At the Letort Springs July 4th celebration, the young Widow Sophie slips away from her hateful in-laws and finally meets the notorious Dawnie Mcnally. An excerpt from “Hand-me-Down Bride.”
On the “Glorious Fourth,” Sophie went with the Daniels to Letort Springs. Here they watched a parade, with bands and soldiers marching. Although the uniforms were simpler than the ones she’d been used to seeing in Germany, Sophie recognized military pomp when she saw it. One long-bearded, frail veteran of the Revolutionary War came first, seated in a wagon and sheltered by a great-grandchild holding a parasol. Next came platoon after platoon, marching in uniform while flags flew, bands played, horses pranced and whooping little boys ran along.
Among the marchers she recognized Karl Joseph. Only Vandy Van Veeder, the blacksmith, had a larger, more muscular presence. Karl passed her solemn and erect. He looked wonderfully brave in his dark Union uniform.
As soon as she saw him, Sophie experienced an unaccountable flush, one which tingled from her cheeks, to her bosom, and right through to her toes. He looked especially handsome, particularly now that he’d shaved…
After all the trouble he’d gone to raising the beard, he’d gone to the barber as soon as they got back. At the little white house of Mr. Kreider, right across from the store, he’d had the golden brush expertly and completely removed.
She’d been amazed when he’d come into dinner, his cheeks clean and his blonde locks trimmed. When Divine had teased him about his change of heart, he’d just looked embarrassed and then muttered that a beard “was a damn nuisance in this hot weather.”
After the parade, the Daniels took their children and went to their Church picnic in Frogtown. Sophie was unhappy to find herself alone in the company of George and Sally Wildbach.
She perched uneasily in their open carriage, accompanied by two of Sally’s girls, Leopoldine and chubby Vicky. Teddy had managed to escape into the crowd, a situation which upset Sally, but which George dismissed with “boys will be boys.”
As usual, once Sally had taken possession of Sophie, she did not bother to speak to her. Sophie sat sadly, watching other young people laughing and strolling along a stone path which led to the shady, forested banks of the Conestoga.
The gorge here was part of the same long, steep gorge which lay below German’s Mill. A cool walk under the trees from Letort Springs would eventually lead them to the tonic waters and then to the delights of the hotel, situated just above.
Sophie had been hoping to visit this locally famous watering spot today. Instead the Wildbach’s went to a broad field which was set up with a speaker’s platform, tents and banners.
As they drove, she wondered where Karl was, and wondered if he would join them. He had talked about doing so, but with an increasingly martyred air as the day approached. She knew he hated being with his brother and sister-in-law as much as she did.
A strong sensation of unhappiness accompanied the thought that she would not see him for the rest of the day.
“Herr Wildbach,” she asked, “will Herr Karl join us?”
George arched a brow in an expression which managed to be both quizzical and patronizing. “I doubt it,” he replied, replying in German. “Karl Joseph usually spends the day–reminiscing–I suppose I shall say for the sake of propriety–with his comrades-in-arms.”
“He means getting drunk with that shiftless Resolve McNally.” Sally sniffed. It was not the opinion which surprised Sophie, so much as Sally’s excellent command of German.
Sophie had observed that Resolve did not have a great appetite for work, but she thought that “shiftless” was far too strong a word. He had taken on his brother’s children in a way which proved he was a generous man. Generosity, however, was a virtue with which Sally was—obviously–unacquainted.
A black wave of disappointment followed George’s reply. Sophie sighed, folded her hands, and resigned herself. Meanwhile, the poorer folk were settling down in the patchwork shade of the willows by the river. The upper crust, the Wildbachs among them, presented tickets and were assigned seats at tables under tents. These, their sides hitched up to admit the breeze, were pitched in a locust grove.
Men began enthusiastic games of baseball and horseshoes on the green. Lines formed for the Lady’s Societies’ offerings of chicken, biscuits and coleslaw. A band played, the music punctuated by boys whooping and shooting fireworks along the edge of the field.
Judge Markham and his sister, Widow Cox, joined them. Sally began to talk across Sophie, and the Widow Cox answered. Sophie might as well have been invisible.
Another, larger group arrived. Everyone stood and began to mill around, the cream of local society busily meeting and greeting. Here were Coxes, Greenes, Hamiltons, Fassbenders, and Schmidts, all well dressed, either kin or business associates. A babble rose on every side. For a few minutes, Sophie sat patiently, but discontent had swollen to out-and-out rebellion.
On this day celebrating liberty, when everyone else is having a wonderful time, I refuse to be left out!
She would not sit one minute longer, allow Sally and George to pretend they cared about her. She’d seen the Eby’s and others from choir practice going into another tent. They had waved and smiled, and she had waved back.
Just as she began to edge away from her in-laws, a stunning strawberry blonde, wearing a low cut and form-fitting dress in a shocking shade of pink sashayed up the center aisle. As soon as she appeared, the head of every man in the tent whirled around.
“The nerve of her, to even set foot with decent folk.” The words, spoken loud enough for all to hear, were Sally’s.
The red-gold head turned, and the woman fixed the entire group with a mocking blue stare. Then, with a swish of her many flounces, she walked past their table and then out the other side of the tent, languidly swinging a pink parasol in time with her hips.
As she passed, Sophie realized the gown had seen better days. Stains blotted the hem. Nevertheless, the woman inside the dress was undoubtedly a long-stemmed American beauty of the first rank. An adolescent voice filled with awe broke the silence which followed her passage.
“Wooo-ee! Dawnie McNally!”
Sophie’s interest swelled. So! This was Resolve’s wayward sister, the one Karl had been warned not to talk about on the night they’d had supper at the farm!
Meanwhile, Sally rushed forward and clamped her hands over the boy’s mouth, as if he’d uttered a curse. The speaker was none other than her precious Teddy, who’d appeared in time for dinner. Sally seized his thin shoulders and jerked him around to face her.
“What have those terrible ruffians done to you? Oh, George!” Her voice rose. “Blood! Look! His nose!”
The boy’s dandy’s clothes were rumpled and grass-stained. Fighting, Sophie thought, is probably all he got to do with children his own age.
The entire group drew into a clucking circle around the now thoroughly mortified Teddy. Sophie stepped behind a very wide black woman in a yellow calico dress who was slowly serving from a gigantic tray of fried chicken. Behind this ample cover, she slipped away.
She was emerging from the tent, when a good looking young man appeared in her path. Politely, he tipped his hat. “No doubt, Ma’am, you want to be over there.”
The speech was accompanied by a gesture, as he pointed at the tent she’d seen the Ebys enter. Instead of the gay colors worn by Sally and her friends, the men and women over there were severely garbed in black. The women’s faces were obscured by bonnets, the men’s by beards.
“Thank you,” said Sophie, careful to use English. She walked past him and into the sunlight, feeling a little resentful at the pigeon hole into which he had so easily thrust her.
Outside, in the glare, she adjusted her bonnet and glanced around. Although she knew where she was going, she did not immediately start in that direction. Something about the stranger directing her to the tent full of German speakers made her feel rebellious.
Perhaps she would simply wander for a while, see what she could see of this festival. Perhaps–the notion skimmed through her mind like a flat stone across the mirror of the pond–just perhaps, in the crowd, I will meet Karl Joseph.
Sophie crossed the field, looking for him, trying to do it in a way no one would recognize as something so completely immodest. Suddenly, as she past the shady screen provided by a flowering shrub, she came upon the strawberry blonde in the pink dress. With her now was a slender man with long black hair and shocking green eyes.
“I’ll be there with bells on,” the beauty said. The man lifted her fingers, gave them a kiss, and appeared to murmur something.
Sophie was surprised when next he suddenly flashed a warm, cheerful smile in her direction. Before he walked away, he paused to sweep a low, old world bow, flourishing his hat.
As Sophie wondered about his abrupt departure, the bright blue eyes of the woman met hers.
“Are you the Wida Wildback?” The blonde stepped briskly forward. Long fingers, emerging from slightly soiled pink palm gloves, came to rest familiarly upon Sophie’s arm.
“Well, pleased to met you, Ma’am.” Forthrightly, Dawn seized her hand. “I’m Miss Dawn McNally. Hildy sure talks plenty ‘bout your visit.”
Sophie shook the offered hand, “I very much enjoyed supper with your brother and good sister-in-law, also to meet your nieces and nephews.”
Dawn responded with a radiant smile. “Poor Hildy! Guess I ain’t around much as I ought to be.”
When she impulsively tucked Sophie’s arm inside hers, Sophie felt a strange surge of exhilaration. She did not resist or hesitate, for she knew that she, prudent, cautious Sophie, was on the edge of an adventure. Perhaps it would even match the excitement which drenched the air on this gaily celebrated Fourth of July holiday!
“Who was that gentleman?” Sophie asked. The man had been dressed in black, very neat and clean, but somehow, there had been something indecorous about him. Perhaps it was the length of his shiny hair or the twinkle she’d noted in his shocking green eyes.
“Oh, he’s a friend of mine.” It was as if, once gone, the gentleman did not much matter. “Look!” she cried, abruptly turning Sophie around, “there’s Hildy and my sisters and their old men over there.” She pointed and Sophie saw the gaunt figure of Hildy and two other tired farm wives stolidly taking food out of hampers and setting it on crazy quilts laid on the ground in the shade.
A crowd of children, screaming and chasing, circled them. Husbands stretched out side by side, hats over their eyes, apparently sleeping through the commotion.
“Some mob, ain’t it?” Dawn’s grin flashed pearly teeth. “Come on,” she said, squeezing Sophie’s arm. “Let’s get out of here afore they see us.”
Sophie found herself towed towards the wide green playing field. Baseball occupied the center. To one side was a busy line of horseshoe pitches.
“But, should you not be with your family?”
“Naw! Come on! Let’s wade and get acquainted.”
“Over there. It’s so darned hot I’m all ready to melt, and I’ll bet you are too, wearin’ that sorry black.”
Dawn had a point, but Sophie had reservations. She asked, “Are there–crawdads–in the water?”
“Crawdads? Sure, but we’re bigger than they are. They’ll scuttle when we come.”
“But–but–” Sophie stammered, as she was pulled along, “do they not bite?”
“Only if you step on ’em. Can’t really blame them for that, can you?”
Stares followed them, the beauty in pink and the neat German widow in her black dress and face-obscuring bonnet. Nearby games came to a halt, and men turned. There was an expression on their faces which Sophie didn’t like.
All at once she began to have doubts about what she was doing. By walking arm in arm with Dawn, it appeared she had crossed some line, left the genteel world far behind.
Blessedly they soon crossed a grassy lip and entered welcome coolness, where willows bordered a lazily moving shallow creek. Sophie felt easier here, even though they were still not alone.
Families–of the poorer sort, maybe, but families–relaxed in the dappled shade. Fathers dozed while mothers watched their little ones splash in the green water and throw stones.
Even though some looked up with unwelcome curiosity at Dawn, the predatory gleam of the men on the playing field was absent. All around, children whooped and splashed.
“Bet you’re glad to get away from that stick Sally.”
“Yes. She is not–gemutlich–um–not kind.”
“Funny, ain’t it,” Dawn said, suddenly plumping down under a tree and kicking off off her shoes, “how rich folks are? I mean, Sally’s got everything a woman could want, but instead of enjoying herself, all she does is worry that someone’s going to steal some bitty little thing away from her.”
She unrolled her stockings, clambered back to her feet, and then splashed bare-legged into the creek, a new smudge of mud across the seat of her dress. “Come on, Sophie!”
Well, this wasn’t proper at all, but Sophie was intrigued. After tucking her shoes neatly side by side against a curling root, she slowly, shyly, reached beneath her hot black skirts and unrolled first one stocking and then the other.
Not long after, she joined Dawn. Sophie was careful, however, to stay in the gravel and away from the mossy rocks, where she now knew the crawdads made their home. The water was cool on her bare feet, a simple blessing on this blazing July day.
Suddenly, five boys, pants rolled to the knee, came whooping along the bank. Their leader, a tall skinny kid, took a long look at them.
“Dawnie McNally!” he hooted. “Dawnie McNally, Dawnie McNally! How I’d like to be down in the valley with Dawnie McNally.”
This didn’t make sense to Sophie, but she didn’t have time to think about it, because another boy came racing into the water. Without pretense of anything but malice, he and the first boy kicked water on them.
“Stop!” Sophie exclaimed. Unable to come up with any more English, she added, “Ich werde dir helfen!”
“Yeah. Is your Kraut friend a slut too?” Vicious grins blossomed on every side.
Sophie knew “slut” and she knew “Kraut.” She’d had the last word yelled at her once when she and Aunt Ilga had been speaking German on the train. Now, so furious she couldn’t think, she lunged forward and grabbed the speaker by ear and squeezed so fiercely he screamed. Beside her, Dawn was not idle. She bobbed down and then up again, her hand a blur as it splashed in and out of the water.
“Hey! Jimmie Black,” she cried. “Got a present for ya!”
Chasing the ringleader onto the bank, she grabbed his collar and dropped something inside his shirt. As he began to yell, she slapped him hard on the back, which set him screaming even louder.
The rest of the boys beat a hasty retreat up the slope, the leader howling and yanking at his shirt.
Dawn gave a war whoop. “Yee haw!” she cried. “Good for you, Sophie! That’ll teach those shits to mind their manners!”
“What did you do?” Sophie, her cheeks flushed with the elation of battle joined and won, was eager to learn.
“I mashed a big fat crawdad on his back.”
Sophie clapped her hands.
“Say,” Dawn cried, splashing back into the creek, “You got a temper on you, lady! I figured I was gonna have to take ’em all by myself.”
“Well, that is no way for children to speak to grown persons! I hear it often, children in America–so rude.”
Dawnie laughed and seized her hand. “Come on, Sophie,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”