Amanda — a Daughter of the Mennonites/16
That summer Aunt Rebecca became ill. Millie volunteered to take care of her.
“She ain’t got no child to do for her,” said the hired girl, “and abody feels forlorn when you’re sick. I’ll go tend her if you want.”
“Oh, Millie, I’d be so glad if you’d go! Strangers might be ugly to her, for she’s a little hard to get along with. And I can’t do it to take care of her.”
“You--well, I guess you ain’t strong enough to do work like that. If she gets real sick she’ll have to be lifted around and she ain’t too light, neither. If you and Amanda can shift here I’ll just pack my telescope and go right over to Landisville.”
So Millie packed and strapped her old gray telescope and went to wait on the sick woman.
She found Aunt Rebecca in bed, very ill, with a kind neighbor ministering to her.
“My goodness, Millie,” she greeted the newcomer, “I never was so glad to see anybody like I am you! You pay this lady for her trouble. My money is in the wash-stand drawer. Lock the drawer open and get it out”
After the neighbor had been paid and departed Millie and the sick woman were left alone. “Millie,” said Aunt Rebecca, “you stay with me till I go. Ach, you needn’t tell me I’ll get well. I know I’m done for. I don’t want a lot o’ strangers pokin’ round in my things and takin’ care of me. I’m crabbit and they don’t have no patience.”
“Ach, you’ll be around again in no time,” said Millie cheerfully. “Don’t you worry. I’ll run everything just like it ought to be. I’ll tend you so good you’ll be up and about before you know it.”
“I’m not so easy fooled. I won’t get out of this room till I’m carried out, I know. My goodness, abody thinks back over a lot o’ things when you get right sick once! I made a will, Millie, and a pretty good one,” the sick woman laughed as if in enjoyment of a pleasant secret. Her nurse attributed the laughter to delirium. But Aunt Rebecca went on, astonishing the other woman more and deepening the conviction that the strange talk was due to flightiness.
“Yes, I made a will! Some people’ll say I was crazy, but you tell them for me I’m as sane as any one. My goodness, can’t abody do what abody wants with your own money? Didn’t I slave and scratch and skimp like everything all my life! And you bet I’m goin’ to give that there money just where I want!”
“Ach, people always fuss about wills. It gives them something to talk about,” said Millie, thinking argument useless.
“Yes, it won’t worry me. I won’t hear it. I have it all fixed where and how I want to be buried, and all about the funeral. I want to have a nice funeral, eat in the meeting-house, and have enough to eat, too. I was to a funeral once and everything got all before all the people had eaten. I was close livin’, but I ain’t goin’ to be close dead.”
“Now you go to sleep,” ordered Millie. “You can tell me the rest some other time.”
That evening as Millie sat on a low rocker by the bedside, the dim flare of an oil lamp flickering on the faces of the two women, Aunt Rebecca told more of the things she was so eager to detail while strength lasted.
“Jonas always thought that if I lived longest half of what I have should go back to the Miller people, his side of the family. But I tell you, Millie, none of them ever come to see me except one or two who come just for the money. They was wishin’ long a’ready I’d die and they’d get it. But Jonas didn’t put that in the will. He left me everything and he did say once I could do with it what I want. So I made a will and I’m givin’ them Millers five thousand dollars in all and the rest--well, you’ll find out what I done with the rest after I’m gone. I never had much good out my money and I’m havin’ a lot of pleasure lyin’ here and thinkin’ what some people will do with what I leave them in my will. I had a lot of good that way a’ready since I’m sick. People will have something to talk about once when I die.”
And so the sick woman rambled on, while Millie thought the fever caused the strange words and paid little attention to their import. But, several weeks later, when the querulous old woman closed her eyes in her long, last sleep, Millie, who had nursed her so faithfully, remembered each detail of the funeral as Aunt Rebecca had told her and saw to it that every one was carried out.
According to her wishes, Aunt Rebecca was robed in white for burial. The cashmere dress was fashioned, of course, after the garb she had worn so many years, and was complete with apron, pointed cape, all in white. Her hair was parted and folded under a white cap as it had been in her lifetime. She looked peaceful and happy as she lay in the parlor of her little home in Landisville. A smile seemed to have fixed itself about her lips as though the pleasant thoughts her will had occasioned lingered with her to the very last.
She had stipulated that short services be held at the house, then the body taken to the church and a public service held and after interment in the old Mennonite graveyard at Landisville, a public dinner to be served in the basement of the meeting-house, as is frequently the custom in that community.
The service of the burial of the dead is considered by the plain sects as a sacred obligation to attend whenever possible. Relatives, friends, and members of the deceased’s religious sect, drive many miles to pay their last respects to departed ones. The innate hospitality of the Pennsylvania Dutch calls for the serving of a light lunch after the funeral. Relatives, friends, who have come from a distance or live close by, and all others who wish to partake of it, are welcomed. Therefore most meeting-houses of the plain sects have their basements fitted with long tables and benches, a generous supply of china and cutlery, a stove big enough for making many quarts of coffee. And after the burial willing hands prepare the food and many take advantage of the proffered hospitality and file to the long tables, where bread, cheese, cold meat, coffee and sometimes beets and pie, await them. This was an important portion of what Aunt Rebecca called a “nice funeral,” and it was given to her.
Later in the day, while the nearest relatives were still together in the little house at Landisville, the lawyer arrived and read the will.
The Millers, who were so eager for their legacies, were impatient with all the legal phrasing, “Being of sound mind” and so forth. They sat up more attentively when the lawyer read, “do hereby bequeath.”
First came the wish that all real estate be sold, that personal property be given to her sister, the sum of five hundred dollars be given to the Mennonite Church at Landisville for the upkeep of the burial ground. Then the announcement of the sum of five thousand dollars to be equally divided among the heirs of Jonas Miller, deceased, the sum of five thousand dollars to her brother Amos Rohrer, a like amount to her sister, Mrs. Reist, the sum of ten thousand dollars to Martin Landis, husband of Elizabeth Anders, and the remainder, if any, to be divided equally between said brother Amos and sister Mary.
“Martin Landis!” exploded one of the Miller women, “who under the sun is he? To get ten thousand dollars of Rebecca’s money!”
“I’ll tell you,” spoke up Uncle Amos, “he’s an old beau of hers.”
“Well, who ever heard of such a thing! And here we are, her own blood, you might say, close relations of poor Jonas, and we get only five thousand to be divided into about twenty shares! It’s an outrage! Such a will ought to be broken!”
“I guess not,” came Uncle Amos’s firm reply. “It was all Rebecca’s money and hers to do with what suited her. She’s made me think a whole lot more of her by this here will. I’m glad to know she didn’t forget her old beau. She was a little prickly on the outside sometimes, but I guess her heart was soft after all. It’s all right, it’s all right, that will is! It ain’t for us to fuss about. She could have give the whole lot of it to some cat home or spent it while she lived. It was hers! If that’s all, lawyer, I guess we’ll go. Mary and I are satisfied and the rest got to be. I bet Rebecca got a lot o’ good thinkin’ how Martin Landis would get the surprise of his life when she was in her grave.”
In a short time the news spread over the rural community that Rebecca Miller willed Martin Landis ten thousand dollars! Some said facetiously that it might be a posthumous thank-offering for what she missed when she refused to marry him. Others, keen for romance, repeated a sentimental story about a broken heart and a lifelong sorrow because of her foolish inability to see what was best for her and how at the close of her life she conceived the beautiful thought of leaving him the money so that he might know she had never forgotten him and so that he might remember his old sweetheart. But in whatever form the incident was presented it never failed to evoke interest. “Ten thousand dollars from an old girl! What luck!” exclaimed many.
If persons not directly concerned in the ten thousand dollar legacy were surprised what word can adequately describe the emotion of Martin Landis when Amanda’s verbal report of it was duly confirmed by a legal notice from the lawyer!
“Good guns, Mom!” the man said in astonishment. “I can’t make it out! I can’t get head nor tail out the thing. What ailed Becky, anyhow? To do a thing like that! I feel kinda mean takin’ so much money. It ought to go to Amos and Mary. They got five thousand apiece and somebody said the farms will bring more than Becky thought and by the time they are sold and everything divided Amos and Mary will get about eleven thousand each. It’s right for them to get it, but it don’t seem right for me to have it.”
But Millie soon paid a visit to the Landis home and repeated many of the things Aunt Rebecca had told her those last evenings by the light of the little oil lamp. “She said, Mr. Landis, that one day she was lookin’ at the big Bible and come across an old valentine you sent her when you and she was young. It said on it, ’If I had the world I’d give you half of it.’ And that set her thinkin’ what a nice surprise she could fix up if she’d will you some of her money. And she said, too, that Jonas was a good man but it worried her that she broke off with a poor man to marry a rich one when she liked the poor one best. I guess all that made her so queer and crabbit. She never let on when she was well that she wished she’d married you but when she come to die she didn’t care much if it was found out. You just take that there money and enjoy it; that’s what Rebecca wanted you should do.”
“Yes, I guess she wanted me to have it,” the man said thoughtfully. “But it beats me why she did it. Why, I’d almost forgot that I ever kept company with her and was promised to marry her. It’s so long ago.”
“Men do forget,” said Millie. “I guess it’s the women that remember. But the money’s for you, that’s her will, and she said I should be sure to see that the will is carried out and that the money goes where she said.”
“Yes--we can use it. We’ll be glad for it. I wish I could say thanks to Becky for it. It don’t seem right by Amos and Mary, though.”
“Ach, they don’t need it. They got lots a’ready. The only ones that begrudge it are the relations of Jonas. None of them come to shake up a pillow for poor Rebecca or bring her an orange or get her a drink of water, but they come when the will was read. I just like to see such people get fooled! They wanted a lot and got a little and you didn’t expect nothin’ and look what you got! There’s some nice surprises in the world, for all, ain’t!”