The Measure of a Heart

By: Janette Oke

Chapter One


The rays of the late afternoon sun poured down upon her head, splashed over and spilled onto the thin blue calico that covered her slender shoulders. She had pushed her bonnet back and loosed the braids that usually held her hair captive, running her fingers through the heavy brown locks so they fell about her, thick and wavy, making her face seem almost pixyish.
But she paid no attention to the warmth of the sun, nor to the tresses that wisped about her face. Her thoughts far away, she did not notice the sounds or stirring around her. Her bare feet dragged listlessly through the dust of the rutted track that the locals referred to as the Main Road. But even though part of her was deep in thought, her intense blue eyes scanned the grasses at the sides of the road, alert to small groupings of red that announced wild strawberries tucked among the greenery.
Her worn school shoes, the only ones she owned, were tied together by frayed laces and hung loosely from her shoulder. They swayed lightly as she walked, but she did not pay them notice either. Only when she stopped and bent over did she even remember they were there. Then she held them in place by pressing an elbow against the one that hung in front while her hands reached out to pluck the sweet berries. She deposited them carefully in the red metal lunch pail with the scratched-in initials A.T. for Anna Trent.
She could have eaten the berries—but even in her state of distraction, she automatically placed them in the small container, conscious of the small hands that would reach eagerly for them when she arrived home.
Her thoughts were not on the warm day, nor the dust at her feet, nor even the berries that she placed carefully in the small pail. They were more seriously occupied. This was her last day of school. Her last day ever! And she would miss it. Would miss it terribly.
But even as the sad thoughts filled her being and tightened her throat with unshed tears, she knew she had been blessed. Why, most of the girls her age had been forced long ago to drop out to help at home. Here she was, already past her sixteenth birthday, and still trudging off to school with the little kids. Oh, not every day. In fact, she had missed almost a solid year when her mama had been so ill. And there were the seed times, the harvests, the days when Mama just couldn’t do without her help. But she had gone enough to easily keep up with her classmates. But not any longer. She had completed the eighth grade. There wasn’t any more school for her.
Quite suddenly she broke from her reverie and lifted her eyes to the afternoon sky. A shocked look crossed her face when she saw where the sun was. My, she’d been dawdling. She hadn’t realized. Her mama would wonder what on earth had become of her.
She straightened from her crouched position and let the handful of ripe berries trickle from her stained fingers. She had to get home. There was work to be done before the sun set and the farmhouse door closed against the spring darkness.
Her bare feet slapped the earth with rapid regularity, causing the dust to lift with each step, swirling around her and clinging to the hem of her calico skirts. Every now and then she reached down to shake her skirt of the encroaching dust—but she could not shake her thoughts as easily. School is over. Finished. I’ll never go again hung heavily upon her, clinging to every awareness of her quick and active mind.
She had loved school. Had been an apt student. Could have accomplished great things had she had the opportunity. She did not think about that. But her teachers had. Anna only knew that she loved to learn, loved the excitement of new discoveries, loved the quickening of her pulse as she shared some great adventure in the pages of a book. Through books, her mind—her life—was made to stretch and grow and become more aware of the world about her and beyond her.
And now that was over. She had reached the end of the road. The last day of the eighth grade.
With one final swish of her skirts, she turned the corner into her own farmyard and proceeded with quick steps toward the house. Mama would be tired from her long day. Anna dreaded the first glimpse of the pale face, the listless eyes, the drooping shoulders that marked another day at the laundry tubs or the long rows of spring vegetables. Her mama worked so hard—and she, Anna, had dawdled over tiny wild strawberries.
She entered the kitchen and placed her pail on the small table by the door. Her mama was at the cupboard, her back turned, and yes, her shoulders were drooping; but at the sound of stirring behind her, she turned. Anna was tempted to lower her gaze so she wouldn’t see the tiredness in the eyes, but she could not. Clear blue eyes met smoky gray ones. Anna saw the weariness she had expected, but she also saw the gray eyes lighten quickly, a warmth and eagerness making them brighten.
“You got your eighth-grade certificate?” her mama asked, excitement filling her voice and spilling over into her face.
Anna’s eyes shone in turn. She nodded her head and reached to the bodice of her dress where she had carefully tucked the certificate so she wouldn’t stain it with berry juices. She eased out the slight crease in the paper and handed it to her mother.
“Grade eight!” the woman exclaimed as her eyes fell to the small but important document.
Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she carefully studied it.
“It says I finished the eighth grade with first-class honors,” said Anna, almost under her breath. She hated to boast, but she knew her mama might not be able to read all the words.
“First-class honors,” repeated the woman. “I’m so proud,” and she reached out a calloused hand and let it rest on the wavy brown hair. “So proud t’ have an edjicated daughter.”
The tears did fall then, and the woman laid the bit of paper on the nearby table, brushed her cheeks with the hem of her flour-sack apron, then moved back toward the cupboards.
“Sorry I’m so late,” Anna apologized. “I got picking strawberries and lost track of the time.”
“Isn’t every day that a girl graduates,” excused her mother, running her rolling pin over the crust for a pie. “I got the last of the apples up from the root cellar,” she said. “Getting kind of wrinkled and scrawny. Figured they had to be used up. You pare ’em before you peel the supper potatoes. The boys are out doing up the chores. Pa is in the east field. I’m sure he’ll work until it’s dark. He’s so anxious to get that crop in—with the rainy weather puttin’ him way behind. ’Course he’s further ahead than some of the neighbors. Mr. Rubens ain’t half done, and Ole Hank hardly has him a start. But then he don’t have much help. Just has them girls, and they are none too ambitious—and them not even going t’ school much since sixth grade.” She raised her head a moment to look again at Anna. “Eighth grade. Just think of it. I’m so proud to have a daughter so edjicated!”
Anna was used to her mother’s chatter. Used to the run-on topics that seemed disconnected and yet were all woven together by some unknown thread of thought. She knew how much her mother needed someone to talk to. Stuck at home with all the household chores, with two small boys still clinging to her skirts, with rowdy school sons tumbling in and out of her kitchen for the remainder of her day. With a husband either in the fields or in the barns. She needed someone to talk to. And Anna was her only girl. Her only companion. One girl with six younger brothers. No wonder her mother talked nonstop when Anna arrived home from school.
“I’d better change,” Anna managed to fit in when her mother stopped for a breath, and the older woman nodded, the rolling pin working smoothly back and forth under her expert hands.
Anna moved quickly to the little room at the back of the kitchen. It was small and simple, but neat and private. Her little place of solitude—her sanctuary. She wished she could stay there now—tuck herself among the pillows on her bed and pick up one of her worn books, or just bury her head in the pillow and have herself a good cry.
She didn’t understand why she felt like crying—she with her education, she who had been so singularly blessed. But she felt weepy nonetheless.
She didn’t stop to indulge herself, though. Her mother needed her in the kitchen. She slipped the calico over her head and hung it properly on its peg. Then her hand reached for the simple brown garment that was her household chore dress. She let it fall over her slim shoulders and settle about her. The brown dress seemed to smother her small frame. She didn’t like the dress. It always made her look and feel like a small child lost in brown straw.
I’m so—so skinny, she thought to herself for the hundredth time. She made a face at her own reflection in the piece of mirror that hung on her wall. So shiny and—plain. Her thoughts continued.
Small face, skinny cheeks, little bit of a chin, thin lips—only my nose is big, too big for the rest of me. I wish my face was bigger—or my nose smaller. Something—something to balance me off. And I look all lost in all this—this sack of a dress, this hair.
Her eyes lifted again to the mirror. She really did look lost, she concluded, as her blue eyes stared back at her. They looked too big for the small, thin face. Anna flung her hair back from her face and turned away from the mirror in discouragement. Then she reached for a piece of ribbon and quickly bound the hair back at the nape of her neck.
With one last disdainful glance at her own reflection, she left the room and hurried out to help her mother in the kitchen.
Her mother was already speaking when she entered the room.
“As soon as you finish the apples and peelin’ the supper potatoes, the milk and cream have t’ go to the parson’s. She might be needin’ it for her supper.”
Anna nodded and moved quickly to tie a large apron over the large brown dress. She had an added incentive to hurry with the peeling now. She loved the short walk to the parson-age. And she loved her little chats with the kind Mrs. Angus or her elderly pastor husband. Here were people who were really educated—and Anna had so much she longed to learn.

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