Authors: Zoe Matthews
Austin looked at her as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear her condition. “What is it?”
“I want to ask if you’d let me teach her some skills, like cleaning, cooking, and sewing.”
“She doesn’t need to learn stuff like that. We do fine.”
“From the little I saw, you aren’t doing fine. Jessica is old enough to learn a few basics.”
Lizzie was afraid Austin would turn his horse around and leave, but she held her ground. He finally nodded.
“Just as long as you don’t turn her into a weak female.”
Lizzie smiled even though his words felt like a dart into her heart. “Being a female doesn’t mean we are weak.” She thought of her father and how she had done her best to prove that very thing to him, that she and Debbie weren’t weak, but he had sent them away anyway. She pushed her past aside. This wasn’t about her but about Jessica.
Austin actually smiled at her quick words. “I will be leaving next Monday. I will bring her by in the morning to school and leave after that. Thank you for taking care of her.” He waved his arm at Jessica who immediately ran over to her pa. She must have been carefully watching the conversation he was having with Lizzie, even though it looked like she had been playing.
“Is she going to do it?” Jessica asked breathlessly.
Austin nodded and Lizzie left them so they could say goodbye, although she heard his parting words. “Just don’t expect her to stay when things get hard here in the mountains.”
Lizzie smiled again, this time to herself. She knew she would need to prove herself to him, that she wouldn’t turn tail and run at the first sign of hardship. He didn’t know the things she had had to face in her past. He didn’t know how strong she really was.
On Monday after school had ended, Lizzie walked with Jessica to her house, preparing to stay at least a week. Over the next few days, Lizzie found plenty to do in Austin’s small house. She made sure she kept Jessica beside her, hoping to teach her the basic skills any young girl should know. She first tackled the dishes. This was a standard skill that was one of the first learned among young children, but in Austin’s house, it seemed it was only done under duress. As she taught Jessica how to scrape the plates, she caught a glimpse of what they ate and from what she could tell it was a pretty standard affair, most of it from canned food. How in the world had they survived?
When Jessica told her that they didn’t need to wash all the dishes, just the ones they needed for the next meal, Lizzie smiled. “That sounds like something your father would say.”
“Sure,” Jessica looked a little confused. “There’s no need to waste time on needless chores.”
Lizzie tried to think of the best way to teach Jessica a new thought about washing dishes. “Does your pa clean out your barn every day?”
“Yes. He says it’s easier to move a small amount of manure than a lot,” Jessica said as she nodded her head.
“It’s the same with dishes. We will wash all of them and put them away in the cupboards, and then we will wash the ones we use, after every meal. Then, when you need to use a dish, it will be all ready for use.”
Lizzie taught her how to scrape, soak, and scrub all the dishes and pans. While Jessica was drying each dish, Lizzie quickly wiped down the cupboards. They then tackled the table.
“I will teach you how to blacken the stove tomorrow,” Lizzie promised Jessica. “If you take care of your stove, it will take care of you.”
“Pa won’t recognize the house when he gets back,” Jessica giggled.
As they cleaned the kitchen, Lizzie was glad that Jessica enjoyed working with her. She seemed interested in learning these new skills. When Lizzie tackled the floor, she found beautiful wooden planks, sanded smooth and polished. She could tell Austin had done his best to make a beautiful home and his craftsmanship showed everywhere. She thought it strange that he allowed it to get as bad as it was. He obviously had prided himself on a nice home at one time.
As she taught Jessica how to wash the glass windows until they sparkled, she also wondered what had happened to make him change. Most likely, it was the death of his wife, of Jessica’s mother. He must have loved her desperately.
On Friday after school, as she followed Jessica into the now clean house, she felt a sensation sweep over her while tears formed in her eyes. She didn’t know why, but the house now felt like home. Probably because she had worked so hard to get it cleaned. She had never had a home of her own. She had always considered the house she had lived in with her father, sister, and brother as her pa’s only. Then there was the orphanage, and of course everything there was shared with everyone else. “The Sisters” had a nice home, but it was a boarding house, and it never felt like it was hers. And now she was living with Hannah and her family. Would she ever have her own home, her own family?
She pushed her thoughts out of her head, again, and hung her light coat on a peg. She noticed Austin’s coat that hung nearby. She could smell the scents that announced he was a farmer. She again thought of her older brother and how she would follow him around their farm when she was a girl, trying her hardest to be of help even though she was young. She turned and marched into the kitchen with Jessica following, chatting as they went.
“Now that school is out for the week, we will clean your bedroom,” Lizzie told her. “Tomorrow, we will wash all the clothes.”
“Okay,” Jessica agreed with her usual excitement. “I should gather the eggs first, and then milk the cow. Pa says I’m the best milker, even better than him.”
Lizzie watched as Jessica grabbed the milk bucket and ran out the door towards the old barn. She looked towards Austin’s old coat hanging next to her own. Why did he act as if Lizzie couldn’t be counted on, like he knew she would want to leave soon, like he thought she would want to leave? Why was he teaching his daughter that she had to be tough? And the most important question of all, what had happened to his wife?
She had almost asked Jessica about her mother once, but something stopped her at the last second. She didn’t feel it was right to pump a child for information that she really should be getting from her father.
When Jessica returned, Lizzie led the way to the child’s bedroom. “Remember what I teach at school? That you can only be efficient if your surroundings are neat? A bedroom is the same way. If you keep it clean, you won’t waste time trying to find important items.”
They started on the small bureau. Lizzie showed Jessica how to clean out and organize each drawer. Most of the drawers were empty because they were obviously meant to hold clothing and most of that was scattered around on the floor. The bottom drawer had a collection of various rocks, feathers, and other things Jessica had obviously gathered from outside and had deemed beautiful or important. She squealed with delight when she found a small pocketknife.
“Pa gave this to me last Christmas,” Jessica cupped the small knife in both of her hands as if it was precious. “I didn’t know what happened to it.”
Lizzie helped her find a place for the knife so it wouldn’t be lost again. In the bottom of the drawer was a picture frame. When she lifted it out, she found a picture of a beautiful woman in the frame.
“Is this your mother?” Lizzie asked Jessica as she showed her the black and white photograph.
Jessica nodded and quickly grabbed the picture frame from Lizzie. They were both sitting on the wood floor and Jessica laid the frame in her lap.
“You look just like her. She is very beautiful,” Lizzie said.
Jessica looked up at her with an almost fierce gaze. “Don’t tell Pa I have it. He told me he wants me to forget her.”
Lizzie did her best to not let the shock she felt show on her face. Didn’t he know that it hurt to forget one’s mother? “Why would he want you to forget her?”
“He says she was weak. She married him back east and came to Montana with him. She was supposed to help him, but she just laid down and quit living. She missed her easy life in the large city she was from. She came from a rich family.”
What Jessica told her explained so much. Lizzie watched as Jessica tucked the picture back under a bunch of bird feathers until it was completely hidden.
“I don’t want to disobey Pa, but I also don’t want to forget my Ma.”
Lizzie laid a hand on Jessica’s arm. “I won’t tell your pa you have the picture.”
They continued to clean the room. Lizzie had Jessica gather up all the dirty clothes and carry them into the living area and put them in a pile to be washed the next day. She decided to strip Jessica’s bed the next day and wash the bedclothes. While they worked, she thought of her talk with Jessica. Lizzie understood her need for a mother. She had very few memories of her own mother, but she missed her very much. But a child also needs a father. All she had desired was recognition and love from her own father. She was starting to understand that even though Austin was teaching Jessica to be tough, he did love her, and she was very blessed to have her father’s love.
Lizzie decided to voice her thoughts. “You might not have your mother, but you do have your father. He cares about you.”
Jessica giggled. “I know he loves me. He tells me all the time.”
Lizzie’s eyes started to water and she had to quickly blink the tears away before Jessica saw. Austin hid his tenderness under his toughness, but this touched her, and she started to wish for something she wasn’t even sure she recognized.
She saw Jessica pick up a pretty light green calico dress. “That dress looks new.”
“It is. My grandma sent it to me for my birthday.”
“Why don’t you wear it?” Lizzie asked. All the other clothing Jessica had been picking up looked worn and dirty, but this dress looked brand new, as if it hadn’t been worn.
“I’m afraid I’ll get it dirty. Pa says dresses shouldn’t be worn on a farm. They would only stop me from doing a good job doing chores.”
“If it gets dirty, you can wash it,” Lizzie told her.
Jessica shrugged. “Overalls are better for doing chores.”
Lizzie dropped the subject, but helped Jessica hang up the dress to keep it nice. An idea started to form in her mind. She had plans for that dress. She wanted to show Jessica that although it was fine to dress in overalls, especially since she lived on a farm. It was also sometimes nice to dress like a girl, to act like a girl, to be what God had intended her to be.
The next day, Lizzie got up very early. She knew it was going to take all day to wash all the laundry. Jessica was a great help and they finally hung the last pair of Austin’s pants on the line in the late afternoon. They had stopped briefly at noon and Lizzie showed Jessica how to make a simple stew that simmered on the newly blackened stove all afternoon.
Lizzie had also taught Jessica how to make biscuits a few days prior, and she made a batch all by herself.
“These taste great,” Lizzie praised her. She could tell Jessica was pleased with all of the new skills she had learned that week. “They taste like you have made biscuits your whole life.”
“I can’t wait to surprise Pa when he comes home.” Jessica giggled as she took a bite of a biscuit. “He’ll think he has died and gone to heaven. That’s what he says when I learn something new. He’s died and gone to heaven.”
“Maybe we can plan a meal that you can cook all by yourself when he gets back, what do you think?” Lizzie suggested.
“Yes, let’s do,” Jessica agreed, clapping her hands. “I want to do it all by myself. You can just tell me what to do, if I need help.”
The next morning, Lizzie put her plan in place about the dress. “Today is Sunday. I always attend church. I’d like to take you.”
Jessica’s eyes brightened. “Really? Can I come with you? I like to go to church. Pa doesn’t take me much.”
Lizzie didn’t bother asking why Austin didn’t take Jessica to church even though she obviously wanted to attend. She knew some people had a hard time accepting God’s plan with their lives, especially when there was a death.
“Let’s put on our dresses. You can wear the one your grandmother gave you,” Lizzie suggested.
Jessica shook her head. “Pa says God doesn’t care if we dress up or not, just to impress Him.”
Lizzie laughed, trying to keep things light. “That is true, of course, but I think if we put on our best clothes for church, we are showing God that we respect Him.”
“I guess so,” Jessica shrugged.
“Let’s put on our dresses.”
Jessica obeyed her, but it was obvious she was reluctant. Lizzie quickly put on her own Sunday dress and pulled her hair into a bun. She then helped Jessica with her hair. The child had natural curly hair and Lizzie showed her how to arrange it into a cute style that curled around her face.
By the time they were ready to leave for church, Jessica was showing some excitement with the idea of dressing and acting like a girl.
“You look very pretty,” Lizzie told her as they walked towards the church in town. Jessica smiled at her, but she stiffened a bit at Lizzie’s words, and she knew it was because of what Austin wanted her to believe, that being pretty is useless in these harsh mountains. Lizzie wished she could help her see that a girl, as well as a woman, could be pretty, and still be able to handle the challenges life brings, especially in the mountains of Montana.