The start of a story of a family.
February 9 1943
He was glad to get home. In the early winter dusk, the ocean wind was picking up, bringing snow. Like any twelve-year-old, Jesse MacIver welcomed snow but for a different reason. ‘Good if it snows,’ he thought. ‘I can make some money shoveling.’ He hurried into the warm kitchen. Fog on his glasses blinded him for a moment and he snatched them off.
His mother was setting the table. Something good was cooking. Something that smelled so good his stomach hurt with hunger. "You're late," his mother said. "Where have you been?"
He was hanging up his coat. "Over to Sterrit's. Mr.Sterrit gave me four hours of work." He pulled a couple of dollar bills out of his pocket and held them out to her. "He said I was a good worker and he has more for me. He said I can work all day Saturday."
She looked at the offered money and thought she didn't want to take it. But she hugged him and said, "Maybe you can earn enough to help get your new glasses. Wash your hands, your dinner is ready." She turned and called "Cecily, come and eat your supper."
Jesse went to the sink and turned back his frayed cuffs to wash up. "I can get lots of work now Mom. The farmers all tell each other I'm a good worker. There'll be snow shoveling tomorrow, too," he added, looking out the window.
She thought, he should be thinking about sledding not shoveling."Cecily," she called again, "come and get your supper."
Jesse was drying his hands as Cecily came into the kitchen. His older sister came to her place at the table and sat down. She was obviously ill and had begun to look much older than her seventeen years. Nobody had explained anything to him and he hadn't figured it out for himself. He would wonder later, how at the age of twelve, no, nearly thirteen, he could have been so ignorant. Or was it innocent?
There was a plate of stew in front of him and he began eating. After working all afternoon and a half mile of a walk in the winter wind he was starving. His mother served him some more and told Cecily she had to try to eat something. "You have to keep your strength up."
Jess cast a worried look at his sister. She was pushing the food around on her plate. "I can't eat," she said again.
Lillian told her, "Then go lie down." and the girl went slowly up the stairs. Turning to Jesse Lillian asked about homework and he said he had a little. She told him to get at it then. He pulled books out of his bag and sat down at the table.
Watching him then Lillian thought again how much like his father he was growing, the father he didn't remember. He was doing arithmetic. He was good at arithmetic. He was good at just about everything. He wrote, erased, and wrote again. The lamp outlined his face in light and shadow, the clean strong lines of brow and chin, glinting on the reddish strands in his hair. 'He needs a haircut,' she thought as she turned to begin washing the dishes. 'He needs a new coat.' Everything the boy was wearing was a little too small for him, including the frames of his eyeglasses. 'He needs,' she thought. 'He needs everything. He needs his father! God, he needs his father!'
Jesse had just been starting to walk that spring day when Big Jess was taken from them. Cecily would be starting school in the fall. They were the perfect family: pretty little girl, sturdy baby boy, and the farm finally starting to pay. And then they came and told her Big Jess was dead. They were sorry, they said, but it was true, he was dead. But he couldn't be dead, not a strong young man who was so alive, who could sing and laugh and love like him!
She looked out the window at the driving snow and thought again what was certainly not a prayer. "How could You do that to him? To me? What kind of a God are You anyway?" She loved Jesse so much! She wanted to do better for him than to have him trying to be a man at the grand old age of twelve! If Big Jess were here, this boy would not be working instead of playing and Cecily -- maybe if she had her father to help keep her in line this might not have happened.
At this point Cecily called, "Ma!" and there was something in the sound of her voice that caused Lillian to stop what she was doing and go to her, drying her hands on her apron. When she came back downstairs Jesse was putting his books away. She said "I'm sorry, Honey; you have to go out again." She was hurriedly writing a note. "Take this note over and give it to Mrs Neville."
He put on his parka and gloves and ran down the driveway and across the road. The snow was starting to stick by then and his big boots left tracks. He knocked at the Neville’s kitchen door, stomping off the snow. Cora Neville read the note and went to the phone. He heard her ask for Dr. Bowman and then say "Well, call around and see if you can find him. Cecily MacIver’s come down, the poor child."
When he got back in the house Lillian sent him to bed. It was too early to go to bed, but there was something in her manner that warned him not to argue. And besides, working outside in the cold and then a long walk in the wind had made him sleepy.
A little later he was wakened by the sound of Cecily crying. The doctor was in there, too; he could hear the rumble of his voice through the wall, but not what he was saying. Cecily screamed. That scream chilled him! He had never heard anything like it before. He lay rigid in the bed and thought, "She's dying." The screams went on and on, full of pain and terror. This was a boy who had never been taught to pray, but there are times when you pray anyway, whether you know how or not. "Don't let her die, God, don't let her be dead!"
He lay shivering under the covers, shivering with more than the cold in his room. Then came the most terrible scream of all; she screamed to the end of her breath and fell silent. Silent -- silent. He thought, "She's dead. Don't let her be dead, God! Don’t --" He got out of bed and ran barefoot on the cold linoleum bursting out into the hall to the door of his sister's room where he collided with his mother. "Stop! You can't go in there," she said, and held on to him. And then he heard another sound, one that he had never heard before. But he knew by instinct what it was. "A baby?" he asked. "Mom did Cecily get a baby?"
"Yes, Cecily has a baby, a baby boy. Now get back in bed. It's cold."
"Did she die?"
"No, she didn't die. Go back to bed. Get under the covers. It's cold."
He got back into his bed and lay trembling under the quilt. When it was starting to get light he could bear it no longer. He crept out of his room to his sister's door. Turning the knob carefully, he went inside. There was a space heater in there. The room was pleasantly warm, the light from the oil burner reflecting on the linoleum. Cecily was asleep in the bed. On the cedar chest at the foot of the bed was a washbasket, and in the basket, when he went to look, was the baby. He had never seen a newborn before and could hardly believe how small he was. It was fascinating; he was a perfect miniature. The infant stirred and made a sound and stretched out a tiny hand, a perfect tiny hand. The helplessness and littleness of him reached out to what was going to become a man in Jesse and there was born in him an overpowering love for this child. He looked up at his sister who was awake by then. He asked, "Cec are you all right?" and she said, "Sure, Sweetie I'm all right. What do you think of him?"
"He's awful little."
Cecily's eyes filled with tears and she said "You'll take care of him, won't you, Jesse?"
She seemed so distressed that he said "Sure I will, Cec." Even though he had no idea what taking care of him might mean, he promised anyway. And it was a promise that he would keep in times yet unimaginable to him. "What do you name him?" he asked.
"Joel. I named him Joel."
Jesse tried the name on his tongue, and then said, "That sounds like a girl's name."
"No it isn't. It's a Bible name. Our grandfather Severn was named Joel. You can call him Joey."
"Joey," he repeated looking at the tiny face. Yes, that was a good name. "Joey."
Cecily warned,"He's going to start and cry. You'd better get out of here before Ma comes."
In the weeks that followed, his promise to take care of the baby didn't mean anything. His mother did most of it and Cecily was learning. There was always a wooden rack of baby clothes drying by the stove. The whole thing remained a mystery to him. Then came that day in March. It was his birthday, but nobody thought of that, least of all Jesse himself. He stood outside the closed sliding door of the dining room and listened. Lillian was talking about a baby with no father and no name. But, Jesse thought, he does have a name, Joey MacIver is his name. Joel Severn MacIver, that’s his name! However, he had learned a lot in six weeks, and by now he knew what his mother was talking about. In fact, he had just had another rather nasty lesson. His face was bruised and the knuckles of his big right fist were scraped. His mother opened the door then. "Were you fighting?" she asked and he could hardly deny it.
Cecily came to look. "You're hurt."
Lillian was angry. "Fighting in the schoolyard like a ruffian! This has to stop!"
"I had to fight them, Mom! You don't know what they said."
Cecily took off his glasses and began washing away he blood."I know what they said. Don't fight them for that, don't go fighting and getting all hurt on account of me any more! Please Sweetie, don't do that."
He said, "There were three of them," as if he had to offer some explanation for having lost a fight. Cecily washed the blood off lip and the cut by his eye. She got the iodine bottle.
He said "Ow!" She fussed over him combing back his hair with her fingers. “Jesse, Honey, I'm going to be going away for a while." He started to speak and she said, "Shh. I have to go away, do you understand?" No, he didn't understand. She went on, "Ma will take care of Joey; but you have to take care of him too. You have to love him."
He could promise her that. "Yes, but why do you have to go away?"
"I'm giving Joey to you. He's all I have, and I'm giving him to you." Someday he would know what a silly thing that was, giving a newborn baby to a thirteen-year-old child! When he got home the next day she was gone, and nobody could tell him where. But he was beginning to know why.
With Cecily gone he found himself pressed into duty helping to care for the baby. It was awkward, but he was finding out that you do what you have to do. There was a night when he heard the baby cry and got up and went into the next room. By then he was getting to know the drill. Lillian said "Good you're up, you can change him while I get his bottle." By the time she got back he had changed the diaper and picked up the crying infant. He sat on the bed and watched. She had some things to talk to him about, and thought this was as good a time as any. She began, "Jesse you don't want to go getting too attached to this baby. We aren't going to be able to keep him."
He gasped. "Not be able to keep him! We have to keep him! She gave him to me! He's mine!"
"And wasn't it just like her to give a newborn baby to a twelve year old as if he was a box turtle or something."
"Thirteen, Mom. I'm thirteen now."
"Well thirteen then. Honey we've got to be practical. It costs a lot to raise a baby. You've got to go to school, and I have to work. Who's going to take care of him?"
It was way too late to tell him not to get attached. "I can take care of him! I promised her I would."
"Jesse, Jesse! You can't tie your life to this baby! He isn't your responsibility. It wasn't your sinning that brought this on us!"
He thought, sinning. Somebody sinned, apparently very badly, and that’s why Joey is here. A bad sin, but from it came this pure and beautiful child. He hesitated then he said, "I know about stuff now, Mom. I know -- I know there was a man."
"Yes, there was a man."
"She wouldn't tell me. I think it was one of those soldiers from Camp Dix."
"I heard her when Joey was getting born."
She realized he must have heard the whole thing! She saw how it still troubled him. Well maybe it was good he heard it; maybe they should all hear it! "That's how it is, when a baby is born. Just make sure you're never the cause of anything like that." She could see that puzzled him. She decided to clear it up a little bit. "I mean to say, it isn't always like that. When a man and woman love each other and are taking care of one another, they want a child and a woman is glad to go through it --”
"You mean people should be married," he concluded.
There was no question he was attached to the child, but he would get over it she thought. Still, as she watched the baby in her lap, she thought he's a nice baby, a healthy baby. And he was a first grandchild. By this time she loved him, too. And he was a gentling influence on her big son. She had watched Jesse with the baby, his big hands incongruous with the tininess of the child. On the other hand, this boy had a future and he ought to be free to go and meet it. It wasn't fair! This whole thing wasn't fair.
"I'm not afraid to work, Mom, I can take care of him! I can!" Then he was silent, fighting tears. After a while he said, "She'll come back -- " but he said it kind of like a question, and Lillian told him not to count on it. She thought: 'He loves his sister. Where's the harm if he thinks well of his sister? Let him at least have that much, for a while anyway.' She said, "It just isn't right a baby without a father -- "
Jesse was a boy without a father. But this was different. He promised, "I'll never do anything like that!" And all the while he wasn't sure what it was he was promising not to do.
"I pray you'll be a better man than that. I pray to God you'll be a good man."
He looked up. He knew very little about God. He wondered, ‘I can pray to God to make me be a good man and God will do it?’ Back in his room he was still thinking about it. He knew he needed to become a very good man for the sake of this child and he knew of things in himself that were not good. He knew you were supposed to get on your knees so he did and then he said aloud, "Sir? Would You please make me into a good man?"
All I know of God teaches me to believe that when a boy prays to be made into a good man, he is heard in heaven.