Promise to Keep
A morning rain whispered a harmony of delicate drops against the second-story bedroom window. Esther Detweiler kept her eyes closed as she lengthened her legs and arms. Even as she stretched, dampness crawled through the cracks of the old house and wrapped around her like a shawl. A gentle nudging pushed her from the warped mattress, and she swung her feet onto the floor. The cool wooden planks were smooth and comforting. When she stood, the floorboard didn’t creak as it usually did. The house was perfectly still.
Her gaze landed on Daisy Garrison, the seven-year-old deaf English girl, who slept peacefully in the cot against the opposite wall in the same room. Esther had been caring for her deceased cousin’s child for four years. She was drawn to touch the girl’s silken cheek, but a sudden chill drew her attention away from the sleeping child.
She turned and her eyes landed on the embroidered wall hanging her mother had given her decades earlier as a Christtag gift. For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him. It was the last Christmas gift Esther received from her mother.
She shivered and pulled on her housecoat, then tiptoed down the staircase. At the bottom was Mammie Orpha’s bedroom. The door was cracked open. Orpha always kept her door open at night, saying it was welcoming to the heavenly beings. But something was different this morning. Was it too open? Or too quiet? She leaned a shoulder against the wall next to the door frame, her eyes squeezed shut. She should hear her mammie’s easy snore through the small gap, but all she heard was the warm breath of summer wrapped in the scent of freshly turned soil. She reopened her eyes.
With her fingertips splayed, she gently pushed the door. Even the usual creak was silenced. Esther stood in the doorway. In front of her, Orpha lay as still as a painting. A faint smile was cast over her lips as if she was dreaming something pleasant behind her closed eyelids. She looked happy. Losing her husband decades ago had set the stage for many losses and hardships for the past forty years. She had been like an Israelite wandering, only she never found her promised land. Maybe now, in death, she would.
Orpha’s hair, though disheveled the night before when Esther had bid her good night, was now perfectly combed and smooth, her night covering tied neatly around her soft-skinned chin. She’d taken the time to comb her long hair before she’d gone to bed. It occurred to Esther that Orpha had said good-bye last night instead of goodnight. Had she somehow known that she would pass into eternity while she slept?
The quilt neatly tucked around Orpha’s chest had been on her bed for decades. Esther eyed the simple pattern, rows of triangles forming squares. Together, they’d repaired many of the pattern pieces, salvaging her mother’s dresses to use as patches. She and Daisy had both learned to sew on the blanket.
A breath hiccupped in her throat and her hand clapped over her quivering mouth. She hated crying. Her heart drummed like
the wooden mallet threshing harvested wheat, every beat aching more than the one before. Tears warmed her face and salted her lips. She heard a low groan just before she fell on this dearest of old women, a treasure that now was an empty vessel.
Orpha had been such a humble woman. A woman to follow after. Dedicated. Loyal. A mammie to everyone.
Esther wept, thankful to be alone. Loss burned within her, and her heart was heaped with ashes. Too many burdens to count. She’d faced death before, but when her mem and dat passed, the innocence of youth had cushioned her grief. Losing Orpha now was worse.
By lunchtime, the furniture in Esther’s house had been pushed aside and the rooms filled with rows of backless benches and mourners whose presence provided comfort to Esther. Daisy remained glued to Esther’s side, eyes wide, rosebud lips pursed, and hands mute. Orpha had never understood the little girl’s deafness, but they still had had a special relationship.
Funerals weren’t foreign to Esther. Life had come at her like an unbroken horse hitched to a buggy without a driver. Her father had left for the war in 1917 and had died as a conscientious objector in prison a year later. Her mother, Leah, gave up on living and died two years after that. Since Esther was only eight, the deacons had suggested that she go live with her other younger, healthier grandparents in Geauga County, Ohio. But that might as well have been another country, and Esther had refused. She would stay with Orpha. Stubbornness came as easily to her as pretending not to be hungry.
But those years had passed. A spinster at thirty-four, she and Orpha had made a life for themselves, and bringing Daisy into it had somehow completed their unusual family. It had been hard at times, and Daisy’s deafness compounded the difficulties, but
having three generations in a home had given hope and some peace that Esther hadn’t realized she’d lost when her cousin Irene, Daisy’s mother, had passed away. Before her death she had been lost to her community and shunned for her marriage to an Englisher.
The scales had tipped again with Orpha’s death, and she knew what would happen next. Eventually Daisy’s father would come home from war, though they hadn’t received a letter from him in over a year when he explained he would be helping with reconstruction. A melancholy shadow in the shape of Joe Garrison hovered over her. While she never wanted harm to come to him, she didn’t like to think about his homecoming and taking Daisy away, especially now that Orpha was gone. Orpha’s death, however, made her consider when she may lose Daisy to Joe. And be alone.
“Dangeh,” Esther said as she shook an offered hand and attempted to refocus on her thoughts. Since there was no church service on the in-between Sunday, many people had already visited her. Esther found sympathetic, lingering, and mournful eyes as she greeted her visitors, though their tight grips tired her hands. She thanked another sober-faced, bearded man as the line of visitors finally ended. Then she stood in the doorway alone and watched as the Peterscheim family walked down the drive in a black, single-file row, like worker ants always well ordered and never idle.
Beyond the families dressed entirely in black, shades of English brightness appeared, parting the small crowd. Mrs. Norma White walked with such an air about her. As she passed, the entire Peterscheim family turned their heads and stared. The skirt of her neighbor’s peach-colored dress, tightly cinched about her waist with a belt, swished around her tan stockings. A small group of girls standing on the porch leaned their heads together, whispering.
“I brought a pie,” Mrs. White said as she entered the house. She looked around, never meeting Esther’s eyes, as she handed over a crumb-crusted apple pie. Esther had worked for Mrs. White at the neighboring farm since she was thirteen. Mrs. White was a strong-minded woman. She’d run the farm and raised her daughters after losing her husband in a farming accident. Mrs. White was a rigid and uncompromising employer, but she’d never used her husband’s death as an excuse to forsake living, the way Esther’s mother had. The woman’s grit had stirred Esther over the years not to give in to loss. Mrs. White hadn’t depended on anyone to rescue her from her circumstances and had risen to the occasion. She had run the farm on her own for many years, when many other women would have sold it and walked away.
When Esther had started working there, she’d seen Mrs. White in overalls doing men’s work. That was why she needed a housekeeper in the big farmhouse. That had been years ago, however, and although she still ran the farm, she now wore stylish dresses instead of overalls. She no longer needed to do the hard work herself, but the earlier years had taken their toll. It was rare that the woman didn’t wear dainty gloves. Esther understood why when she realized that the elegant woman had the hands of a hard-working man with gnarled knuckles and rough skin. Esther then understood why there was a bottle of skin cream in every room.
“Thank you.” She accepted the pie with both hands and set it down on the wooden countertop, along with the array of other goods. Esther had baked the pie herself only the previous day in Mrs. White’s modern oven, which she privately coveted. She gestured toward the small table in the center of the kitchen. “There’s coffee and water.”
“Oh, Esther. I’m so sorry, but I can’t stay. I’m already running behind.” Mrs. White smiled and slowly batted her eyelashes. “I have a prayer meeting at church tonight, and you know how
I dislike tardiness. I would have been over sooner, but I had so much cleaning to do after church and dinner.” Mrs. White cleared her throat. “You understand, I’m sure.”
Esther inhaled as gently as possible. Making dinner for one could not have been of any consequence, and the farmhands served themselves on Sundays with food Esther had prepared ahead of time. Mrs. White wouldn’t have had to do more than perhaps sweep the kitchen or run a washcloth over her newly installed laminate countertops—in Lillypad Pearl, as Mrs. White called it. Esther considered it just plain green.
“Please accept my condolences,” Mrs. White offered as she patted Esther’s arm. Though her gloved hand was warm, a chill pressed through the thin black fabric of Esther’s sleeve and onto her skin. Mrs. White turned to leave, but returned a moment later. “Oh, will I see you tomorrow?”
Esther’s lips pinched, and a moment later she relaxed them, not wanting her employer to see her vexed.
“We have three-day wakes and then the funeral. I’m sorry, but I won’t be there until the day after the funeral.”
“And must you—” the English woman began.
“I can send a cousin’s wife in my place. Dorothy,” Esther suggested, keeping her voice steady. “Dorothy is one of the women on the food delivery route—she could use the extra money. You will be pleased with her.”
One of Norma White’s thin eyebrows pushed up toward her hairline. Several moments of silence passed between the two women before the elder nodded curtly.
“Send her over in the morning, and I’ll handle it from there.”
Esther watched through the kitchen window as her neighbor tiptoed across the road to keep her pumps from pressing through the damp gravel. In less than a minute, Mrs. White was behind her picket-fenced, colorful existence, leaving behind Esther’s plain life in shades of black and white.
As Daisy slipped around behind Esther, her left arm curled around the little girl’s shoulders. She squeezed three times, their special way of saying I love you. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been told the same sentiment by anyone but Daisy, and the gesture was as intimate as she’d ever been with another person.
“Sellah hooheh frau realleh meint sie sahvet,” Lucy, Esther’s aunt and Daisy’s grandmother, said in a low voice.
Esther wondered how long the older woman had been standing there. She nodded in agreement that the English woman did think very highly of herself. But hadn’t Esther herself learned to stand taller and stronger because of the high-and-mighty woman?
“Are you sure you need to work for her?” Aunt Lucy whispered candidly.
Esther sighed. “Where else can I work?” She and Aunt Lucy stepped in front of the sink and washed out water cups to put out again. “Now that most of the men are back from the war, many of the factory women are out of their jobs. I know not all of them will keep working, but either way, housekeepers are a dime a dozen right now.”
“You could teach. Our school needs a good teacher. If you don’t do it, then it’ll probably be that silly girl Matilda Miller from the district over. She’s a fright.”
“I am not a teacher.” Esther raised an eyebrow at her aunt.
There would never be enough support or approval within the Amish leadership for that to happen anyway. Esther had far too many unusual circumstances to make her a good example to kinnah. Although she strived to follow the church’s standards as laid out in the Ordnung, she was still an orphaned unmarried woman raising a deaf English child.
“Maybe not, but you sure have taught Daisy.” Aunt Lucy patted her granddaughter’s kapp. Daisy smiled at her mammie
before burying her face in her guardian’s long black skirt. Lucy sighed. “She looks so much like Irene did at that age. You’ve been very good for her.” An expression of loss and hurt cascaded over the elderly woman’s face. She swallowed hard and looked away from Esther and through the window.
Esther patted Lucy’s hands. They both knew Lucy would have liked to have taken Daisy when Joe joined the Marines after Irene’s death, but she didn’t know—no one knew—how much additional work it would take to raise a child like Daisy.
What Esther had never told Lucy was that Irene had pleaded with her that if something ever were to happen to her, she wanted Esther to help Joe with Daisy. Irene made Esther promise. Joe admitted to Esther that Irene had made him make the same promise. Somehow she sensed it, he said. She could hear his words engraved in her memory. She said you would love Daisy like your own and take care of her in a way that her parents never could. She made me promise.
Lucy, however, insisted so passionately that she wanted to care for her granddaughter herself that Joe allowed his mother-in-law to keep her overnight before he shipped out. It didn’t take long for Lucy to see that Daisy needed a great deal of attention—more than she could give—and finally agreed that Esther was a better match.
Esther gazed out the window, reminiscing. Her eyes landed on the harmonica that lay on the kitchen windowsill. It had been her father’s. When he left, he told her to keep it and said that someday, when he came back, he’d teach her to play. He’d never returned. Orpha’s death compounded on all the former ones.