The Story of Amelia
Written by Holly DeHerrera
The whole family spread out across the yard at the dairy farm, perched like chickens on colorful folding chairs. Holding plastic cups, they talked a mile a minute and laughed too loud. In a nearby field, cows mooed and munched the lime-green grass. I sat cross-legged on the front steps of our house and squinted into the sunshine.
Mom stood up and whooped like she’d just won a contest, and I closed my eyes for a second. Even though I loved her, I didn’t like when she drank so much that she acted wild. But the whole bunch of them did it, and nobody was ever ugly, just sloppy and tripping with red-faced smiles.
“See ya, Harold.” My cousin Peter used the nickname Grandpa had made up for me. Everybody called me by that instead of my real name, Amelia, but I didn’t mind. Almost nobody was called by his or her real name in this family.
Wearing his Coke-bottle glasses and ready smile, Peter scruffed the top of my head clumsily and winked, swaying like a tall tree in the Michigan wind.
“Bye. See you soon,” I replied, leaning back on the step, crossing one sneakered foot over the other.
“Yes, you will!”
He pointed his finger at me and then walked in a zigzagging line toward the gravel drive. He yanked open the door to his pickup and climbed inside.
“Bye!” he yelled to the family.
And everyone yelled back, “Bye!”
Later, when the sun sunk lower in the sky, spreading across the fields like a fan, we got the word.
My cousin had driven off the side of the highway into a ditch and then stumbled out onto the road, right into the path of a semitruck.
Just like that, he was gone.
Gone like a firefly’s light.
Gone as if he’d never even been there at all.
The school bus bumped along, passing all my different family members’ houses dotted along a big, long stretch of road, and then stopped. When the door hissed open, I plopped my feet on the gravelly roadside, where Mom waited, her arms folded over her fluffy middle.
“Good day?” she asked.
“Yep. I was the last one left in dodgeball.”
As we walked and talked, I couldn’t help but tell her about every last bit. She just smiled and nodded and stared ahead, watching the place where the sky and the green land met like a sandwich.
And then she told me a funny story about something that happened to her at work. Mom was always laughing and saying silly things.
Back home, we stood side by side in the big farm kitchen, spreading butter on saltine crackers and chatting some more. I told her about hitting the ball way out into the field and about running the fastest at recess. All my brothers and sisters were grown up and busy, so most of the time it was just Mom and me, and Dad when he got off from his job at the machine shop in town. On quiet afternoons, I’d play basketball with the farmer’s son, way up high in the haymow of the barn where the sun shone through the ceiling like ribbons. Sometimes the ball would drop down into the calf stalls below and land in their manure. I’d climb down the ladder, wipe the ball off on a clean pile of hay and then head back up to finish the game. When I’d go inside, Mom would scrunch up her nose and say, “You smell like cow poop. Go take a bath!”
I didn’t like to be indoors too much. I liked pitching balls into the tire Dad put up for me. Once, Mom gave me a Rub-a-dub Dolly, and I pulled off her head just for fun. After that, she didn’t get me any more dolls. At night, when the sky turned purplish-blue and the crickets sawed their legs together in a chirping song, we’d sit, the three of us, on the front porch and eat popcorn out of wooden bowls.
Once, the sky got all lit up with lightning, and the wind bent the trees from side to side like rag dolls.
When Mom announced, “Let’s watch the storm,” I slouched against her chest, feeling scared clear down to my toes. We watched as the sky flashed from ink-black to a pukey green-grayish white.
“I’ll get us some ice cream,” Dad announced, returning a few minutes later with three saucers piled high. He propped his bowl on his beer belly and began eating, the silence broken only by the flashes of light and dark and the echoing thunder that came after I’d counted one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand.
When things settled down, Daddy leaned forward, his back turned to me. “Scratch my back, Melly.” He had his own nickname for me.
I stood on the couch behind him, scratching my short nails over his back. He moved so I hit just the right spot, then relaxed and said, “Okay. Thanks.”
At the end of the summer, we would all work together out in the enormous garden bringing in the veggies and then spend the afternoon canning.
First, we washed hundreds and hundreds of jars. We sterilized them in boiling water and left them to dry, glistening like diamonds on every surface in the big farm kitchen as the sun bounced around the room. It was my job to take the piles of tomato peels we stacked in a stock pot and dump the whole mess outside. We canned enough jars of tomato juice and bread-and-butter pickles to last all winter long and to give away to all the family members who lived up and down the highway.
I would hop on my bike and take the quiet road, zigzagging down the middle like a bee heading to a flower, to visit cousins and uncles and aunts. My world was all pale-blue skies stretched with white clouds, underlined by golden fields dotted with cows and cousins and basketball games in the haymow.
Our family was tight. Any time any old relative, even a grumpy one, wanted to visit or ask for help, Mom smiled and waved them inside. They’d open a beer and sit out on the porch and talk and laugh.
I didn’t like when they drank too much, though. It felt like they would change, all of them. Mom would act crazy and not so grown up, and Dad would become talkative, when normally he only spoke when he had something important to say. Seemed to me they’d become different from themselves.
And I felt like a baby who cried because her daddy put on a mask and looked like someone else, even though the real daddy was still underneath, under the rubber nose and paint and fake hair.
The day my cousin died, plowed over like a stalk under a reaper, the unsteadiness of so many family members who drank too much made an unsteadiness in me that didn’t go away. It scared me enough to make me feel like the ground was moving and nothing would keep it from knocking me off my feet when I least suspected. I craved solid ground, like the beating of a ball on sturdy barn wood, like lying back while the sky moved overhead but the hay beneath me never shifted.
Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody seemed to put my cousin’s death together with the drinking.
Nobody announced enough was enough.
My brother kept drinking and married a woman who burned their kids with cigarettes and hit him on the head with a frying pan — still, it seemed nobody changed his or her behavior.
My brother’s kids came to live with us for a time, the burns showing on their skin. I had playmates living right under the same roof, and I loved it. Rainey, Meg and Dennis all piled in my room with me, with a mattress set up on the floor so we’d all have space to make a nest. We had adventures outdoors in the big, open fields near the cows that munched and mooed and munched. We played basketball in the haymow and rode bikes up and down the dirt path, pretending there weren’t any mean old moms who hurt kids or hit dads with frying pans.
Later, my big sister adopted them, and they moved out. I missed having them with me.
I went to school like normal that morning, the big yellow bus bumping along the country road. The farmland spread like the squares on a quilt, cut down the middle by the grayish-black asphalt that hummed under the wheels.
A siren startled me out of the quiet. An ambulance screamed out and flashed its lights as it whizzed past in the other direction. Where’s it going?
Mostly my family and friends lived along that stretch of highway. I turned around in my seat to see if I could tell where the vehicle was heading, but I couldn’t. We turned off the road before I could tell.
I went to school, and things seemed normal, but before the day was even finished, my cousin picked me up early. Buckled in the front seat, I said, “Why are you taking me home? What’s going on?”
“Your mom asked me to get you. We’re going over to Grandpa’s.”
“We’ll talk about it when we get there.”
When we arrived, I saw lots of cars parked in front of their home. Inside the house, everyone sat around on chairs, perched on the arms of couches or stood around the edges of the room whispering. Grandma sat in her chair, looking off like her mind was someplace else, and twisted a hankie. Mom looked up from her spot and then moved toward me, tugging me away from the main group.
“Amelia,” she said. Why’s she using my real name? Something must be wrong. “Amelia, your grandpa died this morning. I’m so sorry to have to tell you.”
My grandpa, with his teasing ways, the one who named me Harold and always laughed more than his fair share, was gone. But where to? I didn’t understand what Mom meant.
No, he must be out in the yard, puttering around like always. Any minute now, he’ll come in and say something funny, and everyone will laugh because it’s all a big joke.
I got a sinking feeling, like a rock at the bottom of the creek. I didn’t understand what would happen next.
If Grandpa is dead and gone, where’d he go off to?
I pictured him being covered by dirt in the big field outside his living room window. I imagined what he looked like, without a heartbeat or breath in his lungs.
I couldn’t make sense of it, so I pushed the pictures way far back in my brain, like an old box that I didn’t plan on ever opening again — a box full up with sad things that would never make sense, no matter how hard I tried to sort them out.
In high school, I became even better at basketball, and during my senior year, I received a scholarship to attend a large university a few hours from home.
All through my years at college, Mom and Dad came to every single home game and many that were farther away.
Though they weren’t ones to say I love you, I just knew they did. I saw it in their smiles from the stands. I knew it from the miles they drove to see me play. I knew it from all the ways they’d shown me when I was a little girl.
After college, I had the opportunity to be part of a special basketball league paid to play in Europe. I was there for eight months before returning home for a hiatus. At a family get-together while I was home, one of my cousins was rushed to the ER with chest pains. Though he ended up being okay, the experience scared me enough that I decided to stay put. My family needed me — and I needed them.
I reconnected with my college boyfriend, Seth, and we picked up where we’d left off. Though I cared about him, I never felt we had a deep heart connection. When he asked me to marry him in front of his parents, I felt trapped. He just stood there expectantly, eyebrows lifted, eyes wide, mouth open just a little. When I didn’t answer, he took on a slightly pained expression that seemed to say, Well, will you? Please don’t humiliate me now. Everyone’s watching.
I nodded. Then I finally managed, “Sure. I guess so.”
He wasn’t deterred by my lukewarm response. He pulled me in so tight that all I could hear was my own heartbeat, and I felt so unsteady, like I was being swept away by a wave.
When people asked me, “So, when’s the big day?” I’d shrug and say, “We haven’t set a date yet.” And I didn’t want to. I figured getting married should be at the front of every thought, but I only wanted it to go away.
I took a job at a temp agency and met Becky, who was assigned to train me. The woman seemed jampacked with joy and contentment. She frequently smiled and laughed and somehow brought calm wherever she went. On her computer screen, sticky notes were dotted around like tabs, each with a different name scrawled in black ink.
“What are these for?” I asked, leaning in a little.
I recognized a few names of other people working at the company.
“They are the people I’m praying for.”
“Why would you do that?” I didn’t like to sound so confused, but it couldn’t be helped.
“Well, when they come to mind, I just assume there’s a reason, and I start praying.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. Strange woman.
“What do you pray for if you don’t even know why you’re doing it?”
She tucked her hair behind her ear. “I just pray that God will bless them and take care of them and that he’d help them with whatever they’re going through.”
I thought of my nieces and nephews and their mom locked up in jail. I thought how they could use some help from a higher being.
I turned Becky’s words over in my mind. I’d never heard about God being someone to talk to. The whole thing felt a little hokey but comforting, too. So many things in my life felt unsteady. Many family members still drank regularly, especially my brother, who’d been in and out of trouble even after his wife got arrested. I thought of my engagement to Seth and the way it felt like I was being bowled over by life versus actually choosing my path. I wanted some stability — even the hokey kind would be okay if it meant I’d know what to do with my life.
Becky watched me for a minute. “You know, if you’re interested, you’d be very welcome to come to church with me.”
I shook my head before saying, “Maybe. Maybe I will.”
My friend laughed, but I couldn’t hear the sound because the music at the bar was too loud. She signaled that she was thirsty, and I took the hint to go and pick up some more drinks. I moved up to the bar and stuck my hand into something sticky. The bartender leaned forward to take my order, and I sat back on the barstool, rubbing my hands on my jeans as I waited for our drinks.
Why am I here? Why am I following in the footsteps of so many in my family? There’s got to be more to my life than this.
Shortly after that, I broke things off with Seth, and I felt the tethering unravel from around my wrists and ankles. I was taking small steps but choosing each one — and it felt good and right. I decided to take Becky up on her offer to attend church because I saw a sense of purpose in her that I wanted, too.
Never having gone to church before, I didn’t know what to expect at Becky’s. I wondered if everyone would be standing together, holding hands and chanting while wearing weird robes.
When I finally got up the nerve, I drove a full 45 minutes to the address Becky had given me for her church. I found a seat far in the back of the big room, wanting my space and also a good vantage point to take in this whole church thing. I scanned the space.
Everyone was dressed differently — no robes to be found in the group — and beautiful music began up front. The people in the audience stood and joined in, and I just listened to their voices as they sang about the “goodness” of God and about trusting in him and him being a “firm foundation.”
Later, the pastor stood up front, wearing regular clothes, too, and told more about those things. Something stirred in my chest, like a tiny seedling curling to life in the dark.
I returned the following week.
And the week after that.
Each time, it felt as if the green shoot was finding its way further out of the soil into the daylight. I bought a Bible and began reading it, starting from the beginning. At work, I told Becky it made no sense. She laughed and said, “How about you start with the New Testament. Start from Matthew. The Old Testament is important but a hard read for a beginner, for sure.” I did as she recommended, and things started coming together.
Those books of the New Testament were filled with stories of a man named Jesus who, it claimed, was put on the earth by God himself, put there not to rule but to die. What’s that all about? But then I saw how God did all that, sending his son to live and die so we’d know his heart and so we would have a way to him.
I kept learning and going deeper in the Bible, finding a depth of love there that I’d never experienced. A day came when the tugging in my chest wouldn’t let up. And right there in my seat, I spoke to God, the same one I’d grown to love. Tears burned my throat and filled my eyes.
Something changed that day. Every problem wasn’t resolved, but the ground quit shifting, and I felt I’d been planted in bedrock that would remain fixed. Somehow, I trusted that no matter what happened with my family or no matter what happened in my future, one thing would never change. I believed deep in my chest that Jesus would remain with me, hold me up when I had no clue how to put one foot in front of the other and hold my hand when things felt uncertain.
I continued to work and go to church. Each Sunday morning, I’d get up, eat a quick breakfast and head out the door. After a while, I began hugging my mom and then my dad, saying, “I love you, Mom. Love you, Dad.”
Mom would smile and say, “Okay.”
Dad would act uncomfortable, picking at imaginary fuzz on his shirt, and offer a noncommittal, “Mm-hmm.”
My parents respected my decision to follow Christ, and my whole family saw the difference in me.
In time, my sister and her adopted daughter, Rainey, became Christians, too. I kept on hugging my parents and my siblings and my cousins. The clan seemed amused by my new signs of affection, and eventually, Dad and Mom began responding with, “Love ya.”
And then, finally, “I love you, too.”
Even though I’d always seen their love for me in the small, everyday efforts they made, I felt compelled to say the words. The love I felt from God just seemed to want to spill out from me and touch everyone else.
I met Alex in an interview. He leaned forward a bit, and I liked how the skin around his eyes wrinkled a little when he smiled — like he did that a lot and his face showed it. “Tell me why you feel you’d be a good fit for this job.”
I began to list out my qualifications while thinking how long the interview seemed to be dragging on. Alex ran a hand through his hair and paused as if deep in thought. I fidgeted in my seat, making it squeak.
“Well,” he said. “When can you start?”
I laughed out of sheer relief. “Well, how about now?”
He stood and shook my hand and took the next hour to show me around the place.
I couldn’t help but watch my new boss’ interactions with the patrons at the facility. His calm approach put people at ease, and I took mental notes on how he worded things when a problem needed to be diffused. I noticed other things, too.
He laughed readily, never spoke in a demeaning way and led in a way that others seemed willing to follow. His quiet strength and wisdom drew me in.
But he’s the big boss, and I’m just another employee. I brushed any thoughts of romance aside and determined just to learn as much from him as I could.
I increased the speed on the treadmill and quickened my pace to match. Staying in shape took more effort when I didn’t play basketball regularly. I watched the red numbers on the display panel and upped the speed even more.
“Mind if I join you?” Alex stepped onto the machine beside mine and set his water on the ground.
“No, sure. That’s fine.” We often worked out at the same time after work.
He began to jog, and I tried to stay focused on my own pace.
I clicked off the machine, and it slowed to a stop. I stooped over to get my water, taking a long chug before saying goodbye. “I’d better go. See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Actually …” Alex stopped his workout early, swiping his forearm across his sweaty hairline. He lowered his voice and said, “How would you feel about going out with me sometime?”
I looked down at my tennis shoes and then up at him.
“Um. I would like that.” I felt a blush creeping up my cheeks.
His eyes lit up with a smile. “Great. But I’d like to go someplace out of town. I just know how people can talk.”
I didn’t mind leaving the confines of our workplace environment to have a date to avoid people whispering behind their hands. “That sounds perfect.”
Things deepened between Alex and me, and we talked openly about faith and God and family.
We wanted to make choices rooted in love, truth and wisdom. We attended church together and talked through the questions that arose.
I wanted to pray about whether Alex was the right man for me, looking for guidance because I didn’t want to feel unsure as I had in the past.
We took some time away from each other, reading the Bible quietly and asking, God, is this your plan for us?
Alex waited patiently for me to come to a conclusion, and when we came back together, I reached for his hands.
“I really feel like you’re the one God has for me.”
Alex only smiled, pulled me in for a hug and mumbled into my hair, “I’m glad you came to your senses.”
Alex and I sat side by side on the couch in Mom and Dad’s farmhouse. It was just a few days before Christmas, and snow swirled outside. Dad sat across from us, quiet as usual, leaning back in his recliner.
“I’ll make us some popcorn,” Mom said, hopping up from her seat.
I stood, too. “I’ll help you, Mom.”
She pressed on my shoulder. “No, you stay here. I’ve got it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. Mom was acting strange and jittery.
“Yes, how many times have I done this? I don’t need help.”
She waved a hand, as if to show just how little she needed help, and left the room.
We moved to the dining room table, and Mom placed my bowl in front of me first, acting like it was fragile. Everyone munched on the treat in silence. I got to the bottom of my bowl and spotted it — a ring in a tiny baggie covered in salt and popcorn dust. I looked up at Alex, who hadn’t eaten much from his bowl. He smiled at me before sliding to his knee on the floor, right there in my parents’ dining room.
“Amelia, will you marry me?” His voice rumbled with emotion.
I squealed and nearly yelled, “Yes!”
No hesitation this time. We kissed, and Mom and Dad brushed away tears and laughed.
I couldn’t wait for the day to come. We had a small ceremony, deliberately held early in the day so my family would not be inspired to drink. Before a small crowd of people, we exchanged our vows.
I picked up the phone and dialed Mom and Dad’s number.
“Amelia!” Mom said. “Nice of you to call.”
“Hey.” I pressed the phone to my mouth. “Can you get Dad on the line, too?”
“Sure,” she said. After a good deal of audible fumbling, he joined the call.
“What’s up, Melly?”
“Well, I have something to tell you two.”
More fumbling, squealing and sniffing ensued; then, in his usual soft way, Dad said, “Well, it’s about time.”
A week later, Mom called me. “Are you sitting down?” She sounded like some of the life had been sucked out of her.
“I am now. What’s wrong?”
“It’s your dad.” She paused, and I could tell she was crying. “Amelia, he died last night.”
But I just talked to him. He was okay; he was laughing.
“You’re pregnant now. You have to think of the baby.”
I knew she was warning me not to let this break me apart from the inside out.
I hung up the phone, and my chest instantly began to ache so that I couldn’t help but crawl to the ground. I curled in a ball, sobbing in the quiet room.
As I wept for my soft-spoken dad, I remembered that he’d died knowing that Mom, who had battled cancer, was stronger and cancer-free and that he’d learned he would have another grandchild.
He’d never been one to talk about faith or feelings, but I wondered if he might have softened toward God over the years, especially after Jesus transformed my life. I prayed that maybe he had chosen to say yes to God in the quiet of his room or under the open skies with only the birds and the crickets and the maker of the universe to observe the decision. I hoped it had been so.
Alex and I had two sweet boys, and we savored the gift of them. We often visited my mom, and she’d grin and bounce them on her knee. “I’m tired, Mom,” I said once. She eyed me as my littlest yawned big enough to catch a whole swarm of flies.
“You’re not the only one,” she said. Then she made a pouty face at my newborn and said, “There are two things you can’t make your kids do: eat and sleep.”
The cancer returned to her body. The last week of Mom’s life, I spent every day by her bedside, holding her hand, watching her grow weaker.
“Mom, you’re in a battle for your life. Do you know where you stand with God?”
She nodded and blinked slowly. “Yes. I gave my heart to Jesus.”
I squeezed her hand and said, “I love you, Mom.”
She smiled softly and answered, “I love you, too.”
Only a few months later, they found my brother Phillip dead at his home. A streak of blood led to where he lay in his backyard, as still as broken glass on the pavement. His kids, the ones adopted by my sister so many years before, had already suffered from the effects of his alcohol and drug abuse. I wondered how they would handle this.
Later, when I spoke to my niece, she looked at me, her eyes mapped with blood vessels. “Why do we keep doing the same things in this family?”
I knew she wasn’t only referring to her dad and mom’s addictions but to her own struggles and those of her brother, who was serving time in prison.
I shook my head because I didn’t have the answers. Alcohol abuse always made me feel a deep fear, especially after my cousin’s death on that highway. “I don’t have a good answer. But I do know that the only thing that will bring the stability and healing you’re looking for is Jesus.”
She hunched over, her face pressed into her knees, and cried.
So much had happened. So much loss and new life, too. Alex and I began attending Great Lakes Church with our two boys and found a raw honesty and vulnerability that appealed, especially to me.
When the pastor spoke and shared about his own life, weaving in the truths of God’s all-consuming love, I felt I’d found a home where we could all continue to grow.
I kept in contact with my family, always trying to share the hope I’d found.
I recognized the phone number on my cell. When the correctional facility message asked if I’d be willing to pay the charges to take my nephew’s call, I said yes.
“Hi, Aunt Amelia.”
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite nephew!”
I heard Dennis’ quiet chuckle and a little shuffling sound.
“I’ve been reading my Bible.”
“Really? So, what do you think?”
“I’m confused. It makes no sense.”
“You started from the beginning, didn’t you?” I took a seat at my kitchen table, running my hand over the wood surface, tracing the knots.
“I did the same thing. Begin in the New Testament, the second half of the Bible, starting with Matthew.”
We talked for a while about questions that he had, and then he paused.
“It seems like every time things start to go well for me, I mess it up.” The wall clock ticked, and I thought about all his struggles.
He’d done so well for a time, but then he got involved with drugs. While sober and clean, there was no better worker than Dennis, no kinder man. But the substance abuse made him act more like his parents.
I could hear the defeat in his voice, as if he understood he’d been his own worst enemy.
“You don’t think you deserve to have a good life, do you?”
“No.” His voice sounded as sad and small as a little boy wishing he had more control over the crazy world.
“You’re wrong about that, though.”
He didn’t speak, just waited.
“Jesus died, and because he’s good enough, you’re good enough. It’s like when you accept him into your life, to be the God of everything, even the addiction, he takes on all the garbage and changes places with you. He takes the punishment so you can be free.”
“Free.” He cleared his throat. “Sounds nice.”
“Yeah. It really is.”
Before we hung up, he said, “Oh, is there any way you can send me some deodorant? I don’t want Mom to have to pay for it. She’s already done so much for me.”
His consideration deepened the ache in my chest.
“Sure, I think I can handle that.”
“I’ll pay you back. When I’m out, okay?”
“No need. Helping you makes me happy. Promise.”
And it did. Being a part of offering the love of God, even in small things, felt right.
Long after we’d hung up, I thought about my family. I thought about the steady ground that I stood on. I thought of my memories from the farm, of playing basketball up in the haymow, the sky dancing over my skin. I thought of zigzagging on my bike down that long and winding road, lined with new wheat, swollen with green.
And I knew that, come what may, I was home and free and that a lime-green landscape grinned all around me, jampacked with life and promise.