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Parting in Arms MAG
Jessie and I stood close together on the old wooden steps of the church, my right handclasped tightly in my older brother's and my left hand clutching Mama's coralpendant, which glimmered in the late-morning sun. Stroking the smooth, shinystone in one hand and squeezing Jessie's warm hand in the other, I tried tocomfort myself. But then, as I looked down the dirt path beaten by countlessheels and hooves, my stomach tightened. We would be traveling down that road,traveling to a place I didn't remember with people I barely knew.
Ipressed closer to Jessie, despite the sweltering heat I felt from inside my itchyblack dress.
"Jessie, why we gotta go?" I asked. "Can't westay here with Aunt Carrie and Uncle Elijah?"
He sighed hard."Annie, I don't wanna go any more 'an you do. But we gotta, you know wegotta."
A tear came to my eye. He took my otherhand.
"Here, Annie, lemme see Mama's pendant. 'Member how purty itlooked on her dress?"
I opened my sticky hand and let the pendantshine in the sun.
Papa, Mama, Jessie and I lived together in a log cabinon a farm in Madison County, Kentucky. Papa was a big man with broad shoulders,muscular arms and a kind heart; his deep-brown eyes shone with love for Mama,Jessie and me. Mama was 24, ten years younger than Papa. She was pretty, alwayswore a clean apron, and her dark brown hair was parted in the middle and tied upin a bun at the nape of her neck. But the thing that made her even more beautifulwas her coral pendant, one of the few things of real value she owned. She wore iton her collar for church, where it glittered and danced in the lights.
Ourfarm was surrounded by a forest; alongside the barn and down a little ravine wasa creek where Jessie and I liked to catch crawdads. There was a giant old birchtree with crinkly bark, and on the strongest branch Papa had looped a thick ropeand tied a knot at the bottom for us to swing on.
We had two milk cows,both the color of rye bread, named Butter and Sal, pale pink pigs splashed withmud, and a keen old hound called Butch. Jessie and I liked to chase the handfulof red and white hens which pecked about in their pen, and two draft horses, Benand Tom, pulled our wagon to church every Sunday and helped Papa in the field.Papa planted rows of corn and oats, and Mama washed and mended all our clothes,cooked us meals, and tended our large vegetable garden. I had my rag doll, SuzieMae, and, when he finished his chores, Jessie played with our cousins; Isaac,Peter and Johnny lived across the creek and through the forest a ways. We had allwe needed, and I was happy.
But then the winter when Jessie was six and Iwas four, when it barely snowed but was still cold enough for two extrapetticoats under my wool skirts, Papa had to go away for meetings with other men.He would come back very distressed, his brow furrowed. He grumbled when he readhis evening paper, and sometimes snapped at Mama. But other times he would holdher close and not let her go. He didn't tell stories about the times when he wasa boy to Jessie and me after supper anymore.
"Mama," I said oneevening, after Papa had barely said a word at the supper table then slouched offto bed. "Why is Papa acting so strange?"
Mama set down her ragand the plate she was washing and bent to my height.
"Papa is worriedbecause of the war, Annie," she explained with a quiver in her voice."Mayor Simmons has gotten all the men in Madison County together. That'swhat the meetings with the men at church were for, and they're thinkin' of goingout to fight."
"Why, Mama?" I asked, puzzled, and beginningalso to feel frightened. "Why do they gotta fight?"
She sighed."We Kentucky folk have certain customs we have followed for many, manyyears. The Yankees want to change them. They want to change the way we live.Kentucky is our home, and we have to protect it."
I nodded. I lovedmy home: the barn, the forest and my family. I didn't want itchanged.
That night I lay in my trundle bed and held my rag doll andstared out the little window which overlooked the barn, and beyond that, theforest, a sea of naked branches forked against the sky. I was scared. Papa wasleaving.
The next morning Papa came in from chores and held me tight. Ihugged him back as tears streaked my face.
"I don't want you to go,Papa," I whimpered, my face pressed against his coat, which smelled of hay,horses and home. "I don't want you to go and fight theYankees."
Papa didn't say anything for a while. He simply held me.Then I heard him murmur, "I don't wanna go, either."
Papa leftthe next week. Wearing his new uniform, he took the rifle and a tin pail withfood Mama had packed. He kissed us all and then pulled us together for one lastgiant hug.
"I'll be back, safe and sound," he said, his voicehusky. "I love you all very much."
I watched him walk away, pastthe vegetable garden and the barn, and wave one last time. Then he strode offinto the forest and disappeared.
That spring it was different with Papagone. Uncle Elijah didn't go to war because of his bad leg so he and Aunt Carriehelped us out, but it was mainly just Mama, Jessie and me. And it was hard. Forthe first couple weeks, when the icicles on the roof dripped and the buds pushedtheir little green heads out of the soil, I forgot that Papa was gone. I found anewborn kitten in the hayloft; a tiny dust-colored creature striped with black,and ran to show Papa. Then I realized Papa wasn't there. He was at war, and hisabsence was like a constant bellyache.
Mama worked all the time. Inaddition to the usual washing, mending, cooking and cleaning, she had to care forthe animals and tend the garden. Jessie and I helped as much as we could; Jessiehad to give up playing to milk Butter and Sal and to slop the pigs, and Iabandoned Suzie Mae to feed the chickens and help Mama with washing the dishes.We were constantly busy, but we knew Papa was busy with even more importantthings.
Then one morning when the kitchen was flooded with watery sunlightand I was spooning porridge, Uncle Elijah rode by with a letter from town. It wasa small tan-colored piece of paper addressed to Mama, and when she read it, herface turned white.
She gulped several times. "Jessie, Annie, Papa'scomin' home."
My spoon fell to the floor with a clatter, and Jessieand I shrieked with joy.
Mama's hands shook as she held the letter."He has camp fever."
When Papa stumbled through the door twodays later, I barely recognized him. He was so weak. He leaned on Mama as shehelped him to bed. A violent cough rattled deep in his chest, and his body shookas Mama pulled the blankets around him.
"Papa ... " Iwhispered.
Mama grabbed my arm and yanked me out. 'Don't go in that room,Annie," she commanded sternly. "Papa is very sick, and I don't want youcatching it. I will be the only one in that room, do youunderstand?"
Her voice softened as she stroked myhair. "He'll get better soon. We just need to nurse him back to health. Nowwhy don't you fetch me another blanket?"
I dashed to the attic Jessieand I shared and pulled a quilt from my bed. It was my favorite one - dark bluewith white stars. I watched Mama cover Papa as he turned over and mumbledsomething.
The next day, Papa showed no signs of improvement. In fact, hewas getting worse. Mama was with him around the clock - her skin was sallow, thecolor of mushrooms, and dark circles ringed her eyes. Papa was delirious, Mamasaid. He shouted things in his sleep, burned with fever, and vomited blood. Mamacalled for Jessie and me as she emerged from the sick room, wringing herhands.
"Jessie, Annie, I want you to go get your AuntCarrie," she told us in a panicky voice. "I need her help with Papa. Ineed another grown-up around. Hurry!"
My stomach was fluttering withfear, and Jessie looked stricken. We had never seen Mama act like this. We ranthrough the forest, finally spotting Aunt Carrie and Uncle Elijah's cabin.
A raindrop plopped on my dress, and thunder rumbled in thedistance.
"Aunt Carrie," Jessie panted, catching his breath."Mama wants you to come over and help her, Papa's gettingworse!"
Aunt Carrie straightened up, brushing dirt off her apron andlooking concerned. She turned to us. "Let's hurry, storm's in theair!"'
The four of us raced through the forest to our house. Mama waswaiting for us on the porch. Tears slid down her face, and she hung her head. Wewere too late.
Aunt Carrie stayed with us that night. She wrote a letterto Papa's parents I had met only a few times. They lived far away and seldomvisited because they farmed, too.
It rained all the next day, even throughthe burial, like the sky was crying for Papa. Mama had a headache and was sotired that she took to her bed. That night, I pulled my blankets around me andcrept over to the window. The sky had finally cleared, and it was dark bluespeckled with white stars. I began to cry. Papa was gone now, for good. No moreboyhood stories after supper, no more snuggling with him, wrapped up in hisstrong, loving arms. No more Papa.
Footsteps on the attic stairs made meturn, and Aunt Carrie climbed into the attic, her brow knitted and mouth drawn ina tight line. Jessie tumbled out of bed and over to my side.
"What'swrong, Aunt Carrie?"
Aunt Carrie swallowed. "I think your mama'sgot it, too. Her eyes are yellow."
I released a choked sob."Mama's gonna die too!"
Aunt Carrie's face screwed up, as if shewas trying to hold back a howl of despair. "No, honey, no," shewhispered, pleading, wishing it wasn't true. "Your mama's sick, but shewon't die. No, I won't let her!"
I ducked under Aunt Carrie's arm andscampered down the ladder and into the bedroom where Mama was lying. I peeredaround the door at her as she moaned and turned in her bed. I could seeperspiration dripping, though she shivered. I felt Aunt Carrie's hand rest on myshoulder, and she squeezed it gently as she urged me back upstairs.
Mamadied three days later, the day Papa's parents arrived. Grandpa Skinner hadthinning gray hair on his head, but a huge mustache that drooped in a sad sort ofway. He gathered me up in his arms and planted a whiskery kiss on my cheek.Grandma Skinner was a plump woman whose brown eyes (that looked just like Papa's)were leaking tears. She held Jessie and me tightly against her bosom, heavingwith sobs. Aunt Carrie summoned them into the kitchen, where she was pouring themcups of tea with shaking hands. Jessie and I sat on the floor near the ladder,listening. I was fingering Mama's coral pendant, trying not tocry.
"I would be more than willing to take them in, if ..." weheard Aunt Carrie's voice falter. "But Elijah and I have our hands full withseven children, three of them very young. I just, I don't know ..."
"Carrie, don't worry," Grandpa's deep, resonant voicespoke. "Miriam and I will take Jessie and Annie with us. We'd do anythingfor James and Millie's children."
Jessie and I stared at each other.Leave the farm? Our home? Then I realized with a heavy heart that there would beno point in arguing. This was the only way; we had to leave.
The day ofMama's funeral was hot and bright. I felt angry at the sun, like it was makingfun of our sadness and our loss. Mama was buried next to Papa's new grave. Jessieset down the flowers. I held Mama's coral pendant in my hand, refusing to let itgo. And I thought of how my life had changed in just a few months. I rememberedthat one night, the night Mama had told me about the war, I had lain in my bedscared that Papa would die. I had no idea what war would do to us. War killedPapa; war killed Mama; war killed a part of me.
"James and MildredSkinner," Grandpa murmured at the cemetery, blinking down at the freshly dugplot. "Beloved father and mother."
We stood in silence by thegraves, Jessie and I, where Papa and Mama lay close together, almost in eachother's arms. 1
This story is based on true events. Jessie grew upto be my great-great grandfather; Annie was his little sister. They were actuallyfour and two years old in 1864 when their parents died of yellow fever withindays of each other.