Uncle Bert said we should cry no more. Saying this, he’d looked at me, letting me know I must set the example. I was the oldest girl in the house, almost seventeen. His daughters were thirteen, ten and seven. They were my family, my only family, and that day we’d buried our guiding light, my Aunt Sweet. For the past four years, as she lay ill, I’d felt responsible for all of them. I was used to hiding my tears.
I’d seen him cry a week earlier, when the creek flooded our field, surrounding the barn and the chicken coop, leaving our house on an island. He cursed, too, wading through the water to milk the cow and see what he could lift out of the flood, but I didn’t think his cursing had anything to do with the flood. At that point, Aunt Sweet hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for two days, hadn’t spoken or opened her eyes. For two days she hadn’t apologized when I changed her dirty nightgown and sheets. I’d always tried to act cheery, as though the mess was nothing at all, but with her lying insensible, I cried. When I opened the door and let her daughters into the room, they cried too. After watching her closely for so long, we knew what was coming.
“Go back to school,” Uncle Bert said, the day after the funeral. He’d allowed us to stay home that week so we could sit with her until the end, even though he wasn’t sure the youngest, Mary Agnes, should be present for her mother’s death. But Mary Agnes cried and carried on when he tried to take her from the room, and eventually he allowed her to lie on the bed beside her mother. None of us girls saw her last breath, for she died in the night, while we were in our own beds. I suppose that was good. I hoped Uncle Bert had been holding her hand. I’d seen him at night, keeping watch like that.
Even on her worst days, Aunt Sweet had insisted we go to school, saying we didn’t need to worry, she’d be right there when we got home. For years she’d said, “May Rose, what would I do without you?” I always said, “And what would I do without you?” She was the only mother I could remember, her first child, she called me, though everyone knew I was the child of her dead sister. My father had left me here when I was two years old. She and Uncle Bert had not seen or heard from him again.
I was my mother’s only child, and my Aunt Sweet’s first, left in her care when she was newly married. This is the story I was told, the explanation of why I never called Aunt Sweetinia Jonson anything but Aunt Sweet—“Answee,” in the early years. “I thought your father would return, maybe in a few months when he got used to the fact that your mother was gone,” she explained, “so it never seemed right to have you call us Ma and Pa.” He was a traveling, rootless man, a buyer of livestock who’d come into my mother’s life during the county fair, and even after they were married, he’d been away weeks at a time.
Aunt Sweet said she was sure my father had grieved deeply for my mother. Something must have happened to keep him from coming back, some deadly accident. She didn’t want me to think he’d purposely abandoned me.
I was four when my cousin Margaret was born, and after that I slowly came to understand that my relationship to the woman who’d mothered me was different. To the new child she was Ma. She said the baby was my little sister, so for a while I called her “Sissy,” though Uncle Bert’s spinster sister soon straightened me out on that. “Margaret is not your sister, she’s your cousin,” Miss Alberta said. “Sweetinia is your aunt but she’s Margaret’s mother.”
I didn’t understand, but I could tell Aunt Sweet was offended in some way. When baby Margaret began to babble “Mama” and “Papa,” my aunt said, “May Rose, why not call us Ma and Pa? After all, you’re our first child.” I could not change my name for her; I’d had her lap and arms and kisses to myself for as long as I could remember. She was Ma to the new baby, but only to me was she Answee.
After Margaret, she gave birth to my cousins Leola and Mary Agnes. Then, when I was ten and Mary Agnes was only a year old, she began to keep to her bed for days at a time. “The girls and I can manage,” she told my uncle, when he wanted to hire a housekeeper. He suggested his sister might move in with them but Aunt Sweet said absolutely not.
That summer my cousins and I played with Mary Agnes every hour that she wasn’t sleeping. We were the ones who taught her to drink milk from a cup and sit on the little potty. In the fall, Aunt Sweet insisted Margaret and I go to school, so on days when she wasn’t feeling well she allowed Uncle Bert to hire a woman to help out. No one he hired ever pleased her, and he didn’t like having strangers managing his house.
When I was twelve he said, “Our girls can do the work as good as any. You tell May Rose what to do and how to do it. I’ll help as I can.” I studied ahead in all my schoolbooks because I never knew when I would be needed at home. In those days I looked forward to school, but in the months after she died I had a hard time listening to the teacher, and I told Uncle Bert I wanted to stay home and keep house.
“Your aunt wouldn’t approve,” he said. We were still trying to do everything her way. My cousins and I were shocked when he invited his sister, Alberta, to live with us. Aunt Sweet wouldn’t have liked that.
Miss Alberta was 18 years older than her brother, lived 30 miles away and seldom visited. She’d been married but nobody ever talked about that, and she constantly preached to all us girls that we must not marry but remain virgins for Christ. She tattled to Uncle Bert when she saw me walking home from school with a boy. “Nothing good will come of that,” she said. I wanted to laugh. I knew nothing at all would come of that, for I felt years older than boys my age.
Miss Alberta’s residence with us did nothing to improve the state of our household, though she constantly commented on it. “I see you’re useful,” she said, acknowledging she’d been wrong to object when my aunt and uncle took me in. I nodded when she told me what to do and how to do it, but her instructions were confusing, so my cousins and I kept to our old ways. Miss Alberta seemed happy, watching from her chair, thinking she was in charge.
She was small and thin-boned, with white hair drawn in a severe bun and shaggy white hair on her face. She lived with us for ten months, enough time for her to repeat all her opinions, like she was afraid we hadn’t heard them the first time or was certain that if we had, they hadn’t sunk in.
We weren’t the only people she criticized. “No woman should try to look younger than her age,” she said after her first Sunday in our church, adding that plain women should wear gray or brown and not call attention to their shortcomings with jeweled pins, ribbons and feathered hats. A similar rule applied to young girls. “Never pretend to be more than you are,” she said. We didn’t quite know what we were, but we withered under her judgment.
“I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” Miss Alberta said, commenting on the weekly prayers for sick members of our church. A week later she died, sitting in her usual place where the morning sun warmed the window. Not long after her funeral, Uncle Bert began to talk to us about moving to North Dakota, a state recently formed from the Dakota Territory.
Before we all knew Aunt Sweet was not going to get well, she’d shared his dream of settling somewhere in the Dakotas, where newspapers said there was abundant land for farming wheat or ranching cattle and horses. Uncle Bert wanted to raise cattle, but because our farm could not raise enough feed for more than four or five head, he also worked as a blacksmith.
“We’ll wait till the end of the school year, so May Rose can graduate,” he said.
We said nothing, but after he said we’d be moving my cousins crawled in bed with me and cried. There was no question of trying to change his mind and no need to let him see how we felt about leaving everything we knew. “It will be an adventure,” I said, trying to console them. I was just old enough to understand that like us, he felt lost.