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Kent County, Delaware Winter
Anna Yoder carried an open can of robin's egg-blue paint carefully through the big farmhouse kitchen, down the hall and into the bedroom across from her mother's room. Her sister, Susanna, trailed two steps behind, a paintbrush in each hand.
"I want to paint," Susanna proclaimed for the fourth time. "I can paint good. Can I paint, Anna? Can I?"
Anna glanced over her shoulder at her younger sister, and nodded patiently. "Yes, you can paint. But not right now. I'm cutting in and it's tricky not getting paint on the floor or the ceiling. You can help with the rolling later."
"Ya," Susanna agreed, and her round face lit up in a huge smile as she bounced from one bare foot to the other and waved the paintbrushes in the air. "I'm the goodest painter!"
Anna chuckled. "I'm sure you are the best painter."
Susanna was nothing, if not enthusiastic. Of her six sisters, Susanna was the dearest and the one toward which Anna felt most protective. Sweet, funny Susanna was the baby of the family and had been born with Down syndrome. Their Dat had always called her one of God's special children; at eighteen, Susanna still possessed the innocence of a girl of nine or ten.
Fortunately, for all the tasks that came hard to Susanna, such as reading, sewing or cooking, the Lord had blessed her with a bottomless well of special gifts. Susanna could soothe a crying baby better than any of them; she always knew when it was going to rain, and she had a rare ability to see through the complications of life to find the simple and shining truth. And sometimes, when things weren't going well, when the cow had gone dry or the garden was withering for lack of rain, Susanna could fill the house with laughter and remind them all that there was always hope in God's great plan.
Still, keeping track of Susanna and running the household was a big responsibility, one that Anna felt doubly, with Mam off to Ohio to bring Anna's grandmother, great aunt and sisters, Rebecca and Leah, home. Susanna and Anna would be on their own for several days. Their sister Ruth and her husband, Eli, who lived just across the field, had gone to a wedding in Pennsylvania. Irwin, the boy who lived with them, had accompanied their sister Miriam and her husband, Charley, to an auction in Virginia. Not that Anna didn't have help. Eli's cousin was pitching in with the milking and the outside chores, but Anna still had a lot to do. And not a lot of time to get it all done.
Anna had promised Mam to have the house spic-and-span when she returned home, and she took the responsibility seriously. Having both Miriam and Ruth marry and move out in November had been a big change, but bringing Gross-mama and Aunt Jezebel into the house would be an even bigger change. Grossmama was no longer able to live on her own. Anna understood that, and she knew why her mother felt responsible for Dat's aging mother, especially now that he was gone. The trouble was, Grossmama and Mam had never gotten along, and with the onset of Alzheimer's, Anna doubted that the situation would improve. Luckily, everyone adored Grossmama's younger sister, Jezebel; unlike Grossmama, Aunt Jezebel was easygoing and would fit smoothly into the household.
"We're paintin' because Grossmama's coming," Susanna chirped. Her speech wasn't always perfect, but her family understood every word she said. "She baked me a gingerbread man."
"Ya," Anna agreed. "She did." Susanna was the one person in the household who her grandmother never found fault with, and that was a good thing. If Grossmama could see how precious Susanna was, she couldn't be that bad, could she?
Once, when she was visiting years ago, Grossmama had spent the afternoon baking cookies and had made Susanna a gingerbread man with raisin eyes, a cranberry nose and a marshmallow beard. Susanna had never forgotten, and whenever their grandmother was mentioned, Susanna reminded them of the gingerbread treat.
Grossmama had fallen on the stairs at her house the previous year, fracturing a hip, so Mam hadn't wanted her climbing the steps to a second-floor bedroom here. Instead, they'd decided to move Anna and Susanna upstairs to join Leah and Rebecca in the dormitory-style chamber over the kitchen. Grossmama and Aunt Jezebel could share this large downstairs room just a few feet away from the bathroom.
It was a lovely room, with tall windows and plenty of room for two beds, a chest of drawers and a rocking chair. Anna knew that Grossmama and Aunt Jezebel would be comfortable here except for the color. Anna couldn't remember which of her sisters had chosen the original color for the walls, but Grossmama hated it. She'd made a fuss when Mam had written to explain the new arrangements. Grossmama said that she could never sleep one night in a bed surrounded by fancy "English" walls.
By saying "English," Anna understood that her grandmother meant "not Plain." To Grossmama, white was properly Plain; blue was Plain. Since the ceiling, the window trim, the doors and the fireplace mantel were white, blue was the color in Anna's paint can. Actually, Anna didn't see anything improper about the color the room was now. The muted purple was closer to lavender, and she had a lavender dress and cape that she really loved. But once Grossmama set her mind on a thing or against it, there was no changing it.
Standing in the bedroom now, staring at the walls, Anna wished Ruth was there. Ruth was a good painter. Anna prided herself on her skill at cooking, perhaps more than she should have, but she knew that her painting ability was sketchy at best. But, since the choice was between Susanna or her, Anna knew who had to paint the room.
Of course, she'd meant to get started sooner, but the week had gotten away from her. Susanna had a dentist appointment on Monday, which took all afternoon by the time they had to wait for the driver. On Tuesday, there had been extra eggs, which needed to go to Spence's Auction and Bazaar. Normally, they didn't go to Spence's in the winter months, but Aunt Martha and Dorcas had opened a baked-goods stand. Anna had taken the opportunity to leave Susanna with their oldest sister, Johanna, so that she could go with Aunt Martha to sell her eggs and jams.
Now it was Wednesday. After Mam left at dawn, Anna and Susanna had spent the morning scrubbing, dusting, polishing and setting her yeast dough to rise. Now there were no more excuses. Anna had to start painting if she wanted to be finished on time. Because they were alone, Anna wore her oldest dress, the one with the blackberry stains, and had covered her hairnot with a proper white kapp, but with a blue scarf that Irwin's terrier had chewed holes in.
Knowing that Susanna would be certain to lean against a freshly painted wall, Anna had made sure that Susanna's clothing was equally worn. That way, if the dresses were ruined it wouldn't be a waste. Anna's final precaution was to remove her shoes and stockings and ask Susanna to do the same. Paint would scrub off bare feet. Black stockings and sneakers wouldn't be so lucky.
Gingerly setting the can on the little shelf on the ladder, Anna climbed the rickety rungs, dipped her brush in the can and began to carefully paint along the wall, just below the ceiling. She'd barely gone two feet when Susanna announced that she was hungry. "Wait a little," Anna coaxed. "It's still early. When I get as far as the window, we'll have some lunch."
"But, Anna, I'm hungry now.'"
"All right. Go and fix yourself a honey biscuit."
"'Fff thirsty, too," she said, struggling to pronounce the word properly.
"Milk or tea. You don't need my help."
"I'll make you a biscuit, too."
"Ne. I'll eat later. Don't wander off," she cautioned her sister. "Stay in the house." Susanna was capable of taking care of herself on the farm, but it was cold today, with snow flurries in the forecast, and she didn't always remember to wear her coat. It wouldn't do for Mam to come home and find Susanna sick with a cold.
Anna continued to paint. The blue covered the lavender better than she thought it would. It would need a second coat, but she had expected as much. As she carefully brushed paint on the wall in a line along the ceiling's edge, Anna began to hum and then to sing one of her favorite fast tunes from the Liedersammlung. She liked to sing when she was alone. Her voice wasn't as good as Johanna's or Ruth's, but singing made her feel bubbly inside. And now, with only Susanna to hear, she could sing as loudly as she wanted. If she was a bit off-key, her little sister wouldn't complain.
"Anna? Maybe we come at a bad time?"
Startled by a deep male voice, Anna stopped singing midword and spun around, holding onto the ladder with her free hand. "Samuel!"
Their nearest neighbor, the widower Samuel Mast, stood inside the bedroom holding his youngest daughter, Mae, by the hand. Mortified by her appearance and imagining how awful her singing must have sounded, Anna wanted to shrink up and hide behind the paint can. Of all the people to catch her in such a condition, it had to be Samuel Mast. Tall, broad-shouldered, handsome Samuel Mast. Anna's cheeks felt as though they were on fire, and she knew she must be as flame-colored as a ripe tomato.
"I remembered what you said." Susanna hopped from one foot to the other in the doorway. "I didn't go outside. Let Samuel and Mae in." She beamed.
"You're busy," Samuel said, tugging on Mae's hand. "We can come back another"
"Ne," Anna interrupted, setting her brush carefully across the paint can and coming down the ladder. "Just you surprised me." She tried to cover her embarrassment with a smile, but knew it was lopsided. Samuel. Of all the people to see her like this, in her patched clothing and bare legs, it had to be Samuel. Her stomach felt as though she'd swallowed a feather duster. "It's not a bad time," she babbled in a rush. "I'm painting the room. Blue."
"Ya, blue. I can see that." Samuel looked as uncomfortable as she felt. Anna had never seen him looking so flustered. Or untidy, for that matter. Samuel's nut-brown hair, which badly needed cutting, stuck out in clumps and appeared to have gobs of oatmeal stuck in it. His shirt was wrinkled, and one suspender hung by a thread. Even his trousers and shoes were smeared with dried oatmeal.
"Something wrong?" Anna glanced at Mae. The child was red-eyed from crying, her nose was running, her kapp was missing, and her face and hands were smeared with dried oatmeal, too. Anna's heart immediately went out to the little girl. She'd left her aunt's only two weeks ago, to live with her father for the first time, and Anna knew the move couldn't have been easy for her. "Are you having a hard morning, pumpkin?"
Mae's bottom lip came out and tears spilled down her cheeks. "Want want Aunt L'eeze. Want want to go home! Want herP"
Anna glanced at Samuel, who looked ready to burst into tears as well, and took command. "Mae" she leaned down to speak to her at eye-level "would you like to go with Susanna into the kitchen and have a honey biscuit and a cup of milk?"
Mae nodded, her lower lip still protruding.
Anna stood up. "Susanna, could you get Mae a biscuit?"
"Ya," Susanna agreed. "And wash her face." She smiled at Mae. "You look like a little piggy."
For seconds, Mae seemed suspended between tears and a smile, but then she nodded and threw her chubby arms up to Susanna.
Samuel sighed as Susanna scooped up Mae and carried her away. "I don't seem to get anything right with her," he said.
Anna smiled. "Best to feed children porridge and wash them with soap and water. Not the other way around."
Samuel returned a hint of a smile, obviously embarrassed. "It's been hard these last weeks," he stumbled. "Having her home. She's been four years with my sister, and I'm we're strange to her. She doesn't know me or her brothers and sisters."
Sensing that it might be easier for Samuel to share his concerns if she continued with her work, Anna climbed the ladder again and dipped her brush into the can.
Aunt Martha had been telling Mam the other day that Samuel was finding it difficult to manage his farm, his house and to care for five children, and that it was just a matter of time before he realized it. "Then he'll start looking for a wife," she'd said. "Something he should have done three years ago."
"When Frieda passed, little Mae was only two months old," Samuel continued. "I had my hands full, so Louise thought it better if she took the baby home to Ohio until until "
Anna knew until whatuntil Samuel finished mourning his wife and remarried. Usually, widowers waited a year before looking for a new partner, but sometimes, when there were small children, the waiting period might be much shorter. Samuel's widowerhood had somehow stretched to four years.