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The bitter wind wailed around the modest farm house, while the shutters creaked and the chimney blew embers into the tiny room from the wood burning stove.

Nancy Mickley Halsema
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Chapter 1

The bitter wind wailed around the modest farm house, while the shutters creaked and the chimney blew embers into the tiny room from the wood burning stove. It was doing its best to keep the room warm. but fresh firewood had not been added in the last few hours and it could only sputter in an attempt to provide warmth. On the daybed lay a young girl moaning and thrashing. Her mother did little to calm her fears, or offer her comfort. The stout lady was not pleased that she was about to assist in the birth of her first grandchild and had chosen this space behind the kitchen for the impending birth because she knew her girth would make it difficult to climb up and down the stairs, fetching warm water and clean towels. This was enough of an imposition on her time as it was; no need to make it worse by adding the burden of stairs.

She kept the frown of disapproval markedly on her face to make her shameful daughter understand the dishonor she had brought on the family. Certainly, she had made this evident for the past six months, but on this night especially, she wanted to make sure Marie knew she was ashamed and disappointed in her.

“Ma, I am hurtin’ something awful. Are you sure I am not tearing in two?” The seventeen-year-old girl cried in pain and anguish, as she rolled with the next volley of birth.

“You probably are tearing some, I say good for that. It will be no more than you deserve, but you had better hope it is not because the baby is a big one. If your Daddy and I have any hope of convincing our neighbors and church folk your baby is premature, you better be praying for a tiny one.”

“Momma please, just tonight can’t you not be scolding me so? I know how you feel and I am truly and completely sorry for my sin, but please Momma help me through this tonight, and tell me how I am to do this. How much longer do you think…” But before she could finish the sentence another wave of pain rolled across her stomach and up her back to her shoulders. She cried out in agony; and the howling January storm swallowed it whole.

Hours later a six pound, and a bit more, baby girl was born that Marie name Mary Elizabeth. The baby’s grandmother stood by and was grateful, so very grateful, the baby was a tiny one. Keeping Marie a bit hungry these past months, must have done the trick. When she had shown up a few nights ago with that no-good husband of hers, she had been quickly hustled inside less someone see her. She was a petite girl and the growing baby was obvious. Her day-dress waistline now stretched beyond its ability, was wound tightly beneath her ample breasts, and the hem hung awkwardly above her ankles, and dipping to the ground in back. Marie’s winter coat concealed some of the bulk, but even a casual eye could see her shape had grown significantly. Seeing Marie now would most certainly ruin the elopement story. Marie’s new husband - who would not have married her, of that she was certain. had it not been for her husband’s angry insistence, was sheepishly trailing behind.

“You know you are not welcome here.” Had been Marie’s Daddy’s immediate greeting even before the storm door was fully open.

“Bob, we agreed I could bring her home to give birth, and it appears that’s going to be pretty soon now.” Vern was polite and reserved even though he and the soon-to-be Grandpa, had been best friends since their youth. That friendship was immediately terminated when he had come, hat in hand, to acknowledge he had impregnated Bob’s sixteen-year-old daughter. She was such a pretty young thing, and I had the pleasure of watching her grow into a beauty, but now as a divorced man in his mid-forties, I have my needs too, and she had not said no.

They had married in the minister’s home a few days later with no guests and no frivolity. She had been allowed a wedding photo. It showed a slender girl sitting solumnly, wearing the best dress she owned, a blue taffeta with long sleeves and a lace collar, and it was the first time she had been allowed to pull her hair into an adult-looking chignon, a style much too old for her years, but all that was beside the point now, wasn’t it? She was holding a bouquet of ribbons and artificial flowers that the photographer had provided, which cascaded to the floor in a luxury that contrasted with the couple’s predicament. Standing behind her was a stubby gentleman in an appropriate day suit, graying slightly at the temples, defiantly directing his eyes to the camera. Immediately after the photo was taken they had climbed into Vern’s surrey with a fine horse and headed to the train station to be whisked away to the big city nearby, Chicago. That should keep them properly hidden until the stories could be rehearsed and shared of the new marriage. Vern had promised his new mother-in-law (oh how bitter that felt on his tongue) that he would feed Marie only sparingly to do his part in keeping the baby small.

An agreement had been reached that should the baby not survive, while the friendship would remain severed, the nuptials need not be honored. But from that day forward he was to leave their young daughter alone. Easy enough pledge to make, under the circumstances.

But the baby had survived, and was now howling for attention in the back room. Marie looked exhausted, while the baby attempted to suckle at her breast, but obviously neither mother nor new daughter knew what to make of this first bonding and were struggling with failure.

“I’m so very hungry Momma, can I have a bite to eat? And water, oh please, water. I am so parched.”

“I’ll get it for you tonight, but tomorrow you need to be up and making yourself useful again. I got my hands full tonight with washing all the sheets and cleaning your baby. So, after a good night’s sleep, you best be prepared to do your part tomorrow; you understand?”

’Yes Momma, I do. Could I also ask for another blanket or two, I am so dreadfully cold, and so is my little baby.” She looked down at the howling child. “My baby…. Mary Elizabeth.” She said the name softly testing it on her tongue and heart. “Do you like the name, Momma? I named her after you after all; do you like that I did that?”

“Not especially, but it’s done now, so no going back; no one ever need know as long as you don’t go calling her Bess too.” The new grandmother refused to let this precious petite baby sway her. She was not going to grow fond of this child no matter what. No sense even holding her, or there might be temptation. Her thoughts remained unkind, that baby is a bastard child; no matter that we got the filthy old man to marry her or not; a bastard made, a bastard she shall remain.

Just three days later the train once again whisked away Vern, Marie and the small baby. Vern returned to work as the conductor on the Wabash Rail lines, and Marie taught herself how to feed and bathe her new one, as well as improve her skills in cooking and cleaning their tiny workers’ apartment near the Chicago train station. Vern had surprised her with a lovely baby carriage, and even before Spring arrived in the windy city, Marie could be seen strolling happily along, pushing the carriage and window shopping leisurely. Vern’s admirable position with the railroad kept him gone overnight and out of reach every week, but Marie was happiest in his absence. While he was in no manner unkind to her, he obviously resented his new family, and had no compelling desire to learn to live aside a young woman with whom he had so little in common. His years of being a conductor kept him in the company interesting people at all levels of society, and he had enjoyed it very much. Truth be known, this was the reason for the demise of his first marriage. Too much time away, no thoughts or feeling of obligation to his wife, and no interest in anyone but himself. And here he was with one child less than four years old by his first woman, and now another baby’s responsibility by this young girl.

His first wife who still lived in Huntington, had let everyone know she had been the wronged party. His long-time girlfriend also was still near the berg, but out in the country a bit, away from prying eyes. So, keeping Marie one hundred and seventy-five miles away in the big city, might have its benefits. “More distance; less hassle.” was the way he saw it. He earned a respectable salary, but this situation was doing its part in stretching him further financially than he thought reasonable. He had always maintained a healthy savings account and wasn’t about to cut into it now, or ever, if he had his way about it. He hoped that he soon could bring Maria back and plant her firmly in Bob and Bess’s home with the acceptable explanation that he was on the road too often, and he would be worrying about their welfare in his absence. That should save him a bit of change each month.

Spring turned into a lush Summer and the July heat left him slow moving and cranky in their small apartment. When he was in Chicago with Marie, Vern felt it only right and proper he take his due, even in the heat; so, it was no surprise at all when Marie shyly shared she was once again with child. Damn that woman.

Little Betty, for that was what Marie was now calling her baby, was growing on schedule, and was a quiet, dignified child. She cried rarely and smiled even less. While never appearing to be uncomfortable, her solemn eyes also rarely saw anything that tickled her enough to go beyond a tiny smile. Marie was totally and completely captivated by the child’s every move and was delighted with the first tooth and every other measure of success for the new mother. When the ugly symptoms of morning sickness once again showed themselves, Marie was shocked, but no longer afraid; for she knew she was a capable mother; and if one child kept her good company, two might keep her busy and not feeling so alone.

The days of pregnancy continued with Marie being happy and content; and Vern being resigned to his steadily growing family. His hopes for getting on with his life were dashed, but he was making peace with the situation and felt nobler for it.

Christmas was as bitter cold as the one before. But the little family had train passes, and Marie wanted so badly to spend the Holiday at home with her parents, and more importantly her adored older brother and his young family. She could barely wait to share her sweet baby with Don’s wife who had also given birth recently. They arrived Christmas eve bundled warmly with lap robes and foot warmers, and Betty tucked securely against Marie’s breast and growing baby bump. She had not shared this additional bit of news, hoping this time, face to face, her parents would be delighted with the news, rather than angry. She was confident in brother Don’s reaction as well as his sweet wife, Ida, as they had never showed even the slightest unkindness during her pregnancy with Betty. They had even made day trips to see her in Chicago, in Vern’s absence, and Ida had been helpful and thoughtful in teaching the ten-year younger sister-in-law how to do so many homemaking and mothering skills that Marie had not been aware of as a young bride.

Ida and Don’s baby was in her grandmother’s arms when they arrived. Bess was so much consumed with her care that she did not reach out to kiss or pat her young daughter upon arrival, nor bother to peep between the warm blankets to check on little Betty’s welfare. Further, she did not put baby Martha down at any point during the evening, but instead let Ida finish the preparation of the dinner and later, the extensive clean up. After all, it was Christmas eve, which called for additional savory dishes and sweets which Ida had prepared at her mother-in-law’s direction.

Christmas morning brought the delightful smells of not only coffee, but homemade pastries and a large skillet of scrambled eggs and a rash of crispy bacon. Enough to make any mouth water.

“Marie, put that baby of yours down. You need to be serving the men folk and keeping the stove stoked. Time enough later for you and Ida to eat a bite of the leftovers, but your Daddy and I should be honored this Christmas day for all we have done for you, and yours; and you can start by serving us first, and keeping that baby of yours quiet. Do you understand me?”

“Yes Momma, I most certainly do want to make your Christmas day special, and later after all the presents are open, Vern and I want to talk to about something special for you too.” She shyly included her growing tummy into the conversation but Bess acted as if she did not understand.

Throughout the morning and the gay laughter of gift opening, Grandmother Bess held baby Martha often; even when Ida begged to take her to another room to be nursed; but little Betty stayed safely in the arms of Marie without fear of other arms – not even her own father’s.

When Vern sat Bess and Bob down later in the day to share the news of the new baby, Bess made it clear she was fully aware, and was wondering just when they would get around to confirming her knowledge.

“I’m not blind you know; I can see how Marie’s clothes pull across her front and how her complexion has gotten a bit seedy. Well, at least this time she has a husband; not the perfect one I’d hoped for, but he provides well enough, and what more could a Mother expect.” She made sure the whole household heard this little speech of barely veiled contempt. Most of all Vern, who needed to understand his place in this family.

“We certainly were not trying to conceal the news; we just wanted you all to enjoy your Christmas like usual in case you had any concerns.” Like last time, Vern thought. We sure didn’t want a show of anger, hatred and admonishment like last time. This time we are legally married; damn the trap!

He was trying to be a decent husband to this young girl, and father to her baby, but really, everyone should understand we have little in common except for that tiny quiet child. And if it had not been for her healthy birth, I could go back to my girlfriend, without this never-ending burden. And while he was proving to himself how inconvenienced he had been, he recognized what an overbearing, unkind woman Bob’s wife was.

That Bess, she’s insufferable, and if I’ve noticed, surely poor Marie was noticing. Bess made over little Martha and totally ignored my child. Why Betty was twice as pretty a baby and, though tiny, truth be known, will be smarter too, with my genes in her. Why that woman never said one kind word to either me or Marie. Who is feeding and housing their little girl now? I am! She’s no burden on anyone but me, after all. These thoughts swirled through his head on this sacred Christmas day, unkindly and resentfully.

By late evening Marie was especially tired and was feeling faint and even a bit sick. She had only eaten a bit of each Christmas delight today, and while she knew she deserved to be tired between the serving and cleaning and being so careful around her Ma, she was eager to call it a day and have sleep overtake her. No one seemed to notice when she crept up the stairs to her childhood room and rocked Betty to sleep with a lullaby and tender kisses, then laid down herself, still dressed and wearing a damp apron, and not feeling at all well. Later she awoke enough to pull the old quilt around her and slept fitfully again, but she was cold, then hot, then nauseous as she slept.

She awoke in the early hours of dawn with pain gripping her and sweat already pouring from her hair and face. She called out in panic and her mother appeared with the scowl Maria expected.

“Momma, I think I am losing my baby. I am in awful pain, and I am so worried about the baby. Can you call a doctor and get Vern to come upstairs? Oh, Momma, I am in such awful pain.” With that she sat up abruptly and spewed sour vomit on her gown and bedding.

“Lordy Marie, can’t you just have babies at the right time and place and stop making such a spectacle of yourself each time.” She spat the words without regret then yelled for additional assistance.

“Robert, I believe Marie may be in labor, send Vern for Doc Brubaker and tell him to come quick. I can see the baby is coming, and coming fast.”

The birth process cannot wait, and in less than half an hour, not one, but two tiny baby boys were born. Bess had never seen such tiny infants and feared they wouldn’t stand a chance at living. Vern took one look and recognized that fact too; and returned to the parlor to have a much-needed drink, who cared what time it was. The Doctor arrived and began giving orders and assignments. He had water boiled and poured into matching rubber water bladders he had brought along. Each baby was wrapped in blankets then tucked snugly between the warm containers, and laid in the top drawer of Maria’s old bureau. Marie was tucked back into a clean bed and ordered to rest a bit from the birth ordeal. This time she need not worry about tearing. Each baby must have been no more than three pounds, but without a scale or the time to speculate, they had been quickly cleaned and were now being fed a warm solution of cow’s milk and boiled water. Marie was too weak and not yet ready to provide milk for the night at least, and maybe not into the future.

Vern and Marie had now been married just fifteen months and were the parents of three small children. Marie was eighteen; Vern was forty-five. Baby Betty was eleven months old and the twin boys were surviving their first night.

It was clear returning his family to Chicago was not an option. Vern agreed to provide a food and lodging allowance each week for his wife and three babies, who would remain in their grandparents’ home, while he went back to his job with the railroad, relieved and resigned to his situation. Damn them! Damn them all!

The baby boys not only lived through the night but with the constant attention of Marie, Bess, Ida, and even Bob, the babies began to appear healthy and responsive. The word was out in the small town that a miracle of sorts had happened Christmas night and that two amazing baby boys were now the special residence of this little farming community in northeast Indiana. Granddaddy bragged and Grandmother fussed. Ida helped whenever she could fit in the time away from little Martha, and Marie tried her best to take her rightful place as the mother of these little miracles. Betty, just beginning to toddle a bit, was shoed away and told to stay quiet for the good of the sleeping babies. She was as aware as anyone how very special these little boys were, and immediately felt pride; although she was certainly too young to have been able to put that name to it.

The minister had been called to baptize them, for fear they might pass without that important blessing; and while he was at it, he baptized big sister Betty too. TheBoys (as they were referred to from this day forward, in recognition to a lifelong attachment as well as their resemblance) were dressed in pristine white lawn gowns that had tiny embroidered blue roses cut from one of Marie’s youthful dresses, and applied liberally on their baptismal garments. The gowns had been worked overnight by the tired but proud Grandmother. Betty, if everyone remembered it correctly, had been baptized in her sleeping gown as the minister came before she could be changed to daywear that morning.

While the babies were not yet out of the woods, they appeared healthy enough that visitors were welcomed and encouraged. Friends of Bob and Bess came daily to ooh’s and ahh’s over the amazing boys. Robert and Benjamin, named for their Grandfather and late great uncle, were identical, beautiful babies, with bright blue eyes and such tiny little hands and feet. “Truly a gift from God in his heavens” Bess could be heard to say with some regularity to her visitors. Marie would have preferred different names for her baby boys, while Vern had no opinion on the matter; but Bob and Ben they were, at their grandparents’ decree.

Less than a two month later, Marie still a bit weak and unsteady on her feet, once again went to bed feeling poorly. She had kissed her three babies’ goodnight, and never awoke fully again. A blood infused froth awoke her, pouring from her nose and mouth, and as she fought the panic to try to breathe, she died alone, and before anyone could comfort her in her passing.

The new year had brought with it the Spanish Influenza. The deadly disease was just beginning its path through the country when it found this small Indiana town, and took Maria as one of its early victims. Soldiers returning from the trenches of World War One had brought the illness with them. The rapidly moving virus struck quickly and without mercy. Newspaper articles told the story of young ladies playing bridge in the late afternoon, and the foursome all dead by the next morning. Young people were the first to die; with those between eighteen and twenty-four being hit most often. Before the Flu ran its course over 675,000 people died across America, ten times the number killed in the recent war.

But for this shocked family, the numbers were never considered; only their personal pain and shock was notable. Their lives had changed forever. If Marie had been cast to the side, and been a shameful daughter before, now she was missed unbearably by her grieving parents and praised for her beauty and grace. If Vern had felt burdened by his family before, now he had a very serious situation on his hands with three tiny babies, angry and distraught in-laws who had once been his best friends, and only himself to be responsible for it all. Decisions for the children’s upbringing needed to be established quickly.

No one knew better than Vern that he was not prepared, nor interested in being a full-time parent for these children. His place was in the adventure-filled passenger car of the Wabash Rail Road, not tending little ones. And Bob and Bess too, swore they were ill equipped to be forced to become full-time parents once again. After all, had they raised their family, now it was someone else’s turn. But the baby boys were adorable, and wasn’t their every little move amazing, so they hoped Vern could find somewhere nearby for their rearing.

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