“Humphrey, as soon as you eat your supper you better go get ‘Aunty Miss,’ Mother spoke Welsh as she set the familiar steak platter Father asked, a slight strain evident in his voice, “I’m all right,”
Mother replied, “But I’ve spoken to Mrs. Eberhart, and Lilly and Mary are to stay there overnight.”
Father gave no evidence of having heard anything unusual, but the three children at the table, roused by the flow of a strange language, searched the faces of their parents for a sign. Something unusual was always imminent when Mother and Father spoke Welsh. Now each youngster tried to think if he were guilty of a slip in behavior. Their faces reddened slightly when they remembered that Aunty Miss’s name had been woven in with the Welsh. Aunty Miss was first assistant to the stork. The children ate their supper hurriedly. As Maynard pushed back his chair, Father said:
“Maynard, I wish you’d please harness the horse when you have fed her.”
Maynard was twelve, a sturdy lad with reddish straight hair and pink complexion. He was assigned regular chores and baseball was forever suffering because one of its good batters had to mow the lawn or stack wood for the fireplace in the woodhouse. Father had been brought up to believe in the stabilizing effects of work from growing boys, Mother utilized his talents freely and when Mary was a baby, he serviced her as nursemaid. It was an annoyance to have her on his hands when there was a ballgame but he never protested (except to himself) as he trundled her carriage across the prairie to the field and kept her happy between baseball obligations. There are limits to a red-haired baby’s amiability too, and sometimes Maynard had to spring a surprise. He would never know ahead of time when it would be. He waited for divine inspiration.
One sultry afternoon the boys and baseball had so completely absorbed his attention that Mary champing in her carriage was temporarily erased from his mind. It was pure accident that he happened to glance her way, and only one look was needed to tell him that the moment demanding inspiration was at hand. Mary’s mouth was all set for a high soprano yell that he knew would penetrate Mother's’ retreat half a block away and his pocket was filled with green gooseberries.
It took but a moment to cover the distance to the buggy and when Mary’s mouth reached its zenith, he clapped the berries in her pink cavern and stood back to review the result. It was a complete success. By the time she had crunched the green globules and made a wry face or two, the ball game was over and Mary was restored to home and Mother apparently undamaged.
Tonight as he started to the barn, he didn’t mind the chores. Spring was in the air and April buds shed their perfume with intoxicating prodigality. In a few days May Day would be here and school out for the long hot summer.
“How would you and Mary like to sleep at the Eberhart’s tonight,” Mother asked Lilly. The two children looked at one another and danced delightedly. Staying overnight away from home was ordinarily taboo in our family. Of course they’d love it for Mrs. Eberhart had a six-month old baby, and though Mary was under four and Lilly seven, they adored babies.
Mother bustled about clearing the table while the children found their nighties and prepared to leave home with Father. There was no need to go in the buggy for the Eberhart’s house was less than a block away, but Mother was a worrier so Father was delivering them at the door.
She watched them drive out of the big gate by the barn and then studied the sky to see what the weather prospects were. Spring storms were common in our climate and the air had the feel of one. Mother didn’t like storms and tonight, if her premonitions were well founded, was no time for a storm. The doctor might get stuck in the mud. Well, she thought there was no use in borrowing trouble. You could only do the best you could and leave the rest in the laps of the gods
Our house was a three-room cottage and Father had brought Mother and the baby Maynard to it when he graduated from law school. At that time it was large enough but now we were a family of five. It was one room wide and faced south, and was attractive though it had been built without the aid or talents of an architect.
The entrance porch was just large enough to hold two chairs, and over the lattice to the west a glossy-leaved vine with succulent, poisonous berries travelled its course.
The front door opened directly into what we called the ‘front room,’ a cheerful combination living and bedroom with windows east and west. The walls were papered with a picture pattern and covering the floor was a red Brussels carpet on which white roses ran rampant. Over in the corner a walnut bed towered impressively. At its side hung an oil painting of Mother’s home in Wales – Killolog – and balancing the bed on the other side of the room was a matching marble-topped dresser ornamented with carved bunches of grapes.
The most ingratiating object, however, was the fireplace. It was the first thing seen from the front door. Its burning logs in winter invited one to share their comfort, while in summer cool fronds of asparagus filled the space.
On this April evening only the bedroom seemed in evidence. The living-room adornments had an air of unimportance that converted them into background material. The walnut bed, like an imposing matriarch, dominated the scene and conveyed in subtle mood the feeling that something portentous was about to happen.
Roads were mostly clay in Missouri, hilly and hard to travel. Darkness had completely encircled the cottage on State and Market streets when Father returned with Aunty Miss and carried her belongings into the house.
There was much to be done quickly and she put on her capacious apron as Mother opened drawers to show her where various articles were kept.
“Aunty Miss, you won’t forget to broil Humphrey’s bacon over the coals will you? He’s having indigestion again’, Mother added.
“Now don’t you mind Humphrey, Sally. It won’t hurt him a mite to have what others have for a change.”,
Aunty Miss squeaked in a high querulous voice that raised goose-pimples on the flesh of timid children.
Aunty Miss’s real name was Smith. She was a practical, Scotch un-unionized nurse of ripe age. She was short and had a round figure that narrowed toward the summit like a silo. Her hair was coiled in a tight ‘O’ back of her ears. Her bead-like eyes were framed with heavily-steel-rimmed spectacles which gave her somewhat the appearance of a huntress. Dark, melancholy-looking clothes swung dismally from her hips, and a black shapeless bag we children were forbidden to touch usually lurked in a dark corner. We called her Aunty Miss because Mrs. Smith stymied childish tongues, and we suspected that her bag held babies though neither Brother, Lilly or Mary had had sufficient courage to investigate its shadowy folds.
“Starmy wurk in starmy weather”,
she exclaimed now as she made up a bed for herself in the middle room and glanced through the window where blue lights flashed across the sheets.
Back and forth from kitchen to woodhouse Mrs. Smith peregrinations led her and the night crept on. The storm which had threatened earlier was now fulfilling its promise. The rain fell steadily and the odor of tobacco vied with wet japonica. Father leaned heavily in crucial moments on his long, black cigars.
“The stork will have his feathers well soaked this night,” said Aunty Miss. “I never could see why he waits till night to do what could be easier done by day.”
The storm continued to grow in a long crescendo of intensity. Occasionally blue flashes crackled about the chimney and the maple boughs scraped on the roof as a gust of wind surprised them. Within the house the work swept on synchronized to the fury of wind and rain.
It was nearly dawn when a victorious cry pierced the thunder and the fourth Howell baby slipped over the line ‘out of the Somewhere into the Here.’ Morning broke clear and bright, and when the two children returned from their short sojourn at the neighbor’s, a blue-eyed baby, bald-headed like her forebears, lay in the clothes-basket in the living room.
“What makes her so red?” asked Lilly as she was given a peek.
“Is she ours?” inquired red-haired Mary.
“Looks like a ‘V’ on her forehead. What is it?” Maynard wanted to know.
“O, that!” said Aunty Miss scornfully. “More than likely it started to be a heart and didn’t get finished. Maybe your mother’s tears marked it there.”
This explanation was far from lucid. It aroused some wondering but the questions that modern children ask were seldom forthcoming in the Howell family. Summer was coming, the time of picnics and teaparties. Father and Mother were going to the Philadelphia Centennial, then to Ohio to show the new baby to relatives.
Before plans could be consummated, however, the baby had to be named. One couldn’t pass a baby around for official endorsement without proper nomenclature, and for one day a question-mark hung over the Howell lintel.