Chapter 1: Mamma and the Berry Pies
Sorrow seemed an insult to the day I met him. Despite the sunshine streaming through the shop window, I had spent the morning staring sullenly at the empty chair before Mamma’s treadle sewing machine.
Papa sat before his machine looking forlorn but determined. He scolded me for my lack of activity. I can still hear him now, with his strong, lilting Norwegian accent: “Annetti, you have done nothing but mope the whole morning. Can you not find something to do? Vurk, child, vurk—that is what you need. Is everything clean?”
“Yes, Papa, of course. Do you see any dirt?” I watched the corners of his mouth twitch into a half grin as he scrutinized the shop.
Bolts of fabric sat neatly on the shelves along the wall to his right. Before him on the counter, a pencil and ledger book awaited more orders. Nine days had passed since I had written in it last. The front window sparkled. The suit and shirt hanging before it were neatly pressed and brushed. Even the lace curtains hung in precisely even folds.
“Ah!” A gleam brightened his eye, and I smirked as he bent over the dark blue serge in his lap and wiped his finger on the rung of his chair. He inspected the results and puckered his lips in a pout. “You clean as well as your mamma cleaned. I wonder—hmmm. I wonder if you can make a berry pie so good as your mamma too. Ha! A bet! That is what we will make. ”
“We haven’t any berries, Papa.”
“Well, we have a basket and two hands that were made to vurk.” His light blue eyes twinkled with mischief. “I would bet a week’s worth of dirty dishes that you can’t make pies like your Mamma.”
“Will you be making a week’s worth of dirty dishes or washing them?” I countered sourly.
I can’t help smiling now when I think of that moment. Papa and his “vurk”! But I wasn’t smiling then as I picked up the wide, shallow wood basket heaped with spools of dark thread.My back was toward Papa. He couldn’t have seen the fretful pucker of my lips as I emptied the basket, but he must have heard the little sigh that escaped.
“Annetti, Annetti! I wish that I could make you forget. We must—“
“I don’t want to forget, Papa.”
“Ja, I mean the sadness. Why can’t you vurk and be happy?”
“I don’t know, Papa. The world doesn’t seem right.”
“Ja.” Papa sighed. Raw emotion slipped from his voice and settled in an awkward silence between us. I watched his fingers punch the needle in and out to edge a buttonhole, wishing that my words had not—like a needle—punctured his life with pain. Though barely thirty-five years old, my father looked twice his age when he hunched over his work. He’d lost weight in the last month. He had always been trim, but now his loose clothes made him appear shrunken.
A lone tear trickled down Papa’s cheek, and I whispered Mamma’s words: “Life has enough pain without making more.” Mamma had often said that to me when I’d skinned my knee or burned my finger as a child.
“I want some roses on those cheeks when you come back,” Papa ordered, not looking up. Still I waited. “Do not worry about me, Annetti! I have my vurk!”
“Yes, Papa,” I murmured, but I knew that those buttonholes wouldn’t take all afternoon to finish. He would brush off the lint and press the suit. Perhaps the customer would come for the final fitting, and Papa would be paid by the time I returned.
* * *
That July day was as pretty a day as Ashland, Wisconsin, had ever seen. The sun shone warmly on my face, but a cool breeze blew off the lake. I gazed across the blue-gray stretch of Lake Superior. Why, under God’s heaven, couldn’t I be happy with a sight such as that?
“Vurk, child, vurk!” Papa had said. With a resolute sigh, I started up the dirt road wending through the birches and tall pines. But then my eyes fell upon a patch of purple mint blossoms among the lush green of the ditch.
Your favorite, Mamma—cones of royal purple blossoms. I had to stop and fill my basket for you. Can you see me here, Mamma? I wish you could answer me. Where are you, Mamma? If only I knew you were happy—if only I could see you again—
But the only answer I found was in the dampness of the gray stone as I ran my finger in the grooves etched there: “Karin Sorenson. Born June 2, 1854; Died May 23, 1888.”
Hardly more than a month ago, you were well, Mamma, and I was happy. It isn’t fair that you died so young, Mamma. Life is not right. No—no, death is not right. Oh, is anything right? You, Mamma—I know you didn’t want to leave me!
My head ached with such thoughts as I finished arranging the fragrant mint at the base of my mother’s gravestone. How can I forget someone I’ve lived with, looked to, and loved for every day of fifteen years?
“Ja, I mean the sadness,” Papa had said.
Mamma’s memory seemed so intertwined with the sadness of her loss that I couldn’t imagine the sadness ever subsiding. Only the thought of Papa’s pain at seeing me so distressed moved me to action. I wasn’t doing justice to Papa’s “vurk.”
There certainly won’t be any berry pie, much less roses on my cheeks if I stand here all afternoon, I scolded myself on his behalf. With a sigh, I stooped to pick up my equipment. As Papa had directed, I had taken the wide, shallow wood basket with a stained blue gingham napkin for a lining, but I had also taken the large water pail—just to spite him and prove that I could pick berries with a vengeance. I had packed a lunch in the square basket with its embroidered lid—the one that Mamma had made me for school years ago.
I stepped slowly through the tall grass between the wagon ruts, gently swinging my baskets and the pail and watching the grasshoppers pop up and light on the swaying spears.
You always noticed little things, Mamma—like the roly-poly bugs scurrying for a new home when we borrowed their rocks for a border on the flowerbed. Or the meandering ants, who rarely looked as if they knew where they were going—but they were always busy finding food. “Papa would be quite happy if we’d work like that,” you said.
I was so occupied with startling grasshoppers on the roadside and grasping for strains of my childhood memories that my cousin’s call surprised me. I turned to find Kirsten racing up one of the wagon ruts, her petticoats fluttering. Behind her, quite a way back, followed Kelda with the practiced step of one accustomed to wearing fine clothes.
“Mamma sent us berry-picking,” Kirsten panted. Her face glowed with carefree joy, and her long, thin braids bobbed as she spoke. “We’re having company for dinner tomorrow. Pastor Lyndahl’s supposed to come, and Mamma said you and Uncle Andrew should come too.”
“Papa will be sure to come if Aunt Janna serves her famous meatballs,” I offered with forced enthusiasm. Inwardly, I cringed. Not another dinner with the pastor of platitudes! Papa had upbraided me more than once for my stiff unfriendliness toward the man. The thought of tolerating his presence through another meal drained my face of any color that exercise had put there. I struggled to look civil, not wishing to hurt the feelings of my ten-year-old cousin.
I envied Kirsten’s pleased blush that followed my compliment to her mother’s cooking. If only roses on my cheeks were that easy, I silently wished.
“You’re going berry-picking, aren’t you?” Kirsten asked—but rattled on, her braids still bobbing. “We’re supposed to pick blackberries, Mamma said, but I’d rather eat raspberries if I can find some. Wouldn’t you, Kelda?”
Kelda had finally caught up with us, and an imperious “Mmmm” was her only reply. Though only seventeen, she carried herself like a prima donna from the operas Aunt Janna loved. I had always felt inadequate in her presence. She possessed Aunt Janna’s rare beauty and Uncle Peter’s curls; her looks commanded attention, and she knew it full well.
“I want to go with you, Annetti, because you always get the most berries,” Kirsten quipped. This time her braids fairly flew through the air as she turned to look at her sister.
“That’s because she wades right into the prickles without a thought of scratches,” Kelda replied with a toss of her head. She wore a straw hat with a large brim and blue ribbon that matched her gingham dress. Her blond curls were swept loosely back into a large bun held in place with a hairnet, yet several strands had escaped to form a pretty frame about her face.
Leave it to Kelda to look like a porcelain doll even when she is berry picking, I thought. How can she wear a hat on a warm day like this? Mine isn’t even slung down my back like Kirsten’s. I didn’t wear one, and why should I? Papa doesn’t care, and I certainly have no intention of being warmer than necessary. I am already encumbered with this long-sleeved dress. I hate this old black muslin, but at least I won’t have to worry about tears or stains.
“Stop swinging your basket, Kirsten,” Kelda ordered, disrupting my thoughts. “You’ll get the lining all messed up.”
Her high and mighty royal highness, I thought. I admire how she always looks like a princess, but she can be more than annoying sometimes. I smiled sideways at Kirsten as she wrinkled her nose, taking the reprimand in silence. Then I switched my baskets and the pail to one hand and held Kirsten’s small hand with my other one.
We walked along in silence until Kirsten screamed, “Raspberries!” and raced off the road. Kelda sighed, but I raced after Kirsten and found a clump of blackberry bushes nearby. Kelda followed gingerly and began picking at the edges of the overgrown patch. She stood almost an arm’s length away from the thorny shoots and delicately laid her berries in her basket.
I winked at Kirsten, who was popping raspberries into her mouth as fast as she could pick them. Then I dove into the thicket and squatted down, for the shoots most laden with plump, dark berries often can’t be seen until one looks up from underneath. I chose the densest spots and picked handfuls, leaving only a few unripened berries and those half-pecked by birds. The prickles caught my skirt and sleeves and pulled each time I turned to tackle a new spot, but I untangled myself and continued.
The morning passed that way—the red stain growing on Kirsten’s lips, the berries in Kelda’s basket slowly forming a small mound, and my scratches increasing with each clump I tackled. We scoured each patch and hunted for more. Kirsten would skip merrily on ahead, while Kelda lingered behind with her dainty step. I traipsed off the path in search of more splotches of color, and eventually I filled my pail and basket and started on Kirsten’s neglected basket.
The sun stood high overhead when Kelda politely announced that she had finally finished filling her basket. By that time, Kirsten had tired of berries and was begging for a drink of lemonade from the jar in their lunch basket. I had heard that much from my obscure position.
I had buried myself in another clump of bushes, determined to heap Kirsten’s basket until it was overflowing. In the midst of my effort, I discovered a box turtle. “Kirsten!” I yelled. There was no reply.
I listened carefully. I heard the sound of her high, girlish chatter along with Kelda’s soft, low voice—and someone else’s—a man’s. We must be near the other road already, I thought. I knew that this path joined the roads to Washburn and to Superior.
Hot, sweaty, and scratched, I grumped about working while others played. Nevertheless, the thought of showing off the turtle tickled me. I carefully carried Kirsten’s basket in one hand and the box turtle in the other until I reached the edge of the thicket where my baskets and pail sat. The voices fluttered with the breeze from somewhere beyond. I didn’t think further of them, being too distant to distinguish their meaning. I left the berries and scooped up my lunch. I had my berries. I deserved a break.
What a sight I must have looked, emerging from the side of that clump in the old black muslin, calling “Kirsten, look what I found!” I hadn’t bothered to smoothe the wisps of hair snagged by the prickles. A burst of laughter greeted me, a man’s deep, musical laughter.
I spotted Kirsten about thirty feet from me. Her face was smeared with berry juice and curled in a silly grin. Her blond braids, bobbed as she giggled. My eyes moved to Kelda, pretty as a picture in her blue gingham dress and bonnet. Her blond curls framed a coy smile. She stood next to a golden-haired man. He leaned against his wooden handcart and shook with laughter.
I moved forward, not totally comprehending what was happening. His laughter subsided to a chuckle, and he spoke in Norwegian: “I have come all the way from Norway to see that! All the way to America to find two dumb Norwegians, just like they say!”
Kelda glanced from me to Kirsten and tittered politely, but I felt fury rising within me. How dare he call me dumb? I had no bonnet. I was wearing this awful dress. I was carrying a box turtle, but my face was not smeared with raspberry juice! My eyes must have flashed with wrath, but again I was caught off guard. I intended to stare down this stranger, but his light blue eyes dazzled me. Crinkles danced at the corners—just like Papa’s. His eyes locked with mine. The thought of Papa calmed me.
“We dumb Norwegians have to work,” I retorted in Norwegian. I don’t know what possessed me to add in English, “And I wager that your English is as poor as Papa’s.”
“Ja, you have right,” he spoke quietly in English. He scrutinized me. “This ‘Papa’ sounds like someone I would like to meet.” The silence that followed seemed enormous. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I realized I was staring and dropped my gaze. Kelda rescued me.
“We were just going to have lunch,” Kelda informed him. “Would you like to join us?”
“Food is something I not dislike,” the young man replied in broken English—and grinned. “I would be glad,” he added.
I dared a glance up and found him staring impishly at me. His boldness infuriated me. The day was warm anyway; I felt an irritated flush creeping up my neck and cheeks. I had all the roses Papa could wish for—but I had never expected to procure them by blushing. I would have turned and left right then if Kelda had not interrupted me.
“Annetti, you missed the introductions. This is Lars Sorenson. He just arrived from Norway, and he’s on his way to his brother Olin’s farm. You know Olin and Inga from church?” She turned to Lars now. “Annetti is my cousin.”
I bristled at the idea of sharing the same last name with this fellow, despite the fact that Sorensons were a dime a dozen in the environs of Ashland. I was acquainted with Olin and Inga, but they were no relation. My eyes fastened coldly on the golden-haired stranger. I supposed that I had to be courteous to some degree. Kelda was the epitome of manners. If only I could be more like her—even-tempered and gracious!
My silent nod was more guarded than friendly. Yes, I could see that Lars looked like Olin—lean but muscular, the same broad shoulders and square jaw, the same wavy golden hair and light blue eyes.
A shame, I thought. It’s a downright shame to mix such good looks with such cruel audacity. He laughed at me. He called me dumb! That awkward silence reigned again. Then I noticed the longing look toward my lunch box, the quick lick of lips. Suddenly I felt sorry.
I turned to Kirsten. “I found a box turtle for you, Kirsten.” I set both the turtle and the lunch basket down before her. “I’ll meet you at home. You know how Aunt Janna is about handling fresh berries.” I walked off, scooping up the full pail and baskets on my way. Kelda just shrugged.
Balancing the two overflowing baskets and the pail all the way home made my arms ache. By the time I reached Aunt Janna’s, my head ached too from mulling over my meeting with the stranger. Why couldn’t I have laughed and spoken pleasantly to him, as Kelda did?
For goodness’ sake, Annetti, I scolded myself, develop a sense of humor—and a modicum of manners! And while we’re on the subject of developing skills, how about trying to look like a lady rather than a ten-year-old tomboy who collects turtles?
Probably the man will never speak to me again, I caught myself whining. Then I furiously insisted, Fine! What do I care?
Meeting Lars both bothered and scared me. I arrived at Aunt Janna’s feeling very inadequate but determined to grow up. Perhaps that’s why I volunteered to make pies for her Sunday dinner. She was delighted, for she was as fastidious about cleaning as my mother had been, and the thought of company—though she loved having company—always worried her.
I enjoyed my lease on her large kitchen, and I grew so ambitious that I even made a double baking of my oatmeal rolls in addition to six large blackberry pies. After all, I did have that bet with Papa about the berry pie, and a little success before dessert might help set the outcome for the bet in my favor. Well, anyway, the oatmeal rolls can’t hurt. I’ve never had anything but raving reviews over how light and delicious they, and right now I need all the compliments I can curry.
Just when I felt settled and satisfied with my work, Kirsten arrived, chatting a mile a minute, her braids bobbing as she spoke: “That man was real nice, Annetti.”
“Really nice, Kirsten.”
“Do you think so too?” she asked eagerly.
“No,” I replied sternly. “I am merely correcting your grammar.”
“He said he hoped you weren’t mad. Are you mad, Annetti?”
“When I’m mad, I turn into a purple dragon that eats ten-year-old girls. Do I look like a dragon?”
Kirsten giggled. “He said he was a dumb Norwegian himself, and after all, he’s going to marry a dumb Norwegian,” she repeated with a flourish. “Do you think he’ll marry me?”
“Certainly not,” I declared, wiping my hands on a towel, “because you’re going to be eaten by a purple dragon.” I roared and chased her out of the kitchen. She screamed and flew out the back screen door, her blond braids flying behind her. I eventually caught her and tumbled onto the grass laughing. I was glad to be wearing the black muslin then.
We stood and brushed ourselves off, still giggling, and I realized I’d laughed for the first time since Mamma died. I’d played a game she had often played with me as a child. And I felt good about that memory—not sad.
I returned to the kitchen to face Kelda’s mysterious smile. Is she mocking my stupidity or dreaming of the stranger? I wondered. I said nothing as I returned to work.
The berry-picking incident replayed in my mind’s eye as I washed up the dishes I had dirtied in baking. Lars! His name rolled off my lips. I could almost hear the man’s laughter ringing in my ears. Insolent laughter. Or maybe I was mistaken? Surely his remark to Kirsten had been a joke. I didn’t like jokes about dumb Norwegians. Yet I couldn’t help envying Kelda’s attractive ease.
Chapter 2: Mamma’s Mint and Sweet Alyssum
“Are you ready, Annetti?” Papa called from outside my door.
“Almost, Papa,” I called back.
Papa had finished the suit and received handsome pay for his work. He’d been in a jolly mood when I arrived home from Aunt Janna’s, sunburned and flushed from the heat of her big oven.
“Look at your face!” Papa had laughed. “I wanted roses on those cheeks, and I get them everywhere!”He had squeezed my shoulders and pecked both of my cheeks.
The reflection staring at me from the mirror now still looked flushed. I had painstakingly done up my hair in Norwegian braids: One continuous braid circled my head like a golden-brown crown. Now I was struggling to curl the wisps of hair around the edges of my face. Their stubborn straightness frustrated me, and I sighed.
My dress was as fine as any Kelda had ever worn. Mamma had helped me make it last Easter. Was it only four months ago that I had chosen the fabric? The sheer, almost see-through cotton fell in full, freshly starched flounces over my petticoat. I hadn’t worn this dress much on account of Mamma’s death. I had adored its small lavender flowers and sprigs of forest green against pristine white! And I had been so pleased when Mamma had pronounced that I’d done an excellent job of cutting and sewing and pressing and fitting.
The sad memories crept softly into my thoughts, but this morning I brushed them away. I’m not going to let my feelings rule me today, I told myself sternly. Patiently, I retied the lavender ribbon on my straw hat. Of course, it wasn’t likely that the stranger would be in church this morning after his long trip, but maybe he’d come with Olin’s family—not that I planned to waste my time looking for his insolent blue eyes. Still, I’d enjoy flaunting my new look and displaying my indifference to his curious gaze.
“Almost is t’ree minutes long so far,” Papa called out teasingly.
With a sigh, I picked up Mamma’s Norwegian Bible and swept down the stairs with a hand catching up the full skirt.
“Uff Da!” Papa exclaimed as I passed him. “It is a good ting that I had the hair cut yesterday. I would be ashamed to walk with you otherwise.”
I pursed my lips, rolled my eyes, and tried to keep a straight face, but I was pleased with Papa’s compliment. I didn’t mind that he saw me blush.
We lived in the three rooms above the shop, and the stairway I descended emptied onto the back stoop, which connected with a little hall to the shop. I hated passing through that hall because there was no way I could avoid looking at the door to the back room. I had hated that room ever since Mamma had died, and I was very meticulous about keeping the door shut. There in the back room, Mamma had scraped her elbow on a nail. There her coffin had stood, surrounded by the sickeningly sweet smell of lilacs. This morning the door was open, and the memories made me shudder, but I fought past them.
Between the house and the alley, we kept a garden. I stopped there to pluck one of Mamma’s mint blossoms and tuck it into the ribbon of my hat. Then we strode off to the little white wooden building that housed our Norwegian Lutheran church.
I had never cared much for Pastor Lyndahl’s sermons. Monotonous and boring couldn’t begin to describe them. Even thinking of his exhortations made me tired. But Mamma and Papa had always attended. Nearly everyone I knew did. Maybe they endured the weekly lectures out of duty. Perhaps they came for the pleasure of visiting friends and neighbors afterward. Really, that pleasure was almost worth the imposition, I conceded.
I glanced across the wooden pews as Papa and I moved toward our usual spot three pews from the front. Thorin Hanson sat near the back with his wife Svea and their baby. I had helped Mamma sew Svea’s wedding trousseau nearly two years before, and my school friends had dubbed the tall, muscular man “Thorin Handsome.” A smile started to curl the corners of my mouth, but I pushed the memory from my mind.
We passed Erna and Olaf Fosdick and their neat line of towheads, all in starched white shirts and knickers. Gus Larson sat in the next pew with his two daughters. Widow Thompson and Jenny Lundstrom sat at opposite ends of the pew ahead. I looked across and spotted Olin Sorenson sitting between his mother and his very pregnant wife. The stranger was not with them. I felt a twinge of disappointment as well as relief.
I had looked back to the sanctuary door at the sound of Kelda’s voice, but I didn’t catch a glimpse of her dress, for Papa nudged me and winked as he stopped at our pew and paused for me to enter first. Another one of his jokes, I supposed.
He nodded toward the Jenson brothers, whose blue serge suits looked quite familiar. I smiled and murmured that they looked nice, but Papa nodded again toward the pew in front of the brothers and looked at me expectantly. There sat the Nyquists with their lovely twin daughters.
“I think you will have to start sewing for a double wedding,” he whispered loudly as he sat down beside me. “You should put a sign up in the window along wit’ a sample of your vurk.”
I hardly knew how to respond to his suggestion. My heart jumped at the possibility that he would consider my sewing skills good enough to market, but at the same time I hesitated to boost my hopes for such good fortune.
I studied the Jensons and the Nyquists for a few minutes to confirm my pessimism. “Papa, Ingrid and Astrida aren’t paying attention to the Jensons.”
“No?” Papa raised his brows in a quizzical arch and twisted his mouth to one side. “Do you not see? They peek behind them every so often and straighten their skirts and—“
“Papa!” I whispered back, exasperated. “I just turned to peek at Kelda’s dress, and I’m straightening my skirts too. I suppose that means I’m next in line after them, does it?”
Papa laughed his deep, full laugh, and then checked it with a cough when both the Nyquists and the Jensons turned to stare. He dutifully glanced up at the pulpit. My eyes followed Papa’s, and I caught my breath. The stranger stood there quietly smiling, waiting for the congregation to still. Had he noticed Papa and me? I felt so embarrassed. A hush settled on the small crowd almost immediately.
“Pastor Lyndahl has become ill with a fever,” he announced in Norwegian. “Being fresh from seminary, I have been asked to fill in and am glad to do so. Please open your hymnbooks and turn to the opening hymn.” His eyes roved the congregation as he spoke. I couldn’t believe his friendly manner. He almost smiled. Pastor Lyndahl never did that; he always seemed so stern.
The stranger’s singing wasn’t much like Pastor Lyndahl’s either. His strong, vigorous tone infused life into the liturgy. What would Pastor Lyndahl think? Wouldn’t he think it sacrilegious not to sing with a tone full of bland, dull reverence? Oh, I’d love to see his face now!
I glanced up from my hymnal just then and blushed. Lars Sorenson’s eyes had caught my curl of a smile. I felt chagrin. I had planned to look indifferent, and here I was blushing. I fumed, vowing to keep my eyes lowered and fastened on the hymnbook or Mamma’s Bible.
I attempted to do so while Lars read the Old Testament text. I didn’t usually follow along in Mamma’s Bible, so finding Deuteronomy 6 took me a few minutes. More commandments, I muttered to myself as Lars started reading.
But he didn’t read as Pastor Lyndahl read, and I sat entranced by the heartfelt urgency with which he read: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might….” I knew he believed those words, the way he read them. They sounded new to me. How they could sound new—after fifteen years of church every Sunday? Was I that ignorant and dumb?
We sang another hymn. My eyes stayed glued to the hymnbook entirely this time. Then came the reading of the New Testament text. I had to force my eyes to follow the words, for Lars read the story just as if he were telling what happened yesterday. I glanced around as he finished. Every eye was fastened on this golden-haired young man, even those of the little children who usually slept or wiggled unceasingly. An expectant hush filled the sanctuary as he closed his Bible and paused.
I ventured a glance up then. He was telling about a rich young ruler as if the ruler were his admired and beloved friend. This ruler was everything good: well dressed, eager-to-please, sincere, respectful. The ruler’s question showed that he was focused on the right issues: “How would he obtain eternal life?” The question stung me, repeated in that fashion. Hadn’t I almost asked the same question at Mamma’s grave? And I wasn’t only worried for myself; I was scared for Mamma. Had she known how to live forever?
The answer to that question was something I wanted desperately to know. I listened carefully, wishing Lars would hurry and tell me, but he took his time telling instead how a person couldn’t arrive at heaven. Keeping the commandments wasn’t possible, I learned.
Pastor Lyndahl wouldn’t like this sermon, I dared to think. I was full of his preaching on living a righteous life and keeping eternity in mind—-full enough to appreciate this different viewpoint. But in some ways, this new thought was uncomfortable. Though Pastor Lyndahl’s sermons had always bored me, they were all I had known. And if he were wrong, well—there was no comfort in realizing I’d been mistaken for fifteen years, especially when my mother was dead and I was pretty sure she had not known anything different either.
Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes. Whatever else Lars said, I missed. A jumble of questions and arguments filled my mind, and I struggled with them—with the ideas that pricked my heart. I wanted quiet. I wanted to be alone, to think. The organ and the hum of voices reminded me I was not.
I followed Papa silently down the aisle to the doors where Lars stood shaking hands with those who passed. I didn’t want to shake his hand. I didn’t want to look at him now, with my head and heart full of thoughts and struggles. I didn’t want to feel the way I felt, and I was angry that I had to feel so now. I always have to face situations I don’t want! I complained inwardly.
But there was no way out. I remembered what Mamma always said when I felt like crying: “Life has enough pain without making more.” Shuffling down the aisle with Papa, I battled my feelings and steeled my emotions. “We’ll have no more of yesterday,” I sternly warned myself.
His handshake was warm and firm, full of a vigor that brought my lowered gaze to meet his. Those eyes like Papa’s, that thick, wavy golden hair…
“Good morning,” he greeted me in Norwegian. “Excuse me; I have brought something for you.”
I felt Papa’s questioning eyes on me, but I said nothing as Lars handed me the embroidered lunch basket Mamma had made—the one I had carried yesterday.
“Thank you for the lunch. It was the best I have eaten in months.” He smiled, and I blushed.
My lunch had been despicable—-cold boiled potatoes with bits of sausage and a spiced oil dressing—-leftovers I’d never dream of serving to company. I mean, it tasted fine, but no one would ever think of—-I was suddenly embarrassed that he’d eaten it. You’d think that Kelda would have shared her lunch instead, I grumbled inwardly. And how am I ever going to explain this to Papa?
“And you must be Mr. Sorenson?” Lars continued when I didn’t answer. “Good name!”
Papa grinned. For some strange reason, he chose to respond in English: “In this part of the country, Sorensons is—-what you say, Annetti? A dollar a dozen?”
I colored at his inflated rendering of the common phrase but remained silent.
Lars returned Papa’s comment in his halting English: “I knew you would be someone worth meeting after what your daughter told me.”
Papa glanced at me, curious, and then asked, “And what would that be?”
I glared back at the stranger, furious, but his blue eyes were twinkling as he leaned forward and lowered his voice.
“She said that my English is…”
I won’t bear such merciless teasing, I decided. I raised my chin and whipped around, my petticoats swishing as I flew down the steps. Papa’s deep, full laugh rang out after me.
Kelda caught my arm as I rushed down the walkway past the visiting folk in the churchyard. “Where are you going, Annetti? I thought you were coming to dinner with us.”
I looked at her, dumbfounded. I’d been caught up in my feelings again and forgotten. Silently, I wished that she hadn’t reminded me. I just wanted to be alone, to be away from that merciless Lars, to sit by myself and think.
“Mamma just asked the new preacher to come—Lars Sorenson. Isn’t he interesting?” Kelda’s light blue eyes sparkled with boundless excitement.
They’re a pair, I realized, my heart feeling wrenched despite my fury. Light blue eyes and blond curls. Light blue eyes and golden waves. Her beauty, his good looks… What made you think you could compete, Annetti?
“She’s sending Pastor Lyndahl’s family a basket full of dinner. I—what is wrong with you, Annetti?”
I couldn’t say anything. The wave of fury turned to jealous rage. I bit my tongue. I’m wicked, that’s what I am. I’m mean and selfish and just plain wicked to feel this way. How will I ever get to heaven?
She stared at me while I fumbled for an excuse. “I—I don’t feel good. I’m going home.” I turned and started weakly home, my mind arguing with itself over this half-truth.
The graveyard lay next to the church on the same road as our shop. I stopped there to meander through the rows of tall stones until I came to Mamma’s grave. Mamma—oh, Mamma! It does no good to pretend. I don’t know the answer. Everything goes wrong. What shall I do? I sobbed.
After Mamma died, I never could help crying, but after a few minutes, a calm earnestness replaced my tears. Mamma, did you know how to obtain eternal life? Did you? The cries that escaped my lips met only with silence.
I knelt down and fingered the mint blossoms I had placed there yesterday morning. I tore off a small sprig, now flimsy and wilted, intending to press it this afternoon. To remember you by, I whispered to Mamma. I opened the embroidered lid of my lunch basket to place it safely inside, but what was this? A small bouquet of sweet alyssum tied with a slender white ribbon! Gently, I picked it up and held it in my hands. I sat there for a long time, looking off across the graveyard and open fields.
“A small gift—to match your lavender eyes,” spoke a voice behind me.
I turned, startled. Lars stood between two of the stones in the row behind me. I dropped my gaze and turned my back to him. “My eyes aren’t really lavender,” I admitted sorrowfully. “They’re only gray, tinged with pale blue.”
He didn’t leave. He just stood there quietly until I was finally embarrassed enough by his presence to turn and look at him again. Still he didn’t speak. “What do you want?” I asked evenly, forcing myself to look directly at him.
“To say I’m sorry, Annetti. I did not mean to hurt you or make fun of you.”
I looked at the ground between us. The grass was so thick and green that blades fell this way and that, nearly asking to be combed into order. I stroked them with my free hand but looked up suddenly as he took a step toward me and then squatted, his face level with mine.
“Your papa told me about your mamma, Annetti,” he said softly. “I am sorry. You must have loved her very much.”
I looked at the small bouquet in my hand for a long moment and then sighed. “Yes.” I paused and finally looked at him again. “It’s all right,” I lied. I stood and turned back toward Mamma’s gravestone, looking across the field of stones and sorrow. Another long moment passed before he spoke.
I turned suddenly at the touch of his hand on my shoulder. There was no way to avoid his direct gaze now, but I no longer felt afraid of it. His blue eyes held mine as he spoke. Somehow I knew there was a shared comfort between us. I had not thought of the loss of others before. Now I remembered. I had seen Olin’s mother at church, but never his father—never Lars’ father. To be without Papa? The thought was unbearable. He must know some of what I feel, I conjectured.
“Annetti.” Lars drew me from my thoughts. “Please come to dinner with us.”
I couldn’t resist the kind, friendly look his eyes held. Silently I nodded.
Chapter 3: Kelda and Lars
"Pass the meatballs, please. And the rolls too."
"You can send them this way when you are done, Lars--that is, if there are any left," Papa teased.
Lars grinned as he helped himself to a generous third serving. "No one makes meatballs so good as you, Janna," Papa stated.
"I will leave you the last two meatballs," Lars replied. "But no one is going to stop me from finishing off these rolls. They are wonderful, Mrs. Nelson."
"That will suit me fine," Papa told him. "The rolls Annetti knows how to make, but the meatballs—-I eat those only when my sister-in-law takes pity on me."
Aunt Janna threw back her head and laughed her delightful, tinkling laugh—-a social feat that Kelda had learned but which I had never mastered. "You poor soul," she teased Papa, fingering the hairpins that held the thick twist of sandy hair atop her head. Everything about Aunt Janna was both plump and pleasing, even her hair. Perhaps pleasing was not a strong enough word, for I’d heard even young men call her a looker, a woman whose beautiful features captivated the eye.
She fanned her neck before looking at Lars. "I would like to say that I made those rolls too, but Annetti made them yesterday afternoon after she finished the pies." She turned to Papa. "She is a good vurker, Andrew, yes?"
Papa glanced at me sideways. "She has a bet on those pies," Papa warned. "She would not be trying to tip the scales in her favor, now, would she? A whole week of dirty dishes I wash if she wins."
Papa looked at me, his eyebrows arched in mock accusation. I looked back innocently, my mouth puckered and my eyebrows arched, and said not a word. From the corner of my eye, I caught Lars' wide grin. I looked demurely back at the food on my plate.
"I would like to taste those pies," Lars replied. He looked down at his plate; the waves of his thick, golden hair shimmered before me.
Papa just laughed. Then Lars laughed too. A feeling of elation filled me. In that generous moment, I decided it didn't matter that Kelda had spent her time amusing Lars before dinner while I had busied myself helping Aunt Janna in the kitchen; it didn't matter that up until now Uncle Peter's stories and Kelda's chatter had held his undivided attention.
"I tell you one thing," he continued. "Good meal is hard for a poor seminary student to find. Sometime I think I fast in the wilderness—forty days and forty nights."
"Doesn't seem to have hurt you much," Uncle Peter joked. His silver-white curls jiggled as he chuckled. He spoke without an accent, perhaps because of the constant contact he had with neighboring folk who depended on his skills as a doctor.
"But you must have learned a great deal,” Uncle Peter continued. “I have a patient who asked me nearly the same question. He's a good man--takes care of his family, goes to church regularly, helps his neighbors. You couldn't ask for a finer person. His question distressed me, but then, those who face death--they think of these things."
A shiver ran up my spine at these words. Uncle Peter paused and looked at Aunt Janna gravely. "It is another case of blood poisoning, Janna."
A hush fell across the table. I looked down at my hands, folded in my lap, fighting the wave of sadness those words brought. Mamma had died of blood poisoning. But I am not the only person who has had to deal with death, I told myself firmly. There's Papa--Mamma was his wife, and Aunt Janna--Mamma was her sister, and Lars--his father had died too. I looked up and found Lars gazing at me as he spoke.
"Ja, but it is good he is asking." He turned to Uncle Peter. "He may be halfway to heaven--he knows he has a need, that he cannot get there by himself."
Everyone sat, silent and thoughtful. I sat wondering if I was halfway to heaven. Hadn't I asked myself the same question this very morning?
"I would be glad to visit that man with you, if you would like," Lars offered. "We could go this afternoon, before I walk home."
"Walk home, no-thing!" Aunt Janna interjected. The beautiful lines of her plump face flushed with color as she spoke. "Peter can take you. And there is pie before you go visiting.”
I watched her eyes take in Kelda’s rapturous gaze. A tender smile pulled at Aunt Janna’s lips. Her glance swept on around the table—past Uncle Peter’s approving nod and Kirsten’s innocent stare to me. “Annetti, would you mind--?"
"Of course not," I replied with forced brightness. I slipped from my chair and headed toward the kitchen.
"I heard you had quite a surprise on the way to your brother’s yesterday," she teased. "Some-thing about a bear, Kirsten says?"
Alone in the kitchen, I blushed to myself, embarrassed. Bear? I had missed that part. Had Lars mistaken me—in that horrid black muslin dress—for a bear grousing for berries? So he meant to call himself dumb? I began slicing through the dark gel and lattice top of the first pie. The pies had turned out beautifully, but that fact no longer seemed important.
I took my time, grateful for the excuse to be alone and to think. Aunt Janna had loved Mamma, her younger, plainer, poorer sister. But I had never seen her sad even when Mamma died in her arms—kind, but not sad. She had smiled tenderly and said softly: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”
Did she know something about Mamma and heaven that I didn’t know? What was it that seemed to bring her abounding strength in the face of loss? I thought of all the sorrow and sadness I had faced in the past months. Does facing sorrow make one strong? How can it, when it hurts so much? But Aunt Janna was strong, just as Papa was strong.
I thought of Lars and of the strength of character he seemed to possess. He seemed happy and carefree, and yet he had faced the subject of death with serious attention. Was that due to faith? He was a preacher, so he had to have faith. His faith did not consist of dull repetitions of dry words from a dusty old book. His faith was—exactly what? I needed to find that out.
I slid a triangle of pie onto the last plate, wiped my hands, and carried three of the plates through the door to the dining room. I stood there a moment, taking in the sight. Uncle Peter sat at the left end; Aunt Janna presided over the right end. Kirsten and Papa sat with their backs toward me. My chair, between Papa and Aunt Janna, had been pushed smartly up to the table—Papa's doing probably.
Across the table sat Kelda and Lars, wrapped in their own conversation. I hadn't heard what Kelda had said, but Lars was smiling at her. "I would like that very much," he was saying. Kelda was smiling sweetly and looking at him with an adoration that made me sick at heart. My eyes bounced from his blue eyes to her blue eyes, his smile to her smile—how it hurt!
Papa was teasing Kirsten, while Uncle Peter abetted him and Aunt Janna admonished them both to stop. I delivered the pieces of pie quietly and unnoticed. As I returned to the kitchen to fetch the remaining three pieces, I heard Lars saying to Uncle Peter, "You have two lovely daughters."
"Actually, we have three," Uncle Peter replied. "Our daughter Katrina is married and lives in Cloquet, Minnesota. She is twenty-two and has a little son, Dieter, and one on the way."
"Cloquet?” Lars asked. “Where is that?”
“You sailed inland through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, right? Ontario, Eerie, Huron, Superior.”
Lars nodded. “I know Ashland on the Superior, ja.”
“Good. Duluth is about seventy miles farther west. It’s a city with the beauty of the fiords. Cloquet is about twenty miles southwest of Duluth. It’s a lumber town, started up to clear a driftwood jam on the St. Louis River. The first sawmill was built there about ten years ago. Now they float lumber all along the St. Louis River to sawmills in Cloquet.”
“A good thing for a carpenter!” Lars exclaimed brightly.
“But a bad thing for a beautiful daughter,” Aunt Janna countered. “The town is rustic. It is mostly a jumble of thin board houses shared by coarse, uneducated men. Imagine! Katrina lives in a boarding house with only a room for her whole family, and they have a four-year-old boy.”
“But it’s a large room in a very nice house, Janna. And after all, Nils must keep his business afloat while they’re saving to build a house. The town is growing, and their housing situation will change soon enough,” Uncle Peter replied firmly. “Nils Gregerson has done well for himself, and we couldn’t have asked for a better man to take care of our oldest daughter.”
Lars smiled. His blue eyes scanned past Kirsten and Uncle Peter and settled on Kelda as he spoke: “You are blessed of God to have such a good family."
I had whisked silently through the door, delivering the other plates of pie. I returned to the kitchen unnoticed. The words rankled in my mind—words Lars meant for good, but they weren’t words about me. I wrapped myself in Aunt Janna's large apron and poured some of the water heating on the back of the stove into the dishpan.
Deep in thought, I washed dishes. I would never be as lovely as Kelda is. I was like Mamma, a plain face with straight brown hair. I could pretend not to care that I wasn’t a ravishing beauty, but I did care. Kelda was pretty, more than pretty, and the Nelsons were blessed, Lars said, to have such a good family. His words made me feel so alone. I had no lovely sisters. I had no mother. I had no faith.
I had all the pots and pans washed by the time Aunt Janna came bustling into the kitchen. "Oh, Annetti, thank you! I told you, Andrew," she said to Papa, who had followed her with a stack of plates and silverware, "she is a good vurker."
"Ja," I said with forced cheer. "We dumb Norwegians have to vurk." Papa laughed. I smiled at him somewhat grimly, and he laughed all the louder.
"What am I missing?" Lars called from the doorway.
I escaped by carrying the dishpan full of dirty water out the back door. I dumped it carefully over the edge, letting just a trickle fall at the base of the trumpet vines that grew up the trellises on either side of the back porch. Then I stood there a moment enjoying the warm breeze and bright sun.
"She says the funniest things," I heard Kelda declare. Then the back door slammed, and I heard the voices of Uncle Peter and Lars. I slipped around the side of the porch as they came down the steps. I stood there, swathed in Aunt Janna's apron, brushing the wilted bangs from my forehead with my wrist, watching them hitch up the surrey. I didn't think they had noticed me until Lars waved.
Papa was drying pots and pans when I returned, but he didn't stay long, for Aunt Janna shooed him out of the kitchen. "Such a man!" she scolded. "This is our vurk, you thief!" Papa just grinned.
Mechanically, I refilled the dishpan and started on the cups and glasses.
Kelda came up beside me with a large white dishtowel in her hands. She sighed, picked up a glass, and absentmindedly began to wipe it dry. When Aunt Janna left to change the tablecloth, she asked dreamily, "Isn't he handsome, Annetti?"
How like Kelda! Her starry-eyed manner irritated me. I aimed to annoy her with my brusque, business-like tone. "Who?" I asked.
Kelda stared at me a moment and then giggled. "Oh, you would joke! I meant Lars, of course. He has the bluest eyes. Surely you've noticed." She emphasized that last word and gave me one of her coy smiles. Pretty as a picture, even when she’s drying dishes, I thought with envy, but I shrugged in an off-hand manner. "Ashland is full of people with blue eyes."
"Really, Annetti," she scolded with a disgusted huff. "I don't understand you. Perhaps when you're seventeen, like me, you'll...." Her voice trailed off as Aunt Janna returned to the kitchen with the soiled tablecloth and napkins, but she cast me a most despairing glance.
Chapter 4: The Buggy Ride
I walked home alone that afternoon, carrying only my embroidered lunch basket. Papa had left after Aunt Janna's refusal to have him underfoot in the kitchen. Despite the fact that there was nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon, I had no desire to stay and humor Kirsten or to endure Kelda’s condescending airs. I wished that I could do something useful, even if it were picking berries for jam, but Papa would never hear of it. Not on Sunday.
Ashland was quiet. I ambled slowly past the big houses on the Nelsons' street, admiring the intricate trim. When the street ended at the main road along the shore of Lake Superior, I turned left and walked past the Chequemegon Hotel, a popular summer resort of the wealthy, until I came to our shop. The shop was closed, of course, and I had just started toward the narrow walk leading around the side of the building to the back porch when I heard the steady clop of horses’ hooves and the rattle of wheels on the brick road. I turned to see Uncle Peter in his surrey with Lars beside him. I started toward the narrow walk again, but Uncle Peter had seen me.
"Annetti! Come. Join us! A ride out in the fresh air will do you good." Reining the horses to a stop before me, he sat in his black suit and hat, waiting for my reply.
"Do I still need fresh air after all the sunburn I managed to acquire yesterday?" I asked him timidly, hoping to find a way to decline.
Uncle Peter threw back his head and boomed out a long, rolling laugh. Of course, Papa heard him and poked his head out of the upstairs window. My comment had to be repeated and laughed over once more before Papa himself insisted that I did indeed need more fresh air. I scowled back at Papa, but he only laughed again and winked at me.
I sighed and looked at Uncle Peter's surrey. Neither Papa nor Uncle Peter could know how much I dreaded climbing up. The way the horses shook their harness always made me nervous, and I envisioned myself slipping or catching my dress in the wheel. But Lars had jumped down and circled around the back of the surrey while I hesitated. Without asking, he helped me up and tucked the dust blanket around the edges of my skirt. I blushed at all the attention and murmured my thanks, trying to ignore the prickles of excitement I felt inside.
I sat on one side of Uncle Peter; Lars sat on the other. We bumped along in silence, and I wondered if my presence was making conversation awkward. I tried to think of something to say—something less trite than a comment on the weather. They had been out to visit the man with blood poisoning. I could ask how their call went, I thought. But what if the man had—-I winced. Perhaps the man's death explained their silence.
"You look awfully serious, Annetti," Uncle Peter finally said.
"That is a common complaint about my face these days," I replied. “I was wondering about your patient. How is he doing?”
Uncle Peter looked surprised. "The patient is coming along fine. Much better than the last time I saw him, although I do not know that I deserve any credit for the improvement. One thing disturbs me, though." He turned to Lars. "The man listened to what you said, but he did not believe you. I could see it in his eyes."
"Ja. Many believe not right away. The vurking of the Holy Spirit in man's heart—that takes time."
"He appears to be blessed with more time."
"Ja, that is good," Lars replied. He laughed and shook his golden head of hair. "Now me—I was such a stubborn fellow! It took years."
"Years?" Uncle Peter countered. "From your ancient age of twenty-five, years could mean but two or three."
From the corner of my eye I watched Lars' grin and his dancing light blue eyes. "Over sixteen, it was. Papa was very strict, and I was just as stubborn. Olin—he was a good boy. Did what Papa wanted, believed what Papa wanted. But not I. I did not even want to listen."
I leaned forward slightly and looked at Lars curiously. "What changed your mind?"
"A young man with whom I vurked. 'Ja, you can do what you want,' he would say. 'If you want to be stupid just because your father is not—what do I care?' He would tease me so. I had to think why I did not want to believe Papa’s preaching. I think on the gospel a long time. Papa left for America with Olin and Mamma. I was stubborn and did not want to go. I ran away."
My eyes opened wide in shock of such an idea. "But where did you go?"
"To Sweden, and then to sea as a ship's carpenter, not knowing that the captain who signed me on was a man of God. He only sailed the coasts of Sweden, and his family sailed with him. Every morning and evening, we read the Bible and prayed. I listened only because of Margetta, his daughter. She was beautiful, so beautiful. Sometimes she would watch as I vurked, and we would talk about the nature of God.
'I think I know God already,' I tell her. 'He is stern judge like my father.'
"She laughed. ‘I see you have a very narrow viewpoint,’ she told me. ‘But God is infinite—infinitely wise, infinitely good, much more than you can ever think.' "
"'How do you know these things?' I ask her."
"She laughed again and said she listens when the captain reads. So I listen too. The words of the Gospels—they stay in my heart and mind. I try not to believe them, but I know they are true and right, and I finally believe." He paused and stared ahead with a distant hurt in his eyes, a look I knew altogether too well.
"What happened to her?" I asked gently.
He did not answer right away. "She died of pneumonia just before I turned nineteen—a few months after our marriage. I went home to Trondheim. The neighbors gave me Papa's address."
A smile played on his lips. "He was overjoyed to hear from me—and to hear that I now believed. I never realized until then how much he loved me—ja, and I had never realized how great a love God had for me. I wanted to do everything for Him. I heard of a seminary in Oslo. I went to study, and now I am here."
Tears flowed down my cheeks, and I leaned back against the black leather cushions of the surrey, wishing to hide. “But your father—?”
“It is all right, Annetti. He sees me now. He still loves me from where he is.”
I wished with all my heart that I could feel with the same certainty the presence of my mother’s love, but I felt nothing—only sorrow. If only I could know this great love of God that Lars knew—yet I felt only loneliness, emptiness, and a great yearning. A deep sadness filled my heart as I thought of Mamma.
Uncle Peter began telling of his years as a young surgeon in the Civil War, but I was too distracted with my thoughts to pay close attention. His words seemed to rumble on with the wheels as we passed the neat fields and young orchards.
Then all of a sudden we were there. We turned into the long drive beside the square white farmhouse and stopped where it looped before the back porch. Lars jumped off. I nodded to him and smiled slightly, my eyes still teary. But instead of shaking the reins and bidding goodbye, Uncle Peter held the horses and continued talking.
I saw the porch door open, and Olin and Inga emerged. They were calling for Uncle Peter to stop and have a dish of tea and hot scones. I felt embarrassed to be there, afraid I might not know what to say if I were expected to visit. Inga was round with child, and I blushed to think I might have to bear conversation on that subject.
I held my breath and hoped that Uncle Peter would excuse himself and hurry home. He did not. He climbed down from the surrey and tied the reins around the hitching post, leaving me to descend with the help of Lars. The feel of his hands on my waist as he lifted me down sent shivers through my body. One glance at his penetrating blue eyes made me lower my gaze and blush. A tear trickled down my cheek.
Self-conscious, I turned slightly away from the group, casting my eyes across the openness of the farm. The barn stood to my right, the tool shed before me, and the house and the knot of people to my left. Behind me—I gazed with pleasure. Across the long green yard stretched a garden, all the way from the barnyard to the road. Shades of lush green rose up from the dark earth in neat rows. I spotted a huge elm reigning over a small white bench in the side yard, and I knew at once where I wished to be.
"Won't you come in?" Inga was asking me.
"I'd love to look at your garden if I could," I asked almost in a whisper.
Inga nodded and a pleased smile spread across her face. "It is Adelle's garden. She would love for you to look."
"Thank you," I murmured.
I watched the others head toward the porch, then turned and wandered leisurely through the yard to the edge of the garden. I passed rows of bush beans--purple, yellow wax, and green. I passed the spidery green carrot tops, sprawling vines of squash, shoots of onions, walls of pea plants climbing their frames of string, squat broad-leafed pie plants--I had never seen such a magnificent garden. I paused near the mosaic of herbs across from the elm tree. "Parsley, chives, dill," I recited. "Sage, and that must be thyme and basil and—and mint...mint."
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn't look at mint without thinking of Mamma. Somehow it brought the memories of her so close, and yet she was so far away. Is she in heaven? I looked up at the brilliant blue sky and wondered how far away heaven was, what it looked like. Is Mamma happy there? Is she wrapped in the arms of God's love so fully that she could feel the warmth? Could she see me? I felt so empty. How would I ever know God's love, I wondered—it seemed so hard to believe, so impossible to feel midst my sorrow.
The tufts of long, soft grass flopped this way and that. I stepped through the tresses and sat on the white bench under the elm, sighing in despair. My mind went back to the morning's sermon, to the rich young ruler and his question of how to obtain eternal life. I thought of the text, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind." How can I love God if I don’t even know Him?
My eyes fell upon a circlet of sweet alyssum edged with flagstone. I bit my lip and opened my embroidered lunch box. Inside lay a bouquet of the same alyssum, tied with a thin white ribbon. Its kindness had surprised me at Mamma’s grave. My feelings tumbled one upon another. I felt wretched and unworthy. I bit my lip to hold the tears back, but I couldn’t. I was alone, and I wept.
Chapter 5: Adelle
I don't know how much time had passed when I finally looked up and out across the garden, an empty sorrow having replaced my tears. I sat motionless until I heard the clap of a screen door and footsteps on a wooden porch. I turned to see the crisply dressed figure of Olin's mother rounding the corner of the house. She was Lars' mother too, I remembered, and I looked down into my lap at the thought.
"Inga told me you were here looking at the— Why, child! You are not happy!" She sat down beside me and slipped her arm around my shoulders. "What is it, dear?"
I hesitated. Looking timidly into her eyes and trembling, I glanced hurriedly back down at my hands, folded in my lap. I did not dare to speak, for I did not know how to choose words that encompassed my despair. I felt the light warmth of her arm still circling my shoulder and the patient kindness of her gaze. I stared out at the garden.
"I don't know," I finally whispered. "I miss Mamma, and I feel so hopeless, so...so—inadequate." I looked down at my hands again and bit my lip, but she didn't interrupt. "I hope Mamma's in heaven. I—I don't think I'll ever get there."
"Annetti--" The soft calm of her voice startled me, and I realized she had taken my hands in hers, grasping them in a firm, almost urgent squeeze. "Annetti, I knew your mamma, and she loved the Lord in her own quiet way. But none of us is good enough for heaven of ourselves. That is the beauty of God's way. He loved us. He loves you, Annetti."
"But I don't love Him," I blurted out, choking down a sob. "I don't even know Him."
"Ja, perhaps. And perhaps you have known Him all the time but never realized that He gave His Son to die for you, because of the things you have done wrong."
I looked up into her eyes, startled. "I've heard those words many times, but I never thought of them like that."
She smiled at me for a long moment before she spoke, while I studied the glint in her azure eyes. "Knowledge and faith—they are not the same thing. Knowledge comes from seeing and hearing, but faith—-faith is believing the truth of God’s words to us."
I nodded slowly. The realization spread through my being a shaft of hope. "And believing—how do you believe?"
She paused a moment, cocking her head to one side, then spoke with a cautious hesitation between her words. "You decide. You trust that something is true. You put all of your hope in that truth."
My eyes locked with hers for a long moment. She was silent, but I knew she was inwardly asking me, "Do you?" I gazed out over the garden, pondering that question. In ways I did not want to believe. I wanted to see and to feel that God loved me, Annetti—and that He loved Mamma. God, I called out in my mind, I don't know You. I wish I did. I can't say I trust, but I want to believe. Oh, God, I want to.
I watched the sweet peas nod and bob in the gentle breeze, and I waited. No great surge of joy or heartwarming love enveloped me. Yet, in the quiet calmness of my soul, I knew with all of my being that what she said—what I had learned of God in church—was true and right. I turned to her with a slight smile.
"Come, Annetti," she said gently. "We will look at the garden before you go." She stood and led me toward the section of herbs. "You have a garden at home?"
I nodded shyly, following behind her. "We live in town, of course, and we only keep a small back yard of a garden. We have a few herbs and flowers. But this garden—" I stopped and gazed about me. "It stretches row upon row. It's like—like rolls of ribbon all different hues of green, all stretched out over a table of dark velvet."
She smiled at me. "That sounds pretty, when you speak about it in that way. They are all different colors too, now that I think to notice."
"And different heights, with different leaves." I knelt down and fingered the saw-toothed leaves of a low bushy plant. "I don't think I know what plant this is." I looked up at her and blushed. "I don't know what to call you. It sounds funny to say 'Mrs. Sorenson.' "
"Then you may call me Adelle." She responded. "Those are strawberries—some of the boys' favorite. They make good jam mostly. They bear in June, but maybe I find you a leftover, ja?" She bent over and brushed across the row with her hand, parting the leaves. "No. Well, I give you a few plants, and you can make a bit of jam next year."
"I couldn't let you do that," I objected. "You'll have gaps in your rows then."
"No, no—I have to thin them later anyway. How many would you like? You have a little walk to plant them by, maybe?"
"Good. We will get you a little crate to put them in, and you can give them a good watering when you get home."
I followed Adelle across the yard to the shed, noticing how fresh her bright blue poplin dress and white apron looked. She stood about my height but looked stout and much plainer than I looked in my fine Sunday dress. Yet the plainness becomes her, I thought. She possessed the glow of a satisfied, mature woman. I vowed to become like her, plain and yet compelling.
Adelle entered the shed and turned abruptly. "You stay here. No sense to chance soiling your Sunday dress," she commanded. So I stood in the doorway and watched her rummage through the wooden crates in the dimness of the shed. She chose a long shallow tray, found a hand shovel, and emerged from the shed, blinking in the bright sun.
She hesitated there a moment, her sandy hair showing glints of silver. She had it done up in braids, wound around her head like mine, and she stood there tucking a short strand behind her ear, the blue of her eyes drawn out by the brightness of her dress and the brilliance of the sky. Goodness and kindness seemed to shine from her eyes. Will I emanate such virtues when I am old? Will I possess that beauty of character? I must try.
Perhaps she sensed my thoughts, or perhaps she merely marked the admiration in my eyes, for she smiled at me and took my arm as we walked, surveying the garden once more. "Annetti, your whole life is before your like the earth of this garden, you see? You must plant good seeds, water them, and pull out the weeds of selfishness and sin. Then you have a good garden, a good life, ja? You are young. One must take good care of herself, bot’ inside and out."
I nodded and looked out across the huge garden, thinking of all the plowing and planting and mulching and hoeing such a garden would require. "It looks to be a great deal of work," I commented. "I mean—it certainly seems as if it would be a great deal easier to look back across a spring of hard work—or a whole lifetime for that matter—than it would be to look forward."
Adelle had begun digging up a strawberry plant, but at my comment she stopped and looked out across the garden. "Ja, but the reward of vurk well done—that makes life worth everything. And we are ones to vurk."
I couldn't help laughing. "Not you too!" I thought of Papa and his "vurk," and I blushed to think of my sour comment to Lars that first day—"We dumb Norwegians have to vurk."
She smiled up at me. "Ja. When God has blessed us with the ability to give, to vurk--we must use it. Uff Da! Look at these hands! I think we have enough. You can plant these in the evening when it is cool. Dig a little hole; fill it with water, then put in the plant. They will need a little water every day to get a good start."
Our walk back to the house was silent. Adelle went inside the house to wash. I tucked the tray of strawberry plants under the seat of the surrey and waited, keeping my distance from the horses. I stood with my back to the house, looking out over the garden, thinking about what Adelle had said, when I heard the clap of the screen door again. I turned to see Lars coming toward me, his eyes twinkling.
"Annetti, tell me how you charmed Mamma out of one of her precious jars of strawberry jam," he teased, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners like Papa’s. "She sent me to the cellar for it, and it is a good thing she is writing out the recipe so that you can make me a replacement."
"You're as bad as Papa about teasing," I returned with a grin. "You know very well there will be no more strawberries until next June."
"You do not know how much I love Mamma's strawberry jam," he persisted. "I think you should give me a jar of blackberry jam at least."
"That's a clever idea," I stated, enjoying the banter and the attentive gaze of his heavenly blue eyes. Then I thought of Kelda and the memory of his blue eyes fastened with hers. What a fool I am becoming, I scolded myself. I said nothing to Lars—simply took the jar of jam from him and tucked it under the seat of the surrey next to the tray of plants.
"You have told me before that I was as bad as your Papa." He paused, and I could see his grin from the corner of my eye as I finished. "But I like your Papa. You like him too. Perhaps you like me as much as you like your Papa?"
I blushed, not knowing what to say. His teasing did remind me of Papa.
“I like you,” he stated. “I wish you would like me as much.”
I turned toward him, startled. The words spilled from my mouth before I could check them. "And I wish you would like me as much as you like certain people with blue eyes," I retorted hotly, my eyes flashing with emotion. Then I blushed, embarrassed at having betrayed my true feelings.
He just grinned at me. "Do that again. I love it."
"Do what?" I asked, politely indignant, tossing my head and glaring at his annoying grin.
"That." He threw his head back and laughed.
"I fail to see what is so humorous," I stated tartly.
"Your eyes—they are so—so—"
"Lavender? Thank you, Reverend Sorenson. You are most observant."
He bowed in mock reply. Just then Uncle Peter appeared, with Olin and Inga and Adelle behind him. I blushed to be found standing there with Lars, but no one seemed to notice or think anything of it.
"Come, Annetti. We'd best be off," Uncle Peter was saying. He climbed up in surrey and reached out his hand to help me up.
I glanced toward the horses, hesitant, then caught up the skirt of my dress with one hand and grasped Uncle Peter's with the other.
Adelle moved close to help me tuck in the dust blanket. "I have brought you my recipe for strawberry jam," she announced, handing up a folded piece of paper.
"I have heard tales of your strawberry jam, Mrs. Sorenson," Uncle Peter complimented. "My wife would like that recipe too, but I thought it was a family secret."
"I think it will be safe with Annetti," she replied.
"You should not give it away for nothing," Lars objected teasingly. "Mamma, you could at least get Annetti's recipe for oatmeal rolls or blackberry pie. They are wonderful! The best piece of baking I have tasted in a long time."
She turned and looked at him in stark amazement; her fists perched sternly on her hips. "I beg your pardon!"
We all laughed. Lars winked at me, and I blushed, hoping no one else had noticed. A warm, pleasant feeling filled my heart.
Our ride home was a gentle, pleasant trip. Uncle Peter didn't talk much; we just enjoyed the scenery. He must have said something to his family that evening, though, for the next day Kelda paid me a special visit at the shop. She was curious about everything. Thank goodness Papa was down at the docks picking up a new shipment of fall fabrics when she came! I could never have acted so nonchalant under his scrutinizing eyes, nor would I have heard the end of his teasing.
I am afraid I frustrated Kelda to no end with indifferent answers. She finally shook her delicate blond curls and sighed in exasperation at my series of "I don't know," "I never noticed," and "Not much."
"Gracious, Annetti!" she complained. "When are you ever going to wake up? I should think you're well on your way to being an old maid. I certainly don't intend to be one!" And off she trounced, her curls shaking in indignation.
I just smiled to myself at her scolding. I was awake, I thought—awake enough to know better than to tell her what she wanted to hear.