For as long as I can remember, I've eagerly awaited the harvest. Oh, the tantalizing scents wafting from Mamma's kitchen, come autumn. But it's not my mother's baking as much as it is my own that fills the house with mouthwatering aromas. Each year I entertain myself, seeing how many ways I can use pumpkin in an array of baked goodies. Naturally there are pumpkin pies and pumpkin breads. But I also delight in making pumpkin cookies with walnut pieces and brown sugar sprinkled atop. And there is spicy pumpkin custard, too, and gooey pumpkin cinnamon rolls --- sticky buns, of course --- cinnamon pumpkin muffins, and the most popular item of all: pumpkin cheesecake.
As I wait for pies to bubble and cookies to turn golden brown in the old cast-iron oven in Mamma's kitchen, I thrill to the world beyond our tall windows, watching for the first hint of shimmering reds on the sugar maples along the west side of our lane. I catch sight, too, of the glistening stream as it runs under Beaver Dam Road and across our wide meadow. It's here, near Honeybrook, northeast of White Horse and smack-dab in the Garden Spot of the World, where I live with Dat and Mamma and my two older sisters, Rhoda and Nan.
But garden spot that this may be, this year I am not able to use our own pumpkins for baking, nor am I as aware of the usually melodious brook, or the growing excitement of the fun to come --- youth frolics and hayrides. All the pairing up beneath the harvest moon.
Sadly our own harvest has already occurred --- stunted stalks of sweet corn, acres and acres of it all around us, cut early. Dat said the fact it never got taller than knee-high was an omen of bad things to come. "Time will tell, as in all things," he declared. And time did tell.
Accepting our loss, we salvaged what was left of the lifeless stalks, using them for fodder. Even so, some are still standing brown in the field. Rows of short scattered stumps, a cruel reminder of what might have been.
Though I'm only seventeen, I've already made some observations about the passing of years. Some are marked by loss more than others. As for this season, never before have we lost so many of the People to jumping the fence to greener pastures --- our own cousin Jonathan and his family among them. But losing a crop, or some of our own to the world, pales in comparison to the greatest loss of all.
I still remember clearly that early June Saturday. The day had begun with anticipation, as all market days do. Grief was the furthest thing from my mind the morning Caleb Yoder smiled at me for the first time ever. I was minding my own business, selling my baked goods to eager customers, when I had a tingling awareness of someone nearby watching me. I looked up ... and there he was. I felt a rush of energy, as if something inside me was saying: Is he the one?
Caleb's admiring gaze lingered after his handsome smile, and by afternoon, my next oldest sister, nineteen-year-old Nan, was telling me something Caleb's own sister Rebekah had whispered to her --- that Rebekah wished Caleb might court me. Such a wonderful-good thing to hear!
Now, if I hadn't secretly liked him for several years, the smile and the whisper would have meant little and the day would have been like any other. Instead, it was the collision of the best and worst days of my life.
My sister Suzy died that evening. Younger than me by just eleven months, she drowned before she had a chance to be baptized and join church --- a giant strike against our souls. Mamma and I were alone in the bakery shop when the policeman came with the wretched news, and I could not stop shaking long into the night. Nearly a hundred days have come and gone, and at times it seems Suzy's untimely death has started a whole chain of unusual events. I'm aware of a hole in my middle, like someone reached in and pulled a big part of me out. This, mixed with a measure of anger. Surely the Lord God and heavenly Father could have done something to protect her, to keep her from dying. Yet I must learn to accept this terrible thing that has come across my path. It is our way. At all costs, we must trust in divine sovereignty, even when, secretly, doing so is just plain hard.
Am I alone in this?
My sister was daring, truth be told. Mamma sometimes said such characteristics in a pretty girl were a recipe for danger, and trouble certainly seemed to follow Suzy during her last months. Losing her was bad enough, but my own guilt tears me apart, too. I've heard tell of survivor's guilt --- when you feel responsible because someone you loved has died, and you've survived. But that isn't my guilt. No, mine is ever so much worse.
Most times I'm able to push it deep down, where I can scarcely feel it, but every so often the blame rises unexpectedly. If not for me, Suzy would be alive. Jah, I know her death wasn't my fault, but if I'd stopped her from going with her friends that day --- and I would've done so if I'd known she'd a mind to take dangerous risks --- I could have saved her. I can only hope someday I'll be able to forget all of that. Forgetting Suzy will be impossible.
As for dear Mamma, it seems she can't think on much else. All of us miss Suzy's presence dreadfully --- her constant whistling on washday, as well as her cheerful, even mischievous smile while weeding the vegetable garden. Like she knew something we didn't.
I daresay it is Rhoda and Nan ... and myself --- all of a sudden the youngest --- who must help carry poor Mamma through this sorrowful time. Nearly all her energy still seems spent on Suzy. I see her pining in the set of her jaw, the way she shies away from social gatherings, longing for the comfort of silence ... for her cherished aloneness. No doubt she yearns to talk to Suzy again, to cup her freckled face in both her hands and hold her near.
Sometimes I want to hug Mamma and whisper, "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me." But she wouldn't understand, and my words wouldn't change anything.
Truth is, Suzy's gone. The ground holds her body now. The ground holds her diary, as well. I broke my promise to burn it if anything ever happened to her, the kind of talk between sisters who never think they'll have to honor their frivolously spoken vow. Instead, I walked to the wooded area behind the paddock and buried it deep in the ground, as good as destroyed. Better that we remember the Suzy we all knew as sweet, innocent, laughing --- the truest friend --- and not who she became.
While Mamma grieves in her own way, Dat scarcely talks of Suzy. He acts almost as if nothing's changed, as if he isn't affected by her death. Yet I can't bring myself to believe he is cold toward the loss of his youngest daughter. Surely he is merely sad and simply unable to express his grief openly as his womenfolk do. I see flickers of pain and worry around his dark brown eyes. Jah, at the heart of him, he must suffer the searing, constant ache the rest of us feel when we whisper amongst ourselves of lovable Suzy and the mystery surrounding her life ... and death. Daily, we struggle to face the future without her.
There's but a single bright spot on my horizon: Caleb Yoder. Now, I must admit to having spent time at Singings and youth frolics with plenty of fellas, but none who holds a candle to Caleb as I imagine him. Though the days continue to pass, I'm still holding out hope that he might yet invite me to go riding after a Sunday night Singing or other gathering. Such a fine driving horse he has, too. He might chuckle if he knew I thought such things!
I may be just fuzzy brained enough to think my affection for him is enough to keep me going when I feel this sad. Maybe Caleb has figured things out for himself about Suzy's final weeks and her death --- who knows what he's heard, what with the rumor mill hard at work. Could be that's why he hasn't asked me to ride with him sooner, unless he is seeing someone else. If he is, I can hardly blame him.
Even so, I hold my breath, reminding myself that he might be honoring my time of grieving, a noble thing if true. Then again, maybe I'm mistaken that he ever noticed me at all, and I'm simply engaging in wishful thinking born of a wounded heart. Either way, I realize how important it is to yearn for the best, as Mamma used to say ... before she lost her Suzy.
To my thinking, Caleb is the best. He is admirable and good from the inside out. I only hope he might choose to smile at me again, for hope is all I have.
Excerpted from THE PARTING: The Courtship of Nellie Fisher #1 © Copyright 2011 by Beverly Lewis. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.