgetting for a moment the new house she coveted. She placed her hand on her round belly and lifted her head up slightly to look down. She whispered to her unborn child: “This is the day, isn’t it? You’re going to come today.“ She laid her head back on her feather pillow, and touched her brow. “Oh, I’m so tired,” she whispered to herself. “Only thirty-three years old and I’m so tired.”

Two minutes passed. Adeline listened to the whistling wind and to her husband‘s steady snoring. No more self-pity for today, she thought. She sat up and touched her husband’s shoulder. “Wake up, dear. Time to get going.”

James's snoring ended in one short snort, and he opened his eyes. “Mornin’, wife.” In the darkness, he got up and slipped on his pants and his shirt, both hanging on a nearby chair, then grabbed his boots and headed to the bed in the far corner to waken his two older sons, twelve-year-old William and ten-year-old James Junior.

Adeline’s feet touched the hard dirt floor, and she pulled a loose-fitting, plain muslin dress over her head and added her husband’s old red wool sweater to stave off the cool morning air. She walked around the bed and sat down at the same chair where James had left his clothing. She put on a pair of warm socks — realizing if the baby didn’t come soon she wouldn’t be able to bend over much longer — and a scruffy pair of shoes that one of her daughters had outgrown. Her long, black hair — which she considered her greatest asset — hung to her waist. Without a mirror or the morning light to guide her, she grabbed the ends of it, wrapped it into a bun, and secured it with three hair combs strategically placed at the sides and the back of her head. She patted the sides, to be sure the hair was secure, and took a few short steps to the kitchen. She lit a kerosene lamp on the table and threw three logs on the embers still burning inside the stove. She walked over to the door to see if James needed help with the boys.

“Let’s go, boys,” James said, and they headed out the door in front of their father. James looked down at Adeline, more than a foot shorter than him, and smiled. “How are you this morning?” he asked.

“I’m fine.” She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek, but the size of the baby almost made her fall forward. She laughed. “I’m as wide as a barn!”

“No, you’re not. You‘re beautiful.”

Adeline waved her hand in denial. “Remember, now, this baby may come today, and you’ll have to get Etta.”

“I know, woman. I’m not stupid, and we’ve done this a few times afore, remember.” James followed his sons into the darkness.

Adeline waddled back to the kitchen area. The kerosene lamp provided light for her to work, but the corners of the room remained dark, her children asleep. With the three logs burning brightly now, the heat from the stove warmed her. Adeline grabbed her apron from its hook and put it on. She placed her hands once again on her unborn child. “I’m glad you’re coming today,” she said. “I’m tired of waiting, and I feel old and ugly.”

Fourteen-year-old Inez, already dressed and rubbing her eyes and yawning, joined her mother, both of them warming their hands over the stove. “Ma, did you say something to me?”

“No, dear. I was just talking to the baby.”

Inez’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Ma, will the baby come today?”

“Maybe.”

“Can I stay home today? In case the baby comes?”

“No, young lady. You need to go to school and do your lessons.”

Inez knew better than to argue with her mother. Instead, she did her regular morning chore, setting the table with nine bowls, plates, and spoons: a set for each of her siblings and one for each of her parents. At her father’s place, she added a knife and fork.

“Here, Ma!” James Junior called, as he ran back into the cabin and handed Adeline two eggs from the hen barn.

“Thanks, son. You get back out there, now.”

James Junior disappeared without another word.

Adeline began to heat a large pot of oatmeal, cracked two eggs into a frying pan for her husband, and placed two strips of bacon beside the eggs. She sliced the bread and placed it, in a pile, on a plate in the center of the table, right beside a jar of her homemade blueberry jam.

As Adeline set down the bread and jam, a shadow appeared at the door. “Good morning, Ma.” Martha, Adeline’s oldest child, stood in the doorway of the cabin. “How are you this morning?”

“I’m fine, dear. Thanks for coming over.”

Martha removed her cape and hung it on a hook near the door. “No problem. I don’t mind. Patrick is gone so early that I get lonely, and I miss the little ones here.” She moved to the stove. “Mmmm. Smells good in here,” and she rubbed her hands over the stove. “It feels a bit like spring outside, but it’s still nippy. No frost, though.”

Adeline shook her head and put most of her weight on one foot and a hand on her hip. “I want spring to come!”

“It will. You’ll see.”

“Does that new husband of yours like working for the railroad?” Adeline returned to stirring the oatmeal.

“I think so. It’s good pay. Since we can’t pay our debts with just the farm, the extra pay helps.”

“You’re lucky he has a job. Your pa could never earn that kind of money. Don’t complain to your husband about his absence, dear.”

“I know. I won’t, Ma.” Martha moved around the table, checking to see that Inez had not forgotten anything.

Adeline flipped the eggs in the pan and said, “April is always a promising month. Five of you children have April birthdays. When are you going to give me a grandchild?” Adeline winked at her daughter.

Martha blushed with embarrassment, though it couldn’t be seen in the dark glow of the stove fire light. “I don’t know, Ma. God will decide, I guess.” She turned away from her mother, in case she might see her blush, and said, “I’ll go get the other kids up.” She tried to ignore the unpleasant dank smell of the cabin which always lasted until spring when the cabin could be aired out. Walking through the semi-darkness, she used the blankets — which hung over ropes to create rooms — to guide her. She ignored the four-poster bed where her parents slept, but she found eight-year-old Emma in the girls’ bed and six-year-old Charles in the boys’ bed. Both awoke quickly and began to dress themselves. Finding her two youngest brothers, two-year-old George and four-year-old Daniel, proved to be more difficult. They usually crawled into the boys’ bed but sometimes they got pushed out. Now where would those two be this morning? she wondered. She finally found them underneath the girls’ bed. She reached under and poked their ribs. “George! Daniel! It’s time to wake up!” she shouted. When they didn’t respond, she grabbed their arms and legs and pulled them out. Daniel wanted to prove he could dress himself, but George — still quite sleepy — needed his big sister’s help. When they were both ready, she steered them towards the breakfast table.

When William and James Junior returned with their father, the family gathered at the table for breakfast. Martha served up the oatmeal to the children while Adeline placed James’s breakfast before him. Adeline and Martha then joined the others, but the Cullen family meals never lacked conversation.

“I have a test today and I bet I get a perfect score,” Emma announced proudly.

“What’s it about?” Adeline asked her third daughter.

“Nebraska.”

“And what do you know about Nebraska?” William asked.

“Nebraska is where we live!” Charles shouted.

“Charles, don’t interrupt,” James scolded.

“Yes, sir.” Charles hunched his shoulders and put his head down.

Emma now proudly revealed her knowledge while the entire family listened: “The Indians lived here first, but there were many tribes and they all didn’t speak the same language. They also didn’t always get along. Then the French came for furs, and the Spanish brought horses. Then settlers came — like us.”

Adeline finished swallowing a piece of bread and asked her daughter, “When did Nebraska become a territory?”

“1854. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”

“Well done!” Adeline smiled and patted her daughter on the shoulder. Emma beamed with pride. “And when did it become a state?”

“March 1, 1867. We are the 37th state to join the Union.”

“Well done again, young lady. I think you’re ready for that test.“ Adeline got up from her seat and poured another cup of coffee for James.

Martha smiled at her younger sister. “I had to take a test like that once, too, Emma. Did Miss Brubaker tell you where Nebraska got its name?”

“No.” Emma frowned and pouted. “She didn’t.”

“From an Indian word, ‘Nebrathka.’ It describes the shallowness of the Platte River.”

“What does ‘shallowness’ mean?” Charles asked.

“It means ‘not very deep,’ stupid.” Emma glared at her younger brother.

“Don’t call your brother ‘stupid’, Emma. He’s just younger than you, is all.” James stared at his daughter.

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you say?” James prodded.

“I’m sorry.” Emma slouched her shoulders and Charles grinned.

“It’s time to finish up your breakfast and be off to school,” Adeline announced.

The children finished their meal, gathered together their books for school, and met outside the door of the cabin to begin their walk. Inez and Emma walked together down the road, followed by their brothers, William, James and Charles.

“Now you watch after the younger boys, like always.” Adeline yelled at Inez.

“Yes, Ma,” Inez shouted back. She turned to her sister, Emma, and said, “I don’t know why she says that to me every morning. I’ve been walking my younger brothers to school all my life. Nothing’s ever happened, has it?”

“No, it hasn’t.” Emma smiled. “But I guess Ma just has to make sure.”

“I suppose, but it would be nice if she trusted me.”

Inez, William, James, Emma, and Charles disappeared from Adeline’s view, but she watched until they were out of sight. They had a two-mile walk, straight down the road, and they would play in the yard until school began. Once the children disappeared, Adeline lingered at the door stoop, watching the morning light grow. James met her at the door.

“Time for me to return to my chores, Adeline. I’ll stick close by if you need me. You tell Martha I’ll be near the corn shed.”

Adeline acknowledged her husband with a nod, and patted him on the shoulder as he headed out the door. She returned to the kitchen and put the dirty dishes in the sink, told Daniel and George to play quietly under the table, and as soon as Martha arrived with the water, they washed the dishes and began their baking.

“How are you feeling, Ma?”

“Tired. Old and ugly.”

“Oh, Ma, that’s silly. Women who are carrying a child always look beautiful. That’s what Pa says.”

“Well, I guess he should know. I’ve carried enough of his babies. What about you? How are things going?”

Martha frowned. “I’m lonely, Ma. I miss you and Pa and my brothers and sisters.”

Adeline shrugged her shoulders. “You’ll get used to it. I got married at sixteen, too. But I started having children and it didn’t take long to have plenty to do. I know what it’s like to be lonely, though. My ma never really recovered from losing her four babies. If she’d have lost me, too, I think she might have gone insane.” Adeline felt dizzy, the baby kicked, and pain shot through her lower abdomen. She took a seat in a chair at the table. “I think I’ll sit down for just a moment.“

Martha nodded, unconcerned. “It must be hard to lose one baby, never mind four.” She flushed red and put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, Ma, I’m sorry. I forgot about Lewis.”

“It’s all right, dear, I think about Lewis a lot, but he’s the only one I’ve lost and all of the rest of you children have been strong and healthy.”

“Did Grandma ever tell you what happened to her babies?”

“Fevers. She lost two of them within just a few days of each other. But Ma didn’t talk about it much. Sometimes I’d see her just sittin’ in a chair, crying.”

Martha had never heard this. She took the opportunity to ask another question: “Why did little Lewis die?”

“Just too small, dear. George came out first and he was much stronger.” Adeline grew silent, remembering the tiny body she buried on the same day she had given birth to him. “It was God’s will. At least I‘ve got George.” She stood up and began to help Martha with the dough again. “Shall we make some pies, too?”

“I assumed that we would!” Martha slid the bowl of apples closer to her mother. Adeline began to peal them, one by one.

Adeline changed the topic. “I’m beginning to feel as though Nebraska is my home now. Illinois seems far away.”

“For me, Nebraska is home. I love it here, and don’t ever want to leave.”

“You’re lucky you were young when you came. I didn’t know what to expect, and I‘d spent my entire life in Illinois. It takes a bit of time, getting used to the prairies. I still can’t get over how flat it is. If I stand in one place and turn full circle, I see the same horizon, the same fields. There are no groves of trees, no hills to climb. I think I understand why the first settlers kept going west and why they called it ‘The Great American Desert.‘“

“It’s no desert!” Martha stopped her work and looked at her mother. “I like the flatness. It’s so open. I love to be smack dab in the middle of the tallgrass when the wind blows through. It keeps things clean.”

Adeline smiled at her daughter, feeling much older and wiser. “I don’t much like the dust or the wind, but they’re part of God’s plan, I suspect. It really isn’t the land I hate. It’s this cabin.”

Martha, who had turned away from her mother to get more dough, rolled her eyes. “I know, Ma, but Pa says he’ll build you a house. He will. If he says he will, he will.”

Adeline winked at her eldest daughter. “He’s promised for twelve years — eighteen years, if you count our years in Illinois. The waiting is wearying.” She stood up and grabbed some dough and rolled it out to a thin layer. She deftly picked up the crust and dropped it into the pan, then added the apples, sugar and cinnamon. She rolled out a second layer for the top crust and piled it on top of the apples. With her thumb and forefinger, she pinched the bottom and top crusts together. In ten minutes, she had made three pies, while Martha had kneaded dough into bread loaves which would soon be left to rise.

Adeline changed the subject again: “Those Indians. I don’t know how they managed to live in this country. I guess they found something about the place they liked. But they didn’t build houses. Sam Walters at the general store in Howe told me that.”

“There were a lot of different tribes here, Ma. Cheyennes. Arapahoes. Each tribe had different ways of living. Some followed the bison or other game. Some lived near the river all year. They couldn’t build a house like you want, Ma. There weren’t enough trees!“

“It must not have been an easy life, especially for the women. Still, I’m glad they’re not around any more. They scare me.”

“Most of them live on reservations now, Ma, or they’ve even been sent out of state.”

“I know that, dear, but a few are still around. I saw one at the General Store a few weeks back. He wore clothes made of deer skin, and he couldn’t speak a word of English. They are God-less people.”

“Most of them have a pretty hard life, Ma. Many lost friends and relatives. How would you feel if someone told you to leave the only home you‘d ever known?”

Adeline frowned at her daughter. “Don’t lecture me, young lady. It was God’s plan for people like your father to come here and make use of this land.”

Silence fell between mother and daughter, Adeline feeling misunderstood by her daughter, Martha feeling that her mother didn’t understand the changing times. Adeline broke the silence: “I didn’t have an easy life, you know.”

“I know, Ma.”

“My Pa — your grandpa — was orphaned as a child, raised by his grandparents, and overcame his losses to become a doctor. My Ma — your grandma, I remind you — had to weave at a loom for eight hours a day when she was only eight years old. She married Pa to get away from all of that. Then, she suffered the worst thing a mother can suffer: the loss of four of her five children.”

“I know, Ma. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that our family’s life has been easy.”

Adeline frowned and put her hands on her hips. “Well, what were you trying to say, then?”

“Nothing, Ma. Let’s just forget it.” Martha continued to mix the dough and roll it out. “You were lucky, though, to learn to read and write.”

“I was indeed, and that’s because my mother didn’t want me to have the same life she had had. It’s why I’ve insisted that all of you children go to school.” Adeline’s voice remained strained.

“Ma, I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect. I appreciate all that you and Pa have done for us.”

“Your apology is accepted.” Adeline looked down at her threadbare dress and her stained apron. “I wonder if my old dress and dirty apron are any better than that Indian’s deer skin clothes. My mother would be horrified at this cabin.”

“Your mother loved you, just as you love me.”

“I suppose so. But she expected me to improve my life.”

“You did, didn’t you?”

Adeline thought of the neat and tidy home her mother kept for her father and she shook her head at her daughter. “No, I’m not so sure.”

Martha sensed her mother’s sadness; she shifted the topic to try to cheer her up. “Ma, did you and Pa court each other like Patrick and I did?”

Adeline waved her hand in dismissal. “Oh, you already know all of that!”

“I know, Ma, but tell me again.”

Adeline nodded. She never tired of telling her story. “Funny how fate takes a hand in a person’s life. Your Pa and I would never have met if his family hadn’t moved west.“

“They came from Ohio.”

“Yes, as you know.”

“His pa had moved west, thinking that farming might be easier in Iowa. Your pa may be a fifth-generation American, and proud of his German heritage, but they were nothin’ but poor farmers.“

“How old was Pa when they moved?”

“Sixteen. He could have probably stayed in Ohio, but I suspect his Pa needed his help.“

“But they couldn’t get to Iowa.”

“Nope. They couldn’t afford the ferry crossin‘ at the Mississippi River. So they found land near where my family was settled. I lived on a neighbouring farm. Your pa and I met at church.”

Martha smiled. She never tired of listening to her mother tell about her life, and often she would glean something new if she listened carefully. “Did Pa come to your house?”

“Yes, a little, but your pa was a shy man, and I had to do some of the urging.”

Martha laughed and raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”

Adeline winked. “Women just know these things. I made sure I was in the same place I knew he would be — like the general store in town or the church bazaar.”

Martha chuckled again. “I don’t think Pa had a chance.

“Probably not.”

The women continued to work on their bread-making and pie-making tasks while they talked. “I guess in the end, Illinois wasn’t any better than Ohio for Pa, was it?”

“I’m afraid not, though you can’t say he didn’t try. After we got married, my father gave us a little farm to work. We didn’t have to pay anything as long as we made improvements. I’m sure you remember that place a little bit.”

“I do actually. I liked the apple trees!”

“Well, apple trees or not, we struggled for eight years to make ends meet. Your pa put up fences, built a cabin, and harvested oats and corn, but we could never get ahead. One day, Pa told me he wanted to move west, just like his father had done. We sold the land and used the money to purchase goods for the trip. With $160 in our pockets, four children — including you — and another one on the way, we left behind both of our families and headed here. We hoped for a better life.”

“And you got a better one, didn’t you?”

Adeline looked around the cabin. She shook her head. “I want a house. You know I want a house. Until I get one, life will not be better for me. There have been tough times: unpredictable weather, loneliness, isolation. Believe me, if you want to have pity for those heathens, remember what your parents have been through. I have put up with it all! We’ve built a barn and a corn shed, and we’ve got two cows and some chickens. We own this land, and we’re almost out of debt. I can ride into town and buy things at the General Store. But I want my house!”

Martha reached over and put her arm around her mother’s shoulders. “I know, Ma. I know.”

Adeline took stock of their baking progress. “We’re almost done. Can you finish up? I think I’ll go outside for a moment and take a break.”

“Of course, Ma.”

Adeline stepped out the front door of the cabin and looked to her left — at the spot where some day the new house would stand. She closed her eyes and imagined it for the hundredth time. She opened her eyes again and stared at the empty space. The tallgrass rustled in the wind, and it seemed to say to her, You’ll never get your house. She shook her head, to erase the words she heard in her head. Instead, she stared out towards the horizon, admiring the vastness of the Nebraska landscape.

She took her eyeglasses out of her apron pocket and slipped them over her ears. On this crystal-clear morning, an immense blue sky met the plowed brown land at the horizon. She sniffed the air and felt the breeze on her face. She wished she didn’t have to return inside. She felt the baby kick again. My life has been a succession of babies, she thought. One child every other year since I was eighteen. Her mother had given birth to five children and her mother-in-law had borne seven. Adeline wanted many children but she admitted only to herself that she had been completely unprepared for the process of conceiving. Although James had been a patient and gentle husband, she had never liked what they did in bed. She welcomed her pregnancies, the births, and the nursing afterwards, because James avoided her.

Adeline stepped back into the cabin.

“Mother,” Martha asked. “Are you all right? You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine, dear.”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

“Don’t fuss over me, child.”

“I have to get some more water. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Adeline nodded to her daughter, walked over to the rocking chair and sat down. Rocking slowly, she closed her eyes and hummed a song her mother had taught her. She could hear her young sons nearby talking to each other. Fatigue washed over her.

She removed her glasses and placed them back in her apron pocket, tapping them lovingly; they were almost as precious to her as her own children. Her vision had always been poor, but over a year ago, a peddler had come calling, and her life had changed. Adeline could still remember it as though it had happened yesterday. With her eyes still closed, she re-lived the moment.

The tall, white-bearded man who came to her door showed her a large case which contained many round pieces of glass which he called lenses. He had told her to place one in front of her left eye. She cried out in astonishment when the fourth one brought her world into focus. Where once she had seen blurred images, vague and indistinct, now she saw detailed shapes and objects. Because she could not believe it, she had moved the glass in front of and away from her eye several times. She had been almost blind, but now she could see! This is almost Biblical, she had thought.

The peddler had soon found a lens for her right eye and fashioned them together with wire. He attached two straight pieces — the peddler called them bows — to wrap around her ears. Adeline feared it might be a sin to covet them, but she would not let them go. The difficulty had been how to pay for them; she had bargained with the peddler, eventually agreeing on a deal. It was the only time in her marriage that she had done something without her husband’s knowledge. When he arrived home, she had taken little time to settle things.

“James,” she remembered saying to him, “I’ve bought myself some glasses. I can see! For the first time I can see! Just take a look.” She had placed the glasses on her face. “See, I can see everything so much better now.”

James had laughed, Adeline recalled. “Well, that’s mighty nice, Adeline, but you’re not proving much to me. How do I know what you can see through those things?”

Adeline, feeling a bit foolish, had laughed with her husband. “Well, you’ll just have to take my word for it, James Cullen. I can see all kinds of things that I couldn’t see afore.”

Adeline remembered her husband’s smile. “I’ll take your word for it, woman. But how did we pay for them?”

“I took care of that. I gave him four of my jam preserves, one cooking pot, and a little bit of cash.”

“What cash?”

“My ma gave it to me ‘fore we got married. She always said I should save it for somethin’ special.”

James had kissed his wife on the forehead. “I’m happy for you, Adeline. It’s not terribly practical, but I’m glad that you got something for yourself.”

Remembering her husband’s words today, Adeline most assuredly knew that her husband was wrong. She knew her glasses were practical — she could read the Bible, do her chores, and help her children with their school work. Best of all, she could see the beauty of the world.

Martha returned from the well, and Adeline’s memories were interrupted. She felt a twinge and a cramp in her abdomen; after eight pregnancies, she knew what it meant. She patted her belly. “All right, little one. I know you’re wanting to be born.” A moment later, the cramping came again, and she took a deep breath. Please God, let this child be healthy. She concentrated on her responsibilities now. She stood again. I must count my blessing. I don’t need a house. Not today, at least. Today it’s my job to safely deliver this baby into the world.

Adeline waddled across the room to the four-poster bed. She told Martha what she knew for a certainty: “It’s time.” Turning her back on her daughter and two young sons, she undressed and slipped on her clean white birthing robe. She neatly folded and put away her clothes. With some difficulty, she reached under the bed for the cowhide. Smooth and durable, it would resist stains and protect her mattress; if necessary, it could be discarded after the birthing. After placing the cowhide on top of the sheet, she climbed into bed, and pulled one blanket up around her. As she did so, the first contraction hit her. She breathed and let it pass.

“Daniel? George? It’s time for your new brother or sister to be born. You go outside and play, and mind your sister.” Both boys looked at their mother with wide eyes. Two-year-old George toddled out the door, but Daniel, remembering the loss of his little brother Lewis two years before, hesitated. He stomped his foot and said, “I don’t wanna go!”

“Go on, now, Daniel. I’ll be just fine. Soon you’ll have a new brother or sister.”

Daniel stared at his mother and then followed his brother out the door. As he left he shouted, “I wanna brother!”

Martha ran to the corn crib to find her father. “It’s time, Pa.”

“All right, Martha. How’s your mother?”

“She seems fine.”

“I’ll be back in an hour.” James harnessed the horse to the wagon and left to get the midwife.

Martha walked by her little brothers as she returned to the cabin. “You two stay right here. Don’t go anywhere. You hear me?” Both boys nodded. Back inside, Martha placed a large pot of water on the stove. She checked the coal and wood piles, and got out four clean sheets and placed them near her mother’s bed.

“How are you doing, Ma?”

“I’m fine. Just waiting.” She breathed slowly and consciously. Martha tidied up the room as if company were coming for dinner. An hour went by. Few words passed between mother and daughter. When they heard the jingle of the buggy, Martha ran to greet her father and the midwife.

Etta got right to work: “How ya doing, Adeline? How far apart are the pains?”

“I’m doing fine, Etta. My water broke about an hour ago, right after I told Martha to ask James to fetch you. The pains are only a few minutes apart.”

Etta — a large, tall woman who had never married and had never had a child of her own — stood beside the bed. No one knew her age, but she had gray hair — always neatly combed and straight — and deep wrinkles in her face. She had told Adeline that her own mother had died while giving birth to her, so Etta had decided to help other women give birth safely. She had attended four of Adeline’s birthings, including the twins born two years before.

“It’s good to have you here, Etta. You’ll have to tell me all the gossip.”

Etta laughed. “Of course! That’s why I came, isn’t it?”

Before the women could speak again, James moved to the bedside and kissed Adeline’s forehead. “Good luck, wife. I’ll take care of the boys.“ Adeline nodded.

James walked out the door and spoke to his sons: “Let’s go down by the crik.“ Daniel and George giggled, delighted at having an adventure with their father. James lifted George on his shoulders, and Daniel hopped along beside, as they headed across the field to the creek.

Back in the cabin, Adeline felt another spasm and blew short breaths. She closed her eyes and reached her arms above her head, grabbing the head of the bed. I will not scream. I will not. I’ve never done it afore and I’ll not start now. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. After the pain subsided, she opened her eyes. Etta and Martha stood beside the bed, calmly waiting. She winked at them. “That was an easy one.”

“Let’s hope so,” Etta responded with a twinkle in her eye. “I don’t have all day.” And Adeline said a silent prayer of thanks that they had found Etta to help her with the delivery of her children. The women chatted with each other as they waited for the next labour pain. It came quickly — sooner than any of them expected.

“Good heavens, woman, are you going to have this baby in less than an hour? I’ve seen some fast ones but never this fast.” Etta lifted up the sheet and examined Adeline. “I can see the baby’s head! I can’t believe it! Just keep pushing, Adeline. You’re going to be the mother of nine children in no time at all.”

Despite Etta’s prediction of a quick delivery, the birth turned out to be long and difficult. Etta and Martha remained at Adeline’s side, helping her with each contraction, encouraging her to push when it was time to do so. Etta rubbed ointments on Adeline’s belly to ease the pain. Adeline lost track of time, but in the mid-afternoon, all her efforts were rewarded. A final, difficult push and the baby was born.

“It’s a boy, Adeline! A healthy, baby boy!” Etta turned the baby upside down, spanked his bottom, and he let out a squeal. Adeline, near total exhaustion, thought, Thank God he’s a healthy baby.

Etta and Martha washed the baby and handed him to Adeline.

“Oh, Ma, he’s so cute!”

Adeline — tired but relaxed — smiled on her new child. “My, another boy! Nine children and six of them boys. And look at how big he is! He’s bigger than any of the others!”

“Have you chosen his name?” Etta asked.

“Yes. Simon James.”

Simon, only a few minutes old, looked in his mother’s face and beyond it towards the ceiling. He made no sound, but his dark eyes stared at everything.

Shortly after, Martha and Etta assisted Adeline with the delivery of the afterbirth. Simon was placed in a small basket which Adeline had used for all of her newborns and Adeline was assisted out of bed and into her rocking chair so that the stained cowhide could be removed and replaced with clean linen.

When the bed was ready, Adeline crawled back into it, and Martha handed her new son to her. As Adeline cradled her new son in her arms, she touched his fingers and toes and said, “Well, Mr. Simon Cullen, maybe we’ll have a house when your little brother or sister is born two years from now.”

Adeline did not know it then, blessedly perhaps, but her new son would be seven years old before she finally got her house.

Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.

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