SAFE-KEEPING

SAFE-KEEPING

From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Safe-Keeping

“I’m so glad you’re coming to live with us, Aunt Emma,” twelve-year-old Jane said as she placed a hand-knitted bunting into Emma’s trunk of keepsakes. Jane and her mother were helping Aunt Emma pack in preparation for her move. Mama had gone downstairs to box up Aunt Emma’s kitchen, leaving Jane upstairs to help Emma pack her sentimental items.

Jane stopped what she was doing for a minute and gazed out the open window of Emma’s two-story farmhouse. She saw the roof of her own home, which stood at the far end of the cornfield. The wind carried the pounding of her father’s hammer as he proudly finished the construction of additions to their new home, complete with extra rooms for Emma.

Emma sighed. “This old house is too big for me to ramble around in now that I’m all alone.”

Young Jane’s face reflected the anguish she saw on Emma’s. It was still hard to believe Emma’s husband and four children wouldn’t come racing up the steps again. There were gone forever, all dying in one week during the last year’s diphtheria epidemic.

Jane missed Emma’s children more than anyone guessed. They had been like brothers and sisters to her. As an only child, she had spent most of her life ganging up with the two girls to fend off their two older, pesky brothers. Now, she usually cried as she walked home through the corn rows that had once been paths linking their lives.

“I’m really going to miss this old place, though.” Emma waved her hand toward the faded wallpaper and worn woodwork. “This is the only home I’ve known since we left the old country.”

Her eyes filled with tears as she hugged a baby quilt to her chest before placing it in the trunk.

“Tell me again about leaving Ireland with Mama and Papa,” Jane coaxed, hoping to see Emma’s eyes dance as usual when she recalled that adventure.

“You’ve heard that story a hundred times,” Emma said, as she eased into the rocking chair with a bundle of children’s clothes in her lap.

“But I love it!” Jane begged. “Tell me again about Mama and Papa then.”

While she never gave much thought to having been adopted, Jane sometimes wondered whether that explained her relentless yearning for old family stories. She sat on the braided rug at the foot of the rocker and listened.

“Well, your mother and I were best friends—like sisters— all our lives.”

Jane blurted in on cue, “That’s why I call you Aunt, even though we’re not related!”

Emma winked and smiled.

The truth was, next to Mama and Papa, Jane loved Emma more than anyone else in the world.

“So, of course, then our husbands became best friends,” Emma continued.

“We did everything together, the four of us. We danced . . .” Emma’s voice trailed off and her head swayed slightly, as if in time with the music. Then her eyes danced, too.

“We shared everything, good times and bad. Your mama was there at every one of our children’s births, even though she could never give birth to a child of her own.” Emma took her usual pause and shook her head slowly.

“There was never a woman who wanted or deserved a child more than your mama did. She wanted a baby more than anything else on earth.”

“I know,” Jane whispered, then beamed. “That’s why I’m so glad she got me! She calls me her special gift.”

Emma took a deep breath. “So when my husband, Patrick, had a chance to come to a Wisconsin farm in America, it didn’t take long to decide your folks would come along, too. Like I said, we shared everything.”

Emma rocked as she recounted the difficult journey. The storm at sea had tossed the ship for weeks longer than expected. All the passengers got sick.

“Especially me,” Emma moaned. “I was expecting our fifth child. If it hadn’t been for your mama, I wouldn’t have survived that trip. Patrick and the others were far too sick to care for me. I could tell I was about to lose the baby.” She stopped to blot tears with the child’s shirt she was holding. “Your mother left her own sick bed to help me . . .” Her voice trailed off again. “She was an angel. If it hadn’t been for her, both the baby and I would have died, then and there.”

Jane rested her head on Emma’s lap. “I’m so glad you made it. My life wouldn’t have been the same without you.”

Jane looked up into Emma’s face. She knew that this was the part of the story that was hard for Emma to repeat, so Jane said it for her. “Thanks to Mama, that baby girl was born on that old ship, all pink and pretty!” Both their faces lit up—then faded when Jane added, “But the next day your baby went to live with the angels.”

Emma only nodded, then abruptly stood and began placing the items on her lap into the trunk of treasures. Without speaking, she went to a bureau drawer and began sorting more children’s clothes. Some worn items were put in a wooden crate. Others she placed reverently into the trunk.

The old wooden stairs creaked as Mama came up from the kitchen, took Jane’s hand, and sat next to her on the bed.

From the bottom drawer, Emma retrieved a bundle wrapped in white linen and tied with a satin bow. She took it to the bed and unwrapped it slowly. One by one, she laid the tiny white garments on the bedspread.

“These are the baptism gowns I made for each of my babies before they were born,” she said softly.

Mama squeezed Jane’s hand.

Emma’s fingers trembled as she smoothed the fabric and straightened the lace on each delicate gown. “I stitched each one by hand and crocheted the trim myself.”

Mama reached for Emma’s hand and stroked it, as if they both knew now was the time to tell me the whole story.

Emma picked up the gowns one at a time. “I was to give them to my children to keep when they grew up.” She could barely speak. “This one was Colin’s. This one was Shane’s. This was Kathleen’s. This was Margaret’s.”

Her tears fell onto the fifth one as she handed it to Jane. “And this one was yours.”

Thoughts, memories and old stories tumbled wildly in Jane’s head. She stared into her mama’s eyes before turning back to Emma.

“What are you saying, Aunt Emma?”

Emma’s voice shook. “Did you ever notice I never said that baby girl died, just that she went to live with God’s angels?”

Jane nodded. “I was that baby?” Her lips curved in a hesitant smile. “And Mama and Papa were God’s angels on earth!”

Now Emma nodded. “It was tradition in the old country, when someone couldn’t have a baby, another family would give them one of theirs. I loved your mama so much. . . . Her voice broke, so Mama finished the sentence.

“She and Patrick gave us the greatest gift of love.”

Jane’s smile widened. “Your special gift.” She wrapped her arms around her mama.

Tears flooded down Mama’s cheeks as she rocked Jane in her arms. “It’s as if God gave you to Papa and me for safe-keeping.”

Emma cried softly, “Oh Jane . . . I’d have lost you with the others.”

Jane fondled the baptism gown in her hands, then embraced Emma, whispering, “Thank you.”

The sound of Papa’s hammering drifted through the open window. Emma smiled and her eyes danced. “Twelve years ago on that ship, I gave your folks the greatest gift. Now they share that special gift with me.”

LeAnn Thieman

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