He left her with six children, a few acres of poor farm clay, no money, and a house plain and sturdy. “You’ll have to send them away, Lettie,” the relatives told her. “There’s an orphanage over in Masonville. You can’t keep them.” They told her this when he was barely gone, his body cold but not yet in the ground.
“They’re mine,” she said. “I can keep them. I will.”
After his funeral, she lay awake in bed night after night, her eyes fixed open as she heeded each house and child sound and uttered the Lord’s Prayer—“Our father, which art in heaven . . .,” then the Twenty-third Psalm—“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . .” one after the other, over and over. She worried about money, fretted over surviving. Before she could count the pennies, she knew she had a few left. Their bag of earnings was tucked away in the flooring beneath the chest of drawers in their upstairs bedroom. She and John spoke of it the night before he stumbled home from the fields so sick. They’d had no purpose in mind for it, except to save every bit they could for a “rainy day.” Mostly, they lived moment to moment, working hard, raising their children, and minding their own. The fine, gravelly loam of central east Texas was an enemy in some ways—refusing to yield what it should to keep them afloat—but somehow they managed.
Now, she had no idea how they would get by without John’s strong back, able hands, and tender words. In those first days, she dozed only near morning, before the sun rose outside her bedroom window, awakening in the dark with terror gripping her so tightly she could hardly breathe. As she lay there, she listened for June, her oldest, to rise and milk the cow. She was grateful the girl took on that responsibility as if it had always been hers. After the kitchen door clicked shut, she impatiently awaited the sun, for in those cruel, early days following John’s death, there was always strong, morning sun. It was August in Texas.
The relatives and neighbors brought plenty of food. The table was laden, but she could not eat. The older girls didn’t have much appetite either and the younger ones and Little John were content with the pies and the cakes. She stared at the mound of food and wished that somehow she could preserve it all, keep it cool through the summer heat. Better yet, she wished she could transform the whole lot— the pot roast, the ham, the roasted chicken and potatoes, the green beans, the black-eyed peas, the eight pies and ten cakes—into money. Even though there were ten pounds of flour in the larder and green beans, sweet peas, and tomatoes in the garden, as well as milk from the cow and eggs from the chickens, she dreaded the end of the food. None of it would last. They’d go hungry soon enough.
The cotton flourished in the fields, but who would pick it? She had no money to hire anyone. John usually hired Homer, Miss Lizzie’s man up on the main road. Maybe he’d help. But who would take the cotton to market? John had always proudly done it himself. Who could replace John? Who could maintain the house, provide the means for sustenance, toil in the fields, protect them, love them so? Who?
She wished senselessly that Little John had been the eldest of the children, that he’d followed his father’s tracks into the fields, learned his ways, acquired his skills. But Little John was six years old and a cripple at that, stricken by polio at age three. John had rubbed his son’s afflicted leg every night since, and Little John eventually walked again, though with a pronounced limp. Lettie knew she should take over the rubbing of her son’s damaged leg, but she couldn’t, just as she was unable to milk the cow, till the fields, harvest the cotton or take it to market. Between the prayers and the scripture recitations, these thoughts flooded her mind during both the dark nights and endless days. Six children. Without John, how could she see them through?
The five oldest children were two years apart. June, Jackie, Rose, Edith, and Little John. The youngest, Elizabeth, was three years behind Little John. She was committed to holding onto them, despite the opinions of her relatives to send them away. Still, she found herself considering the possibility. June was the most able, strong like her father. Her straight, dark hair and brown, almost black eyes, also like John’s, provided her a relentless look. No one crossed June. She needed June, both in the house and in the fields, even if a young man came calling and wanted to marry her. Jackie, twelve years old, was another image of John but not as persistent as June, rather soft and open and nurturant toward the younger ones. Rose, so named for her shimmering baby beauty, still held that title—the delicate flower of the family. Lettie thought herself commonplace—petite stature, mouse colored hair, small blue eyes—but Rose had emerged an accentuated and perfected version of herself—deep blue, almost green eyes and her hair, a huge mop of it, laced with gold. They all doted upon her, admiring her sweetness as well as her beauty. Edith. Could she give Edith to the orphanage? She was eight years old, the tiniest—precious runt John had called her. And she was plain, paling behind Rose’s extraordinary beauty. Plain like me, Lettie often thought, caressing Edith’s thin hair, tucking her little hand into her own for a walk around the farm or an impromptu jig in the kitchen. But Edith’s personality, in direct opposition to her demeanor, was huge. She was forever moving, chatting, urging them to—yes—take that risk, explore the farm, ride the mule, dance until you can’t stand. Of course, she could not part with Edith. And Little John, who was supposed to be the sound reflection of his father, who had been physically (except for his eyes, which were blue like hers) so like him until he suffered the shriveling of his leg, how could she even consider giving him up? It was a testament to his inherent strength and John’s determination that the child now walked, that he was—despite his impediment—incredibly sturdy. And Elizabeth, not quite three years old—the cherished baby, the last child she’d had with John—was a sturdy beast of a child, precocious and kind, wise at such an early age, so how could she possibly send Elizabeth away, even if there was hope she would be placed with a family kind and loving and of means to give her an abundant life?
When she and John were thirty years old, she realized she’d been pregnant, nursing and birthing babies since she was twenty. After four girls, John wanted a boy to carry on the farm, so they kept going until they got one. When polio struck Little John, it was as if John had been struck as well. How could a cripple run a farm? Their answer was another child and the hope for a boy, so they had one more, but they were given Elizabeth instead. Still, John begged for yet another. “I’m putting my foot down now, John,” Lettie told him. “I can’t do no more. I’m plumb full with babies.” John moaned and cradled Elizabeth. “All right,” he sighed. “All right.”
But now, as she considered the impending shortage of food, she knew she shouldn’t wish it, but she did wish she’d given in and said, “John, my husband, let’s try to have another boy, one more time.” Perhaps now she’d have a baby to nurse, a baby to hold, to comfort, to be comforted by. The neighbors, in their sympathy, would keep coming with food and she wouldn’t have to think or plan or consider how they were to survive when the winter came and the garden turned dry and the money wore out.
Every afternoon around four o’clock, she took Little John to the cemetery. Sometimes she’d take Elizabeth too, but after spending the long day with her, she was grateful to give her over to June or Jackie and grab Little John by the hand, dragging him to the end of the red dirt lane where John was buried in the county cemetery. She figured that one day she’d lay there beside him, but she knew full well that time was far away. She wished it weren’t. She was thirty-six years old. Although both of her parents were killed in a house fire five years before, her grandparents on both sides lived well into their seventies and eighties. She never lost a baby in the womb and she pushed all six of them out with ease. As she knelt at John’s grave, she sensed in her bones she would live on this earth a long while before reuniting with John.
Evenings when they walked back home from the cemetery, she looked at Little John’s sleek, dark head bouncing up and down as he hobbled along beside her. What was she to do with this poor little cripple boy, this little boy who should have been a powerful reflection of his father’s natural physical prowess, but instead crept along with one leg the size of a twig?
Again and again she asked herself, “What am I to do?”
She asked herself this question in the middle of each night and every morning when she awoke groggy from lack of sleep, and mid-morning when she tackled the chores with Elizabeth hanging on her, and during supper when the children arrived home from school for their cold biscuits, too embarrassed to take their paltry fare in their pails to school with them, and in the early afternoon when she continued the chores, praying Elizabeth would settle for a nap and give her a moment’s peace, and in the mid-afternoon, when the other five offered to help her, and then again at four o’clock when she walked with Little John to his father’s grave. “What am I to do?’’
November 16, 1916, three months after John came home from the fields, urinated blood, and died in their bed in the dismal night, Lettie realized she’d lived that long without him, she’d carried on. She’d turned over the fields to her neighbor, Frank Trimble, who had tended, harvested, and hauled the cotton to market. Frank showed up on her doorstep one week after the funeral with a plan. “This will be to both our advantages,” he told her. “I’ll tend and harvest those fields of yours. You won’t have to worry about a thing. And I’ll take it all to market, too. You just mind those little ones of yours and I’ll take care of business.” He held up two fingers and crossed them. “John and I were like this,” he insisted. “He’d want me to do this for you.”
Lettie knew better. But she handed over the farm to Frank and he did what he promised her. He also took over half the profit for all his hard work, then left the fields a mess. In hindsight, she wished she’d rolled up her sleeves and tackled it herself. She had picked cotton with John in the early days. She remembered how. She and the older girls and Homer could have done it. She could have even hired a couple of extra workers, like John often did, without giving up a full half of their income. Except of course, in those first days after John’s passing, she could barely make the biscuits, much less harvest the crop.
And now, with the gardens finished and the winter soon upon them, she hadn’t yet figured out a sure-fire plan to feed her family sufficiently. As she mixed the cornbread for the evening meal, she thought ruefully that she had at least moved beyond the shock of John’s death. She no longer waited for the sound of his whistle in the evenings as he ambled home, the squeak of the broad gate as he opened it, or the groan of the barn door as he shooed in the mule and the horse. She knew they’d eat this winter and she’d plant an early garden, but she didn’t know what she’d do after that. She was certain Frank Trimble would not be involved again, but she also understood that she would be unable to put the crops in herself. She was not a farmer. She was a farmer’s wife. She was aware of all of this, and she knew she would figure out something. She had no choice.
The money from the cotton allowed her to buy a little meat for their Sunday suppers. While she held together the structure of her family, it was all she could do to pull together a meal and sit around the table with the others, John’s place empty. She wasn’t able to move his chair or fill it. They didn’t set a place for him, of course, although one of the younger girls, Rose or Edith, often did, forgetting that her papa was gone.
June, ever diligent, and Jackie, eager to please, helped her cook. Often, they did all of the cooking, sometimes while she was at the cemetery with Little John. They mostly ate cornbread at night with vegetables from the garden, and when the garden diminished, they pulled out the beans and sweet peas her sister, Annie Rose, had canned at the end of the summer. Annie Rose, five years her senior and married to a merchant in Masonville, rarely ventured from her own large family, but she showed up unannounced two weeks after John’s passing, her husband’s hired man standing behind her with her suitcase. “I’ll stay five days,” she declared, and so she did, taking charge immediately. She shouted to the girls, “Clean your room, sweep the floor, wash the clothes, help your mama!” and doted on Little John and Elizabeth. “Come over sweet ones,” she’d coo, “and climb up on your Aunt Annie’s lap.” She stormed about, cooking the meals, canning the vegetables, and giving the house a good scrubbing, top to bottom. Annie, her demands strict, whipped them into line, tidied them up, and attempted to return their frayed lives to some sort of order. When her five days were finished, they were all relieved to see her go.
“Why did she come?” June asked her mother as they waved heartily to Annie Rose disappearing down the lane in her husband’s vehicle, driven by the same hired man who had deposited her on their doorstep.
“To help us out, child. To give us some comfort. To try to make life normal again.”
“Mama, there’s no normal anymore.”
Lettie had never seen the ocean, but she understood its vastness, unpredictability, and moodiness. Annie Rose had visited Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico on her honeymoon so many years before and told Lettie of the waves—high and brown and frothy one moment, calm and turquoise and gently lapping the next. She imagined herself in its black, deep center, its waves rolling and tossing and flipping her about as her lungs filled with salt water, her breath halted and held.
In the midst of this imaginary ocean, she pondered her resistance toward her family and her neighbors. She had adored her parents. They had lived a few fields over, her father a farmer as well, and she’d loved working beside her mother. Annie had married and left home early, but Lettie knew she’d live forever with John, near the land on which she’d been born, close to her parents as they grew older and needed tending.
Then there was the fire—five years ago—in the middle of the night. Both her parents were lost to it. It ate up the house, the barn, and the farm animals as well.
John helped her heal. He was the sort for mending—a man who rendered tenderness through his thoughts and action. He said little. Instead, he whistled and hummed, even at the dinner table. He spoke only when he needed to speak. He was a part of the earth, the trees, the Texas sky, the crops, the house, the animals, the children, her. It was as if he lived in everything. She never considered he would cease to be, there beside her in their bed, or with the children, or out in the fields, or with the animals, or somewhere in between.
When Christmas came, four months after John died, she combined the cotton money with the last of the savings and assessed her financial situation. There was enough for food for the children and the animals until the gardens produced again, but what about the fields? They were fallow now, but soon the season would come and it would be time to move the soil. And buy the seed. And plant the seed. Who would do it? Who could do it? Who would pay for the seed? Who would do the work?
With these questions unanswered, she pulled out more money than usual and carefully planned Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She would buy chocolate to make fudge and she would purchase a special gift for each child. The chocolate would be costly and the store-bought gifts frivolous, an extravagance she and John never allowed themselves at Christmas or any time for that matter. It would cost her a week’s worth of food, but it would be worth every penny. The children needed comforting.
In the hellish long nights before Christmas, she lit the lantern and knitted hats for the children from old yarn she’d tucked away long ago. The hypnotic knitting soothed her and her aching mind eased.
She attempted to celebrate the holiday as they celebrated it before—Christmas Eve dinner at John’s parents with his brothers and their families gathered around, the singing of Christmas carols and the giving of thanks, then home to the stockings. John had always hung the stockings, the children shivering with excitement and expectation as he made a great show of dangling each stocking just so from a nail permanently placed in the rough wooden mantle above the hearth. Now the ritual was hers to perform. After they were tucked in, even June, Lettie filled the stockings with the fudge, soft knitted hats, and the little gifts she’d purchased—a small piece of pretty cloth for June, Jackie’s favorite candy, glittery buttons for Rose, a tiny, beaded bracelet for Edith, a slingshot for Little John, and a sock monkey for Elizabeth.
On Christmas morning, the children rose and emptied their stockings as she watched from the corner of the room, her chest aching, the space empty beside her where John had stood.
June helped with breakfast: bacon fried crisp and biscuits with a special jelly made from the summer berries jarred “before your papa passed,” she told the children. She had begun to measure time in this way— before and after John died.
After breakfast and clean-up, the children, their bellies full, their spirits heightened, circled about her and forced her to sit in her rocker. “We have a surprise for you, Mama,” Little John announced solemnly.
“Close your eyes and hold out your hands,” June commanded softly.
Lettie obeyed. She opened her eyes to a handmade tome, its pages sewn together with thick thread, the heavy paper cover colored with rainbow hues. She turned one page, then the other, her eyes brimming, her breath quickening. Each child had drawn or colored an image of John. June’s was first, a pencil drawing that so amazingly captured his likeness she momentarily lost her breath. Jackie’s was next—a simple, primitive line sketch. She’d still managed to find a fundamental quality of her father to impart—his lips pursed in a whistle, musical notes trilling from his mouth. Rose’s, a drawing of them all, almost stick figure in quality, featured John in the center, his arms, his touch gathering them around. Edith, at only eight years of age, clearly took after June’s gift for drawing, creating a line sketch of her father’s silhouette as he pulled the mule through the gate toward the barn. Again, Lettie gasped at the likeness and the thought that she had not seen the shape of John in over four months. Little John’s consisted of two figures—himself and his papa, reclining under the big pecan tree in the field in front of the house, John massaging his son’s leg. Finally, Elizabeth, using her crayons, had colored streaks of red and blue and yellow around the lone smiling face of her papa.
Lettie’s gaze travelled over her children’s faces. She placed the book on her lap, opened her arms and drew them to her all at once. They remained there unmoving, a mound of children surrounding their mother, until Elizabeth began to squirm.
Much later, before the winter light dimmed, a knock came at the door. Lettie had just made the cemetery walk, this time with all of the children, and now they were scattered. As she pulled together the ingredients for the cornbread, June and Jackie set the table, Rose gathered the stockings to put away, and Edith and Elizabeth knelt before the hearth, playing quietly with their Christmas gifts. Only Little John remained outside, behind the house, his new slingshot in hand. A pall had fallen over the household, a sadness that settled after the cemetery walk, after the fresh realization that John was gone. The knock shot through each of them, startled them. June looked up, hesitated, then started toward the door.
I’ll get it,” Lettie said, reaching out to stop June. A perplexing sensation—anticipation or apprehension or both—rose in her. “Who in the world would think to stop by on Christmas Day?” She walked slowly to the door and opened it to a tall stranger, as tall a man as she’d ever seen. She herself was a small woman. “Too puny to have born all those children,” John’s mother often muttered.
As she peered up at the stranger, she noticed his hollowed-out cheeks, his eyes sunken deep within his skull.
“Evening, ma’am,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you,” she replied cautiously, closing the door a little and stepping back. Drifters often came through on the railroad and begged for food, and they sometimes stole more than they begged. Usually they stuck to town. Her farm was too far beyond for strangers to wander by in passing.
“I’m in need of supper, ma’am,” the stranger stated. “I noticed your fence could use some mending. I would gladly fix it for you in exchange for a night in your barn and a couple or three meals.”
Lettie hesitated. Yet she heard John’s voice. “Feed the man. It’s Christmas, for God’s sake. Feed the poor man.”
She looked down, peered over her shoulder at the children who had gathered behind her, and heard John’s voice again. “Feed him, Lettie. He’s hungry.”
“All we got is cornbread,” she said, “but it’s hot and will be ready directly. You can go over and make yourself comfortable in the barn.”
“Much obliged, ma’am,” the man said as he backed away and turned his head to look toward the barn, which needed paint and tending. He stopped, tipped his tattered hat to her. “Name’s Wilson.”
She nodded, closed the door, and turned to her children standing in a semicircle around her.
“Peel us some potatoes, girls,” she instructed June and Jackie. “I wish we had some greens and a scrap of ham,” she said to herself.
“We got some dried beans, Mama,” June said.
“Won’t be ready in time. Is there any milk left from the morning?”
“A little,” Rose answered, taking the lid off the crock and peering in.
“We’ve got butter, so I can make potato gravy,” she muttered.
The girls gasped. It had been their father’s favorite, and they’d not had it since the night he died. Lettie had it ready for him when he came in that evening from the fields, but he’d hardly eaten, his appetite diminished from pain.
With their mother’s purpose clear, the children sensed a bright excitement, as if something different were about to happen. All had been the same in their lives over the past months, and yet nothing had been the same. Since their aunt had paid her unexpected visit to put them back “in order,” no other guest had sat around their table. Tonight, even Elizabeth fetched the extra chair and placed it where her father once sat.
Lettie worked almost frantically, as in those early married days, when she waited too long and hurried to get supper on the table in time for John and his hunger. Tonight, her hands trembled as she mixed the cornbread.
Thirty minutes later, the tapping at the door came again. “Let Mr. Wilson in,” she commanded, to no one in particular. Little John was nearest the door, so he opened it, silently surveying Mr. Wilson, who gazed down upon him.
Little John had turned seven between August when his father died and Christmas Day when Wilson appeared at the door. He now thought of himself as the man of the house, and he was both protective of his turf and suspicious of an unfamiliar man crossing the threshold into his home.
Wilson hesitated but didn’t move. He also didn’t look beyond Little John to catch Lettie’s eye. Instead, he simply stood there, contemplating the boy. “Hello, sir,” he offered first. “Name’s Wilson. Glad to make your acquaintance,” he said, bending forward to hold out his hand.
Little John instinctively reached up and took it. “Name’s John,” he said precisely, leaving out the Little.
“John,” Wilson said. “That was your father’s name.”
He then looked past Little John to Lettie. “And you are Lettie.”
She looked up from stirring the potato gravy, shocked. How could he know their names? And even more odd, how strange it was to hear a grown man utter her name in her own home. To the children she was “Mama,” to Annie Rose, “Sissa,” to John’s relations, “Sissy.” Only her parents and her friends had called her by her given name. And John. John had only called her Lettie.
“Invite Mr. Wilson in,” she instructed and so Little John did.
“Follow me to the table, sir,” Little John ordered. Wilson did as told, nodding to each girl as he passed her.
Lettie stood behind her chair. “You’ll sit here tonight, Mr. Wilson.” Surprised, the six watched as she then walked to their father’s place and sat in his chair. The cornbread steamed on the table, already sliced, and they passed around the potato gravy in the best serving bowl. Mr. Wilson instinctively bowed his head as Lettie said grace, after which he politely asked each girl her name, and each responded respectfully, as they’d been taught. Then, silence.
“I met your husband down at the feed store some time ago,” Wilson finally said, peering at Lettie as if he had just seen her for the first time. “I hear tell he was a remarkable man.”
Lettie stiffened. She could not fathom the idea of him knowing John and their tenuous situation. She placed her spoon beside her plate and looked directly at Wilson. The children were quiet, holding their breaths rather than eating. They did not understand the significance of Wilson’s statement, but they knew their mother was upset.
“He was a farmer and a good man,” she finally replied.
“I hear he was more that,” Wilson went on. “I hear he served the poor and healed the wounded, or at least tried.”
“We’re all poor in these parts, Mr. Wilson. We’re all wounded. John lent a hand where and when he could.” She paused. “His hands were mighty full, just here at home.”
Wilson nodded, finished the last spoonful of potato gravy, then stood from his place abruptly.
“I’ll be getting on to sleep now, ma’am. Thank you for your kind hospitality, the delicious vittles, and the interesting conversation. Pleasure, ladies,” he bowed to the girls, then turned to Little John. “Good to know you at last, sir,” he said.
“At last?” Lettie asked, again shocked by this man’s familiarity. But Wilson didn’t answer. He strode to the door and turned, “I’ll mend the fence first thing tomorrow,” he said as he placed his hat over his unruly head of hair.
“Obliged,” Lettie responded, rising to show him out, but Little John hopped up and limped to the door, eager to open it for him.
“Can I help you tomorrow, sir?”
“Ask your mama, John,” Wilson almost whispered.
Little John turned to Lettie, his eyes eager, a tentative smile on his lips. “May I, Mama?”
Lettie bit her lip. Could she trust this man who seemed to know too much about them? “Well, I don’t know.”
“I suppose. Yes, of course you can help Mr. Wilson mend the fence.”
As she lay in bed that night, Lettie tried to figure out how Wilson knew of John and Little John and her, the girls, their farm and their precarious lives. She and John had known each other since childhood. They’d sat beside one another all through their school days, and except for his time in the fields, they’d been inseparable. Lettie thought she knew everyone who John had known, who’d known him. And those she hadn’t met, such as the tramps he sometimes fed in town with the leftover biscuits or the sickly ones out in the deep country to whom he led Dr. Carrington, she always heard tell of them. John told her everything.
Then she began to think, had she told him everything? Had she told him about each individual who crossed her path, or whose she crossed, in this whole long life? Had she kept secrets from him? Had she told him about the young man who came to the door in the middle of the day when she was a new mother, baby June still at her breast and no other baby yet in her womb? How she’d fed him the cold biscuits for lunch and given him a bit of ham and some fresh greens as well? How she spread a blanket beneath the pecan tree and sat there and chatted with him while the baby napped? How he looked at her with his brilliant blue eyes and said, “You sure are a pretty little thing.” And how she had lowered her head and blushed and felt giddy. How for one brief moment she felt herself sixteen again and fresh and comely and not a wife to anyone? Had she told John that?
No, of course she hadn’t. The young man took her hand, kissed it, thanked her kindly and wandered off down the lane. She remained on the blanket beneath the tree until she heard June’s cries and returned to her daily life, but for a year or even more, she thought about him now and then. She never saw him again. And no, she never told John a word about him, or her excitement in response to him looking at her, or her continued fantasies of him after he’d long disappeared.
The next morning, before the light, Lettie remained awake. She heard June build the fire in the hearth and take the pail to milk the cow. “Such a good girl,” she thought. She took her time rising as the morning was cold and her body ached from sleeplessness. The children would want their hot biscuits and Wilson, well he’d probably like some too. He would be working for her today, and then moving on. A hard weariness came over her as she sat on the edge of the bed and willed herself to stand and dress. Christmas had left her drained, and soon there would be the New Year. And then another year. And another, and another, and another. Endless years, without John.
As she slowly walked downstairs, she heard Edith’s and Little John’s quiet chatter. Both had dressed and were mixing the biscuit dough. Little John’s hair was slicked back as if he was going to church. He was eager to eat and work.
“Can Mr. Wilson sit at the table with us this morning?” he asked.
Lettie straightened and rubbed her eyes. “I don’t think there’s any need for that today. The two of you can take him coffee and a plate of biscuits, soon as they’re ready. Thank you, children, for fixing breakfast.”
She did not speak to Wilson until mid-morning, when she finally took Elizabeth’s hand and ventured outside to where he and Little John worked diligently. He’d found John’s tools in the barn, an axe and wedges, the hammer and notches, and of course the handsaw and sawhorse, tucked in a corner but in plain view. Apparently, Little John had given him further information about where his father had stored the posts, fashioned by his own hands, to repair the fence. He had simply never gotten around to it.
Wilson stood up from his work, the length of his body unraveling as Lettie walked over to him.
“Fine winter morning we’re having,” he said. “Work’s been quick. I believe John could almost handle this business himself.”
Little John grinned shyly and looked to Lettie for her response.
“I’m making a mess of beans for dinner. Why don’t you two come on in around noon?” she said, then turned and walked away, Elizabeth still latched to her hand.
Except for the mid-day meal, Wilson and Little John worked until five o’clock, when the sky darkened. By supper hour, more beans and cornbread awaited them after they finished.
Wilson sat with them for both meals, still in Lettie’s place.
“If you don’t mind, ma’am,” Wilson said as he rose at the end of supper, “I’d like to pass another night in your barn. I can be on my way first thing in the morning.”
Little John jumped up. “Mama, don’t we have other jobs Mr. Wilson can do here? Don’t we, please?”
Lettie caught Wilson’s gaze. Silence hung between them and all around as the six children looked back and forth between the two of them. Clearly, Little John was enjoying Mr. Wilson’s attention, and the girls did not seem to mind his presence.
“I expect we do,” Lettie said slowly. “Would you be willing to stay a little longer, Mr. Wilson? I have no money to pay you. Best I can offer is biscuits and cornbread and the barn floor.”
After supper, Lettie directed Wilson to the cots stored in the barn. He chose one and made a permanent corner for himself there, blending in with the animals, smelling of them when he came into the house for meals, which he always did, continuing to sit in Lettie’s chair while Lettie remained in John’s.
There was always work to be done about the house and the farm, which he gladly did in exchange for meals and the barn corner, but for money Wilson hired himself out, anywhere and everywhere. Through the Texas winter and early spring, he would often be gone until the supper hour. Still, despite his other tasks, his priority was the work he did for Lettie, and without fail he asked her permission before taking on a job that paid.
Lettie tried not to ignore Wilson, or take him for granted. But after the first month, she expected his help, his presence, his attentiveness, especially the time he spent each evening with Little John and on Sunday afternoons with the girls. After supper, Wilson often read with Little John, gently correcting his mispronunciations, and on Sunday, he harnessed the horse to the wagon and took them all for a ride. All the same, she feared they were allowing him to substitute for John, and the thought terrified her. No one could stand in for John. And yet, she had to admit, he did many of the things John had done. He mended and fixed the broken things around the farm and teased the children, although he took no tone of authority with them, and his attitude toward Lettie was respectful, almost reverential.
He kept his distance.
Lettie appreciated that and after the first evening, he no longer made familiar references about John. Lettie appreciated that as well.
Still, she was curious. How did he know so much about them? Had John spoken so intimately about them when they met at the feed store? What had led him to their door? When she asked herself that question, she heard John’s voice quoting Scripture, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” Could Wilson be an angel? If she asked him directly why he showed up here, why he continued to stay when all she could give him was food and shelter, would he, could he answer? She was alone and afraid and if she pressed any further, she feared he would vanish, disappear as unexpectedly as he had appeared. Or, and this she didn’t want to face, perhaps she didn’t want to know or admit that John’s life may have included others, others beyond her and his kin and the members of their small community.
As planting time drew near, Lettie grew nervous. Her plan to put in the crops was forming, but she didn’t quite know how to implement it. She needed Wilson’s help and she wasn’t confident in how to approach him about it.
One night at supper, Little John asked, “Can I help you grow the cotton this year, Mr. Wilson?”
“Well, John,” Wilson replied, not looking up from his cornbread, “if that’s your mama’s next task for me, and if she agrees to your helping, I don’t see why not.”
“Papa told me I could help when I got bigger and my leg got stronger.”
“And have you gotten big enough, is your leg stronger?”
“Yes sir, I have and yes sir, it is. I can race the other boys and almost win sometimes.”
Lettie glared at Little John. “You take care with that leg, son,” she snapped.
Little John turned to her, a look of shock on his face. Lettie rarely used such a tone.
Lettie was of two minds. Her plan had been to ask Wilson’s assistance in planting and harvesting the cotton, offering Wilson a percentage of the profits. She knew she’d have to purchase the seed on credit, but with Wilson as her collateral, so to speak, she hoped Mr. Murphy would see her clear on that. So she was relieved, now, that she needn’t broach this topic with Wilson, that Little John had more or less done the job for her.
But how dare Wilson assume he could help with the cotton? That he could waltz into their lives, onto John’s farm, and take over like this? How dare he?
“Mr. Wilson,” she said tersely, startling the children. “A word outside, please.”
She stood and walked to the door and, after a moment’s hesitation, Wilson followed, leaving behind his half-eaten supper and grabbing his hat as he trailed after her.
Lettie moved off the porch and beyond the house, almost running to the barn, then into it, straight to Wilson’s corner, where she stood, her face and neck flushed, her entire body trembling.
Wilson stood behind her and as she turned to him, he lifted his long arms and circled them around her.
“No!” she protested. “No,” she said again.
Yet he pulled her toward him, holding her firmly so that she could not pull back, although she didn’t try, she didn’t want to. As his broad right hand pressed her head to his chest, she knew clearly although reluctantly that she absolutely did not want to pull away.
It had been almost eight months since she felt a man’s touch and there was no resistance in her body, her mind, or especially her heart. There was no resistance until Wilson held her too long, too tightly, too tenderly for it to be proper in any way. When she at last attempted to push away, he pulled her even more forcefully, yet gently, toward him.
“Mama?” she heard. Wilson unwound himself from her as she stepped back, stumbling, then righted herself by grabbing his arm. Little John stood at the barn door, peering into the darkness. “Mama?” he said once more. “Please come back. I’m sorry I raced with the boys.”
Lettie stepped from the shadows of Wilson’s corner. “Little John,” she said, holding her arms out as she moved toward him. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. Mr. Wilson and I were just discussing the cotton.”
“Yes, we were,” Wilson’s voice followed.
“And we think it’s a grand idea you want to help,” Lettie added.
Lettie lay in bed burning. Her breath came in shallow pants, her skin tensed at the memory of Wilson’s touch. Rather than dwell on John, or her plight, or the children, she could only think of Wilson holding her, his face burrowed in her hair, his breath warm and moist on her neck.
When morning came, it was all she could do to gather enough courage to bake the biscuits, brew the coffee, and sit quietly at the table while he ate with her and the children. She didn’t dare look at him, although she felt his intermittent gaze upon her and sensed the puzzlement of the children.
She was relieved when they dispersed for school and work and she was left alone with Elizabeth. The entire long, chore cluttered day moved endlessly as she thought about resting her eyes on Wilson once more. She seemed paralyzed, unable to pry her mind from the image of his hollowed-out face, lanky arms, and wild curly hair. Most of all, she couldn’t release herself from wanting to be caught up, once more, in his embrace. That alone—his touch, his arms winding around her—both soothed and excited her. Would he do it again? Would she find a moment alone with him so that he could? How could she arrange that, with the children, or at least Elizabeth, always present?
In the mid-afternoon, before the children arrived home from school, she figured it out. She knew what she would do. In the night, in her most agitated moments, she would slip away from the house, go to Wilson on his cot in the barn, and once again allow him to wrap himself around her.
The thought eased her, then horrified her. How could she?
It took the remainder of the afternoon, including the walk— hasty this time—to the cemetery with Little John, to calm her. When she came to John’s grave, she knelt on the red dirt, her hands extended out and upward. “What am I doing?” she whispered. There was still no headstone on John’s grave. She couldn’t afford one, although she hoped that after the harvest and sale of the forthcoming cotton, she could manage something. By then, John would be more than a year in the ground and past due a stone to mark his passing. But since his death, and right now in fact, it was more important to put food in their mouths than a marker on his grave. On this afternoon, before the spring and what she knew would be a planting, she did not weep. She rarely wept these days. Often now, she knelt dry-eyed as Little John roamed about, or knelt beside her as she patted the mound of dirt that covered his father.
But on this day, she noted her absence of tears. She missed John, still longed for him, but for the first time since they’d placed him here, she looked forward, rather than back. She felt as if now there was more to her life than finding a way to put another scrap of food on the table and in the bellies of the animals.
Supper time came and Wilson, as always, quietly strolled in and took his place at the table. She’d made potato gravy again and so the children were delighted. After, she and Wilson sat at the table and sketched out their plans to buy and plant the seed. Although most of the seed purchase would be put on credit at Mr. Murphy’s store, Wilson had saved enough money from his odd jobs to contribute to buying a portion of it outright, though he suggested they keep that bit of information to themselves. Wilson agreed, in word and in writing—his idea—to continue to work for bed and board. When the cotton went to market, he’d accept a percentage of the profits only after they repaid Mr. Murphy and after Lettie had set aside enough to get through the winter and buy seed for the coming year.
As Lettie and Wilson talked, the children cleaned up the dishes and readied themselves for the next day. It was a business discussion, but somehow Lettie felt as if the children, hearing them and seeing them paired at the table, their heads bent forward, their fingertips almost touching, were somehow witnessing a betrayal of her love and devotion to their father.
Later, much later, two or three in the morning, Lettie lay awake in her bed, listening to the sleeping sounds of her children. “Dare I?” she wondered. “Dare I go to him?”
She imagined herself doing just that, lifting herself from the bed, wrapping her cotton gown around her, gliding down the stairs, tiptoeing through the kitchen beyond the supper table, gingerly opening the door, moving across the barnyard like an apparition, her feet barely touching down, floating into the barn, walking purposefully to Wilson’s cot, standing there certain and strong and filled with joy and anticipation as she leaned down to touch him and awaken him.
Lettie sat up in shock when the light filtered through her bedroom window. The fantasy of Wilson had soothed her to sleep. It was the first time since John’s death she had slept so soundly.
After the breakfast that morning, she made no effort to conceal her fascination with Wilson’s craggy face, his bent and bean pole frame, his huge workman’s hands, and his deep, slow drawl. She sat on the side porch and watched him bring out the mule and the plough, readying both for the tilling of the red earth that lay beyond the house. Elizabeth played soundlessly on the porch, oblivious to her mother’s preoccupied attentions. Wilson looked up every few moments, but she did not turn away.
Lettie’s late night-time struggle continued for months. Only instead of grief, anxiety, and fear, she was filled with the hope and desire that on one of these nights she would find her way down the stairs, through the house, across the yard, through the gate, and to the barn.
She passed her days working. In addition to her usual chores, her agreement with Wilson included the field preparation and the purchasing and sowing of the seed, a whirl of activity made more intense by her constant need for distraction. The older girls helped to plant and to care for the younger children, who worked as well, although at a slower pace. And in those sowing days, Lettie forsook her cemetery walks for the work.
She’d helped John in the early years of their marriage, even after the first two babies, but then there were too many little ones, and John insisted that her fieldwork cease. He could manage with the help of Homer and one of the other men, especially at harvest.
So it had been a long time since she’d stood in the cotton field, her skirt hiked up, her bonnet tied tight, her hands raw and mouth parched, the vision of rows and rows of cotton pulling her forward, urging her on.
She liked the work. She was filled with an unexpected joy, a realization that the dull, numbing ache of loss abated in the fields where John had toiled and where she now did the same alongside their children and under the care and guidance of Wilson.
It was clear Wilson was no stranger to growing cotton. He knew exactly what to do—how to form the rows and how to plant the seed a little bit wider apart so that the extra heat slipping through the looser canopy would deter the wretched boll weevils.
When school was over for the year, the children home, Lettie found that her interest in Wilson grew more intense. For the weeks of spring, before the heat, she’d been too tired at night to lie awake in either grief or longing. Her body ached and cried out for rest. It was a relief to know such exhaustion.
But as summer arrived and the cotton grew and the field work changed, she found her body had not only adjusted to the hard physical work but to the relief the children’s extra hands provided her. The children had always been a help to her, but in these long summer days, she was surprised at how closely they stuck beside her, how hard they worked, how protective of her they were. Once more, she was free to gaze on Wilson’s long, lonely face, to wonder about him in those moments when she awakened in the middle of the night and imagined herself slipping out to the steaming corner of the barn.
As the first anniversary of John’s death drew near, Wilson took to sleeping in the field under the pecan trees. Lettie could walk to her window and see him there when the moon shone, his long body splayed out over a small cot.
They watched through the summer as the seed yielded white flowers that eventually transformed to red. “White, red, and dead,” Wilson said, in regard to the demise of the red blooms and the bolls which formed as a result. John had said that too, smiling at the prospect of their livelihood ahead. John loved farming. He had chosen it and clearly, so had Wilson. When the bolls cracked open and the fluffy white cotton peeked out, the children returned to school, Elizabeth tagging behind June as she excitedly entered first grade. It was harvest season and time to call on Homer. With the children off to school and after the cleaning of the daily breakfast, Lettie found her hands free of housework but full of field work. The three of them—Wilson, Homer, and Lettie—worked from sunrise to sundown. When the children arrived from school, they assisted. Edith managed the little ones, Elizabeth and Little John, at the house while June supervised Jackie and Rose in the fields. After an hour or so of field work, June retreated to the kitchen to organize supper and sent Little John to take her place. Clearly, Little John lived for this moment all day long. He was almost eight years old—observant, clever, adept—and his excitement at helping was irrepressible. His small fingers worked quickly, expertly and before too long, Wilson asked him to work beside him, if it was all right with his mother, as soon as he returned from school each afternoon.
They worked swiftly and efficiently. When the cotton was ready to pick, any delay meant it would turn soggy from rain and dirty from exposure. Homer could pick almost a bale in a day, Wilson somewhat more, and Lettie, at her best, a little bit less. It was a ten-acre farm, all of it in cotton. Originally, she’d estimated they would finish in four or five days, but the work was endless, although Wilson and Homer never seemed to tire. It took the full week and at the end of it, she and Wilson proudly drove the full wagon of cotton to the gin. This had always been a momentous occasion for both John and Lettie, but after the children began to come, she no longer accompanied him. He went alone, or with Homer, and he returned with small gifts for each of them.
How odd it was now to sit beside Wilson in the wagon, just as she had sat beside John in their early years. She was elated, excited, and felt oddly safe. Safe. With a start, she realized she had felt unsafe from the moment John came home ill that evening one year before.
While the cotton was being cleaned and sorted at the gin—the seeds extracted from the lint, the oil pressed from the lint, the meal separated for animal feed—Wilson began to clean the fields. He hitched the disc harrow to the wagon, the wagon to the mule, and moved from acre to acre, destroying the plants. He tilled them under, assiduously cleaned every farm implement, pampered the animals, scrubbed down the barn, and proceeded to mend every broken thing in the house and the barn, as well as on the land. Lettie went with him to gather the bales from the gin and take them to the buyer, not too far over in Calvin, but still a day’s journey. It was exciting to hold the money for their labor in her hand, to place it in her bag, to sit quietly beside Wilson as they headed back to the children. When they arrived, she handed him his portion and placed hers in its usual place, in the flooring beneath the chest of drawers in her bedroom. She held out enough to pay back Mr. Murphy for the seed and supplies and Homer for his long labor. As she lay in bed that evening, she breathed a long and satisfying sigh. She had enough funds to get through the year, and with Wilson beside her, she could carry on. The farm would yield a livelihood for her and the children. Weary, but triumphant, she slept through the night.
On a crisp fall morning, two weeks after she and Wilson sold the cotton, the children sat around the breakfast table while the biscuits baked and the kitchen warmed.
“Mama,” Elizabeth announced. “I love school!”
Lettie laughed and stroked her curls.
“She’s a pest at school,” Little John countered. “I like working in the fields with Mr. Wilson!”
“Where is Mr. Wilson?” June asked. “He’s late for breakfast.”
“Hmmm,” Lettie said absentmindedly as she pulled the biscuits from the wood stove. “Little John, run on out to the barn and tell Mr. Wilson his breakfast is ready.”
Little John dashed through the kitchen door and returned immediately, before the biscuits were even on the table. “Mama, Mr. Wilson’s not in the barn,” he said. “His cot is all made up, but his things are gone, except for one of his socks.”
“One sock?” Lettie asked, puzzled. “Well, down your biscuits and off to school you go. Each of you, or you’ll be late.”
She watched the children leave, little John trailing behind, looking back over his shoulder at her. When they were out of sight, she walked to the barn.
The barn was spotless. The animals had been fed, the cow milked. All was in order, including Wilson’s corner, his cot neatly made. But his few personal belongings were gone.
Except for the sock, knotted and placed on his pillow.
She sunk onto the cot, took the sock into both her hands and emptied it into her lap. It was the money he’d earned. There was no note. Nothing.
She touched the pillow where his head had rested, picked it up and held it to her chest.
It was as if he’d never been here, except for the tidied farm, the successful harvest, the money she held in her hands.
She stuffed Wilson’s earnings back into the sock and stumbled from the barn toward the fallow fields. She fought to catch her breath, fought to stand upright on her own two feet, and struggled to keep her world—the cloudless Texas sky, the blistering sun, the mesquite trees beyond the fields—from swirling around her.
She dropped to the ground, to the red sandy earth that held her, kept her, somehow supported her and her babies. Releasing the sock, she rolled herself into a ball, first rocking and then tumbling to her side, her tears mixing with the dirt beneath her. When she finished, she lifted herself from the ground as a spark rose in her, like a flame that shot out of her mouth—a scream, she was told after, that reached all the way to Mr. Murphy’s store.
Five years later, Lettie married Martel Pruitt, a moderately successful farmer who was still better off financially than John had ever been or hoped to be. Martel was a decent man, twenty years her senior, and recently widowed. His wife, Jenny, had been a tiny, stooped little woman, broken in half by an irregularity of her spine which, while hardly noticeable in her youth, took her over as she aged. Although she bore no children, she died without the bitterness of the barren, but with a sense of charity, of gratitude that she’d had a long life when her own parents feared she would not live past adolescence. Martel waited a year after Jenny’s passing to ask for Lettie’s hand in marriage, but she had a suspicion that the marriage mainly had to do with Little John, now called John, as Mart had always longed for a son. In spite of his shrunken leg, John had grown into a serious, athletic boy. He’d even devised a means to build up his shoe and disguise his limp, and he took an interest in Mart’s farming expertise and knowledge. He also deeply appreciated Mart’s kindness to his mother and his sisters. At age twelve, he helped his mother and the three sisters still living at home—two older than him, one younger—to pack up the house where they’d all been raised, and move five cotton fields over to Mart’s house on the edge of town. Mart’s own farm fanned out from his house and barn, around and beyond Lettie’s ten acres. On John’s thirteenth birthday, Mart gave him a horse, a pistol, and a shotgun, so that he could ride the countryside on his own, shoot rabbits and squirrels, and find his way to manhood. Lettie hung onto her land, now Mart’s as well, but in time, they began to sell it off until none of it, not one acre of the farm John loved and Wilson revived, remained in their possession.
Lettie had been married to Mart for ten years when he died in his sleep—quietly and with no warning but for his advanced years. Lettie was fifty-two years old, widowed a second time and with all of her children now grown. But it was different this time. Lettie’s marriage to Mart had not been one of passion, but of mutual kindness, convenience, and companionship. When she rose the morning of his death, she knew she would miss him and even with her daughters nearby and young John freshly married and teaching at a school near Houston, she wondered if she could bear to live alone. She hoped she could. She believed she could.
But it was more difficult than she expected. She thought back to when John died and how Annie Rose arrived to set them all in order. She had both appreciated and resented Annie’s visit, and now—in her aloneness—she thought perhaps she’d pay Annie a visit. Annie’s children had also long since left home, and her husband, a young sixty, showed no signs of slowing down. She took Mart’s old Ford onto the highway and drove to Annie’s Rose’s house in the early morning hours. Organized and no nonsense as ever, Annie Rose arranged a little supper party for Lettie that evening, which included a couple from her church, and another “widow woman,” Winona Lewis, who had lost her own farmer husband seven years before, stayed on her farm for a few years, and then finally sold it and departed, moving to town. Older than Lettie, her children were grown when her husband died, but she was loath to leave the farm where they’d made their life together. She told Lettie this in confidence, although Lettie figured she’d told many others the same thing in the same way. Lettie knew and understood the habits of widows too well.
Over coffee, she asked Winona, “What made you leave? Annie Rose says you’ve only been in town a couple of years now, so you must have managed your land on your own for a long while.”
“I did, indeed, with the help of a hired hand who lived out in the barn.”
Lettie drew her eyes to Winona’s. “A hired hand, you say?” she asked.
“He appeared at my back door soon after Samuel left this world,” she said. “He’d clearly been a friend of Samuel’s, knew all about him and our children and how long we’d been on the farm, almost to the day. I never did quite catch how they met. Thank goodness, my children were visiting from out of town when he showed up. Otherwise, I’d never in a million years let such a strange man into my kitchen.”
“How long did this man live in your barn?”
“He was with me for five years. Sweetest man I ever knew. Not much to look at. Tall and thin and worn down, but lord he could work. Seems to me that’s all he did do. Fixed up a corner of the barn real nice-like for himself, took most of his meals with me. The children were mighty upset at first. Thought he was after something. But no, he was a simple soul who spoke little and worked hard. I paid him real good, just like Sam would’ve done. In fact, I like to think that Sam sent him to me.”
“What happened to him?”
Winona hesitated, drew in her breath, looked away. She shrugged her shoulders, almost up to her ears. “I don’t know,” she said. “He just disappeared. Didn’t show up for breakfast. When I went out to the barn, the cows were milked, the animals fed, his corner tidied up, his few things missing. There was no note, nothing except a leather pouch, old and soft and still smelling like cowhide, lying right there in the middle of his bed. I’d never seen it before, not once, and I thought I’d seen everything Will owned, because there wasn’t much he did own. I picked up that pouch and looked inside and there was a sizable wad of cash. I sat right down and counted it out, and there was three-fourths of the wages I’d paid him over the past five years. He’d used what he needed and left the rest behind. Now, don’t that just beat all?”
“Do you have any idea where this man, Will, went off to?” Lettie asked.
Again, Winona hesitated, leaning her gray head toward Lettie’s and lowering her voice to a whisper. “Rumor has it he’s done this before, that he has an obsession for widow women.” She sat straight in her chair and looked Lettie directly in the eye. “Rumor has it he was once a wealthy farmer further up in East Texas, but he made some bad investments and lost everything, including his wife who ran off with another and took the children with her. Hear tell he never saw them again, couldn’t find them. So, he started roaming, picking up odd jobs here and there, surviving off the kindness of others. That’s what people say. But truly, he was the kind one. What did he want from me? Not a thing. Otherwise he would’ve taken it. At the end of the five years he worked for me, I was at last ready to sell that monstrosity of a farm and move into town. My children didn’t want the farm. They’d not lifted a finger to help me out after their daddy died. And I didn’t want it no more neither. I was worn out. Will was a good man. Whatever caused him to help me out so and prop me up and ask for nothing, just absolutely nothing in return, well it was either some sort of strangeness or just true-blue kindness like you don’t hardly ever see in these parts.”
Lettie spent the next few days with her sister contentedly enough, but she felt herself unsettled and impatient. Her conversation with Winona had brought back a period of her life she thought she’d forgotten. She not only wondered if Winona’s hired man, Will, had been Wilson, she knew it. Just as she knew he’d helped others, perhaps saved others with his knowledge, his skill, and his kindness.
All these years later, sixteen in fact, she wondered if she’d loved Wilson, if she’d been in love with him. She remembered her yearning, and her dependence upon him, her joy at seeing him around the breakfast table with the children, working in the field beside him as she’d only done with John in the early, childless years of their marriage. Without doubt, she knew how she felt and how she still felt about John. And she knew that in the center of the love and desire that burned within her during that year with Wilson, lay the darkest depths of grief and mourning and anxiety.
Wilson’s arrival was the day she began to heal. He was both a salvation and a relief for her. A distraction. But also, a support – a bulwark.
Now, with Mart fresh in the grave, she fantasized about seeing Wilson again. She drove Mart’s car into town, shopped a little, took coffee at the diner on Main Street, and searched for him in the face of every tall, lanky, middle-aged man she saw. She wanted to see him one more time for, unlike John or Mart, he still existed. In the flesh. She could look into his sympathetic, compassionate eyes once more.
After he’d disappeared, she often wondered if he’d been real. Had she somehow conjured him? No, the children spoke of him often, especially little John who initially replaced memories of his father with memories of Wilson and all they had accomplished in their short time together.
One year. And he had changed their lives.
At the end of her week in Masonville with Annie Rose, a week of searching and not finding, Lettie packed her bag and headed home to what had once been Mart’s and Jenny’s house, but was now her own. She thought of the land adjacent to it, the land where her and John’s small farm now belonged to another. The house had been torn down, and the barn where Wilson and the animals slept had crumbled. The new owners built a finer house from the wood of the old and resituated the barn. Sometimes, when Lettie walked along the fence and looked beyond to what had once been her life, she could not believe she had lived there, loved John and birthed and raised six children on that land.
She began to sort through Mart’s belongings, as well as her own, as well as their mingled accumulations in the ten years of their marriage. She wasn’t sure what to do with it all, but she figured she’d know in time. In a deep box, a box tucked away at the back of the wardrobe, a place she hadn’t looked in years, she found The Book of Papa. She sat on the floor, her skirt splayed out around her, and held the book in her lap, remembering that Christmas Day, the first without John, the children vulnerable like kittens, so gentle and loving toward her, toward each other. That was the day Wilson appeared at their door.
As the days, then weeks passed, her mind and heart swirled with memories – of her parents, her life with John, the children when they were young, John’s death and the aftermath, Mart and his generosity. Wilson. An idea came to her. She purposefully walked to the shed and made a sign, constructed from a wooden fence post and a large shingle. On the shingle she painted HOUSE AND LAND FOR SALE. She dug a hole in the front yard, just beyond the picket fence Mart so carefully painted white each summer, stuck the sign there, and settled into the rocker on her front porch and waited.
She knew the girls would be concerned, she knew young John would be saddened, she knew the neighbors would gossip and chatter. She didn’t care. She had lived her entire life on this piece of red sand earth in this tight corner of the world. She was fifty-two years old and worn down by loss and living, but oh my, she was alive, and, though not rich, she had enough.
She wanted to wander, knock on doors and sleep in barns and mend fences and serve and cherish others. She didn’t know, and hardly minded, what lay ahead of her. The fine spring day, the honeysuckle blooming, the squeak of the rocker, and the land around her that had cradled her were gifts, resounding whole gifts. When the first neighbor who saw her sign and shouted to her, “The Depression’s on! You can’t sell your house! Where will you go, what will you do, Miss Lettie?” she waved, smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and shouted back, “Moving on. Just moving right on.”