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15 October 2012

"For the last time." - Pitter-Pat stories

(Where we left off before)

And the story continues ...

It was unusual that Dad should be home so much and it was nice of"Old Dutch", the mill hand, to do the cooking for the family while Mother was sick. The children all liked "Old Dutch." He was not at all good looking, with his big, wide, mouth and bulb nose, and rather long grey hair, but he like the children and always talked with them whenever he was around the house. It was a happy surprise to them that he could cook and wash dishes and sweep, too. That was probably why Dad usually kept him at the mill -he could keep "camp" as well as help with the sawing. Dad usually stayed at the mill and lived in the shack -"Camp" he called it --during the week and came home weekends. The mill was set up on the neighbor'S property but the snow was so deep that daily travel back and forth was not practical. Mother usually managed alright at home. She could always send one of the boys, or occasionally Sally Ann, to the mill with messages or if help was really needed.
The living room had been off limits for the children for two weeks now, ever since Mother had become too sick to breathe comfortably. She had not slept in her bed just off the living room, but had caught naps on the couch or by sitting in the big high-back rocker as it became more and more painful for her to lie down. She gained a measure of comfort in the big rocker and with the reading table in front of the chair so she could rest her arms on pillows and sleep. The table also held the tall kerosene lamp and some medications. The big "round oak" stove now had its pretty nickel top ornament turned aside to accommodate the steaming teakettle which helped Mother's breathing. Even the kitchen stove now accommodated more kettles which, as they became hot enough, were removed to the living room to provide steam.
The door opened and "old Dutch" came out and quickly closed it again and went to the dining room to check on the children's progress with their supper. Sally knew she would soon have to give up her corner for one of them, but it had given her a measure of comfort to be able to sit there while they ate, and warm her feet on the hearth by the ash box door. She had not heard a word or gotten any satisfaction while listening for sounds from Mother's room.
It was after supper and Sally Ann was putting more wood in the stove when the doctor came out. He was tall and thin and did not seem in a hurry to leave. He shook hands with each one of the children and spoke to them and complimented Sally and "old Dutch" for maintaining orderliness and a quiet atmosphere in the household during Mother's illness. Sally knew that the hardest thing to do was to keep a quiet household, because there were so many children. The quietness of the moment was for the seriousness of the occasion, not from obedience; but she was glad the doctor had noticed and had spoken to each one of the seven children. Now, as the doctor made his way toward the door, Dad came out and followed him to the "entry" and the two boys crowded around also. The boys, Gene and Gary, could always get in on grownups business because they were older than the girls although only by one and two years. Sally wanted to know what the low conversation was about. The only words she could hear were "cold sweat" and she thought, "How could that be?" She waited because Gary would tell her -he always told her grown-up things if he knew any and so she waited.
As soon as the doctor left, the boys went upstairs to their bedroom and "old Dutch" helped Sally with the supper dishes. She liked that; "old Dutch" seemed to take a special interest in her ­probably because she was the oldest of the girls, and he treated her as if she had the understanding he expected from a child her age. Perhaps Gary would tell her later, it was not quite bedtime yet. No doubt the boys went upstairs to talk. This was unusual because the boys, being older, always got to stay up until after the girls had gone to bed. No use hanging around up there, they never let girls into their room or even left their door open. She would wait until they came back down.

Dad had gone back in to Mother and had shut the door again as usual. It seemed to Sally that those living room doors had been closed a lot lately -even the double doors leading into it from the parlor were not to be used. She could not tell if it was for quietness or some other reason that the doors were kept closed. Perhaps it was to keep the steam and heat in and the household noises out. Mother certainly required more sleep than usual. But, Sally noticed, whenever she came into the room, Mother seemed to be aware of her presence even though she did not change her position.

Sally did not like that room as it was. For one thing, the shades were drawn and the lamp was kept lit day and night. The room was too dark, the couch had been moved over by the stove, there was the smell of medicine and camphor and menthol. Whenever the children came downstairs, they were supposed to remember to turn right at the landing and enter the kitchen instead of the living room, which door opened directly in front of the landing. But whenever they peeked in, Mother's position never changed and they felt sorry that she could not sleep in a more comfortable position. Sally recalled a remark she overheard, that Mother had not really slept for two weeks. With this reminder, Sally did her best to be helpful and cooperative in the household so Mother could get all possible rest and get well.
One thing Sally was pleased about was the picture she had made to cheer Mother. Last Friday, at school, she made a picture of birds on a snowy pine bough. The lamp on the reading table was close to Mother's head and to shield Mother's eyes from the direct light of the lamp, someone had placed a piece of cardboard behind the prongs that held the class chimney. Now Sally'S picture was in the place of the piece of cardboard and it softened the light in the room. She hoped Mother noticed how nice it looked with the lamp light coming though the paper and how carefully she had colored the birds. Mother had once praised Sally for her artistic efforts and Sally hoped Mother knew it was she who had made the picture.
The younger girls were ready for bed when Dad and the boys came back to the kitchen. He had gone upstairs and brought them back down to see Mother. Sally had been unaware of this, but when she saw them pass her, she realized they had come from Mother's room. The boys were sniffing -trying to keep from crying, and Dad was consoling them as he led them to the dining room. Immediately, "old Dutch" took over for him and Dad hugged Sally and told her he wanted all the girls to come in and see Mother. She wondered at that and was about to ask why the boys were feeling so bad. She couldn't understand why Dad was so affectionate toward them and her if they were crying, because they only cried from punishment, and she instinctively knew no punishment had been administered or deserved.
Before she could say anything, her father said, "It's for the last time. You want to come in and see her." So she and Dad went into the room and he drew her up close to Mother's side. Mother did not appear to acknowledge their presence in any visible way, but Sally felt she knew they were there. Dad whispered to the girls, "Go ahead and kiss your Mother. Kiss her on the cheek for the last time. She can't talk but she knows you are here." And with that, he led Sally Ann up close and waited as she kissed her mother on the cheek and stepped back as each of the girls in tum did the same. Did he really mean "for the last time?" Did he really say that? He was so solemn and affectionate and different and tender in his manner, did he really believe that? How could he say that! Was Mother really dying? Was that why she had not gotten any better these last days? What awful words -"for the last time." She wished he had not said them. She was not ready for whatever it meant. Perhaps that is why the boys were crying. Well, if it was, she was going to cry too, even if she was supposed to set a good example for her little sisters. She felt like crying. She felt bewildered. She felt sorry to see her father act so differently than his usual assured self. Sally Ann could not recall the order of events that night. She remembered the children gathered around the dining room table with its big "hanging lamp" over the center. Everyone had been allowed to cry. The boys had returned to their room. 
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