As Rhoda Lantz stood gazing out the window of the Sweet Seasons Bakery Café, her mood matched the ominous gray clouds that shrouded the dark, pre-dawn sky. Here it was the day after Thanksgiving and she felt anything but thankful. Oh, she’d eaten Mamma’s wonderful dinner yesterday and smiled at all the right times during the gathering of family and friends around their extended kitchen table, but she’d been going through the motions. Feeling distanced . . . not liking it, but not knowing what to do about it, either.
“You all right, honey-bug? Ya seem a million miles away.”
Rhoda jumped. Mamma had slipped up behind her while she’d been lost in her thoughts. “Jah, jah. Fine and dandy,” she fibbed. “Just thinkin’ how it looks like we’re in for a winter storm, which most likely means we won’t have as many folks come to eat today and tomorrow. It’s just . . . well, things got really slow last year at this time.”
Her mother’s concerned gaze told Rhoda her little white lie hadn’t sounded very convincing. Mamma glanced toward the kitchen, where her partner, Naomi Brenneman, and Naomi’s daughter, Hannah, were frying sausage and bacon for the day’s breakfast buffet. “Tell ya what,” she said gently. “Lydia Zook left a phone message about a couple of fresh turkeys left in their meat case. Why not go to the market and fetch those, along with a case of eggs—and I’m thinkin’ it’s a perfect day for that wonderful-gut cream soup we make with the potatoes and carrots and cheese in the sauce. I’ll call in the order, and by the time ya get over there they’ll have everything all gathered up.”
“Jah, Mamma, I can do that,” Rhoda murmured. It meant walking down the long lane with the wind whipping at her coat, and then hitching up a carriage, but it was something useful to do.
Useful. Why is it such a struggle lately to feel useful?
Rhoda slipped her coat from the peg at the door, tied on her heavy black bonnet, and stepped outside with a gasp. The temperature had dropped several degrees since she’d come to the café an hour ago. The chill bit through her woolen stockings as she walked briskly along the gravel lane with her head lowered against the wind.
“Hey there, Rhoda! Gut mornin’ to ya!” a voice sang out as she passed the smithy behind the Sweet Seasons.
Rhoda waved to Ben Hooley but didn’t stop to chat. Why did the farrier’s cheerfulness irritate her lately? She had gotten over her schoolgirl crush on him and was happy for Ben and Mamma both, but as their New Year’s Day wedding approached they seemed more public about their affections—their joy—and well, that irritated her, too! Across the road from the Sweet Seasons a new home was going up in record time, as Ben’s gift to her mother . . . yet another reminder of how Rhoda’s life would change when Mamma moved out of the apartment above the blacksmith shop, and she would be living there alone.
As she reached the white house she’d grown up in, Rhoda sighed. No lights glowed in the kitchen window and no one ate breakfast at the table: this holiday weekend, her twin sister Rachel and her new groom, Micah Brenneman, were on an extended trip around central Missouri to collect wedding presents as they visited aunts, uncles, and cousins of their two families. Rhoda missed working alongside Rachel at the café more than she could bear to admit, yet here again, she was happy for her sister. The newlyweds radiated a love and sense of satisfaction she could only dream of.
Rhoda hitched up the enclosed carriage and clapped the reins across Sadie’s broad back. If Thanksgiving had been so difficult yesterday, with so many signposts of the radical changes in all their lives, what would the upcoming Christmas season be like? Ordinarily she loved baking cookies, setting out the Nativity scene, and arranging evergreen branches and candles on the mantle and at the windowsills. Yet as thick, feathery flakes of snow blew across the yard, her heart thudded dully. It wasn’t her way to feel so blue, or to feel life was passing her by. But at twenty-two, she heard her clock ticking ever so loudly.
God, have Ya stopped listenin’ to my prayers for a husband and a family? Are You tellin’ me I’m fated to remain a maidel?
Rhoda winced at the thought. She gave the mare its head once they were on the county blacktop, and as they rolled across the single-lane bridge that spanned this narrow spot in the Missouri River, she glanced over toward the new grist mill. The huge wooden wheel was in place now, churning slowly as the current of the water propelled it. The first light of dawn revealed two male figures on the roof. Luke and Ira Hooley, Ben’s younger brothers, scrambled like monkeys as they checked their new machinery. The Mill at Willow Ridge would soon be open to tourists, and supplied by local farmers. In addition to regular wheat flour and cornmeal, the Hooley brothers would offer specialty grains that would sell to whole foods stores in Warrensburg and other nearby cities. Mamma was already gathering recipes to bake artisan breads at the Sweet Seasons, as an additional lure for healthy-conscious tourists . . .
But Rhoda’s one brief date with Ira had proven he was more interested in running the roads with Millie Glick than in settling down or joining the church any time soon. Ira was twenty-eight, seemingly happy to live in a state of eternal rumspringa. Rhoda considered herself as fun-loving as any young woman, but she’d long ago committed herself to the Amish faith. Was it too much to ask the same sort of maturity of the men she dated?
She pulled up alongside Zook’s Market. This grocery and dry goods store wouldn’t open for a couple of hours yet, but already Henry and Lydia Zook were preparing for their day. Rhoda put a determined smile on her face as the bell above the door jangled. “Happy day after Thanksgivin’ to ya!” she called out. “Mamm says you’ve got a couple turkeys for us today.”
“Jah, Rhoda, we’re packin’ your boxes right this minute, too!” Lydia called out from behind the back counter. “Levi! Cyrus! You can be carryin’ those big bags of potatoes and carrots out to Rhoda’s carriage, please and thank ya.”
From an aisle of the store, still shadowy in the low glow of the gas ceiling lights, two of the younger Zook boys stepped away from the shelves they had been restocking. “Hey there, Rhoda,” twelve-year-old Levi mumbled.
“Tell your mamm we could use more of those fine blackberry pies,” his younger brother Cyrus remarked as he hefted a fifty-pound bag of potatoes over his shoulder. “That’s my favorite, and they always sell out. Mamm won’t let us buy a pie unless they’re a day old—and most of ‘em don’t stay on the shelf that long.”
Rhoda smiled wryly. Cyrus Zook wasn’t the only fellow around Willow Ridge with a keen interest in her mother’s pies. “I’ll pass that along. Denki to you boys for loadin’ the carriage.”
“Levi will fetch your turkeys from the fridge,” Henry said from behind his meat counter. “Won’t be but a minute. Say—it sounds like ya had half of Willow Ridge over to your place for dinner yesterday.”
Again Rhoda smiled to herself: word got around fast in a small town. “Jah, what with Ben and his two brothers and two aunts—and the fact that those aunts invited Tom Hostetler and Hiram and his whole tribe to join us—we had quite a houseful.”
“Awful nice of ya to look after Preacher Tom and the bishop’s bunch,” Lydia said with an approving nod. “Fellows without wives don’t always get to celebrate with a real Thanksgiving dinner when their married kids live at a distance.”
“Well, there was no telling Jerusalem and Nazareth Hooley they couldn’t invite Tom and the Knepps,” Rhoda replied with a chuckle. “So there ya have it. They brought half the meal, though, so that wasn’t so bad.”
“Tell your mamm we said hullo.” Henry turned back toward the big grinder on the back table, where he was making fresh hamburger.
“Jah, I’ll do that. And denki for havin’ things all set to go.”
Jonah Zook stood behind his dat’s counter trimming roasts, so Rhoda met his eye and nodded, but didn’t try to make small talk. Jonah was a couple years younger than she, and had driven her home from a few Sunday night singings, but he had about as much sparkle as a crushed cardboard box. And goodness, but she could use some sparkle about now . . .
Rhoda glanced out the store’s front window. Levi and Cyrus were taking their sweet time about loading her groceries, so she wandered over to the bulletin board where folks posted notices of upcoming auctions and other announcements. No sense in standing out in that wind while the boys joshed around.
The old corkboard was pitted from years of use, and except for the sale bills for upcoming household auctions in New Haven and Morning Star, the yellowed notices for herbal remedies, fresh eggs, and local fellows’ businesses had hung there for months. Rhoda sighed—and then caught sight of a note half-hidden by an auction flyer.
Need a compassionate, patient caretaker for my elderly mother, plus after-school supervision for two kids. New Haven, just a block off the county highway. Call Andy Leitner.
Rhoda snatched the little notice from the board, her heart thumping. She knew nothing about this fellow except his phone number and that he had an ailing mother and two young children—and that he was surely English if he was advertising for help with family members. Yet something about his decisive block printing told her Mr. Leitner was a man who didn’t waffle over decisions or accept a half-hearted effort from anyone who would work in his home. He apparently had no wife—
Maybe she works away from home. Happens a lot amongst English families.
—and if he had posted this advertisement in Zook’s Market, he surely realized a Plain woman would be most likely to respond. It was common for Amish and Mennonite gals to hire on for housework and caretaking in English homes, so surely no one would object if she gave him a call and started working there, why—as soon as tomorrow!
How many of these notices has he posted? Plenty of Plain bulk stores to advertise in around Morning Star, plus the big discount stores out past New Haven. And if he’d run ads in the local papers, maybe he’d already had dozens of gals apply for this job. But what could it hurt to call him?
Pulse pounding, Rhoda stepped outside to the carriage. “You fellas got all my stuff loaded, jah?” she demanded. Levi and Cyrus were playing a rousing game of catch with a huge hard-packed snowball, paying no heed to the snow that was falling on their green shirt sleeves.
Levi, the older and ornerier of the two, poked his head around the back of the carriage. “Got a train to catch, do ya? Big day chasin’ after that Ira Hooley fella?” he teased. “Jonah, he says ya been tryin’ to catch yourself some of that Lancaster County money—”
“And what if I have?” Rhoda shot back. “Your mamm won’t take it too well when I tell her you two have been lolligaggin’ out here instead of stockin’ your shelves, ain’t so?”
Levi waited until she was stepping into the carriage before firing the snowball at her backside. But what would she accomplish by stepping out to confront him? Rhoda glanced at the two huge turkeys, the mesh sacks of potatoes, carrots, and onions, and sturdy boxes loaded with other staples Mamma had ordered, and decided she was ready to go. She chuckled at the two boys’ outcry when she playfully backed the carriage toward them. Then she urged Sadie into a trot. All sorts of questions buzzed in her mind as she headed for the Sweet Seasons. What would Mamma say if she called Andy Leitner? What if a mild winter meant the breakfast and lunch shifts would remain busy, especially with Rachel off collecting wedding presents for a few more weekends? Hannah Brenneman had only been helping them since her sixteenth birthday last week—
Jah, but she got her wish, to work in the café. And Rachel got her wish when she married Micah. And Mamma for sure and for certain got more than she dared to wish for when Ben Hooley asked to marry her! So it’s about time for me to have a wish come true!
Was that prideful, self-centered thinking? As Rhoda pulled up at the café, she didn’t much worry about the complications of religion or the Old Ways. She stepped into the dining room, spotted her cousins, Nate and Bram Kanagy, and caught them before they went back to the buffet for another round of biscuits and gravy. “Could I get you boys to carry in a couple of turkeys and some big bags of produce?” she asked sweetly. Then she nodded toward the kitchen, where Hannah was drizzling white icing on a fresh pan of Mamma’s sticky buns. “Could be you can talk our new cook out of a mighty gut cinnamon roll, if ya smile at her real nice.”
Nate rolled his eyes, but Bram’s handsome face lit up. “Jah, I noticed how the scenery in the kitchen had improved, cuz—not that it isn’t a treat to watch you and Rachel workin’,” he added quickly.
“Jah, sure, ya say that after ya already stepped in it.” Rhoda widened her eyes at him playfully. “Here’s your chance to earn your breakfast—not to mention make a few points with Hannah.”
Rhoda went back outside to grab one of the lighter boxes. Then, once Nate had followed her in with bags of onions and carrots, and he was chatting with Naomi, Hannah, and Mamma, she slipped out to the phone shanty before she lost her nerve. Common sense told her she should think out some answers to whatever questions Andy Leitner might ask, yet excitement overruled her usual practicality. Chances were good that she’d have to leave him a voice mail, anyway, so as she sat down in the phone shanty and her fingers danced over the phone number, her thoughts raced. Never in her life had she considered working in another family’s home, yet this seemed like the opportunity she’d been hoping for—praying for—of late. Surely Mamma would understand if—
“Hello?” a male voice came over the phone. He sounded a little groggy.
Rhoda gripped the receiver. It hadn’t occurred to her that while she’d already worked a couple of hours at the café, most of the world wasn’t out of bed yet. “I—sorry I called so early, but—”
“Not a problem. Glad for the wake-up call, because it seems I fell back asleep,” he replied with a soft groan. “How can I help you?”
Rhoda’s imagination ran wild. If this was Andy Leitner, he had a deep, mellow voice. Even though she’d awakened him and he was running late, he spoke pleasantly. “I, um, found the notice from an Andy Leitner on the board in Zook’s Market just now, and—” She closed her eyes, wondering where the words had disappeared to. She had to sound businesslike, or at least competent, or this man wouldn’t want to talk to her.
“You’re interested in the position?” he asked with a hopeful upturn in his voice. “I was wondering if the store owners had taken my note down.”
Rhoda’s heart raced. “Jah, I’d like to talk to you about it, for sure and for certain,” she gushed. “But ya should understand right out that I don’t have a car, on account of how we Amish don’t believe in ownin’—I mean, I’m not preachin’ at ya, or—”
She winced. “This is comin’ out all wrong. Sorry,” she rasped. “My name’s Rhoda Lantz, and I’m in Willow Ridge. I sure hope you don’t think I’m too ferhoodled to even be considered for the job.”
“Ferhoodled?” The word rolled melodiously from the receiver and teased at her.
“Crazy mixed-up,” she explained. “Confused, and—well, I’m keepin’ ya from whatever ya need to be doin’, so—”
“Ah, but you’re a solution to my problem. The answer to a prayer,” he added quietly. “For that, I have time to listen, Rhoda. I need to make my shift at the hospital, but could I come by and chat with you when I get off? Say, around two this afternoon?”
Rhoda grinned. “That would be wonderful-gut, Mr. Leitner! We’ll be closin’ up at two—my mamm runs the Sweet Seasons Bakery Café on the county blacktop—and we can talk at a back table.”
“Sounds perfect. I’ll see you then—and thanks so much for calling, Rhoda.”
“Jah, for sure and for certain!”
As she placed the receiver back in its cradle, Rhoda held her breath. What would she tell Mamma? She felt scared and excited and yes, ferhoodled, because she now had an interview for a job! She had no idea about caring for that elderly mother . . . or what if the kids ran her so ragged she got nothing done except keeping them out of trouble? What if Andy Leitner’s family didn’t like her because she wore Plain clothing and kapps?
What have ya gone and done now, Rhoda Lantz?
She inhaled to settle herself, and headed back to the café’s kitchen. There was no going back, no unsaying what she’d said over the phone. No matter what anyone else thought, she could only move forward.
And wasn’t that exactly what she’d been hoping to do for weeks now?