It was awful. She couldn't take it all in. Papa was dead and there was so much confusion. At 16, she was the oldest child and a lot of the responsibility fell on her. She wanted to go somewhere and grieve but no one would let her. It was “Lonnie this and Lonnie that” and no one seemed to understand that she missed her papa too. She remembered when Andrew died. He was her big brother and she really missed him but even though she helped with the smaller children, she wasn’t stuck with them like she was now.
She sat rethinking her idea of having children. She wanted to be free, to roam outside but was stuck with her younger brothers and sisters. Mama was lying down and there was a stream of people in and out of the house.
She knew she was pouting but she didn’t care.
“Lonnie”, William asked. “Will you play with me?”
She looked at the 2-yr-old William and was about to say no when she realized he just needed someone to pay attention to him.
“Yes Sweetie, I will,” she responded.
Taking him by the hand, she rounded up 4-yr-old Victor and headed them to the clearing across the road. It was better to be outside than cooped up in the house. She got them to play tag and for the first time in days, found a little time for herself.
She wished that the dark cloud that seemed to hang over the house would go away. How could Papa be gone? Why did that awful man shoot him? She would like to kill him herself. Uncle Sterling said they would catch him but it wasn’t good enough.
Her uncles had ridden over to the Brewer farm but he had already gone. There was a scuffle and it seems that Uncle Jim had knocked down on of Brewer’s brothers. They had come back all puffed out. She was disgusted with them. She didn’t quite understand why beating his brother would make any of this better.
“Lonnie”, William said, tugging at her skirt. “I’m hungry.”
“All right, lets go see what we can find.”
The brief time outside had helped clear her head. She found some bread and butter for William and Victor and sent them off to play. Aunt Sarah was sitting in the kitchen.
“Leona, come sit and keep me company.”
Leona slumped into the chair opposite her. She could see the river beyond the field and somehow it made her feel better. Like everyone in her family, the river was a constant in their lives and where they seemed to draw their strength.
Aunt Sarah was saying something so she turned her attention back to her. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” she said.
Sarah looked at her closely. “I don’t think so,” she retorted. “I know you feel like everyone is depending on you. It’s a big burden, especially when you miss your papa.”
“Oh, Aunt Sarah, what is going to happen to us?” she cried.
“You will get through this, Sarah quietly answered. “It’s going to take some time and it will not be easy but your mama is strong.” You have all of us and you know things will get done. You don’t need to worry.”
“It’s just so awful. I want to run away somewhere so I don’t have to think about it anymore”
“Lonnie,“ Sarah said. “Take a break. Go out and visit one of your friends. Take the punt and go across the river. I know you've been here the whole time taking care of the little ones. I’m here now. I’ll take care of the kids. See if Billy wants to go with you. Just come back before dark.”
Leona didn’t need a second invitation. Sarah watched her talk to Billy and then the two of them headed for the riverbank where the boat was tied. She felt sorry for her niece, heck, she felt sorry for all of them. John Carter Rhea had been a good man and a good husband. She wondered what Jane would do. She couldn't see her remarrying; John had been the love of her life. Sighing, she got up and went to check on the youngsters.
Mary Leona Rhea would look back on the time with sadness. She missed her papa more than anyone realized. On her wedding day, she missed him the most. She dithered around trying to decide who to ask to walk her down the aisle. Fortunately she was spared the decision. 15-year-old Floyd came to her.
“Lonnie,” he said and then stopped. He looked at her sheepishly. “Um, I know a little about weddings and your father is supposed to walk you down the aisle. I know I’m not Papa but I would really like the honor.” He bowed his head waiting for her response.
Tears came to her eyes. She had considered her numerous uncles and older cousins, even her fiance’s brother but none of them seemed right. Then, out of nowhere, Floyd comes and asks. It was right. It felt right.
“Washington Floyd Rhea,” she said. “I would be honored to have you walk me down the aisle. There is no one else I would rather have.” And with that, she reached up and gave him a big hug.
Jane had been watching them from the balcony. She wasn’t quite sure what was going on but both of them looked happy. Considering that her oldest two often disagreed, she was glad to see them smiling at each other. Leona was leaving her and she was sad. She wasn’t going far and she could see her everyday if she wanted, it was just that she was her one child who had always been there. She knew she depended too much on her but Leona never complained. She was always willing to pitch in. Jane wondered how she had been given this great child who was going to be a great wife and mother.
She walked back into her room and went to the chest where she stored important papers and treasures. Digging to the bottom, she found what she was looking for. It was an old prayer book that her mother had given her on her wedding day. It was time to pass it on and although she had other daughters, it belonged to Leona.
She came down the stairs as Leona came in the front door. Jane smiled at her.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
Leona smiled back at her. “Floyd has just asked if he could have the honor of walking me down the aisle”, she replied.
“From the look on his face, you must have said yes?” she asked.
“Yes, it is the best idea. If Papa isn't here to do it, Floyd will do nicely.”
Jane was delighted. She agreed that Floyd should be the one to give his sister away.
“Come and sit with me a minute,” Jane said, gesturing at the sofa. “I have something for you.”
Once seated, Jane pulled the prayer book from her apron. “My mother gave this to me on my wedding day. It was given to her by your grandmother on her wedding day. I would like you to carry it with you as we have all done.”
On Oct 21, 1888, 20-year-old Mary Leona Rhea, escorted by Washington Floyd Rhea, married Columbus Reed Ross. She floated down the aisle in a dress made by her mother and aunt and decorated with embroidered flowers, by her younger sister. She had never felt so loved. In her hands, she carried a bouquet of flowers and wrapped in a fancy hankie, an old worn prayer book. As she had told her mother, it was something she would cherish.
Jane was overcome with emotion and like many mothers, cried. She realized this would be just one of many weddings but it was the first. For a brief moment she let sadness overtake her. Andrew should have had a wedding and John Carter should have been there to share this wonderful moment with her. But taking one look at her daughter’s triumphant face, she realized this was what life was about and felt the joy her daughter was feeling wash through her.