No reasonable person would have looked at eleven-year-old Helen Driscoll and thought, "Why, there's a future undertaker." She was too disheveled and too female for such a vocation, and her liveliness would never suggest such a livelihood.
Helen burst into the front room of her home where her family was quietly gathered, to insist they look at the sunset. She didn’t wait for an answer, and she did not appear to notice when only the children followed her out to the wide wooden porch steps.
“It’s like the world is on fire,” whispered Helen’s little brother. The sunset was a strange, vivid red and the vermilion light ringed all of the horizon they could see.
She stood with her arms resting on the shoulders of her transfixed sister and brother. “I think it’s a very good omen,” declared Helen, with the certainty that children often decide such things.
Helen could not have been more mistaken. The weird sky was, in fact, a token of horrible disaster. Ten thousand miles away, Krakatoa had erupted with such vast destructive power it had altered the islands, the sea, and the sky around the world.
“Did you know she was outdoors?” asked their irritated father, speaking in the direction of their mother. “It’s a never ending ruckus. I have been telling you she reads too many adventure books meant for boys.” Their mother only sighed in reply. The sigh signified every debate they had ever had about latitude bestowed on children.
“Reading about it will keep her from sailing off for treasure,” said her grandmother, Gertie, her voice holding a conviction she did not feel, “Unless you want another pirate in the family.”
Gertie, who was not very reasonable on the subject, might have seen the future Helen would claim. She watched her, as Helen listened to terrifying bedtime stories meant to mold her into a dutiful and moral citizen. Her grandmother saw the sparks in Helen’s eyes. They weren't only thrown from the flame in the lamps. This girl, whose strong and tiny hands pulled at her grandmother’s skirts and begged, "More about the goblins, please," this girl was made of wonders.
Helen and her siblings enjoyed more freedom than their peers. They were tasked with incidental farm labor intended to build their characters, and they attended lessons at the little country school, but on long summer days they ranged much farther than their parents would have guessed. All that despite their mother’s laconic warnings from her sick bed about tramps and bear traps.
They charged through the shimmering fields and climbed unsuitable trees, bothered the neighbors’ weary livestock and lost shoes in the river. They lied and said the shoes must have been eaten by goats.
Helen’s sister, Fannie, liked to eavesdrop on her family, creeping unseen under the furniture, imagining she was a barn cat set on stealing scraps. Wally, their younger brother, struggled to keep up with the girls and was never, ever able to triumph at a day-long game of hide and seek.
Their father was stern and more than a little frightening to the children. They were grateful that he was usually distracted by delegating his responsibilities. He had a chief hand and a business manager, both of whom he was required to manage, and they in turn had staff to direct and complain about.
So as Helen’s father, also the paterfamilias, sat back in his favorite chair, comfortably engrossed in his newspaper, he was not inclined to look up as the children ran past him. He was focused and intent on enjoying a hard-earned moment of pure contentment. As they bolted through the front door again, their passage ruffled his newspaper, but still, he did not look up.
It took five tries before they disrupted his attention and caused him to rise and furiously shake the newspaper after them. They heard him bellow, “What in thunder does a man need to do for some peace!” Scared, yet satisfied, they hid in the hay loft until their grandmother called them to dinner.
While their father grumbled, he rarely roused to action by these rituals. Ahead of his time in many respects, he preferred to leave all things parental to his wife and his mother.
The children’s mother, Margot, recognized that a lack of fearfulness was at the root of their unruliness. She watched Helen carefully during dinner. She believed that if Helen were more cautious, the other children would follow suit, as they followed her in everything else. Margot decided on a scheme and felt very satisfied with her inspiration.
When Helen came to her mother’s room to bid her goodnight, Margot had a word with her. It had been one of her best days and she was relatively energetic. On her bad days, Margot stayed in bed and refused food all day, lamenting that nothing was worth the chewing. On her good days, she spent most of her time in bed but allowed the meals to keep her company. On her best days, the family wheeled her to the porch for fresh air and to the table for dinner.
Her mother stroked Helen’s cheek affectionately. “I don’t mean to alarm you,” Margot lied, “but you must not allow yourself to become too excited, you know. Ever.”
Helen peered at her quizzically, asking why. Her mother’s eyes were dark and serious with worry.
“It’s your heart,” Margot said. “It’s not strong and I am afraid for you, the way you’re always running and climbing. Living with a terrible illness means that you must forego many sorts of entertainment and many sorts of strain.”
Helen was confused. Her mother often remarked bitterly that Helen should never become a farmer’s wife, it was too much drudgery and despair. The despair was evident, but her Margot didn’t engage in any drudgery that Helen had observed. For years, Helen thought that “drudgery” was another word for “delegated.”
Despite the complaining, Helen adored her mother. Unlike other adults, Margot listened patiently and Helen always knew where to find her.
So, she wondered, was her mother saying that Helen should avoid strain as she did?
“Do you mean I can’t jump rope?” The thought made Helen suddenly terribly forlorn. Jumping rope was her favorite occupation.
“You may,” Margot replied, “but only a little. Too much excitement could be deadly.”
Helen had a brief bout of despair of her own after that.
She lounged on the porch steps the next morning, and when it was time for children to churn the butter, she told them dramatically, “Mother says I’m not to strain myself.”
Hearing this, Gertie stopped with her hands on her hips, “You had better churn,” she said, “otherwise, you had better fetch a switch and then you can churn after your beating.”
Helen was moved to forget about her health for a little while.