CHURCH IN THE WILDWOOD FIRST CHAPTER
The following is the first chapter of my novella in Church in the Wildwood, a 4-in-1 novella collection published by Barbour in 2003. Coauthors are Paige Winship Dooly, Kristy Dykes, Pamela Griffin, and Debby Mayne. The book is generational with each novella set in a different era and ending in present day. It centers around a...little church in the wildwood. The idea came to me as an old song my mother used to sing floated through my brain.
Oh, come to the church in the wildwood,
Oh, come to the church in the vale.
No church is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.
My novella in Church in the Wildwood is entitled "Shirley, Goodness, & Mercy," and my heroine's name is Shirley. It's an old-fashioned name, and it's my grandmother's name. I enjoyed writing it and received many wonderful letters from readers.
Here's an especially glowing letter from an editor:
- "This story ("Shirley, Goodness, & Mercy" in Church in the Wildwood) is just a delight. I loved the characters, the sense of place, and the believable conflicts being worked through, and the sense of humor. I think the growth of Shirley as she comes to see her mother as a complete person rather than as only a mother will be a facet of the story that readers of all ages will relate to in different ways."
Hickory Hollow, Missouri, 1894
(I apologize if the paragraph indentions aren't correct. Thanks for your forbearance.)
Sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking her grandfather’s church in the verdant valley below, Shirley Campbell smoothed her serviceable brown skirts and replaced a hairpin in the chignon high atop her head.
This was something she never did—sit and while away time. But her beloved grandmother’s burial this morning prompted her mother to give her some time away from the never-ending farm work.
“Oh, Grandmother,” she whispered as her eyes misted over, “I loved you so. You were the only one who truly understood me. We were like knitted souls, you and I.” A tear trickled down her cheek followed by a deluge, and she wiped her face with her hanky and kept it at the ready instead of tucking it back in her waistband. “Such good times we had together. How will I make it without you?”
Holding her well-worn copy of Little Women, she stroked its cover as reverently as if it were the family Bible that held a prominent place in the Campbells’ farmhouse.
“How you used to enjoy it when I would read to you from these pages.” When her grandmother came down with the heart ailment, she asked for Shirley—of all the grandchildren--to come and help her one afternoon a week. Shirley soon found out that her grandmother didn’t want help with dishes and sweeping. As the preacher’s wife, her grandmother was besieged with offers of help from the saintly ranks. No, what Grandmother really wanted was for Shirley to read to her--from the pages of Little Women, of all things. Where Grandmother got the book, Shirley never knew, or why she wanted Shirley to read to her at all, she never could fathom. But from the very first, Shirley devoured the heartwarming tale of the four charming young ladies and their doting mother in prim and proper New England—a world away from Hickory Hollow, Missouri, both in distance and in deportment. She had read Little Women so often in the past year, she knew certain passages by heart.
Shirley envisioned the plucky heroine, Jo March, and quickly found the description of her in the opening pages of the book.
"Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt…she had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp gray eyes which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty…"
"Sounds like me." Shirley smiled as she thought of Jo, the fledgling writer, who, every few weeks, would don her scribbling suit and 'fall into a vortex.' Does genius burn? Jo's sisters would ask when they popped their heads in the door of her attic writing room.
Shirley flipped to the passage about Jo's literary endeavours and read aloud.
"…when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon…while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh."
Shirley found the entry she loved about the girls' devoted mother. Marmee, they called her.
"She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world…the first sound in the morning was her voice as she went about the house singing like a lark, and the last song at night was the same cheery sound…"
Shirley could see Marmee in her big armchair surrounded by her adoring daughters, encouraging them in their pursuits, Meg in her role as little mother to the younger girls, Jo in her writing ambitions, Beth in her piano playing, and Amy in her artistic leanings. Marmee was their comrade, but more than that, she was their encourager, their champion in the relentless quest of their goals and aspirations.
"Oh, to have a mother like Marmee March." Immediately, Shirley felt ashamed for voicing such an errant thought. Her mother was a good mother, a wonderful mother, but she was…she was…what was Mama? How best to describe her?
"Ah, Mama." Pictures of her mother appeared before her eyes as if they’d popped out of the picture book she treasured as a tyke, the only book she ever owned as a child, the book that was torn up long ago by her sister Gladly, though Shirley now had a few books she could call her own such as Webster's Dictionary and Shakespeare's Plays.
Thinking of Mama…Mama at the washtub on Mondays, scrubbing clothes and bed linens and white curtains, getting the dirt out with a vengeance, then starching and ironing each item, then folding and putting them away, week in and week out with never a let up in her strict regimen.
Mama at the woodstove morning, noon, and night, turning out mouth-watering meals, and cakes and pies and other delectable dishes.
Be sure and get Amanda Campbell to bring her strawberry pie, folks were known to say. Or her pecan pie or her cinnamon peach cobbler or a host of other sweets she could whip up in the blink of an eye.
Back to the mental pictures. Mama beating the rugs. Mama tending the garden. Mama sewing the family’s clothing. Mama getting her brood to Grandfather Hodges’s little stone church in the wildwood and, before Shirley took over the children's Sunday school class, Mama herself teaching it, making sure the Campbell children as well as the other youngsters hid the Holy Scriptures in their hearts. Mama visiting the poor of the community and the infirm in the congregation, sometimes bringing them good things from her kitchen.
Mama, Mama, Mama…always working, always going, always doing, a constant buzz of activity, like a honeybee on a hyacinth, never just being…or feeling…or dreaming…like Shirley often did.
Oh, it wasn’t that Shirley shirked her work. She could turn out a meal almost as fast as her mother, and her fancy stitchwork was praised all over Hickory Hollow by friends and family alike. And after all the chores were done that a farm demanded, she helped Grandfather Hodges nearly as much as Mama did with what he called Divine Service. Besides comforting the sick and bruised of heart, Shirley corralled all the children under the hickory trees every Sunday afternoon in the warm months and taught them Sunday school lessons, and they couldn’t wait to get there every week to hear her.
Shirley makes them Bible stories come alive right before our eyes, the tykes told their parents.
Most certainly, she always did her part wherever and whatever the workload required, but as she toiled every day, she thought and she dreamed and she saw and she felt…
You’ve got your head in the clouds, Shirley, Mama was prone to say. That won’t stand you well in life.
Shirley tried to talk to her mother once, a few months back. She confided in her about how she saw and felt things so deeply, how she dreamed and aspired and longed for--what, she knew not. But she was hoping her mother would know and could help her.
Mama, at times it seems my musings and longings are other-worldly, she told her, so far away, something distant and unattainable, yet so yearned for. Oh, what does it all mean?
She even gathered the courage to tell her mother about the stories that bubbled up inside her and ached to be shared with the world.
Mama only said, Fiddle-faddle, Shirley Campbell. Such as that won’t find you a good man. You’d best forget about that froth and frippery, and put your head to getting yourself a husband. After all, you’re eighteen now, soon to be nineteen.
Shirley rolled her sleeves a mite higher and unfastened the top button of her high collar to let in some air. Oh, if only she had the time to get those stories down on paper. Paper? Well, not fancy, store-bought kind. They could never afford that. But she’d be willing to write them on plain brown wrappers and old envelopes, if only she had the time.
Maybe she could get up earlier and write before breakfast. But she was already getting up at dawn, like Mama and Papa did. And if she got up before break of day, there would be no light. And her mother would never allow her to waste lamp oil for…for froth and frippery. She winced, thinking of those hateful words Mama used to describe her…her dreams.
No, getting up before dawn wasn’t the answer. And neither was writing on Sunday, the day of rest. She let out a little snort. By the time she got back from morning service, ate dinner, then headed back to teach her Sunday school class, the day was over. The last moments on Sunday evenings were consumed with helping Mama tend the children. Always the children were clamoring for Shirley's attention in the everyday busyness of life—her little brothers and sister washed, dressed, and fed, over and over again, and sewed for and cooked for and readied for school.
Perhaps she could find a few minutes every now and then and get her musings recorded. She knew with a surety that she would never find large blocks of time to devote to her writing endeavours. It would have to be in bits and snippets. Yes, that was the answer. And when a sufficient number of days passed, she would have whole stories fleshed out.
So happy did she feel, so grateful she was for a resolve to her dilemma, she laughed as she hugged her knees to her, almost like it was Grandmother she was embracing, and her heart beat hard in its perch in her chest. For, if she could get her stories written down, it was a long shot, yes, but perhaps she could become an authoress.
Like Jo March!
The thought was so strong and so weighty with all its implications, for a moment she almost couldn’t breathe. Somehow, some way, certainly so, she could become an authoress.
Like Louisa Mae Alcott!
With childlike abandonment, she leapt to her feet. Hugging the book to her, she dashed through the wild spring daisies. So hard and so fast did she run, she panted like Papa’s hunting dog on a chase, hurting from the stitch in her side.
But she kept on running with not a care in the world, and she called out to Jo March and to Louisa Mae Alcott and told them that one day, she, too, would be joining their elite ranks, and it seemed they answered her back.
Determination and diligence are the pathway, my dear, and if you possess those, you will succeed in your quest.
Their advice thrilled her, for indeed, she had a goodly portion of both.
When she came to a tall stand of hickories and pines and beeches and a magnolia or two between them, she halted to catch her breath. With wonderment she noted that the singing of the birds was almost as loud as the singing in her soul.
For a long eon she stood there, drinking in the serenity of the sight, robins and jays zipping between the towering hickory trees and lush chortleberry bushes, the hummingbirds buzzing in profusion about the honeysuckle vines, and she reveled in all that was being birthed in her heart and soul, thanking the Heavenly Father for this dip into divine afflatus.
Presently, still clutching Little Women, she came to the meandering brook that bordered Grandfather’s church far downstream. She stopped for a moment and read Miss Alcott's short biography in the front of the book.
"Louisa Alcott's first story was published when she was twenty. When she was twenty-three, things began to improve. A book of hers sold well. She went to Europe a few years later, and then came her great success: the publication of Little Women in 1868. Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo's Boys followed. These four books made her name and her fortune."
In awe, Shirley took up her trek beside the gently flowing crystal-clear gurgles, visions of grandeur appearing before her eyes…
Miss Shirley Campbell, authoress, being feted at a tea among society’s cream of the crop.
Miss Shirley Campbell, authoress, autographing her books at a book signing in a large city.
“Shirley,” someone called from a far place.
Miss Shirley Campbell, authoress, speaking before a distinguished crowd at a university.
“Mama’s needing you, Shirley,” came the voice again, this time with a whine. “Why'd you stay gone so long?”
Miss Shirley Campbell, authoress, hobnobbing in the North and the South and the East and the West with the literary greats of the United States—no, the world.
“Mama said to come right now. There’s a horde of people eating at Grandmother’s house, and we’ve used every plate in her cupboard, as well as our plates from home--not to mention all of Aunt Charmaine’s. Mama said you and I are to do the dishes, and to be quick about it.”
Shirley looked over and was startled to see her sixteen-year-old sister Gladly on the other side of the brook. It was if she had dropped down from the sky. Only Gladly was no angel.
“Gladly?” Shirley said blankly, taking a deep breath, trying desperately to climb down from the dais at the university where she was standing, trying to disengage herself from the places she had soared.
“If you don’t come right now, Shirley Campbell," Gladly yelled, "I’ll tell Mama your wits have gone a-woolgathering again."
Suddenly, Shirley was disengaged…
…from the high society tea…
…from the big-city book signing…
…from the university…
…and from hobnobbing with the literary greats.
She was also disengaged…
…from her dreams of becoming an authoress.
They were dashed to the ground. For after all, she was only Shirley Campbell, a plain-looking, little-educated farmgirl from Hickory Hollow, Missouri, with nothing but a life of drudgery ahead of her.
“Just like Mama’s,” she said under her breath. With an audible groan, she turned and crossed the brook pell-mell over the large, flat stones Grandfather positioned decades ago when he was building his church, making her way to…to…the work that awaited her.