Jessie sat down heavily on the bench and sighed. The heat was getting to her again, and her dress clung to her body. Hopefully, the tree would provide some cool shade. Although in South Carolina, it seemed that nothing was cold. The baby gave a little kick, and Jessie smiled. Lately, though, even smiling got to be tiring. While she found good reasons to, she also had to show too many fake and forced smiles, for when Will needed them.
Will. She had never imagined that their lives would be like this, or that Will could get so sick only a year after they got married. He was only twenty-three! Consumption had almost made him a different person. But he tried. When the doctor had told them to go to South Carolina, they had thought that everything would be better quickly, and it would be like a vacation. Now, every day showed him getting either better or worse, and every small step was a blessing. Going hunting. Getting out. Going to town. When they went out, it was almost like they were sixteen again . . .
* * *
Jessie picked up the letter and unfolded it. There, in Will’s careful, even handwriting was the message:
Saturday, June 15, 1896
Would you like to have my company to Walter’s tonight.
A huge grin spread across her face, and she twirled around in circles. He was so charming and courteous. Always obeying the traditions that she often laughed at. He knew that she would go with him! He didn’t even write it as a question. What a different person he was when they were alone. But still the same, too. Jessie ran upstairs to tell her mother where she was going.
* * *
Jessie got up and shook out her skirts. She walked slowly back to the hotel, where Will was resting. The shade hadn’t helped the heat too much, and tendrils of hair escaped her bun to stick out wildly. Even in the heat and humidity of the day, though, birds were singing. Jessie stopped to pick a flower and winced as she tried to bend over. As she kept walking, she allowed herself to close her eyes and walk in a dreamland. Someone calling her name snapped her out of her reverie.
“Jessie! Jessie!” Her mother-in-law, a slightly overweight and friendly figure, was walking quickly toward her. “We were wondering where you were. I thought that you might have gotten heat exhaustion. We have to take care of you now!” She laughed a good-natured laugh. “Come along, it’s time for luncheon. I was thinking that we could go into town afterwards and . . .”
Jessie listened amiably as Mrs. Baker rambled on, saying something when it seemed necessary Soon, they had arrived at the hotel, where Will and his father were already sitting at the table. Jessie went over to Will and kissed him on the cheek before her customary “How do you feel?”
As usual, the answer was “Just fine, now that you’re here,” accompanied by a grin. Jessie smiled at him, and the ladies sat down for their meal. Throughout the luncheon, Jessie prodded Will to eat his food—the healthy part—and tried not to let him exhaust himself by talking. Afterwards, Mr. Baker suggested a “quick walk to refresh themselves.”
Trying not to lean on his wife’s arm, Will got up and started to follow his parents. Jessie walked with him, letting him rest his thin, undernourished body on her arm, and not mentioning it. Only twenty pounds separated their weights now, when it used to be sixty. After about ten minutes, Jessie saw Will beginning to tire, and without saying anything, turned around to head back. Without seeming to notice them, Mr. and Mrs. Baker turned back at the same time, and came up behind them.
“Lovely weather, isn’t it?” Mr. Baker remarked.
“The same as it’s been the whole time we’ve been here,” was Will’s reply, soft enough so that only Jessie could hear him. She smiled an amused smile at him, and her father-in-law kept talking.
“It’s perfect weather for hunting. What do you say, Will? Want to go tomorrow? We could get some good meat for supper.” He put a lot of effort into these few words, really wanting to convince his son into going.
“Of course, Father. I’d love to.” Will put just as much effort into this short statement, but that was because he was almost wheezing. Casting a worried look at her mother-in-law, Jessie motioned them to go ahead. Slowly, she and Will walked back, trying to enjoy the time outdoors.
Breathing in the fresh air, Will remarked, “In some odd way, this reminds me of the sleighing party we had. You remember, by Miss Pearl’s house?”
Of course she remembered.
* * *
There were fifteen of them there, on a Saturday evening. Everyone was bundled up for warmth, and each girl knew which boy she wanted to sit next to. Jessie and her closest friend, Sarah, huddled together with the other girls, laughing and getting ready to go. Will, of course, was there, and she could see the twinkle in his green eyes as he came over, even though he was as bundled up as the rest of them.
“Come on!” he said as he grabbed her hand. “We’re first.” Giggling, Jessie separated from the clump of girls, and gazed up at Will.
“Scared?” he asked as he helped her in.
Jessie laughed and sat up straight. “Never!” Behind her, John was helping Sarah in the sleigh, and soon they were all in.
“Ready?” John called to the girls. A chorus of assents came from the back. “Off we go!” and then they were riding through the cold night, laughing. Jessie sat close to Will, and they yelled and sang along with everyone else. They raced against the snowflakes and watched the path disappear behind them. The whole affair was noisy and enthralling. By the time they got back to Miss Pearl’s house, everyone was flushed, and too worked up to call it a night. So they all tramped in and had cocoa, like they were six years old again.
Will drove her home in the sleigh, and it was the most romantic moment she had experienced. Freshly fallen snow lay on the ground, everything was quiet, and the stars shone amazingly brightly above.
* * *
Jessie smiled at the memories. Will’s hand was getting sweaty, and Jessie could tell that he had a fever by looking at him. By now she knew that she couldn’t hurry his walk, although she wished that she could so that she could get him to bed sooner. Their slow walk back to the hotel took them twice as long as it had going out.
Jessie guided Will to their rooms, and sat him down on the bed. Hard, racking coughs came from his body and shook his frame. Carefully, she tucked him in, like a small child, and propped up his pillows. Jessie sat by his bed and watched him until he fell asleep.
Mrs. Baker came in quietly and sat down by her. “You’ll be a good mother.” Jessie turned, startled, and looked at her mother-in-law. “Come on, now, you need your rest too.”
“I’ll sew outside. I just need to sit down for a while.” Jessie got her things and checked how Will was before leaving the room.
On the porch, she sat next to another woman who looked friendly. Jessie tried to start a conversation, but it seemed like too much work, so she just sewed quietly. From somewhere in the hotel came the voice of a girl singing. She was singing a familiar tune . . .
* * *
Jessie stood backstage, excited and not nervous at all. All of the other girls were back there too, in their outrageous costumes. As England, she wore an elegant ballroom dress, a crown and a sash with her country’s name. Sarah, who was Italy, was dressed in a bright, flowing dress. The girl who was India had taken a long sheet and wrapped it around her body, and Germany was dressed up like a shepherdess. There was a moment of hysteria when Belgium couldn’t find her sash, but that was soon fixed.
Everyone spoke in fast, excited tones. There was a simultaneous hush backstage and in the audience as the music teacher, Mr.Wilson, came onstage. He talked to the audience about how this was a great event to show the spirit of the school, and how much fun the girls had preparing it. Finally, they were ready to begin.
There were several acts before the Songs of the Nations girls went on. They lined up in a row on the front of the stage, and then Jessie stepped forward to sing her song. She heard the school orchestra start to play, and then she began to sing. Small butterflies that had crept into her stomach as she went onstage disappeared as she started to sing. Her eyes swept the audience, and she found Will sitting in the sixth row, paying close attention and smiling.
When the song was over, the audience clapped politely, ready for the next country to sing. Jessie saw Will, clapping as hard as he could, and smiled broadly as she stepped back into line.
* * *
Jessie stared at the fabric, as if it held all of her memories. Mrs. Baker came toward her.
“Jessie! Remember, we were going to go into town! Come on, now.”
Jessie looked up at her mother-in-law. “I think I just want to stay and rest. You can go with Mr. Baker—I’ll be fine.”
“Oh! Of course. I know you need your rest, dear. Have a nice afternoon!” With that, Mrs. Baker strode off, calling for her husband.
The afternoon passed slowly, although it was nice and quiet, just the right time to sit and sew. When Mrs. Baker got back to the hotel, Will was still asleep. Jessie was sitting in a chair by the side of the bed, sewing quietly and watching Will.
All of a sudden, he started coughing violently, and woke up. He started coughing up blood, and Jessie got up quickly to help him. She tried to prop him up and then stop the coughing in any way she knew how. It seemed to go on for an eternity. Mrs. Baker had gone to find the nurse, and Jessie was alone with Will. Finally, he stopped coughing, and somehow, went back to sleep. Something in Jessie’s mind told her that he had never actually woken up, though. Silently and carefully, Jessie tried to change Will’s sheets without disturbing him.
Mrs. Baker came back with the nurse, who started propping him up again and listening to his chest. Jessie and Mrs. Baker stood quietly next to each other, watching the nurse work. When the nurse was done, she looked very upset and flustered.
“You should watch him, and come and get me if anything changes. He doesn’t . . .” the nurse tried to find a way to say something, very flustered. “He doesn’t have much time now.” Without looking up, she hurried out of the room.
Without looking at each other now, Jessie and her mother-in-law sat down, trying to sew again. Only the automatic knowledge in their fingertips kept the needles moving. Finally, Jessie went over to check on Will, feeling his forehead and his chest. Her hands stopped suddenly, and went to his wrist, then to his neck, and back to his chest. She repeated these motions urgently. A feeling of despair washed over her as she turned toward her mother-in-law.
“He’s . . . dead.” A tone of disbelief crept into her voice. “Will. Is dead.” Jessie sat down hard in her chair. “Dead.” She stared into space, oblivious to the world around her. Then she absentmindedly put her hand to her belly. Soundlessly, she started to cry.
A week later they were home in Troy. The whole town knew that Will had died, and it seemed that they had all come to offer condolences. Everyone had known Will, because he was such a kind and helpful person. The sort of person you just want to be around. Jessie took condolences quietly, saying a quick “Thank you,” and then changing the subject by asking about their family.
During the days that she had been home, Jessie was arranging the funeral with the help of her mother and Mrs. Baker. She tried to stay as busy as possible, calling on people, writing letters, talking to the priest, and other items of business that needed to get done.
When the day of the funeral came, Jessie was silent, and didn’t talk to anybody. She rode to the church with her parents, staring out into some great distance. During the service, Jessie nodded along, agreeing with what everyone was saying, sometimes mouthing the words to herself. She sat in the front pew of the church, and watched as two pallbearers carried his casket out into the churchyard. Slowly, she got up to follow, and then everyone else filed behind her. When the casket was lowered into the ground, Jessie said her own prayer quietly.
* * *
Jessie and Will stood at the front of the church, smiling at each other and repeating the vows. Almost the whole town was there—at least, all of their friends were. Everyone had expected this to happen, they just didn’t know why it had taken them so long.
Jessie looked straight into Will’s green eyes. “For better or for worse . . . for richer or for poorer . . . all the days of our life, until death do us part.”
* * *
Until death do us part. Jessie threw a flower down on the casket, and watched as the remains of her husband were buried. Many of the people around her were crying. Jessie hadn’t cried since the day Will had died. People came up to her, to reminisce and to express sorrow for her. Jessie listened to what they had to say and managed to say something polite in response. If someone had asked her what they had said, she would not have been able to say.
After the funeral, Jessie moved in with the elder Bakers. She tried to go out and talk to old friends, but it was hard, and they seemed awkward around her. So she stayed at home most of the time, sewing clothes for the baby that was coming soon. Jessie also took long walks outside, around the town and then outside of it in the country. Flowers were just starting to come up, and the weather was just getting warmer.
Soon, she got too tired to be able to walk far, and found it hard to move around. Her back started aching constantly, and she never got enough sleep at night. Jessie’s mother and mother-in-law were extremely excited about the baby, about to be grandparents for the first time.
About three months after the funeral, Jessie started having sharp, cramping pains in her back. She lay down in her bed, trying to ignore the pain, and called out to Mrs. Baker.
“I’m having the pains,” she tried to explain, her hand on her back. “They come and they go.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Baker’s hand flew to her mouth. “I’ll send Mr. Baker for your mother and the midwife right away, dear. No, you just stay there. It will be fine, don’t worry. I’ll be right back, dear. Will! Will!” She walked off hurriedly, almost running. Jessie lay on her back and stared at the ceiling, counting cracks in the wood.
When her mother came in an hour later, the pains lasted longer and longer, and were coming closer to one another. The midwife came in soon after, talking in a quick, soothing voice.
“It’s all right, everyone calm down. Take a deep breath now dear—deep—and now let it out slowly. Be patient. That’s right. Breathe.” Mrs. Warren had been a teacher at the school as well, teaching sewing to the girls. “Breathe.” Throughout that long day, Mrs. Warren helped Jessie with her labor, just as she had helped her with her sewing years before.
After eight hours, a baby was finally born. Mrs. Warren wiped it off with a cloth, and then wrapped it in a blanket. Jessie took the baby from Mrs. Warren and laughed tiredly. “Shhh. You’re a beautiful little girl.” Then Jessie looked into her green eyes and started crying.
Author’s note: This story is based on the life of my great-great-grandmother, Jessie West Baker, who lived in Troy, Ohio. She lived from 1877 to 1931.