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Judith Wegler suspected that once again, she’d be acting as a buffer between her husband and his young brother. From the back porch of the farmhouse, where she was polishing the oak study table that was her gift from Grossmammi Lapp, she could hear Isaac calling Joseph’s name. Since there was no answer, almost-fourteen-year-old Joseph must have slipped away again.
Isaac appeared around the corner of the corn crib, and Judith rose when he strode toward her. At thirty, Isaac was as sturdy and strong as he’d been when she’d tumbled into love with him so many years ago. His corn-silk hair had darkened to a deep honey color and the beard he’d grown when they married made him look mature, but his eyes were as bright a blue as ever under the brim of his summer straw hat.
She ought to enjoy the sight of him, instead of feeling the familiar tightening of the stomach she always experienced at the prospect of intervening on behalf of the boy she’d raised as her own since she and Isaac married when his little brother was only five. The sixteen years between the two brothers sometimes seemed an insurmountable barrier.
Not that it was unusual for an Amish family to be spread out over that many years. It was unusual, though, for only the youngest and oldest to have survived. The siblings who’d come in between them had perished with Isaac’s parents in the tragic fire Isaac never mentioned.
“Have you seen Joseph?” Isaac’s voice was tart with the irritation that was too often there lately when he spoke of his brother.
“Not since after lunch. He went out to the barn to fix that broken board in Rosie’s stall.” The buggy horse had a talent for finding a loose rail and leaning against it until it broke. “Did you check there?”
“It wouldn’t take him this long to fix a board.”
Frowning, Isaac stepped up to the porch, using it as a vantage point to survey the pastures and cornfields of the dairy farm, still lush and green in the August sunshine thanks to a recent rain. The fields stretched along the valley, and the ground rose gently to encompass the orchard and beyond it the wooded ridge.
“Ach, the boy’s becoming less responsible the older he gets. What’s the matter with him these days?”
Isaac clearly didn’t expect an answer, but she gave him one anyway. “Joseph is growing up. My brothers all went through a ferhoodled spell when they were his age.” She didn’t bother to compare Joseph to Isaac, since everyone knew Isaac seemed to have been born responsible.
“It’ll be time for milking before long. If he’s not back by then—“
“He’ll show up soon.” She spoke quickly and prayed she was right. When Isaac and Joseph butted heads, as they did too often lately, everyone in the family became upset. “See how nice this study table is looking. You were right. All it needed was a good cleaning and a few coats of furniture wax.”
That distracted him, as she’d hoped it might. Isaac ran his hand around the smooth edges of the rectangular table, large enough for four or even six young scholars to sit and do homework on a winter’s evening.
“It’s a good, sturdy oak piece, that’s certain sure. Did your grossmammi say who it came from?”
“She didn’t seem to remember, but she said she’d look it up for me. It was thoughtful of her to give it to us.”
Thoughtful and a bit more, Judith thought. She and two of her cousins had helped to clear out their grandmother’s house this spring when she’d moved in with her son. Long recognized as the historian of the Lapp family, Grossmammi had been eager to pass on the family stories to them, and part of that passing on had included choosing a piece of furniture for them to cherish.
Grossmammi believed that the piece of family heritage each one received had something to give them in return. That had certainly been true for Judith’s cousin Rebecca. The dower chest given to Rebecca had contained a diary from a young Amish girl who’d lived during the Second World War, and Rebecca often said how much she’d learned from that story. It had given her the strength and courage she’d needed for a new future, and that had been a wonderful fine gift.
“The person who crafted this piece made it to last.” Isaac pulled on the shallow drawers under the table top. Two of them slid out easily, but the third wouldn’t open.
“I wanted to ask you about that drawer,” Judith said. “I can’t tell if it’s locked or stuck.”
A glance over Isaac’s shoulder told her that the cows had started toward the gate, crossing the field in a long, straggly line, their udders full and swaying. They knew when it was time to be milked, even if Joseph had forgotten. There was still no sign of him.
Isaac stooped to look underneath the table, giving it the same careful attention he granted to everything he did. “Locked, I’d say. Better ask your grossmammi about a key. I wouldn’t want to damage it by forcing it open.” He rose as he spoke, and she could almost feel his attention shifting back to the job at hand.
But at last she spied Joseph, flying down the lane on the scooter he used the way she’d seen Englisch boys use their skateboards, with what seemed a reckless disregard for anything that might send them head over heels. Sometimes she wished their community allowed bicycles, the way some Amish out in Ohio did. But probably, boys being boys, Joseph would still find a way to court danger on it.
“Here comes Joseph,” she said quickly. “And your onkel is walking over. I’ll call Levi and Paul—“
“No need,” Isaac said, nodding toward the orchard, the apple trees bending with fruit that would be ready to pick soon. “Here they come now. Levi would never miss a milking time, that’s certain sure.”
If there was a tiny bit of pride in Isaac’s voice, she couldn’t blame him. At eight, their Levi seemed a natural-born farmer, having followed his daadi around since he could toddle. Paul, six, just wanted to do whatever his brother did. Even now, she spotted him running, trying to keep up with Levi’s longer legs as they raced down the slope from the orchard.
Isaac took the porch steps in one long stride, glancing without speaking toward his brother as Joseph jumped from the scooter and let it topple over into the grass. Please, don’t scold him, Judith said silently. He’s here, isn’t he?
And if Isaac took Joseph to task, the rest of them would be subjected to their glares at each other over the supper table.
“You’re here. Let’s get the cows in.” There was an edge to Isaac’s voice, and she prayed Joseph wouldn’t flare up in response.
Thankfully, Joseph just nodded and sprinted off toward the pasture gate. She could see Levi put on a burst of speed at the sight of him and smiled. Paul might want to be like Levi, but in turn, Levi tended to copy Joseph. A good thing, as long as he didn’t copy everything Joseph did.
Thinking of Joseph, she remembered something she had to ask her husband. “Is Saturday all right for Joseph’s fourteenth birthday celebration? I want to be sure your cousins and onkel know.”
Isaac seemed to freeze for an instant. And then he was moving. “Do what you want about it.” He slung the words over his shoulder and strode off without looking back.
Judith tried not to let the hurt take over at his response. How could Isaac act as if Joseph’s birthday was no concern of his? Naturally they would have a family party for the boy, as they did every year, for everyone’s birthday. The relatives would find it wonderful strange if they didn’t.
From the house behind her, Judith heard the thud of small feet on the stairs. At three, their Noah still needed a nap some days, and this had been one of them. She’d found him nearly asleep in his wagon and had carried him off to his bed, cherishing those moments when he’d clung to her like a little monkey. Sometimes she wished she could turn back the clock to a simpler time in their lives, when Noah was still a baby and Joseph was Isaac’s good right hand, looking up to him as the big brother he adored.
Things had begun to change over the past year or two, so slowly at first that she had hardly noticed it happening, until she woke up to see that Isaac and Joseph were at odds most of the time, and more and more often she was the buffer between them, hurt by this estrangement separating those she loved.
If only Isaac would talk to her about it--but he didn’t. He tightened his lips, put on a stoic face, and closed her off entirely from his inner feelings.
When she’d dreamed of their married life, this isolation hadn’t been part of it. Surely married couples were supposed to share their feelings, their hurts, and their joys. Wasn’t that what two being made one meant?
Isaac was a good man. They had a fine life on the family dairy farm and they’d been blessed with Joseph and three healthy kinder of their own. Maybe that should be enough for her. Maybe she shouldn’t be longing for a closeness Isaac wasn’t willing to give.
Noah came running, bursting through the screen door, already chattering away, as always. She lifted him in a quick hug, knowing he’d wiggle to be down and busy in an instant.
She was blessed, she repeated to herself, hugging the warm, wriggly little body. But at times like this she began to wonder if the gossip had been right—the things folks said when Isaac married her so abruptly before she had even turned twenty.
They’d said Isaac had needed to find a sensible, mature wife in a hurry when the aunt who’d taken care of Joseph had died. That he’d done what was expected of him and found a suitable girl to marry. That, as she’d heard his uncle say, he had settled down with Judith instead of chasing after romance and moonshine.
Perhaps she was as guilty as Isaac was of keeping her inner life hidden, because that was the one thing she could never, never tell him.
She stroked the surface of the study table again. Maybe the story of the woman who’d once owned it would have something to teach her. Could the stories of the past really reach out and touch her life today, or was that merely superstition on Grossmammi’s part? If it was true, she longed for the lesson that would assure her of Isaac’s love, but she couldn’t imagine how that might come.
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