The Red Velvet Leaf

The Red Velvet Leaf

by Helen Breedlove


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It is 1933, and seventeen-year-old Rhoda Bowling is filled with indignation, outrage, and fear. Th e moment she has dreaded for quite some time has finally arrived. As her train pulls away from the depot in rural Stoutland, Missouri, Rhoda tries her best not to hate her father, but deep inside, she knows he has just ruined her life.

Against her will, Rhoda is heading for Springfield to meet her future husband, one of two men who answered her father's newspaper advertisement soliciting a spouse. Afraid her life will trace the same dismal pattern as Mama's-forever dependent on and subservient to an unloving, unappreciative man-Rhoda disembarks from the train and heads toward Nixa, where the dreaded unknown looms before her. Rhoda knows nothing about her future husband, Zachoriah Kelmsley, except that he is widowed and the father of a young daughter. Only moments after the two strangers meet, they are married in the courthouse, forever tucking away Rhoda's hopes for love and happiness-or so she thinks.

In this historical romance, a young woman on a coming-of-age journey during the Great Depression must dig deep to unleash the fierce independence she never knew she had in order to realize her true destiny.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475921830
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/18/2012
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.49(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Red Velvet Leaf

By Helen Allee Breedlove

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Helen Breedlove
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-2183-0

Chapter One

Clutching both her train ticket and a paper sack in one sweaty, clammy hand and gripped with fear, Rhoda stood before her five siblings lined up in stair-step fashion outside the Stoutland, Missouri, Frisco Railroad depot. The hiss of the locomotive and the black, foul-smelling smoke it belted out punctuated her own dark heart.

Her three sun-tanned brothers wore patched, faded overalls. They wouldn't get new ones until school started in August. Her two sisters had donned their best feed sack dresses, as had Rhoda and their mother, for this dreaded, unprecedented trip from their farm to town.

Rhoda loved each one. Parting was stifling, almost unbearable. She felt she couldn't do this, but she had no choice. She hesitantly, briefly hugged Willy, who at fifteen undoubtedly thought he was too old to be hugged by a big sister. She had never hugged him before, at least not since they were small children, but the slight pat on her shoulder let her know that he appreciated the hug, and that separation was difficult for him too. Tearful twelve-year-old Alice Ann clung to Rhoda sobbing, "I'll pray for ya, every day. And I'll help Mama."

Jack and Loren, thirteen and nine, unabashedly returned Rhoda's hugs, huskily uttering raspy goodbyes. Then Rhoda knelt before little Lottie, her three-year-old sister, whom she had cared for like her own child since Lottie's birth. Her delivery at home had been difficult, and Mama had been sick with a fever for a long time afterward. "I love you, Rhodie Sue. I gonna miss you," Lottie said.

"Oh, Lottie Mae, I'm gonna miss you too. And I'll be thinkin' about ya even if I'm not here." To ease the parting, Rhoda performed a playful bedtime ritual. She held Lottie close, kissed her first on the nose, then on each chubby cheek, and finally on her pouting lips, causing Lottie to "gurgle giggle." "Bye, sweetie. You be a good girl like always."

Mama, whose belly was swelling with yet another pregnancy, stood next to Lottie. The fear and anguish in her green eyes were as evident as Rhoda's. Mother and daughter held each other in a tight embrace as only two who had shared so much could. In the last few days, Rhoda had looked carefully at her mother, truly seeing her for the first time. Only thirty-five years old, Mama was still attractive though slightly plump, had curly auburn hair and a face creased with several wrinkles, which she called her worry lines. Rhoda knew she had plenty to worry about, but Mama wasn't a complainer.

"Now, Rhodie Sue, honey, you make sure it's legal," Mama cautioned, squeezing a handkerchief with coins tightly tied in one corner into Rhoda's hand. "If he don't marry ya or if he's mean to ya in any way, you get on a train somehow and come home, do ya hear? I'll see to it some way that your dad lets ya stay long enough to find someone else. And take this here stamped envelope too. There's paper in it. Write and let me know if you're all right."

"But, Mama, where'd ya get the money?" Rhoda knew her mother had no money, not even enough for the small fee for a return train ticket.

"Now, Rhodie, you never mind about that. Ya know I always say, 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' And besides the kids helped. They did some chores for the neighbors down the road and earned a few pennies, and I sold some extra butter and eggs, and your dad didn't even know it, least ways not yet."

"Oh, Mama." But that was all Rhoda could say, for the Negro porter's "all aboard!" interrupted her. He looked at Rhoda. "Better get on board, missy. Hop on; she's movin' out." Reassuring her mother, he yelled above the hissing steam, "Don't worry, ma'am. I'll let her know when we get to Springfield."

Rhoda found a seat next to an open window where she could wave a last goodbye to her family, all except her dad, who hadn't even bothered to come to the depot to see her off. Well, it didn't matter. She was glad he hadn't come. She hated him for what he had done to her, for what he was doing.

The locomotive hissed with explosions of escaping steam, the passenger car lurched forward with a thud, and Rhoda's heart lurched just as violently. The hollow whistle reverberated loudly in her ears.

She poked her head out the open window as the train began to move faster. Her family was silhouetted against the rising sun that had quickly peeked over the horizon in the eastern sky. Indignation, outrage, deep melancholy and fear welled up inside her. The time she had dreaded for more than a month had arrived. Her departure from the only home she had ever known signified that. This awful Great Depression wasn't fair. Depression. That was the right word. These horrible times brought only torment and misery and separation, splintering poor families. Separation. The word nearly strangled her. Life without her brothers and sisters and especially without Mama was unimaginable.

But the Depression had not created her problem in and of itself. Rhoda knew that. It had just left her with no alternatives. Things like this shouldn't happen to decent folks. Now her life would trace the same dismal pattern as Mama's, forever dependent on and subservient to an unloving, unappreciative man. Her mother was no more than a man's property. But it wasn't her mother's fault she had to live like that, and Mama wasn't responsible for Rhoda's own sudden departure. Mama did the best she knew how to do; it was a matter of survival. Mama wouldn't willingly send her away. That had been her dad's decision, and no one, especially not Mama, crossed him, once he had made up his mind.

Perched precariously, tentatively, on the edge of the seat, Rhoda pressed her hand against the lower rim of the open window as if she might reach out and touch those she loved, growing smaller and smaller as they stood suspended in time at the old train station. The grimy, coal-ladened wind blew Rhoda's short brown wisps of curls as the train gathered speed and chugged along. Lottie, whose tiny hand barely opened as her fingers wiggled a goodbye, mouthed the words, "Bye, Rhodie Sue."

Rhoda withdrew her head slowly, reluctantly, and sat rigidly in the hard seat. A door in her life had just been slammed shut, perhaps locked and sealed forever. The future was nothing more than a huge question mark. With a lump in her throat that was impossible to swallow, a tightness in her chest, and eyes brimming with tears, she made a solemn promise to herself that she wouldn't cry.

Her loneliness and isolation jolted her, her head whirling in rhythm to the train's unceasing momentum, propelling her into a future she didn't understand or want. Her head pounded, out of synch with the pounding of the iron wheels outside her window on this muggy June day in 1933.

In an effort to control her erratic breathing, she tilted her head back on the seat, gasping and shivering, almost in an uncontrollable shudder, even as perspiration rolled from her heart-shaped forehead. Huge tears from wide hazel eyes met the perspiration to become salty streams cascading down her cheeks. She would not cry, she vowed again. But it ain't fair; it ain't fair; it just ain't fair. Her thoughts echoed in unison with the chugging, whirling locomotive and the pounding of the rails beneath her. She didn't care that the dirt and grime from the locomotive's smoke merged with her sweat and tears, nor what other passengers thought of her, if they even noticed.

Hatred for her dad seethed within her. He had believed everyone but her. Females were not the perpetrators of all evil, as some men so liked to believe, and perhaps even make some women believe the same thing. She knew what the Bible said about honoring thy father and mother. Honoring her mama was easy; honoring her father was an entirely different matter.

She tried not to hate him. She knew hatred was evil and that as Mama always said hate hurts the hater more than the hated. Yet, her dad was a God-fearing man and he worked harder than any other man she knew. It wasn't easy scratching out a meager living on that rocky, sprout-ridden old farm, but it was his and he was proud of it.

Before long, the train slowed to take on passengers in another town that lay next to the tracks. The journey to Springfield would be slow, Rhoda knew, for the train stopped at almost all the towns along the way.

She had never before been on a train, and the trepidation in her heart was suffocating. She tried to remember what President Roosevelt had said back in March, something about nothing to fear but fear itself. At least that's what her history teacher at school had told the class. She wanted to believe that. She needed to believe that, but she couldn't. Mr. Roosevelt had never been desperate for a place to live or for food to eat. He had never been torn from his family and ripped into shreds like a worn out piece of filthy rag.

Mama had packed her a blackberry jam and butter sandwich in case it would be a long time before she got a chance to eat again. Rhoda had watched Mama the night before, carefully baking wonderfully delicious yeast bread, keeping the fire in the cook stove hot after the cornbread was baked for supper. She sacrificed the jam for which it was so hard to get enough sugar to make. She had parted with butter that was normally sold in exchange for shoes and staples. The family hardly ever had the luxury of yeast bread. Mama was a sacrificer.

Although it had been a long time since she had eaten breakfast, the sandwich didn't interest her. It lay untouched in her paper sack. A sandwich might fill an empty stomach, but it couldn't fill the void in her heart.

Her best friend hadn't even told her goodbye. Rhoda knew Arlene would have wanted to say goodbye and to know her new address, but she also knew that Arlene's mother had forbidden any contact with Rhoda, being the tainted, shameful person that she had become. No one wanted to hear her side of the story.

Rhoda had spent a lot of time thinking about women who were sometimes more cruel to other women than men were. Their ignorance often left them paralyzed and unable to think for themselves. It kept them believing they must abide by the double standards set by men and the Bible and preachers. Some women even taught their daughters those myths and perpetuated the lie. Mama hadn't done that, but she didn't, or probably couldn't, fight this unjust custom.

Rhoda had envisioned a life for herself very different from her mother's. At the top of her class in school, she could out-cipher and out-spell all the eighth graders in her one-room school by the time she was in the sixth grade.

In high school, in spite of the hardship of walking four miles to and from school and frequent absences because of family illnesses or farm emergencies, she maintained high marks and needed only one more year to graduate. A high school diploma would have set her apart in her rural community. She had aspired to passing the teachers' examination and teaching in a one-room grammar school. She knew she would have been good at instructing and loving children, even if some of the big boys may have been hard to handle. The life she would have chosen would have been very different from the one unfolding before her.

She thought of her mother and her mother's life. She loved Mama and respected her more than anyone she knew. But Rhoda had been a precocious child and furtively observed her mother's subservience to her dad. Without love or even a kind word or even a semblance of affection, he would often beckon with a slight movement of his eyes toward the bedroom. No matter what Mama was doing, she laid the work aside, put the children to bed, and performed her wifely duty, mechanically and distastefully, Rhoda knew. Rhoda would lie awake listening to the groans of the old squeaky bed, her dad's heavy breathing, and then the weight of him falling back on the bed.

Rhoda would lie silent, stiff, listening, wondering how her mother could tolerate such a disgusting act from such a dirty man and praying that Mama wouldn't get pregnant again. She didn't want a life like that. She wanted a husband someday in the far future, but she wanted love and gratitude and sharing. She, like Mama, was smart and she longed to be more than a man's appendage.

Once when she and Mama were stemming gooseberries, Rhoda had asked her mother about sleeping with a man and how she could stand it when it might make yet another baby. Mama had responded: "Ya can't dwell on the bad, Rhodie Sue. Ya have to keep focused on the good side. Ya always have to find somethin', even just a tiny, tiny somethin', to smile about or laugh about, even if the smile stays deep inside ya, because deep inside is where ya live. It's who ya are; it's you. If you're right on the inside, then all the other things around ya that ya ain't got no control over won't hurt so much. They cain't. Ya can just wipe 'em away—hide 'em from yourself. Ya build that inside ya, and ya pretend it's a secret nobody but you knows about. Just havin' a secret ya can smile at keeps ya goin' sometimes."

Mama had pointed to the cream separator and continued. "Just like that old separator there, separating the cream from the milk, ya keep yourself separated, somehow, some way. Ya just don't let yourself think about bad stuff. Sometimes it's hard, but ya survive." She had hesitated, fingering the gooseberry she was about to stem. "Besides, Rhodie Sue, I always figure it this way. If I'm in a family way, I don't have to worry about gettin' in a family way. That may not make sense to you, but at least it's somethin' and better'n feelin' sorry for myself."

Closing her eyes to erase the sadness of Mama's words, Rhoda carefully secured her handkerchief containing the precious money inside the pocket of her dress with a large safety pin. Mama took a big risk getting that money. Selling extra eggs when many of the hens were going broody and ready to set meant fewer eggs to sell for staples and fewer chicks to hatch. Her dad would be livid if he knew Mama had withheld money from him. Money on the farm was his money. Rhoda hoped that he wouldn't find out.

She slid Mama's piece of paper and envelope safely down the side of her paper sack. From the sack, she retrieved two letters, postmarked Nixa, Missouri. They were responses to the advertisement her dad had put in the Springfield paper, pretending to be Rhoda and requesting a husband for her. She had no idea where Nixa was. The first letter, dated over a month earlier, read:

Rhoda Bowling,

In answer to your ad for a husband, I am a widower and in need of a wife to look lovingly after my little girl and keep house and help on the farm. Send more information, and if satisfactory, we will make travel arrangements.

Zachoriah Q. Kelmsley

He didn't say how old he was or how old his daughter was, or what he looked like, or what happened to his wife, or what kind of farm he lived on, or where Nixa was. He could be an old man who had married a younger woman for all she knew. But Rhoda liked the word lovingly. If he cared that much for his daughter, he had to have some redeemable qualities.

Besides, she had only one other "taker," an old man with five children. He could hardly write comprehensible English. Though backward in some respects and backwoods in every respect, Rhoda was bright and knew good English even though she didn't speak it. It was just the way she had been raised. Also, the man seemed quite stern, demanding that she not be pregnant, that she send a picture, and that she be a big strong healthy woman who could work as hard as any man in the fields.

Zachoriah Kelmsley hadn't said what kind of information he wanted, nor had he asked for a picture. The least said in a return letter the better, Rhoda decided. Barely seventeen, she had written back stating that she was eighteen, her family was too poor to keep a grown woman like herself, and she could work on a farm, and especially she knew how to love and care for children since she was the oldest of six. Mr. Kelmsley's return letter had come soon afterward:

Everything seems to be satisfactory. I checked the train schedule. Take the eight o'clock train from Stoutland to Springfield on Monday, June 15. It should arrive in Springfield sometime before eleven. I'll meet you there unless you inform me otherwise by return mail. Wear something red on your collar so I'll know you. I'll do the same.

Zachoriah Kelmsley


Excerpted from The Red Velvet Leaf by Helen Allee Breedlove Copyright © 2012 by Helen Breedlove. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Red Velvet Leaf 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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