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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

My Own Precious Faces!



I just celebrated a belated Thanksgiving (although every day should be, shouldn't it?) with these two yesterday! That's my Great-Aunt Alice, to whom my latest novel, Our Own Precious Places, is dedicated, along with my Great-Uncle Leroy, her husband of seventy-two years. We got to catch up on all of the latest happenings over lunch - they lead a busier life than mine - and chat about family history, which includes the book that Aunt Alice is feverishly working on (obviously it runs in the family.) It details her life, focusing specifically on the years she spent as a war bride, while my Uncle Leroy was stationed in Korea, and the letters they mailed back and forth to keep their love in bloom during a long separation.


A little backstory: Aunt Alice is my Grandpa Pete's younger sister (the one closest in age to him), and the last woman standing from the clan featured in Our Own Precious Places. Because she's still sharp and active at the tender age of ninety-three, she's also the one whose story on the page differs the most from her real life in 3D (she's Alma in the book.) I wanted to do her justice but not give away too many of her secrets (nor Uncle Leroy's.) At their age, I know they've got plenty.



Thanks be to all of you who've already purchased a copy or two of OOPP. It's a huge privilege to be able to bring these lives well-lived to a group of readers. They all lived (and are still living) extraordinary, ordinary lives, and I can only hope that I made them proud through my words. At the very least, I didn't want to make them small. They all deserved better than that. If you've got something good to say about the book, please consider leaving me a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It helps others find me, so I can deliver my stories to the people who most need them.


For those of you who haven't purchased Our Own Precious Places, you can do so by calling or stopping by Wordsmith Bookshoppe in downtown Galesburg, the Bishop Hill Colony Store in historic Bishop Hill, or by clicking here. Books really do make great gifts - they're pretty much ALL that's on my Christmas wishlist! And because I'm thankful for all of you, whether you've bought the book or not, here's a snippet from Alma's section to cleanse your palate after overindulging this past week (don't pretend like you didn't!) Hopefully your feasting was a little more joyful than Alma's crew... thanks, as always, for reading, dear friends!


 

Chester came home in late 1946, discharged from the war.  We had blossomed in Chester’s absence; as punishment, we were forced to suffer in his presence.  Tensions ran high between him and Daddy; their struggle caused the world to freeze solid, I am almost positive of it.  We endured an icy sort of existence that winter, where nothing was said aloud and everything was cloaked in a frozen sort of tolerance that was bound to shatter.  I was only sixteen, poor Margaret just eleven.  What does that kind of festering discontent do to half-grown girls?


Mother discerned this and tried her best to compensate by keeping the stove fed; consequently, the temperature inside the house climbed to an unbearable level.  She cooked huge meals as well, although she was only feeding half her children and no farm hands.  They did not come back after the war.  Daddy could not have paid them anyway.  John Robert was still learning to take care of his own place - a corner of the family farm that he purchased with his Lost Limb Largess from the government, as he liked to tease - he scraped together his own meals, as he did not want to make things worse with Chester.  I hate to think now of how neglected John Robert must have been that first winter alone, mourning his leg, with no one to help him set his affairs to rights.  What a shameful thing it was to leave him to his own devices!  I see that now, even though there was nothing to be done about it then.  Chester was broken too.


The feasts Mother put on! Ham and chicken pot pies and dried apple tarts and roasted squash and candied carrots and sourdough bread with apricot preserves and real-butter pound cakes and potatoes made every way imaginable: mashed and buttered and squashed and steamed and fried and baked and scalloped and boiled.  She stuffed us so that we would not have a reason to lash out at each other, because we were too full; like dairy cats who were allowed their fill of milk from the top of the pail, we lolled and lazed after supper, dazed into a stupor by the heat and the overabundance of food.  I had never had so much food.  I was born in a time of too little.  Now, there was too much.


Chester, ever wise to Mother’s schemes, began to take his suppers out, so when he returned he was fighting fit.  None of us - especially Father, who was quietly beginning his long descent  - possessed the fortitude to resist his rages. 


Mother tried harder, this time with pie.  Gooseberry and blackberry and rhubarb, all frozen from the winter, crusts made light and flaky with lard secreted in the dark corners of the pantry in a pressed paper container so it would not go rancid.  When that did not work, she added weight: raisin and pumpkin and mincemeat and persimmon, all mixed with cream and a heavy hand.  


She tried - oh how she tried! - but nothing stopped him.  Items went missing, furniture was broken, words - terrible and unholy - were spewed, accusations were levelled.  Mother took to carrying her Bible everywhere, tucked into the waistband of her cotton skirt when she needed use of both of her hands.  She took it with her to the outhouse at night, even though she could not see to read it in the muddy darkness.  It was a talisman to ward off the devil that had been let loose in her house.


“Chester, think of your sisters!” Mother would plead when his language became unbearable.


Chester would just grin, because, of course, he was thinking of us, thinking of how he could inflict lasting and permanent damage on the both of us, so that we would not reach adulthood whole.


It was Daddy who convinced him to rejoin the service.  Chester has made it out to be that it was his idea.  I have heard him say as much in the years since - there was nothing here for him, John Robert was the favorite son, everyone loves a cripple and all the like.  But, no.  I saw it.


Daddy had him cornered, pressed up against the pile of rocks that covered the old well in the northeast corner of the barn lot.  I saw the entire exchange spread out before me like the children’s theater at church.  Daddy stood over Chester, pointing his finger like the archangel himself.  Daddy was not an overly big man, but he was broad in his middle age and powerful in his anger.  Chester cowered against the stones, his face opened up to Daddy like a rose forced to bloom before its time.


“You will go, Chester.  It is finished here. You will go.” Chester opened his mouth, but Daddy cut him off.  


“No.  There is nothing else.  Nothing here for you.  You’ve done too much.  I’ve tried to find you a place.  God knows I’ve tried, Chester.”


Chester hung his head, but it was not shame I saw there.  It was fury.


“You were a good soldier.  I don’t doubt that.  Men like you were made for that type of work.  They’ll have a place for you there.  Even if it’s only for a bit longer.”


My face was pressed against the damp wood of the barn.  Barn wood is always damp, even during a drought, and it smells of all the unnamed things that came before - dirt and sky and water and wood and air and smoke and rot and manure and hay and death.  It is a comforting smell or a terrifying smell, depending.  I cannot explain better than that.


“You can’t stay here.  Not now.”  Daddy’s voice caught.  He rubbed at his face with a workworn hand. “There is no place for you here.”  Daddy shuffled away, a machine whose worn parts were in desperate need of oiling.  A bandana flopped from his back pocket like a faded blue tail.


Chester laid against the rocks.  His eyes were closed, but he was not asleep.  I wondered if Chester ever slept.  After a few beats, he picked himself up and moved, not around the pile of wellstones, but to the east, out of my sight.  He was headed to the woods.  Did the newly awakened wildflowers quake at his approach?  Probably so. 


I waited a few more minutes, in case he was still poised at the edge of the woods, trying to plot his next move.  It was a forward advance that would surely leave him in no mans’ land because I had heard the iron finality in Daddy’s voice.  I had only heard it a handful of times before.  Nellie would disagree, Chester too, I am sure, but he was a different father to me and to Margaret.  He was a man who knew which children needed his love more; they stole the lion’s share of it.  Margaret and I were just periods at the end of his last few sentences.


I edged around the corner.  There he was, with teeth bared like a feral cat and he jumped on me.  The words he spat on me, the names, the epithets, cannot be repeated, but they burned themselves into my brain. He grabbed my hair, my hair that was a honey-blonde color, lovely in its shine even if it was stick-straight, with none of the curl that Teeny and Nellie favored.  He buried his hand in it, a silky grave, dragging me to the north side of the barn. away from the eyes of the house, where mother stood in her sunny kitchen, desperately thumbing through old family recipes, working feverishly on a cure for my brother, a cure based in flour and eggs and oil.  A cure which was bound to fail but it was all she had.


I did not have even that much.  All I possessed was a small bit of fight; even that amounted to precious little.  I was marooned in a sea of siblings, a skinny island whose nearest neighbors were seven years older and five years younger.  Margaret was something of a rascal, always into other people's belongings and business, but she was only eleven and little more than a nuisance to me.  John Robert was a dove, rarely uttering a cross word to anyone, so I had precious little reason to know how to defend myself physically.  


But oh, how I tried!  I sunk my teeth into his other hand, the one not wrapped up in my hair, and I scratched at him but his arms were longer than mine and he shook off my bite with a force that caused my teeth to chatter.


“You know what they did to spies over there?” he whispered hotly.  The sound recalled the hiss of steam released from one of Mother’s fresh-baked pies, and the anticipation of what was to come.


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