And now, Chapter 3:
Mamma Sheena took over the classes a few days later. As I had expected, she didn’t want me to help her at all – she thought I was just a child, and the child of a rival at that.
I hadn’t really considered the mammas rivals before that terrible morning meal. Mamma Barbara had told me the other mammas were like sisters she’d never had, comparing them to the sisters in her favorite author’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. When I asked her which sister she was, she had laughed and asked me who I thought she was like. I didn’t know then. After she fell ill though, I decided she was most like Jane – the prettiest, sweetest, and most content of them all.
For the first few days, Mamma Sheena was able to stay awake and conduct the classes without too much trouble. As Mamma Barbara had predicted, though, Mamma Sheena soon found herself facedown on the desk more often than she stood in front of us. I always waited a few minutes before taking over the class, because Mamma Sheena sometimes woke up as soon as her forehead made contact with the cool wooden surface in front of her. When I heard her soft snoring start, I would stand up and continue the lecture, whatever the subject may have been. I had already learned the material anyway, after more than eight eager years under Mamma Barbara’s tutelage. My ability to soak up all of her lessons so completely was another reason why Mamma Barbara had made me her assistant – it kept me in the classroom despite the fact I didn’t actually need to be there. To keep me from getting bored, she would assign books for me to read when I wasn’t helping her with the other children. While the others went out to play, Mamma Barbara and I would discuss the books at length. My biggest questions always revolved around the structure of the families in the books. Over and over, I asked her why there was only one mamma, why they had so few children, and why their lives seemed so different from ours.
Her answers always centered on how much better our way of life was than the lives portrayed in the books. “If one of the mammas were to die, there would still be four more to take care of you and your brothers and sisters.” “Because their families have only one mamma, they can’t have as many children as we can. Those children are smothered by their mammas and they don’t have the strong ties to their brothers and sisters like you have.” “Life is harder for the families in the books. The parents are always busy with work and they have to leave their children in the care of others. Even though the mammas and your father are busy, they are all still around for you. Why, you could go out right this minute and find your father tilling the field!”
What she said made sense: I could usually spot father from the back window of the schoolhouse. All of the mammas were within crying distance; whenever one of us fell down, there was always a lap waiting to comfort us. I accepted her words as truth.
But the squabbling I witnessed in her absence shook my belief. I wondered if Mamma Barbara had ever fought with the others, or if she alone saw our family as perfect. I intended to ask her as soon as she was well.
In the meantime, I taught the younger children the lessons I had already learned. I loved spelling lessons; Mamma Barbara said I had a special gift for language. I held a spelling bee at least a couple times a week. Ulmer was always anxious for those, since he too had a talent for spelling. I could tell he was upset about Mamma Barbara; he had a close bond with her like the bond I had with Mamma Wanda.
History was another subject I enjoyed. The history books Father had gotten for us were discards from a public school and only went up to the 1950s or so, but Mamma Una said nothing really interesting had happened since World War II anyway. Just like Mamma Barbara, I would read the chapter aloud and then ask the study questions and call on the others to answer, making sure everyone answered at least once, starting with the younger children, since they hadn’t been through the book before.
I always hoped Mamma Sheena would at least make it through the math lessons. She was the best with numbers of all the mammas, having honed her skills in the garden. She could tell you exactly how much a particular plant – be it tomato, eggplant, or green bean – could be expected to yield. Using this knowledge, she always kept a garden that fed us well throughout the year. When she taught math, she created word problems using vegetables and animals right out of her head. It was the only subject for which she showed a real talent. Unfortunately, numbers weren’t my strongest subject. But when Mamma Sheena taught math, I felt like she untangled all the mysteries right there in front of me for the first time. When Mamma Barbara came back, I planned to ask her if Mamma Sheena could continue teaching math for us.
Of course, whenever Mamma Sheena woke up from her naps and found me in front of the class, she assumed I was misbehaving and reprimanded me for it. She rarely realized she had, in fact, been sleeping; instead, she imagined I had somehow snuck up in front of her in an attempt to make her look bad. If the other children tried to defend me, they too found themselves punished. After the first few times, I told the others not to worry about it – I could take her punishment. Of course, that didn’t stop me from going to Mamma Una with my complaints.
“Now, Irene, I don’t want to hear about this. Mamma Sheena is in charge and you can’t be going over her head to get the results you want.”
“But, Mamma Una! She keeps punishing me as if I were doing something wrong!”
“I know it doesn’t seem fair, but sometimes that’s just how life is.” She hugged me and said, “You just keep doing what you know is right. When Mamma Barbara comes back, I’m sure you’ll be rewarded for your faithfulness.”