Excerpt

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            The Mary Powell was due to leave Rondout Creek at half past five. From the barnyard, Ida watched the wagon carrying Alice and her cousins as it wobbled down the rain-rutted driveway on its way to the dock. Of the four girls, Alice was the tallest, but she wasn’t looking up like the others, who were straining to hear their aunt calling to them from the big porch. Instead, she slouched, her eyes on the wagon floor.

Ida raised her hand to wave, and milk pulsed into her corset pads. Grief lapped again at her feet.

Clinging heavily to her skirt, Jasper asked, “Susie?”

Ida set down her empty laundry basket and lifted him to her hip, though her breasts were firm and soaking, and she didn’t wish to hold him close. “Our Susie has gone home,” she told him, still watching as the team pulled the wagon left onto Dutch Lane, then tilted over the ridge toward the river.

“Susie,” Jasper said, gripping Ida’s shoulder, then squirming to get away. She set his feet on the ground.

“We’re going for a ride on a steamship!” she told him as he toddled away in search of the baby.

Susie was home with her own mother now, as Ida had always hoped she would be. Yet it was terrible to think they would never see her again—never see her wispy hair grow into thick curls, nor hear her babbling turn into language, nor discover what kind of a girl she would become. She had been Ida’s first nursling, a boarder of sorts. But Ida had surprised herself by falling in love with this one as hard as with her own babies. It was impossible, she knew now, to be responsible for the life of a child—for whether it might thrive or perish—and not to love it. Impossible for her, at least.

Frank would rail at her for this softness if she showed it. Wet nursing was a business, a way for her to help him keep up. Always, always, he was struggling to keep up, and she must do her part. Today that meant finishing the chores in time for his nephew Norris’s twenty-first birthday party and behaving at that party as if nothing were wrong, as if she were as confident of her position on this farm as her sisters-in-law. As if she, like Alice, weren’t always tense with watching and waiting.

Ida carried her basket to the line where Susie’s sheets and Jasper’s bibs and her own cotton nursing pads had dried in the sun. As she pulled the wooden pins from the stiff laundry, she could see her sister-in-law Frances up on her porch in a feathered hat, directing the loading of another wagon with crates of party supplies: satin streamers and paper lanterns and floral centerpieces made from Frances’s cutting garden, for the violets were out of season. From down here, only the staccato delivery of her words could be heard, but Ida knew just how she was speaking to the poor driver, just as she herself would be spoken to later, no doubt.

Within the hour, Ida was dressed in her striped shirtwaist and Sunday skirt, with clean padding in her corset, and Jasper on her lap in his coverall suit. The older children had all gone ahead, and now the women followed: Ida with her other sister-in-law, Harriet, in the back of the phaeton, and Frances in front with the driver, fussing with her gloves. In the small pasture, the milk cow and her pregnant daughter stood with their haunches to them, heads in the dewy grass.

“The steamship should be lovely,” Harriet said.

“Yes, indeed,” Ida said, and was surprised to feel a rush of anticipation, for unlike Frances and Harriet, who frequently took a steamer down the Hudson River to the city, she had not ridden a steamship since her girlhood up in Albany.

In fact, all of Ida’s recriminations were forgotten, at least momentarily, when the cross-river ferry landed at Rondout and she saw the steamship up close. It was massive; she reckoned the upper deck alone covered the area of two greenhouses, maybe more, and the paddlewheels were taller than her house. She was received on the main deck by the captain himself, who took her hand and bowed his head to her just as he did to Frances and Harriet. Jasper broke free and ran to the rail, shouting, “Mama! Water!”

They were indeed on the water. It was nothing like being on the train; with no track to restrict the boat’s movement, Ida imagined it could take her anywhere. It was different even from the ferry, which had a prescribed back-and-forth route, never out of sight of the Underwood shore. On this ship, everything felt possible. Ida turned her back to the breeze and gazed up the river, to where its broad shoulders bowed slightly east. That way was home. Funny she would think of Albany as home after nearly twenty-three years away. No one was left there to receive her. But just imagining that this boat could turn north as easily as south at the breakwater made Ida feel light. She closed her eyes and breathed in the weedy green smell of the creek before a whiff of smoke from the coal-fired engine broke her reverie.

Jasper lifted his arms, and she picked him up for a view over the railing. The whistle shrieked, and the passengers covered their ears, all but Frances, who raised her shoulders and half closed her eyes, as if the steamer’s whistle were a personal affront. From the promenade deck, Norris let out a shriek nearly as high as the whistle and attempted to celebrate the start of his party by climbing on the railing, though one of the crew pulled him back by the scruff of his  jacket before he could stand.

The whistle blew again, and the boat drifted from the dock and pushed into forward motion. The wheels were concealed in brightly colored paddle boxes, painted red and gold like the canopy on a carousel, but despite that protection, spray from the great wheels clung in droplets to the wisps of hair at Ida’s forehead. Jasper pressed his face into her shoulder and rubbed it on her sleeve, and she laughed. “It’s only water, my boy.”

Ida turned to see Frank leaning against the wall of the stairwell, arms crossed, slouch hat low on his forehead, responding when necessary to passersby with a smile that more resembled a grimace. He and the boys, Reuben and Oliver, had been whitewashing the empty greenhouse beds all day in preparation for a new load of soil and the next crop of violets. A streak of whitewash remained under his jaw. He was clearly unimpressed by the party, and for a moment she slipped there with him, feeling its ugly underside, the showy excess meant to put the rest of them in their place. Then, determining not to let him ruin her evening, she pointed Jasper to the bow, where Alice stood with her girlfriend Claudie. “Let’s go,” she said, and they hurried to watch the boat’s entry into the Hudson, past the Rondout Light.

There was the ferry, already moored at Coburg Landing. There was Halfway Hill, its lone old oak tree standing like a rooftop chimney. There were so many more trees from this vantage point than Ida had imagined, all of them yellow-green with the quickening of spring. The steamship shared the river with a few smaller craft, but mostly it had the run of the water, flags snapping, smokestacks chuffing, spray suspended in its wake as it raced the receding tide.

“It’s splendid,” Claudie called out to Alice, lifting her chin to the sky, and Alice reached over the rail as if to catch the droplets of river mist in her hands.

Reuben and two of his friends raced up the stairs to the hurricane deck, and Frank followed them. When the girls decided they, too, needed to explore, Ida and Jasper trailed them to the uppermost deck, where a dozen guests were gathered around the pilothouse. Captain Anderson’s bull terrier stood on a deck chair, paws on the back rest, head bowed like a serious old monk. “Amen,” the captain said, and the dog jumped down to laughter and applause, wagging his tail and trotting from one child to another in search of their approval. Jasper held out his hand, and the dog ran to him with his owner not far behind.

“Good evening, little one,” Captain Anderson said to Jasper. “This is my friend Buster.”

“Dog!” Jasper announced with delight.

“Can you tell him to sit?”

“Dog!” Jasper repeated, stomping his feet in excitement, and the partygoers, their attention now on him, laughed again. The only other dog Jasper knew was the hound that lived on the Mortons’ farm next door. It impressed Ida that he recognized this stubby pup as a dog just like the wiry, floppy-eared kind.

Ida bent low to Jasper’s ear and directed, “Tell him to sit. ‘Sit.’ ”

Jasper lifted his face to her, his eyes glistening. “Dog, Mama!”

Alice looked at Buster and said firmly, “Sit,” and the dog dropped his hind end to the deck.

“There you go.” Captain Anderson laughed, touching the brim of his hat as he winked at Alice, and then said, clapping his hands, “Come, Buster.” The dog scurried to his side and followed his master into the pilothouse.

Behind them, Reuben and his friends were more enthralled with the machinery set high in the center of the deck. They stood much too close for Ida’s liking to the massive up-and-down motion of the towering pistons pumping on their A-shaped frame. But Alice and Claudie barely noticed the engine. “Where is the ladies’ saloon?” Claudie wanted to know.

“When you’re a lady, they’ll show you,” Ida answered.

“Just joking, Mrs. Fletcher,” Claudie said, but Ida caught the glance that passed between the girls as they headed down the stairs to the promenade deck.

There was plenty of room to stroll the decks as the Mary Powell pushed south toward the Highlands. William and Frances had invited the families of all of Norris’s classmates, a good part of their church, and a number of prominent businessmen and their families from the valley. The guest list totaled well over a hundred, but by the size of her, it appeared the Mary Powell could carry ten times that number. Ida allowed Jasper to roam among the guests, following him closely to prevent him from wandering too close to the edge. When he tired, she pulled up a wooden deck chair and sat with him on her lap, watching the backlit curves of the west bank unfurl.

She felt heavy with milk again. The new baby was coming on Sunday, two weeks old with a mother whose milk had never come in. Surely Ida had plenty this evening, but her body would be quick to recognize that Susie was gone and taper her supply if she didn’t take care. She had ordered an English breast pump from Sears, Roebuck several weeks ago, but it hadn’t worked as well as she’d hoped, and it wasn’t practical to carry out of the house. She needed Jasper to nurse again, if he would.

She had noticed one woman among the Negro stewards on the boat, so she went in search of her, hoping for a small, enclosed space in which to sit for twenty minutes. She found the woman leaving the empty dining room with a stack of table linens in her arms. She led Ida to a private parlor with a solid door against which she could position a chair so no one would enter and interrupt.

Ida let her boy wander the room while she untucked her shirtwaist from her skirt and unfastened the lowest few buttons. She had given up dresses, for the most part, finding the shirtwaist more convenient for nursing; it was easier to be discreet. From the top, she unbuttoned her corset cover and unfastened the left flap of her nursing corset. She called to Jasper, and he toddled obediently to her. With her feet raised on an ottoman, her lap was deep and snug, and she didn’t have to hold him tightly to keep him in place. He tucked one tiny arm under hers at her waist. The other hung limp at his side as he matched his mouth to her breast and closed his eyes and drank himself to sleep.

It was simple now, no effort at all to nurse an infant or her little boy, except for the monumental amount of time it required from her already busy day. But without a mother or a sister to show her what to do, Ida had struggled to learn how to nurse her first baby, fussy Oliver. She had never watched a woman nurse up close, and though Frances had already had Norris, she wasn’t the type to nurse in front of other women or help Ida on her way. So Ida had been left to figure out how to hold the baby properly to prevent the agonizing pull of sore nipples, and whether to keep him on one breast or to switch, and how often to nurse him. She had learned by trial and error how best to bring up the air when he was finished and later found this was different with every baby. Those first several months of weighing Oliver on the grain scale and fretting about whether he was getting enough nourishment had left Ida exhausted and fragile. Finally she had confessed her fears to the one woman she felt she could approach, a woman from church named Mrs. Schreiber, who had seven grown children and never seemed surprised by anything.

Mrs. Schreiber had come to call and shown Ida how to hold the baby’s head in the cup of her hand so she could guide it securely to the opposite breast, and how to break the baby’s suction with her fingertip rather than pulling him off. She had placed a footstool under Ida’s feet to raise her lap and plumped a pillow there to support the baby until he grew bigger, so Ida’s arm wouldn’t tire from holding him. She had shown Ida how the muscles of his tongue moved under his chin and the way his throat shifted under his creamy skin as he swallowed. Of course he was getting milk—look at him drinking! And she could see, couldn’t she, the rolls of milky fat on those chubby arms and legs? Her baby was going to be just fine, and so was she. That one visit had done more good than all the visits of the village doctor, and it had set Ida on her way to such confidence that it was hard to remember now, twenty years later, being that woman who had cried at the sight of her hungry baby.

Jasper slept heavily on Ida’s shoulder even as dinner was called and they were all escorted to the dining room on the main deck aft. Ida transferred him carefully to Alice, who took him out to the deck so Ida could eat with Frank and another couple. In the beautifully appointed dining room, tables of four were covered with white linen tablecloths and set with heavy flatware and sharply folded napkins. The room was trimmed in mahogany complemented by two lighter woods, and the entire space was flooded with orange sunlight from the deep plate-glass windows, which offered a spectacular view of the river on both sides. Between the windows, patterned sheets of hammered brass and silver reflected the light, as did large mirrors on either side of the wide main doorway. The room was radiant.

There were two seatings for dinner, followed by the music of a Hyde Park string quartet on the promenade deck. At Cornwall the Mary Powell turned and pushed back up the river, and a two-tiered cake with white frosting and sparklers was rolled out. As Norris stood with his parents in the center of the crowd, singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to him, he seemed to lose his cockiness. William, looking polished in the new Prince Albert suit and silk scarf Frances had purchased for the occasion, made a brief, heartfelt speech in Norris’s honor that charmed his guests. At one point he alluded to the four babies he and Frances had lost, and Ida, who had suffered such a loss herself, felt the tender press of that pain as she watched her sister-in-law turn her face away. Then William announced the news that Ida and Frank had feared.

“Now that this young man,” he said, shaking Norris’s shoulder, “has reached a certain age, it is time for him to take on more responsibility. Tonight we celebrate the entry of Mr. Norris Fletcher into the family business as a junior partner.”

Norris’s eyes widened as his father hugged him quickly with a slap on the back. Frances stepped up to kiss his cheek. Around them, William’s friends cheered, and someone handed both Norris and William cigars. Beside Ida, Frank stood so still that she couldn’t be sure he was breathing.

The quartet began again with some familiar Brahms and Schubert, but by the time the boat was passing Poughkeepsie’s lights on the eastern shore, the mood had loosened, and the ensemble had launched into popular favorites like “After the Ball” and “The Band Played On.” The youths and some of the adults sang and danced on the deck beneath the shimmering blue satin streamers and the delicate paper lanterns that hung under the electric lights. Some of the younger boys, Reuben included, stood at the rail shooting imagined Spanish warships in the dark. Jasper, fortified by his nap, bounced and tottered at the edges of the dancing, and Ida let him enjoy being part of the party. She stood in the swinging shadows, holding the portside railing behind her back, wondering at what point Frank would break.

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