Catherine Owens shoved the cabin door open and stumbled to her rocking chair. The half-mile walk from the family cemetery tired her more today. Her husband, Roy, followed and their three kids jostled one another to get through the door first.
“You all right?” he asked concerned over her discomfort.
“A little tired. This baby I’m carrying sure seems bigger than our other three. I’ll really be glad when spring is here. This winter is already starting badly with the death of your pa.” She took his hand. “How are you doing?”
Roy walked over to the window and stared toward his father’s nearby cabin. “Well, I’ll certainly miss him. I figured he’d be around for many more years. You just don’t know.”
“It’s sad, now Emma is alone—course we are within shoutin’ distance.”
“Ma’s a strong woman. She’ll be all right once the initial shock is over,” Roy said.
Turning toward Catherine, Roy added, “As if life isn’t hard enough, the other men were saying that the Almanac predicts this to be one of the coldest winters on record. Guess I should lay up plenty of wood and supplies. Maybe you and the children can put up more newspaper on the walls to help keep the cold out.”
Two brutally cold months pass, along with the Christmas celebration.
Catherine pulled the curtains back and peered through the window. “Is it ever going to stop snowing? It must be a couple feet deep.” She wiped off the window with her fingers. “I’ve never seen it snow like this before.”
Roy raised the latch on the door and pushed it open with his foot. Carrying another load of wood over to the fireplace, he began coughing uncontrollably and dropped the load onto the floor.
Catherine grimaced. “You need to get to Knoxville and get that cough checked out. Maybe ya got pneumonia or something worse.”
“I’ll be all right. It’s just this cold weather. Besides, it would take me a month to get there in this snow, and I just don’t have the time to do that,” he said catching his breath. “Henry,” he hollered to his oldest son, “get your coat on and help me bring some more wood in.” His words were again interrupted by coughs.
Twelve-year-old Henry climbed down the ladder from the loft, perturbed that he had to go out into the cold.
“Roy, you should stay in and rest. I’ll make you some tea that will help that cough.” Catherine started to get up from her chair.
“I’ll be fine. Just sit. Come on son. Let’s go get that wood.” Roy wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
Mary Alice came down the ladder slowly. She continued coughing. “Mama, I don’t feel good.”
“Come here and let me see if you have a temperature,” Catherine motioned her to come to her. “My, you’re hot. You definitely have a fever. You must have what your pa has. Albert, go outside and get a bucket of snow.” Catherine said gently rocking Mary Alice. The eight year old threw his coat on, grabbed a bucket, and ran out the door.
“Mama, Mama!” Henry yelled from outside.
Mary Alice slid off her mother’s lap and sat by the fireplace while Catherine got up and went to the door. “Henry, what’s the matter?” she shouted.
“Pa fell down and won’t get up,” he said running as fast as he could through the snow.
Catherine grabbed her coat from the peg and went out to the porch. “Where is he, Henry?”
“Back by the barn,” he replied.
Catherine worked her way back to the barn through the deep snow with Henry right behind her. Roy lay motionless with his face down in the snow. After rolling him over, she put her head down on his chest and heard a faint heartbeat. “Quick, Henry, help me pull him into the house.”
They managed to drag Roy to the house and laid his semi-unconscious body near the fireplace. “Henry, you’ve got to get to the Profitt’s house and get some help.”
Catherine put a snow-filled towel on Roy’s forehead and another one on Mary Alice. She said a quick prayer and sat back down in the rocking chair. Tears quickly streamed down her cheeks the faster she rocked.
Two candles cast eerie shadows on the wall when Henry returned. He opened the door and entered with Emmett Profitt and his two sons following. Emmett looked at Roy and turned to Catherine and said, “We need to get him to Knoxville. Catherine it doesn’t look good. Maybe it’s that deadly flu that’s goin’ round.”
“Mary Alice has the same symptoms. Could you take her also?” Catherine’s voice quivered as she tried to hold back the tears.
“We’ll do our best. Catherine. Travel is really poor up here.”
Days passed as Catherine waited to hear something. Henry and Albert managed to handle the chores as best they could. Finally, two weeks later, there was a knock on the door. Henry opened it and Emmett Profitt came in holding his hat in his hand. Catherine could tell he didn’t have good news. She started to stand.
“You better stay seated,” Emmett said, taking Catherine’s hands. “I’m sorry. By the time we finally got to the clinic, Roy was gone. Mary Alice lived another day and also passed.”
Catherine screamed, “No, it ain’t so. Tell me it ain’t so.”
Catherine sobbed uncontrollably. Henry and Albert wept as they stood with their arms around her.
After a few minutes, Emmett spoke. “I’ll take care of the arrangements, Mrs. Owens. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, Emmett. Thank you so much for trying and all you have done. I can’t believe it.”
Emmett shuffled his hat in his hands, then took a deep breath. “We’ll let you know when we bury them.” He turned and opened the door. “If you need anything, Catherine, you be sure and let us know.” When he walked out the door, Henry closed and latched it.
“Henry, we have to go tell your grandma,” Catherine said.
Catherine and the two boys struggled through the rest of the winter. The snow melted and daffodils began to peek out of the lifeless ground.
“Henry, go down to the river and get some water,” Catherine said.
“I’m going, too,” Albert chimed in.
“All right, but be careful. The river is running high due to all the snow we’ve had.” Catherine got down on her knees and put another log on the fire, than sat back down in her rocking chair. I can’t believe how this winter as has changed our lives forever. She closed her eyes and drifted into a light sleep barely hearing her name called.
Now what? Catherine pushed herself out of the rocking chair, moving as fast as she could to the door. “Henry, what are you yelling about?”
“Albert fell in the river and it carried him away.”
Grabbing her coat, and trying to calm her anxiety, Catherine ran down the porch steps and headed for the river. “Go get the Profitt’s help, Henry. Where exactly did he fall in?”
“By the big rock where we usually get our water,” Henry answered, trying to catch his breath. “I’ll hurry Mama.”
Henry ran off towards the Profitt’s house while Catherine scanned the river for her son. Not seeing any visible sign of Albert, she screamed out his name repeatedly. Her attempts in trying to work her way down through overgrown brush by the river was useless. She was exhausted. She felt faint and fell to the ground while feet kicked inside her. Maybe it would be best if I went and lay down.
Slowly Catherine stumbled back to the cabin. The front door hadn’t been closed, and she didn’t even have enough energy to close it now. She made it to her bedroom and collapsed on the bed. She could do nothing else to help her son but pray. Lord, I can’t lose another one of my children. Please help them find him safe.
Several hours passed. Catherine fell asleep but woke up with a start when she heard noises on the porch. Henry called to her as he entered the house. She got to the doorway in time to see Lester Profitt carrying Albert in his arms.
“Oh no,” Catherine cried wiping her tears and looking at her little boy all bundled in a blanket. “Is he dead?”
“Henry,” Lester said, “Heat up the fire.”
“We have a cold boy here, Catherine—and wet to the bone, but he’s all right and I’m sure some hot soup would do him good.”
Catherine hugged Albert. “We thought you had drown,” Catherine said.
“No mama. I didn’t drown,” Albert replied shivering.
They all laughed, but suddenly Catherine collapsed. “Oh no,” she cried. “Henry, run and get Grandma. I think the baby’s coming.”
Lester helped her get up and into bed. Once she was comfortable he said “I’ll run and get my wife. She can help.” He ran out the door before she could respond.
Minutes later Henry returned and came to her bedside. “I got Grandma,” he said excitedly. Emma stepped into the bedroom and took Catherine’s hand and squeezed it, then placed her hands on Catherine’s abdomen.
“It’s on the way Emma,” Catherine winced in serious pain.
“It surely is, my dear….it’s coming right now.” Emma grabbed some towels at the edge of the bed. “Hold on, Catherine.”
Catherine nodded but couldn’t keep her voice quiet. She pushed and yelled, all her energy spent. “It’s a girl, Catherine,” Emma declared. “You’ve got a baby girl.”
No sooner had she said that when Catherine screamed again. “Wait, there’s another baby!” Emma exclaimed and grabbed another blanket to wrap the squalling newborn. “Sweetie you got two girls. Land’s sake, no wonder you were carrying so heavy.”
Catherine smiled as she looked at the precious twin girls she was holding in her arms. Henry and Albert stood by her side awed at their new baby sisters. “I’m going to name them Opal and Ruby. They’re my little jewels.”
Her eyes turned and gazed at the picture on the mantel of her husband. “At least something wonderful came out of this cruel winter.”
This story is based on seeing gravestones in a small family cemetary in Greenbrier, Tennessee.