Early March 1890
Andrea Neumann Wilson
Unable to grasp the totality of Mr. Brighton’s message, I gripped the brass doorknob and attempted to steady myself against the splintered doorjamb. Concern shone in the eyes of the owner of Brighton Shipping Lines, a well-dressed gentleman who looked out of place in this brick tenement with its leaking roof, cracked dormer windows, and wooden cornices that begged repair. My mind told me I should invite him inside, but the words would not come. Instead, my lips tightened into a thin line, and a lump the size of a hedge apple lodged in my throat.
“I hope you’re not going to faint on me, Mrs. Wilson.” Mr. Brighton nodded toward the interior of the small apartment. “You should sit down.”
Still holding my arm, he propelled me toward one of the rickety wooden chairs not far from the entrance. Of course nothing was far from the doorway of the one-room tenement that had become our Baltimore home. Lukas, my seven-year-old son who had been napping on a narrow bed lodged against the wall, rolled over and rubbed his eyes. His gaze settled on Mr. Brighton.
“Who is that, Mama?” The moment he asked, he cast a glance about the room. “Is Papa home?” A hint of fear edged his childish voice.
Pity clouded Mr. Brighton’s eyes. He leaned close and kept his voice low. “Do you want me to tell the boy?”
“No. I’ll speak with him after you’ve gone.” I crooked my finger to motion Lukas to my side. His bare feet slapped on the wooden floorboards as he crossed the room. “Put on your shoes and go downstairs to Mrs. Adler’s rooms. She told me she would have a piece of bread and butter for you when you got up from your nap.”
His lips curved in a smile that tugged at my heart. Instead of growing too large for his clothes, his shirt and trousers hung loose on his frame. He was too thin. So was I. So were most of the people who lived in these run-down tenement buildings.
Unlike me in my youth, when I’d never felt the sting of abuse or felt the pinch of hunger, Lukas had experienced the opposite. He’d lived with his father’s wrath and gone to bed hungry far too often. While I had experienced the wonders of nature on our Iowa farm, Lukas had been deprived of a carefree childhood. Instead of running through fields and meadows, he lived in an aging tenement building where I did my best to keep him safe. Too soon, fear and worry had caused my son to seem far older than his seven years.
“I’ll come back and share it with you,” he offered.
I shook my head. “No. You eat every bite yourself. And stay with Mrs. Adler until I come and fetch you. Understand?”
He shoved his right foot into one of the worn brown shoes, then pulled the end of his sock forward and tucked it over a small hole in the toe of his sock before donning the other shoe. Looking up at me, he grinned. “Now my toe won’t poke out.”
I tucked a wisp of hair behind my ear. “I’ll darn that for you when you come back home. Be sure you remind me before bedtime.”
“I will, Mama,” he called as he flew out the door. His shoes clacked a familiar beat on the narrow wooden steps that provided the only means of passage from our third-floor room.
Our building was situated in a row of tenements near the foul and ruinous sweatshops where many of our neighbors worked for meager wages and hoped for a better life. Others, like me, were wives of sailors who depended upon the earnings their husbands might—or might not—bring home after returning from sea. The area was plagued with poverty and crime, but right now I didn’t need to worry about Lukas going outdoors without me. The expectation of an extra piece of bread provided ample assurance that he’d go directly to Louise Adler’s apartment. And Louise wouldn’t permit him out of her sight without me.
Mr. Brighton remained standing near the doorway, and though he gave no indication, I knew he wanted to be on his way. “I wish I came bearing better news, Mrs. Wilson, but . . .” His voice evaporated like a morning fog drenched with sunlight.
“You truly believe my husband is . . . dead?” My voice trembled, not so much from fear or sorrow, but from utter disbelief. “If the men didn’t recover his body, how can you be certain?”
He drew a step closer and touched my shoulder. “There isn’t a person on the crew who believes your husband is alive, Mrs. Wilson. Had there been any hope, I would have waited before coming to call on you. I realize it’s difficult to comprehend, but when there’s a storm at sea—well, I don’t want to go into the details. Suffice it to say that your husband was not seen after the storm. The ship’s records reveal your husband boarded the ship in Martinique for the return to Baltimore. However, John Calvert, one of the sailors who is said to be a friend of your husband, reported he saw him wash over. In addition, the crew assures me they searched every nook and cranny of the ship, and he wasn’t found after the storm.”
“So you believe he was washed overboard during a storm and there’s no hope his body will be recovered?” My mind reeled as I attempted to digest the news. Could I truly believe Fred would never again enter this room in a drunken stupor and crawl into bed beside me at night? That he would never again shout profanities and strike me? That he would never again hurt Lukas with his odious words and deeds?
“I’m afraid so.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew an envelope. “I know this doesn’t in any way make up for the loss you’ve suffered, but we at Brighton Shipping hope this contribution will assist you and your son. Your husband’s final pay is included, as well.” When I didn’t immediately extend my hand to accept the envelope, he leaned around me and placed it on the dilapidated table. “Will you stay here in Baltimore? I’d be willing to help you find some sort of work.”
The man appeared befuddled and uncertain what more to offer, yet it was likely he’d been required to perform this unpleasant duty on previous occasions. After all, sailors frequently were lost at sea, and many were injured or died in accidents on the wharves, as well.
Perhaps it was my lack of tearful emotion that baffled him. “I’m not yet sure what I will do, Mr. Brighton, but I doubt I’ll remain in Baltimore.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, should you change your mind and desire my help locating work, you need only send word to my office, and I’ll do what I can.” With a final glance around the room, he took a backward step. “If there’s nothing else I can do, I suppose I should get back to my office.” When I rested my hand on the table for support and began to rise, he waved me back to my chair. “No need to get up, Mrs. Wilson. You relax and gain your strength.”
I wanted to explain that it wasn’t the news of Fred’s death that had caused my weakness. Truth be told, the news caused more relief than pain, but I would never utter those words aloud—at least not to this stranger. Touching the envelope he’d placed on the table, I realized I hadn’t acknowledged his gift. “Thank you, Mr. Brighton. I appreciate your kindness. I am sure your gift will be of great help to us.”
“I wish you well, Mrs. Wilson.” He gave a brief nod before he hurried out the door and down the steps. He appeared eager to leave now that he had performed his official duty, and I didn’t blame him. No one wanted to remain in this section of Fells Point unless he had nowhere else to go.
Through the open window, I heard the children in the street below begging for money, but when Mr. Brighton ignored them, their beseeching pleas soon turned to angry invectives. If he didn’t give in to their demands or make a quick escape, they would soon hurl stones at him. Prepared to shout at the children, I stepped to the window, but Mr. Brighton had already disappeared from sight. He’d obviously chosen to quicken his step.
Returning to the table, I picked up the envelope and lifted the flap. Carefully, I counted the sum. Mr. Brighton had spoken the truth. It wasn’t much. Still, any amount was better than nothing. Along with the cash, Mr. Brighton had included an accounting of Fred’s wages. I scanned the carefully penned figures. The numbers revealed Fred had drawn against his wages before departing on his latest voyage, a practice that had become all too common of late.
True to form, Fred hadn’t provided me with any money before he sailed. Instead, he’d expected me to make do with whatever I could earn taking in piecework from one of the sweatshops. Resentment swelled in my chest. I shouldn’t have anticipated anything different. Fred’s selfish behavior, his gambling, abuse, and drinking had increased throughout our years in Baltimore. Why would he have given any thought to Lukas or me before he’d departed this time?
My husband was dead. On some level, I should be experiencing grief. Yet how did one grieve the loss of a man who’d taken pleasure in causing pain to his wife and child?
The loud clatter of wagon wheels rumbling on the cobblestone street below drifted through the open window and jolted me back to the present. After tucking the money into my pocket, I descended the rickety steps to Louise’s rooms while trying to formulate the proper way to tell Lukas the news. I couldn’t be certain how he would react. The child feared his father, and rightfully so. There had been no escaping Fred’s wrath when he’d been drinking. Yet, on the rare occasions he had remained sober, Fred would take Lukas to the wharf and tell him stories about the ships and his adventures at sea. No doubt the child would miss those infrequent yet exciting escapades.
After a few taps on the door, I heard the sound of footfalls and the door opened. A cheery smile spread across Louise’s face and she waved me inside. Looping her arm in mine, she stepped toward the table. “You’re just in time for a cup of tea and a slice of bread and butter.” The aroma of the fresh-baked bread filled my nostrils, and I moved steadily toward the scent.
Lukas wiped crumbs from his mouth. “It’s really good, Mama. This is my second piece.”
I opened my mouth to scold him for taking a second slice, but Louise shook her head. “I insisted. He needs some meat on his bones, Andrea.” The older woman lifted a crusty slice from the end of the loaf, smeared it with butter, and handed it to me. “You need fattening, too. Sit down while I pour you some tea.” She lifted a kettle from the small stove that was used for both heating and cooking in the small apartment.
“Thank you, Louise. You’re good to share with us.” I was ashamed to take food from our neighbor, for I knew her means didn’t exceed my own by much, but my growling stomach won out. I bit into the crusty bread and savored the yeasty flavor.
“Lukas said a man in fancy clothes came to your room. Did Fred go off and leave the rent unpaid?”
I shook my head and gestured to the other side of the room. “Why don’t we sit over there, where we’ll have a little more space.” I patted Lukas on the shoulder. “You stay here at the table so you don’t get crumbs on Mrs. Adler’s floor.”
“Yes, Mama,” he said before taking another bite of the treat.
Louise carried the teacups to a small table in the living area, and we sat down on the couch. With the piece of bread resting atop a napkin on my lap, I leaned a little closer. “I don’t want Lukas to hear just yet, but Mr. Brighton came to tell me that Fred died at sea.”
Louise clapped her palm to her lips and let out a small yelp. Instantly, Lukas twisted around and looked in our direction. “Did you burn your mouth with the tea, Mrs. Adler?”
The older woman shook her head. “I’m fine, Lukas. You go on and eat your bread.” Louise grasped my arm in a tight hold. “Did they recover his body?” The moment after she’d uttered the question, she dropped her gaze. “I’m sorry, Andrea. That was a thoughtless question, but I know sometimes they don’t find the men.”
I explained as much as I’d been told. “Mr. Brighton gave me what little was left of Fred’s wages, along with a sum they pay to widows. If I’m careful, I think it will be enough for food and train fare to get us back to Iowa.”
Mrs. Adler arched her brows. “You’ve already made a decision to return home?”
“What else can I do, Louise? I can’t provide a proper home for Lukas in Baltimore. Besides, it was Fred who wanted to come here, not me.”
“I know. If the mister and me had a farm to go to, I’d be wanting to leave here, too. I’d rather have the smell of clover blowing through my open window than the odor of dead fish that greets me every morning.” Louise took a sip of her tea and then settled the cup atop a chipped saucer. “What are you gonna tell the boy?”
I momentarily closed my eyes. “That his father was lost at sea.”
The older woman nodded. “I’m sure your father will be a much better example for Lukas and will give you all the help you’re gonna need.” Louise shook her head. “I never wished Fred any harm, but he was a mean sort.” She shivered and rubbed her arms, as if to erase the remembrance of Fred and his cruel behavior.
“I’m sure my father will be pleased to have someone cook and clean for him again, and I know he’ll enjoy having Lukas around. He always wanted a boy. Now he’ll be able to teach Lukas all the things he’d hoped to teach me if I’d been a son.” A note of melancholy overcame me as I recalled my father’s lamenting the fact that my mother had never borne him a son to take over the farm. From that day forward, I’d felt somewhat less important in his life. Maybe returning with a grandson would make up for the fact that I was a girl.
“How can I help you? Tell me what needs to be done and I’ll get busy.” Instead of keeping her voice low, Louise had spoken in her usual boisterous tone.
Lukas jumped to his feet and hurried to my side. “What do you need help with, Mama?” He lifted his arms and attempted to flex his small muscles. “I can help.”
Louise grimaced. “Sorry.” She touched her fingers to her lips. “Me and my big mouth.”
“You’re fine, Louise. Don’t worry.” I took hold of Lukas’s hand. “Let’s go upstairs. I have something important to tell you.”
Preparing for our departure didn’t take as long as I’d anticipated. Probably because most of my belongings had remained in the trunks they’d been packed in when we moved to Baltimore. There had never been enough shelves or cupboards to hold all of my clothing or the household goods I’d brought with me. In this small room that we called home, there was little space for more than the three of us. To try to arrange china or knickknacks in the room would have proved disastrous, especially once Lukas had begun walking. Besides, Fred had discouraged unpacking much of anything, promising he’d find a larger place in a better part of town before long. That empty promise he’d made before Lukas was born.
With a sigh, I lowered the lid of the trunk and locked the hasp. “I’m thankful for your help, Mr. Adler.”
Louise’s husband glanced at me and shook his head. “I been telling you to call me Bob ever since you moved into this place.”
I forced my lips into an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Bob. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t appreciated all your kindness through the years.”
He grinned. “Wish I could have done more for you and the boy. I’m sorry about Fred, but the Lord knows best. I probably shouldn’t say this, but you may be better off without him. He sure had a mean streak running through him when he was into the drink.”
With a grunt, Mr. Adler heaved the last of my trunks from the room and headed down the stairs to a waiting wagon that would transport my son and me to the train station. I grasped Lukas by the hand and glanced around the room one final time.
A rush of unexpected emotion gripped me. Not the feeling of anticipation I’d experienced years ago when leaving the farm with Fred, but one of sorrow for the wasted years that could have been filled with happiness and joy. Sadly, my only delight had been the arrival of our son. But like me, Lukas had been unable to please Fred, so even the joy of our son had been tempered by Fred’s anger and discontent.
Lukas tugged on my hand. “Come on, Mama. The wagon will leave without us.”
His childish voice tugged at my heart, and I squeezed his hand. “The driver will wait, but you’re right. We must hurry or we’ll miss the train.”
Louise stood near the wagon and pulled me into a tight embrace before leaning down to kiss Lukas on the forehead. She motioned to her husband, who was holding a basket in one hand. “I’ve packed some food for the journey. Don’t argue with me—it’s the least we can do for you.”
Lukas danced from foot to foot. “Is there bread and jam?”
The older woman tousled his light brown hair. “Now, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t pack you some bread and jam? You be a good boy and help your mama. You’ve got a long way to travel, so you’ll need to behave.”
“I will.” He bobbed his head. “I’m going to a farm and see lots of animals and meet my grandpa.”
Mr. Adler hoisted the boy into the wagon and then assisted me. “Take good care and don’t eat all that bread and jam before the train pulls out of the station, Lukas.”
“I won’t, Mr. Adler.” The boy grinned and waved as the wagon pulled away from the ramshackle tenement houses.
If my son harbored any grief or sadness, he was keeping it well concealed. I hadn’t expected him to grieve the loss of his father, for Fred had never shown the boy any love. Nothing we had done ever pleased him, and though I believed his rants were no more than an excuse to justify his departure for the bars along the wharf, Fred had always blamed everything, from our poverty-stricken existence to his drunken stupors, on everyone but himself.
“Cost ya extra to have me take the trunks into the station, missus. Up to you.” Brows arched, the driver looked at me for further direction.
“I’ll need you to take them inside.”
He helped me down from the wagon but held out his hand for payment before unloading the trunks. I carefully counted out the money and waited to follow him inside, for I didn’t trust him any more than he trusted me, and I could ill afford to lose my few worldly possessions.
Lukas’s excitement mounted as we walked into the busy train station. “Stay by my side,” I instructed while I purchased our tickets.
The man behind the counter pointed the driver to the platform. “You can place her trunks and baggage out there on that loading area to the left of the doors.” Turning his attention back to me, he handed me our tickets. “That’s your train waiting out there. You and the boy can go ahead and get on board.”
“You’re certain they’ll load my belongings?”
His smile was forced. “We do this every day, ma’am. Your luggage will be with you when you arrive in Iowa.” He signaled for the next person in line to step forward.
Every bone in my body ached when the conductor stepped down the aisle and called out, “Marengo! Next stop, Marengo.” The train ride had been long and tiresome, and I would be thankful when the final leg of our trip would come to an end.
I roused Lukas. “Time to wake up. We’re pulling into the train station.”
Lukas rubbed his eyes. “We have to get on another train?”
I smiled and shook my head. “No more trains, but we’ll need to take a wagon ride to the farm.”
The answer pleased the boy, and he sat up to peer out the window. “Do you think Grandpa will like me?”
“He will love you very much. You just wait and see. He’ll show you how to milk the cows and feed the chickens. You’ll learn all sorts of new things. There will be trees to climb and fish in the pond waiting for you to catch.”
He bounced on the hard seat. “And you can cook them for our supper.”
“Indeed I will, but first we need to take that wagon ride.” Still hissing and belching, the train lurched to a stop. I escorted Lukas off the train, took him by the hand, and led him inside the station.
A paunchy old gentleman stood behind the ticket window. “How can I help ya, ma’am?”
I explained my need for a wagon, and he pointed to a lanky man leaning against a railing outside the station. “That fellow out there is who you need to speak with.”
After a quick thank-you, I crossed the short distance to the door and stepped outside. While keeping an arm around Lukas’s shoulder, I made arrangements with the driver, and although I had hoped I might see someone I knew, I immediately realized the improbability of such an idea. I’d never known many folks in Marengo. My parents had purchased most of their supplies at the general store in High Amana. If a trip to Marengo was necessary, my father or one of the hired hands had made the journey.
Once the driver loaded our belongings, he helped Lukas and me into the wagon. Then he circled around the horses and gave each one a gentle pat on the rump.
We hadn’t gone far when he looked at me. “You said you wanted to go to the Neumann farm. That right?”
“Guess you best give me directions on how to get there.”
His statement caught me by surprise. It seemed a man offering wagon services at the train station should know his way around these parts. When I questioned him, he shrugged his broad shoulders and grinned. “Man’s gotta make a living, and Clint—he’s the ticket agent you met back there—he told me there’s always folks needin’ a ride somewhere. So far, it’s worked out pretty good.”
I arched a brow. “But what if one of your passengers didn’t know how to direct you? Then what would you do?”
He chuckled and rubbed his jaw. “Then I guess I’d go back to the train station and ask Clint, but so far I haven’t had to do that. Jest my good luck that most folks know how to get where they wanna go. And I’m beginning to learn my way around.” He slapped the reins and the horses picked up their pace. “So does this farm we’re going to belong to you and your husband?”
“No, it belongs to my father.”
“I see. Well, to tell ya the truth, when I first saw ya, I thought maybe you was one of them Amana folks, what with your dark clothes and all. I went over to one of them villages looking for work when I first came to town, but they wasn’t hiring. Told me to come back during harvest in late summer and they might have work for me. All the women was dressed in dark colors.”
Lukas pointed to a herd of cows grazing in a distant pasture. “Are those some of my grandpa’s cows?”
“No. We have a ways to go before we’ll get to Grandpa’s farm. Why don’t you rest your head on my shoulder and try to sleep.”
“There’s too much to see, Mama. I don’t want to sleep.”
As I looked out over the rolling hills and vast farmlands that spread around us like a patchwork quilt, I tried to imagine seeing this countryside for the first time. Little wonder Lukas found the unfolding scene fascinating. For all of his young life, his view had been restricted to tenement housing and an occasional walk to the wharf, where he’d wave good-bye to his father when his vessel would set sail. A while later, weariness won out and he finally nestled against me and fell asleep.
Leaning forward, I squinted and pointed in the distance. “Turn to the left at the fork in the road. It won’t be much farther once we turn.”
A mixture of excitement and dread knotted in my stomach. My parents had been opposed to Fred’s decision to leave Iowa, and my father had tried his best to convince him we should remain on the farm. He’d likely be quick to point out the folly of Fred’s choice. There hadn’t been many letters back and forth, but I hoped my appearance with Lukas would heal any scars in our damaged relationship.
We’d traveled for less than an hour when I straightened my shoulders and peered to the left. “There! That’s the farm up ahead.” I leaned forward to gain a better view. Confusion took hold and I raised my hand to block the sun from my eyes. Why couldn’t I see the house? Had we taken a wrong turn? Surely I hadn’t been gone so long that I’d forgotten my way home.
As the wagon drew near, I let out a gasp and clutched a hand to my chest. In the distance, my gaze settled on what had once been my family’s home. Now only ashes and a sandstone foundation remained.
A perplexed look shadowed the driver’s face. “You sure this is the right place, ma’am?”
An unexpected tightness squeezed my throat and stifled my response. I could manage no more than a faint nod.
He shifted on the wagon seat and faced me. “You want me to put the baggage in that barn over there? Looks like it might be the best place, since . . .” His voice faded on the breeze. He held tight to the reins with one hand and gestured toward the remnants of the house with the other.
Hoping to rid myself of the lump that had lodged in my throat, I massaged my neck for a moment. “The barn will be fine, thank you.” Had that croaking response come from my lips? I needed to regain my composure, or Lukas would become frightened.
The driver slapped the reins against the horses’ backsides, and they slowly trod across the rough, overgrown quarter mile that lay between the house and barn. I’d never seen the place in such a state of disrepair and wondered how long it had been since the fire.
Had my father simply given up and moved into town? Surely not. He’d never been a quitter. This farm had always been his life. Yet he was nowhere in sight, and it didn’t appear that any of his fields had been plowed for spring planting. Perhaps it had been too cold and he was waiting for the arrival of warmer weather before turning the ground.
I shifted toward the wagon driver. “Have you heard anyone speak of Johann Neumann or a fire? Someone in Marengo must have mentioned something about this. I realize we’re out a good distance from Marengo, but I know word travels in these parts.”
“I ain’t heard nothing that I can recollect, but since I don’t know folks around here, the news kind of goes in one ear and out the other.” He pointed to one of his oversized ears and grinned.
In one respect, I understood his response. Much of the gossip that had swirled throughout the tenement building hadn’t meant anything to me. Other than Louise and her husband, the occupants had been only a blur of faces. When groups of residents would gather in the stairwells to gossip, I would hear smatterings of their conversations, but I couldn’t recall any of it—nor did I want to.
Yet a farmhouse burning to the ground was something entirely different, wasn’t it? Would I have forgotten such a piece of disastrous news even if I hadn’t known the people or the place where it occurred? I closed my eyes and searched for my own answer. Probably so. In truth, I’d likely heard even worse things, although I couldn’t bring one to mind.
“Where’s Grandpa?” Lukas’s eyes were wide with anticipation as the driver brought the horses to a halt near the barn door.
I didn’t fail to notice one of the doors stood partially open. “I’m not sure. Maybe he’s inside the barn.”
Lukas clambered down from the wagon as the driver assisted me to the ground. “I’ll go look for him.” Without a backward glance, the boy ran pell-mell through the knee-high weeds and disappeared behind the barn door.
The driver strode to the rear of the wagon. “You sure you want to stay here, ma’am? I can take you back to Marengo—no extra charge.”
“Thank you, but we’ll stay. I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Although my voice bore a confident tone, I wasn’t at all sure we’d be fine. In fact, I wasn’t sure what we would do if my father didn’t soon make an appearance.
I hurried after Lukas to ensure he hadn’t met with any unexpected calamity inside the barn, as well as to locate a proper space for our belongings. My father had always been known to keep his barn and outbuildings in good repair, but since he’d made no effort to rebuild the house, I wondered if by now there might be leaks or other damage to the remaining structures.
After stepping inside the barn, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. A stream of sunlight flowed through the open door but illuminated only a short distance beyond my feet. “Lukas! Where are you?”
“Over here, Mama. I don’t see no animals. Where are they?”
“Maybe out in the pasture. I really don’t know.” I walked toward the sound of his voice. When I drew near, he turned. “What do you think of this barn, Lukas? Is it as big as you imagined?”
He spread his arms wide and turned in a circle. “It’s as big as a ship, isn’t it? I wonder what’s up there,” he said, pointing to the hayloft.
I chuckled at his enthusiasm. “From what I see so far, probably not much of anything. Right now, we need to find a good place for our trunks.” Grasping his hand, I strode to the far side of the barn. “Come along and help me.”
He skipped beside me, straw flying beneath his feet while dust motes danced in the shafts of sunlight that beamed through every crevice. I located a spot along the west wall, not too far from the door. A place that appeared dry, but since I had no idea how long it had been since the last rain, my assumption might be very wrong. I could only hope for the best.
“You want ’em over there?” The driver’s voice and his footfalls echoed in the cavernous barn.
Wheeling around on my heel, I stepped toward him and pointed to the wall. “I think that will be a good spot.”
He settled the trunk on the floor before returning for the next one. Lukas trotted along behind him. “I can carry my mama’s small cases.”
The driver waved him forward. “You sure can, and I’d be pleased for your help.”
Lukas’s shoulders squared, and his lips curved in a winning smile. I followed behind. Once outside the barn, I tugged the brim of my bonnet forward to block the sun from my eyes and glanced toward the remains of the house.
Had my father gone to High Amana for supplies, or had he left the farm for good? I needed to develop some sort of plan, but I’d wait until tomorrow before making any final decisions.
The thought was enough to remind me of the basket of food I’d continued to replenish since leaving Baltimore. I cupped my hands to my lips. “Be sure you bring the food basket, Lukas!”
When he waved his hat in the air, I knew he’d heard, and I turned to once again to survey the surrounding acreage.
My stomach tightened, yet I fought back the rising fear. This was my family’s homestead. Until tomorrow, I would believe my papa would appear. After that, I didn’t know what I’d do, but for tonight we’d sleep in the barn and pretend all was well.
“You certain you want to stay?” the driver asked for the third time since he’d begun unloading the trunks. “I’m not sure ’bout leaving you and the boy out here alone.”
I thanked him for his help, and after assuring him we would be fine, Lukas and I stood side by side and watched the driver and his wagon disappear out of sight.
“What do we do now, Mama?” I heard the tremble in his voice. The driver’s concern had been enough to signal all was not well, and Lukas hadn’t missed the warning.
“I think we’ll have us a picnic right out here in the sunshine, and then we’ll pull some of the quilts from our trunk and make a cozy spot to sleep.” I squeezed his shoulders. “We’re going to have a grand adventure tonight.”
“But what if Grandpa doesn’t come home?”
“We’ll ask God to direct us, Lukas. Everything will be fine. Just you wait and see.”
Morning arrived with no sign of my father throughout the night or this morning. With no indication of him or of any animals on the property, I became certain he’d decided to leave the farm. Maybe for only a short time until he could make plans to rebuild. Perhaps he’d made arrangements with the farmers in West Amana to care for the stock during his absence. He could trust them to treat the animals well. But until his return, I would need to purchase a few provisions, and my funds were
While Lukas slept, I lifted the bar from across the barn doors and stepped outside. “At least the weather is warm,” I murmured, thankful we hadn’t arrived in the dead of winter.
“Guten Morgen! Willkommen!”
I startled and turned in the direction of the shouted greeting. A broad-shouldered man who appeared to be near my father’s age strode toward me. He waved his wide-brimmed straw hat overhead and offered a friendly smile as he approached. Along with the fact that he’d spoken in German, his wide suspenders, dark trousers, and jacket gave proof he was a member of the Amana Colonies. I guessed he’d come from West Amana, since a portion of land owned and farmed by the Amana colonists who lived in West abutted my father’s acreage.
Using the familiar German I’d learned during my childhood years, I walked toward him and returned his greeting.
“How can I help you?” He glanced toward the farm. “Your horses and wagon are in our barn?”
I frowned at his question. “Your barn? This land belongs to my father, Johann Neumannn. I am Andrea Neumannn Wilson, his daughter.” I gestured toward the barn. “My son, Lukas, is inside. We have returned home from Baltimore. My father didn’t write and tell me about the fire.” I let my gaze settle on the sandstone foundation that had once supported our frame house.
“Ja, the fire, it was very bad.” His voice was as solemn as his dark brown eyes. “I am sorry you must come home to find such sadness.”
“Danke.” Not wanting to reveal the tears beginning to form in my eyes, I looked away. “My father? I arrived yesterday but haven’t seen him. Did he decide to leave the farm? Do you know?”
“First you should let me introduce myself. I am Brother Heinrich Bosch. I live in West Amana. Some of our men were plowing yesterday and said they saw a wagon arrive on our land. I came to see if their imaginations were working too hard.” He tapped his finger to the side of his head and smiled before glancing in the direction of the barn. “This is your son?”
I turned and gestured for Lukas to join me. His legs flew like a windmill propelling in a brisk wind. In a few brief moments, he came to a halt beside me, his breath coming in gasps. He narrowed his blue eyes and angled his head to one side. “Are you my grandpa?”
Confusion shone in Brother Bosch’s eyes.
“Lukas has never met his grandfather,” I explained and then turned to Lukas and shook my head. “No, this is Brother Bosch. He lives in West Amana.” I pointed in the direction of the village.
“Does he know Grandpa?”
“I haven’t yet had time to ask him. Why don’t you go back into the barn and shake out the blankets for me. You can fold them and put them back in the trunk.”
Lukas inched closer to me. “But I—”
“Please do as I’ve asked, Lukas. I’ll come in and get you in a few minutes.” I touched his shoulder and gently nudged him back in the direction of the barn.
Lukas shuffled off, but not without glancing over his shoulder several times.
“He is a fine boy.” Brother Bosch settled his straw hat atop his graying hair. “His Vater? He is with you?”
“Nein. His father is dead. He died at sea.” If the older man was surprised by my emotionless response, he gave no indication. “That’s why we returned home.” I hesitated and looked into his dark brown eyes. “You said something about this being your barn. What did you mean?”
He motioned to a leafy elm not far from the barn. “Since there is no place to sit, we can at least go over and stand in the shade, ja?”
I nodded and did my best to match his long-legged stride. I was happy to accommodate his wish, but more than shade I wanted answers to my questions. We had almost arrived at the tree when I said, “You know my father?”
He nodded. “I did. He was a hard worker and a gut man.”
I stopped in my tracks. Brother Bosch had spoken of my father in the past tense. Either he had left the farm or he was . . . dead. Either way, I needed to know. I grasped the older man by his sleeve. “Is he alive?”
He looked down at me and shook his head. “Nein. He died in the fire.”
I gasped and clutched one arm around my waist. I thought I might be sick. With a gentle touch, Brother Bosch led me to the shade of the tree, removed his jacket, and spread it beneath the elm.
He pointed to the jacket. “You should sit. I am sorry to be the one to tell you this sad news about your Vater. Is bad enough you did not know about the fire, but . . .”
His voice trailed off while a group of baby birds in a nest chirped overhead. A fat robin circled, settled at the edge of the nest, and dropped food into the gaping beaks of her babies. A stark reminder that I would soon need to find a way to feed my son. We had little food and even less money. Although I’d attempted to devise a plan as I lay awake last night, my efforts had been unsuccessful. I couldn’t farm this land by myself, but perhaps I could sell the acreage. The very idea reminded me of Brother Bosch’s earlier remark regarding “his” barn.
A surge of guilt attacked. I’d learned only moments ago that my father was dead, but instead of mourning his loss, I was already making plans to sell his land. Yet what was I to do? Just as those baby birds were dependent upon their mother, Lukas depended upon me. My grief would have to wait. Right now, I needed answers.
He’d leaned his lanky frame against the trunk of the tree and silently stared into the distance. I had to know what Lukas and I now faced. “When you first arrived you said this was your barn. What did you mean, Brother Bosch?”
His eyes shone with concern. “There is so much you must learn in just a short time, but if you want to hear, I will tell you.”
I nodded. “I have no choice. I can’t make any decisions until I know everything that has happened.”
I didn’t miss the pity that shone in his eyes as he nodded. “About three years ago, your Vater came and spoke to the elders about selling his land to us. He thought we would be the best choice since we own the adjacent land. After many months and much talking, we finally came to an agreement with your Vater.” He pulled a pipe from his pants pocket and knocked it against the tree. A few pieces of tobacco drifted on the breeze before fluttering to the ground. “He was a gut businessman—stubborn.” He chuckled.
There was real truth to that statement. My father had always worked hard, and our farm had usually made a good enough profit that we lived as well or better than most of the farm families in eastern Iowa.
“So what agreement did he make?” My stomach knotted, for I knew I wasn’t going to be pleased with the answer. I was now certain my father had sold the land.
Brother Bosch trained his eyes on the bowl of his pipe while he filled it with fresh tobacco. “He signed a contract to sell us all of this.” Cupping the bowl of his pipe in his left hand, he arched his right arm in a wide circle. “The land, the buildings, the house, the animals—everything. But we could not take ownership until his death.”
Though the breeze was warm, a chill coursed through me and I shuddered. Had someone caused my father’s death in order to gain possession of the land?
No! Surely not.
The members of Amana Colonies would never do such a thing—they were an honorable people. My father had always said as much. And if they hadn’t been willing to wait until Father’s death, they wouldn’t have signed such a contract. Besides, my father had always maintained a good relationship with the people of West Amana. They would never have harmed him.
“So the animals?” I gestured toward their land and he nodded.
“Ja, we took them right away, but we haven’t begun to plow over here yet. We are still busy with the other land, and a decision hasn’t been made if we will till and plant this year or wait until next spring.” He lit the tobacco and puffed several times. “We had already paid your father. There is paper work in the village you can examine if you would like. I am thinking you might want to see that, ja?”
My mouth turned dry as the gravity of his words took hold. I could barely believe my ears. If they’d already paid my father, where was the money? I turned toward the burned-out remains of what had once been my home and shook my head. If the money had burned in the fire, there was nothing left for Lukas and me. There was no way I could support my child, and no way I could remain on this land. Desperation clawed down my spine. How would we survive?
For several minutes, I sat in stunned silence. Finally, Brother Bosch pushed away from the tree. “You and the boy should come back to the village with me.”
I shook my head. “My trunks are in the barn. Everything I own.”
His lips curved in a gentle smile. Brother Bosch couldn’t possibly understand my concern over the baggage stored in the barn, for the people of Amana didn’t place a great deal of value on worldly belongings. They lived a communal life and had little need of the items I considered valuable. Long ago Mother told me she’d visited some of the Amana homes, and there had been a few personal belongings displayed in each one. But the farmland, the houses, the vineyards, the crops—all were owned by the Amana Society.
“I will have one of the men bring a wagon.”
Bring a wagon, load my belongings, and then what? I didn’t know how to respond.
“You can stay in the village until you decide what to do.” His voice resonated with a compassion that tugged at my heart.
“I have no money to pay for lodging or food.”
“Ach!” He waved his hand in a dismissive motion. “What are two more mouths to feed? You and the boy can eat at the Küche, and we will arrange a place for you to stay. Is not difficult. If you stay for more than a few days, you may need to help in the kitchen house or garden, but the work is not so hard, and the sisters will be gut company for you. Will be gut for the boy, as well.”
The idea seemed outlandish, and yet what else could I do? There seemed no other possibility for Lukas and me—at least for the time being. Once I had more time to think, maybe then I could develop some sort of arrangement for our future.
“Thank you, Brother Bosch. If I weren’t so worried about my son, I wouldn’t impose on you, but I must find some way to take care of our needs.”
His gentle smile returned. “There is a passage in the Bible that says, ‘Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?’” He held out his hand and helped me to my feet. “You have heard this before?”
Walking alongside him toward the barn, I nodded. “Yes, I’ve read those verses.” I didn’t go on to say that I’d read those passages and prayed on many occasions when our cupboard was bare and Fred out to sea. Most of the time, my needs had been met by Louise Adler, but there had been a few instances when Lukas and I had ached with unrelenting hunger. When we left Baltimore, I thought we’d left those days behind. All of this seemed a cruel joke, and I now wondered what God must be thinking.
“Then you know God will provide.” He smiled. “Right now, He is giving us the opportunity to help you.”
I wasn’t convinced most people would consider helping us an opportunity, but I was glad to know Brother Bosch didn’t think us a burden. “I hope the others in the village will feel the same as you. Don’t you need to seek agreement from the others?”
“There will be no problem. We would never turn away a widow and child in need of provision. The other elders will be in accord.” He grasped the wooden door handle and pulled back on the heavy door.
So Brother Bosch was an elder. No wonder he’d been so knowledgeable about the sale of my father’s land. Maybe he could tell me even more. But I’d wait until Lukas wasn’t nearby to ask any further questions.
Lukas scampered toward me, his blue eyes shining with an eagerness that accompanied childhood. “I folded the blankets and put them in the trunk like you told me, Mama.”
“Thank you, Lukas.” I briefly considered going inside and refolding the quilts, but I didn’t want to discourage him from any future efforts to help me. With his short arms, I pictured the quilts stuffed beneath the heavy trunk lids in slapdash bundles, but it truly didn’t matter. Right now, there were far more important things to worry me. I tousled my son’s hair and rested my arm around his shoulder. “We’re going to go with Brother Bosch and visit the village where he lives. Won’t that be fun?”
His forehead creased in a frown. “But what about Grandpa?”
I stooped down in front of him and gathered his hands within my own. “Brother Bosch tells me that Grandpa died before we arrived here.”
Lukas yanked his hands away from me and shook his head. “That’s not true.” He glowered at the older man. “My grandpa isn’t dead. Only my papa.” His voice trembled, and he clutched his small hands into tight fists.
“Lukas! Don’t direct your anger at Brother Bosch. He is going to help us, and none of this is his fault.” Once again, I grasped his hands and looked into his eyes. “Do you understand me?” My tone had been stern enough that the boy’s shoulders relaxed a bit.
“You should apologize to Brother Bosch.”
He scuffed the toe of his shoe in the dirt and gave the man a quick sideways glance. “I’m sorry.”
The elder nodded his head and patted Lukas on the shoulder before closing the barn doors. He motioned me toward the village. “We will cut across the fields so it will not be so far to walk.”
I held Lukas by the hand as we plodded across the uneven terrain toward the village of West Amana. At least for the next several nights, we would have a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. After that, our future remained an unsolved mystery.
West Amana Colony, Iowa
Only once could I remember being in one of the villages. The three of us had traveled to High Amana for Mother to purchase some dress fabric. She’d been unhappy with Papa’s previous choices and insisted that she go along and choose her own. Papa continued to maintain he liked the dark green material with huge pink flowers, but Mother disagreed and had sewn the fabric into window curtains rather than a dress. After that, Father had been more careful with his choices. The general store and houses I’d seen in High Amana had been made of sandstone, the same sandstone my papa used to construct the foundation of our own house.
I expected to see similar houses in West Amana but was surprised when I caught sight of a few brick homes and some frame construction as well as the familiar sandstone. When I inquired, Brother Bosch explained that sandstone was much more prevalent in High, so it had been used for all of the houses there. He gestured toward the south. “In South Amana, the houses are of brick because that is where we make our bricks. In Main Amana, many of the houses are of frame construction because there were many trees nearby. We used what was most available for each village. Here in West, we have more of the sandstone, but we have a little of the others, too.” He grinned. “We have nice variety, ja?”
“Yes, very nice.” With Lukas still holding my hand, I continued to survey my surroundings.
The houses were larger than most family homes, and certainly larger than our farmhouse had been. During my years on the farm, I’d heard a few stories about the communal society, but I hadn’t been particularly interested in their way of life, and most of what I’d heard had long since been forgotten. This village exuded a sense of orderly arrangement and tidiness that refreshed my memories of High from years ago.
When Lukas tugged on my hand, I looked down into his bright blue eyes. “Are we going to live here, Mama?”
“Maybe for a little while, Lukas. Do you think you would like that?”
He shook his head. “I want to live on the farm with Grandpa.”
I inhaled a deep breath. “That isn’t going to be possible, Lukas. We’re going to make new plans. Now, come along. Brother Bosch is going to take us to the kitchen house to meet some of the people who live here.”
The boy lagged a few steps behind, and I didn’t blame him. His uncertainty about this new arrangement likely ran even deeper than my own—if that was possible. I moved a bit closer to Brother Bosch and lowered my voice. “I may have enough money to pay for one night at a hotel. Is there a boardinghouse or hotel in the village?” Some of these houses appeared as large as hotels in the small towns where Fred and I had stayed on our way to Baltimore years ago.
The older man shook his head. “Nein. We have hotels only in the villages where there are trains passing through. No trains in West, so no hotel, but do not worry. For you and the boy, there will be a comfortable place to stay.”
His offer was both generous and kind, and I was thankful, yet a tiny part of me worried about this arrangement. Brother Bosch was kind, but what if the other villagers didn’t want us there? How would we be treated? Surely they didn’t like outsiders. Why else would they segregate themselves in these villages?
When the elder motioned to a nearby house and led us to the rear entrance, unexpected trepidation assailed me. My palms turned damp and I could feel the prickle of perspiration beneath my dark bonnet. He opened the door and gestured for us to enter. Rather than step forward, I longed to turn and run, but I forced a smile and tugged on Lukas’s hand.
Brother Bosch removed his straw hat before stepping inside. “Guten Morgen, Sister Erma.”
A small cluster of women turned to look at us when we entered. All but one turned back to her work. A rosy-cheeked woman with graying hair and bright blue eyes crossed the kitchen and stopped in front of us. Her full lips curved in a broad smile that she directed at Lukas, and I assumed she was Sister Erma.
“Guten Morgen.” Her gaze passed over all three of us before it settled on the elder. “Who do we have here, Brother Bosch? Some visiting relatives, perhaps?”
“Nein, Sister. This is Mrs. Wilson and her son, Lukas. She is the daughter of Johann Neumann, who lived on the adjacent farm that we purchased.” He turned toward me. “This is Sister Erma Goetz. She is in charge of this Küche, and everyone who eats here will tell you the best meals are served in the Goetz Küchehaas.”
The color in Sister Erma’s cheeks heightened at the flattery. She waved a dismissive gesture at Brother Bosch. “Is true we serve gut food in this Küche, but the food is gut in all of the village kitchen houses.” Waving us into the adjacent room, she gestured to one of many long tables. Backless benches were aligned on both sides of each table. “You sit down, and I will get you some coffee.” Before heading back to the kitchen, she pointed at Lukas. “And for you I have some milk.” Hesitating for only a moment, she tipped her head to one side. “And maybe some bread and jam, ja?”
Lukas turned to me, uncertain how to answer. He’d doubtless understood very little the woman had said, for during his lifetime he’d heard me speak only smatterings of the German language. Mostly when Louise Adler and I would relax over a strong cup of coffee and talk about things we didn’t want others to hear. Although Lukas had picked up a few words of the language, his German vocabulary was far more limited than his English.
I repeated the question, and Lukas bobbed his head with enthusiasm. The older woman laughed. “We will have to teach him to speak German.”
Though I nodded my agreement, I didn’t expect to be here long enough for Lukas to learn the language. Brother Bosch excused himself and returned to the kitchen. Moments later, I heard the back door close, and I wondered if he’d left Lukas and me in Sister Erma’s care. Although the room was void of decorations, it exuded an air of warmth, perhaps due to the pale blue walls, or maybe due to the orderly alignment of everything in the room.
Soon the sister returned with a tray bearing two cups of coffee, a glass of milk, and a plate heaping with thick, crusty slices of wheat bread. Beside the plate were two small white bowls, one containing butter and the other filled with jam.
Lukas straightened to attention at the sight. “Strawberry jam, Mama.”
“I think it is rhubarb jam, but you will like it every bit as much,” I said.
Without asking, Sister Erma prepared a slice of the bread, cut it in half, and placed it on a small plate in front of Lukas. “First you give thanks; then you eat.” She folded her hands together as further explanation.
Lukas smiled his understanding before he bowed his head and repeated the prayer we recited before eating our meals—at least when Fred hadn’t been present. While Lukas was eating, Sister Erma explained that Brother Heinrich, the name she used when referring to Brother Bosch, had gone to speak to the other elders about my living arrangements.
“If the elders agree, you and the boy will remain here at the kitchen house with me.” She pointed a finger toward the ceiling. “My rooms are upstairs. There is a parlor, my bedroom, and another bedroom that belonged to my daughter before she married and moved to South Amana with her husband. The bedroom is large enough for you and the boy.” She angled her shoulders toward the kitchen. “Since my husband’s death, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It will be nice to have some company.”
“That’s most kind of you, Sister Erma. I’m thankful for a place to stay until I can make plans for our future.”
She lowered her head and patted my hand. “Ja, Brother Heinrich tells me you have had lots of troubles. To have a husband die so young is hard and then this tragedy with your father . . .” She shook her head and poured a dollop of cream into her coffee. “For sure, you have had your share of heartache. If I had not been living in the colonies when my husband died, I don’t know what I would have done. To be an old woman on my own would have been very hard for me, but the Lord made provision for me, and now He’s doing the same for you.”
Sister Erma had tied all the loose ends into a tight little knot of understanding. I, however, hadn’t stopped to consider any of this the Lord’s doing. But who could say? Perhaps the Lord had decided to send a bit of sunshine in our direction. Of course, I wasn’t certain whether living in the colonies would prove to be a total delight, but at least Lukas would have food and a comfortable place to lay his head. And I wouldn’t have to worry about being alone at night without protection, a fear I’d wrestled with each time Fred went out to sea.
Pots and pans clattered in the other room while we drank our coffee and Lukas continued to devour his bread and jam. When he picked up another slice, I stilled his hand. “No more. You will make yourself sick.” I patted his extended belly. “You can have more after a while.”
Before the child could offer an argument, Brother Bosch returned and advised that an agreement had been reached. We would stay at the Küche with Sister Erma. “Since you will be remaining in the colonies with us, it would be gut if you could help Sister Erma in the kitchen. She is short of help, and I am sure she will put your hands to gut use.”
I’d never worked in a kitchen with anyone other than my mother, but I quickly agreed to the request. Sister Erma pushed up from the table. “We will go upstairs, and I will show you your room before I get busy with the noonday meal.”
“On my way to speak with the elders, I asked one of the men to go for your belongings. He should be here soon.” Brother Bosch turned his attention to Sister Erma. “When Brother Dirk arrives with the trunks, you will show him where he should put Sister Andrea’s belongings, ja?”
I whirled around, startled by his remark. My dark mourning clothes closely resembled the plain clothing of the Amana women, but exactly when had I become a sister?