The cool June morning air flowed in from the back door, wafting in the country odor of freshly plowed fields and apple blossoms. Somewhere in the nearby trees, the birds chirped their nesting songs. Sara stared at the Elmira News, the closest daily paper people could buy in Dartt Settlement, Pennsylvania. The front page headline said, “Pennsylvania man returns from tour of duty.” A picture showed Vietnam veteran, Larry Smith, from nearby Masefield, smiling from a wheelchair as someone pushed him down a plane ramp. He waved a bandaged stump at the photographer. The article revealed that he had lost his forearm and hand when an enemy grenade hit him. Sara didn’t want her brothers to see this. Especially Philip. He already had nightmares about the draft, and he was only 10.
Sara reached up and touched cousin Dan’s picture on the shelf beside the one of Grandma and Grandpa. His face under his uniform cap smiled confidence, but Sara breathed a silent prayer every day for his safety. He was still in Vietnam.
“Help! Carl’s sick. He’s puking everywhere.” Philip’s panicked voice echoed through the house, yanking Sara’s thoughts from Dan. Sara pushed the newspaper aside while her legs simultaneously pushed her chair back.
She ran to the boys’ room to see Carl’s skinny body leaning over his bed. She grabbed the trashcan and placed it under his face. Then she cradled his head in her hand in spite of the vomit that covered his face, chest and arms. For once she felt glad for the chunky pink rollers that held her dark hair away from her face. With her other hand, she grabbed the top sheet and pulled the lower, cleaner end loose. She drew it up and started wiping Carl’s face. “Poor thing.”
She glanced up to see Philip, squatting at the end of his top bunk and staring from under the long bangs on his forehead, his dark, sleep-tousled rooster tail still on end. “Go get Mom,” Sara said. “She’s in the garden. Don’t just sit there. Carl needs help.”
Philip leaped, running as soon as his heels hit the floor. Sammy, Philip’s twin, popped up from under his pillow on the bottom bunk, holding his nose and shaking his blond bangs from his face. “Eeeww,” he said. “What a way to start summer vacation.”
“Go on out of here then,” said Sara. “It’s not Carl’s fault he’s sick, Sammy Wright.”
Sammy scuttled off the bed and ran from the room, holding his nose all the way. Sara didn’t blame him. She felt a little ill too. But Carl needed help, so she continued to hold his head, wiping his face in between heaves and waiting for Mom. His little body was so tense. “What’s wrong with you, Carl?” she asked when the retching subsided a little. “Do you know? Did you eat something bad?”
He shook his head. Then Sara heard Mom’s footstep at the door and looked up at Mom’s stoic face. She was glad to let Mom take over. Mom always took whatever happened to them with a calmness that Sara didn’t really understand. Mom seemed to expect a certain amount of illness. Sara did too – to a point. For instance, everyone got measles and mumps and chicken pox, but the Wright family didn’t vomit too often. Maybe Mom could help Carl stop.
Mom picked him up and carried him to the bathroom, so Sara stripped the sheets and took them to the laundry room. When she returned, Carl had stopped and Mom was cleaning him. Sara re-made the bed while Mom cradled Carl in her lap. When the bed was made, Mom settled Carl back inside and pushed his hair from his forehead as his eyes closed.
Sara looked over to the youth bed and saw that somehow little Tom had slept through all the chaos. She was glad. There was too much to do sometimes in their house with so many children. Being the oldest gave her more responsibility and, while she didn’t exactly mind, she also felt overwhelming weariness.
The stench of Carl’s vomit was still present, and Sara realized the smell was on her. She needed to shower and change. The morning calm was certainly over. Now she had to get ready for her new job. She hoped that life there would offer her different challenges than these. The Times! Oh, my writing! As soon as the thought hit her, she ran to the kitchen table where she wrote every morning while the younger kids slept. She usually waited until after Dad had gone to work and Mom started her chores, and then she wrote. Sometimes she wrote articles for her school paper and sometimes she just practiced writing things she wished she could publish in a regular newspaper. She dreamed she might use one of them when she filled out her college applications. She hadn’t told her parents of her college dream yet, but she would soon. Her fantasy was that her writing would be so good she’d be offered a full scholarship. She knew it was a dream, but she still had hope.
Sara gathered her journal and pen. She grabbed the daily Elmira News, too, hiding it just as Sammy and Philip arrived in the kitchen, pulling cereal and bowls from the cupboards.
“Don’t worry,” Sammy said. “We won’t hurt your precious stuff.”
“Nope, we’re too hungry,” said Philip. “Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp.” He sang the jingle as he searched for a spoon.
Sara didn’t reply. She ran for the bedroom she shared with her two younger sisters, Violet and Vickie. They were starting to stir in their bunks. She stuffed her journal and the paper deep into her dresser. She quickly gathered her shower items and ran for the bathroom before they wanted to get in. They could use the one downstairs for a change. She locked the door and sighed and then she stared into the mirror. Her blue eyes looked just a bit gray and her face looked flushed under her freckles. Probably because she had rushed around so much this morning. Her shoulder-length, dark hair, naturally straight, was twisted onto pink rollers and held into place with extra large bobby pins. Sara sighed again. She would have to hurry if she were going to have enough time to style her hair and hide some of the freckles under makeup. Still, she took one more second to look at her length in the mirror. She was slim, but she still took the time to pull in her stomach and throw her shoulders back, critically surveying her figure and wondering if she looked like a reporter.
And then she threw off her clothes, pulled on her shower cap, turned on the faucet and stood under the hot water, scrubbing as if she could erase the uneasiness within. For some reason, she felt like she used to when she first felt concerned about Carl. When he was a newborn she didn’t worry, but when he was about ten months old, things changed.
All her aunts and uncles and cousins and lots of other people she hardly knew gathered to celebrate Grandpa’s birthday at the park. The date was August 10, 1963. Sara didn’t ever think she would forget it because President Kennedy’s baby had died the day before. After lunch, Sara sat with the women at the picnic tables. The men played horseshoes on one side of the pavilion. The younger kids played on the other side in the sandbox. Listening to the steady clink of the horseshoes hitting the stake or the thud when they hit the ground instead, she longed for someone her own age to talk to. She wished she could play horseshoes with the men, but some unwritten rule made the game “male only” and she wasn’t old enough or brave enough to defy that. She felt awkward and out of place.
Aunt Helen’s voice interrupted her misery. “Isn’t it a shame about the Kennedy baby?”
Sara looked across the tables to see Aunt Helen make the sign of a cross and then place her arms over her girth, click her tongue and shake her graying bun of hair back and forth as the other women nodded agreement and added to the conversation.
“Poor Jackie,” said a woman Sara did not know. “The pictures of her look so composed, but her eyes are deep pools.”
“At least she has the other two children.” Sara recognized a granddaughter of Aunt Helen who was married, but not yet a mother. Sara couldn’t remember her name either. She lived away somewhere.
Mom spoke up. “That doesn’t make up for losing this one, though.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Great-Aunt Harriet, the oldest. “But you can’t raise them all.” Her face reflected the experience of years. All the older women nodded solemnly as if they possessed some sorrowful wisdom that the younger ones did not. Grandma wiped her eyes with the cloth hanky she kept tucked in the belt of her dress. The younger women looked to the older ones and then glanced away to their own kids.
One of the young women asked, “Did they ever say what happened to the child?”
“Something wrong with his lungs.” Aunt Helen kept up with all the details. “He was premature, you know.”
Sara didn’t know what premature meant. When she got home, she checked the dictionary, still feeling shocked that babies could die. According to the definition, it might happen because they were born too early. That puzzled her. Mom often said, “Babies come when they’re ready.” Somehow, it seemed that some came before then.
From that day on, for several weeks, Sara checked on Carl daily during his naps and in the night to make sure he was breathing, even though he was already nearly a year old. She had no way of knowing if he was too early. She was sure that if she asked, Mom would simply repeat, “He came when it was time.” So Sara kept her own vigil. Sometimes she held Carl’s tiny hand in hers while he slept. Feeling the warmth reassured her. But if his fist felt even cool, she sat beside him and watched his tiny chest rise and fall with each breath he took until she was satisfied that he was okay. At times it rose more rapidly than others and she didn’t know which kind of breathing was best, fast or slow. If she couldn’t see or hear even shallow sounds, she stroked the bottom of his feet to test his reaction. He never woke unless he had slept a long time; he usually rolled over and kept sleeping.
Once Mom caught her. “Don’t wake him, Sara,” she said as he jerked away from the caress. Sharpness edged her voice. “He needs his sleep. I need him to sleep too. Why are you doing that?”
Sara looked up, feeling startled and guilty. Seeing Mom’s tired face, she didn’t want to add to the worry, so she simply said, “I like seeing his little feet, Mom. They look so sweet, not like my calloused ones.”
“Well, if you wouldn’t run barefoot, that wouldn’t happen,” Mom replied. She walked away muttering about the uselessness of keeping kids in shoes when they didn’t wear them.
Now, remembering this, as she stood in the shower, Sara scrubbed her feet extra hard before stepping out. She still ran barefoot.
She pulled on her robe and went to the kitchen to eat a hasty breakfast. The other kids, already seated, were in various stages of finishing.
“Is Carl better, Sara?” Violet asked.
“For now,” Sara said as she made a cup of hot chocolate. “I hope.”
Philip and Sammy read circus jokes from the back of the cereal box.
“What did the elephant take with him on his trip?” Philip read the question and waited. He grinned over his black-framed glasses, waiting for an answer.
Violet squinted behind her blue cat-eye glasses. Sara noticed she’d styled wispy sideburns to curl out from under the frames. Violet guessed an answer. “His toothbrush?”
“No.” Sammy read. “His trunk.” The younger children all giggled.
“What a dumb joke,” Sara said. These kids didn’t understand the world. She sighed. There were more serious issues facing them, like Cousin Dan fighting in Vietnam, starving kids in Biafra and bomb testing in the desert.
“Stop being crabby, Sara,” Vickie said, without looking up.
“Yeah.” Violet always echoed Vickie’s comments.
“Copycat,” Sara said. “You two are the real twins around here. I’m surprised, Violet, that you haven’t demoted yourself from fifth to second grade just to be with Vickie.”
“You’re so mean, Sara.” Violet had a whine in her voice that sounded both resentful and hurt. It was the tone that came before tears sometimes, but this morning Sara didn’t care.
“When you grow up and act your age, you’ll understand just where I’m coming from.” Sara punched the toaster button down.
“Well, I don’t have to be grumpy like you when I am older. You just think you’re big stuff because you start your new job today.” Violet, still seated at the breakfast table, put her hands on her hips and sneered at Sara. Sara rolled her eyes back at her. Mom came into the kitchen. Her presence stopped the words, but not the looks.
“Why don’t you kids do your chores and then go outside so your brother can rest? Violet, you’ll need to watch the younger ones. I think I’ll be busy inside with Carl.”
“But that’s Sara’s job.” Violet’s eyes grew round and then darkened.
“Well, you both get a new job today, don’t you?” Mom pushed her permed hair back from her face. She poured some dry cereal into a bowl and took it to the bedroom for Carl.
Sara and Violet both stared at her retreating back and then each other. Sara felt excited to have a new job, but she hadn’t thought about how her role in the family would change. Her chocolate tasted bitter all at once and she rinsed her cup in the sink and then ran to brush her teeth. But she couldn’t brush away the taste that had settled in her stomach, causing it to flutter.