Louella's Boys: Joe

Those boys grew fast. They shot up overnight, coming to my house everyday, until I'd turned around and two years had passed. Two years of New Hampshire frozen winters and browning summers. Joe turned ten, Si turned seven, and I made them each two years of birthday cakes, inviting the neighborhood to play games and chat in the yard.

Mr. Soames was around once a month- business in New York kept him away- but now I wasn't so lonely. I had Joe and Si every afternoon.

Joe started the paper route, taking over for Myles Christian's boy. He would walk the route for three years before giving it over to Si. Si was already excited, seeing Joe leave early in the morning with a bag of still warm newspapers to toss.

Joe was getting very good at his maths and sciences. He hadn't told me, but I think he will go to Massachusetts Tech. He's very bright. Even brighter than Mrs. Webb's Emily, and she's three years older than him. I don't dare say that in front of Myrtle- she's very proud of Emily's accomplishments. And she should be- Emily's smart. Just not as smart as my Joe.

My Joe. He wasn't mine, but I liked to think of him as mine. He looked so like Joshua. Because Joshua is buried in Bridgewater Cemetery, I can't visit his grave, even though I send my Ma money every year for his birthday for her to buy some of Eliza Smith's carnations and bluebells- Joshua's favorites. And even though he's so far away from me, spending my afternoons with Joe bring him back to me.

I'm sure by now Joe has grown tired of my many stories about Joshua, but he listens all the same. It's not because he loves me- he just respects all the people of the town, not just me.

I swear Si is growing more like his brother every day. He always begs Joe to let him come to the baseball field, but Joe always says he's too young. So Si stays in the backyard, tossing a baseball up in the air and catching it. I have to holler to get Joe inside for dinner now, and even Si has to be asked twice. Not that I mind.

One such evening, I was hollering up a storm to rival the coastal rains of North Carolina. Si had already come in and was helping me set out the plates and forks so we'd be ready when Joe finally came in from tossing the ball with Wally Webb and a couple other boys his age. They didn't dare try to play with the older boys yet- George Gibbs and Sam Craig and others.

"Joe Crowell! Your brother and I won't wait all night!" I called, nodding at Si to sit down at the table as I set the meatloaf and green beans on the table. I was just about to tell Si to take some meatloaf when the front door slammed open and Joe came running through the house.

"I'm here May'ella!" he shouted, careening toward his chair at the table. May'ella is what he started calling me as he tried to break the habit of calling me "ma'am", so he would start and then say "Louella", which got shortened to "May'ella". I rather liked it.

"Joe, shoes," I admonished him, and a look from me sent him back in the direction he came, oxfords being removed as he hopped. When he returned he reached for the green beans, but Si kicked him under the table with his ever-growing legs.

"Ow!" Joe exclaimed, but Si was persistent.

"I said it lasth night," Si reminded him, slight lisp ever improving.

"Aw, come on! I'm hungry!"

"Joe," I warned.

"Bless this the Lord our food we eat today and let us never know the pains of hunger. Amen." Joe sped through the dinner prayer before grabbing the green bean bowl and spooning it onto his plate.

"Thank you, Joe," I said, before giving Si some meatloaf. "How was school today?"

"I wrote an essay about the American Revolution and Miss Foster said it was exemplary, and I was the only one in class who knew what that meant. I played ball with Wally and Clarence and Andrew and guess what?" Joe asked, taking one too many green beans and stuffing them in his mouth. I never would teach him manners.

I chuckled. "What?"

"Rebecca Gibbs asked to play with us! She said she could throw as well as we could, but before she could prove it, her Mama came over and told her to act like a lady. May'ella, why did Rebecca think she would throw? Only boys can play baseball."

I laughed. Certainly Rebecca could play baseball, but it wouldn't be proper. But as much as Joe laughed at Rebecca's attempt to play baseball, I could see the admiration in his eyes. I swear on my own strawberry buckle, those two would wake up when they were in high school and be sweet to each other.

Just as I was about to ask Si how his day was, there was a knock at the door.

"Now who is that, I wonder?" I asked the boys, who shrugged but followed behind me as I approached and opened the door. "We were eating dinner, so you'd better have a good reason-"

I stopped. It was Constable Warren. And his face and hat in his hands told me I shouldn't chastise him.

"Mrs. Soames," he started, but looked at me and paused.

"What is it, Constable?"

"It's Will Crowell."

The rest of the conversation was a blur- just the way he said that, though, I knew Joe and Si were orphans. Constable Warren delivered his message and bid me goodnight. I registered that Mr. Crowell had been in a machinery accident, but I made Joe and Si sit in the kitchen while I was told the news. When Constable Warren left, Joe came up behind me- he was at my shoulders now, and gaining fast.

"May'ella, what's going on? I know we didn't finish supper, but my father's coming home about now. We should go out to meet him," Joe said, concerned. I turned to look at him.

This boy. This boy who so resembled my baby in coloring and in eyes but who was so vastly different. Joe wasn't Joshua, but I loved him just as much. And Joe looking up at me as he still did make me realize that I couldn't possibly hurt this boy. My Joe. And Si behind him. I couldn't possibly- but I had to.

"Joe, Si, come sit down with me," I told time, and they tentatively took seats on the couch. "You see, today there was an accident at the factory. And your Papa, well he was in the accident. I'm so sorry, boys."

"So Papa's hurt?" Si asked. "We should go get Doc Gibbs and sing Papa songs, just like you did when I had the cold. It made me feel real better."

My heart cracked at the memory. Si had caught a cold and I noticed when he was at my house, so I told Mr. Crowell I would care for him. I made batches of brothy soup and hot tea with honey for Si to eat and drink, and I told him fantastical stories of King Arthur and Leonardo DaVinci and George Washington. Until Si asked me to sing to him.

We would always sing silly songs and dance tunes while cleaning the dishes, and Si always like to hear me sing. When he had the cold, though, I sang other songs.

I sang the lullabies I sang to Joshua every night when he was a baby. I sang the church hymns from the choir. I sang the ballads Adam and I would sing together in high school and to unborn Joshua, like "Loch Lomond" and "My Love is Never Far Away".

Si said my singing made him better, so I started to cry when he suggested singing to his Papa.

"No sweetheart," I said. "Your Papa's worse than that. He's gone to love with your mother."

This seemed to register with Joe, because his pale, freckled face began to splotch with pink as his summer blue eyes grew red. He rubbed his nose against his sleeve and ran into my lap on the other couch, curling up like a newborn kitten as tears of his and mine stained the lap of my skirt. Joe continued to sniffle as I tried to explain to Si.

"Papa's gone, Si. He's up with the angels Pastor always tells you about. He's living with your mother and the angels, high over your head, always watching over you."

Si, though I think didn't get it entirely, understood enough to curl up on my other side, lip trembling and trying to overcome his lisp to ask Jesus to make his Papa an angel.

"May'ella?" Joe asked, and I was surprised he would even speak. "You'll always be there to take care of us, right?"

"Yes, Mama Soames?" Si added. Both their bright red faces blinked up at me.

"Yes," I replied, unable to give any other answer. I wrapped my arms around them both. "I will always be here."

We stayed that way for a long time.

"What are we to do with them, Julia?"

"They stayed with Louella last night. Si wouldn't leave her sight all night. When she sent him to school he wouldn't go at first."

"That is so improper, Julia. They should be with relatives."

I hated Constance. I shouldn't hate her. She was right, of course. Joe and Si should be with relatives. I'm sure they still have some in the area. They should be found properly.

But I didn't want them to go to anyone else. They would stay with me. They were my babies more than any aunt or uncle's children.

Julia and Constance were talking in the church hall the morning after Will Crowell died. I should be with them, helping them prepare for the community dinner, but as soon as they started talking, I couldn't make my feet keep going. MY heart jumped up to my throat.

"Now Constance," Julia said warningly. "Louella will be here any minute. You know she's become attached to those boys. She won't like the idea of them going away."

"But Julia! Is she really fit to care for children?" Constance snidely asked.

"She's cared for those two boys for over two years now: dinners and laundry and all. And she has her boy down in North Carolina from her first marriage- that Adam man."

Julia stood up for me, but I still couldn't take anyone in Grover's Corners talking about Adam. They had no right to talk about what they didn't know.

"Oh, but Julia. I heard her husband drank as much as Simon Stimson. And her boy in North Carolina? I heard he died!" I couldn't. I stepped out of the shadows.

"Constance!" Julia warned, nodding towards me.

"You have no right. No right at all," I told Constance. Adam and Joshua's mention gave me resolve. "-to talk about things you know nothing about. My Adam? My childhood sweetheart who loved me more than life itself. He didn't drink more'n anybody else. Maybe a little, but only on especially sad days. He was an angel, and he was mine.

"And Joshua. My baby. My other angel, the sweetest little sunbeam ever come across a cloud. It was my fault, but not in that way. I should have told him not to go to town. I should have told him to mind the crossings. But he didn't see that horse.

"Have you ever seen your baby die? See the light fly from his eyes like a sparrow? I ain't gonna let that happen to Joe and Si. I'm going to take care of them. And that's the end."

By the conclusion I had tears on my cheeks and Constance looked gob smacked. Julia had a hand over her mouth, whether in shock or in sadness I couldn't tell. Propriety couldn't hold me, though. Not now, when all I needed to say and had bottled up had been let out. I picked up my skirts and left the hall, walking down the spring lanes.

There were no Magnolias in New Hampshire. Back in Bridgewater you couldn't walk twenty paces without hitting one straight with your face. And their floral scent would trail behind you like a flowery kitten all through April when they were blooming, and the absence of the scent made me feel empty.

All I could think of now was the trees from home. The Magnolias were the strongest, their blooms hiding in all of my memories, even the earliest. They swayed in the background of every Easter and birthday of my time, remembering someone tucking the fragrant flower behind a lock of my hair.

Then were the Maples and Oaks, commonplace in Grover's Corners, but not like the one in the Cleary's yard. It was enormous, and the boys had built a tree house high in the clouds. They used only branches to reach it, no nailed ladder steps, so reaching the tree house reserved you a spot in at least their respect.

When I was only twelve my neighbor Adam Cleary dared me to climb the tree house. I agreed as long as he didn't look up my skirts as I climbed. I had known Adam forever, so it didn't so much matter him looking up my skirts- I knew he wouldn't anyway. He turned tomato red when I even mentioned it.

I looked around Main Street in Grover's Corners, lost in a memory and searching for a cherry tree. But the only cherry trees in New Hampshire were at the farm six or seven miles out of town. But I couldn't help recall the memory.

Behind the high school was a wide cherry tree, which provided shade and snacks to the high schoolers. I was sitting under it with Adam one day in our junior year, playing the stem game.

You see, its an old wives tale that whoever can tie a cherry stem into a knot using only their mouth is the best kisser. Us kids in the town would play under the cherry tree, so much that the children call it the Kissing Tree now.

I was under the Kissing Tree with Adam, my head resting on his chest as I felt it expand and contract as we savored the sweet cherries. It was highly improper, the position we were in. Some of the older women of the town found it scandalous for a girl to be so close to a man who was not a relation, but the younger people in Bridgewater- parents and younger- understood our closeness.

"Have you gotten the stem trick down yet?" Adam asked me.

"Not nearly. I swear, I will never be able to do that. I must be the worst kisser in the entire world," I replied, twirling a cherry stem between my fingers.

"Now, that can't be true. You have a pretty smile. Someone with a pretty smile can't kiss poorly." I sat up, just as his lips touched mine.

That was our first. There would be many to follow, proving that Adam stood by his claim. I never did learn the cherry stem trick.

That cherry tree was a potent memory, one I knew I couldn't face in this state, so I shook my head clear and started home.

I was in the middle of backing a ripe banana bread when the door opened and in flew Si.

"May'ella!" he shouted, jumping into my arms and hugging me tight.

"Hello Si," I replied, squeezing him in return. "Where's Joe?"

"Oh, he's coming." Si was unconcerned as he set his satchel down and began removing his shoes.

"Oh May'ella!" Joe's voic shouted from the front porch.

"What is it Joe?" I asked, hustling to the door. He stood there with Constable Warren and two beat-up trunks. "Now, what is this?"

"Well, Constable Warren saw me dragging them down Main Street and offered to help."

"The way I figure," Bill said," these boys shouldn't have to walk across town to get their stockings."

I broke into a smile. "You want to stay with me, Joe?"

"Yes ma'am, Mama," he said, wrapping his arms around me. Further proof of how much time had passed- his head was at my shoulder now. He was going to be a giant. Si too. But they would be mine.

(A/N): This is part two, of how the Crowell boys come to live with Louella and other stories in between. Next is the boys growing older and Louella dealing with the death of another of her boys: Elton Soames.