At St. Louis Girls’ Academy, however, there was an entire building full of classrooms, and the halls and classrooms were filled with girls dressed in smartly pressed school uniforms. They learned arithmetic, practiced their penmanship, and read everyday from real books, not just a basic primer.
The instant Meredith saw Miss Reed with her bright eyes and dimpled cheeks, and heard her exuberant description of their first reading assignment, she knew exactly what she was meant to do. She was going to teach.
(Five Years Later)
Although Meredith had very few possessions, her bag was especially heavy as she followed the dusty road that led to her old home. She knew that she shouldn’t have brought so many of her books with her, but the thought of leaving them behind was more than she could bear.
Meredith was on her way home for a visit before she started her new position in Pennsylvania. It was a wonderful position for such a young teacher, but she had worked hard over the last five years to be the very best. She had especially excelled in her literary classes, delving into the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. In her bag was a portfolio of hundreds of poems which she had written. Someday she hoped to be published.
Ma had not thought it a good idea to come home. They wrote to each other diligently every week. Meredith’s letters were full of new people and places and things that she was learning. Her ma’s were brief updates on the farm, with maybe a description of what fish Henry brought home for supper. Fanny could be relied on for more colorful letters, telling Meredith about what was going on in town in addition to how Claire and Henry were doing. Ma always insisted that they were all fine, and preferred that Meredith and the boys stayed in St. Louis with their aunt, rather than coming home for a visit. The twins had adapted well to living with Aunt Lucy. Meredith was sure that they pretty much saw her as their mother, for they seldom referred to anything from their past. They were so young when they left the farm, so Meredith was not surprised. To Meredith, however, it felt as though she was completely abandoned. Not only was her mother willing to send her away, but she did not seem to want to see her ever again. Why was she so adamant that they stay apart?
Meredith thought it best to not tell her mother that she would be visiting before moving on to Pennsylvania. That way, it would be too late, she would already be there. What could she do, turn her daughter away at the door? Meredith was sure she would not do that.
As excited as she was to get home, Meredith’s stomach was a knot of nerves as she rounded the final corner on the dusty road which would lead to her old home. It had been five years since she gave her last hugs to Ma and the other children on that train. What would her mother think of her? Would she approve of what she saw? Meredith nervously smoothed her skirt with her free hand, conscious of the expensive fine wool and how it differed from the patched up skirts of her old frocks. Her shiny black boots had a fine coating of dust, but even the dirt couldn’t hide the perfect even-ness of the stitches in the tight leather, perfectly fitted to her feet. They were a far cry from the sloppy hand-me-down boots of Henry’s which she used to wear, stuffing cotton in the toes to cover up the holes where the stitching had ripped loose. So much had changed.
Finally the farm was in sight. In reality, it probably was not much different from when she left, but to Meredith’s eyes it looked like a run-down shack, with a chicken coop that leaned to one side and a fenced in patch of dirt which housed a sad-looking pig with her babies.
From a distance, Meredith could make out someone calling her name and running up the dirt path which led down to the tiny creek. It was Henry. He dropped his fishing rod and bucket and ran, his long skinny legs cutting the distance in half before Meredith could even inhale a gasp of surprise and nerves. Matching her brother, she dropped her bag and ran the rest of the way to him, but stopped awkwardly just before the inevitable embrace. Looking at each other shyly, Henry gave her a funny hug which only made Meredith feel more of a stranger than a sister.
“Mer,” he finally exclaimed, “I can’t believe you’re here!”
Meredith bobbed her head. She tried to look him in the eyes but all she could see was his skinny ankles and dirty bare feet protruding from the end of his britches, which were a good six inches too short. She suddenly felt very self-conscious about her shiny boots and she felt a flush creep up her neck into her face.
“Has Ma seen you yet? Did she know you were coming?” Henry asked.
“No, I meant it to be a surprise,” Meredith said, finally looking into brother’s face. She searched his brown eyes, trying to find something, although she wasn’t exactly sure what. “Every time I wrote about wanting to come home, Ma would insist that we stay in town with Aunt Lucy. I don’t understand it…”
Henry looked away toward the house.
“Meredith,” he began slowly, “a lot has changed since you left.”
“What? Tell me.” Meredith couldn’t help but grasp Henry’s arm, feeling the soft weathered cotton of his shirt.
“Ma hasn’t been well…” he began, but his voice trailed off.
“What do you mean? What do you mean, Henry?” Meredith could hear her voice begin to raise in pitch to an unfamiliar shrill sound. Her heart started to pound.
Before Henry could explain further, the front door of the house was thrown open and a tall girl came running toward her, almost knocking Meredith over when she threw herself around her chest.
“Meredith, I can’t believe you are here!” she said breathlessly. It was Fanny. She was tall and tan, with two long braids which flew off her shoulders as she ran.
Meredith held her sister close and the sudden strange shyness which had overtaken her when she met with Henry escaped as quickly as it had come on. She was home, at last.
The three siblings stood in the road in front of their house for several minutes, exclaiming over their surprise and delight in seeing each other again. Finally, Meredith asked again after her mother. Henry and Fanny looked at each other, and the look passed between them was full of emotion and dread.
“Mer,” Henry said again. “Ma has been sick for a while now. It started not too long after you and the twins left. She was so tired all the time. We thought maybe she would improve, now that she had less to manage with the twins gone and all, but it only seemed to get worse.”
Meredith put her hand to her mouth in shock. How was this the first that she had heard of this? Why did no one write and tell her. When she asked the question out loud, Fanny softly replied.
“We wanted to tell you, but Ma insisted that we don’t say anything about it. She wanted you to focus on your studies, and not worry about her.”
“But what has been done? What does Dr. Brown say? Doesn’t he come and see her?”
“Yes, of course he has seen her. Lots of times,” Henry said defensively. “We’ve done everything we can for her.”
Fanny was quick to jump in with a soothing tone, but her answer was not easy to hear. “Meredith,” she said softly, “the doctor says it is cancer. She isn’t going to get better.”