A for Amen
"Another girl? Not another girl? Don’t tell me I’ve got another daughter!"
These were the first words my father spoke after I was born. Of course I was just minutes old—way too little to remember—but I have heard the story so often that I really think it is my memory.
It was a hot summer evening, 1891, and thunder could be heard as a storm rolled in from the west.
Papa’s voice was very loud—especially when he was upset. The words certainly would have come through the door to Mama’s room, rivaling the thunder for attention.
"She’s a fine, healthy girl," Grandmama said. It was she who had brought the bad news. "Be grateful, Albert."
Papa seemed not to hear her. He looked up at the ceiling. "What’s left?" He dropped his hands to his sides in a gesture of hopelessness.
"We’ve got Abigail! Augusta! Arabella! Annabella!"
My father, in his despair, said the names so loudly that my sisters, thinking they had been summoned, rushed into the hall in their nightclothes.
"You have a sister," he said.
"A sister?" In my memory they were disappointed as well.
"What’s her name?" Abigail asked. As the oldest, she spoke for all of them.
My father had insisted that his children’s names all begin with an A. "When I have used up all the beautiful A names, I will move on to B," was his explanation.
"There’s nothing left," he said.
"Does this mean you will go on to the Bs?" Abigail asked.
I waited in my blanket for my fate. It came, but I was too little to know how I was doomed.
"Amen!" my father pronounced.
There was a silence.
"Papa, that’s not a name," Abigail said, "That’s something you say at the end of a prayer."
"It is the end of a prayer—a prayer for a son. Amen!"
"Albert," Grandmama said, "you’re upset. Think about it and—"
My father ran down the stairs. "Albert," Grandmama called after him, "the storm!" He slammed the screen door as he left the house, driven by his own inner storm.
In her room, my mother kissed my brow. She whispered, "We’ll call you Amie," in a soothing way.
But in the family Bible—where it counts—it says: Born July 11, 1891, a daughter—Amen McBee.
The Bellas and
the Parts of a Dog
"Bellas! Bellas! Are you looking after your sister?"
"Yes, Aunt Pauline," the twins called back in unison.
"Well, don’t get into any mischief."
"No, Aunt Pauline."
I had just had my third birthday and was, as usual, in the Bellas’ care. The twins—Arabella and Annabella—were called the Bellas. No one—not even Mama—could tell them apart.
The Bellas were only two years older than I, but because there were two of them, they seemed twice as smart. They had taken me on as their personal improvement plan and on this day were enlarging my vocabulary.
We were beneath one of the willow trees from which our home got its name—The Willows. Keeping us company was Scout, the dog.
"What is that?" a Bella said, pointing to the dog.
"A dog doesn’t have a chin," she said.
"It be a little chin, but it do be a chin," I argued. My grammar wasn’t perfect, but I did know the parts to a dog. I had recently learned that everything had a name and gobbled up words the way other three-year-olds gobble sweets.
Scout sat quietly, stoically waiting the outcome of the debate over his chin.
"Oh, all right. It be a chin," a Bella said, stressing my bad grammar.
Scout was Papa’s dog, but he’d had four other little girls teach him patience, so he lay on his side, motionless except for his eyes, which rolled around, taking in everything. Without lifting his head, he could keep watch on the whole world.
I started over. "Chin . . . nose . . . eyebrow . . ."
I paused to glance from one twin to the other. Eyebrows, too, were sometimes disputed.
Neither twin answered. They were looking to the back of the house.
"Ear . . . neck . . . knee. . . . paw . . . toe . . . toenail."
I was just getting to "back," which always caused Scout’s leg to jiggle with pleasure, when a low rumbling sound came from the dog.
I drew my hand back in alarm.
"He’s growling at old man Tominski," a Bella said. "He doesn’t like old man Tominski, and we don’t either."
"I don’t either," I said quickly, even though this was the first time I had ever heard the name.
"He spies on us."
"He wants to catch us, like that." The Bella’s small hands curled into claws.
"Yes, like that."
Now the other Bella’s hands formed identical weapons. With four hands reaching for me, I knew the first real fear of my life. I stepped back
"And let me tell you something," she said, as if she were Aunt Pauline, who was always stern with us.
"When Scout growls, you better run."
"When Scout growls at somebody, there’s something bad about that person."
"Something really, really bad."
I looked toward the barn, but there was no one there. "I don’t see him," I said.
"You never see him, but he’s there."
"Yes, he’s there and he sees you!"
"But he’s all gone," I said, hoping it was true.
"For now," the Bellas said in unison. They often spoke the same thought at the same time, as if their minds were connected.
Although I had not seen Mr. Tominski—and would not actually see him for several years—my dread of him had begun.
"Children! Do not make faces behind my back!"
Aunt Pauline said this to the twins. I stood with my mouth open in amazement. How did Aunt Pauline see what they were doing? Our maid, Frances, had said, "That woman has eyes in the back of her head," but I had never been able to see them.
"Children, that’s better." Aunt Pauline always said children as if the word itself was distasteful. Still she had not turned around.
Aunt Pauline was my father’s sister who lived with us. She was officially in charge of the children. We had had nurses when we were infants, but as soon as we were considered girls, the kindly nurses disappeared and the unkindly Aunt Pauline took over.
On this day I had followed Aunt Pauline quickly from the dining room. At lunch she had made a comment about Mr. Tominski, and I wanted to ask her what she had said.
I had still never caught sight of the elusive Mr. Tominski, but he was always a dark shadow at the edge of my mind, just as he was at the edge of our lives.
I broke in with, "What did you say about Mr. Tominski, Aunt Pauline?"
"She said he was lurking around Frederick’s memorial garden," a Bella said.
"What’s ‘lurking’?" I asked.
"Like this." The twins did a sinister turn around the room, hiding behind chairs and peering out.
This caused Aunt Pauline’s frown to deepen. When she frowned, her nose got longer. Now it almost touched her lip.
"I also said that your father didn’t need to visit the man every day and that Cook didn’t need to take him meals."
She took a deep breath and went back to the original topic. "If you make ugly faces, children, your face will freeze like that."
With the sudden insight of a four-year-old, I
said, "Is that what happened to your face, Aunt Pauline?"
There was a terrible silence, broken only by muffled laughter from the Bellas. I didn’t see anything funny.
Now Aunt Pauline looked at me. There was such fury in her face that I stepped back. I would much rather she had looked at me with the eyes in the back of her head than the ones in the front.
"Children should be seen and not heard, Amen."
"Amen," the twins said in unison, as if they thought it was some sort of pronouncement.
"Children who ask questions will not learn the truth."
I knew that Aunt Pauline made up some of these things, but she looked as if she meant it, and then she swept from the room.
The twins collapsed on the love seat in laughter, kicking their feet in uncontrolled glee.
I was still awed by the terrible look from Aunt Pauline and wondering how you could learn the truth if you didn’t ask questions. "What’s so funny?" I asked.
The Bellas were good at imitating people. And as soon as Aunt Pauline was out of earshot one of the Bellas sat up and said, "Children!" It was Aunt Pauline’s voice. "Children, if you tell a lie, your nose will grow long and ugly."
The other Bella said in my voice, "Is that what happened to your nose, Aunt Pauline?"
They fell back again. More laughter, more kicking.
I was a serious child and was always surprised at the things others—particularly the Bellas—found funny.
Finally, their mirth spent, the Bellas went outside, and I followed. I tried to turn the conversation back to Mr. Tominski. "Why did Aunt Pauline say he was lurking in the memorial garden?"
The Bellas were busy making up a new Aunt Pauline insult and didn’t answer.
"What does he do anyway?"
"He must do something!" I was aware that all the people at The Willows had specific duties. That was how our food got prepared, our clothes laundered, our gardens tended.
"Somebody tell me what he does!" I remembered the Bellas had spotted him at the barn. "Is it something to do with the horses?"
But the Bellas’ minds continued, trainlike, on a single track.
"Children, if you frown at a horse, your face will turn into one."
"Did you frown at a horse, Aunt Pauline?" Again, it was my innocent voice asking the question.
During the rest of the afternoon, in the middle of one of our games, one twin would break off and say, "Children," in that terrible Aunt Pauline way that made me wish I wasn’t one of the group. "Children, if you say the word witch, you’ll turn into one."
And my voice would pipe up from the other: "Did you say the word witch, Aunt Pauline?"
I still didn’t see what was so funny, but by now, I had stopped asking for an explanation and made myself laugh along with them.