The Women’s War

1

That summer we worried about the wrong things. We gave no thought for the bad thing that was coming because we did not know until it was upon us. Ordinary concerns felt bad enough at the time, fears of hasty steps and stumbles and of events beyond our control that could ruin the future of those we loved.Women's-War.Final

Summer night breezes carried murmurs from house to house through open windows—a rising volume of voices, a baby’s cry, the barking of dogs. The crash of something fallen. The sobbing of a wife, the curse of a man pushed beyond endurance by the strains of providing, or by drink, or both.

Often after midnight I walked my baby among crates of furniture in the unfinished front rooms of our house and jiggled him at the windows, looking down at Winkler, inviting him to appreciate the dots of light that looked like spots of hope. Sometimes I said a prayer, because lights in the small hours usually signaled someone’s distress. There was always sickness and loss.

For me, too much was untried. I was a new wife and mother in a town built up and occupied almost overnight. All that excitement came with a new set of concerns.

Once or twice each night I slid from bed and bent over Freddy’s crib, trying to detect the sound of his breath. In the months before he was born, I’d feared he would come out dead, like Barlow’s son with his first wife, or that I would die in childbirth, like my mother. I confided these fears only to my friend Luzanna, who promised that if I went the way of my mother, she and all my friends would help Barlow raise the baby. She did not try to convince me all would be well, for such a promise would seem like inviting fate to prove her wrong.

When Freddy was born perfect in every way, I worried his father and I would not live to see him grow up. We were old to be raising our first child—Barlow was 54 and I was 38.

Freddy was a colicky baby. Through weeks in which I lived unconscious of the date or day, I walked him round and round the two finished rooms of our house, but seldom outside, where flies buzzed in the heat and coal dust rose in a cloud with every passing wagon. Having the baby always in my arms, I failed even as a housewife of two rooms. Luzanna baked our bread, washed Freddy’s diapers and ironed Barlow’s shirts. Everyone said the baby was healthy, though he cried all day long. I worried he was trying to tell us about some terrible pain. I worried I was losing my mind.

I felt selfish, concentrating on Freddy to the exclusion of everything else, but I could not admit to my friends that my baby ruled. He’d changed me in other ways, like my tastes for food. When I was expecting, I’d craved beets and carrots, Barlow’s favorites. “This baby is turning me into you,” I told him. We laughed about that. Giving birth turned me into someone else: Freddy’s mother. Nursing made me hungry and exhausted, and after a day of his crying, I was sure he was no more ready to be my child than I was prepared to be his mother.

I was little help to my husband, who had a new and difficult job of his own. He returned for lunch every day, often to fry his own slice of ham. Then he would put a clean diaper over his shoulder and take Freddy from my arms. The baby, who seemed to notice this change, would stop crying for a blessed few minutes, reinforcing my fear that I was bad for him. If he started to fuss again, Barlow would fetch Freddy’s bonnet and carry him outside, leaving me too frazzled to protest but selfishly pleased by the sudden stillness in the house. I missed the quiet mornings we’d shared before Freddy’s birth. I worried I might come to resent them both.

Advice from my friends did not help.

“May Rose, it’s okay to let the baby cry,” Luzanna said, but only once, for she was not a nag.

My stepdaughter, Wanda, didn’t mind being a nag. “Ma, leave him be, he’ll get tired of crying. Put that baby down. You’re keeping him awake.” In my estimation, Wanda did not give enough attention to her own boy Otis, now going on three and forever exploring and toppling everything he could reach.

I tried not to depend too much on Luzanna, who supported her family by doing chores for others like cleaning and taking in washing.

“Think how sad you’ll be when Freddy leaves for his first day of school,” she said. “Imagine him grown up, an important man. None o’my kids think they need me anymore. Sometimes it makes me sad.”

I thought I could manage better if I were younger.

“You took care of hundreds of babies in the orphanage,” Wanda said.

Luzanna thought that might be my trouble. “You just know too much. It’s best to have your first when you’re young and ignorant of all the bad that could happen.”

I could not pretend to know more about bad times than Luzanna. When we’d met, she and her children had been starving.

~

As a partner in the Winkler Mine, my husband had his own set of challenges, but with me he shared only his concerns for our family. He had a special worry for Glory, who’d grown up in his home, the adopted daughter of his sister. Like a father, Barlow wanted to see Glory well and safely married, but to his mind she was in danger of ruining herself by being the friend of Virgie White.

Glory was the youngest in my circle of friends. Unlike the rest of us, she’d finished high school, and she’d also studied art for a year in Richmond. She seemed an odd companion for Virgie, who was at least ten years older, a widow, poorly educated, and by most standards, less than respectable.

Barlow had difficulty restraining himself when Glory rented a room in Virgie’s house. “She should be with us,” he said. “I’ll find some way to finish a room for her.”

I was proud of Glory, who’d grown from a neglected infant into an accomplished woman. For Barlow’s sake, I tried to explain away her reluctance to live with us. “I see no sign of her following Virgie’s ways—it’s Virgie’s dressmaking and fashion sense she admires. I think they plan and sew every hour of the day.”

I didn’t tell him that Luzanna said Glory and Virgie were as confident and ambitious as men. I also didn’t tell him that behind Virgie’s back, Wanda called her the black widow. For all I knew, she said it to her face too.

~

That summer Luzanna shared her fears for her elder daughter. “May Rose, Alma’s got me beside myself,” she said, coming into my kitchen on an ordinary sweaty morning with a stack of clean diapers. She spoke softly, looking about for Freddy, who was usually fussing in my arms.

I immediately worried too, because Alma was not the kind of girl to give trouble. “Freddy’s asleep,” I said, crossing my fingers.

Luzanna stood like she was trying to decide where she was. “Let me give a hand with these dishes,” she said.

“No, not now. He wakes at the slightest clink.” I found an uncluttered spot on the table to set the diapers, then poured two glasses of tea. “Let’s talk outside.”

We took our tea to the wooden table and benches under the sugar maple. Luzanna clutched the glass with reddened fingers while I prepared to be strong for her sake.

She wiped sweat from the glass and swiped its wetness across her forehead. “May Rose, what should I tell Alma about men? All these new boys are turning her head. I’m afraid she’s about as ignorant of all that as I was.”

I knew what she meant by all that, compulsions we did not understand or speak of, the kind that could so easily lead to unhappy consequences. Luzanna had buried one husband, escaped the second, and lost three of her six children. I’d had the misfortune to meet her husbands, both wretched choices. But Alma must know something of all that. She was sixteen now, a good girl, and a delight to see. Her mother had good reason to worry—with the new mines, Winkler was too full of rough men and boys. Even so, her mother’s experiences might have made Alma wary of men, especially if she had any memory of her own pa.

“What does she remember about her father?”

“I’m sure she remembers him shoving me around. Or trying. Much as I could, I shoved back.”

We were only the two of us in the yard, and there were no neighboring houses near, but Luzanna lowered her voice. “Alma don’t know it, but John Donnelly wasn’t her real pa—I was in the family way when I married him. At the time, him coming along with an offer seemed a lucky thing, so you see how wrong I’ve been most of my life. It might be hard to believe, but I was pretty like Alma a long time ago, and you know if a girl lets a boy get real close she’s liable to lose her senses and not fight him off when he tries to get a hand in her bloomers. Her real pa’s name was Foster. I don’t even remember the rest, except he lit out when I told him Alma was on the way.”

I was relieved to know that Alma’s father was not John Donnelly. Wanda and I had never told Luzanna how well we’d known her husband and his brother, bullies who’d terrorized Winkler when it was a logging town. And we’d agreed with our husbands, who’d known the Donnellys too, that the sins of the father need not pass to their children. Luzanna’s younger children bore both the Donnelly name and look, though fortunately not their bad manners.

“Tell Alma about her real pa,” I said.

“I’m ashamed I don’t remember much. I was such a stupid girl.”

“He must have seemed wonderful. Handsome, kind. Entertaining.”

“I suppose he was.”

“The kind of boy everyone likes, but he likes you best. Or maybe he doesn’t like you best and you want him to.”

Luzanna gave me a long sideways look. “Sounds like you knew the like.”

“He sounds like Jamie Long, my first husband,” I said. “When I married him I had no idea he was Wanda’s father.”

“You and Wanda never say a word about him. Does he never cross your mind?”

“Sometimes. Much as I’d like to rid myself of the past, it’s not easy, is it?”

“’Deed it ain’t. Virgie said Wanda’s pa never married her mother, but you know how Virgie is. I never know how much to believe of what she says. Is it true he murdered a man?”

“It’s true Jamie never married Wanda’s mother, and he did kill a man. It was a fight.” I waited for her to ask if the man he’d killed was John Donnelly’s pa, but perhaps Virgie had withheld that part of the story.

“And died in a train wreck, did he?”

“A terrible death,” I said.

“Wanda never talks about the old times except to tell some story that makes us laugh. Did Virgie know Wanda’s pa?”

“It’s likely Virgie heard about Jamie before she met us; she grew up not far from here, and you know how people talk—anything with a hint of scandal spreads faster than good news. When I was married to Jamie there was talk about me too, untrue and unkind. But think about Alma, now. Tell her how you were sure her father was a perfect boy. Tell her how some men can fool us into thinking there’s a good side to them. Tell her it can take a year or more of marriage to know if he’s true or false. If you want, I’ll tell her the whole truth about Jamie and me.”

“I’d be grateful, for she looks up to you. One of these days when your baby’s in a good mood, I’ll send her over for a talk.”

“Oh, tell her to come anytime.” Freddy hadn’t given me a good day since his birth.

~

Before mining companies came to Winkler, gathering with my friends was frequent and spontaneous, but a larger population had somehow restricted our meeting to a specific place and time. Virgie had the most pleasant parlor, and she liked to entertain, so for the past year our small sewing circle had met there on Saturday afternoons. After Freddy was born, I tried to take him with me, but Barlow soon sympathized and took over his care at those times. I needed to advise Alma to find a man who would surprise her in good ways like that.

At a Saturday meeting in the midst of that summer’s heat wave, Glory shared her worries about the river. On hot afternoons, splashing in the river’s deep pools was the favorite entertainment of local boys.

Like Virgie, Glory was free with her opinions, which included concern for the poverty and health of the miners’ wives and children. “The children shouldn’t swim in the river when it’s low like this,” Glory said. “You smell it, don’t you?”

“I can’t keep my boy out of it,” Luzanna said. “There’s cleaner pools in streams off the hills but they’re dried up now.”

The Winkler Mine had a bathhouse with hot and cold water for the miners, and Glory had influenced Barlow and his partners to let the children cool off there. But only the girls and their mothers took advantage of the bathhouse; the boys preferred the allure of the river’s pools and rocks. Glory had stood up in church one Sunday and talked about upstream privies built too close to the riverbanks. She said if mothers couldn’t keep their kids out of the river, they must tell them never to let its water into their mouths. Barlow told me he could see the mothers thought this young woman knew nothing about the inclinations of boys.

Glory also worried about rats, the trash dump where the older ones played, and the threat of privies contaminating our wells.

Threats to the children’s health seemed to me a proper cause for concern, but Wanda, who’d had more than her share of desperate times, thought Glory was worrying about nothing. “They may be poor, but they live in good new houses. The kids will be fine as long as they’ve got a good ma or pa.”

Glory’s own mother might have been a good one, but she’d died when Glory was a baby, and her father had left her in the care of her brothers, just children themselves. In those days, Barlow managed the Winkler Logging and Lumber Company, and his sister Hester ran the boardinghouse where they lived. Hester adopted Glory when she was just a toddler. If Barlow and Hester had continued to live in Winkler after the timber played out, Glory would have grown up knowing one of her brothers—Will Herff. He’d stayed with his poor excuse for a father even after the lumber company was gone and the town was ruined by fire and flood.

Terrible circumstances had torn apart the Herff family, and the one still suffering was Charlie, the middle child. Charlie had fixed himself in my heart when he was an abused, bullied, and brave boy of nine, rescuing me from the bad intentions of the Donnelly boys. He’d run away to escape their revenge, and only recently had come back to Winkler. Because his mind seemed damaged, we did not know who or what he remembered.

Glory had returned to Winkler to get to know Will, but she wasn’t the only one in our circle who’d settled here because of him. According to Wanda, Virgie had taken up residence in one of his restored houses in hopes she’d have a chance to marry him. But Wanda got in her way, moving back at the same time with her daughter Evie, Glory and me. Then Barlow, bless him, had come looking for me.

“The kids’ll be all right,” Wanda said. “Things has always been that way.” But not for Glory, who’d had the good fortune to grow up in Barlow’s household in a proper town.

Most Saturday afternoons we brought our mending or knitting to Virgie’s house and heard opinions about a more distant worry: the war in Europe. An avid collector of sensational news, Virgie insisted the war was not all that far away. “Soon every man and boy will be called up,” she said. “I’d go myself, if they’d take me.”

“They’d have to let you sew jewels on your soldier jacket,” Glory said.

Virgie laughed and lifted her current project for our inspection, a brocade jacket on which she’d been sewing tiny gold beads of glass. Because she didn’t attend church, Virgie wore her Sunday best at our Saturday gatherings. I would not be surprised if some Saturday she wore the beaded jacket.

We were all so used to each other that we could admire Virgie’s fashions without feeling we had to keep up. Wanda’s Aunt Piney always wore a long apron over her dress, and to us it didn’t matter if it was starched and white or splattered by cooking and soiled by small muddy fingers. We were just glad when she could get away from the children and join us.

Virgie tended to squelch opposite opinions by talking faster and louder, so we usually let her have her say. There had already been two registrations for the draft, because the war department said men had not enlisted in sufficient numbers. In coal country, mothers and wives did not worry too much about the draft, because miners were deemed essential to the war effort and were usually given a Class Five draft status. Only a few young men from Winkler had chosen the army over a job in the mines.

“Mark my words,” Virgie said, “if we don’t stop the Kaiser over there in Europe, his soldiers will cross the ocean and burn our homes and kill us in terrible ways. They done it in Belgium, and now they’re sinking so many of our ships we won’t have any left to protect our shores.”

I suspected that like the rest of us, Virgie had no vivid idea of our shores, but she used the word with patriotic feeling.

Thus far our greatest awareness of the war in Europe was the benefit to the coal economy in West Virginia and the rebuilding of our town. With coal needed to power trains, ships, and the manufacture of every kind of war material, four new mines had opened nearby, along with hastily-constructed houses for the influx of miners and their families.

“Every single one of us needs to keep an eye out for people who look like they don’t belong,” Virgie warned, “because those U-boats are dropping off spies in America right now. And if the Kaiser knows what’s good for him, he’ll cross these mountains and try to blow up our mines.”

At this, we paused our needles and looked to see each other’s reactions. We never wanted to believe Virgie, but she always managed to scare us a little.

END OF CHAPTER ONE

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