Excerpt for In The Beginning by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Book V

Tamara Miller

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 9780463669051


To my family and friends who have shared some of my life experiences and said, “You should write a book!”

This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity and are used fictitiously. All characters and all incidents and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

Copyright © 2014 Tamara Miller

All rights reserved

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This eBook is intended for your personal enjoyment. It may not be resold or given to other people. Please respect the rights of the author.


Isla and Amy pressed tightly against their mother, Helen, as they stood at the empty grave of their father, who died of influenza. They watched the attendants take their father’s body from the hearse and carry the coffin to the gravesite. Helen gripped her teenage daughters’ hands as she stood numb, realizing that her husband, Andy, was gone. She was amazed to see so many of his co-workers from the railroad, where he had worked for twenty years, at the service.

The heat from the early morning sun was already bearing down in Fort Madison, Iowa. Several ladies had their parasols opened for shade as the preacher led the group in prayer. Hearing a few sniffles in the background, Isla started to cry, then Amy. Helen put her arms around their shoulders to console them as her own tears flooded her face. After the service, Helen invited everyone to her house to gather and share stories.

Before Helen and the girls left the cemetery, they stopped by Helen’s mother and father’s graves who had died a year earlier in an automobile accident.

Holding her daughters’ hands, Helen read out loud the writing on their tombstones, “Ralph Warren, 1830 to 1910, and Ruby Warren, 1832 to 1910.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Please take good care of Andy for us. He is with you now.” The girls started to whimper again. “Okay, let’s go. Aunt Lillian is waiting to drive us home.”

Guests were waiting at the house when Helen and the girls arrived. She tried to be gracious as she greeted everyone, but was only going through the motions. She had so much on her mind. How am I ever going to support my family? she wondered. I need to come up with a plan.

An hour later, most of the guest had left. Helen said good-bye to the last visitor and her sister. “Forty-two is too young to die,” said Lillian, giving her sister a final hug. “Are you going to be all right?”

“Yes, we’ll be okay. We thought we had plenty of time to save for retirement, but life’s plan doesn’t always work out as one expects. I have a lot of decisions to make.”

“Do you want me to stay with you tonight?”

“Oh, no. The girls and I will be fine. Thank you for coming, and being with us during this devastating time. You’re the only family I have left.”

“Call me if you need anything,” said Lillian, hugging her sister and the two girls before she left.

“Okay, girls, let’s clean up,” directed Mama, and the three went into the kitchen.

“Mama, look at all this food!” said Isla, the youngest daughter.

“We won’t have to cook for a week,” said Amy, who was two years older than Isla. “I know,” said Mama, standing by the kitchen table. “I can’t believe how wonderful your father’s friends and our neighbors have been. We are blessed by their friendship. Let’s get everything put away,” she said, letting out a loud exhale. “I’m so tired.”

“Mama, why don’t you go lie down,” said Amy. “Isla and I can clean up the kitchen.”

She paused for a minute, looking at her two daughters. “I think I will,” she replied. She had hardly slept more than two hours at a time since Andy’s death. “Be sure to put anything that is perishable in the icebox.” She turned and slowly walked upstairs.

Standing at her bedroom door, she stared at her bed. I’m going to be so lonely without you, Andy, she thought. She sat on the side of the bed, letting her shoes fall to the floor. She took the few combs from her hair, letting it fall free to her shoulders. She slowly lay on the bed, crying softly, and she finally dozed off.


One week later, Mama had already taken a few measures to put her plan in place. She was a short woman and a little on the heavy side. She always wore an apron over her ankle- length dress and her hair in a bun. She sewed all her own dresses and had taught Isla to sew, too. Today was the last day of school before summer vacation. Mama was going to talk to Isla first about a decision she had made.

Isla, barely fifteen years old, placed her hands on her small hips in defiance, “No, Mama, I don’t want to go!” she said as she stamped her foot and shook her head, which was surprising for such a shy girl. Isla was a small, naïve girl with natural curly strawberry-blond hair. She had never before questioned her mother nor raised her voice. “I want to stay here with you and Amy,” she said in a louder than normal voice. Her lips trembling as she fought back her tears. Mama just stared at Isla, surprised at her reaction. “What about school and my friends? Why do I have to go?” seeing Amy standing in the doorway, she lowered her voice. “Why not Amy? She is older.”

Amy didn’t have curly hair like Isla’s. Her hair was straight and brown, and she wore it in a single braid past her shoulders. “What’s going on?” asked Amy. “What do you mean? Why not Amy? She is older’?” asked Amy.

“Mama is going to send me away for the summer,” spouted Isla.

“You will only be gone for three months,” replied Mama as she explained to Amy what they were talking about. “I’ve made arrangements for Isla to attend Archer’s Academy, a highly recommended boarding school for seamstresses.” Reaching out to pull Isla close as she sat at the kitchen table, she continued. “It will be just as hard for me to let you go as it will be for you to be away from us. Your sewing will help with our household expenses. Isla, I need your help. Please be brave for me?”

“No, Mama! I won’t go!” said Isla as she pulled away from her mother, and then she threw herself across Mama’s lap, sobbing.

“I’m sorry, honey, but arrangements have already been made,” said Mama, patting Isla on her back. “I spoke with your school principal, Mr. Burns, and he has a close friend who works at Archer’s. He talked to the headmaster and told him of our circumstances and how talented you are, and he is willing to discount the tuition,” explained Mama, pausing as she stroked Isla’s hair. “I have already bought the train ticket, and you will be leaving Sunday morning. When you come back, you can return to your friends and get small sewing jobs after school.” Despite her young age, Isla showed a creative ability in her sewing skills. With professional training, Mama thought she could become an accomplished seamstress and bring in additional income for the household.

Amy sat quietly listening to what Mama said as she watched Isla let go of Mama and run upstairs to her room. After slamming the door, Isla threw herself on her bed and cried herself to sleep.

Mama glanced at Amy, waiting to see how she would react to her plan. She wiped her hands on the front of her apron and started to clear the dinner dishes from the table. Amy helped her mother without saying a word, afraid she might also be sent away.

Putting away the final dish, Amy couldn’t stand it any longer; she had to ask, “Mama, are you going to send me away too?”

“Oh, no, dear. I need your help here. I’m going to move you girls downstairs with me and rent out the two bedrooms upstairs.”

Relieved, but confused, Amy wrapped her arms around her mother’s thick waist. Mama held her tight with an assuring hug. “Won’t it be crowded with all three of us in one bedroom?” asked Amy.

“Yes, it will, but we will have to make do. I have a small bed stored away. I’ll put it in our bedroom for me, and you girls can sleep in the double bed. With Dad gone I have to come up with a way to make some money. I’m also going to serve Sunday dinners for an additional five people and charge a small fee.”

After telling the girls her plan and seeing their reactions, Mama had trouble sleeping. As she lay in bed, she wondered if she had done the right thing. “Andy, if you hear me, please let me know if I have made the right decision,” she said, just above a whisper. No sooner had she finished the sentence than a billow of wind came through her open bedroom window. The curtains waved briefly, and a breeze filled the room. Mama took this as a sign of approval. “Thank you, Andy. I love you, and I miss you so much. Decisions are hard to make without you.”

As she looked at the ceiling, she prayed silently. God be with our little family and keep Isla safe. She needs you, Lord, to be by her side now more than ever. Tears flooded her eyes as she pondered over Isla’s journey and her plan to open her house to boarders.


Isla was still in bed on Saturday morning when she heard a knock on her bedroom door, but she didn’t answer. The second knock was louder.

“Isla, it’s me. Let me come in,” said Amy.

Isla got up and unlocked the door, turned, ran, and jumped back in bed.

Amy opened the door slowly, and then ran and jumped in bed with Isla. They pulled the covers over their heads and hugged tightly.

“I don’t want to go,” Isla said stubbornly. “Can Mama make me go?”

“Well, she is our mother, and we have to do what she says. I don’t think you have a choice. Three months is not that long, and think of all the new friends you’ll make.”

“But I’m scared,” said Isla hugging Amy tightly again.

“Mama said you have talent. When you come back home, you can sew for the neighbors. She needs your help, or she wouldn’t be sending you away.”

“I do have a lot of new dress ideas. I want to make gowns that sparkle with beads and pearls.”

“Maybe you will become a famous dress designer!”

“Oh, my! I never thought of that. Famous!” said Isla as she jumped out of bed. “Famous!” she shouted as she strutted around the room with her nose in the air. “I’ll study really hard. Maybe I’ll make gowns for high society ladies.”

“Let’s go tell Mama,” said Amy as she jumped out of bed. Hand in hand they ran downstairs in their matching nightgowns that Isla had made.

“Mama! Mama!” shouted Isla as she burst into the kitchen. “Maybe I’ll be famous with my dress designs. I’m going to study hard, and when I become important, I’ll buy us a big house where you can sit on the porch all day and sip lemonade.”

Isla’s new attitude pleased Mama. “Reach for your dreams, and they might come true,” she said as she joined the girls, laughing and holding hands they danced in a circle. “Let’s have breakfast. I’m going to make Isla’s favorite pancakes.”

As they sat around the breakfast table, Mama told them the duties she had for Amy and how she was going to change the bedrooms to make room for the boarders. Maybe this is a good time not to be home after all, Isla thought. Amy has a lot of chores helping Mama and won't have time for her friends either.

That night, Amy helped Isla pack a suitcase. She didn’t have to take a lot of clothes because uniforms were worn at the school. “Don’t forget Susie,” reminded Amy. Susie was a precious fabric doll with red yarn hair that Mama had made. Isla made the doll’s nightgown to match hers and Amy’s. Susie knew all Isla’s fears, like how much she missed her father and that she was frightened to leave home. Isla knew she was too old to be carrying around a doll, but she wanted to take something to remind her of home.

Sunday morning came, and they needed to be at the train station by eleven o’clock. Isla had on her Sunday best dress with matching sweater and dress shoes. Mama lent her a small purse for her travel, just big enough to carry a handkerchief, a few coins, and a note stating who to contact if Isla got lost.

They arrived at the station just in time for hugs and kisses before Isla had to board. Mama had packed a sandwich and a few cookies for her journey. The train trip would take three hours to reach Archer’s.

Mama found the conductor and asked, “Would you please keep an eye on my daughter Isla? She has never traveled alone before, and she is going to Archer’s boarding school. There will be someone there to meet her.”

“I know where that is,” replied the conductor. “I’ll make sure she gets off at the right stop.”Then he took Isla’s hand and found her a seat by the window.

“All aboard!” hollered the engineer. The train whistle blew as it slowly chugged away from the station platform.

Holding back her tears and clutching Susie under her arm, Isla waved goodbye from the train window.

Mama and Amy stood on the station’s wooden platform, waving goodbye and throwing kisses. Mama wiped the tears from her eyes, hoping that Isla didn’t see them. She still wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing by sending her little girl away.

Isla enjoyed all the scenery from the train window as she ate the lunch Mama had packed for her. She saw places and towns she had never seen before, with fields of wheat and corn, and farms with cows and horses. She was a city girl and found the countryside interesting.

“I have a little girl your age,” said the conductor, stopping by to check on Isla. He was concerned about such a young girl traveling alone. She nodded back with a smile. “If you need anything, let me know.” Isla still didn’t answer, just smiled, remembering that Mama had told her not to speak to strangers.

A few minutes before the train arrived at the depot closest to Archer’s, the conductor let Isla know they were getting ready to stop. “I’ll come back to escort you off,” he said.

When the train stopped, the conductor took Isla to the depot platform. Archer’s headmaster’s assistant was waiting for her.

“Hi there, dear. Are you Isla Warren?” asked Mrs. Whitney, reaching out her hand.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said timidly.

“I’m Mrs. Whitney. I’m here to take you to Archer’s.”

She took her hand and wondered, Is she my teacher?

Islam examined what Mrs. Whitney was wearing. Isla often wondered why all teachers looked alike. They seemed to wear dark dresses, ugly shoes, and expressions on their faces like they had just smelled something bad. If Mrs. Whitney was a teacher, she looked different. She was young and pretty and wore a flowered dress.

“It’s about an hour ride to Archer’s. I have a carriage waiting for us. Shall we go?” said Mrs. Whitney. Her smile made Isla feel comfortable. Together they drove in a horse-drawn buggy belonging to the school. Mrs. Whitney made small talk, asking how Isla’s mother and sister were doing after her father’s death. The time went by quickly, and they soon arrived at the school.

Archer’s was a large, gloomy, gray, two-story stone building. Isla thought it looked spooky like somewhere a witch or ghost would live. As Mrs. Whitney walked her through the building, Isla observed several classrooms. There were separate rooms for designing, cutting, fitting and assembling, and another room for lectures. Other classrooms had been converted into sleeping rooms. Isla’s arrival gave her just enough time to register, unpack, and receive a quick orientation.

Entering Isla’s bedroom, Mrs. Whitney instructed, “We have thirty students; each bedroom sleeps six girls. Two girls will share a wardrobe, but you will have your own trunk for your personal belongings. You may post pictures of your family on the wall above your bed.”

Isla put her suitcase down and followed Mrs. Whitney to the cafeteria. “Dinner is served promptly at six p.m. All the students are assigned weekly kitchen duties, and those who have kitchen duty in the morning will report to the kitchen at five a.m. Breakfast is served at six thirty, and classes start at seven thirty. There is a thirty-minute lunch break at eleven thirty and then back to class by noon. Classes continue until five thirty p.m., six days a week.”

Walking Isla back to her room, Mrs. Whitney continued, “Church service is held on Sunday mornings. In the afternoons you can write letters or participate in any other leisure activity you choose, as long as you don’t leave the school grounds. Visitors are permitted on Sundays only. Do you have any questions?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well, go ahead and unpack, and I’ll meet you in the cafeteria at six. After dinner you will be given two uniforms,” said Mrs. Whitney, smiling as she left.

On Isla’s first day, she reported directly to the lecture room, wearing her new uniform, a drab green jumper with a white blouse. She wore her own shoes but was given dark knee-high socks. There were five other girls starting school with her. Following the lecture on school rules and expectations, three girls were assigned to the cutting room, and the other two girls and Isla were taken to the sewing room.

When Isla entered the classroom, she quietly gasped. She had never seen so many sewing machines in one room. There were more machines than students. Later she found out that the school was also a workshop that hired outside seamstresses to meet the school’s contracts. Isla was surprised to find out she had a daily quota to sew. After she met her quota, she would have time to learn advanced techniques. By the end of the first week, she met her quota every day.

The teachers took to Isla immediately because she needed little instruction. Students interested in designing had to sign up for six months instead of Isla’s three-month commitment. She figured that if she worked hard, she could advance to the design session during her three month period.

“Isla, your designs are too elaborate for what we do here,” said her teacher. “We won’t be doing any gowns with beading.”

“Yes, ma’am. Would it be all right if I showed the beading on my sketches only? Just so I can visualize what the finished gown will look like.”

“As long as you understand your designs are on paper only. But remember the actual gown will be made of whatever fabric we have on hand, without any embellishments.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” said Isla with a curtsy.

Isla continued sketching her complex drawings, and the teachers shook their heads in amazement as they critiqued her work.

The days were long, and Isla missed her mother and sister. She had a calendar on the wall keeping track of the passing days, and she drew a star on the last day of school. At the end of each school day, Isla told Susie everything she had learned. Being timid, talking to Susie was comforting and easier than talking to the other girls. At night, she would kneel beside her bed with Susie and say her prayers, blessing Mama, Amy and Daddy in heaven.


Mama and Amy had not planned on visiting Isla on Sundays because the round trip train ride would take six hours, not including the trip to and from the station. Sunday was Mama’s big dinner day for outside guests. Isla understood this was part of the plan.

“Mama, I miss Isla,” said Amy. “Isn’t there some way we can go visit her? ”Her eyes looked so sad.

“I really miss her, too,” replied Mama, giving Amy a big hug. “She’s been gone for a month and writes that she is lonely and wants to come home. Maybe a visit will help all three of us.”


Mama’s plan was working. Her dinners were a success, and she had two boarders. Sunday dinner was usually served at two in the afternoon, following church. To allow time for their surprise visit with Isla, Mama told her guests in advance that dinner would be served later.

The following Sunday, Amy was up early, excited about seeing her sister again. Mama packed a lunch for all three of them, including her homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies, which were Isla’s favorite.

Reaching the end of the train ride, Mama found someone who was willing to give them a ride to the school. They arrived at lunch-time. Students who had visitors were in the garden. Isla was in the cafeteria with a few of the other girls who didn’t have family members visiting. She was patiently sitting at one of the tables, waiting for the nod from the head cook to get in line for food service.

Isla saw the door open from the hall entrance, expecting it to be one of the students coming in late; she was surprised to see Mama and Amy. “Mama! Mama! Amy!” she squealed and ran to meet them. All three hugged and cried. Jumping up and down, Isla turned to the other girls, saying ecstatically, “This is my mama and sister.”

Taking Mama’s hand, she led them to the picnic area in the garden, a shaded courtyard with several tables and chairs. The shade trees were huge, and there were trellises of ivy running up the side of the building, with rose bushes lining the walkway. After noticing the dreary look of the outside of the building, Mama was pleased to see the pleasantry of roses and ivy.

Amy and Mama’s visit made timid little Isla come alive. They sat next to the family of Jessie Whitman, one of the girls who had started the same time as Isla. Mr. and Mrs. Whitman were cordial and said it was nice to meet a family of one of the other students.

During lunch, Isla didn’t stop talking as she told them about her classes. “You wouldn’t believe all the sewing machines in our work-room, and I meet my quota every day,” said Isla proudly.

“I’m glad you have settled in,” said Mama. “I’ve rented out the two bedrooms. My Sunday afternoon dinners are a success, so we won’t be able to stay long.”

Isla was sad for them to go, but she understood and relished the time they had together. Mama and Amy caught a ride back to the train station with Mr. and Mrs. Whitman.

They arrived home just in time to get supper served, most of which Mama had prepared before she had left home. They were running late, but the guests understood and were delighted to see the sparkle in Mama’s eyes and the cheerfulness of their server, Amy.

During evening dinner at Archer’s, still excited about her visit from Mama and Amy, Isla asked the other students at her table, “Did you see my mama and sister come and visit me today?” The girls smiled, responding with a “yes,” or a simple nod. What a great day this has been, thought Isla.

That night Isla and Jessie talked together about their families.

“My mother wants me to become a seamstress,” Jessie told Isla. “She thinks that would be a good occupation after I graduate from high school. She doesn’t want me to go away to college. My mother said she would be lonely if I left home.”

“I love to sew and design dresses,” said Isla. “But I didn’t want to come here; my mama made me. My father recently died, and we don’t have much money. Mama wants me to learn more and to improve my dressmaking skills so I can sew for our neighbors and help with family expenses.”

“I’ve seen your work. You are really good. I think your mother is right,” Jessie replied, giving Isla a smile.

“I know, but I miss my mother and sister. I’ll be happy when I can go home.”

Before Isla went to bed that night, she drew a star on her calendar. It certainly had been a special day. Isla said her prayers with Susie before bed which included Jessie and her family.

Jessie and Isla became good friends. They sat next to each other during meal-time. Having Jessie as a friend made the days go faster. She was a year older than Isla, a spindly girl, with doe-like eyes, who wore her hair in pigtails. Mama and Amy wrote to Isla weekly, and she shared her letters with Jessie. Her parents came every Sunday and included Isla in their picnic lunches. Isla looked forward to Jessie’s family meetings and wished she had a daddy like Jessie’s.

Mr. Whitman had an average build. He looked younger than his age, but his bushy mustache gave him a fatherly appearance, and he was always smiling. Mrs. Whitman was short, stout, and wore her slightly graying hair in short finger waves. Jessie looked more like her father, with her dark eyes and brown hair, and she, too, was always smiling.

Jessie’s father gave Isla his undivided attention. “Come sit next to me,” he said, patting the bench seat next to him. He put his arm around her, giving her a squeeze, doing the same to Jessie. “My two girls,” he said as he squeezed them both. Mr. Whitman had wanted to have another child, but due to complications during Jessie’s birth, Mrs. Whitman could not have any more children.


Mama and Amy visited Isla again at the end of the next month. This time Mama brought enough oatmeal-raisin cookies to share with Jessie’s family, who raved over how delicious they were. That made Isla proud. Mama also noticed the attention Jessie’s father was paying to Isla. She appreciated his kindness because Isla didn’t have a father to look up to.

Graduation day finally came. It was a Friday, and Mama and Amy were there to see Isla graduate. She had studied hard and made use of every spare minute during her three-month session, but she was ready to put school behind her. Jessie’s parents were there, too.

The ceremony was short, and each girl received a certificate of completion. “Mama, can I frame and hang my certificate on our dining room wall?” asked Isla. “I want everyone to see it.”

“You sure can,” said Mama. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Can we give you a ride to the station?” offered Mr. Whitman as they were leaving.

“Thank you,” said Mama. “I would appreciate that.” The six of them squeezed into his new, shiny 1903 Packard automobile.

At the train station, they all said good-bye. “I’m going to miss you, Jessie,” said Isla.

“I’ll miss you, too. I’ll write you, and I hope you’ll write back and let me know all about your neighborhood customers,” Jessie said with a smile.

Mr. Whitman picked up Isla in his arms and gave her a big kiss on the cheek and an extremely long hug. When he put her down, Isla threw her arms around his waist, giving him a hug back. Mama knew they had developed a close friendship during their Sunday lunches but thought the kiss and long hug were inappropriate. Not wanting to cause a problem, she didn’t say anything.

“Thank you for the ride. I hope we see each other again sometime,” said Mama, giving a nod and smile to Mr. and Mrs. Whitman. “If you are ever in our area, I would like to have you for dinner to show my appreciation for the kindness you have shown Isla.”

“That would be nice,” replied Mrs. Whitman. “Thank you for the invitation.”

Jessie and Isla waved to each other until they were out of sight.


On the train ride home, Isla was bubbly, bouncing up and down on her seat, and spouted out everything she had learned.

When Amy could get a word in, she said, “A new family moved in next door. There is a girl my age, and she has an older brother. I think he goes to college.”

“Have you met them yet?” asked Isla.

“No, but school starts next week, and we’ll have a chance to meet the girl. It will be fun to have a friend next door,” stated Amy.


The first day of school, Amy made friends with the new neighbor girl, Martha. Isla didn’t go out of her way to be friendly. Many thought she was stuck-up; she was just shy.

It didn’t take long for the word to get out that Isla had spent the summer attending Archer’s and was ready to take on some dressmaking assignments.

“Did you see the dress Isla had on today?” one of the girls at school asked her sister as they walked home.

“Yes. I bet it even had matching bloomers.”

“I heard she makes all her own clothes and her sister’s, too.”

“I wish I had a dress like the one Amy was wearing,” replied the other girl.

“Let’s ask Mother if we can have Isla sew for us.”

Many mothers in town found it difficult to trust a fifteen-year-old with their sewing needs, but their daughters insisted. Isla soon had plenty sewing projects to do after school and on the weekends, which didn’t leave much time for a social life. That was okay with her; she would rather sew than do anything else.

When spring vacation came, Amy had her eye on the new neighbor boy, Rod, who was home from college. He was six feet two with reddish brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He had a collegiate air about him. Amy and Martha, Rod’s sister, became good friends, which made it easy for Amy to hang out around Rod. Amy spent every spare minute during the holiday breaks with him. When he returned from college for the summer, he began courting Amy.

Isla had no interest in hearing Amy talk about Rod and how they were going to get married and move to Texas, where Rod’s uncle lived and had offered him a job after graduation. What will Mama do if Amy moves away? Isla wondered. I hope she tells her she can’t go.


It was after dinner, and Amy was at Rod’s house. Mama had received a telegram from Archer’s that day but knew she would have to be careful how she told Isla. She was sitting on the couch, knitting next to Isla, who was doing some hand-sewing.

“I received a telegram from Archer’s today,” said Mama, not looking up from her knitting.

“Archer’s? I hope you aren’t planning on sending me back there again this summer?” said Isla, confused.

“No, Isla, but it is about you.” Isla looked puzzled as Mama continued. “They have a summer contract offer for you.”

“No, no! The answer is no!” Isla glared at her mother, putting her sewing down.

“At least let me tell you about it before you say no.”

Isla didn’t say anything. Biting on her upper lip and folding her arms in front of her. She sat quietly, listening to what her mother had to say.

“The contract is for the summer at the home of the Mayfield family. They want someone to sew the fall and winter wardrobe for the lady of the house and her two young daughters,” explained Mama. She hated to send Isla away again but thought it was a good opportunity. “It would be a good experience to live with a nice wealthy family.” Isla was glaring at her mother. “It would be a chance to see how other people live, and it might be a good connection for your future.” Isla sat without saying a word as Mama continued. “The contract will pay three times what you would make staying here for the summer, and they will pay for your round-trip train fare.” Baffled, but a little more relaxed, Isla still didn’t speak.

“You can keep half of your pay and open up a savings account for your future.” Mama was smiling as she made the offer.

Isla sat up straight, her interest piqued. I’ve never had my own money, she thought. Her earnings were always given directly to her mother.

“I don’t know,” Isla finally said, shaking her head. “I don’t want to be away from you and Amy again.” Pausing, she thought about the money. “Can we talk about this in the morning so I can think about it?” asked Isla.

“I think that would be a good idea. Archer’s wants me to telegraph them back by tomorrow with an answer, so we don’t have much time,” said Mama, smiling at Isla and going back to her knitting. I need to send an inquiry to Archer’s about the Mayfield family, Mama thought to herself. I’m not going to hand my daughter over to just anybody.

Isla put down her sewing and went to bed. Many thoughts went through her head that night. If I had my own money, I could buy nice fabric, not the flour sacks I’m used to sewing with, she thought. It won’t be like Archer’s, where I had to sew on the same pattern over and over again.

The next morning at breakfast, Isla told Mama she would go to the Mayfields’.

“The Mayfields’? Who are they?” asked Amy. Mama told Amy about the contract with Archer’s. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Amy asked Isla. “You’ll be staying with strangers.”

“Don’t worry, Amy,” said Mama. “I’m going to check with Archer’s and get more information about the family before I agree to let Isla go.”

“It will only be for the summer,” replied Isla, looking at Mama, “and no longer. They are going to pay me a lot more money than I can make sewing here. They are supposed to be a rich family, and maybe they will like some of my designs.”

Archer’s returned Mama’s inquiry, assuring her that the Mayfields were a good family. They had previously sent other students there for the summer and received good comments from both parties. It was settled; Isla would leave on Sunday afternoon.


The Mayfield family lived in Henderson County, Illinois, a thirty-minute ride from the train station. A man servant and the Mayfields’ head housekeeper, Miss Ellen, met Isla at the train station in a horse-drawn carriage. They rode in silence, while Isla enjoyed the picturesque countryside. For a city girl, the rolling hills seemed to be never-ending.

On a hilltop of a grassy meadow, peeking through acres of trees was the roof of a plantation-type house. Just north of the house were horse stables. Pulling around to the back of the house, the horse carriage stopped. Miss Ellen helped Isla with her small suitcase as they entered through the kitchen. Miss Ellen took off her coat, hung it on a coatrack, and proceeded to give Isla a quick tour of the house.

The house had five bedrooms and a living room with a high beamed ceiling. It was the largest room in the house, decorated with overstuffed furniture placed comfortably in front of the hearth. The Mayfields had a radio, a record player, and a grand piano where the two daughters alternated their practice schedule every morning and afternoon.

Taking Isla to her room, Miss Ellen said, “This is your room that you will share with two housemaids.” It was a small space, much like the room she had at Archer’s. “Go ahead and get settled in. I will send someone to fetch you for dinner. You will eat with the other staff in the kitchen at five o’clock.”

At dinner, Miss Ellen introduced Isla to Hilda, the cook, and the two housemaids who would be sharing her room. “When you finish eating, return to your room. In the morning, report back here to the kitchen at six for breakfast. We will go over your duties then,” instructed Miss Ellen and then she left. She never ate in the kitchen with the staff. She took her meals in her room after the Mayfields had been served.

In the morning, Miss Ellen, peering over the top of her glasses and standing erect, wearing her starched white apron and highly polished shoes, sternly gave Isla the household staff rules. “You are not allowed to roam the house. If you are not in the sewing room, you should stay in your room. After dinner, you may walk the grounds when your work is done but stay away from the horse stables. Do you have any questions?”

“No, ma’am.” I’ve never been in such a big house. I won’t wander around because I would probably get lost, thought Isla. They sure have a lot of rules.

“Follow me, and I’ll introduce you to Mrs. Mayfield and her daughters.”

Mrs. Mayfield and her two daughters were waiting in the sewing room. Mrs. Mayfield was a thin woman of average height with long, black hair tied back with a black satin ribbon. The fifteen-year-old daughter was thin like her mother. The other daughter, sixteen, was shorter and starting to show a womanly shape.

The sewing room was upstairs and had a window that over-looked the Mayfield estate. It was a nicer work-room than the cramped sewing quarters Isla was used to. The fabric she was given to make the ladies’ wardrobe was the nicest she had ever seen.

During the second week, while she was fitting Mrs. Mayfield, Isla cleared her throat and then spoke, “Excuse me, Mrs. Mayfield. May I ask you a question?”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Would it be okay if I kept the scraps of material left over from your garments?”

Mrs. Mayfield frowned at such a request and then eased into a smile, saying, “I guess it would be all right, as long as you don’t use it to make yourself anything to wear.”

“Yes, ma’am. I won’t,” Isla confirmed. “Thank you. Your fabric is so lovely.” Mrs. Mayfield smiled at her as she left the room.

Using the scraps, Isla made a small lap quilt. At the end of each day, Isla would retreat to a place in the orchard she considered her sanctuary. Sitting under one of the trees on her handmade quilt, she thought about Mama and Amy, counting the days when she could return home.

The orchard seemed to stretch for miles, rows, and rows of trees. I wonder how they planted the trees in such even rows? thought Isla. Did someone carefully measure the distance between each tree? The Mayfields also raised race horses, which caught Isla’s eye. I could sit here all day and watch them train the horses. They are such beautiful animals. I wish Mama and Amy could see them. It’s so peaceful here. She started to daydream. I hope Mama isn’t working too hard. It’s a lot of work having two boarders and cooking the Sunday dinners. I only have four weeks left on my contract, and then I can go home and help her.

Isla was not with the Mayfields long enough to become close to anyone in the household, with the exception of Hilda. Hilda was a large woman, very large. Like Mama, she always wore a bib-type apron. Unlike Mama, she wrapped her hair in a bandana. She took a liking to Isla, sensing the loneliness Isla felt being separated from her family.

“How are you doing, honey child?” asked Hilda, handing Isla an apple as she came through the kitchen one afternoon on her way to the orchard.

“I’m fine. This is a nice house, and I really like sewing for the missus. The girls are okay, but they don’t talk to me,” replied Isla.

“Child, you are hired help and only here for a short time. Their mama has told them not to make friends with you because you will soon be gone. If you are lonely and need someone to talk to, you can come and sit here with me when your day’s work is done.”

“Thank you, Miss Hilda, but I want to stay out of the way of Miss Ellen.”

“I know, child. I know,” she said as she rolled her eyes, and Isla went out the back door.

Everyone was nice to Isla at the Mayfield house, as long as she remembered her place. One day Miss Ellen caught Isla in the doorway of the front room, listening to one of the girls practicing on the piano.

“Isla, do I need to remind you not to wander about the house? If you are not in the sewing room or kitchen, you should stay in your room,” said Miss Ellen.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Isla, and she quickly went to her room.

At the end of each week, Isla wrote to Mama and Amy. In her letters, she enclosed scraps of fabric that she was working on to let them know what she was making.

She also wrote to Jessie:

Dear Jessie,

Archer’s contracted me to spend the summer with a family in Illinois. I’m sewing the wardrobe for the lady of the house and her two teenage daughters. I miss Mama and my sister, but it’s only for three months, and the pay is good for our family. You should see the fabric. It’s beautiful. What are you doing this summer? I hope you write back.

I miss you,



Jessie wrote back:

Dear Isla,

I was glad to get your letter and to hear about your sewing contract. My mother has been sick ever since I returned from Archer’s and now confined to her bed. It’s been hard taking care of her and keeping up with the housework. My dad isn’t much help. He is working long hours and sometimes doesn’t come home at night.

I miss you, too. Please write me again.



The Mayfield contract was over, and Isla returned home. She opened up a savings account with Mama and promised not to touch it until she graduated from high school. Mama let her keep a little money to order a few magazines because she liked to cut out pictures of dresses and gowns. Isla pasted them in a scrapbook, in hopes that someday she could copy some of the designs.

Amy had already graduated, which gave her more time to help Mama with the household chores. Isla didn’t look forward to returning to school. She would rather be home sewing and was excited with every new project she received. Some of the mothers contacted Isla to make holiday dresses for their daughters. Isla liked the variety but didn’t care much for doing alterations. She preferred making dresses from the beginning, but alterations were a big part of her customer base, and every penny counted.


The Warren family enjoyed the holidays even though money was tight. Mama bought a small Christmas tree, which put the girls in the holiday spirit. Mama, Amy, and Isla had Christmas dinner alone. The only family they had was Aunt Lillian, who lived too far away. To make the holiday more festive, Mama invited Rod and his family over on Christmas evening for dessert.

With the holidays over, Easter was the next busy time for Isla. She had sewing projects for many of her schoolmates to make their Easter dresses.

The following summer, the Mayfields requested Isla back. Isla was glad to see Hilda again as she welcomed her with open arms. At the end of her contract, customers were waiting at home for her to sew their school clothes. Isla was in her senior year and looked forward to graduation.


There was a small cluster of stores near the Mississippi River where the paddleboats docked, within walking distance of Isla’s house. One of the shops was called Rosa’s Dress Shop. It specialized in ladies’ dresses and accessories. Mrs. Taylor owned the shop, which included an apartment upstairs. Isla visited Rosa’s often, just to look at dresses and touch the expensive fabrics. She hoped that someday she could make dresses just like Rosa’s.

Isla was browsing through the shop when Mrs. Taylor approached her. She was very fashionable, and Isla admired her style. She was tall and looked like a model in the fashion magazines.

“Are you Isla Warren?” asked Mrs. Taylor. Isla was startled when Mrs. Taylor spoke to her. She thought she might be in trouble for visiting the shop so often and never buying anything.

“Yes,” Isla quietly answered, expecting to be kicked out, but Mrs. Taylor was smiling.

“Your name has been mentioned to me by some of my patrons. They have complimented your work on dress alterations. I was wondering if you would be interested in working for me?” Isla looked stunned as Mrs. Taylor continued. “I feel that many times my dresses have not sold because they were not the exact fit for my customer. Much of my business comes from travelers along the Mississippi, and they don’t have time to find someone to do alterations.”

“What? You want me to work here?” Isla was surprised and taken back that anyone had mentioned her name and at the same time praised her work. And now, Mrs. Taylor was offering her a job. She had two more weeks until she graduated from high school, and she thought she would probably have to go back to the Mayfields’ for the summer. With this new opportunity, she could work close to home and receive regular pay.

“It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Taylor, but first I must discuss this with my mother. I can come back on Saturday and let you know.”

“Good. I’ll see you on Saturday.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Isla said over and over again, almost tripping as she backed out of the shop.

Isla skipped on the way home until she came to the bad house. Mama made her always turn her head and look the other way when they passed it. She told her never to look at that house but never told her why. Mama just said it was bad. Isla turned her head and then ran the rest of the way home.

“Mama! Mama!” she shouted, as she ran into the kitchen, letting the door slam shut behind her. “Mrs. Taylor offered me a job at Rosa’s Dress Shop. She wants me to do alterations for her customers!” She jumped up and down with excitement. “I told her I had to ask you first, and I would let her know on Saturday.”

“Calm down, Isla. Sit and tell me what you are talking about,” said Mama, putting down her dish towel and sitting at the kitchen table. Isla relayed Mrs. Taylor’s conversation as she bounced up and down on her chair. Mama knew the shop but was concerned it was so close to the waterfront, and Isla was naïve about the ways of the world. She would be exposed to people from all walks of life and still would have to walk by the bad house twice a day.

Mama had brought up Isla to be a lady, and she soon would be eighteen. She had taught her to be polite and respectful. Have I been overly protective? she wondered. She will have to grow up someday, and I will be here to guide her. Relaxing, she shared in Isla’s excitement.

“If this is something you want to do, then I’ll go with you on Saturday to meet with Mrs. Taylor.” Perhaps it is time to let go, she thought, hugging Isla.

Saturday, on the way to Rosa’s Dress Shop to meet Mrs. Taylor, they both turned their heads as they walked by the bad house. When they arrived, Mrs. Taylor was busy dressing one of the in-store mannequins. There was a young man stacking shoe boxes in the back. He came out when he heard the sound of the bell hanging over the front door.

“Mrs. Taylor, this is my mother, Mrs. Warren,” said Isla.

“Nice to meet you. This is my son Jonathan,” said Mrs. Taylor. “He is home from college during summer vacation and helps me with my shop.”

Isla felt her face turning red as she curtsied when introduced. What is this blushing feeling? Isla wondered. It has never happened to me before. Is it because he is so handsome? He looks so strong. Is it because he looked straight into my eyes like he can see right through me? Make it stop. Please make it stop, she kept telling herself. The more she tried to make it stop, the warmer her face felt.

“It’s my understanding that you would like Isla to come and work at your shop,” said Mama to Mrs. Taylor.

“Yes, I would like her to do alterations for my customers if that would be acceptable?”

“Isla will be graduating in two weeks. She could start the following Monday,” said Mama. Isla stood next to her mother, grinning like she had just won a first prize award.

“That would be perfect. I would like her to work Monday, Thursday, and Friday to start. My shop opens at nine in the morning, except we are closed on Sundays.”

“That will be fine,” agreed Mama. Turning to Isla to see if that was agreeable with her, she noticed Isla blushing as she nodded in agreement. Taking Isla by the hand, she explained they needed to return home. Mrs. Taylor said she looked forward to having Isla assist her patrons.

Leaving the shop, Isla asked, “Did you notice my face getting red?”

“Yes, dear. That happens sometimes,” Mama said with a smile.

“How can I make it stop?”

“I don’t think you can. That happened a few times to me when I first met your father.”

“Do you think that happened to Amy when she met Rod?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her.”


It was Monday, and Isla was anxious to start her new job and see Mrs. Taylor’s son again. No one had made her blush before, and she hoped it wouldn’t happen again.

She was twenty minutes early and waiting outside the shop when Mrs. Taylor arrived. “Good morning, Mrs. Taylor,” said Isla.

“Good morning, Isla,” replied Mrs. Taylor, impressed by Isla’s eagerness. She had a feeling that Isla was going to be a perfect addition to her business.

Mr. and Mrs. Taylor lived near the Shaeffer Pen Company, where Mr. Taylor was an executive. Jonathan lived in the apartment above the shop during his breaks from college.


Within the first few months, as Mrs. Taylor had anticipated, her sales increased by having someone at the shop to do alterations. Isla worked diligently and was thrilled when customers praised her work.

Near the end of summer, Isla hated the thought of Jonathan returning to college. He had two more years to complete his business degree and planned to go to work at Shaeffer Pen after graduation. But now, he was ready to return to school, his friends, and the party life. He thought Isla was sweet and a nice distraction for the summer but very naïve.

The week before Jonathan returned to college, he stayed at his parents’ house. He wanted to spend some time with his father. On Monday morning, he went to the apartment to pack up his things and say goodbye to his mother. Before leaving the shop, he hugged and kissed her and then bent over and kissed Isla on the cheek. The kiss was a surprise, making her blush. She brought her hand up to touch her cheek where he had kissed her, dropping her head in embarrassment.

Jonathan placed his hand under Isla’s chin, pulling her head up to look at him. “I’ll be back during Thanksgiving, so don’t forget me,” he said and gave her a wink. She thought her legs were going to buckle out from under her. She reached for the doorframe to steady herself as she stood next to Mrs. Taylor and waved good-bye.

After hurrying back inside, Isla went straight to the sewing room and returned to work. She stopped long enough to check the calendar and count the weeks until Thanksgiving and then wondered how she would ever survive until then. However, work was very fulfilling, which helped make the days speed by.

“Isla, I would like to increase your hours to full time,” said Mrs. Taylor. “With Jonathan at school, you can do the stocking and assist with sales when needed. Would that be okay with you?”

“Oh, yes. I love working here, and I would be glad to help out more.”

That night she told Mama about the change in her work schedule.

“Isla, I am so proud of you, and your help with the household finances has been a blessing,” said Mama, giving her a hug.


When Jonathan returned home for Thanksgiving, he spent more time at his parents’ house than at the shop. Knowing Isla was infatuated with him, he stopped by the shop a few times to tease her.

“Have you missed me?” he asked. Isla was too embarrassed to respond. “I’m glad to see you are still working for my mother. She speaks highly of your work. I’ll be back at Christmas time. It’s a busy time for the shop, and I’ll be here to help out. I look forward to spending more time with you.” Jonathan winked and his smile absolutely melted her.

“I look forward to be working with you again, too,” said Isla as she blushed, hoping that Jonathan didn’t notice.

During the two weeks he was home for the Christmas holiday, Jonathan worked at the shop every day. Isla’s personality blossomed when around Jonathan. She offered to get his coffee in the morning and to set his plate next to hers at lunch. When she finished her sewing projects, she was at Jonathan’s side to assist him with whatever he was doing. She wanted him to know that she cared for him, but she certainly couldn’t tell him. That would be too bold. The two weeks went by fast.

Jonathan enjoyed Isla’s shyness; she was becoming a challenge. He found satisfaction in teasing her and making her blush. The holidays were over, and again he returned to college.


The following summer while working at the shop, Jonathan paid more attention to Isla. She was in love, and he knew it. She had never been kissed by a boy, and Jonathan was more than willing to give her a few lessons. He was tender with her and took it slow. Isla was giddy the first time and covered her mouth and ran out of the room. He must think I’m silly, she thought. I better act more grown-up, or he might not kiss me again. I can’t wait.

Mama had him over for dinner at least once a week. She wanted to get to know him better. Mama liked Jonathan; he was very polite. While he had been at school, Isla would write him every week, but he never wrote back. Mama was concerned that Jonathan and Isla’s relationship was one-sided.

“It’s nice having Jonathan over for dinner. I enjoy hearing about his plans for the future,” said Mama to Isla as they cleaned up the dinner dishes. “Does he ever mention getting married or having a family after he graduates?”

“That’s really personal,” said Isla, appalled that Mama would even ask such a question. “You don’t expect him to talk to me about something like that, do you?”

“Well, I have a feeling that you care a lot more for him than he realizes.”

“Oh, Mama!” said Isla, turning her head away. She felt uneasy that they were having this conversation.

“Honey, I don’t want you to get hurt. Boys think different than girls do. Please be careful, or he might break your heart.”

Isla didn’t pay attention to what Mama told her. There were a few nights during the summer that Isla told Mama she was working late, but actually, she was spending time with Jonathan upstairs in his apartment.

“I don’t like you working so late,” said Mama. “I worry about you walking home in the dark.”

“Oh, don’t be silly, Mother. I’m not afraid. I have a lot of work to do, and I don’t want to get behind.”

She didn’t like lying to her mother, and she knew what she was doing was not ladylike, but Jonathan would be leaving for college again, and she wouldn’t see him until Thanksgiving. It was going to be hard to say goodbye this time.


Rod had one more year of college to complete his business administration degree. Rod and Amy had talked about marriage after he graduated. Summer was over and Amy was already upset that he was leaving again. To ease the separation between Amy and Rod, Mama invited Rod and his family over for dinner a few times before he had to return to school.

Dinner was over and Amy and Isla cleared the table while Mama brought out a chocolate cake she had baked.

“This cake looks delicious,” said Rod.

“I hope you like it. German chocolate is Amy’s favorite,” Mama replied.

“Like your dessert, I have saved the best for last,” said Rod. Rising from his chair next to Amy’s and getting down on one knee beside her, he took a small box from his pants pocket. “Amy, will you marry me?” he said as he opened up the box holding a sparkling engagement ring.

Amy gasped and looked at the ring and then at Rod. “Oh, yes,” she replied, and he slipped the ring on her finger. Amy jumped out of her chair and threw her arms around his neck, almost knocking him over.

Getting his balance, Rod stood up and embraced Amy in his arms. “I didn’t want to go away to college without knowing that you would be waiting for me,” he told her.

Isla and Mama were all smiles, and so was Rod’s family. Everyone got up from their chairs and congratulated them both with hugs and kisses as Amy held out her hand for everyone to see her ring.

“I have nearly made myself sick, knowing that you were going to leave again. This will make it much easier,” said Amy, again throwing her arms around his neck.

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