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Naomi Esch froze in her seat at the family table, unable to stop staring at her father. Daadi had just tossed what felt like a lightning bolt into the middle of her thirtieth birthday celebration. Around her, she could feel her siblings and their spouses stuck in equally unbelieving attitudes.
“Ach, what is wrong with all of you?” Daadi, eyes narrowing, his beard seeming to bristle, glared at his offspring. “This is a reason to celebrate, ain’t so?”
Lovina, her brother Elijah’s wife, was the first to recover, her sweet, heart-shaped face matching her character. “We wish you and Betty much happiness.” She bounced baby Mattie, who’d begun to fuss, in her arms. “Wilkom, Betty.”
Betty Shutz, a round dumpling of a woman with a pair of shrewd brown eyes, nodded and smiled, but the glance she sent toward Naomi was cautious.
Isaiah, the youngest and most impetuous, said what everyone must be thinking. “But what about Naomi? If you and Betty are marrying, what is Naomi to do?”
The question roused Naomi from her frozen state. What was she supposed to do, after fifteen years spent raising her siblings, tending the house and garden and her beehives, and taking care of Daadi?
Daadi’s gaze shifted, maybe a bit uneasily. “Naomi is a gut daughter, none better. No one would deny that. But newlyweds want to have time alone together, ja? So we…I was thinking Naomi would move in with Elijah and Lovina. They are both busy with the dry-goods store and three young kinder besides. It would be a big help to you, ja?”
Elijah and Lovina exchanged glances, and then Lovina smiled at Naomi. “Nothing would please us more than to have Naomi with us, but that is for her to say, ain’t so?”
“Denke, Lovina.” Naomi found that her stiff lips could move, after all. “But what about my bee hives?”
Odd, that her thoughts had flown so quickly to her bees in the face of this shock. Or maybe not so odd. The bee hives were the only thing she could call truly hers.
“I’ve already talked to Dick Holder about the hives, and he’ll be happy to give Naomi a gut price for them.” Daad spoke as if it were all settled; her life completely changed in a few short minutes.
“I will not sell the hives.” Naomi could hardly believe that strong tone was coming out of her mouth. Everyone else looked equally surprised. Maybe they’d never heard such firmness from her.
Daad’s eyebrows drew down as he stared at her. “Komm, Naomi, don’t be stubborn. It is the sensible thing to do. Betty is allergic to bee stings, so the hives cannot stay here. And Elijah’s home in town isn’t suitable. The money will give you a nice little nest egg for the future.”
A babble of talk erupted around her as everyone seemed to have an opinion, but Naomi’s thoughts were stuck on the words Daad had used. Her future. He clearly thought he knew what that future was to be. She should move from one sibling to another, helping to raise their children, never having a home or a life of her own.
She was engaging in selfish thinking, maybe, and unfitting for a humble Amish person. But…
She looked around the table. Elijah, two years younger than she, whom she’d comforted when bad dreams woke him in the night. Anna and Mary, the next two in the family. She’d taught the girls everything they needed to know as Amish women, overseen their rumspringa, seen them married to gut men they loved. And Isaiah, the baby, the one whose first stumbling steps she’d guided. Were they to be her future, as they had her past?
Much as she loved them, her heart yearned for more. Marriage might have passed her by during those years when she was busy raising her siblings, but she’d looked forward to a satisfying future, taking care of Daad, tending her hives, enjoying her part-time work at the bakery.
Amos, Elijah’s middle child, just two, tugged on her skirt. A glance at his face told her he’d detected the strain in the air. She lifted him to her lap, running her hand down his back, murmuring soothing words. He leaned against her, relaxing, sucking on two fingers as he always did before going to sleep.
Lovina met her gaze from across the table and smiled. “Naomi is wonderful gut with children.”
“For sure,” Betty said, her first contribution to the conversation. “A widower with kinder would do well to have a wife like Naomi.”
Somehow that comment, coming from Betty, was the last straw. Naomi had to speak now, and quickly, before the rest of her life was set in stone by the family.
“You are all ser kind to give so much thought to my life. But as dearly as I love my nieces and nephews, I have no wish to raise them. And I will not give up my bee hives. So I think I must find this answer for myself.”
She took advantage of the ensuing silence to move the sleeping child to his father’s arms. Grabbing a heavy wool shawl from the peg by the back door, she walked out, closing the door gently behind her.
Mid-November, and it was ser chilly already, a hint of the winter to come. Even the hardy mums on the sheltered side of the house had succumbed to frost. Clutching the shawl more tightly, she walked across brittle grass to the gnarled old apple tree that had once held a tree-house when the boys were young. It was a relief to get out of the kitchen, too warm from all the cooking that had been done today for her birthday. This day had certainly turned out far different from the celebration her sisters had so lovingly planned.
She stopped under the tree, resting her hand against the rough bark. No point in going farther—she couldn’t escape her family, and she wouldn’t want to. Soon someone would come out to talk to her, and she would have to explain and justify and try to make them understand. But for this moment she was alone with her thoughts.
The family had one thing right. She did have a gift with children, and she couldn’t deny that gift. But to raise someone else’s children again, to grow to love them so dearly, but to know that she always took second place in their hearts…no, she couldn’t. But when she tried to think how to carry out that brave declaration she’d made, she found she was lacking in ideas.
It was Isaiah who came out to her. Maybe they thought the youngest would be most likely to soften her heart. But Isaiah was a man grown now, married for just a year, and so much in love with his Libby. Not a baby any longer, but he still seemed so young to her with his round blue eyes and his corn-silk hair. The beard he was growing as a married man was as fine and silky as his hair.
He leaned against the tree next to her, his eyes serious as he studied her face. “Are you all right?”
Naomi managed a smile, though it probably wasn’t very convincing. “Ja. I will be, anyway. I guess Daad’s news was a shock.”
“For sure.” Isaiah shook his head. “It wonders me that none of us saw this marriage coming, but we didn’t. I guess we all figured that if Daad had been going to wed again, he’d have done it years ago.”
“Then Betty would have had the raising of you.” Her smile was more natural this time.
Isaiah seemed to shudder. “Ach, I’m sure she’s a gut woman. But I’m glad it was you who brought me up, Naomi.”
For an instant she was surprised almost to tears. “Denke,” she whispered, her throat tight. She’d never say she loved one more than another, but Isaiah was especially dear, both because he was the baby and because of his sweet nature.
She tilted her head, watching him, wondering how he would react to the question she was about to put to him. “What about you, Isaiah? Do you think I’m being selfish not to do what Daadi wants?”
He blinked, eyes wide and innocent. “Ach, Naomi, everyone knows there’s not a selfish bone in your body, no matter—“ He stopped, looking as if he’d bitten his tongue.
So that was what someone had been saying, once she’d left the kitchen. Well, she wouldn’t put Isaiah in the middle by noticing.
“I guess the first thing is to find a place for my beehives,” she said, deliberately turning the subject. “It’s not going to be an easy job, moving them all.”
“I’ll help,” he said instantly. “And I was thinking that I should ask Nathan if you could have them on his farm. With Libby and me living right on the property, I could keep an eye on things for you.”
Naomi hesitated. Isaiah enjoyed working for Nathan King on his dairy farm, and she didn’t want to cause any difficulties between them by asking for something Nathan might not be so eager to grant.
“I wonder if that’s wise,” she said, careful to keep her voice neutral. “Mary and I were such close friends, and Nathan still mourns her so deeply even after two years. He might not want to have me around, reminding him of her.”
Vertical lines formed between Isaiah’s brows. “It’s true he’s still grieving for Mary. But as for reminding him…well, he seems to be thinking about her all the time anyway.”
“Poor Nathan,” she murmured. And poor Mary, gone far too early, it seemed, in such a freak accident, leaving Nathan and two young kinder behind. She accepted it as God’s will, but she couldn’t help wishing it had been otherwise.
“Ja.” Isaiah straightened, pushing away from the tree. “Let me talk to him, anyway. I’ll make it easy for him to say no, if that’s what he’s of a mind to do.”
She was still doubtful, but she nodded. “I guess it can’t hurt to ask.”
“That’s right. And if he says no, we’ll find someone else.” He put his arm around her shoulders. “You’re cold. Let’s go inside.”
She hung back. “Daadi will just start on persuading me again.”
“He won’t.” Isaiah sounded confident. “Betty told him it was best to let you think about it and get used to the idea without him pushing you.”
“And he agreed to that?” It didn’t sound like Daadi at all. Once he’d made up his mind, he was like a rock.
“He did.” Isaiah grinned, blue eyes twinkling. “Seems like Betty can manage him better than the rest of us put together. This is all going to turn out for the best, you’ll see.”
Naomi nodded as they started toward the house, not wanting to lay her burdens any more heavily on Isaiah. But she doubted this situation could possibly turn out for the best…for her, anyway.
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