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Chapter 1 - Decision
My name is Clara Estby, and for my own good, my mother whisked me away. Well, for the good of our family too, she insisted. Trying to stop her proved useless, because when an idea formed in her Norwegian head, she was like a rock crib anchoring a fence: strong and sturdy and unmovable once it’s set. I tried to tell her, I did. We all did. But in the end, we succumbed to her will and I suppose to her hopefulness, never dreaming it would lead where it did. I certainly never imagined I’d walk a path so distant from the place where I began.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, telling stories out of sequence, something a steady and careful woman like me should never do.
It began on an April morning in 1896, inside our Mica Creek farmhouse at the edge of the rolling Palouse Hills of eastern Washington State, when my mother informed me that we would be walking from Spokane to New York City. Walking, mind you, when there were perfectly good trains a person could take. Walking—thirty-five hundred miles to earn ten thousand dollars that would save our farm from foreclosure. Also to prove that a woman had stamina. Also to wear the new reform dress and show the freedom such garments offered busy, active, sturdy women.
Freedom. The only merit I saw in the shorter skirts and absence of corsets was that we could run faster from people chasing us for being foolish enough to embark on such a trek across the country, two women, alone.
We were also making this journey to keep me “from making a terrible mistake,” Mama told me. I was eighteen years old and able to make my own decisions, or so I thought. But not this one.
Mama stood stiff as a wagon tongue, her back to my father and me, drinking a cup of coffee that steamed the window. I could see my brother Olaf outside, moving the sheep to another field with the help of Sailor, our dog, dots of white like swirling cotton fluffs bounding over an ocean of green. Such a bucolic scene about to reveal hidden rocks
“We are going to walk to New York City, Clara, you and I.”
“What?” I’d entered the kitchen, home for a weekend from my work as a domestic in Spokane. My mother had walked four hundred miles a few years earlier to visit her parents in a time of trial. We’d all missed her, and no one liked taking over her many duties that kept the family going. But walk to New York City?
“Why would we walk, and why are we going at all?” I had plans for the year ahead, and I figured it would take us a year to make such a trek.
My father grunted. “She listens to no one, your mother, when ideas she gets into her head.”
“Mama, you haven’t thought this through,” I said.
My mother turned to face us, her blue eyes intense. “It’s not possible to work out every detail in life, but one has to be bold. Did we know you’d find work in Spokane when we left Minnesota? No. Did we think we’d ever own our own farm? No. These are good things that happened because we took a chance and God allowed it.”
“We didn’t expect me to become injured, to mortgage the farm because we needed money to plant and live on,” my father said. It sounded like they’d had this argument more than once but never in front of me. “Bad things can happen, and this…this is a bad thing, I tell you.”
“There is nothing certain in this life,” she said to both of us. “We must grab what is given. ‘Occupy until I come,’ Scripture tells us. ‘Multiply’ is what that word occupy means. Here is our chance to do that, to save this farm, and all it requires is using what God gave us, our feet and our perseverance, our effort and a little inconvenience.”
“A little inconvenience?” I said. “I have plans for the summer, and I’m going to go to college in the fall and work part-time. I can’t leave my job.”
“I, I, I… Always it is about you,” my mother said. “You won’t have money for school if we lose this farm. You’ll have to work full-time to help this family. You see your father. He can’t do carpenter work as he did before. One must risk for family. We must trust in the goodness of human nature and God’s guidance.”
“But who would pay us for such a thing? Do you have a contract?” The wealthy Spokane people I served often spoke of contracts and lawyers and securities as I dipped squash soup into their Spode china bowls or brushed crumbs from their tables into the silver collectors before bringing chocolate mousse for dessert. These were businesspeople who
would never try to multiply by walking cross-country without a written contract.
“These are trustworthy people. They have the New York World behind them and the entire fashion industry too.”
What Mama proposed frightened me. “If we make it, how do we know they’ll pay us?”
“If we make it? Of course we’ll make it,” she said.
My father sagged onto the chair at the table, held his head with his hands while my mother flicked at the crumbs of a sandbakkel cookie collected on the oilcloth. I wondered if she thought of my little brother Henry. He’d loved those cookies.
“Who says these sponsors are reliable?” I said. I was as tall as my mother but had a rounder face than either of my parents. My mother and I shared slender frames, but her earth-colored hair twisted into a thick topknot while my soft curls lay limp as brown yarn. My mother set her narrow jaw. She didn’t take any sassing.
“Never you mind.” She brushed at her apron. “They’re honest. They’ve made an investment too. They’ll pay for the bicycle skirts once we reach Salt Lake City, and they’ll pay for the portraits. They’ve promised five dollars cash to send us on our way. The rest we’ll earn. Can’t you see? It’s our way out.”
“So you say,” my father said. He ran fingers through his yellow hair, and I noticed a touch of white.
“But why do I have to go?” I wailed. “Take Olaf. A man would be safer for you.”
“It’s about women’s stamina, not about a man escorting a woman. And you… You’re filled with wedding thoughts you have no business thinking.”
My face burned. “I’m not,” I said. “He’s… I work for his family, Mama.”
How she knew I harbored thoughts of a life with Forest Stapleton I’d never know. I was sure I’d never mentioned him. Well, maybe to my sister Ida once, in passing.
“I know about employers’ sons,” Mama said. My father lifted his head as though to speak, but my mother continued. “Besides, family comes first. You can go to college next year, when we have the money. What we need now is that ten thousand dollars so we can repay the mortgage and not lose this farm. It could go to foreclosure if we don’t do this.” My father dropped his eyes at the mention of that shameful word. “Ole, God has opened a door for us, and we would slight Him if we turned this down,” she pleaded.
“How can you leave your babies?” my father said then, his voice nearly a whisper. “How can you be away from Lillian and Johnny and Billy and Arthur and Bertha and Ida and Olaf—”
“I know the names of my children,” my mother said, her words like stings.
“Ja, well then, how can you leave them?”
“It is only for a short time, seven months, Ole.” She sat next to him at the table, patted his slumped shoulder. “They will be in good hands with you and Ida and Olaf to look after them. It is a mark of my trust and confidence in you that I can even think about doing this thing.” She looked at me now. “When I walked before, that four hundred miles in Minnesota, you did well, all of you. It made you stronger. And I came back.” She patted my father’s hand. “I’ll come back. We will, Clara and I. Everything will be as it was before but with the mortgage made. The entire farm paid off, money for each of my children to go on to college when they want. No more worries about the future.” She took his silence as agreement. “Good. We go into Spokane later this week for our portrait,” my mother said to me, relief in her voice. “These will be sent to the New York papers and the Spokesman-Review.”
My father winced.
“People in Spokane will read about this?” I said. The thought humiliated. What would Forest think? What would our neighbors think?
“People across the country will know of it,” my mother said. She almost glowed, her eyes sparkling with anticipation.
“American women listen to their husbands,” my father said in Norwegian. “Or they should.” He rose from the table, shoved the chair against it, and stomped out.
I wanted my father to forbid her to go so I wouldn’t have to leave either. I didn’t dare defy her; I never had. We always did what she wanted. I was stuck.
“He’ll come around,” my mother said more to herself than to me. “He’ll see the wisdom of this. It’ll work. When we succeed, then, well, he’ll be grateful I did this for him, for the whole family.”
“Maybe he will,” I said. “But don’t expect me to ever be.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.