By Sally Wheaton
Early January 1858
Alex pulled the wagon to a halt and pulled his coat closer around him as he jumped down, then turned to help Hannibal. The weather had eased up enough today to allow them to make the trip into town but it was still cold. There was more snow in the air, he could feel it. The grayness and damp of the day matched his mood. Right now he couldn’t imagine that there would ever again be a blue sky overhead. The idea of warmth seemed a long, long way off. He sighed, his thoughts once again invaded by the letter in his coat pocket.
To say that he was nervous of it was a major understatement. He tried to rally himself with the thought that it was only a harmless letter from his mother in law, but he couldn’t quite convince himself. He knew it would have been written many weeks ago, long before he’d written that most difficult letter of his life just a short while ago, informing Sarah’s family of her passing.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was the problem of Hannibal. Alex was aware that “letters from home” had become an event for Sarah and Hannibal, something they’d shared together. He knew the excitement lasted a full week, knew it was something they’d enjoyed. But more than that – well, quite frankly, he hadn’t a clue. So how was he going to handle this?
He pushed open the door and ushered his son inside. Hannibal’s teeth were chattering with the cold and so he built up the fire and sat him in front of it, before going back outside to unload the supplies from the wagon. That done, he pushed the door firmly closed behind him and shivered himself.
Hannibal made room for him in front of the fire and they sat next to each other, rubbing their hands together to try and warm them, watching the flames. A nice, hot stew would be just the job, Alex thought. Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite up to making a nice, hot stew at the moment. He was surviving by taking one day at a time, one hour at a time, doing what needed to be done at each moment, never thinking of the future. So he hadn’t given much thought to how he was going to handle the practicalities, how he was ever going to come up with a nice, hot stew. At the moment, with the winter weather, there wasn’t much to do in the fields, and Sarah had canned and stored as usual last summer so they weren’t going hungry. Collecting the wood for the fire, of course, was something he could have done blindfold, so they weren’t freezing to death either. Somehow, collecting the firewood provided a distraction, almost gave him a feeling of normality. Almost, not quite. He didn’t suppose anything would ever feel normal again.
Glancing at Hannibal, he shook himself out of his melancholy, and got up to find them some bread. It was then that he spotted the cookpot set on the stove. Lifting the lid, he peered in and smiled. No doubt Elizabeth Curry was responsible for this. She must have left it here this afternoon while he and Hannibal had been to town. She and Nathanial were good friends. What would he do without them?
“Well look what we have here Hannibal.”
Hannibal jumped up and peered in. “From Mrs Curry?”
“I’d say so.”
Buoyed up by the prospect of a hot meal, it didn’t take Alex long to get the stove going and soon the two of them were tucking in. The fire was blazing too and that, together with the stew, had warmed them. His plate empty, Alex stretched and admitted that he felt a little better. His troubles were still bubbling away just under the surface, but now that he was warm, he could once again concentrate on taking one moment at a time, and at this precise moment, they were both OK.
Alex took a deep breath. “I collected some mail while we were in town earlier.”
Hannibal looked up at him, waiting, as he fetched the letter from his coat pocket.
Alex took another deep breath. “There’s a letter from Grandmother Worsley.”
Hannibal didn’t answer. He just looked back at his father. Alex saw his lip wobble slightly and then he bit down on it and busied himself finishing up what was an already completely clear plate.
Alex bit down hard on his own lip and tried to concentrate on his son.
“Would you like me to read it to you?” he asked.
Hannibal nodded. Then he quietly climbed down from his side of the table, walked around it and clambered up next to his father. He scooted up close and burrowed his way into the crook of Alex’s arm. Alex lifted his arm and settled it around Hannibal’s shoulders, pulling him close, then cleared his throat.
“My dearest Sarah, Hannibal and Alexander…” he began.
Hannibal reached out to Alex’s hand, the one that was holding the letter, and pulled it a little lower so that he could see it too and follow the words as Alex read.
“We have been thinking of you especially this week,” he continued. “It has been very hot here, and the farmers have been complaining about the heat in the fields. The heat in Kansas must be very difficult for you.”
Hannibal looked up at him. “It isn’t usually so hot there. They are close to the ocean,” he explained to his father.
“Hm,” Alex nodded, looking back at him, “I see.”
Hannibal looked back at the letter, which Alex assumed to be his cue to continue.
“Mrs Cutler and I …”
“That’s Grandmother’s friend,” interrupted Hannibal.
Alex paused, but when he said nothing further, he dutifully continued. “Have been working on a quilt for Josephine …”
“That’s Mrs Cutler’s daughter” Hannibal explained.
Alex nodded and opened his mouth to continue “But we …”
“She’s getting married,” Hannibal interrupted once more.
Alex looked at him sideways but Hannibal didn’t notice, he was still looking at the letter, so Alex started again. “But we are having to work on it when she isn’t here because it is a surprise for her wedding … ” Alex felt Hannibal nod and looked at him expectantly.
Hannibal looked up at him. “Carry on” he commanded.
Alex rolled his eyes. Okay, he was starting to get the picture.
“Because it is a surprise for her wedding in September. She will be marrying young Mr Jeremiah Burton …”
“He’s Mr Burton’s son. Mr Burton is Grandfather’s friend.”
“I see,” nodded Alex, getting into the swing of it now, commenting and continuing in the same breath, “The son of your father’s friend, Mr Burton …”
“Uh-huh,” Hannibal nodded in agreement with this.
“Who owns the haberdashery …” Alex stopped, this time anticipating the interruption.
“What’s the haber-dash-ry?” Hannibal asked, enunciating it carefully, as he’d heard it.
Alex couldn’t help smiling to himself, congratulating himself on the anticipation of the question. He explained and then returned to the letter.
“The haberdashery on Dorchester Street. The wedding is going to be rather a grand affair …”
“Where’s Dorchester Street?”
Alex silently chided himself. He’d missed that one. “It’s three streets along from where Grandmother Worsley lives,” he explained.
“Is it close to Winchester Street?”
“Yes,” nodded Alex, taken aback at the detail Hannibal knew and had remembered. “It’s the next road to Winchester Street.”
Satisfied, Hannibal nodded for his father to continue, which he did with the detailed descriptions of the fancy wedding arrangements. Hannibal listened in wonder, he liked the stories of the fancy events which Grandmother Worsley went to and he’d close his eyes and try to think what it might look like.
Suddenly he opened his eyes and looked at his father, puzzled. “Father?” he asked. “How do you know where Dorchester Street is?”
“I used to live close to it.”
This was news to Hannibal and his eyes grew wide. “You lived near Grandmother Worsley?”
Alex put the letter down on the table and started on the story of his own early life in New England. Hannibal listened, enthralled to hear all of this for the first time. He tried his best not to interrupt with questions and managed quite well for the most part, though there were some which just had to be asked.
It was fully two hours later when they finally finished the letter, though in the end it didn’t take nearly as long as Alex had expected. By the time he’d told the stories of his childhood, Hannibal was already yawning and rubbing his eyes, and he hardly interrupted at all during the second half of the letter. By the end, his eyes were almost closed and so Alex picked him up and carried him up to his bed and Hannibal was fast asleep before Alex had even tucked the blanket around him. Alex looked down at him, a small smile on his face. If he was going to get through this, this would be how. This, and the help of good friends like Elizabeth and Nathanial. It had turned out to be a quite an evening and he had at least started to understand why the letters from home had always been so special.
The next afternoon, Hannibal sat at the table, trying his best to read the letter again. He looked at the first line. He knew it said My Dearest Sarah, Hannibal and Alexander. That part was easy, every letter began that way. He looked at the next line. Grandmother Worsley’s handwriting was very difficult to read but he could make out a W and then an e – We. He remembered that she had said she had been thinking about them especially because it was hot and so he managed to read that part. He looked at the next word. It was only short and it looked like it began with an N, or maybe it was an M? He wasn’t sure. Was that an I next, or an E? It was very tricky. He decided to move on to the next word, but he couldn’t make out anything in that one, except maybe it began with a C?
He supposed he would just have to ask his father to read it to him again. He really didn’t want to have to do that because early this morning, he had seen his father sitting in his chair, reading the letter and he thought that maybe he was crying. He had looked very sad and when Hannibal had spoken to him, he had rubbed his eyes and then quickly tried to hide the letter behind his back. Hannibal hadn’t said anything about it, because if you were crying, sometimes you didn’t want anyone to know. But he didn’t want to make his father sad, so he thought he’d just keep trying until he could read the letter.
Half an hour later, he had decided that no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t going to be able to read it. He sat there racking his brains about who he could ask to help. Jed wouldn’t be able to read it of course, but maybe Nate would? He wasn’t sure it was a good idea though, Nate might laugh. Miss Field wouldn’t laugh and she would be able to read it, wouldn’t she? She was a schoolteacher after all, they could read anything. Then it suddenly came to him – Mrs Curry. She’d help him and he knew she’d understand why it was so important to him – she’d probably even know without him having to even explain why.
Two days later, the two of them had gone over to the Curry farm. Alex was helping Nathanial with some running repairs which they wanted to get done before the weather took another turn for the worse. Hannibal had brought the letter with him and he was now sitting at the table in their kitchen snugged up to Mrs Curry as she read the letter to him.
He’d been right, she hadn’t even asked him why it was important. She’d also let him sit close up to her and she’d put her arm around him, just like his mother had. And he hadn’t even had to ask her, she’d just done it. She was like that, she just knew things, just like his mother had. He’d never had to explain anything at all to his mother, she just knew. She must have known everything. He couldn’t remember a single time when she hadn’t known the answer to one of his questions. Grandmother Worsley had said once in a letter that his mother was very clever.
Mrs Curry was good with questions too, though obviously not quite as good as his mother. But then no-one was quite as good at answering questions as his mother. No-one was quite as good at anything as his mother. Well, except … maybe … the birthday cakes. Mrs Curry was very good at birthday cakes – well, and pies.
Hannibal sat very quietly listening carefully to Mrs Curry read, trying to remember everything in the letter. When she’d finished, he sat there very still, her arm still close around him. He tried very hard to remember everything, going over it in his mind, but he couldn’t. He looked up at her and asked quietly “Mrs Curry, would you read it again please?”
She smiled at him and read it all the way through again. Once more, he sat very still at the end. She pulled him a little closer and stroked his hair, just like his mother had. She looked down at him and whispered “Once more?” He nodded, smiling up at her. He liked sitting here with her, liked listening to her read.
By the time she’d finished, he’d made up his mind. He was going to write back to Grandmother Worsley.
“Well now, that’s a fine idea, Hannibal,” Elizabeth encouraged him.
He spent the next hour writing his letter, with some help on his spellings from Elizabeth when needed, though he would not let her read his letter.
Dear Grandmother Worsley
Mother can’t write because she died. So I am writing. I cried when she died but I didn’t tell my Pa, father. I think he cried too. Mrs Curry has been very nice. She makes us dinner. I will be starting school soon.
Your grandson Hanibal
When he had finished, he folded it carefully and placed it in the envelope she had given him.
“Finished?” she asked.
“If the weather holds, I have to go into town tomorrow to run some errands. Do you want to come with me and we can mail your letter?”
Again he nodded.
“Is the letter ready Hannibal?” Elizabeth called, coming into the kitchen, the following afternoon.
“Yes!” he replied eagerly. He was sitting at the table sealing up the letter.
She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the back of his head in horror, her jaw wide open. What on earth had he done?
“Hannibal?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes Mrs Curry?” he replied without looking up.
“What happened?” she asked, continuing to stare at it.
He turned to look at her, confused.
“Your …” she couldn’t say it, didn’t quite know what to say. Instead she just pointed.
“Oh! My hair!” he replied cheerfully. “Every Christmas we send a lock of my hair to Grandmother Worsley. I nearly forgot, but then I remembered. We have to do it every year. She’d be sad if I forgot.”
She looked at the somewhat bulky envelope on the table and then glanced quickly at the back of his head. Evidently it was a little more than a lock this year.
“Did you cut the lock of hair yourself?” she asked cautiously, wondering how he had reached right around to the back.
“No,” he replied. “Jed did.”
“Ah,” she replied with a small shake of her head. That explained it then. Still, she supposed if it made him happy to have kept up the tradition with his grandmother, then it did no harm and it would soon grow back. She reached out and tousled his hair, trying surreptitiously to re-arrange it so that it didn’t look so bad.
He looked up at her, smiling. “It will make Grandmother Worsley real happy that I remembered won’t it?”
She nodded at him, smiling back, and gave him a quick hug. He was right.
“I’m certain it will. She’ll be real happy and real proud of you too.”
“And mother too. She’ll be happy that I didn’t forget.”
Elizabeth wiped at her eyes quickly before leaning in and placing a kiss on his temple. “Your mother would be real proud of you Hannibal, real proud. As we all are, you’re a special little boy.”
He turned to her with a frown. “I ain’t really that little Mrs Curry,” he said firmly. “Not like Jed. I’m nearly all growed up, my Pa said so yesterday.”
She suppressed a grin. “Well I think you might just be right there. Corresponding with your grandmother is a very grown up thing to do.”
He turned back to the business of sealing the letter, satisfied that she had realised her mistake. A moment later he turned back to her and held up the letter.
“Looks good, don’t it?”
“Sure does,” she smiled. “Come on then, let’s get it into town.”