Historical Fiction Fiction Coming of Age

When I was four, my father was drafted for the army. It was 1861. He had grown up as a wealthy English immigrant in Massachusetts, and he wrote for the newspaper. My mother’s life was quite different. She had been a poor farmer’s daughter, who dreamed of going to the city. My father loved the countryside. It was so different from where he’d grown up, in bustling London. His father had been a doctor- a very accomplished one at that. He grew up knowing luxuries many didn’t. He too though dreamed of other things. He wanted to go to America. He saved up secretly until he was twenty-one, when he had enough money to buy one ticket for a boat across the ocean, and an apartment in Massachusetts. He was wealthy, even at that young age, and smart. He always had a plan. He arrived safely, and made Concord his home. Still, he dreamed of the country side. Still, my mother, eighteen years old, dreamed of the city that her father forbade from her. At nineteen, she secretly saved up money too, and ran away from her tiny town that could barely be called one, to Concord. My parents met a year later, her in a tiny apartment with a friend, him in a ravishing house on a quiet street. He was working for the paper, and had gone out to the poorer areas looking for interviews about life there, and the daily challenges that he’d never known. He interviewed her, and she invited him out on a date for a stroll in her favorite park. They were married the next year and bought a big house in the countryside close to a small city, and their firstborn, my eldest sister, Mary (after my mother’s mother), was born the year after that.

They were happy. Mary played in the creak behind the house and loved to draw. Nicholas, their second child was born, and after that Amy, their third. They wanted a big family, with ten children. Neither of them had that growing up, but both had always wished for many siblings. They were kind people, my parents, but it always seems as if the worst things happen to the best of us. Until I was four and my father was drafted, Mary then twelve years old, the youngest of us, the one after me, Anne, only three, we lived in that big house with warm memories. But, soon the civil war started to have it’s effects. Rations, etc. We had lost most of our money. Father had suddenly stopped sending money and letters only came at most once every two months. With no more incoming money, we moved deeper into the countryside where houses were cheaper but there was still room for mother and the six of us children. It was old, but it worked. We were happy and we got on. We missed father, we were worried about him. Then, a year later after we moved, we got a letter. Father was dead. Mother retracted into her room. At five years old, I did not understand. Her mood shifted every day. You’d never know when she would snap, though she never hit us, she was only stern. Sometimes we got afraid, but she never did spank us. I could not understand how she could still be tired even when she locked herself in her room all day in the dark. Anne couldn’t understand either. She couldn’t even remember father. Some people say she let herself die. She didn’t eat. One morning there was a horrible stench when we woke in the morning. I was still five years old. Mary and NIcholas told us not to go into her room. Mary sent Paul and Amy and Nicholas to run to the neighbouring house, which was still significantly far while she watched me and Anne outside. Tears ran down her cheeks, and I was scared because she was always so strong. I didn’t remember ever having seen her cry. In my mind as a child, that was the day our family fell apart. 

NIcholas was everyone’s favorite. He was smart, and an angel in adults’ eyes. In ours he was the older brother who never let us have a turn on the old wooden swing set, always boasting. An old woman, from our old town heard about our parents’ deaths. She owned the bakery and had known us since we were just pudgy legged toddlers. She wanted Nicholas to pursue his studies at a higher level, she said he had so much potential. He went to live with her. Our Aunt and Uncle who we would later come to know as our parents, took me and Anne since we were the youngest. They had three of their own, lived in a gigantic beautiful house with many riches, yet they said they could not care for Mary and Amy and Paul as well. Uncle George was my father’s brother, and had married Aunt Caroline back in England, came here five years after my father, a lawyer with lots money and recognition easily obtained a job and settled his family. Mary, Amy, and Paul were sent to the orphanage in Concord. After a year, Mary was able to get a job as a maid, and four years after that married off to a poor man who she claimed to love and birthed Emily, their only daughter. We saw her occasionally when she had enough money she would come to visit us. Amy and Paul did not have that luck. We did not see them until two year ago when Paul got out. They said the orphanage was a terrible place. They gave just enough food so they wouldn’t starve, and made them work. Sometimes they were allowed to play in their dorms after supper, but they were not allowed to get too loud or they would get a spanking. My reality at the time I thought was horrid, but it was not nearly as bad as Amy or Paul’s or even Mary’s. 

Uncle George was not in the least like our father. He was strict and big and mean. Aunt Caroline was not like our mother either. She was gossipy and stuck up. Mother had become mean in her last few years, but she had still been a kind woman, and a nice girl in her youth, she always dreamed big. Aunt Caroline did no such thing. She thought dreaming of things you could never have was foolish. She gave spankings as easily as easily as mother served stew. Me and AMme tried to stay clear of her. Their youngest son, George jr, was our age and he too was susceptible to the beatings, a short stunt quiet boy who never could meet Francois, his older brother’s standard. Francois was a worse, spoiled version of Nicholas. Madge was the eldest, self-righteous and stuck up. George was the only one we liked- he was like us. He felt like he did not belong in this family, just like we knew we didn’t. Even at a young age, we knew- Uncle George was not afraid to tell us so, that we were only there because no one wanted us. We were never allowed to speak about Paul, Amy or Mary. If we hadn’t been able to remember them, we maybe never would have known they existed. We still sometimes saw Nicholas though, and he knew where they’d gone. Sometimes the old lady would let him go visits. He told us we shouldn’t though, that it would make things worse for them.

I grew up hating my Aunt and Uncle. In my childish mins, it was their fault I had been torn from my real family. When we were old enough to go to high school, we did not attend the expensive, prestigious girls school like Madge did. We were sent to a small cheap boarding school in the countryside. We knew it was so they could get rid of us, not because they wanted us to have a good education. In the end, we really did like the school though. My best memories come from there. Anne was a better pupil then me, and Cath, my closest childhood friend who grew up in the house next to our aunt and uncle, attended there too. At first, as a day student, but eventually, she begged her parents to let her board there with us, and they agreed. We were not spiteful to not have been sent to Harvey’s Academy for girls. Truly, we made fun of them in their flouncing dresses and lace and shiny polished shoes. There were only twenty seven students in the whole boarding school, and everyone was friendly to one another for the most part. The teachers were not strict, they didn’t hit us, they were kind. Me and Anne liked to imagine one of them was a lot like our mother when she was younger. Not like the hateful aunt who’d felt pressured to take us in, worried people would think she was stuck-up or awful, as me and Anne truly believed she was. The school was fun, we enjoyed ourselves. There were christmas parties and dances and music concerts. It was quiet, peaceful. There was a lake nearby where we would go to swim and pick berries in the spring. 

Me and Cath graduated from there with a highschool diploma. This was two years ago, same year Paul got out of the orphanage. Of course, I did not know that at the time. Anne still attended the school, but I moved back ‘home’ to my aunt and uncle and George, who attended a prestigious school nearby as a day student. Francois was studying to be a priest in Concord. Madge was married, and had three children and no job. I did not envision a life like that for myself. I never had. I did not know what I wanted to do. Aunt Caroline wanted me to marry her best friend’s son. I was forced out on a date with him, but he was stuck up and I did not like him. I did not want to marry anyone, but I knew that if I had to, it would certainly not be him. One night, I sat down at Uncle George’s typewriter at his desk. Luckily, I knew I was much too old to be spanked, going on eighteen. I began to write. At the time, I did not know it was an autobiography I was writing, I just knew that it was desperate, and I begun to notice all the loose ends in my own story. How much I did not know about myself, my siblings. Where were they? All I knew was what Nicholas had told me. I had seen Mary a handful of times since we were torn apart, but not enough to say I’d grown up with her around. And Amy and Paul...I’d seen pictures, but I could barely remember them. As a child, I had always wished for a bigger family, for a bigger picture. 

And my Uncle and Aunt, what could I say about them? I knew Uncle George had come as a colonizer after my father, but I knew nothing about Aunt Caroline. I couldn’t even tell you where she was born, what type of family she was from, if her family was living or deceased. I found myself more curious than I had been before. What had their childhoods been like? Who had raised them? I wanted to know. Maybe I had judged them too early. That night at supper, it was just me, my aunt, uncle, and George. I swallowed the fear that they would get angry, and spoke.

‘’Uncle, what was it like for you, in England?’’ I asked. He gave me a skeptical look.

‘’Why do you want to know?’’ His gruff voice strained to remain indifferent.

‘’I don’t remember what my father told me.’’ I sidestepped his question.

‘’Oh. Well our father was a doctor. He was very wealthy, and spent a lot of time away at conferences. Our mother died when I was born from childbirth. We were alone a lot. We had a maid, but eventually my father fired her when I was eight. He said we were old enough to be responsible for ourselves. She had been sort of like our mother. Your father was very upset.’’ Honestly, I was surprised that he offered up that information, but I tried to push a little further.

‘’How did you meet Aunt Caroline?’’ I asked. He gave me a frustrated look.

‘’Let’s change topics.’’ He ordered, serving more salad onto his plate, frowning a little. Aunt Caroline looked up from the tea she was daintily sipping from.

‘’We met at a restaurant. George came to eat where I was working. I was orphaned too when I was three. He invited me out. I agreed. He claimed to want to follow his brother, who had just left to America after we got married. I was resistant. I didn’t want to leave my younger sister, who was still in that horrid orphanage. They beat us, and the men were very cruel who came to visit.’’ She spoke. I had never in all the time I had lived with them heard her speak up to him. Never seen her show emotion so openly. George glared at her, and offered around the meat pie. I knew that night there was nothing more I could get out of them. Every night though, I squeezed a little more out of them. They offered up more information. One day, I got up the courage to ask about my own siblings, Amy and Paul. They only repeated what I already knew. Eventually though, they told me everything the knew. I was able to find them with the help of Nicholas. By then, Paul had been out for almost a year, and had found a job washing dishes at Concord’s first greasy spoon. Amy worked for board and food at a rich family’s house, taking care of their baby, like Mary had. 

I have not yet met with them, but tomorrow is that day. I have talked more to Aunt Caroline and Uncle George, and come to appreciate how they raised us. I hadn’t known as a child that Uncle George had been sued, and how much debt they’d been having to pay off when they took us in. How stressful it all was for them. I hadn’t know any of it, and I don’t know why I had never asked. One thing I remember my mother saying, when we were younger.

‘’Family is everything, Samantha. Without them, alone, there is nothing left.’’ I could picture her saying it, lying in her bed in the dark, tears red, stained with tears. I had never agreed with that. To me, family had always been mother and father, a distant memory. Now I realize Aunt Caroline and Uncle George had been my family. They weren’t perfect, but they had never had parents who were around as children. They had been just as lost as I had. I know now what I want to do with my life. I still don’t want children, or a husband, but that’s what mother was wrong about- I don’t need that, I’m alright on my own. Writing, I’d always loved our exercises at school, I wanted to tell others my story, but to do that, I needed to know those of Amy and Paul and my Uncle and Aunt and Mary. I had always thought me and Anne were alone in our world, but that’s not really how it was. Maybe that’s what childhood is all about. You have trouble seeing the whole picture, sometimes you think you’re the main focus of the image. If you look though, you are there, peering over the counter, smelling the stew your aunt is cooking, and there she is, looking down at you, a smile not quite breaking through. There you are, skipping with your friend and sister down the street to school, and your cousin, trudging behind. That’s what growing up is too. Noticing those people, stepping a little out of the frame, making room for all of them. Take another step back and look at the whole picture, everyone in it, not those who aren’t. Yes, there are the missing seats where they’d usually sit, the missing spots where they’d usually stand, but still, the image is complete, or at least as complete as it can get.

November 27, 2020 18:30

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