Hazel and Gordy
Perhaps my story starts in 1905, ten years before Dad was born, when my grandmother, Hazel Chaffee Pogue, at age 31, experienced a life-changing event. With a different outcome, that event would have prevented my father's and my own existence.
Here, in words that I imagine my grandmother might have used, is the story I call...
I lived in solid obedience to God's will until an onrushing stream of events washed away the roots of my faith.
In my reckoning, Jasper's journey to Bermuda provided the wellspring for what followed. He went as a missionary for our church, but he came back home to Minnesota in less than a year with a wife from the islands.
Everyone whispered behind his back. When I first laid eyes on Flossie, I understood. A halo of magic surrounded Flossie. Her brown skin glowed with it. Her dark eyes sparkled with it. Her bright teeth glinted with it in her ever-present smile. Flossie bubbled with joy. She sang songs that weren't hymns. She had music inside her and she danced to it as she swept the floor or hung her washing on the line. Flossie was unseemly, dangerous, irresistible -- and Flossie was my sister-in-law.
Jasper brought Flossie home in 1895, the same year I married his younger brother Elmer. I witnessed the birth of Flossie's first child, fetching towels and water for our sister-in-law Ella who so capably took charge. When my angel, Francie, was born on March 25, 1896, Flossie stayed by my side all through the long, painful hours. Flossie's ministrations touched me in the most intimate places with precious tenderness and reverence. She encouraged me to accept the functions of my body during childbirth no matter how shocking or unpleasant. She showed me how to embrace the slippery, blood-streaked infant and encourage her to suckle.
Flossie's sturdy Serena was nine months of age the day my sweet baby Francie passed into the arms of Our Lord at the tender age of seven weeks. It was Flossie who nursed me back to health and gave me courage. Her gentle hands soothed my wretched headaches and her sprightly cheer sparked hope in my ravaged heart.
Our husbands worked side by side in the oat fields and the barnyards while Flossie and I kept house and gardened and brought forth our children. Flossie's Jas Jr. arrived in September of '89 and my Velzora was born the following June, one year and one month after Francie passed. I welcomed fair Dulcie the next year. Then Flossie and I both gave birth to girls – her Susan and my Viola – in 1900. We attended each other's lying-in and had no need of midwife or doctor. Flossie's buoyant outlook carried me through the long hours of labor and my gratitude overflowed into fervent adoration of her flawless, magical persona.
Flossie saved me again when the Lord took my delicate Dulcie at age five. The typhoid fever struck my darling girl and no amount of tender loving care could save her. Beloved Flossie held me in her arms and sang her favorite lullaby to balm my wounded soul.
Baby's boat's the silver moon,
Sailing in the sky,
Sailing o'er the sea of sleep,
While the clouds float by.
Sail, baby, sail,
Out upon that sea,
Only don't forget to sail
Back again to me.
A year after we buried Dulcie, the Lord blessed me with rosy Cora, my fourth-born daughter. Flossie's laugh tinkled when I asked how could I be so full of babies.
Nine months later Flossie celebrated her own blessed event when Reggie's first cries burst forth on a blustery March morning like a cockerel's crow at daybreak. Flossie was as full of babes as I was, but hers came out as easy as an egg from a hen and all lived in robust health thereafter.
On the second day of August 1905, Flossie aimed to join the Tichenor youngsters on a berry-picking expedition and she swept me along. Young Everett Tichenor had a boat, she said, to take us to the raspberry patch on the east bank of the Swan River, and he would bring his younger sisters Goldie and Edith who were 20 and 17 years old. It was a small boat, she told me, so we would leave our combined seven children with our sister-in-law Ella for the day.
I never could say no to Flossie, not in the ten years I knew her, no matter how fanciful her desire. So I said yes, even though a familiar queasy feeling in my stomach told me that I had another baby on the way and I might not be at my best for a frolicsome day in the berry patch. I could have insisted that we stay home, but I knew that my reluctance would be no match for Flossie's gay enthusiasm.
We set off from Tichenor's place at eight o'clock in the morning. Everett and Edith took the boat up the lagoon to its mouth where it emptied into the river. Flossie, Goldie, and I walked through the fields so we could pick onions and radishes to add to our lunch basket on our way to meet the others at the river.
Everett helped us into the flat-bottomed boat and we wedged our baskets beneath the rough plank seats. I tucked the hem of my shirtwaist behind my lower limbs but Flossie and the younger girls let their skirts flutter in the breeze. Flossie threw her arms wide and tilted her face toward the sun as she sang a bright tune in her sparkling voice.
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
She taught us how to start singing one after the other – she called it a "round." I prayed for God's forgiveness of such worldly frivolity. All aglow, Flossie lifted my hand in both of hers and brought it to her lips. I died inside at the rising heat that filled my chest and blazed my cheeks. The others didn't see, but I knew that God watched.
Everett called a halt to the singing and pointed out that the boat had sprung a leak. He rowed toward the nearest bank where we could land and tip the water out before it got deep enough to wet our shoes. It didn't look like enough water to worry about, and I trusted Everett's experience with boating. In a trice we gained the shore and Everett planted one foot on the grassy bank.
Flossie, Goldie, Edith, and I, eager to help Everett bail, all stood up at once, all on the same side of the boat. I've asked myself a thousand times – why? Why didn't I step to the opposite side?
The boat capsized, dumping us into the swift waters of the chill river.
I floundered in the murky water, flailing and kicking, dragged down by my sodden skirt. My hair tore loose from its tidy bun and swirled across my eyes and cheeks. I spluttered to the surface and saw the desperate tableau of Everett holding Goldie in one arm and Edith in the other while pushing Flossie ahead of them in the direction of the riverbank.
Not knowing how to swim, I bobbed and sank like a fishing cork. I went under many times before I realized I could use my hands like boat oars to push my head above water for a breath. But the cruel current fought my efforts to stay afloat. Roiling water pushed me hither and yon. My saturated shirtwaist pulled me down, down, down.
I felt the ooze of muck under my hands and used all my power to crawl like an infant on the bottom until I reached the shore. Pulling on fistfuls of long grass, I dragged myself half out of the river and lay prostrate, lungs agonizing for breath, coughing up dank water that tasted of organisms long dead.
When I turned toward the river, there was Flossie! She floated serenely with her face barely visible above the water. I called her name through my raw throat. I clutched the nearest stick of useful length and thrust it out as a lifeline. Flossie stared straight up at the clouds above as the flow carried her away. Flossie!
I summoned the strength to stand upright. Dizziness almost brought me down. One step at a time I stumbled downriver with hopes of catching up with Flossie and saving her from drowning. The raspberry bushes stopped me. The branches and thorns ripped at my clothes and tore jagged bloody stripes along my arms. Why, oh why couldn't I forge on through the thicket and find my beloved?
I cried out once more for Flossie and then turned 'round upriver to drag myself in the direction of Roshalts' farm.
The Roshalts ran to greet me as I staggered up the path. My story gushed out in ragged bursts. Immediately Mr. Roshalt organized a search party and sent word to town where Flossie's husband Jasper and my Elmer were working on repairs to Jasper's wagon. When Mr. Roshalt left to carry the news to the Tichenor family, I collapsed in the arms of Mrs. Roshalt.
My return from the depths of the void repeated my journey from the bottom of the river. I thrashed and moaned and reached for Flossie whose face shined above me more precious than the sun. Consciousness struck like a slap to my face. Where was Flossie? My darling Flossie who made every day worth living. Did she survive?
The searchers recovered Flossie's body that same Tuesday evening along with Edith's a few minutes later. On Saturday they found Everett floating in a tangle of driftwood. They discovered Goldie's corpse on Sunday. All of them dead while I still breathed. My mind curdled with visions of pale bloated bodies, sightless eyes, twisted limbs.
I couldn't bear to go to the church service or the burials. Jasper's grief fueled my own. I lay in my bed with curtains closed, eyes closed, heart closed, unable to pray, isolated in sorrow and guilt, estranged from my Lord God and Savior.
Elmer came to me, his face lined with worry and exhaustion. "Think about the children," he said. "Flossie and Jasper's as well as ours."
I reached out for God to give me strength and purpose. I vowed to devote myself to the care of my children and Flossie's children until they grew to adulthood. I pledged to bring as many more children into the world as God saw fit to give me. And I begged God's forgiveness for loving Flossie too much.
Seven months have passed since the accident. The child within me kicks with vigor and never rests – he'll be a boy, I'm sure. As first-born son, he'll get his father's name. I'm afraid to birth him without Flossie by my side. I long for the pleasant rasping of her calloused fingers that massaged the backpain of my laboring. I yearn for the scent of Sen-Sen licorice on her breath as she whispered, "Push, dear Hazel, push now." Dare I hope that God might bless me with an easy time? I keep my Bible open to the Twenty-Third Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…" in earnest hope of living in His light again.
Flossie consumes my thoughts and the pain of her loss hangs heavy on my shoulders like a leaden shroud. When I'm alone I bring out the newspaper clippings from the day of the accident. I keep the well-worn papers inside the back cover of my Bible where they're easily at hand.
I weep when I read the verse at the end of the article in the Grand Rapids Independent:
There is a river we all must cross
A river whose darkling storm
Within the depth of eternity
Buries its silver gleam.
With tearful eyes, we bid farewell
To those we knew of yore.
Waiting the hour when our hands shall join
Upon times deathless shore.
The darkling river calls to me in Flossie's voice. Tomorrow I shall visit her shores to discover which part of me is stronger – the torn heart that yearns to reunite with beloved Flossie or the tortured soul that struggles to accept the healing power of God's love. ###