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My Father's World
By Michael Phillips, Judith Pella
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLCCopyright © 1990 Michael Phillips/Judith Pella
All rights reserved.
Getting to California in 1852
Ma always told me I should keep a diary.
"Corrie," she'd say, "when a young woman's not of the marryin' sort, she needs to think of somethin' besides a man to get her through life."
I think she was making a roundabout comment about my looks, though she never came right out and said I wasn't comely enough to snag a husband. I guess she figured a diary would be a good idea, too, since I had my nose in a book all the time, and I ought to get some practical use from all that reading.
"It sure ain't gonna get you no feller though," she'd say, "any more'n that nose full of freckles!"
"What's keepin' a diary got to do with marryin'?" I asked her.
"No man wants a wife that's smarter'n him—" She paused, then added with a sly wink, "Leastways, not so's it's obvious!"
Then she took my chin in her rough, work-worn hand, and smiled down on me with that loving look that was almost as good as a hug, and said—as if to make up for saying I wasn't a marrying kind of girl—"I reckon you'll do okay though, Corrie."
I was just a kid then, probably not more than ten, though I can't exactly remember. I didn't know what all the fuss was about. The last thing I wanted back then was to marry some ornery, dirty-faced boy. So what she said didn't bother me. I was perfectly content with my books.
"You could be a teacher, Corrie," Ma said more than once. Then she'd go on to speculate, "Teachin's a right respectable way for a spinster to get by in this world."
She talked a lot about women getting on in the world alone, probably on account of Pa's leaving like he did. It was hard on Ma, being left with the farm to tend, and four kids and another on the way. I suspect more than once she wished she'd been a spinster herself!
Back then, when I remember her first talking to me about what I ought to do, I didn't have the faintest notion what a spinster was, and I was hardly of a mind to start preparing for my future. But whatever spinster meant, I did know what a teacher was, because I liked our Miss Boyd. As for teaching myself, I'd have to wait and see.
"If you're going to know book learnin' and all that, Corrie," Ma said, "you gotta do more'n just read. You gotta learn how to write good, too. And I figure there ain't much better a way than to keep a diary."
Well, maybe Ma was right. Though I never did much about her advice after that.
Until I got to be fifteen, that is. By then I knew what a spinster was, and I knew about plain-looking girls. And I knew why the two always went together. So I began to see what it might be like to be alone in the world, and to figure maybe Ma's idea about me teachin' was a good one, though I was still a mite young to be going to a teacher's school or college to learn how. Besides, Miracle Springs doesn't even have a school for kids, much less a college.
Once Ma was gone, I knew I had to get thinkin' mighty fast about something. She was right about that. The kids were looking to me for tending, right out there in the middle of nowhere. And it sure wasn't likely to be any different once we got to where we were going. Even if we found Uncle Nick, they were still going to be looking to me to be a kind of ma to them—and a teacher, too. Even if it was only little Tad, and Becky, Emily, and Zack, I was bound to be teaching them a thing or two since Ma couldn't.
So I figured it was time I started that diary.
Of course I didn't know how. I knew how to write, and that was about it. So I just started to put down what happened, though it didn't seem there was much exciting in it.
I sure did miss Ma. She'd have told me what a diary was supposed to be like. I wish I'd started back when she first told me to do it. Or even last spring when we left our little patch of ground in upstate New York to come out West. Then I would have written abobodyut the wagon crossing after leaving St. Louis, about the plains of Kansas, the grand herds of buffalo, the scare with the Sioux near Ft. Laramie, the day Emily and I almost got left behind picking berries, and the snow that was still on the mountains in Utah in July. Most of all, I wish Ma could have been there to show me how to do it right.
But even if I had started back then, I probably wouldn't have written about the desert and what happened to Ma. I never want to remember that, though I'll never forget it.
So by the time I got started writing things down, we were in California, and the long trip was mostly behind us, just like Ma wanted. But she'd never get to see it.
"We gotta get over them mountains before the snows come," she kept saying, telling the wagon-master every day to hurry us along.
He always just smiled and said, "Not to worry, Mrs. Hollister. We'll be past them Sierras by the first weeks of October. You'll be relaxin' in front of your brother's warm stove long before the snow ever comes."
Ma couldn't help worrying. She had some terrible foreboding about the winter. It didn't help that folks were still talking about the Donners, who had so much trouble crossing the mountains seven years before. All through the summer, hot as it was, she kept thinking about the snows getting ready, someplace up by the North Pole, I reckon, to sweep down and kill us all at the California border. I wish we'd had a few handfuls of that snow when Ma took her fever. Captain Dixon called that awful stretch of desert the Humboldt Sink. I thought the ground was hot till I laid my hand on Ma's flaming cheek. I wanted to cry, but Ma was always so strong, and I decided it would help her to think that maybe I was learning to be strong, too.
So I didn't cry. I didn't pray either, though I tried once or twice. But no words would come. It felt like trying to coax water from that horrible dry sand. I wish I'd tried a mite harder. Sometimes I wonder if God would have let her live if I just could've gotten those words out.
We finally did get to California. Captain Dixon was right. He got us over the Sierras before the snows. But the mountains were getting cold, and I was glad when we reached the Feather River and Captain Dixon said it would only be a few more days before we'd be able to see the Sacramento Valley. He said when we got there, it would feel like summer by comparison.
Not long after that, we neared Sacramento City. Several of the wagons took off on their own, but Captain Dixon stuck with those few of us that were still together, because he said he was paid to go all the way to Sacramento and there he would go. I don't know how we'd have made it without him and some of the other men helping us drive the wagon and tend the team. I figured he was just about as fine a man as there could be.
As good as it felt to get to California, I don't mind confessing I was beginning to feel a little scared, too. The wagon train had become kind of a family, especially after Ma died. Everyone was so kind to us. Suddenly I realized that in just a few days Captain Dixon would leave, and my brothers and sisters and I would be all alone.
I knew we'd be with our uncle on his ranch, but seeing him for the first time was going to be a fearful moment. I was hardly more than a baby when he struck out on his own, and his visits were rare enough after that. All I knew about him is what Ma had told us.
I supposed we'd know soon enough. When we left Independence, the captain said it would be the middle of October when we arrived, and he wasn't far off. Back then we thought Ma would be there to find Uncle Nick. But now we were on our own.
"Don't you worry none, Corrie," the captain told me. "If we don't find your uncle right off, I'll take care of you and the young'uns. There's a nice boarding house, and there'll be room for all of you, and a place for your wagon and horses, until I locate your uncle and tell him how things are."
That Mr. Dixon was a nice man.CHAPTER 2
Why We Came West
The hills were the color of autumn as we descended from the mountains—pretty enough, but not quite so bright with orange and red as back home.
As I looked around, I thought that even if they hadn't discovered gold here four years ago, I would have liked to come. Of course, it never was the gold that made Ma start talking about the West. After Pa left, she struggled to make a go of the tiny farm. It wasn't much good before that, but Pa must have had a way of keeping it going when most men would've given up. Ma never talked much about Pa.
For a few years pure stubbornness kept Ma going. She said she wasn't going to give anyone a chance to say, "I told you so." I think she mostly meant her own pa. But more than that, she was determined to keep the farm going for Pa's return. Then word came to us that Pa was dead, and it seemed to take the vigor right out of her tired body.
After that, she couldn't keep it up so well, what with the five of us kids to tend besides. Her pa, my Grandpa Belle, offered to help, but she would have none of it. They weren't on the best of terms. But when he died last year she took it hard—we all did, because we loved him and he was a good man even though he could be mighty stern sometimes.
Not long after Grandpa died, Ma had a visit from a neighbor who had just returned from California. He had gone to try his hand at gold mining, but apparently it didn't work out because he didn't stay long. He must have seen Uncle Nick, Ma's brother, because she started talking about going out West to see him. She had no family in New York, unless you counted a couple of cousins she hardly knew. She said it was family that mattered and she didn't care what Uncle Nick had done—I didn't know at the time what she meant. But he was family, she said, and they ought to be together.
Uncle Nick left home a year before Pa did. Though he came back two or three times, he was almost a stranger to me. I could hardly remember what my own pa looked like. I'd never be able to recognize Uncle Nick.
Ma said he used to bounce me on his knees. "He'd croak out a lullaby too, now and then, Corrie," Ma said, "when he figured no one was lookin'. You know what plumb fools men are about lettin' a body see their feelin's. He always tried to be the tough one, but I knowed him better."
After Pa left, we never saw hide nor hair of Uncle Nick, either—not until that fellow come to see us after Grandpa Belle died. I don't know all he said to Ma, but he did say he'd seen her brother and heard that he owned a ranch near a place called Miracle Springs, California. Ma figured he must have struck gold in the mines because there couldn't have been any other way for our uncle to afford a spread of land.
When Grandpa Belle's "estate," as Ma called it, was settled, she came into a little sum of money. It was only a few hundred dollars, but more than we'd ever see again in one place, Ma said. Most folks told her to put it into the land, but by then she had no heart left for it. She said it was time for us to pull up stakes and strike out for something new. She always said she was more like her brother Nick than was good for her.
All the folks at home thought she'd taken leave of her senses. "Why, what are you thinking, Agatha Hollister?" I overheard one lady tell her. "It's a fool's errand if you ask me, a woman traveling west alone, and with five young'uns to boot!"
But Ma was a determined woman, and she said no one ever accused her of being faint-hearted. Besides, my thirteen-year-old brother Zachary was old enough to handle a wagon and team right well.
She said she reckoned I could take a fair load on my shoulders too. "You're the oldest, Corrie. And I figure you're just about as grown-up as a girl of fifteen ought to be—with gumption to match."
I still start to cry when I hear Ma's voice coming back to my mind like that. But sometimes her words make me proud.
It probably was crazy. Ma said so herself ten times a day those first months on the trail—especially since she had no way to notify our uncle that we were coming. But when Ma set her mind to something, that was that!
"Too much of that Belle blood, I tell you, Corrie!" she said. "It'll be the death of me yet! You just make sure when you get older you keep your own Belle blood in cheek."
Oh, Ma! It makes me so sad when I think that you're not here to tell me things anymore!
But I know what she'd say. "Come on, Corrie. This is a time to pull in your chin, wipe away them tears, and be strong. Don't betray that Belle blood in your veins, Corrie."
The farther west we got, the more I could tell Ma wanted to lay eyes on that "land of promise" they called California. She would have made it, too, if she hadn't slipped and broken her ankle and then gotten that infection. The Humboldt Sink is practically in California. She was so close.
Even now, when I close my eyes and let my mind wander back to that day Ma died, I can see it all as clear as if I was going through it all again. I was in the wagon sponging down her burning skin with the precious few spoonfuls of water Captain Dixon thought could be spared. It hardly made any difference, because the cloth in my hand turned hot in seconds. But at least I felt I was doing something useful.
"Corrie," Ma had said to me, her voice weak and as brittle as the parched earth outside, "fetch me something from that trunk. It's a book wrapped in a lace handkerchief. You'll see it right on top."
I found it easily enough. I remember her packing it when we left home, but I had never really looked at it before. I held it out to her but she was too weak to take it.
"You go ahead and look at it, Corrie," she said.
It was a small Bible, just a little bigger than my hand. It had a pure white leather cover and gold edges on the pages. I had never seen anything so fine and beautiful.
"Your pa gave that to me on our wedding day, Corrie." The corners of her lips strained at a smile. "It was his way of tellin' me he was ready to settle down and be a family man. I'll admit that before we was married, he was kind of a wild one. But I reckon he had good reason. He was orphaned young, left to be raised by his no-account older brother, who was killed before your pa was old enough to take care of himself. His brother's crowd was a bad influence, and he just never had a chance to learn decent ways. But I saw his heart, Corrie. I knew it was good, and I loved him for that." She sighed and had to stop talking for a minute to rest.
I gave her a sip of water. Maybe I shouldn't have let her go on, but Ma was determined, and I probably couldn't have stopped her, anyway.
"Your Grandpa Belle opposed our marriage," she went on. "By then, my brother and your pa had started runnin' together, and I guess my own pa thought Nick had been led astray. I knew better—Nick had his own wild streak. He was just a kid, and by then your pa wanted to change his ways, Corrie. And he did, too, after we was married. He worked hard on that farm and he was a good husband and father—I couldn't have asked for better.
"Everything that happened afterward ... well, it just happened. I don't blame him none. And I don't want you to either, Corrie. Sometimes a man can't shake his past no matter how hard he tries. I'm gonna be seein' your pa mighty soon, and I'll finally have the chance to say all these things to him."
Excerpted from My Father's World by Michael Phillips, Judith Pella. Copyright © 1990 Michael Phillips/Judith Pella. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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