A Wife’s Premonition
Dec. 28, 1923
Winter's sun had yet to show itself above the snow-capped mountains that both nurtured and trapped Washington when Mabel Flindt awkwardly laced her high boots and opened the door of her four room rental. Despite the storm-spawned wind, she stepped outside, indicating she wanted her son to accompany her.
Saying nothing, she guided eight year old Max down the rough street flanked by the town's handful of commercial and private buildings. She nodded at Mr. Crowley who sometimes shared venison with her and lonely Mrs. Bale who loved gossip almost more than apple pies but didn't speak to either of them. Instead, she continued past the grocery store, two saloons, and hotel until Max and she reached the dirt road the lumbering 1916 Overland bearing her husband had taken less than an hour ago. Setting her shoulders, she began the hard climb up the grade.
Even at eight, Max no longer had to look up to his mother. Questions banked inside him, but her mood stilled him. Usually she exuded enthusiasm and an almost childlike optimism toward life, but this morning was different.
She didn't cry, and her progress now was as confident as it had been on flat ground—as strong as a four foot, nine inch woman could be. Max had grabbed his jacket before they'd taken off and with his free hand fastened it tight around his neck. His mother shivered, causing him to look at her. She wore only her countlessly-washed dress.
“They're going to be all right,” she said as they reached first turn in the long, steep climb out of the narrow canyon. The dirt road was the only escape from the community that storms sometimes shut off from the world.
Yes, they are, he wanted to say. Instead, the boy who lived to roam the land around the river at the bottom of the canyon waited. Looking down, he made out the tracks left by the Overland's tires and imagined the sound made by rubber grinding over earth. Rain and snow—a lot of snow this year—often turned the road into mud. Deep wounds had been carved in it.
Restless, Max had to work at slowing his pace to match his mother's. His hand, already as large as the one that held him, ached, but he didn’t tell her she was holding on too tight. She concentrated on her footing, yet he knew her thoughts were on the Overland's passengers, particularly its driver. Seeking to claim some of her attention and put an end to her tension, he rubbed his thumb against hers, but although she returned the gesture, she didn't look at him. Didn't stop walking.
He held her left hand. From infancy, he'd been comforted and nurtured by that side of his mother. If asked, he wouldn't have been able to say when he'd become aware of her right hand—what there was of it. Born without fingers, she gripped what she could between palm and thumb.
His mother was also more than half deaf, but Max gave that little thought. Like her deformed hand, limited hearing was part of their world.
“They left right early,” she said. Lifting her head, she scanned the tree-choked mountains. “They'll be—home—tonight.”
“They'll stop and see Grandma, won't they?”
“Yes.” She sounded distracted.
“I want to see Grandma. She isn't well is she? From what Aunt Frankie said, I know she isn't. Mama, when are we going to Nevada City again?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe you and Bonnie will stay here when I take my teacher’s examination. I wish—there just wouldn't be anything for you two to do while I'm in there.”
“What about Vella?”
“I don't know,” she said after a short silence. They were still walking but with less purpose now, almost as if talking sapped some of her energy. Either that or she knew that walking wouldn't accomplish what she wanted. “Baby will cry if I leave without her, and Mama wants to see her. Maybe, if Mama feels well enough. . .”
Max filled in the rest. If his grandmother felt up to it, little Vella would stay with her while his mother took the periodic examination required of all teachers.
His mother's continued silence and slow trek after the vehicle his father, aunt, uncle, and cousin had left in an hour ago stopped him from trying to answer that complex question. Instead, he kept pace until the ruts became so deep he wondered if his little sisters wouldn’t be able to climb out of them. Despite the promise of sunshine, no warmth reached them here. Even the coat his father had bought in San Jose and mailed to him last fall couldn't protect him from winter's hold on the Sierra Mountains.
“Mama?” he ventured. “We can't follow them.”
He glanced over at her, wondering if she was crying—something she almost never did—but although he thought he detected moisture in her eyes, her chin didn't tremble. With the memory of his father's fierce, leave-taking hugs and countless kisses closing in around him, he felt overwhelmed. Most of all, he remembered how his parents had clung together and wondered what they'd said to each other.
“I want this separation to be over.” She spoke in a whisper, maybe unable to hear her words. “It isn't right for a man to be apart from his children like this. For a husband and wife to have to write instead of being able to talk.”
Mama never spoke of what living far from her husband did to her; he didn't know what to say, what to do.
“He'll be back here in a couple of months,” he tried. “It won't seem that long.”
“Eight weeks. Maybe,” Mama whispered.
Releasing him, she dropped to her knees and placed her fingers in the marks carved by snow chains. He joined her, his fingers brushing against cold, sodden earth. Above and around them, the snow-blessed mountains waited. Thankfully it hadn't snowed while his father, aunt, uncle, and little cousin had been here for Christmas celebrations, hugs, kisses, even an afternoon of father/son target practicing.
But now Papa and the others were gone. Papa would drive two hundred and five miles today before crawling into bed in San Jose, a place little Max barely remembered.
“I don't want him to be living there,” he said. “I want him here with us.”
“I know; I know. It can't be helped right now but soon--soon. . .”
Only, he never saw his father again.