“He told us it would be too hard on me emotionally and physically to keep losing a baby every year. In a way, I think he was right, but Danny Boy stuck and he was worth everything. So despite the bleeding with this pregnancy, I don’t give up hope.” She rolls over and puts her head in my lap and I stroke her hair. Outside the window, the snow falls and falls.
November 26, 1934
Reading about Patience’s life in Becky’s journal, I am stunned. Who could have known the difficulties she’s lived through? I’m stunned and ashamed.
How is it that Patience could lead a life of so much pain and still be a beacon of hope, while the loss of my wife destroyed me? Am I really that weak?
The thing is, it wasn’t just grief. There was the guilt, the overwhelming guilt. And it wasn’t just her death. There was Teeleman, the drug rep. A double murder.
“I’ll say the blessing,” Daniel announces when our Thanksgiving feast is placed on a table next to Patience’s bed. “Lord, we thank you for this bounty and for these friends. . . . Amen.” It’s a short prayer and we have a white tablecloth and candles that Patience insisted on. We have all dressed up; the men, even Danny, in long-sleeved shirts and ties and Patience and I in our second-best dresses.
Ordinarily, we begin our meal without preamble, and I’d thought Daniel was more like Blum, a skeptic when it came to God, but I guess I was wrong. Little Danny folds his hands, making a church and then a steeple, and there are tears in Patience’s eyes as she looks at her rounding belly. Maybe she’s saying a prayer for her unborn child. The fetus is now around twenty-eight weeks, too early yet, much too early.
Outside, the snow falls again, tiny white flakes and there are three inches on the ground, but it won’t amount to much, which is good, because I have to go to work on Friday.
“Do you want to carve the ham?” Hester asks Blum. I’m always surprised when he treats the doctor as if he’s normal, an intelligent companion who’s just lost his voice, rather than a handicapped patient who has lost his mind.
Isaac takes the carving knife and slices the ham neatly with his nimble surgeon’s hands. We also have fried trout from the river, home-canned green beans, mashed potatoes, and a pumpkin pie with whipped cream that I made myself with a recipe Patience gave me. All of the food is from our garden or the farm animals, except for the flour, sugar, and lard, and this pleases me, because, for the first time, I had a hand in growing it.
“Milk?” Patience asks pouring for everyone. I hold out my cup and am happy that I don’t have to go to work at the CCC camp today. I worry about the boys when I’m away too long, but they have the day off too, so unless they get into some kind of shenanigans, at least there won’t be any serious accidents.
I take in the room, the flickering candlelight on the faces of my friends. We don’t have much, but for this day, this week, we have enough and we are safe in each other’s care.
December 15, 1934
The day of Priscilla’s accident did not start out well. When I kissed her at breakfast she turned away. It was just a husbandly kiss on the cheek, but it offended her somehow and she brushed me aside with a sour expression.
“You smell bad,” she said, and it hurt me. “And I’m sick of you, Isaac.”
Priscilla was a very dramatic woman and said such things regularly.
“Sick to death of me?” I tried to jolly her out of her bad mood, but this time it didn’t work.
“Sick enough to file for divorce,” she announced.
I turned slowly to assess her expression. Though we’d had a few hard times in the past, divorce or separation had never come up before.
There was no twinkle in her eye, no smile. She stared at me with disgust, as if I were a fly in the honey. Then she leaned over and pulled a sheaf of papers out of the kitchen drawer. “Divorce Decree” it said on the top in fancy calligraphy and under that “Petition for Dissolution of a Marriage.”
At first I just blinked, then I sat down and reached for her hand. “Darling, you can’t mean this. I know our marriage hasn’t always been easy, but it’s nothing you can throw away without talking.”
“Watch me!” she slashed back.
Christmas approaches and I find myself sad. It’s not that I’m more lonely than usual; in fact, quite the opposite. There’s the Christmas party at the camp where Starvation MacFarland cooks up a big feed, and the men put on a skit of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with Loonie Tinkshell as Scrooge, and Boodean as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and upstairs, Patience and Danny are already making paper chains for the tree; it’s just that I keep thinking of Christmas in Vermont.
When I was a child and my mother was alive, the holiday season was quite a to-do. Starting in mid-December, she and the cook, Ingrid, would begin baking cookies, some for us, but mostly for the church bazaar and various less advantaged families that mother had taken under her wing.
We decorated the doorway and the banister up the curved oak stairs with boughs of cedar and holly, then covered the ten-foot fir in the living room with colored glass bulbs, delicate carved ornaments from Russia, and the hand-blown icicles from England. Then there were the parties and finally the year-end Christmas service at the church. I miss singing the old carols.
Not since David died have I felt the same way. It’s as if the little candles on the Christmas tree in the white Victorian on Elliot Street were blow out, but the flames still flicker behind my closed eyes, flicker yellow and white.
December 19, 1934
Today I cried, not a lot, and not loudly, just the kind of tears that spring to your eyes so suddenly, you don’t have time to hold them back.
I’m addicted to reading Becky’s journal, all her secrets, her self-doubts, her dread of childbirth, her work at the CCC camp, stories about Patience . . . and I feel guilty, of course, but not guilty enough to stop.
Lately, it’s gotten so bad that I actually wait for Becky to leave and for Hester to go out to the barn or up to his wife, and then I step silently into her private space, pull her journal from beneath the mattress, and read what she’s written the previous day.
It was when she talked about Christmas that tears came to my eyes. Becky has such a tender heart and I could picture her, a shy girl at Christmas, pale and backward. She’s not so backward now, the nurse of a barrack full of young men at the CCC camp.
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