While Ma was at her monthly quilting bee at old Mrs. Henshaw’s place, Meredith was left in charge of the younger ones, five children under the age of ten. Henry was usually a help but today he was nowhere to be found. Meredith guessed that he was probably hiding out at the pond, trying to catch a few fish. He did that every chance he got, saying it was the best way to spend the afternoon. Meredith had often heard her Pa say the exact same thing, so she knew where Henry got the idea from. Part of her would smile when she heard the words come from her brother’s mouth, but the other, deeper part of her would ache, still not fully recovered from losing her Pa last winter.
Right now Meredith needed Henry’s help. The baby, Claire, who was usually a happy child full of smiles and giggles was at this moment screaming her head off, inconsolable on Meredith’s hip, and the three-year-old twins were running crazy in the chicken coop. Ma would be furious when she got home. They relied on those hens to keep laying their eggs and tormenting them like that could create a smaller yield over the next few days. That’s what Ma always said, anyway.
Meredith passed her baby sister off to Fanny, who although was only six, was a responsible child. She then ran out to the coop to round up her brothers, those rascals. They were always getting her into trouble. Joseph was trying to shove a handful of straw into the face of a small chicken that he had tucked under his pudgy arm and Jasper was chasing the fattest hen around in circles. Meredith was sure her frantic squawking could probably be heard for miles. When the boys saw her coming they both squealed and bolted for the door, trying to escape her wrath but they were trapped. Just as she was about to let loose a few choice words to put them in their place, she heard the coop door squeak behind her and her mother walked in.
The guilty boys immediately began pointing fingers at Meredith and even sprouted a few anguished tears, indicating how abused they were. Her mother simply said, “Now boys, it’s time to wash up. Go up to the house please.”
The boys, seeing their chance for escape, gleefully skipped out of the cramped little room. Meredith prepared herself for a scolding, but instead found something far worse when she looked into her mother’s eyes. It was exhaustion with a small bit of disappointment.
“I’m sorry, Ma. The boys were out of control and Claire was just crying and wouldn’t stop, and Henry ran off and isn’t helping.” Her words trailed off when she saw the steely resignation return to her mother’s face, placing her mouth in a firm line.
“You too, Meredith. Go to the house and wash up. Let’s get ready for supper.”
“Yes ma’am,” she replied and quietly left the room.
The baby was still screaming in the house, with Fanny attempting to soothe her with a wooden rattle. It was one that their father had made, before Meredith had even been born, and it had teeth marks set into it from every one of the six Sterling children. Meredith took Claire from her sister and rocked her until the baby settled down. She must have felt Meredith’s agitation before and mirrored her mood.
Meredith wandered over to the window, trying to see where her mother was. Meredith had been trying for months to keep that exhausted and resigned look from her mother’s face, but it had been difficult since her Pa had died. At age twelve, Meredith had had to grow up quickly. The stress of supporting a family of her size was extreme, and Meredith had seen the changes in her mother day by day. The house had always been noisy and crowded before, but it was full of an abundance of laughter as well as people. Now it was just noisy and crowded and sad.
Meredith saw her mother exit the chicken coop slowly, shutting the door behind her. Turning back toward the house she squared her shoulders back, apparently bracing herself for the rest of the evening.
Meredith wondered if she would ever see her mother smile again.