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Junny’s Marie





Sharon Lamers



Copyright © 2016 Sharon Lamers




All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored, in any form or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author.


The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.



Cover photo: Junny and Marie




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This book is dedicated to my mother, Marie.


Her strength, her humor, her talents, her passion, were all inherited from her mother, Frances, who immigrated from Holland to the Midwest in 1908.


The good, the bad, the love, the loss.

The happiness and grief, the tragedy and joy. This is her story.



Prologue



Marie and Anne had ridden bicycles along rural French Road five miles north of Little Chute, Wisconsin, many times before the fall of 1932. Now just twenty, Anne was dating Nick Thyssen, who lived one mile beyond the Lamers farm. The sisters giggled about the handsome Lamers boys that were rumored to live on the three hundred twenty-acre farm.

"We better take Marie down the road and let her see those Lamers boys. There’s seven of ‘em," Nick teased.

"I don’t believe it," Anne replied.

"It seems to me we’d see signs of someone," Marie added.

As many times as Marie and Anne passed the supposedly heavily male populated Lamers farm, neither had ever seen any sign of "the boys".

As they approached the farm they saw dim barn lights casting an eerie glow through small cloudy windows. Shadowy figures within piqued the girls’ curiosity. They strained to get a glimpse of someone, to no avail. It was milking time.

The same yellowish light and muted activity could also be seen in the early morning hours. Again, milking time. Again, routine chores devoutly being performed. Chores that came first. Chores that took priority over school or personal interests. Chores that came all too quickly every twelve hours. Chores. A fact of life in the early 1930’s.

"How many Lamers boys did you say lived here?" Marie asked as Nick drove past the farm taking her and Anne home after a dance in Freedom.

"Seven," Nick replied.

"Where are they all?" Anne wondered aloud.

"Never you mind," Nick scolded. "You need not look further," he said as he reached over, giving Anne a kiss on the cheek.

Marie could feel a blush rising from her neck reaching her cheeks as she looked away, trying to see beyond the amber glow of the illuminated barn windows.

A sudden rectangular flash of light momentarily lit up one end of the barn as a figure stepped through the door. A moment that would have been missed had Marie not looked away from Anne and Nick, glancing toward the barn as they drove on past the ever intriguing Lamers farm.

"Did you see that?" Marie blurted out, louder than she intended.

"What?" Anne replied turning her gaze toward Marie, regretting for a moment she had agreed to take her along again to the Friday night dance at the Legion Hall.

"I saw someone come out of the barn," Marie said. "Let’s go back."

"Ma’s waiting for you, we can’t," Anne said frowning in the darkness as Marie twisted her head around watching the faint barn lights fade in the distance.

Upon reaching the two-story house on Monroe Street in Little Chute, Marie jumped out of the car. She ran up the steps and across the porch that was cast in the soft glow of the light Ma always left on to remind her she was expected, and probably late. The fall Wisconsin air was warm and the inside door was open. The screen door was closed, keeping the last of the mosquitoes out. The house was quiet but as Marie had anticipated, Helen was up waiting, when she entered the house.

"Is Anne coming in?" Helen asked. "She promised to drop off that lace collar she crocheted for me."

"Yes, she’s coming," Marie said quietly. "She’s talking to Nick and she’ll be right in." Marie made kissing noises and the two stifled laughter.

Anne appeared at the screen door with a paper bag in hand. Helen ran to the door, flung it open and went out on the porch.

"You remembered!" Helen exclaimed as Anne handed her the bag, giving her the look nuns give an impatient child.

Helen unrolled the worn paper bag and sighed as she pulled out the delicate white collar, catching the faint smell of bologna.

The three sisters sat on the porch swing as Helen praised Anne’s perfect stitching on the collar that would make any sweater look swell.

"Do you love Nick?" Marie blurted out suddenly.

"Tell us, Anne," pleaded Helen, three years younger than Marie, who in turn was 16, four years younger than Anne.

"Yes," answered Anne. "I love him."

"What does that feel like? How do you know? How is like different than love?" Helen asked, looking younger than her thirteen years.

"You’re too young Helen," Marie said protectively.

Pausing, Marie turned toward Anne and said, "Jeekers, Anne, what does it feel like?"

"You are both too young. But, being in love is very different from just liking someone," Anne replied, smiling wisely. "I like my socks, but I love my silk stockings. One is simply a whole lot nicer than the other. You’ll know when it happens. Trust me, you’ll know!"

Marie steepled her fingers beneath her nose in deep thought remembering the shadowy figure she momentarily glimpsed in the glow of the barn lights at the Lamers farm.

"I’ll know," she murmured, smiling like she had a secret. "Good night you two."

"Good night," Anne whispered, kissing Helen on the forehead. Turning and catching the kiss blown by Marie, she descended the porch steps and headed for the waiting car. Nick smiled as Anne opened the door. She scooted over and kissed his ear playfully.

"Home, driver," she said, and the car lurched off into the night.

Anne had quit school before graduating high school and was working for Vanderveldens as a live-in housekeeper. Vanderveldens also owned a tavern, appropriately named "Van’s", and that’s where she and Nick met.

The following weekend Marie and Anne found themselves once again at Thyssens. Nick had two sisters and three brothers. Mart and George were gone looking at a motorcycle and Nick said Ray was down at the Lamers farm. Marie’s ears perked up at that and try as she might, her matter-of-fact voice gave way to her real emotion. "Really?" she said.

Her face lit up with the prospect of a glimpse of one of the mysterious Lamers boys. A nervous blush rose in her cheeks as she announced she was going for a walk. She quickly realized she had announced her urge to take a walk too soon after Nick said where his brother was. In an attempt to cover up her eagerness, Marie turned toward the big orange cat that was transporting her new litter of kittens from places unknown, to the safety of the barn.

"How many trips has Clown made with those kittens?" Marie asked, feigning interest.

Nick fell for the cover-up and told her he had seen the cat only twice that day, but he was sure she had made several more trips.

"She usually has eight or nine in her litters," he said proudly. "By the looks of the two I saw she must have been visiting the Lamers farm. They’ve got the only black and white cat I know of. Look, there she goes with one that’s the spittin’ image of the tomcat I saw down there, last week. He barely made it across the road in front of the tractor when I was taking the manure spreader over to Hietpas Dairy."

Not really interested in the cats nor Nick’s manure story, Marie locked eyes with her sister. Anne smiled. She had not fallen for Marie’s sudden curiosity in Clown and her kittens.

Embarrassed, Marie glanced sideways at Nick, but he seemed oblivious to the exchanged looks shared by the sisters. He was still chuckling about the cat and wondering aloud about how many kittens there were.

A moment later Marie waltzed down the driveway, clearing her throat noisily, winking at Anne as she passed. Nick was still contemplating Clown’s route as Marie left the driveway, contemplating her own route…straight to the Lamers farm.

The cloudless sky seemed bleached by the sun and the red and yellow of fall made the very countryside appear on fire, as Marie made her way south. Ripe apples hung heavily on the trees as she reached the orchard. A slight breeze made the apples bob in slow motion and Marie stopped as the back of the farmhouse came into view. For a moment she thought she might turn and run back to Thyssens. She turned her churning thoughts inward and continued toward her destination. Upon reaching the side of the old farmhouse she noticed the faded yellow paint was beginning to curl slightly. Her courage waned again, when at that moment she saw a male figure in the yard next to a Chevrolet with a rumble seat. An audible sound escaped her mouth as she sucked in her breath. The figure turned and the air she was holding in her lungs released as the young man waved, calling her name. She recognized the face attached to the voice as that of Ray, Nick’s brother. Her shoulders dropped in disappointment as she half-heartedly returned the gesture. Ray motioned for her to join him with a twist of his head and a flipping of his thumb. Marie tried to hide her disappointment as she headed up the short horseshoe-shaped driveway. She managed a cordial smile. Ray's smile was next to goofy, stretching from ear to ear, showing almost perfect teeth.

"What are you doing here?" Marie asked as she approached Ray.

"I was about to ask you the same thing," Ray retorted.

Ray kept the silly grin, nodding as Marie explained. She said she just decided to take a walk on such a nice Sunday afternoon to enjoy the fall colors.

"I was supposed to go with George and Mart," Ray explained. "They went to Seymour to look at a motorcycle Junny wanted to buy. But I got here too late and they left without me."

He said Johnny in the Dutch dialect with the short u sound, pronouncing it "Junny".

Marie thought that was an odd name and asked, "Who is Junny? That rhymes with funny."

"Junny. Junny Lamers. He lives here."

"Whose car is this?" Marie continued the interrogation.

"Belongs to Junny," Ray answered, eyes narrowing as he looked at her quizzically.

"Let’s go for a ride Ray," Marie challenged.

"I can’t do that. Junny will be back soon. They only went over to Seymour."

"Oh come on Ray, I’ll take the blame," she chided boldly.

Unable to dismiss the challenge, and against his better judgment, Ray agreed to go for a short "spin" with Marie.

Marie jumped in the passenger side of the car and merrily slammed the door. Ray followed suit with bravado that didn’t quite match that of the bold young woman. She chuckled as he stretched to reach the pedals, stuffing his jacket behind him. Junny must be tall, she thought.

Ray pressed on the accelerator and they chugged out of the driveway heading north toward Thyssens. The road was narrow and dusty as they bounced past the orchard. They passed Thyssens, but no one was outside to appreciate the fearless duo as they continued on their journey. Just as Ray was beginning to feel confident about joy riding in Johnny’s car, he felt a tightening in his stomach when he spotted a car coming in their direction.

"Nah, it can’t be," Ray whispered almost inaudibly as the car drew nearer.

"What?" Marie queried, looking at Ray, who had lost some of the color in his face. "You look like you’ve seen a ghost."

"I wish I had. I ain’t lyin'. I wish I had. It’s Junny. He’s with George and Mart and he sees us in HIS car. I’m as good as dead."

Marie looked out the windshield and saw the car coming down the middle of the narrow road, leaving no room on either side for passing. Her boldness had dwindled as she contemplated what was about to unfold. Was this "Junny" a mean guy? Was he going to beat Ray up? Suddenly she wished she had stayed with Anne and wasn’t sure just how she would "take the blame" when confronted with the owner of the stolen car in which she was a passenger. After all, it was a stolen car. Could Ray go to jail? Could she go to jail?

Trying to become invisible she slid down in the seat, eyes pinched shut, wishing to turn back the clock to this morning. This morning at mass she had prayed for nice weather and a part in the upcoming school play. She never expected to be in a fix like this. She wondered what her mother would say if the police showed up at their house. What am I doing? What a dumb cluck I am, she thought.

The car abruptly halted and Marie opened her eyes. The other car was right up against them, touching like the noses of dogs, when trying to establish who’s the toughest.

Ray put the Chevy in reverse and began backing down the road with the pursuing car still close enough to see the smiles on the faces of its occupants. Marie wondered if the smiles were smiles of friendship, or smiles of satisfaction upon having caught car thieves in this felonious act. They continued backing up for what seemed like hours, with the other car practically touching their front bumper. Marie tried not to make eye contact with the faces in the car ahead of them, but she did manage to get a quick look at the man in the back seat. Was he the mysterious "Junny"?

A sudden lurching of the Chevy brought Marie back from her thoughts as Ray backed into the driveway and stopped just short of the garage.

"Nice day for a drive," Ray said sheepishly.

"Ain’t it though," replied Johnny as he pulled his long form out of Mart’s car.

"Who’s your partner in crime?" he added, turning his gaze toward Marie, wrinkles of amusement forming at the corners of his eyes.

Marie avoided those eyes for a moment and suddenly regained her spunk as she jumped out of the car and came face to face with John Lamers.

Face to face was not quite accurate, with Marie barely reaching five foot two and John towering almost a foot taller. His height didn’t faze her as she looked up at him and exclaimed, "I asked him to take me for a ride." Her bravery surprised her and she felt confidence take hold as if someone was talking through her. "It was me, I’m to blame. I talked Ray into it. It’s all my fault," she practically shouted, hands on her hips.

"Is it?" Johnny said with a heavy accent on is, looking down at her, trying not to grin as he dove into Marie’s brown eyes. Bold little squirt, he thought.

"If you want to ride so bad, hop in and I’ll give you a ride."

Taken aback, Marie felt her boldness dwindle and her knees weaken. She had not expected this reaction and was not ready with a quick response that usually came as second nature.

"Well, little miss, do you want to go for a spin or not?" Johnny said, moving one step closer, enjoying the moment.

"I, I can’t. I have to go home," Marie stammered meekly as she turned around and headed toward Anne, who was just coming out of the house. She was angered at herself for backing down so quickly.

"Who was that?" Anne asked when she saw the look on Marie’s face.

"The Lamers boys," she whispered. "It’s one of the Lamers boys. His name is Junny. Ray and I took his car for a ride," Marie babbled. Anne’s eyes looked past Marie at the tall man and shrugged her shoulders, palms up.

Marie heard the engine and spun around just as John Lamers was pulling out of the driveway, heading toward Thyssens. Was he looking over his shoulder? She couldn’t see. She felt relief mixed with disappointment as the dust swallowed up the Chevy.


Chapter 1



Water lapped against the ship and Frances wondered how long before her small family would see the shores of America. Almost twenty-eight she, husband Peter, and young son Jan left Holland for the usual reasons, hoping to find a new life. A life that would be easier. A life with hope. Sometimes thoughts of America set her mind swimming in a sea of emotions. Leaving her family forever left her with unbearable pain. She likened it to a death. Her very soul ached for the ones she left behind, but part of her soul longed for what lay ahead. America! She rolled the word around in her mouth, her lips moving slightly, savoring every syllable. Frances turned her gaze back toward Holland letting her thoughts drift. The year was 1908.

Born Frances Van Heeswyk August 6, 1880, in Oss, Netherlands (Holland), she met and married Peter Wittenberg. When son Jan was eight, the decision to leave her homeland had been both easy and difficult. Easy, wanting a better life for her young family. Hard, leaving all she knew behind. She and Peter had discussed their plan long into the night for months before they set out across the Atlantic to the mysterious place called America. A place Frances had only heard about and dreamed about, was soon to become a reality. The Wittenbergs would soon join over three million people who immigrated each year to the New World. She and her tiny family would become a part of the wave of people hoping to settle in what was appropriately called the "melting pot."

Her melancholy mood deepened as she thought of all the people, friends and family she’d probably never see again. She couldn’t have foreseen how difficult the final good-byes would be. With hot tears scalding the corners of her eyes, Frances turned her face to the wind as it attempted to loosen her dark wavy hair from the bun at the base of her neck. She swallowed hard, blinking back tears as she looked around analyzing the expressions on the faces of the people around her. The weathered faces and covered heads of the other passengers clutching children and worn tattered travel bags, all shared a common thread. The squinting eyes and shadowed faces showed a plethora of emotions. Sadness. Concern. Fear. Apprehension. Each etching its path on the faces of those who dared seek a new life across the sea to America. The common thread was visible in the eyes of each person Frances saw. It literally shone there and Frances was sure it was in her eyes as well. Hope. Hope that overcame sadness and concern, fear and apprehension.

The thought that perhaps some family members and friends would follow, lifted her spirits once again. Her friends Mary and Pete Smits, promised to follow as soon as they saved a little more money. Peter and Frances had saved very little money and knew it would be rough going at first. Determination and the optimism of youth won over economical wisdom regarding financial resources. The young couple had no money to spare as they began the biggest adventure of their lives.

Peter’s voice broke through, dissolving her thoughts, and brought her back to the present. "You dast be sad wife," Peter said in a broken mixture of two languages, a wide smile broadening as Frances looked up at him. Excitement once again rose to the top of the mountain of emotions as she dwelled on Peter’s smile. Exhilaration lit up his face, inviting Frances to join the mood. It was easy to get caught up in Peter’s enthusiasm and Frances once again focused on the future in America. Arm in arm, with Jan squeezed between them, the couple turned and faced west, lifting their chins to the wind, determined to face the future in the same way.


Chapter 2



Finding New York overwhelming, the Wittenbergs struggled with disillusion when the reality of overcrowded big city life clashed with their hopes. Instead of prosperity and wealth, friendliness and opportunity, they found slums and poverty, prejudice and adversity.

The plight of the immigrant was painfully obvious to the hopeful couple and dampened their hopes. The misery of those who had fallen behind in the great march of democracy was almost palpable. Stacked in filthy ill-ventilated tenements, generations of once optimistic families lived in squalor. The rickety five and six-story wooden structures were breeding grounds for disease and nurseries for vice. New York City alone, before the turn of the century, housed half a million people in these slums where the death rate was four times that of the more fortunate residents of the city. A typical block on the Lower East Side found almost twenty-eight hundred residents without a single bathtub. One-third of the rooms contained no light nor provided any ventilation. Another third merely had small air shafts. The stench of the slums permeated the very air and hung like a fog. The crusade for Social Justice had begun trying to clean up the slums to create better living conditions, but the battle was a long campaign waged on many fronts. Women and children were exploited for labor and sex. Industry failed to pay a living wage and child labor was a public scandal. Peter and Frances held tightly to Jan when hollow-eyed children with bent backs and deformed hands were seen leaving their 12-14 hour shifts at factories and fish processing plants. Maimed or worn out workers had no recourse and were left to fend for themselves. Alcoholism and abuse ran rampant as the endless stream of people flowed into America. The excitement of descending the plank onto Ellis Island paled in the days that followed and the Promised Land of the New World became frightening and hostile. Everyone taking the last step off that plank anticipating a better life, faced a choice. Stay and dissolve in the industrial revolution of an overcrowded city or join the multitudes that spread evenly throughout the North and Midwest into farming and expanding industry. That choice came only after days of mental as well as physical testing. Humiliating physical examinations were given in groups and, in front of strangers. Lines were formed and letters crudely written on the front of their clothing, determined the length of their detention. The letter M meant a possible medical problem, and those with that letter were funneled into yet another line to be checked out further by overworked physicians. Those unlucky enough to bear an X on their shirt or dress were considered to have a possible mental illness and were subject to a barrage of odd questions and mental testing. Not knowing the language and not understanding the questions could mean returning to the ship for deportation. If an immigrant had the name of a friend or relative with which to live, they would be allowed in easier. A person with a place to stay meant less chance to be in need of public assistance. A woman alone was cause to be singled out for possible return to the ship as another potential liability to the city. Many women, who ventured to America alone, merely pretended to be with a man for admission to the New World.

Having no problems, Peter and Frances were allowed to enter America with Jan. Seeing no real choice in the matter, Peter used the last of their money to book passage through the Great Lakes to a place in Wisconsin called Green Bay. There logging was king and the leading industry in the state. Peter had heard of a lucrative lumber business in Oconto Falls about twenty-five miles north of Green Bay and was sure he would find work there. He knew how to drive a team and had pulled sleighs in the old country. En route to Green Bay, Peter assured Frances he could drive log sleighs or skidders with teams of oxen. Within a week Peter was indeed hired and he headed to Oconto Falls to work for Pitts Logging Company. In lieu of his first week’s wages, Peter was issued the needed apparel for his new career as a lumberjack. Stag pants, heavy Mackinaw, wool cap and mitts along with wool socks, shirts and hobnail boots, all needed to keep out the cold and snow. Logging was done mostly in winter but summer cutting was still done and logs stacked. Logs were picked up at staging areas and delivered to either logging chutes to wait for spring thaw, or right to the riverbank of the Oconto River. Then down the river eighteen miles east to Oconto on the shores of Green Bay.

The bunkhouse at Pitts Camp housed twenty-six men and they had to cut and haul the wood to keep the drafty shacks warm. The men had only oil lanterns to play cards by before turning in for the night. The smell of sweaty wet wool and leather was almost overpowering as the men hung their clothes on long lines near the crude barrel stove. Their boots were lined up as close to the stove as possible sometimes causing the ripe leather to steam. They were lined up according to rank. The longer you had been at Pitt's, the closer you could put your boots. Therefore, Peter's boots were often still damp when they got up before dawn to head to the cook shanty for breakfast. The food was good, simple and filling.

Peter made a good friend at Pitts from Scandinavia called Oonsen who was missing a good portion of his left foot but still could handle a shovel with the best of them. Peter never knew if that was his first or last name. Everyone just called him Oonsen. He used to ride the logs on the log chutes during the spring thaw that led from the top of the ridge outside Oconto Falls down to the river's edge. Oonsen was fearless and had become a clad driver, the most dangerous job in logging. They rode the logs downstream keeping them from forming a jam. If a jam did occur, the clad driver would clear out the jam and keep the logs moving, sometimes standing waist high in freezing cold water to do so. Finding the offending log that held the rest back and dislodging it was risky and perilous, costing many men lost limbs or lives. Oonsen along with another clad driver, had been in the process of ramming a wedged log when the growing jam upstream dislodged and began piling up behind them. The roar was deafening when the logs crashed together like gigantic sticks as the whole jam let loose. They both turned around in time for Oonsen to jump to the side while the mountain of logs grabbed his friend by both legs, twisting him in corkscrew fashion as he disappeared beneath the churning mass. Oonsen hadn't even noticed the whole outside of his left boot was gone and the swirling water was pink as blood gushed from what remained of his foot.

Sadly, what was left of the other clad driver was found the next day fourteen miles downstream. He was pummeled and smashed beyond recognition, his clothes having been torn from his body by the sheer force of the logs crashing their way to the bay in Oconto. Tufts of matted reddish hair, imbedded in parts of his skull that hadn't been scraped off on the journey downstream, were the only identifiable remains of the clad driver.

In summer when there wasn't enough work for everyone at the camp, the new guys didn't work, especially the ones who were not as seasoned as most of the loggers. So during those times Peter worked on a nearby road crew. The horse drawn wagons and wood sleighs, carrying tons of logs, were rough on the roads. Well-worn ruts could be over two feet deep and filling those ruts seemed futile. It was hot dirty work and only paid half what the loggers got, but it was money and he was glad to have the opportunity to work at all. Gotta stick to the plan, was Peter's motto and that was the motivation behind everything he did.

The road crew bosses, however, were ruthless and pushed the men relentlessly. The one in charge of the crew Peter was on, reminded the men of a boss on a chain gang. The guys had to practically run to the bushes to relieve themselves while he scowled and looked at his watch, his face red with impatience. Behind his back, the crew called this boss, "Mumps" because his cheeks and chin melted into his neck giving him the appearance of swollen glands resembling mumps. Mumps didn't know about the nickname and never did figure out why the guys all grinned when he wiped the trails of dirty sweat off his thick neck.

Oonsen and Peter had pledged to "cover each other's ass" when the road boss questioned where the other one was. On days when the heat was unbearable Peter would find himself taking a bit longer than the allotted five-minute break every two hours. Oonsen would tell Mumps that Peter just sat down so he had a couple minutes left. The crew boss would belittle the men and threaten to cut their time and money. Often the men would be close to passing out from sweating more than the intake of water they drank, on their short breaks.


Women were not often allowed in lumber camps, so Frances and Jan stayed in a room in Green Bay. Lumberjacks made from $18 to $30 a month including room and board, so before long the future seemed to be looking brighter. The American dream was hard, but not impossible. Neither Peter nor Frances had ever been afraid of hard work, and dreams of eventually having a house and garden, or perhaps a small farm someday, began to take shape. No matter how hard the work, Peter was determined to save enough to get home and buy a small place for his family.

Horrors of New York City found their way to the back of their minds as plans for a new life seemed a reality. But within the year, the dreams and plans for the future came to a tragic halt, when Frances was brought news of Peter’s death. A nice man with a limp from Pitts Lumber Camp, whose odd name Frances could not remember, was kind and gentle when he told her Peter was dead. He added that Peter was a good friend and talked about the plan all the time. Peter had asked him to come in person if he died. A final sort of "covering his ass" as Peter had put it. Peter died of sunstroke. The rigors of logging were rough, but the long hours without relief in the blistering summer sun had taken its toll.

The world took on a blur as Frances wrapped her mind around what she was being told. Peter was dead. Their dreams were shattered. Her world destroyed. Frances didn't realize the man who had brought her the terrible news left after he told her, but she found a box on the porch with Peter's things from the lumber camp inside. There was a journal inside, among the other things, that listed everything he had envisioned for their future, appropriately titled "The Plan". The words were written across the top of a crudely assembled stack of papers attached with a frayed string at the top. Frances ran her fingers across the familiar printing as a cry of despair escaped her lips. All too soon reality reared itself and she had to face it and weigh her options.

Life in a logging community offered few choices for employment and Frances didn’t want to face the reminders of her life gone awry there. After a modest funeral, which depleted most of the money they had saved, she packed up her few belongings and she and Jan headed to a town just south of Green Bay. De Pere was a friendly little town and Frances found a job in a hotel cooking and cleaning in exchange for room and board with a few cents left over. Life had taken a cruel turn for Frances, but she was determined to make the best of it.


Chapter 3



The newlyweds, married less than a month, climbed into the buggy with five friends, eager to have a cool ride along the Fox River. The seven of them laughed as the buggy bounced along the road leading to a canal before the bridge. John Welhouse and his bride, the former Mary Ann Heinz, snuggled in the back of the buggy as they headed toward the township of Kimberly for a belated wedding celebration. The reception hall was crowded, awaiting John and Mary Ann as the horse drawn, double-seated buggy headed down the hill in Little Chute. The horse trotted slowly with the group merrily singing favorite songs. The snapping brake lever wasn’t heard as the buggy picked up speed. The buggy struck the bridge causing two wheels to collapse, plunging the entire party into the dark swirling water. The last thing John heard was Mary Ann screaming his name as the buggy careened into the canal. Nearby neighbors heard the struggling people screaming and managed to save all but one. Mary Ann drowned that day shattering John's life and hopes for a future with his bride.


* * * *


John awoke with a jolt and sat up in bed dripping in sweat. The dream was so real, the ring of his name still hung in the air. The fatal accident, killing his bride, had happened twenty years ago, but its nightly reenactment in his dreams kept it fresh like a never healing wound. He glanced over at Mary Catherine, his second wife of eighteen years. She lay exhausted from lack of sleep and struggling to breathe. His concern for her welled up in his throat as he counted the seconds that passed between short and labored breaths. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. How many seconds was too many.....not enough? He didn't know and shook his head at the futility of counting seconds at all. He watched her chest slowly rise and fall. Mary Catherine's cough was worse, deep and gurgling and the medication didn’t seem to be doing any good. Consumption, the doctors called it, sadly stating the deadly killer had taken many lives in the past decades. Their seven children lay sleeping in the rooms above as the faint glow of dawn crept over the dusty windowsill. The smell of sickness permeated the very air, filling his nostrils as fear tightened its grip on John’s heart. It couldn’t happen again. Could he lose his wife? That just couldn’t happen again.....could it?

John was a child when he and his five brothers and sisters ventured to America with his parents, Johanna and Henry Welhouse. He was born in 1866 in Overscheidt Holland. The Welhouse family found their way to the Midwest and had settled in Little Chute, a small central Wisconsin village many Dutch immigrants called home.

Now as he listened to Mary Catherine’s shallow raspy wheezing, John slipped out of bed to check on Jerome, and smiled as he listened to the baby’s soft breathing. Trying not to dwell on his wife’s illness, he looked in on the other children. Coughs echoing from downstairs, once again brought John back to reality. The sun would be up soon and his shift at the mill was drawing near. The kids needed to get ready for school and the doctor was coming by to check on Mary Catherine. Feeling the strain, John went back downstairs and found his wife lying on her side in a convulsing spasm.

Mary had not been well since Jerome was born and her congestion had steadily gotten worse. The rattling in her lungs had become thicker and her breathing painful. With Joe (17), Tress (14), Willie (12), Liza (10), and Sylvia (8) in school, John had his hands full with Levi (5). And Jerome (almost 2) was into everything. Without the help of neighbors, it would have been impossible to maintain any kind of normalcy in the family. With John working at the mill, Tress helped tend to her mom, made dinner and did laundry while Joe and Willie took care of other chores around the house. Liza, Levi and Sylv, as Sylvia was called, did what all children do; they got into everything, and riddled Daddy with endless questions on what was wrong with Momma. Jerome was still in diapers and needed constant supervision.

Days passed in slow motion and nights were restless with worry as John watched his wife grow weaker. Soon John's fear shifted to terror when he returned home from work and saw a familiar car in the driveway. He raced into the house and saw the doctor softly closing their bedroom door behind him. The doctor chose his words carefully and they rang with heartfelt sympathy as he told John his beloved Mary Catherine was dying. Although John had subconsciously prepared for the inevitable, the words struck like a blow and he felt the wind being knocked out of him. He slowly sank to his knees pounding his fists on his thighs in desperation as the words cut like a knife through his heart.

One week later, on a befittingly cold drizzly day, Mary Catherine Vosters-Welhouse was laid to rest and John began his life once again as a widower. Only this time with seven children and a doubtful future. His anguish now turned from Mary Catherine's devastating illness to the welfare and happiness of his children. Numbed by his loss, John felt new panic and fear. What would he do? What would become of them? He had heard of "Orphan Trains", where thirty to forty children would ride a train cross country to be put on display at various stops and inspected like livestock to be "adopted". Siblings were usually split up because families couldn't afford more than one extra mouth to feed. Some children who were not chosen resorted to singing and dancing, trying to attract an adopting family. He couldn't let this happen to his family. There has to be a better way. "I'll find a way Mary Catherine," he whispered before falling asleep alone in their bed. "I'll keep us together."

A neighbor suggested John run an advertisement in the newspaper seeking a housekeeper. He did just that with careful wordage, cheerfully describing the kids ranging in age from almost two to seventeen years of age. He told of a good-sized house on Monroe Street in Little Chute and a healthy man of forty-five, who wasn't a drinker and went to church. He thought of saying he wasn't bad looking but decided not to. Besides, it cost five cents more for another line of print.


Chapter 4



Twenty miles lay between Little Chute and De Pere and when Frances heard of a widower with young children looking for a housekeeper, her heart went out to the man and she decided to inquire further. She had read the folded tattered advertisement and wondered if this John Welhouse was a good man. She worried about all those kids but the prospect of a real house and yard where she could have a garden helped her make up her mind. Frances was tired of the small room in the hotel. Jan would have kids his own age to play with and a father figure once again in his life. She composed a reply stating her qualifications and situation.

John was thrilled at the thought of having a resolution to his dilemma. Jan was about the same age as Willie and Liza, and Frances seemed like a hard worker. She also sounded nice in her letter. A mutual agreement was met and Frances planned a move to Little Chute to be part of a family again, excited about moving to a new town and a new life for her and Jan, now eleven.

Frances and Jan got off the bus in Little Chute and walked two blocks to Monroe Street, each carrying a suitcase. Her other few belongings were being shipped the next day. She found John sitting on the porch rocking a toddler in his arms as she rounded the corner. She stopped to watch the scene that made her heart ache. Even from this distance she could tell John Welhouse was a handsome man. Ashamed at her initial thought upon seeing him, she squeezed Jan's hand and said, "Here we are Jan. That's our new home." The silence was broken when several children came running around the house waving long sticks with ropes on the end. They were chasing two other children who were bigger and appeared to be running slower, deliberately. They were laughing and holding their sides as they looked over their shoulders. The ones giving chase soon caught up with the two teenage boys. Two girls and a small boy stopped abruptly raising their "whips". "Hya hya, get moving, mustangs," the boy said. The girls also had their whips high in the air and moved closer to the big boys. At that moment the two spun around, grabbed the whips and sent the smaller children running back around the house, screaming. Frances took a deep breath and headed toward the house with Jan in tow. Just as she reached the porch, all the kids came around the house again, only they were unarmed and walking together. The tallest of the girls was angry and said, "That was no fair. You were supposed to run until you reached the corral and we’d catch you."

"Horses don’t grab whips. You guys don’t play fair," added the other girl.

"We decided it was more fun to change into monsters and capture you," the tallest and obviously oldest boy said. He turned to the other "mustang" and they both broke into laughter. Suddenly the kids noticed Frances standing at the foot of the stairs with a suitcase and a thin frightened looking boy. "Joe," the man on the porch said as he rose. "Get the lady’s bag. She must be tired. Are you Mrs. Wittenberg?" he said smiling.

"I am that, sir," Frances answered. "And this is my son Jan. Our other things will be coming on the train tomorrow. We took the bus."

"Please, come in," John said pleasantly.

The tall boy named Joe, picked up her bag and motioned with his head to the other boy and said, "Willie, you’d better get the little boy’s suitcase."

Frances ignored the remark, but Jan heard it clearly and his face reflected the certainty he would not like this new home and these new kids. He was not going to be happy here. He scowled at Joe and Willie, who returned a look that made Jan want to turn and run, but he locked eyes with Joe and he knew he was in trouble. Jan was not very big and Willie stood over a foot taller, almost as tall as Joe, and Jan guessed they were both quite a bit older than he.

Once inside the house, another girl appeared and took the toddler from John’s arms. John referred to her as Tress when he asked her to take Jerome upstairs for his nap. "Please come back down so we can all meet our new housekeeper and her son."

Frances heard whispers and saw the concern in John’s eyes as he furrowed his eyebrows toward the children. As though rehearsed, they fell in a line, descending in height. Each, in turn, stated his or her name and age. Frances was impressed and had renewed hopes of being welcomed here and smiled. John smiled in return and said he was glad she was there. Jan on the other hand, caught the side-glances of the two tallest boys and he had a glimpse of the future he had in store. John showed Frances to her room and said she should join him in the kitchen. She tried hard to remember the kids’ names as she unpacked her suitcase. She could see the sadness in their eyes. Losing your mother is devastating to a child and she vowed to be sensitive to them in regard to Mrs. Welhouse and her passing.

The day began early with Jerome crying at 5 a.m. sharp. Frances almost ran into John as she hurried into the hallway trying to guess which room was Jerome’s. John was used to answering Jerome’s cries since the death of his wife and smiled as he met Frances on the way.

"I’m coming, Roonie," John said.

In answer to Frances's silent question, he said, "We call Jerome, Roonie. I’m not sure why. Mary Catherine called him that from the day he was born."

His face betrayed his feelings as he looked off in the distance feeling pain at the mention of his dead wife. Seconds passed and Frances broke the silence as she opened the door to Roonie's room. It turned out to be a room shared with Levi and Willie. The two older boys seemed oblivious to the crying and their slow sleepy breathing continued as Frances lifted the now whining toddler from his bed. His sobs subsided as he nuzzled into Frances's neck.

Frances instinctively held the shivering child to her ample breast. She glanced over at John and noticed a slight smile on his lips. Relief and gratitude flashed across John’s face and he knew he had made the right decision after receiving Frances's letter, hoping to fill the position of housekeeper. This woman was a good woman with soft eyes and a kind heart. Her red weathered hands, cracked from working in a hotel washing dishes and bedding, turned to velvet as she tended to the weeping child. She stroked the baby’s back and hummed softly as she passed in front of John on her way to the kitchen where she put a pan of milk on the stove. The kitchen seemed almost familiar as she went about the business of helping Jerome i.e. "Roonie", get over his crying. The pans were right where she expected them to be and of course the milk was in the icebox. John had filled the cook stove with wood the night before in preparation for the coming day and it caught quickly. A dab on her wrist told her the milk was ready for the baby. Well, he was more than a baby, but considering the circumstances, he surely could use a bottle and Frances considered him a baby. Poor little guy. He was so cute, with blonde hair that curled tight against his head. She felt a kinship as well as sadness, thinking of Mary Catherine. She died leaving all these children behind as well as a husband. Frances had no intention of trying to replace the mother and wife of the household, but she felt a warmth she hadn’t experienced for some time. Paralleling John’s thoughts of her, she thought him a good man with soft eyes and a kind heart. She continued humming as Roonie drank the milk. When finished, he didn't want her to put him down. It had been a long time since she cradled a child so young. It felt very comfortable and she basked in the idea that she had, sort of come home.

Roonie rode Frances's hip while she bustled around the kitchen. The other children rose one by one sleepy-eyed and eager as they saw the breakfast Frances prepared. She found oatmeal in the pantry and eggs and butter in the icebox.

All the Welhouse children except Tress, were sitting down to breakfast before John joined them. Tress was up and had gone out the front door without anyone knowing. Actually, John heard her slip out and was aware of the instant animosity his oldest daughter felt toward Frances upon their meeting last night. She had a preconceived dislike of the woman who she felt was coming to "take over". Being fourteen, she was sure she could take care of the family after her mother’s death.

"We don’t need anyone here. No one can replace our mother," Tress had argued when John had told her of Frances's acceptance of the position of housekeeper. "I can do it, we can take care of each other," Tress protested.

"She’ll get over it," he thought aloud, though his brow furrowed, knowing Tress was stubborn and would not "get over it" quickly nor easily.

He took a deep breath, smoothing a yawn with the back of his hand, and smiled broadly as he entered the good smelling kitchen. He had dark deep-set eyes in a square-jawed face with a thick mane of brown hair untouched by gray, that was parted on the left. His hands were the hands of a hardworking man with exaggerated knuckles and one blackened fingernail on the forefinger of his left hand. Frances thought he must be right handed and had hit his finger while pounding, perhaps on his job at the mill or fixing something around the house. He wasn’t a tall man, maybe five foot nine or ten, with broad shoulders and a muscular frame. He smiled at Frances and commented on how good the food smelled.

Painfully aware of his sincere smile, Frances avoided his eyes, and busied herself with Roonie who had wrapped his chubby arms around her neck, still riding on her hip. When John reached across the table to heap more oatmeal on Levi’s plate, Frances took the opportunity to steal a glance at the smile she knew was still there. She noticed how the left side of John’s mouth turned up slightly higher than the right. His intriguing smile was sincere and captivating. She felt the color rise in her cheeks as she forced herself to look away before he caught her staring.

Suddenly, in a blur, the children were up and out the door ready for another day, leaving Frances alone with John and Roonie. The morning sun shone through the window casting a long shadow that cut the dining room in half. John stepped from the shadow into the sunlight. She’d only just met him and was disturbed at the reaction he created in her. She was actually nervous. More nervous than she had been upon their first meeting last night. Feeling self-conscious, Frances shook the hair from her eyes, avoiding his gaze. She quickly made an excuse to go up and see how Jan was doing, as she had let him sleep in this morning. Jan had voiced his disapproval of the older boys and assured her he’d never get along with them. He just knew it. Frances foresaw trouble with the blending of children, but put it out of her mind and mentally filed it for further revisiting.

During the weeks that followed, Frances enrolled Jan in school and grew increasingly concerned about the growing dislike the older children felt toward him, and her. Try as she might, Frances couldn’t seem to get close to the children. She cooked their favorite meals, tried to help the girls with their sewing skills and even joined in some of the games the kids enjoyed. Still, the animosity the Welhouse children felt toward the intruder and her son was in the air and present at all times. They found fault with Frances's cooking and took every opportunity to criticize her every move. Jan was always in fights with the boys and ran away from home after just two weeks. Frances overheard the girls saying they wished she would run away too. They said they hated her. Frances was sure those hurtful words would hang in the air between them forever. Not wanting to pull John further into the fray, she decided to let it go. Jan returned after two days, but jumped at the chance to move to Chicago with friends of Frances. For his age, Jan was a free spirit and had aspirations of becoming an artist. He was always drawing and daydreaming about his future as a painter. A tearful good-bye at the train station for Frances, was a triumphant time for John’s kids, as they poked fun at Jan’s tears. They called him a baby when no one was looking. Frances was hopeful that Jan’s moving two hundred miles away would ease the strain in the household. It had just been the two of them for almost three years and she would miss him terribly.

John found himself putting a comforting arm around Frances, gently squeezing her shoulder.

"It will be all right. Jan is stronger than you think. He’ll be able to draw and paint all he wants and I think he will be happy there. I’m sorry the boys have been giving him such a hard time, but Jan will be coming home often to visit and I’m sure things will get better."

Having referred to Jan coming "home" jolted John a bit. He really did feel like this was Jan’s home as well as Frances's. He glanced at Frances who was about three inches shorter than he and felt his heart grow tight with emotion. Frances had been with them for less than two months and he found himself looking forward to coming home to her cheerful smile and aromatic kitchen. He enjoyed their conversations after supper on the front porch listening to the crickets as night fell. He had hoped the kids would take to her more, but was sure that would come in time. John’s thoughts turned toward his Mary Catherine. He missed her. She had been a frail woman and sick for some time before she died. He marveled at Frances's hardiness and found there was nothing she couldn’t do, or wouldn’t try. Life was hard and she worked very hard from dawn till dusk. She seemed to get on well in the neighborhood and had even helped deliver a neighbor’s child her third week there. John liked the way she pulled her thick brown hair back into a bun at the base of her neck and imagined what it would look like streaming down her back. Having celebrated her thirty-first birthday shortly after arriving, Frances was fourteen years his junior. John couldn't help but notice her fine figure. She was buxom and her small waist accentuated this, attracting John’s attention when she tied her apron behind her. Her eyes were as dark as her hair and when they locked with John’s eyes, an invisible spark made them each turn away quickly.

In the days after Jan left, things seemed to be running a bit smoother, especially with the younger children. Liza, Sylv and Levi gathered around Frances when she sat down to read to Roonie. The older kids, however, still wouldn’t warm to Frances and she accepted the fact that they may never. She was content that the daily fights ended with Jan moving, though she missed her boy terribly. They never let Frances forget her place in the home, and that place wasn’t to replace their mother. John’s kids had been permanently separated from their mother and they were miserable in that separation. It was as if driving Frances away would bring their mother back. After all, they had succeeded in getting rid of the little pest, Jan.

They didn’t drive Frances away, however. In fact, within three months after her arrival in Little Chute, John asked Frances to marry him. After losing Mary Catherine, he realized how precious time was, and was convinced not to waste any of it. Frances was a wonderful woman and a good mother. They could be a family. He was sure he had fallen in love with her when he first saw her standing with Jan, at the edge of the porch with her suitcase. He was quick at interpreting the language in Frances's eyes and he was confident he knew the answer. Even before she voiced her decision.

When John approached Frances the very night he made the decision to ask her to marry him, he was surprised to find her waiting to talk to him when he returned home from work.

Her face was glum and John saw sadness in her furrowed brow. She sighed deeply and sat on the swing.

"I’m afraid I may have to leave," she almost sobbed.

He felt the prickling of his scalp and barely recognized his own voice when he asked, "Frances, what is it?"

"I can’t stay here any longer," she slowly said. "I’ve been hearing gossip. I heard ‘trollop’ and 'hussy' as I passed a group of women in the store. John, people are talking. They think I’m………that we…….. I can’t stay here with that kind of talk. If I’m hearing it, the kids must be hearing it too. I’ll go to Chicago and find work there."

"Marry me," he almost shouted. "I love you Frances. Marry me."

Closely watching her reaction, John saw shock and confusion. She turned away and he again felt his scalp tingle. His stomach tightened and his head fell forward. What an idiot I am, he thought. I've ruined everything. Damn!

Her head seemed to hum with all it held. Frances felt the need to get away to the safety of her room. As she headed into the house, she said they’d talk in the morning. She was dumbfounded at his proposal and didn't know what to do. Damn!


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