So, you know of course I just couldn’t approach Mama and ask her directly about this exact replica of her kitchen and garden. We’d tried that before to no avail. No, I had to go about in a way that would tell them without words that I was starting to piece together what all the secrecy and the worried looks were about, in a way that hopefully might lead to them telling us themselves.
So I decided I’d take them to Conner Prairie myself. It was almost the end of October, which was when they closed for the year, so I had to hurry up and get them there. I just told them all that it was a really neat place, since they were always looking for new places to take the family, they agreed.
The day before Halloween we went. I made sure to watch their faces when we got out of the car to see if they had any reaction to the smell of the smoke like I’d had. I noticed Papa’s face first. He had been saying something to Mama as he got out of our van, and he just stopped. Mama turned to look at him, her eyes suddenly wide. And then, like I’ve seen them do so often, they shook their heads, shaking away the looks, and continued their conversation, although a little more hesitantly.
We went through the big building first and bought our tickets. I was in such a hurry to get my parents to
that I almost
knocked Lottie’s stroller over in my haste. I told them all that there really
wasn’t much to see inside, that outside was the coolest part. Mama and Papa
didn’t seem as eager, and grabbed a hold of the stroller and steered it into
the museum. Prairie
They took their sweet old time strolling through the inside part, Mama commenting on some things and asking me if I’d learned about it in school. All I would answer was “uh huh, yeah I sure did, but mostly what we learned about was outside.” I thought I’d never, ever get them out when finally the inside part just ended. There was nowhere to go but out. And as soon as we opened the doors, the sunlight streamed in our eyes and the smoke smell hit our noses. I heard Mama sigh.
Mama stayed quiet for some time. We wound our way through the little town, stopping to let my younger sisters pet the animals and to talk to some of the townspeople in costume. Papa seemed hesitant, but engaged in conversation with them when they asked politely what business he had in town. I smiled inside when he laughed lightly, and said, “Just passin’ on through, prolly headin’ up toward Strawtown or whereabouts.” Mama gave him a stern look at that point, and Papa nodded his head to the man, and we continued on. And that’s when I dragged my family into the house with the garden.
As soon as we entered the tiny cabin Mama gasped.
“Mama! This looks just like our house!” cried Ellie. She said a quick hello to the woman there, the same woman who had been there on our field trip, then dashed outside to see the garden.
“Why, hello again,” said the woman to me. All of a sudden I felt a twinge of guilt. “Did you bring your mother to help me out?” She beamed at Mama. “I hear you are quite adept at preparin’ your food for the winter.”
“Oh… did my daughter tell you that?” she asked, casting a sidelong glance my way. “Well, you know how bad winters can be around here,” said Mama smiling hesitantly at her. “Seems you hafta start earlier ever’ year.”
I swung my head around at her. Papa was staring at her too. That was the same accent Papa had used a few minutes ago. And it was funny, I thought, that whenever the two of them got excited or awful angry, a hint of that accent would come out. Mama caught herself and made to follow Ellie outside, but the woman went on.
“How did you learn to preserve your vegetables?” she asked.
I watched Mama stop and slowly turn around. “My aunts taught me.”
The woman nodded. “Well, take a look around my garden. If you have any tips for my herbs this winter, I’ll gladly take them.”
Mama nodded, thanked the woman, then grabbed my hand and dragged me outside. She took me all the way out to the smokehouse at the very back of the garden before she stopped and turned to me.
“Who do you think you are?” Her eyes seemed to bore a hole into mine.
“I – uh, I –“
“What are you doing?” she continued. “You tryin’ to figure me out? Is that why you brought me here? You tryin’ to figure out how I know all this?”
There was nowhere to go but the truth. “Well – yeah! Yes, I am trying to figure that out.”
Her hand went straight to her forehead and the worried look surfaced.
“Alright, Mama, I’ll save you the pain. I already know how you know all this.”
The worried look was quickly replaced by a completely horrified one. “Oh, do you?”
I lifted my chin in defiance, then nodded.
“We’re leaving,” Mama said suddenly.
“What? We just got here!”
“I have been here long enough. Levi, let’s go!”
Papa raised his head. “Go?”
“Yes. We are going.” She held fast to my hand and marched right out the gate, up the road, through the building, and back out to the van, leaving Papa to try his hardest to corral the rest of the girls behind us.
The ride home was horrible. Ever heard that line, “If Mother ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”? Well, that was certainly true in my family. Papa and my sisters sensed that something was terribly wrong, even though Mama and I were the only ones who knew exactly what.
When we got home, everyone quickly dispersed. Papa headed out to the garage, and Ellie took the rest of the girls outside to play. And it was almost like something akin to a shootout in an old Western when Mama confronted me.
She stood across the kitchen from me and looked me up and down, her eyes piercing through me, even though I was shrinking away from her glare. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I just stood there and waited for the eruption. I didn’t have to wait long.
“So, Miss Maddox, tell me what you know.” The voice was level and cold, her eyes maintaining the glare.
I gulped. “I – I know that wherever we come from is somewhere you don’t want us to know about,” I jumped right in.
Mama lifted her chin. “Ah. Alright.”
“I just don’t know why.”
Mama seemed taken aback at that statement. “You don’t know why?”
I shook my head. “No! I don’t know where we came from, I don’t know why we left, and I don’t know why you and Papa won’t tell us. I was tired of asking you questions and getting these worried looks and silly excuses, so I thought I’d take you to where the memory came back for me, and hope that it’d come back for you, too.”
“The memory? What – what do you mean by ‘the memory’?”
My hands went up in exasperation. “I – I don’t know. I couldn’t place it, but - at Conner Prairie, I smelled this wood smoke smell. It seemed familiar, and I realized that wherever we came from, it had that same smell. And there were so many things at Conner Prairie that you do at home too, so I thought that might be a clue….”
“I see. But you don’t know where we came from?”
“No, Mama. I told you I don’t. But I really would like to know.”
“No, Mama. I told you I don’t. But I really would like to know.”
My mother sat down at the table and brought her hand to her forehead, and I watched as the worried look surfaced once again. She rubbed her forehead, shook her head, then looked up at me, her face wrinkled with sadness.
“I can’t tell you, Maddie. It’s too dangerous. I’m sorry.”
And with that she stood up and left the room, leaving my head spinning with more questions than I’d begun with, and not a single answer.
Dr. Wolf was Papa’s boss. He’d come around every once in a while for a visit or to have dinner with us. And I noticed that every time he came Mama was on edge. Well, he stopped by that weekend. But this time he brought a bunch of gifts with him. He called it an early Christmas. My sisters and I stood on the stairs overlooking our entry way as box after box was carted through the door, holding the dogs back from jumping on the intruders. Then we watched as Dr. Wolf and Papa opened them up. Mama sat disapprovingly in the corner, trying to focus on her knitting while we all sat on the couch and watched them intently.
The first box was a television. I could hardly believe it. It was much bigger than the one we had in school, and even bigger than the one Rachel had. Dr. Wolf set it up in our family room, right smack dab in the middle across from our big couch, moving our bookshelves to the sides of the room.
Next was a big radio. This he and Papa set up in the kitchen. He turned it on, and the music took over the entire downstairs of the house.
The next box was a computer. He said Papa would need this for work, but we girls could play lots of fun games on it, too. He set it up on Papa’s big desk in the basement, after he’d shoved all his papers to the sides. Then he called the cable company and set up an appointment for them to come to our house to hook up cable TV and Internet.
And then, even after Mama cordially invited him to stay for supper, he was off. He left our heads spinning, wondering what in the world made him do all this, and wondering what in the world we were to do with all the new things. We girls watched Mama cautiously, saw that she was heading into the kitchen to start supper, and went about our business as usual. Ellie and I started helping her, and the other girls went into the living room to play. The first thing Mama did was turn off the radio.
Dinner that evening was strained. Mama was not her usual cheery self, and Papa seemed to cower in his seat. I noticed every once in a while he’d steal a glance at her, then look away real fast. Then Ellie asked if we could watch TV after dinner.
Mama’s fork slammed down on her plate and she looked up at her. “You most certainly may not. That thing is nothing but a waste of time, and we have too much to do to be idle in front of it. No. We will not be watching TV.”
“Ever?” asked Ellie.
“Now, Evelyn, you can’t say that- “
“Yes! Yes, I can. How dare he come in here and bring all those things to upset our way of living-“
“He’s trying to enhance our way of living!”
“You and I both know that is not true.” Mama’s tone of voice was so cool and level that Papa sat back in his chair, then looked at all of us staring at him.
“We can continue this conversation later, dear,” he said quickly, and gave us a look that said to return quietly to our meals. Mama exhaled, dissatisfied, and we finished our meal in a terrible silence.
We girls were sent to bed early that night. No more did we finish our chores than Mama shooed us upstairs to brush our teeth and change into our pajamas. Then she brushed and braided our hair while Papa read us our Bible story. Then it was off to bed, lights out.
But of course we didn’t go to sleep. Not when just down the stairs Mama and
Papa were speaking in very hushed tones, their voices growing more tense and strained with every word.
Ellie and I were the first ones to the edge of the stairs, so we of course sent the other girls marching pouting right back into their rooms. Carrie slammed her door in protest, which caused Mama and Papa to stop and come rushing up the stairs. Ellie and I just made it into our beds without getting caught. I squinted my eyes open from just beneath the covers to see Mama’s silhouette on my ceiling, and then it slowly receded as she made her way back out into the hallway. When I heard Papa’s heavy feet hit the hardwood floor of the hall downstairs, I bolted back out of my bed and inched back down the hall. Carrie caused me to nearly have a heart attack when she hissed from her room, “Tell me what you hear!” I nodded and waved frantically for her to go back to bed as I crept back to the stairs. Ellie soon joined me.
“I should be able to raise my daughters the way I see fit, Levi,” came Mama’s hushed voice.
“I understand that, Evelyn, but your way is not the way of things nowadays. We can’t live in the past. Our girls need to be familiar with the world as it is now.”
“The world now is evil.”
“No more evil than it’s ever been,” came Papa’s quick retort.
“It’s a hundred times more evil. And all that evil has found its way into our home today, and I will not have it. I will not have it.”
“What are you going to do when they leave this home, Evelyn? You can’t control them forever. They’ll be completely lost if they know nothing of the world when they leave for college.”
“That’s why I have them going to public school now. They will be acclimated quite enough from their experiences there.” Her voice broke and I heard Papa sigh. Then he gently said, “We can’t keep this secret from them forever, Evie.”
I heard Mama’s chair push back suddenly. “Yes, we can, Levi, and you know very well we must.”
“And for that very reason Wolf brought all these things to us this weekend.”
“Be in the world, not of it,” Mama said, quoting Scripture. Papa sighed, and I heard footsteps coming quickly toward the stairway. Ellie and I scrambled back to bed, our hearts pounding. I heard Mama go into their room and close the door. Papa was still downstairs, and I heard him turn on the TV. I couldn’t get to sleep for hours.