Carol juggles her career as the artist for a popular magazine with her love and worry for the children of her deceased sister Elizabeth.
From the Relief Society Magazine, 1958 –
by Olive W. Burt
After the funeral the family returned to Fred’s ranch house, six cars full of them. The emotional strain of burying Elizabeth, eldest and best loved sister, had left them all somewhat drained of feeling, and hungry. The neighboring ranch women had brought in great casseroles of food, kept hot in Elizabeth’s big oven, cakes and pies and loaves of fragrant, homemade bread. Now Elizabeth’s sisters and sisters-in-law bustled about, setting out the food and dishes, while the men gathered in small knots, talking in low tones.
The visiting children, released from the solemnity of the preceding hours, scattered in play. All but Elizabeth’s four, Carol noticed. They sat on the lower steps of the broad stairs in a small, disconsolate group, and watched the activity about them with wide, solemn eyes.
Carol detached herself from the other women and went to the children. She put an arm around Trudy, the golden-haired four-year-old, and Becky, her six-year-old sister. The little girls snuggled against their aunt, longing for the comfort of motherly arms. Over their heads, Carol smiled gently at Kathy and Steve, whose efforts to be brave and calm were obvious in set lips and carefully controlled movements.
“Shall we sneak out and take a little walk?’ Carol asked. “I remember a place by the river that is cool and green in the summer. It must be pretty now that the leaves are turning. I’ll make us a little lunch and we’ll slip down there and eat it by ourselves. Okay?”
Relief leaped into Kathy’s eyes, dimmed instantly by doubt. “Will it be all right? Daddy said we ought to …”
“Your daddy won’t care. I’ll speak to him. You youngsters go upstairs and take off your nice clothes. Slip into everyday clothes and sweaters while I get the lunch ready.”
The four children scampered up the stairs and Carol smiled. It was the first quick, spontaneous movement she had seen them make since her arrival last night. Poor little tykes, she thought compassionately. They’ve had so much sympathy poured out upon them that they are drenched – sodden. I’ll get them away by themselves for a while.
She spoke softly to their father, “Fred, I’m taking the children out for a little walk. They have to be alone …”
Fred nodded, his eyes clouded. “Thanks, Carol.” He glanced across the room filled with people. “I’d like to slip away somewhere, myself.”
“I know, Fred,” Carol’s voice as sympathetic, “but they’ll be going soon and then …”
“Then I’ll be really alone – alone for the rest of my life.” His tone was somber.
“Not alone, Fred. You have the children.”
Before she could say more, her brother Louis joined them. Carol turned and went into the kitchen. She began putting sandwiches together.
“What are those for, Carol?” her mother asked, watching her.
Carol looked at her mother. How she had aged in the past days! Elizabeth’s death had put years upon that gray head. Elizabeth, her mother’s darling and mainstay – the eldest child, who had stood beside her mother during the years of childbearing, taking over a large part of the care of each child as a new one came into the family. But, then, Elizabeth had married and gone away, and somehow – Carol never had known how – the eldest sister’s mantle had fallen upon the youngest’s shoulders. Somehow, it had slipped past the two brothers and the two sisters between, and lighted firmly upon Carol.
“I’m going to take the children for a walk, Mother,” Carol explained. “They don’t feel like playing with their cousins and they’re lost here among the grownups. I’m going to take them down to the river bank, where it’s quiet.”
Her mother’s sad eyes held memories. “Elizabeth loved the river,” she began and stopped, her lips trembling.
Carol went quickly and gave her mother’s shoulders a hug. She bent and kissed the smooth brow.
“We’ll be back before dark. Don’t worry about us.”
She thrust bottles of milk, sandwiches, fruit into the ample picnic basket and went to get an old blanket. Kathy, still solemn, but with eagerness in her dark eyes, was leading her small sisters downstairs. Steve strutted ahead, aware of his eight-year-old importance. Carol handed Steve the blanket and picked up the picnic basket. They went out of the back door, and Carol felt the eyes of the other women upon her. She knew what they were thinking – there goes Carol, off on her own, as usual!
Trudy and Becky had dashed ahead, and Kathy came to her aunt’s side. “I’m glad we could come away,” she said in her serious, trying-to-be-adult voice. “‘Becky and Trudy don’t understand …” and the big sister’s voice broke.
Carol put her arm about the thin shoulders. “That’s one thing to be grateful for, darling!” she whispered.
They found the grassy spot Carol remembered. How often she had sought the peace of this little nook when she had come at Elizabeth’s call for help. Now the gold and red of autumn-tinted trees made a splash of color, reflected back from the smooth water of the slowly moving stream. Across the small river, towering snow-capped against the blue Wyoming sky, the three sharp peaks of the Tetons stood like silent, everlasting sentinels. Carol’s artist soul rejoiced in the exquisite coloring and the tranquil majesty of the scene.
She spread the blanket and opened the lunch basket. The children were ravenous, for they, perhaps even more than their elders, had been drained by the experiences of the past days. They devoured sandwiches and milk and cake. When they had eaten all they could hold, they stretched out in the late afternoon sunlight, replete and quiescent.
“Tell us a story, Aunt Carol!” Steve demanded.
What story? Carol thought swiftly. It should be something gentle and happy, but she couldn’t think of one that suited her. So she made one up – a story about the valley and the mountains and the trappers who had loved the spot. She omitted the savagery and misery and death that had been suffered there, and the place emerged as one of happiness and beauty and the quiet pursuit of a way of life.
The sun was low when Carol finished, and the children stirred and got to their feet, ready now to go back to the house and the crowd of visitors. Carol was gratified at the serenity that had replaced the troubled stiffness in the children’s faces. Perhaps she had done a little good for these children whom she loved almost as if they were her own. She caught herself up sharply. They were not her own. They were Elizabeth’s and Fred’s. She must not start thinking of them otherwise.
Back at the house, the others had eaten and cleared away the debris of the meal. They were all in the living room, and as Carol entered with Elizabeth’s children she was conscious of the sudden silence that cut off the flow of conversation. So they were discussing her – or the children. They, the family, were settling things among themselves, as they always had settled them, involving her because she was not married, but not consulting her because she was the youngest. She nodded at them all brightly, and saw how the children were gathered to one aunt or another as the flow of conversation leaped the barrier of embarrassment and began again.
An hour later Carol spoke to Kathy. “Hadn’t we better get the little folks to bed, Kathy?”
The child smiled up at her aunt, proud of being called upon to help.
“Yes,” she agreed, “Trudy’s almost asleep now.”
They gathered the children and went upstairs. In the big, old-fashioned bathroom they gave the two little girls a warm bath, slipped on their night clothes, and took them into the bedroom, relinquishing the bathroom to Steve.
Carol sat down in Elizabeth’s low rocker, and Trudy, looking like an angel in her soft, white nightgown, her golden curls damp on her forehead, climbed up on her aunt’s lap. Becky knelt to say her prayers, her pigtailed brown head pressed close against Carol’s knee.
She began, “Dear Father in heaven, bless Daddy and Mommy …” and stopped suddenly, choking, remembering. She dug her fist into her eyes.
Carol bent over the little girl, caressing her gently. “Go on, Becky.”
The child gulped and went on with her usual nightly worship. Carol’s heart was beating painfully. What if she hadn’t been there? Would someone else have known just what to say? Her own mother would probably have broken down and sobbed. Fred’s mother would have spoken harshly, covering her own sorrow by briskness. Carol’s fingers stroked the brown head. She had to admit it – she understood Elizabeth’s children better than anyone else! She shook her head firmly. She was being sentimental – and that, too, was not good for the children.
Steve came in from the bath, and Carol heard his and Trudy’s prayers and tucked them into their beds. She glanced at Kathy. The ten-year-old would have to assume a good deal of responsibility now. Why not let her feel her acceptance into the adult group?
“Do you want to stay up another hour, Kathy? We could sit on the porch and talk.”
Kathy’s smile was shining. “Oh, yes, Aunt Carol. I’d like to.”
They went downstairs together, Carol’s arm about the girl’s shoulders, two people bound together by ties of love and understanding. They by-passed the living room with its hum of conversation, and went out the side door onto the wide porch that ran around the ranch house. They selected a spot where they could look out upon the moon-drenched mountains, and sat in silence for a few minutes.
Kathy spoke first. “You’re going away tomorrow, Aunt Carol?”
“Yes, Kathy.” Carol answered gently. “I have to go. there’s my job in the city – so many things piled up on my desk. You know about my work, Kathy?”
The child nodded. “Yes. Of course. Mommy always got the magazines with your paintings on the cover. We have them all, I guess.”
Carol’s arm drew the little girl closer. “Well, then, you know that I have to paint one of those covers every month – and I’m almost to my deadline now. Then I’m illustrating a book – a book about a little girl your age who loved to dance. When it is finished, I am going to send you a copy …”
Kathy’s train of thought wasn’t diverted. “It’s going to be awfully lonesome …”
“Grandma Trent will be here with you. She wants to stay – and it will give her a home. She loves you children and your daddy.”
“I love Grandma Trent, and Grandma Wilson, too,” Kathy said slowly, “but they’re too old to be mothers …” and suddenly she could contain her anguish no longer. She bent over, burrowing her head in Carol’s lap, sobbing.
Carol held her close, letting the grief wash out. Finally, when the child was a little calmer, her aunt began, “I know how you feel, Kathy. It is hard to lose someone we love. You know, I loved your mother, too – we all did. and we are all grieved. But these things have to be faced – death as well as life.”
Kathy was listening, her sobs stilled. “You know, darling, Aunt Carol lost someone very dear to her – a young man she had promised to marry. He was killed in a shocking car accident – it seemed so needless …” her voice trailed off, remembering her own anguish at the loss, at the realization of the futility of dreams.
Kathy raised her tear-stained face. “Oh,” she breathed, “he would have been my uncle! I know I have other uncles, but he would have been special, wouldn’t he? Belonging to you!” Then, after a moment of thought, “but you didn’t get over it, did you, Aunt Carol?”
Carol was startled. All day she had been trying to help the children over this difficult time until they got over the worst of their sorrow. And the little girl had understood, and now, with one sentence had refuted her aunt’s hope. Carol felt she couldn’t let this pass.
“In a way you’re right, darling. In a way I haven’t got over it, as you say. I think a person never gets over a true, deep love. And I think one shouldn’t want to. For love is a treasure to be held dear and sacred. But the grief – the bitter grief – I have got over that, Kathy.”
“Then why haven’t you married someone else, Aunt Carol?”
Carol shook her head. so the child had heard the others talking! Well, she should be answered, and honestly.
“I don’t know. I’ve just never found anyone that I thought could take his place.”
“And we’ll never find anyone to take Mommy’s place, either!” Kathy cried, the tears springing to her eyes again.
Carol was shocked. Of course there never was anyone to take a dearly beloved person’s place. But this child should not be left without a ray of hope.
“Of course not, Kathy. You wouldn’t want anyone to take your mother’s place. But there is someone, somewhere, who can take her very own place in your life – another mother – not Elizabeth, of course, but someone you’ll love for her own self. Someone who will love you.”
And somehow, unbidden, there flashed into Carol’s mind the look on the face of Brent Gibson as he had told her goodby at the airport yesterday. She didn’t have time to wonder at this. Kathy flung her arms around her aunt’s neck.
“You, Aunt Carol!” she cried passionately, “you are the only one!”
Carol drew back, involuntarily. “No!” she whispered. “Not me, Kathy! Not me!”
The little girl’s arms dropped. She drew back, rejected, her face stiff. Carol drew her close again, and said softly, her lips against Kathy’s hair.
“Listen, darling. I do love you dearly, all of you. But it is not for me to come into your home and take over the rearing of you children. It’s a responsibility that I’m not qualified to meet. and your Grandmother Trent will be here – she needs a home, and she has reared children – your Daddy. She knows the things that I don’t know. Oh, Kathy, darling! It just isn’t possible!”
Carol couldn’t, even in her own mind, balance her love for Elizabeth’s children against her love of her work, her love of freedom that she had won after such a struggle. She couldn’t say, even to herself, “Mrs. Trent can care for these children – but no one, no one can do my job!”
Kathy’s thin body was stiff in her aunt’s arms. “I know,” she said resignedly. “I guess I’ll go up to bed now, Aunt Carol.”
Carol let her go. If she stays, the woman thought, I’ll give in. Even if Mrs. Trent wouldn’t want me here, I’d soon be ready to beg for the chance to stay. but I’m not going to stay. I had a hard enough time breaking away, getting a chance to live my own life.
She bent forward, her elbows on her knees, her hands pressed tight against her burning eyelids. Why was her heart torn with this anguish? Why couldn’t she throw away her job, her painting, without a thought – even of Brent Gibson’s dismay at the news that he was losing his top artist? Or, failing that, why couldn’t she turn her back on Elizabeth’s children – carelessly, without worry? The tears squeezed through her lashes and wet her fingers. Oh, my dear, lost love! she thought. If only you had been spared– if only I had you and children of our own, then I would be at peace.
She rose at last, slowly, wearily, and went into the living room. They all looked up at her as she came in, and she thought she could feel the question in the air.
“I’ll tell you all goodby now,” she said quietly. “I’ll be leaving before you’re up in the morning.”
“Not before I’m up!” Fred said firmly. “I’m going to drive you to the airport.”
She went to her mother and kissed her. “Goodby, Mother. I’ll be home for a weekend soon.” And she went swiftly up the stairs before anyone could find the words to stop her.