The early spring sun glistened on the mud as Nelly urged her horse up the path toward the little frame house. Mrs. May opened the door, as if she’d been waiting for Nelly for hours.
“There you are, sweetie,” Mrs. May called, her cheeks waggling reciprocally as the portly woman shook her head in greeting. “Now you get offa that beast and come on in. I’ve got a nice piece of apple pandowdy with fresh cream and a cup of coffee for you, already poured, so ye can’t say nay.”
Nelly shifted her mail bag and slipped off the back of the horse. She smiled a little shyly as Mrs. May motioned her in as if she was directing an airplane onto a landing strip. Nelly had seen an airplane one time, one of the first to fly across the country.
“Ohhh, Mrs. May,” she said. “Thank you so much.” She felt a twinge of guilt, as she always did, when Mrs. May would take her from her duties and envelope her in such hospitality. But she wiped her boots on the wrought iron bootscraper and followed Mrs. May into the house, through the chinz-covered parlor into the warm kitchen at the rear of the home.
True to her word, Mrs. May had already put a piece of pandowdy on the blue rimmed plate and poured a cup of coffee. She bustled happily, setting Nelly in a chair and fussing over her. “You know, you don’t eat enough to keep a sparrow alive,” she said, slipping an embroidered napkin onto Nelly‘s lap. “Working all the time, busy as a little beaver.”
“Oh, Mrs. May, it’s nothing,” Nelly responded faintly. “I don’t do any more than any other women around here.” Mrs. May was an embarrassment to her gender, but she was a good honest woman, and a fine cook. This was Nelly’s last stop of the afternoon, and what bothered her most wasn’t taking the time off from her duties, it was that she was enjoying something that the others wouldn’t. Will and the babies weren’t exactly being neglected, but still. She handed Mrs. May her mail.
“I almost forgot,” she said.
“Lands, girl,” Mrs. May chided gently. “You are a silly Milly.” She peered over her glasses at the articles from the mail. “Yes, yes...” she clucked gently. “A letter from my grandmother. You know that woman is eighty-six years old. She can barely write.” She cocked her head, waved the letter at Nelly and smiled again. “Well, she could barely write when she was younger. But she manages it every week without fail. Look at that handwriting. Can barely hold the pen. Ohhh, Nelly, it’s a fine thing to have kinfolk.”
Nelly smiled. But the corners of her mouth suddenly felt like they were loaded with lead. She chewed slowly. “Yes. A fine thing.”
“Well, come now, child,” Mrs. May soothed, pouring more cream onto the apple dish. “By the by, you’ll have relations enough. But I’d think you’d be powerful lonely sometimes.”
“I never think about it, Mrs. May,” Nelly plucked the napkin from her lap and set it on the green checkered table cloth. She stood up, embracing Mrs. May quickly. “After all, I have Will and the babies, and Will’s parents, and all of you. I think of you all as mine.” She forced herself to smile again.
Mrs. May patted her arms gently. “That’s my girl. After all, what’s done is done and can’t be undone. You’re a fine brave girl for all that.”
“Thank you, Mrs. May,” Nelly said following Mrs. May to the front door. Mrs. May’s pomeranian had awakened from his nap and stood by the door, wagging his tail up to his shoulders.
“Now dear, are you feeling quite alright? I hope I haven’t said anything to upset you.”
Nelly forced a laugh. “Not at all, Mrs. May. Gracious, if I was upset by anything in the past, wouldn’t I be a fool?”
“It’s just your color went all funny there. I suppose it can’t be easy not to know exactly who you are...” Mrs. May embraced her again, and opened the door. The dog darted out and ran circles around the trees, scattering the squawking chickens who had been placidly picking at the early-spring grubs. “Well, Jesus knows you and he loves you.”
“Yes, Mrs. May, I know He does.” She slipped out the door and looked at the sun glistening on the mud. “Thank you for the cake and coffee.”
“Muffin. You get back in here, you scamp,“ Mrs. May howled, and then turned quickly to Nelly, her sweetness returning as quickly as it had evaporated. “He is worse than a barrel of monkeys. Same time tomorrow, my dear?”
“Yes, Mrs. May. Just about the same time.”
“Good girl. Kiss the babies for me and give Willum a big hug. I can hardly wait for the box dinner at church on Sunday next. I guess we won’t be seeing you all together until then.” Mrs. May untied her huckwork apron and wiped her hand on it again while Muffin slinked back to the stoop with a guilty look on his face. “Get on in the house, you,” Mrs. May chided, letting the wooden screen door bang closed..
“Probably not,” Nelly swung onto the horse and turned his head toward the road. She turned back and waved at Mrs. May. “Take care.”
“Love you, honey,” Mrs. May fluttered her apron in farewell, and Nelly turned back toward the gravel road. Mrs. May was a dear woman, and it would be both uncharitable and unChristian to think otherwise. But there were times when she was not to be suffered. Every so often she would bring up that thing Nelly hated worst of all. There was nothing for it. The truth was, there wasn’t anyone left.
She held the horse back a little, needing to think before she got back to Will’s parents’ house and picked up the babies. She looked up into the brilliant cold-looking turquoise sky. The skeletal trees on the far hills looked like the scalloped edging of dark lace. It had been unseasonably warm, thank God, for the last few weeks, but they‘d pay for it later. There were fattening buds on all the trees and flower buds pushing up through the cold, damp earth. If their prayers were answered there wouldn’t be another cold snap. God knows it had killed off the fruit and flower buds last year and there’d been little in the way of apples, or peaches or flowers to be had and what there were was puny.
She shifted in the saddle. Who was she? She was Nelly Sanderson. She was twenty, and had a fine husband, William Sanderson, cousin, brother and husband. He liked to laugh about that. She had two children, Seth, who was four and Roscoe, who was a little more than two. Will watched and asked every month about the possibility of more. She didn’t want more just yet. Something was eating at her, and Mrs. May had touched on it.
She squinted at the sky, the cool air flowing in around her collar as she raised her head. Who was she? There were only shreds of facts. She had been born in on October 14, 1900 in St. Louis, Missouri, and her mother had died three days later of an infection. Her father had been killed in September in a steamship explosion on the Mississippi.
There was a woman who’d brought Nelly down to a little town in Callaway County where she lived with an elderly couple. But when she was three, the old man died, and when she was four, the old woman passed away. That’s when she came to Boone County, to live with Will’s parents. Will’s mother was the old woman’s much-younger sister. The sister and her husband had six children in a small house on land that rolled and pitched.
They always said Nelly fit right in. It was just the way things were. Nobody spoke of Nelly’s past. She was just one of the children. Still, she knew she was different. She was smallish and dark haired, and the other children were bigger, with hazel eyes, or blue, and brown to golden hair. If she’d been younger when she came to live with the Sandersons, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so different, but she knew she’d come from somewhere else.
Still, the children didn’t care. It was a small house, only four rooms, and with nine people, it was always buzzing with a sort of unruly excitement. The boys spent most of their time outdoors, winter and summer, and the girls worked in the house. Nelly loved to garden, and as she got older, Will, the oldest boy, a year older than her, spent a lot of time helping her instead of shooting squirrels and rabbits with the other neighborhood boys and his younger brothers.
He spent a lot of time just staring at her by the time she was fourteen. Sometimes he fought with the boys from school who liked her and would get into trouble for it. But he didn‘t like her. She knew that. Not like a boy likes a girl. He just spent a lot of time hanging around her.
In July 1914, they packed up the wagon and left early in the morning for the Callaway County Fair. It was almost twenty miles, a five hour ride. It was hotter than a griddle when they arrived and people were sitting under tents and lounging on the grass on the city square. Women fanned themselves with square paper fans on little sticks. “Nelly,“ Ma shouted over the hubbub. “You take your pickles over to that there green-striped tent. I’ll drop off our quilts and we’ll meet back at the luncheon tent.“
Nelly nodded, took her basket and set off for the darkened canning tent. It was eerie, lit by a single bulb hanging from a bare wire every twelve feet or so. She arranged the jars neatly and filled out the little cards, setting them up in front of her pickles and Ma‘s jellies and jams. When she came out of the tent into the bright sunlight, Will was standing by the flap, his hands in his pockets, his short sleeves lying limp against his thin arms.
“Nelly,“ he said.
“What are you doing here?“ she chided, teasingly. “You should be over looking at the swine with the men, not hanging out around the canning show.“
“I want to talk to you.”
There was something in his tone that made her stomach knotted and her mouth went dry. “Well, talk...“
“I think we ought to go over there,” he said, pointing to the city offices.
“Why?” she asked. There were rides and animals and food over on the other side of the square.
“I just think we ought to go over there and see someone.”
He tugged on her hand and she pulled back. “Willie, what’s got into you?”
“I got one of my crazy ideas, Nelly,” he said slyly, pulling at her again. He was almost famous for his crazy ideas. They generally involved climbing something and jumping off, or catching some animal or something that was best left alone.
“What kind?” she pretended to sulk.
“I think we ought to get married.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “What did you say?”
He scuffed his foot in the dirt by one of the corner posts of the tent. “Oh, you heard me,“ he said, almost irritably. “You want me to say it again?“
She looked at him, her eyes and mouth open. “Married?”
He nodded. “Nelly. I love you. You love me. You know you do.”
She didn’t know. She might have loved him. It never occurred to her. “Come on. We’ll find the fellow who marries people and get married. Come on,” he wheedled. “You’ll be happy. I’ll make you happy.”
She stopped short. “Ohh? You...how do you intend to do that?”
“You’ll see...” He leaned forward so that she felt the brush of his longish hair on her cheek. “I know what to do. You’ll like it.”
“I don’t think we can get married,” she said faintly.
“Sure we can. I love you, Nelly. I’ll always love you. I’ve never wanted anyone else. I would die if you didn’t love me back.” His eyes were great, serious, deep. She bit her lower lip. He tugged gently on her. Suddenly, the cotton candy that she had been dreaming about for days seemed sour in her stomach.
She laughed a little. “Will Sanderson. Just yesterday you was sayin’ you were going to go down to the recruitment office and lie about your age, sign on and go to fight the Hun. Today, you want to marry me?“
He flushed and turned away. When he turned back, his eyes were full of reproach. “Well, I wanted to yesterday, Nelly. I just didn’t think you’d do it.“
She tossed her hair. “Well, what makes you think I’d do it now?“ He was just Will and they were always teasing and playing.
“Cause I asked you.“
“Why did you ask me?“
“Cause it’s so damned hot I can’t think straight.“ His hands were still in his pocket, and he was looking away, down the lane between the tents. For a moment, she could think of nothing except how the heat rose off the dirt, of the sounds and the smells animals at the exhibits and the people moving and swarming like so many ants. “Come on,“ he motioned with his head and she followed him along the strip to the place where there were awnings set up for the luncheon. There was music, fiddle and guitar, wafting over all the voices, and flags and banners fluttering in the almost non-existent breeze. The smell of frying chicken settled over everything like a hot blanket.
He walked about ten more paces and then turned to her. “You gonna do it or not?“
“Marry me. You gonna marry me?” He turned back toward her, slipped his hand into hers and squeezed it. It was rough, and his fingers were thicker than hers. He’d grown so much in the last year, it wasn’t funny.
“Willie,” she said softly, but he wasn’t listening. He was pulling her toward a portly man in a white suit.
“That’s him. He’ll marry us. It’ll be fun,” he was wheedling again. He was much cuter when he wheedled than when he sulked. He came up behind the man and coughed a little. “Excuse me, sir, you Mr. Baker?”
“I am,” the man turned and stuffed the rest of a brat into his mouth and chewed jovially.
“Will you marry us?” When Nelly looked up from her scuffed low-heeled shoes, she was shocked at how beet-red Will’s cheeks was.
“Well...” Mr. Baker looked from Will to Nelly. Nelly couldn’t bring her face up to meet his eyes. “Y’all look a little youngish. How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” Willy said. Nelly narrowed her eyes at him. He was fifteen, and he knew it. Who forgets how old they are?
“How old are you, honey?” the man asked.
“Fourteen?” she heard herself say.
“Can’t do it,” Mr. Baker tipped his hat at some passing ladies. “Less you can get someone to give consent. A relative. Your folks here?”
“If I can find someone, will you do it? I mean does it matter who it is?”
“If you’ve got two dollars and a ring, I don‘t care.”
“I do...” Willie said breathlessly. He was still holding onto her hand, but his rough palm was now slick with sweat. She wanted to pull away but then, on the other hand, she kept clinging to it. Married. It was too much to comprehend. He pulled her around and almost ran through the crowd. Turning back near the sheep pens, he caught her by the waist. “You won’t be sorry. I promise. I’ll be so good to you.” He nuzzled her and she pulled back shyly. So many people around. He’d never even kissed her. Never even tried to.
She nodded. The idea, so foreign even an hour ago, was beginning to sink in. There was a certain relief to it. After all, they already knew each other so well. He would be good to her, and she did love him.
He led her quickly to the beer garden and they wended their way through the tightly packed chairs and tables until they came to where Uncle Willard was sitting with a gaggle of red-faced men. “I weighed in at 360 when I was twenty-seven,” he said patting his paunch. “I almost won the fattest man in the county award. But some son of a buck came in at the last minutes at 364, and I had to settle for the longest beard in the county.” The men all roared with laughter and Uncle Willard turned to Willy and Nelly.
“Uncle Willard,” Willy began in a voice so firm and adult-sounding that it startled Nelly for a minute. ‘I’ve a favor to ask you.”
“Ask away, my boy.” Uncle Willard looked down Willy’s arm to where it was attached to Nelly’s. “Say, what’s this about, hmm?”
“Uncle Willard. Nelly and I have decided to marry.”
“Have you now?” Uncle Willard’s eyes passed from Willy to Nelly and she felt her face grow hot. “Have you now?” He looked at his friends, large men sitting at an almost comically small table. “Well, boys what do you make of that?”
There were guffaws around that table.
“We need consent from a relative,” Willy began again, a little more cautiously.
“Well, where’s your Pa?”
“Don’t know…but Mr. Baker says he ain’t got all day.”
“Well, what’s Mr. Baker got to do that’s so danged important,” Uncle Willard whined a little and took a sip of beer, this time a little smaller and a little slower. “These politicians. Think they run the world.”
Everyone laughed. Willy laughed too but his sweaty grip belied a calm attitude. He was trying to be a man among men. If they married, he would be. She bit her lip a little. It was a horrid, embarrassing thought, but then again, it would make her a real woman. Uncle Willard looked at Nelly again, and gave a little growl of affection. “All right. You’re good kids. I’ll stand up for you. Let’s go find Mr. Baker.”
Willy’s thin shoulders relaxed visibly in his summer shirt. She could smell him, sweaty with the summer heat and the scent was tinged with fear. He turned, though, and grinned at her. “:You’re going to be mine,” he whispered. “Forever. We’ll be each other’s.” She smiled a little. He was talking like a picture Valentine. She covered her lips with her fingers and held back the urge to giggle. What would the girls say? They would be pea-green. She would be the first married woman in the whole neighborhood., in their whole set, that is.
They followed Uncle Willard to the lunch table, and Uncle Willard slapped Mr. Baker on the back. “Well, Jasper…”
“Well, Willard,” Mr. Baker set the ribs he was eating on a plate and wiped his hands on the end of the table cloth.
“Your wife sees you do that, you’ll catch holy hell, Jasper.”
“My wife sees me do half the things I do, I’d catch holy hell, Willard. What can I do you for?”
“My nephew and niece want to get married.”
Mr. Baker laughed. “That don’t sound altogether wholesome somehow.”
“It’s okay. You know my brother’s boy, Will and this is the girl they adopted when she was just a little thing. Took her in from Will’s mother’s sister when she died. “
“That’d make ‘em cousins. That’s alright.” Mr. Baker nodded. “They’re young.”
“I give consent on behalf of my brother and his wife,” Uncle Willard said solemnly.
“Well, alright,” Mr. Baker laughed. “But if it aint’ right, you’re takin’ the heat for it.”
“Whatever you say,” Uncle Willard picked up Mr. Baker’s rib and tore the rest of the flesh from the bone. “Get on with it, though. It’s hotter than hell out here.”
Mr. Baker made a wide sweeping gesture. “Y’all gather round here. We’re going to have a wedding on top of all the other festivities today.” There was a general flutter nearby and he turned to Will and Nelly. She’d seen a dozens of weddings since she was small. She knew all the words Mr. Baker would say. It was so surprisingly quick for something that would have to endure so long.
“Do you, Nelly Sanderson, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
“I do,” she said softly, and the crowd cheered. She smiled and could barely open her eyes for the glare of the sun and the nervousness of the moment.
“Do you, Will Sanderson, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“I do.” His voice sounded manly again, but his fingers wriggled in her hand.
“Then, by the power vested in me by the State of Missouri, I now pronounce you man and wife.” Mr. Baker nodded pre-emtorily. “Willard, you ate my damned ribs.”
“Good ones, too,” Uncle Willard laughed.
For a moment Will and Nelly stood like stone statues.
“Well, kiss her,” Mr. Baker said finally, irritably, and Will leaned over and pressed his mouth quickly against hers. She raised a hand to his shoulder and they stood staring at each other. Only then did a cold feeling settle on her. What would Ma and Pa say? Marry in haste, repent in leisure. Oh, if only she could go back ten minutes, not be so embarrassed to say she didn’t think it was a good idea. Or that they should wait. They’d never even dated. What were they to do? What if Ma and Pa threw them out onto the cold world? What would happen then?
She looked up slowly into Willie’s face. Everyone around was hooting, women were crying and Mr. Baker and Uncle Willard had peculiar looks on their faces, part pride and part amusement. Will’s face was blotchy, red and white. His eyes were a little funny and she looked at him for what seemed like a long time.
“I love you,” he said finally, soberly. There was something so sweet about it. She smiled. He grinned. It was going to be alright. Whatever happened, it was going to be fine.
“I love you, too,” she said. But she felt like she was only parroting words. It didn’t take long for Ma and Pa to hear what had happened, and they came rushing over to the lunch tent. “What did you foolish things go and do?“ Ma said, her voice heavy with a misery Nelly had rarely heard. “Oh, children, what did you do?“
“Nothing for it, Ma,“ Pa said stoically, and they sat down in the folding chairs at the tables. Everybody else seemed delighted, though, and Will and Nelly walked around town together, hand in hand until it was time to go home. Back at the house, Ma cried and Pa shook his head, but that was the worst of it.
“You know, Ma,” Pa said. “We started out not a lot worse than they are, and look how well we‘ve turned out.”
“I wanted to get a nice dress for her, have a nice wedding and they went off and done it like they had to.” Ma wiped her eyes. “Y‘all didn‘t have to did you?”
“You know I wouldn‘t, Ma,” Will said soberly, and Pa patted his shoulder.
“They‘ll turn out fine,” he said. “Ma, let‘s you and me go to bed. Let them sort it out for themselves.”
They moved the three younger brothers out into the parlor so that Willie and Nelly could have a room together alone. For a few minutes they just stared at each other. He shrugged finally. “Nelly, I got me one of those crazy ideas...“ he began and scooted closer to her. She couldn’t keep from giggling. This time, when he said, “I love you,” and she answered back, it meant something different.
Of course, by fall their lives were all different. Nelly couldn’t go back to school and Willie only dropped in every so often. After all, she was a married woman and he a husband, and they both had duties. There would be children coming. Ma told her to be careful but everyone knew they being careful only forestalled the inevitable. They’d have to have a new house, because Ma and Pa and the five other children couldn’t really be expected to accommodate more little ones, nor could the brothers be expected to sleep forever in the parlor. Besides, she wanted a place of her own. It was part of being a woman.
So Willy worked sunup to sundown. He helped his father with the work there on the farm and Pa rented a few acres of bottom land for Willy to work on his own. Nelly worked too, putting up extra jellies and jams and pickles. Willy would take them into town, about ten miles away, to sell them on Saturdays. As the months went by, they picked a site for the new house, just a short walk away from Ma and Pa’s house, and then men built it together. It was a tiny place, only about ten feet to either side, made of split logs from the woodlot. Ma and Nelly sewed curtains and made sheets and pillow cases, embroidered napkins and tablecloths. “We should’ve done this before you got married,” Ma would say. But there was a lilt in her voice and a twinkle in her eye.
But even though they worked constantly, Willy always seemed to have energy left. Some nights he would practically fall asleep over dinner, but after a while, he would perk up and talk to her as if he was talking to himself. He was good company, the best. And that other thing, that she couldn’t even speak about, once she got used to it, it was something so wonderful she wondered if anyone else knew about it, and if they did, why the whole world wasn’t a much happier place.
He was everything to her. Sometimes when he slept, she would watch him and be fearful that he might be dead, and drown for a moment in fears of what she would do if something happened to him. But he would snort or twitch and she would put her head back down on his warm curving shoulder, in the niche just inward from the bone, and rest her cheek against his skin and savor the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.
Every day, he would go out to the fields, the low ones, below the little bluff and she would stay at the house and clean up after breakfast and fix lunch, feed the babies and put them down for their naps. Then, she would carry his lunch to him, and sit with him under the tree while he ate. Sometimes he would talk to her about all sorts of things, what was in the papers, or what he’d been thinking about, or she would tell him gossip from the ladies. Sometimes there wasn’t anything to talk about and they would just sit together and he would point out a hawk or a barn owl. Sometimes he’d tug at her sleeve and tell her he had one of his crazy ideas. She loved him doubly when he did.
When he had finished eating and napped for a few minutes, she would gather up the luncheon things and start back home. But what he didn’t know was that she would climb up the little bluff, the one the Indians had painted with the same kind of turkey vultures that still soared in the skies overhead, sit and watch him work. He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. There were movie stars, to be sure, but they didn’t look like men. They looked like women, fine-boned and delicate, and they wore fussy clothes. He was just a man. Like the kind she’d grown up around, except somehow so much better. He was hers, after all.
But after six years of marriage, after two children, something was changing. She was a woman in the community now, and responsible. She was bigger, too. Not fat, just bigger. But there was something missing. People talked a lot about their people, about who they came from, and more and more, she felt the weight of not knowing who she was.
It started out small. Just a few haphazard comments from well-meaning people. Not even about her. Just being happy that they had parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. There was always someone doing something, people getting married, having children. People got together for anniversaries, for reunions, counting off relatives by the dozens. Always before she’d found it something of a comfort that everyone she loved was so close, and yet now, she longed for another side to herself.
She brought her mending to Ma’s house. It was a comfortable walk, even with the two little ones. Ma loved to sew, and she took especial pleasure out of putting on buttons. Nelly hated doing buttons and so waited for Ma to do it. It seemed futile in a way, now that they could go into town and buy things off a rack in a dry good store. But still, home made was better, and everyone knew it.
Ma wound the thread around a small bone button and looked up at Nelly. “Something troubling you?” She asked. Nelly shook her head. “Will giving you a time?”
“Ohhh, of course not,” Nelly blushed and laughed. “Will is wonderful.”
“Well, he should be. He’s my son,” Ma laughed a little. “Well, what is it?”
“Ma, what do you know about where I came from?”
“Came from? Well,” Ma sat back in her rocker, let her sewing rest in her lap and looked out the window for a moment. “St. Louis.”
“I know. But…did you know my mother’s friend? The one who brought me up here?”
Ma shook her head. “I don’t recollect I ever met her. There were some letters from her to my sister. I think I’ve got them in a box upstairs.”
There was silence. Ma was finished, ready to go onto something else. “Did you hear that the Betty Fulkerson tight the goat to the fence her husband had just finished, and a dog came in the yard, scared the goat and it pulled the fence to the ground and ran off dragging a good ten-foot length behind.” Ma laughed heartily. “Oh, I’d’ve love to’ve seen that, wouldn’t you?“
Nelly bit off a length of thread and knotted it. “Must have been something,“ she said slowly. “Ma, do you think you could find them?” she asked hesitantly.
“Find what, honey?” Ma had forgotten already.
“Ohhh…well, if you think they might be interesting. I didn’t see nothin’ in them.” Ma peered at Nelly deeply. “What are you thinking of?”
“Nothing. Just maybe…I don’t know…it would be nice to know my parents names and something about them. You know, the boys will be asking who they come from, and I can’t tell them anything.”
Ma nodded and took her needle up again. “Yes. I understand. Well, when we finish here, we’ll go up in the attic and take a look in the trunk I got from Sister’s.” They finished their work in good time, though it was nearly torture for Nelly to wait. She followed Ma up the narrow ladder to the loft. “There,” Ma hiked her skirts a little and pulled a large steamer trunk away from the other boxes and parcels. She blew the dust off the lid and opened it, and took out the top tray. “Let’s see what we can find.”
There was an odd array of things in the box, a Bible, and a fur piece that was twenty years out of fashion, a large velvet hat with great silk flowers around the rim that had been squashed flat by the weight of the lid, and some other books. There were packets of letters, tied together with ribbon. Ma took one and flailed it at Nelly. ‘Love letters,” she said mysteriously.
Nelly, laughing, reached for them, but Ma snatched them away. “Ohhh, not now,” she said. “Maybe another time. I only read one or two. They were really quite sweet. But here…” She pulled out another small packet of letters and turned them over in her hand. She peered at the name on the envelope. “Yes, this is them.” She put them into Nelly’s hands. “Take them with you if you like.”
That evening, while Will was napping, she took them out and began reading them. There wasn’t much to them. The woman, Estella Winthrop, was apparently an old school friend of Aunt Hilda. They had known each other a long time, and she wrote over a period of years, the first letters predating Nelly’s birth by a decade or so. She skimmed those quickly and put them aside. But there was one letter, dated October 17, 1900. “Dear Hilda, I know how you and Luther have been yearning for a child. I have a present for you, a girl baby, only a few days old. Her mother, a young acquaintance of mine, has just died, leaving her an orphan. I can bring her to you. Write me quickly if you want her, because I cannot reasonably keep her in my lodgings long.” Nothing more was said, except every subsequent letter had a mention or a question about the baby.
Nelly went back to Ma’s. They shredded the lye they had made for soap into flakes and put it up in tins.
“Did Aunt Hilda say anything about Mrs. Winthrop?”
“Only that she wasn’t much like other people. She was flamboyant, unusual. She was a single woman all her life, I think.” Nelly pulled the October letter from her apron pocket. Ma looked at the address on the envelope. “Your poor little mother. It’s not a very good neighborhood. It must have been a terrible thing for a young bride, about to have a baby, to be left widowed and in that place.”
“What kind of a neighborhood?”
“Ohhh, I think it’s mostly flophouses and bars. What a brave little woman your mother must have been.” They sat quietly for a few minutes and when Nelly looked into Ma’s face, both women’s eyes shone with tears.
Days passed. What had started as a tiny curiosity had grown into an appetite, and then it began to eat at her, day and night. She had to know. There must be a way to know. Mrs. Winthrop. She knew. Finally, she sat down and wrote a quick, polite letter to Estella Winthrop at the last known address. It had been sixteen years since the last letter. The likelihood that she would still be in the same place was minimal and yet, it was everything she could do. “Dear Mrs. Winthrop,” she wrote. “My name is Nelly Sanderson. I am the little girl you brought from St. Louis to live with Hilda and Luther Reamer. I thank you for what you did all those years ago, and ask you please to tell me what you can about my mother and father. Yours most respectfully, Nelly Sanderson.”
She put it in an envelope, sealed it and let it sit on the table for three days before she mailed it. What if it was wrong to know? What if God had ordered everything just as it was, and to go asking questions would be a sin? Was it wrong, when Ma and Pa had shown her so much love and care, to look for something else? But sitll, what if there was something else out there for her. A truth. Even just a truth.
She put the letter in her bag and posted it with the rest of the neighborhood mail. From that moment, the moment that she watched the mail carrier take her bag of mail and put it in his small truck at the Simmons Junction Store, new hopes arose in her. What if Mrs. Winthrop knew more about her parents, who they really were. What if she had a photograph of them? Or could tell Nelly where to find other relatives. Maybe there was a great large body of relatives out there, hoping to have word of her. She composed letters in her mind to aunts, to cousins, and , when she felt especially bold, even to grandmothers. Just because her mother and father were dead, didn’t mean that everyone else was too. Yet, why wouldn’t they have taken her in? Oh, so many reasons were possible.
Three months later, an answer came back. “Dear Mrs. Sanderson, Your letter reached me two months after it left you. Fortunately, my sister received it and forwarded it to me. Your mother was a lovely young woman named Nelly. She was married when she was quite young to a man named Watkins. He died in a steamship explosion on the Mississippi River a few months before you were born. I think the boat was called the Eldorado Queen. After he died, she moved into the rooming house I managed. She died, I think of grief, mostly, a few days after your birth. I don’t know a lot more. I hope this finds you in the best of health and spirits. I think of you and Hilda often, and still miss her after all these years. I know you gave her much pleasure in the last years of her life. Yours, Estella Winthrop.”
She clutched the letter to her chest. She was Nelly Watkins. Her mother was Nelly and her father was Mr. Watkins. Nelly Watkins. It was a whole new world suddenly. She hesitated to tell Will. Somehow it seemed sacrilegious to tell him, and yet this new secret was almost too much to bear alone.
She confided in Mrs. May, though, over coffee. “I have the name of the boat, and his last name, and my mother’s name now,” she said quickly, rushing to tell the news. “But I’m not sure how to find out the rest.”
“What rest, my dear?” Mrs. May dropped sugar lumps in her coffee and stirred them slowly.
“Well, they had birthdays and dates of death. My mother must be buried somewhere. I want to go. I want to see her grave, and my poor father’s, if he had one.”
“Well, you know when she died. You know when you were born. You could surely find out from a newspaper up there something.”
“Yes,” Nelly could barely breathe. “Yes. They would surely have put something like a steamship explosion in the paper, and maybe even her dying.”
“I saw in the paper where they have a newspaper library in town. They have papers from all over the state. They just started it but they asked all the newspapers to send their old papers. I’ll bet you a dime that they’ll have newspapers from St. Louis. You’ll just have to get Willum to drive you on into town.”
“What if he won’t?”
“Well, then, I will. Don’t you fret. We’ll get you there.”
She didn’t bother to ask Will. He was always busy and she would have to tell him why she was going. She just told him Mrs. May was going into town and had invited her and he seemed satisfied with that. The next Tuesday, they set out for the library as if they were on an expedition somewhere exotic, like those explorers going to the Pole. It was a magnificent building, finished only a year or two before, and the newspaper library was on the fourth floor, a long climb up the most beautiful stairwell Nelly had ever seen.
“It’s like a palace,” she whispered, and even the whispere echoed. Mrs. May, equally dumbfounded by the ornate ironwork and highly polished limestone steps, could only nod. They found the newspaper library, down a short hallway and up a few more steps. The librarian was a prim little woman, a bit on the roundish side with breasts that were far higher than most country women’s by that age. Nelly stared at them, fascinated. She was cheerful though, listened to Nelly’s story and pointed her to a reading room and large books of bound newspapers. “Something as big as an explosion would surely be front page news in every St. Louis newspaper at the time, even if it was twenty miles outside the city. And even if, by some chance, you had the name of the ship wrong, they always print the names of the men who died,,” she said. “But you know the date that you were born, and the date your mother died. So I’d start there. If you can’t find an obituary or a death notice, then I would look back from the day you were born until you find the explosion. But only first pages for now, going back a few months. If you need anything, let me know.” She bustled off back to her desk to speak with two youngish men in suits who had been waiting patiently by the door.
Mrs. May read over Nelly’s shoulder. They turned page after page of newspapers, but the excitement she had felt at the very beginning soon began to dwindle, and within an hour her neck hurt, and she had seen the front pages of more newspapers than she had ever read in her life.
By mid-afternoon, the sun had swung around and was lighting the room from the great arching windows on the western side, glinting off the polished tables. The librarian slipped over to them quietly. “We have to close up now,” she said softly. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Nelly shook her head. “Thank you, though. You were very kind.”
“Well, come again any weekday,” the little woman took the large book and moved away from them smoothly.
“Well, that’s it,” Nelly said. Mrs. May followed her out and they walked back down to the street, and turned to look back at the library one last time. “It is an amazing place,” she said sadly.
“Yes,” Mrs. May said. “Oh, if only…”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter,” she smiled bravely, climbing into Mrs. May’s husband’s truck. They drove away, down Providence Road to the Plank Road. The city was a wonderful place, to be sure, but she couldn't keep from feeling a little more relaxed the closer they came to home.
She hurried with dinner. Willy was quieter than usual, and when she took the plates away, she looked at him closely.
“You getting sick?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Don’t think so. Why?” He felt his own forehead.
“You’re very quiet.”
“You’re very quiet.”
“It’s nothing,” she said. But it was something. There wasn’t anything in the paper about her mother dying, nothing about her father dying either. She lay in bed that night, after Willy had rolled over and gone to sleep, and stared at the ceiling. What was it that bothered her so much? Just because she didn’t find it. Maybe she hadn’t looked closely enough. But Mrs. May was there, too. She would have caught it if Nelly didn’t. Well, then again, what if it wasn’t on the front page, she though. But that wasn’t really possible. Nothing that caused so much of a commotion as a steamship blowing up and killing a number of men would be stuck back on the second or third page. There were stories about steamships blowing up as far away as Louisville and New Orleans.
What if, she thought, her stomach suddenly churning, what if it hadn’t happened? What if it was a lie, a polite lie, told to make Aunt Hilda and Uncle Luther take her in. It was a bad neighborhood, even Ma said so. Flophouses and taverns. Ohhh, what if. What if…
The next day she wrote a note to the recorder in St. Louis, asking for the record of a marriage between a Mr. Watkins and a girl named Nelly sometime in October 1899. She waited for weeks, her stomach tied in knots throughout each night. When the letter came back, it said nothing hopeful. There had been a Mr. Wilson marry a Miss Neely, but nothing else. Eating became a difficulty for her.
There hadn’t been a marriage in October 1899. Maybe, though, it was somewhere else. Maybe they went to another town. There wasn’t a huge steamship explosion. There wasn’t a Nelly Watkins who died or was buried in St. Louis in October 1900. She wrote to Mrs. Winthrop again. “Dear Mrs. Winthrop, I apologize for bothering you again, but I was hoping you could tell me a little more about my mother. What was her full name? And my fathers? Do you know anything about them. I can learn nothing here.”
Weeks went by without an answer. This time, though, she had written to the current address. Nothing. Not a word.
The weeks turned into a month and then more time passed. Mrs. Winthrop would not write back. Nelly knew it. Everything in her life was pointed toward learning the truth now. She talked about it with Mrs. May a great deal, since Mrs. May was the only one now who truly understood. She couldn’t tell Ma. Ma had raised her and might be offended by her looking into her past. How could she say anything to Will? He would dismiss it all as the silliness of women. There was nothing for it but to try to carry on and hope for a letter.
But each day, nothing changed. She stared out the window, neglected herself. She was nobody. She knew it now. The wicked neighborhood that Mrs. Winthrop lived in was full of women of easy virtue, women who sold or, almost worst, gave themselves to the men who worked the river boats. Her father may well have been one of those men who came to town once in a while, found a woman and left her as quickly as he’d taken up with her. Her mother may well have just been one of a lot of young women who find themselves with a baby, and who said she really died? Only Mrs. Winthrop and there were plenty of reasons to believe that the flamboyant Mrs. Winthrop might play fast and loose with the truth.
And here she was, Nelly. Nelly Nobody now. What if she was illegitimate? What if her mother was, she could barely think the words, what if she was a prostitute and there wasn’t any Mr. Watson? What if there were a hundred? What had she done? She had made these children, but they were the children of the accident of a prostitute, of nobody. The pleasure she had with her husband turned sour. She could only think of the possibility that she’d come by her lust unnaturally, the misbegotten daughter of a lusty man and a loose-moralled woman. She began to turn her face from Willy when he came to bed. He was patient at first, urging her to talk about what was bothering her. But when it went on for a few weeks, he grew peevish, sulky. Finally, he gave up and would come to bed only to sleep and she would feel the tears slip from the corners of her eyes into her hair, rolling slowly toward the pillow.
She managed to keep up her other duties. Her cooking suffered, her weight fell off but she still delivered the mail every day. One morning, though, she hailed Mrs. Morgan coming up the road. “Can you take the mail today?” she asked tensely. “Just run over to the Deer Park Store and pick it up around ten. You’ll be home by one.”
“Why surely, honey,” Mrs. Morgan said. They’d been girls at school together. Mrs. Morgan had only married last year, though. “You look like you’re feeling poorly.”
‘I am,” she said, excused herself with a wan smile and went back into the house. She pushed her hair out of her face and sat down at the table. Six months ago, she’d have been bustling to get Willy’s lunch ready, to spend those precious minutes with him in the field. Now she knew what the other women suffered. They went through motions, put food in front of their unsmiling, disappointed men. She couldn’t tell him. He couldn’t understand. She was his angel, his pure and moral angel. He’d said so. He’d always said she was so good. Now, she was nothing.
She sat and stared out the window. Ma came and took the babies to play with the cousins and she sat still. Around 10:30, Mrs. Morgan rode up on her dappled horse, waving their packet of mail. She came to the door and took it. On the top there was the letter. Her letter. To Mrs. Winthrop. Scrawled across the face of it were the words, “Doesn’t live here anymore. Return to sender.” Nelly’s address was circled with an arrow drawn to it. She sat back down and turned the unopened letter over and over in her hands, and then let it rest in her lap.
It was over. There wouldn’t be any answers. She felt hot and cold at the same time. Minutes passed. How long? She couldn’t tell. She pushed her hair out of her face and realizes there were rats in it. How long had it been since she’d brushed it. It used to be her pride, long waving chestnut hair. All the other women were getting theirs cut off. But she kept it long like a young girl. Maybe that was yet another sign of her bad breeding. She closed her eyes against the heat of the tears that rose quickly in them.
There was a rattling at the door. She turned quickly, clutching the letter against her bosom. The door opened slowly and Will stepped inside. She sighed. “Ohh, it’s you,” she said, relieved.
“Nelly, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she wiped her hands hastily across her cheeks. “Nothing. Oh, lands. I forgot your lunch. Honey, I’m sorry.” She went to the stove and began fussing with it, the letter still clutched in one hand.
“What have you got there?”
“It’s not nothing. Let me see,” he said irritably. Small wonder, she thought. He had to come all the way in from the field. He held out his hand, and she slowly put the letter in it. He looked at it and put it on the table. “That’s what you’re so upset about? A returned letter?”
She laughed a little, but it was a cold, rattling sound.
“Nelly, what’s going on.”
“You want I should read the letter?”
She went cold. “You can if you want to,” she said stiffly.
“Well, I think I should know. You’re in here crying like something was wrong. You forget my lunch, you don’t give a damn about me anymore. You don’t talk to me. We barely sleep together. Who knows what you’re off doing, going into town at odd times.”
“I’m sorry,” she wiped her face again and struck a match. “I won’t do it again.”
He slammed his hand on the table so hard the papers on it jumped. “That’s not the point. The point is, what the hell is going on with you?”
“I don’t know.”
He picked up the letter, turned it over and slipped his finger under the flap. He read the words in silence while she stood, her back to him, her lower lip between her teeth.
“Well, this doesn’t tell me much,” he said finally. “Why don’t you tell me the rest.”
“That’s the woman who brought me here. She knew my mother. I knew part of the story about how I came here. I wanted to know something more. The names of my parents, or how old they were, or what they looked like.” She was weeping outright now, wadding her apron up in her hands. He looked at her quietly and then scratched his upper lip slowly.
“Why is all this coming up?” He asked finally.
“Willy…” she dropped into one of the chairs. “Oh, I just want to know who I am. I want to know where I came from. I want something to give my children.”
Will pushed back in his chair. “Nelly. That’s why you’ve made our lives hell for weeks?”
“Will. My mother lived in a flophouse in a neighborhood that was…bad…”
“So they were poor.”
“Not just poor. It was where bad women lived.”
“You mean like whores?”
He said it so matter of factly, Nelly clapped her hands over her ears.
“Well, I mean, is that what you’re talking about?”
“Yes,” she said faintly. “I suppose so.”
There was a long pause.
“Well, what if my mother was one of them…” her voice trailed off.
“Well, what if she was?”
She recoiled at his easy tone. “Do you know what you’re saying? I would be the daughter of…one of…”
“Well, Nelly, someone has to be.” He laughed a little sharply. She turned her head away.
“You don’t understand.”
“I do. I understand completely. You didn’t know your parents. They have nothing to do with you. As for who you are, you’re my wife, and the mother of my boys. That’s enough for me. I don’t need any fancy pedigree for you. My dogs, yes. My wife, not at all.”
“Will,” she scoffed. The stew was bubbling over the top of the pot and she jumped up to tend to it.
He laughed a little. “Nelly, I’m so relieved.”
“Why?” she turned to him sharply.
“Well, I was afraid you’d gone and fallen in love with another man. I thought you were fixin’ to leave me.”
“Ohhh, Will.” She ladled out the stew into a big bowl and set it on a plate with two biscuits. “How could I leave you? You’re everything to me.”
“Well, let me ask you something, Nelly.” He picked up the spoon and let it hover over the bowl. “You’re a good Christian. Tell me. What does God look like?”
“What does He look like?”
She blew out her breath. It was an odd change of subject. “I don’t really know.”
“Well, tell me where he lives.”
“Where is that? What does it look like? Don’t tell me about streets paved with gold.”
She sighed. “I really don’t know that either.”
“What did I do this morning?”
She laughed. “I don’t know. I guess you plowed.”
“Well, you can guess that.”
“What did you do?”
“There,” she slid a napkin over to him.
“Yes, but you only believe that because I just told you that. I could have shoed the horses or just spent the morning sleeping under the tree.”
She furrowed her brow. “What are you saying?”
“There are things we can’t ever know. You take some of them on faith, like that there is God, and he must look like something. Others don’t even matter, they aren’t worth passing consideration, like whether or not I plowed or shoed or what.”
He chewed slowly. “So, it doesn’t matter who or what your parents were. You can’t know. You can’t ever really ever know. Not about anything. So you have to live on faith. You’re my wife. You’re the boys’ mama. You have to let it go, like worrying about where heaven is. I don’t know. I’m going to find out soon enough, unless I find out where the other place is. You’re Nelly Sanderson.”
He pushed the bowl back and she picked it up slowly and put it in the sink. “That’s it?” she said.
“That’s it,” he smiled. “Oh, Nelly, you worry about the damnest things. Believe me, that’s more than enough for both of us, for a lifetime. Ohhh, Nelly,“ he put his hand out to her and his voice went low. “You know what, Nelly? I think I’m getting one of my crazy ideas.”
She smiled a little, suddenly feeling shy, and when she put her hand in his, it was rough and warm, just as it should be, she though...