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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Determination During Depressing Times

Below is a short story (the first part of my novel) that I am considering submitting for a literary contest. It is fiction. Please let me know your thoughts. I really want your feedback. It's long, so thank you in advance for taking your time to read and comment.

Thanks in advance.


Between 1880 and 1930, more than 27 million people made the journey from around the world to Ellis Island. Some were looking for work in the United States; others were trying to escape the unrest in their own country. Josephine Maurice boarded the LaTouraine steamship at the Havre with less than $100 and the clothes on her back. She was determined to leave Paris and her past behind her. She walked away from all things familiar and placed one determined foot in front of the other, forcing herself forward. One of nearly 2,000 passengers following their dreams, she wasn’t even 18 years old yet, and wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into. They were searching for dreams. She was running away from a nightmare. She knew that the economy in France wasn’t improving and this seemed the only option. She arrived at Ellis Island on January 6th 1920.
Life hadn’t been too terribly difficult for Josephine as a young child. The family rented a small structurally sound home, had plenty of food, and an abundance of work. Her father was a carpenter who had negotiated a lower rent in exchange for his work on their home. He had spent the majority of his time patching and hammering until the home was cozy enough for his wife and their only daughter. Her mother helped neighboring women by baking and sewing as well as caring for children or doing odd jobs. They were well respected in the community and regarded as hard working. Josephine respected her parents for their devotion to one another. She recalled a conversation that was not uncommon in their kitchen late at night:
“Love, have I told you that you are all I ever wanted?” (Her father would ask as he held her mother in a tight embrace after dancing to the music only they could hear).
“Oh stop. I was made for loving you and only you.” (She was sure mother was blushing from his flattery).
They had never said much about how they met, but it was obvious to Josephine that the love between them was as strong as ever. Their eyes lit up when the other entered the room. She wanted what they had…someday…
Her mother passed away when she was twelve and though her father provided the possessions she needed, he never held her like her mother had. She had never felt lonely…until the day they took her mother away and she never came back. She had been ill, but what exactly happened would be a mystery for Josephine. She came back from running errands and saw the white sheet covering something being carried by two young men. Her heart raced when she saw the Doctor and the look on her father’s face. He didn’t know how to explain to Josephine and he didn’t know how to console her. He didn’t understand it himself. Both were inconsolable.
“PaPa – what’s going to happen now that MaMa is gone?”
“My dear Josephine, we will be fine.”
She didn’t want to be fine. She wanted to hear laughter in the house again. She wanted to taste her mother’s sweet crepes. The days of enjoying figs and gruyere would be lonely now. Before her mother died, the girls would have lunches filled with chatter and laughter. Both girls enjoyed reading and cooking and both had a natural talent for baking. It was a rhythmic dance between mother and daughter as they created smooth pastry dough and flaky pie crusts. Fine just didn’t seem like enough to Josephine; she craved for more. She craved the love and laughter she once had. Neighbors were longing for freedom and independence but Josephine was at home trying to help her father. She couldn’t decide if he was sad or he had taken ill. It was 1919 and she had heard rumors about a flu epidemic. She never thought her tall broad shouldered father would succumb to something as simple as the flu. She laid cool cloths on his forehead and urged him to eat something.
“Fine?” she sobbed as she held her father’s lifeless body against her chest. He told her things would be fine and they felt anything but fine. She had no idea what would become of her once they found out that she was an orphan. She feared they would force her to marry and live in a loveless marriage, or worse. What if they send me to care for the soldiers? She thought to herself. The decision was clear. She would leave for America. She had been sewing for neighbors since she was tall enough to do it properly and she was confident she had enough to make the journey and start a new life. She closed his eyes and kissed his lips gently one last time before gathering her things and slinking out into the darkness. She wasn’t so different from her neighbors after all; she also lusted after freedom and independence.
Josephine worked her way from Ellis Island to the French friendly towns we now call the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She was comfortable there, and found others who spoke French or French-Canadian which made things much easier as she hadn’t mastered much English. She took odd jobs sewing, harvesting, and laboring in whatever factory would give her work. There were rats scurrying about as she sewed, and it wasn’t uncommon for one of her co-workers to be injured on the farm. The machinery was sharp and not shielded. The factories were dark and smelled sour and dirty, but she looked forward to going to work at the factory where the handsome dark-haired man kept watch at the gate. She was excited when she learned he was also an immigrant who spoke very little English but whose French was fluent and rhythmic. His name was even music to her ears – Gaston Dubois…almost as lovely as those dark eyes that seemed wiser than they needed to be. Her mother would have said he was an ‘old soul’, whatever that meant exactly.
Gaston had been a vagabond, thief, and petty criminal in his younger years. He had done it out of necessity as he was on his own. He didn’t want Josephine to know and when she asked questions about his past and family, he would make it obvious that it was not to be discussed. He had very few memories of his family and didn’t know what had happened to them. He remembered living with an aunt who had what felt like a dozen hungry and dirty children. The more he thought about it the stranger it seemed, but he couldn’t remember a man in the home. It was easier to look forward instead of spending time decoding the past. He was glad she didn’t push him for more discussion. This lovely young woman brought the most delicious pastries to his guard stand and wrote notes on paper smelling of sweet cream and berries. He had no idea what she saw in him, but he looked forward to her visits and the conversation. She loved to read and was always telling him about this character or that one. If she wasn’t reading a book, she was searching for new recipes and asking his opinion. He would tell her that something sounded good and within days of the conversation, there would be a note and a treat waiting for him. He didn’t know when she found the time, but he would never reject her gifts. In time, the gift she offered included more than pastries. She leaned close and placed a kiss on his cheek. That kiss gave him the confidence to ask her to a movie. They saw Day Dreams starring Buster Keaton and Josephine enjoyed the story even though it was so different from their story. Day Dreams was a story of a young man who left his home town to make his fortune only to return to marry his childhood sweet heart. As the story unfolded, Josephine imagined what it would be like to be married to Gaston. When the movie was over, she had made up her mind that if he asked her on another outing she would say yes. In fact, she thought, ‘if he asks me to marry him, I’ll say yes to that too’. She smiled at the thought of spending her life with this man, but at the same time she was reminded of the happy times she and her mother would never have again. She had never realized that your heart could break and be filled with love at the same time.
Their courtship led to their marriage on June 19th 1923. It was a warm spring day with bright sunshine and a slight breeze. The couple didn’t know this at the time, but Mount Etna’s walls of lava were descending toward the town of Lingauglossa in Italy at the same time the priests hands were being placed on their heads for the traditional wedding blessing. The town in Italy was doomed, the Dubois’s were certain their marriage was anything but doomed. Josephine could see that Gaston had a good work ethic and Gaston knew how popular Josephine’s baked goods were. They felt they could accomplish anything as long as they had one another. And that night a volcano erupted in their home as Gaston made Josephine his own; they rhythmically became one with one another. Gaston had never been with another woman and he patiently held his wife and stroked her hair as she cried. He hoped he hadn’t hurt her and thought maybe this was a normal reaction for a woman’s first time. Their oldest child, a son, Julien, would be born April 15th of the following year.
Josephine had been anxious about the birth. Helen, a neighbor who had six children of her own had assisted in making sure Josephine was properly hydrated and physically ready for the child. Josephine had thought she was preparing herself emotionally, by reading as much as had been written on the topic. She had worked herself into a tizzy after readying the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. The words from Anne’s poem “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” stuck with Josephine and echoed in her ears as she was laboring:
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend
Death of the child or mother during child birth was common in 1924 and though Josephine longed for a child, she wasn’t as confident as Gaston was about the entire process. There were many silly superstitions about child birth, and Gaston reminded Josephine that God was on their side. He urged her to cling to her rosary instead of hanging on so tightly to her fears.
Julien was healthy, plump, and strong. Helen helped deliver the child and helped clean up the mess. It was a local custom that after delivery, new mothers would be treated to a banquet. Those in the neighborhood brought tarts, roast beef, and fresh vegetables to the Dubois home. The house was filled with laughter and joy for days as the community celebrated with Gaston and Josephine and assisted in caring for mother and child. Josephine was grateful though relieved when they left. The women had kept the fire place burning and had covered both she Julien in heavy blankets to help sweat out “poisons”. Once they were gone, she had her adorable baby all to herself and she could relax comfortably. It was mid-April and there was no need for a roaring fire at all hours of the day. She smiled, knowing that she had done the same thing to other women when she was an attendant and they were convalescing. It now seemed silly as she held her healthy child. Julien put her mind at ease about all the concerns and superstitions that had troubled her in the early days.
“He’s perfect, isn’t he dear?”
“Josephine, he isn’t as perfect as you are, but he is lovely.”
“He eats a lot. He is going to be big and strong like you Gaston.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
They settled in for the night; both of them thankful to have their son and their home to themselves. Gaston pulled Josephine close, kissing her ear and running his fingers through her hair. He knew he had so much more than he deserved. Just a few short years ago he had been scrounging and stealing for scraps of food, and now he had a job, a family, and the love of an amazing woman.
His hand grazed her left nipple and she pulled away with a moan. Her breasts had always been full and as round as apples, but since the baby, Gaston couldn’t keep his eyes off of them. Tonight, he couldn’t keep his hands off them either. Josephine was submissive to her husband. She was uncomfortable and yet strangely excited to have his hands on her breasts. He took it slowly as he entered her. She was familiar, warm, and smelled sweet but sour at the same time. They fell into the same rhythm they always had, both of them enjoying one another physically and emotionally. When they were finished, they slept well and woke smiling and joyful. Julien woke just after they did. Josephine was still in bed and pulled her son to her breast to nurse. Gaston couldn’t hide his smile as he watched how natural Josephine was with the child.
Mary stopped in to check on Josephine before hanging out wash. It was May 13th 1925 and Josephine was ready to deliver he second child. Mary patted Julien on the head lovingly as she headed to leave.
“I’ll be right back dear. Will you be ok?” Mary asked Josephine
“Of course. I just wish Julien wouldn’t move around so quickly. He’s getting hard to catch.” Josephine smiled
It wasn’t more than three minutes later that Mary heard the loud crash from her neighbor’s house. She burst through the door, expecting to find Julien covered in broken china. It hadn’t been Julien at all. Josephine had been clearing the table from breakfast when she had been brought to her knees by the pain of a contraction. She had dropped all the breakfast dishes and was clutching her stomach. It was time.
A few hours later, Josephine was holding a very chubby baby girl in her arms. The baby had a full head of dark curly hair. Her hair was so dark, Mary had commented that it looked like the violets from Josephine’s garden.
“That’s it Mary!” Josephine exclaimed.
“What?” said a bewildered Mary.
“We will name her Violet. Gaston is going to love it!” said Josephine joyfully.
Mary tidied up the small home and took the linens back to her house for washing. Mary’s husband had just bought her a rotary washing machine and it seemed much easier to do Josephine’s laundry at her house instead of killing her knuckles on the scrub board. She promised Josephine that she would be back in time for the feast and she urged Josephine to rest since both children were now sleeping. Josephine appreciated Mary and when Gaston got home, they agreed that the baby should be called Violet Mary Dubois. Mary cried when she heard the news. She had no girls of her own, and she immediately felt kindred to this little beauty.
Spring and summer passed quickly. The family had enough to be comfortable. Josephine was nursing Violet but Julien seemed to be eating them out of home. It had also become quite clear that their home was not going to be big enough for a family. The house had just one bedroom and it was crowded with four people in it. Gaston had a desire to provide a better life for his family, but immigrants received far less in wages than US Citizens. He moved his two young children and his lovely wife to Wisconsin and claimed Minnesota as his home-town. Josephine and Mary were heart-broken and promised to write one another often. Gaston hated to see his lovely wife so sad, but he promised her that the move would be worthwhile in the end. Claiming to be from Minnesota would mean he could apply for higher paying jobs which in turn would mean a larger home for their family. He wasn’t sure how long people would believe his story, but he kept as quiet as possible so no one would notice his broken English and French accent. Gaston continued to work in security positions and Josephine worked when she could between children; by the beginning of 1930 their love had produced two more beautiful children – they now had their hands full with two boys and two girls. The couple moved from a rented home. They purchased their very own three bedroom home on the East Twin River in Two Rivers, Wisconsin where they lived amongst other immigrants on a cobblestone street within walking distance of Lake Michigan.
Josephine loved their new home.  It had been built in 1906 and there was a tub in the bathroom. This made things much easier for the young mother. They would still have to go outside to use the outhouse. The bathtub was a luxury she had never experienced in her own home. She felt like a queen.  She was pregnant again.
“Gaston, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course beautiful, go ahead.”
“Do you prefer me fat and pregnant with these large uncomfortable breasts?”
With a twinkle in his eye, Gaston answered his lovely wife, “Actually Josephine, I do. You are as lovely as ever and I can’t keep my hands or my eyes off of you.”
She blushed with delight.
Gaston was proud of his wife, their children, and their home. Josephine had done a lovely job sewing curtains and matching blankets for the girl’s room and the boy’s room. She swept the floors every evening in a futile attempt to keep down the dust from the coal that was used for their heat and hot water. They didn’t have some of the finer things that their neighbors had, but life was good. A good guard dog named Duke stood watch at the front door and their cat, snowball helped keep the mouse and rat population to a minimum in the house. It brought Gaston joy to watch the cat’s antics as she chased mice through the coal turning her silky coat black as night and then the reverse process as she lapped and pulled at her fur to clean it after her rodent meal. They couldn’t afford it, but Gaston would share the milk and cream with Snowball in the early morning hours as he enjoyed a warm cup of coffee before work.  Josephine knew her husband had a soft spot for children, women, and small animals. She knew he was spoiling Snowball, but she wouldn’t let on that she knew. It was a bit of a game between them. He felt better about it if he thought he was getting away with something.
Josephine sometimes had a hard time remembering everyone’s birthdays. During those first years of their marriage, she felt like she was pregnant the entire time. The more she thought about it, there may have been some truth to that feeling. Josephine was tired, and it was only June (1930). She was expecting another child later that summer, and was busy with the other four toddlers. Julien was the oldest and was only six. Had she not had that terrible miscarriage after Agnes, she would have five children under the age of six. She couldn’t imagine how exhausted she would be with another mouth to feed. The children each made her smile, but the laundry and cooking was an exhausting task.
Julien was the analytical child. He would watch his mother carefully and ask questions about measuring flour, how the waves came to be, and he wanted to know exactly how far away each star was. He certainly kept Josephine sharp with those questions. He was capable and strong and always smiling. His smile seemed to widen when he would stump his mother with one of his questions that didn’t seem to have a reasonable answer.
Violet was independent and proud. She didn’t ask questions but watched everything very closely. When no one was watching, she often tried to do things she had observed. She was strong and tall for her age. Violet was confident that she could do anything her mother did. This got her in trouble one sunny afternoon when she attempted to make breakfast for the family, substituting salt for sugar because she couldn’t read and the canister as well as the material in it looked just like what mother had used. She received a stern talking to and was reminded that she was only five years old.
Thibaut was the roundest baby Josephine had ever seen. He had cheeks that people couldn’t help but pinch and curly ringlets of hair that Josephine longed to see on her own head. He was almost feminine looking with long eyelashes and flirtatiously twinkly eyes. She couldn’t imagine how Thibaut would be as an adult. At the age of four, he wouldn’t stop chatting about practically nothing. Sometimes it was frustrating, but more times than not it made Josephine laugh at his funny stories and make believe.
Agnes was as quiet as Thibaut was chatty. Neighbors and friends assured Josephine that there was no call for concern. With three older siblings, it was understandable that Agnes wouldn’t have to say much. She would mumble quietly to her little ragdoll as she rocked her to sleep or fed her with an invisible spoon or bottle. Agnes was so much like her mother that Josephine couldn’t help but feel kindred to the young girl. Both were quiet, nurturing, and cautious. They wouldn’t join in with others until they were invited. Josephine felt close to Agnes in a way she couldn’t quite explain.
1919 Josephine’s parents – Mr. & Mrs. Maurice passed away in
1/6/1920 Josephine Maurice arrived on Ellis Island
6/19/1923 Josephine Maurice & Gaston Dubois married
4/15/1924 Julien Dubois was born
5/13/1925 Violet Dubois was born
8/10/1926 Thibaut Dubois was born
6/21/1927 Agnes Dubois was born
3/12/1928 Josephine had a miscarriage

“Yes?” Gaston moaned as he turned to face his wife in bed.
“Do you think we have enough love for another baby?” Josephine asked in a mouse-like voice.
“Of course we do. What makes you ask such a silly question?”
“I feel like my heart was broken when the last baby died. I am so tired too. Are you sure everything will be alright?”
Gaston pulled his wife close and stroked her hair. He wrapped his arms around her slight frame as well as the bulge of their baby and said with confidence: “Josephine. You need to pray to Mary and Saint Gerard. Stop worrying and get some sleep.”
They wouldn’t speak of her fears again. She grabbed her rosary from the nightstand and obeyed her husband. She prayed like she had never prayed before; praying for strength for the baby and for herself.

July 2nd 1930 was like any ordinary day. Gaston woke before daylight, lit the lamp in the kitchen, checked for the milk delivery and enjoyed a cup of coffee since things were a bit better than they had been during the winter when poke salad and depression soup (nothing more than leftovers, weeds, and in the soup – water) were all the family could afford. He lingered a few moments longer as he was concerned about Josephine who was expecting another child any time. She was well along and uncomfortable. He stroked her dark hair and thought about all they had been through and how much he loved his delicate wife. She had been so unhappy but things seemed to be improving and she was looking forward to nurturing their new addition. He quickly said goodbye to his beloved, and gave snowball (the white cat they took in as a stray a few years back) a little pat as he grabbed his lunchbox and headed out for work that morning.
Violet and Julien were the first ones up that morning and mother seemed uncomfortable and a bit cranky, but they couldn’t worry much about that as they had a full day planned with their friends, including weed pulling for Julien and berry picking for Violet. It was common in those times for even small children to help the family. Gaston did what he could to make sure the children still had fun while contributing. It seemed to work as the children were eager to get out in the fields. Josephine made them each a lunch and sent them on their way before waking Thibaut and Agnes. After the younger children had their breakfasts, Josephine sent Thibaut out to the garden to check their small patch of beans. She asked Agnes to stay home and help her with the laundry. Josephine herself wasn’t feeling very well at all and felt comfort in having one of her daughter’s home to help her. Agnes was tiny, but she could help plunging and scrubbing laundry.
Agnes finished the smaller laundry items and Josephine hung them on the line. Agnes was looking for Snowball when she heard the cries of her mother – she ran quickly out to the yard find Josephine on the ground with her arms around her plump belly. Josephine spoke slowly and purposefully to Agnes explaining it must be time for the baby to be born and it would be up to Agnes to go a few doors down to get Mrs. Gagnon. With Mrs. Gagnon’s help, Josephine delivered her third son. He had a full head of hair but was an oddly quiet newborn. He hardly cried at all and he was so tiny. Josephine knew so many women whose children had passed away in their arms recently and all she could do was pray to Jesus, Saint Gerard, and Mother Mary that this tiny boy would be healthy. It was hard to eat right when you couldn’t afford groceries, but Josephine had tried her best to provide for all her children – even the unborn child. She hoped she had not failed. She thanked Mrs. Gagnon, but for the first time in their relationship, there was an odd silence between the women. Neither wanted to state the obvious, there was something different about this child. The delivery had not been the same as the others either. There was such a mess and a stench that was indescribable. Mrs. Gagnon got to work cleaning the house and preparing an evening meal for the family.
Julien and Violet came home before Thibaut and Gaston that day. They were surprised to find their mother rocking in her chair swaddling their little brother. They didn’t ask questions and got right to work helping Mrs. Gagnon with tasks around the house. Mrs. Gagnon was plump and jolly, quite the oposite of their demure mother. She explained that the child’s name was Xavier and that he had been born just before lunchtime that day. His siblings were excited to hold him, but their mother was oddly protective and just kept rocking and singing to her tiny child. She didn’t seem to notice much of anything that was going on around her. It wasn’t until late that night when their Father came home that the children overheard their mother’s concerns. It was Julien who understood the most; because he was fluent in French (Josephine and Gaston still chose to speak French at home, neither being confident in their English speaking abilities). Julien explained to his siblings that Mother was afraid for Xavier’s health. His color wasn’t right, he was very small, and he didn’t cry much at all. He seemed to cough a lot and she wasn’t sure what to do, but if he lived through the night she would seek out a doctor in the morning. The siblings prayed for little Xavier and for their Mother. She had been quiet and hadn’t laughed for so long. They weren’t sure what to do if her behavior continued. Those long walks Josephine would take on the beach alone were troubling and the children longed to see their mother smile again. They slept with their rosaries clenched in their hands praying that Jesus and Mother Mary would help their little brother and their mother.
Gaston left earlier than usual that morning and didn’t take a lunch. He didn’t even make coffee for breakfast; he knew his wife would need the extra nourishment as she was nursing Xavier and had been up all night crying over her unusual son. Things had been so difficult and Gaston knew they weren’t going to get better with a sick infant in the house. He had volunteered for more hours and was going to start skipping meals so there would be more resources for his family and his wife who seemed to become more fragile each day. As he walked to work, he couldn’t help but pray that Xavier and Josephine would both get good news from the doctor. He longed to see his wife’s lovely smile and he hoped his youngest son would be healthy and handsome like the older two boys. 
Josephine sent the oldest children on their way with lunches and a smile as usual and arranged for Mrs. Gagnon to watch Thibaut and Agnes. Josephine didn’t realize the family was aware of her concerns for Xavier. She should have known…the house she initially loved seemed like nothing more than a few pieces of plywood held together with a prayer. It was drafty and dirty and there was nothing private about it; you could hear everything that happened. She should know, she hadn’t been sleeping and could hear every breath each child took throughout the long and lonely nights. She forced herself to smile as each child kissed her and their brother goodbye and headed out for the day. Even Agnes had plans that day; she and Mrs. Gagnon were going up to the butcher shop owned by Mr. Gagnon to help clean and wouldn’t be back until supper time. Josephine tidied up the house a bit after the children had gone and then wrapped Xavier tightly in his blankets and waited for the doctor and his son.
As the doctor placed the child on the kitchen table, Josephine held her breath and prayed for the best for both she and Xavier as she stared at the spoon on the counter. She tried looking at her home the way that Doc and his son must see it. Dirt in the corners, sagging beams, worn walls. She was ashamed. No wonder the doctor never charged her for his visits, he thought they needed charity.  After a few moments of silence, Doc sent his teenage son across town to fetch a bottle of elixir.
“The thick white liquid Johnny” doctor instructed
“Alright Dad. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Please hurry” Josephine squeaked.
Doc had never seen such a thing. Based on the child’s size, he had been born early, but his bluish color and shallow breaths were something the doctor couldn’t explain. He was hoping the elixir would quiet the cough and make the child as comfortable as possible. Doc wasn’t sure the little guy would make it, but the elixir was a bit of hope that Josephine and the family needed. He told Josephine to nurse him as often as he would take to her breast; the stronger he got the better his odds of survival would be. Josephine nodded to let Doc know she understood. It was impossible for her lips to form words and she knew the tears would come all too soon.
The following day was July 4th 1930 and the family was looking forward to attending the City of Two Rivers Picnic and Independence Day Festival. Each family brought what they could to eat and drink and people gathered at the center of town with their flags flying. The Festival had been a good time when they went in the past. Josephine was concerned about bringing Xavier but didn’t want the other children to miss out on the fun either. She sent Violet out to the garden to collect what she could so they could make a salad to share with their friends and neighbors. Each member of the family washed up and put on the clothes that were generally saved for church on Sunday. Gaston looked at the group with a smile and proud look in his eye. Things weren’t easy, but the love of a family was something he had longed for as a child and now he had it. He wouldn’t worry about the sickly child, he was thankful for so much and his faith and the mother Mary would get them through this too.
Josephine nursed Xavier whenever he cried, gave him elixir ever few hours, and placed blankets and rugs at the base of the windows and doors to cut down on the draft. It was summer, but the breeze off the lake would send the child into a coughing fit and he would turn blue. She took him out in the sunshine and explained to his siblings that he was just small and weak and needed a little extra care. She cried quietly at night and hoped Gaston didn’t realize her fears. The bottles of elixir were disappearing quickly and the cost was more than three days salary even after the generous discount Doc was giving them.  Josephine started adding a little water to help the bottles last longer, but the child was still sickly although strangely pleasant. Xavier didn’t cry unless he was hungry or coughing. His coughing spells kept his mother up most nights sick with worry. Gaston questioned his wife wondering how much longer the child would need special care. He was hoping Josephine could go back to work as harvest time was quickly approaching and the family was in desperate need of money. Josephine couldn’t stand to part with the child and Xavier wasn’t healthy enough to join her in the fields as the other children had when they were his age. Josephine tried to make Gaston understand, and she even went without meals to make sure they could afford the elixir that Xavier seemed to dislike more each day. It was difficult for Josephine to force the child to take the medicine; he would struggle, turn his head, and gag as she placed the thick liquid in his mouth.
The economy worsened. Somehow Xavier was still alive and three years had passed. Three terrible years of coughing, elixir, doctor visits, more coughing…and the bills… even though the older children were working after school, Josephine knew it was time for her to return to work. She wouldn’t be able to work in the fields as harvest season had come and gone, but she could help with cleaning, sewing, and other odd jobs for some of the well-off women living on the North side of town. She brought Xavier to work with her. He was three in a half but barely the size the other children had been at one. He was content to sit on the floor and was disinterested in crawling or getting into things. Strangers seemed to take to him. He didn’t have round cheeks like other babies, but his eyes were alert and he smiled easily. Josephine’s employers enjoyed having the youngster around and though he wasn’t thriving, he was doing better each day. Josephine couldn’t decide if time was going by quickly or slowly. The family had fallen into a rhythm, each of them doing what they had to do to ensure that the family needs were being met.
April 12, 1935. Mrs. Gagnon had stopped over with the news of something called a Dust Bowl near or in Colorado when Josephine began to notice the slight bulge – she had been so preoccupied with her sick son she hadn’t even noticed her tender breasts or her lack of energy. She was not really listening to dear Mrs. Gagnon as she spoke about a great dust storm. Josephine was preoccupied thinking Xavier would be five in a few months and how delighted she was that the child had proven Doc wrong. Doc had told Josephine that he didn’t think Xavier would live much more than a few months and here he was a toddler and he was soon going to be a big brother. She wasn’t sure how they would afford yet another mouth to feed, but she was excited nonetheless. Rumor had it that the worst of the economic times were over and things would soon be improving. Josephine was going to wait a few days to tell the others, but she immediately confided in Agnes. Agnes was almost eight and was still so much like her mother. Both were nurturing, kind, and didn’t say very much.
Agnes was happy to see a smile on her mother’s face and she gave Josephine a big hug when she learned the news. She was hoping for a little sister this time and promised her mother she would be there to help with whatever she needed for the pregnancy, delivery, as well as caring for the tiny baby. Agnes thought she might want to be a nurse someday, she rather enjoyed helping take care of her mother during these times; she knew for sure that she wanted to be a mother. Violet was independent like Josephine had expected. She was often found playing with the boys whereas Agnes was most content at home rocking babies. Agnes was hoping for a little sister to play dolls with – maybe she could even do her hair someday?
Agnes kept her promise and didn’t tell the others Mother was expecting. In the quiet still of the night in late spring of 1935 Josephine rolled over and looked at her handsome husband. She stroked his hair lovingly and told him of the news. It would only be a few months and they would have their sixth child. Gaston had always been deeply in love with his wife and he couldn’t help but beam with pride at the thought of another Dubois in the family. He held Josephine tight as she wept tears of joy. As she wept, he prayed that this child would be healthy and he promised Saint Gerard that he would do his best to provide for the entire family. He was no longer a young man, but he hauled his sore knees and aching back out of bed each day. He loved his family. With that thought, he wrapped his arms around his wife and for the first time in a long time, she responded as he stroked her breasts. Their intimate moments weren’t as often as they had been before baby Xavier. Gaston was hopeful that their passion would be renewed with the birth of a healthy child.
Josephine was rolling out dough for her famous doughnuts (famous with her children and their friends at least) when the children awoke that Saturday morning. She and Gaston shared the news with the family. They were relieved mother was smiling, joyful with the smell of fresh doughnuts, and shocked at the thought of another sibling. The doughnuts tasted as sweet as they smelled and it didn’t take the children long to get excited about a baby in the house. Julien was planning on buying his mother a new dress with some money he had been saving from picking stones.
The summer was going by quickly and Xavier seemed to be healthier and happier than ever. The sunshine did him a world of good. Josephine was quite pregnant, but was still able to help picking beans and Xavier was at her side laughing and smiling. He didn’t quite grasp the idea of having a baby in the house, but he knew his mother was smiling and he enjoyed playing in the sand and the sun. He had doting siblings spoiling him rotten, and that elixir tasted awful, but mother sang him such a sweet song and rocked him to sleep after giving him his medicine, so he didn’t mind as much. Gaston only wished he knew where his wife kept going in her mind – she would be in the middle of cooking dinner, cleaning vegetables, or ironing clothes and he knew she wasn’t really there. His fear was that she wasn’t content with the modest life he had been able to provide. It was far from her dreams, he was sure. In all their years together, she had never told him about her life in Paris, the voyage across the ocean, or the family and friends she left behind. If he asked, she would remind him that French women do not air their dirty laundry and with that, she would purse her lips; he knew prying further would do him no good. His lovely wife was as stubborn as she was beautiful.
And beautiful she was; she always had been. Those who didn’t know Josephine may have thought her frail and thin when she wasn’t pregnant, but beneath those clothes she was muscular and lean with the body of a natural athlete. She could work harder than most men Gaston knew and yet after the lights were out and the children were quiet, she would dance gracefully around the room in her husband’s arms. She had been just as good of a dancer as she was a lover. He knew he was a lucky man. He was lucky to be alive after some of his stunts breaking into homes and businesses for food, but even luckier to have married such a lovely and understanding woman.
Gaston was French-Canadian but had a passion for excitement. He left his Aunt’s home before his 15th birthday and move to Minnesota where he assumed a fake identity and lied about his age. Before his 16th birthday in 1917, the United States was involved in the war and he wanted badly to serve the country he claimed as his own. His passion for all things American and his lust for excitement found him between the bloody trenches on Europe's Western Front. When time allowed, he enjoyed the drink and women as much as the other soldiers. He avoid the women from France in hopes to keep his identity a secret, he thought they might recognize the accent (especially after enough drink), but he found the ladies from Norway particularly intriguing with their light skin and hair – so different from his own. But that was a lifetime ago, a time he would never speak of again. He only had eyes for his beloved Josephine with her olive skin, dark hair, and those slender legs. His body throbbed with excitement as he pictures those legs entwined with his own. The way she touched him and made him feel was indescribable.
Josephine was nearly done ironing the uniform Julien had brought home. He was working alongside his father, helping with odd jobs at the factory. She knew the uniform well and was proud of the wages her eldest son was bringing in. It gave her a sense of pride to keep his uniform tidy and fresh. Xavier was playing near the cat’s dish but she hadn’t noticed until it was too late and she stepped in the cool milk which took her back to a place and time she never talked about. She heard her mother’s quiet whisper and felt her warm breath on her ear: “Josephine, rester à l'écart des hommesand at 15 she did not know what her mother meant when she warned her to stay away from men. Little did she know that at 17, aboard the ship, she would learn how dangerous men can be?
She was standing amongst the other passengers on the LaTouraine when she heard some of the women talking about the spirits on the vessel. She dare not make eye contact with the older women but she listened intently as they spoke of the incident that happened in 1902 when a young American woman threw herself overboard on a trip to visit her mother in Washington. She was the lovely young wife of a Wealthy Greek merchant. The women were whispering that the woman named Mrs. Spiridon had been walking along the deck before breaking into a run toward the bow of the ship; she then climbed the rail and with a shriek tossed herself into the freezing abyss below and gave her life and her beauty to the sea for eternity. The ship’s crew searched in the moonlight but never found the woman or any trace of her remains. The women gossiped about how her spirit must still roam the decks; only thirty one when she died and as popular as she was lovely…how sad. Rumors were that if you listened at night you could hear her singing the lyrics from “Good Bye My Lady Love” if you stood on the deck in the moonlight when the weather was just right.
The hair on Josephine’s arms bristled at the thought that night and just the wet milk on her feet was enough to make her think about how Mrs. Spiridon must have felt as she plunged into the water. Josephine had always wondered if the young woman changed her mind, or was she pushed? What would cause someone with looks, popularity, and wealth to take their own life? As she was listening to the older women, she felt his hand on her shoulder. She turned around to face the tall stranger. Her looked down on her, he was the tallest man Josephine had ever seen and his eyes were black, just like his hair. In a booming voice he said something she did not understand: “Ελάτε μαζί μου pretty lady”. He had hold of her arm by that time and she followed him to a private area of the ship. He appeared to speak Greek, a language she had only heard once or twice during her short lifetime in Paris – but regardless of the words, she knew she had to be quiet with his massive hand covering her mouth and the weight of his body crushing her tiny frame. She concentrated on her surroundings instead of thinking about the terrible pain as he took her body and her innocence. The rhythm of the vessel and the waves kept her from panicking. She closed her eyes when he had finished and waited for him to leave. She was fearful he might return, so when she was sure she was alone, she got up, pulled herself together and snuck quietly out of this terrible place. She was disoriented and must have had her shoes in her hand. She remembered the sticky feeling of blood on her panties and inner thighs, and the shiver as she stepped into a cold puddle of water on the deck. Why me? She wondered as she tried to regain her composure. It was a good thing she hadn’t made friends with anyone on the ship. No one would ask any questions about her puffy eyes and swollen face.
“Mama, vous avez une serviette?” Xavier’s voice broke through the voices and sounds in her head as he asked for a towel to clean up the milk that had spilled. The sound of her son’s voice brought her back from that terrible night just as she realized she had nearly singed the collar on Julien’s uniform. Oh what a time, she was thankful Gaston had never pressed her to share the stories of her voyage to Ellis Island. He had never questioned her purity. She was certain no respectful man would want her if they knew what she had endured. Here she was with a kind and gentle husband who was expressive and affectionate – so different from the men she had known before. And her children… especially little Xavier… what a blessing. She knelt down to help the toddler clean up the spill. The milk wasn’t the only liquid around her feet. It was time…
When Gaston arrived home that evening, he found his lovely wife rocking in her favorite chair, swaddling a little bundle. It was that evening that he met the youngest of his six children, Suzanna. She was lovely, an exact copy of his beautiful wife. Josephine looked so proud, but the proudest Dubois was Gaston himself. His wife was so strong and lovely, and here she was smiling as she pulled Suzanna to her bosom. Suzanna was tiny, but not sickly like Xavier had been. She was simply petite, though strong and determined like her mother. That evening the family sat together in their simple home and enjoyed all that God had given them.


  1. Here is a link to the contest, in case anyone wants to join me?

  2. What a great story! Crystal you are very talented. I couldn't stop reading even though I was extremely tired and had a long day. You deserve a win in my book :)