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The Child Death Changed
I was just fourteen that fateful day in Mid-Autumn. In the year of 1911. My ma and pa, and Ruth and I were all living peacefully enough, until I heard something, which turned my entire world spinning upside down.
I was working on my studies diligently, when I heard the door open, looking up I caught the shining eyes of my beloved papa.
I threw my arms around him and then felt his shoulders heaving. I drew away and said quickly, “Papa, whatever is the matter?”
“Dear Child...” He said with his lips quivering,
“I have…lost my job. You and your sister Ruth must go work for Aunt Esther,”
“Oh papa!” I cried, clinging to his salty smelling jacket and staining it with tears.
I immediately imagined my aunt as a stiff necked old lady who thought fun an evil work of the devil. I had no idea how much I would grow to love Aunt Esther in the months that followed.
I went downstairs and my mother and Ruth were embracing each other so fondly that I didn’t think they had any intention of letting go. I felt so sorry for Ruth. The poor child was only 11.
Ruth and I boarded the train at 6:30pm on Saturday evening, and arrived at Aunt Esther's grand estate at 9:00. Our aunt was not the thin stern lady I had thought her to be. Instead, I found in her place a plump smiley lady with rosy cheeks and dancing eyes. I knew I would like working here if I could overcome my shyness.
Ruth took to Auntie Es as easy as needle to thread but I was a shyer girl than the ambitious young girl and kept my distance until I had to speak to her or it would seem rude.
At the supper table, she and I had a long discussion involving sports and different athletes. I would not have expected her to know let alone care about these things that were of interest to me, but she did and she even went so far as to show me old medals which she had won when she had raced horses in her younger years.
Although it was work, working for Auntie Es (Or Es as she instructed me to call her) was hardly worked at all. Her jokes and games moved the day along quickly and when there was harsh words between Ruth and I, Es always knew something clever that would point out our mistakes bluntly and with humor, which one could hardly be cross after seeing the humor in the situation and soon Ruth and I by unspoken agreement did not even point out when we disagreed on something, and in this way we got on well.
The only unfortunate thing about Es's house was Uncle Timothy. A gruff, cross old man who shut himself up in his study all day, reading dusty books on old law. Ruth and I did our best to keep away from him as much as possible. And we did it very well.
I was the unfortunate one who had to go in first, and although I kept on reminding myself to be proper and mind my manners, I couldn’t help feeling I had done something or other to upset him.
He said with a voice not as gruff as one would imagine, “There is bread but no butter child.” I looked at the plate in great embarrassment, and said very meekly,
“Would you like me to bring up the butter or bring back down the bread.” Then I looked again, and almost died with embarrassment, as neither bread nor butter was to be seen on the platter. I looked into the elder man's face and saw a twinkle in his eye that I had not detected at first glance.
He was joking! Imagine, the elderly minister, joking to his young niece! From that day fourth I realized I loved Uncle Timothy just as much as I love Esther.
And soon I would volunteer to take up his supper just as quickly as to pray over mine and Ruth's.
By now, Ruth and I had been working for over a year and 1911 had turned into 1912.
One day the Kitchen girl was home sick, and Aunt Esther took it into her head that she should teach me to cook. But I feel as if I’m too much of a klutz to ever be able to make things actually edible.
I put hard sugar instead of powdered in the cookies, salt instead of sugar in the cake, I under cooked the turkey and over cooked the string beans, and to top it all off, I put soup in the fingerbowls. Despite all these failures, Ruth came in ready to set the table and found Es and I rolling around on the floor, with laughter that we felt might kill us.
“Whatever are you two going on about?” Ruth said with an important air.
“Dear, you’re sister is unfit to cook for the hounds, but she is mature enough to learn from her mistakes instead of sobbing about failure.” Es said, wiping merry tears from her eyes.
“That's all fine and dandy, but what do you suppose we are going to feed Uncle Timothy with?” Ruth said business like. Es and I exchanged glances.
“Always have a back up plan.” Es said opening the oven to reveal a turkey.
“I’ve been roasting it since last night.”
“Es, you knew I would be horrible!” I said with a laugh.
“I knew from experience sweetheart, I was just like you!” I started laughing again.
Ruth just rolled her eyes, “You two are much too impractical. You’re lucky that dad sent me to help as well or else you would never survive.” Ruth said sticking her nose in the air with superiority.
“On the contrary Ruth darling, I am lucky that Jacob sent both of you, without Naomi it would be all play and no work, and without you Ruth, it would be all work and no play. I used to be quite unrealistic before you girls came. You keep me balanced.”
Ruth looked at me with adoration. “We do make a pretty good pair sis. Come on, we should be washing up for supper”
“Alright, we’ll be back down in ten minutes.”
“Great you’ll be just in time to help me make the rolls Naomi.” Ruth looked at Es and then back at me. It took her only a moment to realize she was joking.
“I’ve had enough cooking for one day.” I said, winking.
I walked into our room that night after supper, and saw Ruth, sitting at the desk bent over very unladylike. It took me a moment to realize that her shoulders were heaving. I was at her side in a moment. “Ruth dear, whatever is the matter darling?” I asked putting my arm on her shoulder. She did not reply, instead she handed me up a paper. But it was not from our parents, it was from our neighbor.
Tears came to my eyes as I slowly read it, it said,
Dear children, I am very sorry to have to be the one to tell you girls, but…your parents took a ride on a great ship, a ship that said it couldn’t be sunk.
The ship sunk, and well very few people made it to the life rafts. Your parents have yet to return, and by the looks of it I don’t think they will.
I’m frightfully sorry girls, but the Titanic sunk no doubt about it, and many on board doubtlessly went down with it.
I looked at Ruth, and she looked at me. Mum and Dad were not coming home. We were orphans. There was no home to go to after we finished working for Aunt Es. We would have to hope that Es and Timothy would take us in.
I didn’t trust my emotions to stay in check just yet, so first I went to my room to do what I considered to be ‘Having a good cry’ I flung myself onto my bed, and then the tears came freely.
After a half an hour the tears would not come any longer and I got up, and looked at my reflection in the wash basin. I looked terrible. While I was washing up I thought of one of my favorite quotes, ‘Only an eye washed by tears can see clearly’ this certainly didn’t seem true right now, I had cried my heart out, and still I did not feel like I could see clearly. I couldn’t even think clearly.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking up I saw that it was Es, “I’m sorry sweetie, Ruth told me.” Although I was doing my best to not have any disagreements with Ruth, I was slightly annoyed that she had been the one to tell my friend. Es was always around me. It didn’t seem right that she would be the one to tell Es.
“Oh.” I said a bit sharper than necessary.
“Well don’t have a doubt in the world about where you belong, you’ll live here and that's that. We’ll see about getting the rest of your belongings from your house and Ruth will immediately be put in school. Naomi:” she said turning to me,
“you will start studying with Timothy, don’t worry he's a little rough around the edges, but really he's just a kitten pretending to be a lion.” I was a little intimidated by this, but I got along well with Uncle Timothy, and soon, we were getting along like the best of friends, although Es was always my best.
After a year of living on in this fashion something truly horrible came, a sickness. Ruth fell ill and at times I doubted that she would live to see her thirteenth year. When near a week had passed and still the fever did not rise from her brow the doctor was called, but to no avail.
This sickness was unknown to doctors at the time, and so there was also no known remedy. So she was ordered to stay in bed and keep warm. Though she often said she was burning up, her temperature was really quite low. I had always thought fever only came from high temperatures, learning about a new type of sickness, one that may be deathly frightened me immeasurably.
Some nights Ruth would moan for our ma, and sometimes it was my name she called out, whether she was conscious or not we didn’t know. But I was at my sister’s beck and call; I could not withstand the fear of losing her as well as our parents. But Timothy would not allow me to remain with her all hours of the night; he took shifts staying with her as well so that I would get a bit of sleep.
I protested this, but in the end I knew that I had to obey his wishes. The Doctor came on many different occasions and when Ruth had not grown better by the third month, he told us that there was little hope of her making it through. At this news I ran to her room, and buried my face in her pillow, I think I was more afraid of her death than she was of dying, and why? Because we were the last two remaining of our once proud family if she left me also, I would be alone.
I was so caught up in Ruth's sickness, that I hardly recognized anything which seemed important. It was mid-spring, a favorite time of year for Ruth and me but as she still lay sick, I could not bring myself to take in the full wonder of the season.
One day, I remember more vividly than any other, Ruth was coughing a frightful amount at that time and I could not bring myself to tell her that she sounded even worse. Luckily, I didn’t have to. She called to me and I went to her bedside, there I knelt beside the bed and looked at her, she was pale and very thin. It seemed like the life was slowly draining from the poor colorless face.
She grabbed my arm when I knelt, with strength I did not know was still in her, and then said,
“Sister, I have fought this for three months now, each harder to endure than the next. I can not overcome this sickness Naomi.” I couldn’t help it, tears clouded my vision, but I did not run like I always had in the past, no instead I stayed there, and grabbed her other hand.
“Naomi? Do you hear me and understand what I am saying? I am not afraid Naomi, I am going to find mum and dad, and I am going to meet Jesus. Take care of Aunt Esther and Uncle Timothy Naomi, and now you must be the one to draw a serious face when the time for business comes. Although I am the younger of the two it was always I who was the sensible one. Now you must carry that responsibility Naomi.” The tears had started falling long ago; I could not lose my younger sister like this.
“Oh, and one last thing Naomi,”
I had forgotten but yes, today was my 16th birthday. Then she turned onto her side, and said as if it pained her to speak,
“I must sleep Naomi do not worry, I will not leave you yet.”
Despite all of Uncle Timothy's encouragement, I could not bring myself to leave Ruth's side. When the hour grew late I faintly remember drifting off to sleep, but soon I woke up, and saw that someone had brought a pillow up and laid a blanket over my lap. I smiled momentarily at my relative’s kindness, but only briefly, as I saw that Ruth was moving restlessly.
“Ruth…” I whispered slowly, not wanting to awake her if she was still asleep.
“Naomi? Did I wake you?” She asked. The poor girl, she was deathly ill and yet she was still worried for my comfort.
“No, no, can you not get to sleep?”
“I’m afraid if I do, I will not wake again.” She said.
“Naomi…I’m scared.” I put my hand to her cheek to comfort her, and felt that it was wet. She had been crying.
“Ruth, would it comfort you if we prayed?” I said.
“Yes.” She said decidedly.
I had rarely prayed in front of people, usually I was embarrassed to say what I really had on my mind for fear of sounding dumb, but here in this dark room in the middle of the night, I knew I had to step up and do this, for my sister who lay possibly dying on that bed.
“Dear Lord, please comfort my sister who may be preparing to make her journey to you. And heal her quickly if her time has not yet come. Lord, please let her be at peace, whichever path you choose for her. And in all things lord, may your will be done. Amen.”
It was not an elegant prayer, or a long one, but I could see in Ruth's eyes she felt deeply comforted.
“Now, go to sleep Ruth.” I said again.
“But Naomi, if I do not wake, how will I say goodbye?” Her lip quivered so pitifully, it brought tears to my eyes again how fragile the child had become.
“Well Ruth, why don’t you say goodbye to me before you go to sleep just in case.”
“Goodbye Naomi.” She said looking at me with her big brown eyes; she seemed to be staring straight through me, straight to my soul. I hoped that she could not see how nervous I really was. Then she turned over, and fell asleep. Seeing her look so helpless, and saying goodbye like that, made me shake with fright at what would happen to her, and my eyes clouded over again. Soon the tears were falling freely, and although Ruth slept untroubled for many hours, my night was full of worry and I only got few good hours of rest.
I was asleep on the rocking chair with the pillow wedged between me and the stern wooden arm rest, and the blanket only covering half of my body because of all the frightened twisting and turning. I suddenly felt a hand on my leg, and said without looking up,
“Auntie Es, she may not live to see another day. She said goodbye to me, right before she fell asleep. I’m so afraid that she will never wake.”
“I’m not Auntie Es.” A voice that I thought I would never hear again said.
“Ruth!” I said jumping from the rocking chair.
“What are you doing out of bed child?!” I asked in astonishment.
“The fever broke, early this morning. Auntie Es wanted to wake you and tell you, but I heard you turning all night and thought that you needed your sleep. I could have strangled her for keeping that news from me if I was not so glad and seeing her standing.
“Ruth, the fever may have broke but that is no reason for you to be out of bed, and barefoot to make it worse. If you don’t want it to return than you’ll probably have to stay in bed for a good three days.”
After only two days Aunt Es let Ruth out of bed despite all of my protesting, and Ruth was up and overexerting herself as she always had been. Those days of waiting, always holding my breathe for fear that the fever would return is behind me now but I can not forget the conversation I had had with Ruth in between her days of rest.
“Naomi…I’m sorry.” She said slowly
“What for?” I asked,
“For always saying that you didn’t have a level head. For saying that you are impractical, really I have always admired you for your ability to be so carefree.”
I wanted to cry again, but I had shed all the tears I had over Ruth's frail figure, laying deathly still in a bed that I thought would be her last. Now she was standing, with color in her cheeks and you could already tell that Es had not been sparing on her breakfast. But what was I doing, sitting here delaying her. Ruth needed to get back into bed.
After I had gotten her settled, I went down stairs to the kitchen, and found Auntie Es, seemingly right where I had left her when I first went up to Ruth’s room.
I found her in the lounging chair, in the middle of her library reading a book on Illness.
“Aunt Es, I said walking in. You know the fever's broken, why are you still reading that?”
“Child, because I want to always be prepared. Having her so sickly was devastating to me, but even more so because I could do nothing about it. I will not be caught so unprepared by any sickness ever again.” I loved my Aunt all the more for that. I had no idea how desperate I would become for that book myself in later years.
After the sickness passed Ruth seemed to be a different child, we grew closer together than we ever had been. Not a day went by that I didn’t thank the Lord for his sparing my sister. She was all I had left from that proud home our family once shared. But also, when she laid so deathly ill on that bed, I grew even closer to our Aunt and Uncle. I still referred to them as Es and Tim but we all knew, I longed to call them Ma and Pa, and mean it.
Ruth was paler now. And she never regained much weight. For the rest of our days in that house she was a fragile little thing. I hardly ever dared to speak roughly with her for fear that I would break her. She was not the strict little girl that she used to be. In her place death had left us with a quiet meek little one, content to silently sit in her chair all day, knitting or reading quietly. Soon she and Timothy had befriended one another.
It was strange to have two quiet solemn ones, and two laughing merry ones in the house. Es and I cared for them all of the time. And they never made faces but swallowed what I put before them. Although at times when I took a break to eat as well I would find it to salty or slightly overcooked. I loved Timothy and Ruth.
One day I was taking the tea tray to Uncle Timothy, and for some reason I had in mind the very first day I carried out that task. He stood up when I entered, and shut his book. I compared this to that first time, when he was reading a dusty law book, and barely looked up long enough to see who it was that had entered. Now he smiled at me, and said,
“Ah, you remembered the bread and butter.” I betrayed a timid smile. He had been thinking of the first time as well.
Es and I had started a bible study, every night we would lock ourselves in one of the spare rooms and spend at least an hour in devotion and prayer. We grew very close in these days. Es was my only friend. Timothy was a great man, but I could not find friendship in him.
And Ruth, although I loved her, was my sister not my friend.
So you can imagine what shock I found when I walked into the study a few years later, I was 17 now and Ruth was 13, we had been living with our Aunt and Uncle for 3 years, and the year was 1915. I walked into the study and my Aunt was lying there, in her favorite chair. Her eyes were wide open, but she was not moving. I ran to her and put my arm over her face, I could feel no breath. Feeling her chest I confirmed my fear, no heartbeat.
Aunt Es had left me in the dead of night. She was like a second mom to me, and now she had followed my mom to a place I could not get to.
The funeral was a dark day in all of our lives; I had no black dress so Uncle Timothy took Ruth and me shopping the day before. Usually a trip to the market would have brought smiles to both of our faces, but not on this dark day.
The dress I wore was fitting for a funeral; it fit loosely over my shoulders, and had a matching shawl of lace. Ruth's dress complimented her fairy-like features. It was a single garment that stopped just before her ankles. It was long-sleeved and had black beading down the front.
I shed every tear I had in me during the time the preacher spoke. I don’t think I remember a word of what he said, but it felt good to openly mourn about my Aunt, especially with others who loved her as well. But I was closest to her, and I hurt the greatest.
Losing Es felt almost worse than losing my mother. Aunt Es had filled that position so well. When my mother would have yelled, Es spoke calmly. And where my mother would shed tears, Es only laughed.
Yes, Love is a funny thing. It can swell your heart, but just as easily break it. And I know a lot about broken hearts.
Only 4 months after Es's funeral, the fever returned to Ruth. I awoke in the night and heard her moaning, calling for those already dead. This time, I ran to her but seeing the strange look in her eyes, I knew she was already partially gone. I had lost another; it seemed all the ones I love died.
At Ruth's funeral I barely shed any tears. I knew some people might think I was being unfeeling and cold hearted, and I didn’t know why the tears wouldn’t come. Maybe it was because I had already reached my limit. I, not even 20 and had already lost almost everything I held dear.
Now it was only Timothy and I that occupied the large house, when I used to avoid him I found myself now longing for his company, but I was intent on not letting uncle Timothy get too close to me, I was sure that the moment I admitted that I truly loved him just as I had my parents, Es, and Ruth that he would be taken from me as well. But it was hard not to love him just as well;
Although the house was so big that we could have gone for weeks without seeing each other, scarcely an hour went by that we weren’t in the same room. I cared for him so greatly. And then I realized, if he did die, what was I supposed to do?
It was a tender subject to us, but I loved him so much, and he was just like my father. So I talked about it openly to him. He prepared me well, he gave me all of the information, and he actually let me look over his will while he wrote it. A lawyer came in and made sure that he had done everything ‘right’. He was taking so many precautions at times I wanted to ask him if he thought that the time was drawing near, but I could not bring myself to ask. I didn’t want to know.
I shouldn’t have worried; he and I lived together for a full year on our own. Now I was 18, and I should have been married a long while ago, but I could not bear to leave my uncle. He was a grey headed old man, who had finally given in to my pestering him about glasses.
He had set aside his law books and now he read all kinds of interesting fiction. He would always lend me a good book when he was finished with it, and he always told me that they would be mine when he was gone. This made me very distraught, and soon he told me things like this often.
One day he said it so much that I had to ask.
“Tim, why do you keep on making mention of your own death?”
“It is not as very far off as you might think my child.” He replied stroking my auburn hair thoughtfully.
“Goodbye” He whispered barely audibly and then he turned, and closed his eyes.
This could not be happening. I grabbed his hand and felt warmth in it, there had to be a way to keep his head high! There had to. I was just an orphan that he had taken in from pestering by his wife. Now his wife was gone, and he had actually begun to love me. He could not die. And yet, he had
His death reminded me so much of that night that Ruth had almost died.
I ran out of the room crying, everything that he had ever told me about what to do welled up inside of me, but nothing was clear. I couldn’t remember what to do first. I ran into my room and gave myself up to crying.
After near a full hour I felt my head was clear. I carried out all the necessary things, and then attended the funeral. Where I belonged was not even brought up, I was of age, and his will left the large Estate to me. It was obvious what I should do. But I could not bring myself to find home in that empty house, it was one thing when it was full of smiles. But now only bitter tears remained within those once proud walls.
I lived with my cousin for a short while, and I was walking with her one day, when I felt a sharp pain in my side and sat down on a bench we had come up to. I didn’t tell my cousin this, but in the back of my mind I had a small hope that I was dying as well. I say hope because finding heaven would mean finding all of them, those who I had loved and lost mama, and Papa, Uncle Timothy and Aunt Esther, and Ruth, my younger sister who I had finally started considering a friend.
But this hope was not to be, a few weeks later after being put up in bed with a sickness I grew well again, and filled with homesickness I moved out of my cousin’s house and back into that mansion. I always cringed as my footsteps echoed throughout the entire house; it was so lonely, so quiet. But I refused to invite anyone into that house, it wasn’t mine. It was Es's. I lived on the silence. Growing old before my time.
They were all gone and I had lived in that empty house by myself for years. I was 23 but I felt more like 50. I still don’t know what he saw in me, my sullen form appearing at different events I was invited to delighted him, and during the spring of 1917, I was married to Peter Johnson.
The merry woman that my aunt was and I wished to be had died with her, and I was a child who death turned old. The only thing that could ever brighten my life would be to have children running through these halls again, or a new sense of adventure.
Then in that autumn of 1919, I was told that I was going to have a baby. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. My husband saw a side of me that he had never seen before. When I looked in the mirror, my bright eyes and colored cheeks seemed to reflect parts of Es.
We had designated a room to the house for it, and I had started to coat it in white, all the while hoping it was going to be a girl.
When I went in to the dr. to make sure everything was okay, I learned something that made my past life come rushing back. My baby had joined everyone else that I had loved.
My baby had beaten me to heaven.
Peter and I were silent unless speaking was absolutely necessary, our lives developed into a rigid schedule, every night he would come home from work, and I would place a plate of something in front of him, then he would retire to the study that Tim used to use as his own, and lose himself in one of the dusty old books or another.
I had taken the fiction books of Tim's out of the study and moved them into a room that I had appointed as a library, and there was where I spent most of my time. I also wrote letters, letters that I never sent. I addressed them to My mum and dad, Tim and Es, Ruth and little Gabriel, that was what I was going to name the baby if it was a boy, because of the angel Gabriel, my little angel was in heaven now.
I had been a young girl in the year 1911, just 14 with dreams and ambitions, and now, years later, 1921, I’m 24, and all my dreams are gone. I’ve just come home from Peter's funeral, dead before he could ever live for real, and now I’ve decided not to get attached to anyone else, because their just going to be gone as well.
The pain in my side returned, and I was put to bed ill. I called the doctor myself, and he told me that I might not have much longer. I was a bit scared of whatever lied ahead, but I was finally going to be reunited with everyone I had lost.
I closed my eyes, and slowly exhaled, ready to embrace home with a smile.
That was the first time I had smiled in over five years, and that was the last time I smiled.