Chapter 11- A Beautiful, Healthy Christmas Baby
Nettie held her newborn daughter in her arms, emotion spilling onto her cheeks.
“She’s the most beautiful and perfect baby ” Raymond sat on the side of the bed, his finger stroking his daughter’s cheek. “You have given me more than I could ever have imagined, Nettie. No man could love a woman more than I love you. I picture us walking side-by-side through the years as our children grow up.”
“Nothing could make me any happier.” Nettie tucked the blanket more closely around her daughter as the baby nursed.
“It’s going to be a remarkable 1886! She’ll be full of energy and exploration by next Christmas.”
“Shh, Raymond, don’t make her grow up too fast. I want to feast on every minute the three of us have together.”
“I’ve asked the photographer from the paper to come over next week and take a picture we can send to your family. My only regret is that my parents didn’t live to see this day.”
“I can’t imagine what it was like to watch your parents die and then hide in the woods from the Dakota until the troops found you. You were but a tiny child yourself. How did you ever survive?”
“Do you believe in guardian angels, Nettie?”
Days Filled With Joy
During the following weeks, Nettie and Raymond rejoiced at the beauty of this new child. God had granted them the joy of a perfect baby girl, and they praised Him morning and night for their good fortune.
“Bertha told me we are perhaps spoiling her by holding her too frequently,” Nettie said one evening.
“I shall spoil this daughter beyond any mother’s comprehension,” Raymond said. The mischievous grin on his face made her laugh.
“Thank you, Raymond, for giving me such a beautiful life. I pray I will never disappoint you.” Her eyes sparkled at him, reflecting the flames from the fireplace.
Raymond took her in his arms and waltzed her around the room.
“You look radiant tonight, Mrs. Henson.”
“Naturally, Mr. Henson; I’m wearing the dress you gave me for Christmas.”
They both turned as the baby started fussing. Nettie hurried over to the cradle and picked her daughter up.
“Well, there you are. Our little Marta is fussy today.”
“It’s just that Martha sounds so horribly grown up for this tiny, wee baby.
“It’s a wonderful nickname. Little Marta, come to your daddy.” He held out his arms for Nettie to place the baby in them.
The church was devoid of decoration during the Sunday service. The janitor had removed all the pine and holly the previous week. Nettie missed the reminders of the holiday season and of her marriage and baby’s birth on Christmas day. Christmas would forever be her favorite holiday of the year.
The baby slept silently on her lap, and Bertha sat at her side. Their friendship had grown since they left St. Paul. Raymond laughed some days as they finished each other’s sentences. He often referred to them as the ‘twins’ of Menomonie.
Raymond stood at the front of the church delivering his message. Since Marta was born, his sermons were less fire and brimstone and more New Testament. Hope for the future was evident in his every word. Never had a minister captured her attention to his words as her husband did.
The sound of coughing behind her increased in intensity and volume during the service. Nettie wasn’t a doctor, but the parishioner back there didn’t sound right. A congestive cough indicated lungs filled with mucus. She could hear the desperate gasps for breath.
Bertha was holding Marta when Raymond finished the sermon and asked the parishioners to stand for the final prayer and song.
There was a sudden thud behind Nettie, and people started to gasp and whisper as Nettie turned, pulled up her skirt, and scrambled over her seat to help the woman who had fallen behind her.
Several of the men helped pick the woman up from the floor and carried her to the room off the pastor’s office at Nettie’s direction. The woman must have attended the service alone because no one accompanied them to the anteroom.
Nettie was horrified when she realized the woman was Esther Snyder.
Why isn’t her family with her?
Nettie prepared a damp towel and washed Esther’s ashen face. Her cheeks, however, were blazing pink.
Dear God, help us all. Her symptoms look like the consumption.
Nettie found a blanket in the pastor’s office and wrapped it around Esther.
“You fainted, Esther. One of the men went to fetch the doctor.”
“I don’t want to inconvenience anyone, but if the doctor comes, I’d like him to go to my house. Everyone’s sick. I had a small cough until this morning and thought I was going to avoid it, but I started coughing harder before I reached the church.”
Esther started coughing again, and Nettie had to pull her up by the shoulders until she cleared the mucus from her throat. Her cough sounded deeper than it did in the narthex.
“How is she?” Raymond’s voice came from the doorway.
“Not good. Please ask Bertha if she can tend to Marta for a few hours. Oh, and see if you can find a wet nurse for the day. I’m going to stay with Esther as long as necessary.”
“I’ll ask the congregation to pray for her.” Raymond left just as the doctor arrived.
“So, what do we have here?” Doctor Herbert McLaughlin carried his black bag over to the settee and set it on the floor beside Esther, who began coughing again.
“She told me she started coughing this morning before she reached the church. She is hoping you can go to her home. It seems everyone there is sick with whatever this is.”
Dr. McLaughlin tightened his jaw. “I brought the wagon. Can you find a few men to help me load her in it? I will take her to her home and see what we need to do there.”
Nettie nodded and hurried out to the entrance to catch a couple of the men. When Raymond started to step forward, Nettie gave a subtle shake of her head.
“Raymond, would you please escort Bertha and Marta home?”
“Certainly I will, dear.”
Two men offered to help transport Esther to the wagon.
Dr. McLaughlin worked with Mr. Snyder and the children for over an hour as Nettie busied herself changing two beds stained with blood.
“Well, Mrs. Henson, I believe the family has contracted a serious form of influenza leading to pneumonia.”
“What do you need me to do?” Nettie wasn’t sure this diagnosis was any less frightening.
“For now, I think the best course of action is to find another one of the ladies to stay here with the Snyder family. You have a baby at home, and I don’t want you to become ill. I’ll stay with the family for a while, but could you go next door to help spread the word and see if we can find someone willing to offer their services to this family?”
“Most certainly, I can.”
Nettie put on her coat and headed out the front door. It was roughly three city blocks through the snow to get to the McCallister house. She knew Hannah would be more than willing to help. She and her sister lived together and had no responsibilities to care for a family.
That was precisely what the Snyders needed right now: someone to help take over the role of mother to them all; someone who wouldn’t have to run home to care for their family.
Hannah readily agreed and bundled up in her coat.
Nettie marveled at her boots. They looked as though they might have belonged to Hannah’s father years ago. She held the older woman’s elbow as they descended the steps of the wood-framed house and began the walk back to the Snyders’.
It was nearly seven in the evening when Dr. McLaughlin dropped Nettie at home.
She was exhausted since she and Hannah hadn’t had a chance to sit for even a minute all afternoon. All she wanted to do right now was to fall in bed and sleep until morning.
“How are they doing?” Raymond came immediately when he heard the front door open.
“I’m afraid it’s not good. Mr. Snyder looks like a skeleton, and he’s coughing up blood. The boys also had blood spots on their pillows and sheets.”
Bertha joined them as Raymond helped Nettie with her coat.
“Is the doctor still with them?”
“No, he brought me home. We both left at the same time. One of the neighbors is with them for the evening, and Dr. McLaughlin will check on them again in the morning. I’m exhausted.”
“I should think so. You had a baby only three weeks ago. Why don’t you go get ready for bed, and I’ll bring you some food and a little tea before you go to sleep.” Bertha turned and walked to the kitchen.
“How’s the baby?”
“Bertha was able to find a wet nurse. She was here just before you returned. Marta’s probably down for the night. You need to get some sleep now. I’ll be in shortly. I need to finish up a few things, and then I’ll go to bed too. Bertha said she’d stay in the guest room this evening. I’ve already moved the cradle in there so you can get some undisturbed rest.”
Unfortunately, the following day news reached them that Mr. Snyder died during the night. The message also mentioned that one of his sons was critically ill.
Nettie, Raymond, and Bertha joined hands and prayed for Esther and the children.
By early afternoon, they learned seven more families in the community had come down with influenza. How many would progress into pneumonia? The parsonage became the center of the community’s efforts to help their neighbors. More than a dozen women worked in harmony in the kitchen preparing nutritious vegetable soup and sourdough bread to deliver to those who were ill.
“This is frightening, Bertha. It’s as if the dream I had before the baby was born is beginning to unfold.”
“Nettie, I want you to stop that. I’ve told you before; if you talk about a dream, it will come true. Please, I beg you.”
Nettie wiped her hand on her apron and proceeded to shape more loaves of bread. She cleared her throat. “My heart is breaking for Esther. I can’t imagine losing my husband and knowing my children are all suffering from the same malady.”
“Are you feeling well, Nettie? Your face seems a little flushed.”
Nettie cleared her throat. “I’m fine, thank you, Bertha. It’s just really warm working with the bread and the oven.” Nettie dumped another batch of dough from the bowl onto the floured table top. “If Raymond or I become ill, I would truly appreciate it if you would take Marta to your house. I don’t want to risk her getting ill.”
“Of course I will. I’m her godmother, after all.”
Most of the other women stood at the counter and the pie safe, preparing vegetables for another pot of soup.
Raymond rushed into the room. “I have to leave for a bit, Nettie. The good doctor wants to remove the dead as quickly as possible. I need to go to the house to say some words over Carl Jensen. I won’t be gone long.” He picked up his boots from the rag rug by the back door and headed out of the kitchen.
“Do you have an extra paring knife, dear?” Another helper had arrived.
Nettie woke before the sun was up. She tried not to move for fear of waking the baby. Marta had been fussy during the night, probably because of the interrupted feeding schedule yesterday. Nothing about the day had been normal for the poor child.
Marta was asleep on her back in the cradle. Nettie watched as her chest rose slowly with each breath.
It’s remarkable how perfect a newborn is. God has been so good to Raymond and me. Our little girl will grow up in a world of unmatched change and progress. Her world will be far different from ours.
She smiled as the baby stirred and lifted her little arms above her head, letting them fall gently on the cushion. Dark curls swirled around her perfect forehead.
What a wonderful life this is. I have an adoring husband and a beautiful new baby. All my dreams have come true in Menomonie.
If you haven’t read the previous chapters, you can find them below: