A Mother’s Gift
March 27, 2018
Charlotte Hubbard celebrates the joys and challenges of motherhood in this uplifting story, set amid the warmth and tradition of an Amish Missouri farm community.
For Leah Otto, marrying Jude Shetler is a long-held dream come true. As a young girl, she was captivated by his good looks and talent as an auctioneer. When Jude, now a widower with three children, begins to court her, Leah doesn’t hesitate. Other men may not appreciate her tomboy ways, but Jude values Leah’s practical nature and her skill with the animals she tends, and both enter the marriage with joy and optimism.
Three months later, Leah feels as if her world is coming down around her. Her twin teenage step-daughters, Alice and Adeline, are pushing boundaries and taking far too many risks, while five-year-old Stevie deeply misses his mother. Leah, more at ease in a barn tending her goats and chickens than in a kitchen, struggles with her housekeeping duties.
Then a baby is abandoned on their doorstep, and Leah must search her soul. Caring for little Betsy fills her with renewed purpose and the strength to begin pulling her family together. With Jude’s steadfast support, Leah finds that what she once thought of as a happy ending may be something even better—the beginning of a life rich in love, faith, and unexpected blessings.
Read an Excerpt
As Lenore Otto sat on the bed with Leah, wistfully watching the November dusk fill her daughter’s room, her heart was torn. The two of them had shared this evening ritual of talking and praying since Lenore’s husband, Raymond, had died last year. It had always brought her a comforting sense of peace, along with the certainty that she and her daughter would move forward with the plans God had for them. After all the cleaning they’d done and the preparations they’d made to host Leah’s wedding festivities the next day, she was ready to relax—but she needed to speak the words that weighed so heavily on her heart.
Tomorrow, when Leah got married, their lives would follow separate paths. Lenore knew she would be fine remaining on the small farm alone, making and selling her specialty quilts. She supposed some of her qualms about her daughter’s marriage plagued every mother . . .
Lord, I wish I could believe my Leah’s reaching toward happiness rather than heartache.
Before God’s still, small voice could respond to Lenore, Leah let out an ecstatic sigh. “Oh, Mama, it’s a dream come true,” she murmured. “Starting tomorrow, when I marry Jude, my life will finally be the way I’ve always wanted it. My waiting is over!”
Not for the first time, Lenore sighed inwardly at her daughter’s fantasy. As she returned Leah’s hug, savoring these precious moments in the room where her little girl had matured into a woman of twenty-eight, she didn’t have it in her to shatter Leah’s dreams. No mother wanted her daughter to forever remain a maidel, yet during these final hours before the wedding, Lenore thought she should try once again to point out the realities of marrying Jude Shetler. Jude was a fine, upstanding man any parent would be pleased to welcome as a son-in-law, but as a widower he carried a certain amount of . . . baggage.
“Leah, your life will change in ways you can’t anticipate when you marry,” Lenore began softly. She rested her head against the headboard, grasping her daughter’s hand. “When you move into a man’s home—”
“Oh, Mama, you’ve already told me what to expect in the bedroom,” Leah interrupted with a nervous giggle. “It’s not as though I haven’t seen the deer and the horses mating.”
Lenore closed her eyes, praying for words that would gently pierce the balloon of maidenly naiveté in which Leah seemed to live. “There’s more to marriage than mating,” she whispered earnestly. “You’ll be moving into a home where Jude and his kids have established their routine. We’ve both heard the rumors about how Alice and Adeline might be behaving inappropriately during their rumspringa—”
“They’re sixteen, and they’re very pretty,” Leah quickly pointed out. “Twins are inclined to get into double trouble as part of their nature at that age. I certainly found mischief during my running-around years.”
Lenore sighed again. She wished Raymond were here to help her with this difficult discussion. “Sweetheart, I doubt you were ever out of your dat’s or my sight for more than an hour at a time. The pranks you used to pull at sale barns when you were helping Dat with the livestock were nothing compared to the way I’ve heard Alice and Adeline run the roads with English boys in their cars.”
“I rode in a few cars—and pickups—you didn’t know about,” Leah shot back. “It’s not as though I spent my time hanging around with girls at the auction barns, you know.”
Squeezing Leah’s fingers so she’d focus on the matters at hand, Lenore held her daughter’s gaze in the dimness. “I probably should’ve insisted that you learn to cook and sew and keep house instead of tending the animals with your Dat,” she murmured. “But you were a tremendous help to him—and you were the only child God blessed us with. More than anything, I’ve wanted you to spend your life doing what makes you happy.”
“And I am happy, Mama!” Leah said blissfully. “I make a gut income selling my dressed chickens and ducks, my goats milk, and raising deer—the same way Dat did. If I hadn’t spent so much time in the sale barns around Jude, he would never have come to know me—or love me.”
Lenore paused, searching for another conversational path. She had no doubt that her daughter’s love for Jude was sincere, and that Jude loved Leah, too, but it took more than shared affection to make a marriage work and to keep a household running smoothly.
“And Mama, if your quilts don’t sell—or if you want to stop working so hard on them,” Leah said tenderly, “you know I’ll help you out with money so you can stay here at home. I know how much you and Dat have always loved this place.”
Tears sprang to Lenore’s eyes. Once again her daughter spoke with utmost sincerity, unaware that Jude might have different ideas about Leah’s income—or that he might insist that she give up raising and selling her chickens, ducks, and goats. He might also be reluctant for his wife to raise deer that were destined to stock hunting lodges, even if he admired Leah’s way with those animals.
“Denki for thinking of me, dear, but we’re talking about you now,” Lenore insisted gently. “I’m concerned because Jude’s mamm, Margaret, also lives with Jude and the twins—not to mention Stevie, who seems rather immature for five. Margaret will have her way of doing things, because she took charge after Frieda died. And with Stevie still missing his mamm, you’ll have a lot of little-boy emotions to deal with as you prepare him to start school next year. Most new brides only have a husband to get used to until the babies start coming.”
“Jah, but with Margaret running the household and tending the three kids—especially Stevie—their routine can remain uninterrupted,” Leah pointed out. “That will give Jude and me time to adjust to being husband and wife, and it’ll mean that meals are put on the table and the laundry and cleaning will still get done. From what I know of Margaret, she’ll have instructed Alice and Adeline about doing their part in the process, too.”
From what I know of Margaret, Lenore thought sadly, she’ll be snipping at you every chance she gets, calling you a slacker—or worse—because you’re not assuming the traditional role of an Amish wife.
Lenore stared at the far wall, sensing whatever she said would go unheard. “Just be ready for your plans to be changed, Leah,” she warned gently. “Spending most of your time with Jude at auctions, or in the barnyard tending your animals, might not work out the way you’ve imagined. Margaret will be a woman with a plan, too, you know.”
Leah rested her head against the wooden headboard, closing her eyes. “I’ll cross that bridge when—or if—I get to it, Mama. Tomorrow’s my big day, and I know it’ll be just perfect because Jude’s sharing it with me. The light in his eyes when he looks at me is all I need to see to believe he’ll love me forever and ever.”
Lenore looked out the window at the half moon, which shone brilliantly in the night sky. Bless your heart, Leah, I wonder if you still believe the moon’s made of green cheese, as Dat and I teased about when you were a child, she thought with a sinking heart. We probably should have done a lot of things differently as we were raising you . . . but it’s too late to change your way of looking at things.
“I wish you all the best as you start your new life, Leah,” she said softly. With a final squeeze to her daughter’s hand, Lenore rose from the bed. “You’ll always be in my thoughts and prayers—and I’ll always love you. Gut night and sleep tight.”
“You can sleep for me, Mama. I’m too excited to close my eyes.”
Lenore paused in the doorway of the unlit room for a last glance at her giddy daughter. Bless her, Lord, and hold her in Your hand, she prayed. At this point, only You can keep Leah’s happiness from turning into a disaster.
* * * * *
Jeremiah Shetler leaned his elbows on his worn kitchen table, gazing earnestly at his younger brother—who, at thirty-three, was surely old enough to know better about what he was getting into. “Last chance to see reason, Jude,” he stated bluntly. “If you go through with this wedding tomorrow, you’ll be signing on for a lifetime of sorrow and regret.”
Jude’s dark eyes flashed with resentment. “Sounds more like my marriage to Frieda—God rest her soul,” he added quickly. “Why can’t you let me find my happiness with a woman who won’t keep secrets? A woman who adores me and makes me laugh?”
“Leah’s a nice girl, jah,” Jeremiah said with a shake of his head, “but she’s clueless about such basic activities as putting a gut meal on the table—”
“And how do you know this?” Jude demanded.
Jeremiah exhaled forcefully. He’d never understood what Jude saw in Leah. He could only assume that his widowed brother was so desperate for affection and companionship that he was willing to settle for a woman who’d never progressed beyond being the tomboy daughter Raymond and Lenore Otto hadn’t taught much about womanly responsibilities. “Have you ever eaten a meal Leah cooked?” he challenged. “Any time I’ve visited the Otto home, Lenore’s been bustling around in the kitchen and Leah’s been in the front room chatting with me and her dat. Jah, she’s cleaned up the dishes, but I’ve not seen any signs that she knows how to operate a stove.”
“Lenore does the cooking because you’re the bishop, and she feels you deserve her best efforts at a meal,” Jude explained impatiently. He raked his hand through his disheveled dark waves, glancing downward with an anguished sigh. “Come on, man. You know how it is to lose a wife—and you don’t even have kids to look after. Doesn’t the loneliness—the need for adult conversation—eat you alive at times?”
Jeremiah looked away, his heart pierced by the blatant reminder of Priscilla’s absence. After three years of living without her, he did indeed know how the silence of nights alone clawed at a man’s heart like a relentless beast. But he needed to pursue his present purpose before Jude made the biggest mistake of his life. “All right, so think about how Mamm will react to having Leah around,” he said, crossing his arms. “She’s told me she’s not in favor of this marriage, and you know she’ll shred Leah like pulled pork when she doesn’t assume such wifely duties as sewing clothes for your kids, or cooking, or cleaning, or—”
“I’ve already told Mamm that she can retain her place as the female head of housekeeping—so things will be done the way she wants them,” Jude shot back. “It’s not as though Leah won’t contribute to putting food on the table by raising it, and by—”
“And you think Mamm’s going to stand for that?” Jeremiah challenged in disbelief. “And you think it’s fair to Leah to put her mother-in-law in charge of her new home? Really?”
Jude’s sigh lingered in the darkening kitchen, but Jeremiah didn’t light any lamps. He wanted nothing to distract his brother while he came up with more logical, realistic answers to such basic questions.
“All right, so Mamm’s muttered a few choice words about Leah’s tendency toward the jobs men usually do,” Jude finally said. “I’ve known Leah for years—which is more than I could say when I married Frieda—and she’s a patient, kind, optimistic sort of woman. Don’t you often preach about that passage from Corinthians that says love is patient and kind? Which is, sorry to say, not exactly a fitting description of our mother.”
“But Mamm stepped in to look after you and your kids after Frieda passed,” Jeremiah pointed out. “Think what your life would’ve been like these past five months without her presence. She’s expressed her concern that you’ve rushed into your courtship of Leah—”
Jude chuckled humorlessly. “Mamm told me flat-out that no matter how many years I courted Leah, I couldn’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” he admitted. “I know Leah’s more at home in a barn than in a kitchen, but I’m crazy for her, Jeremiah. She gets along with Alice and Adeline, and she understands that Stevie’s shy—”
“Your twins concern me even more than Mamm, when it comes to welcoming Leah into your home,” Jeremiah said firmly. “Those girls are of an age to say one thing and do something entirely different. If the rumors are true about them chasing after English boys, you and Leah will need to be very vigilant about what Adeline and Alice are up to in the name of rumspringa.”
Jude’s lips quirked. “The girls need a younger woman than Mamm to keep track of them—yet another reason Leah’s presence will be a blessing,” he insisted doggedly. “They miss their mother. They’ll be a handful no matter whom I marry.”
Jude stood up, appearing older than his age. “I know you have your objections, Jeremiah, but I’m counting on your support because you’re one of the most positive, forward-thinking men I know,” he said softly, holding Jeremiah’s gaze. “And frankly, love and optimism and—and laughter—have been missing from my life for more years than I care to count. Please try to understand that I’m going after some happiness with Leah. Is it a sin to love someone because she makes me smile?”
Jeremiah swallowed hard. His tough talk hadn’t changed Jude’s opinion of Leah one iota. “As your bishop, I can say I’ve performed weddings for couples who had less love and laughter in their souls than you and Leah do,” he admitted softly. “But as your brother, I wish you’d at least postpone the ceremony—give yourselves more time to decide how you’ll handle the issues I’ve mentioned.”
Jude gripped the back of the wooden chair he’d just vacated, gazing intently at Jeremiah in the dimness. “What you and Mamm are really saying is that Leah must change—a lot—before you believe she’ll make a gut wife and stepmother,” he said in a voice edged with resentment. “I’ll say it again, Jeremiah: I love Leah just the way she is. The traits you and our mother find undesirable—unsuitable—are the things I adore most about her because Leah dares to be herself, rather than trying to fit the mold of Old Order expectations.”
“And by the same token, it’s our communal conformity to Old Order ways that keeps any of us from calling undue attention to ourselves—or earning a reputation for being prideful. Not that I believe Leah works with livestock to attract attention or to set herself above anyone else.” Sighing, Jeremiah rose and offered Jude his hand. “Nobody wants your marriage to succeed more than I do,” he murmured. “I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning at the Otto place.”
Jude gripped his fingers. “Mark my words, Jeremiah. This is one of those conversations we’ll look back on years from now and chuckle about, after Leah and I are established and deliriously happy,” he said with a boyish smile.
“I hope you’re right. I’ll pray you’re right,” Jeremiah added purposefully.
After his brother had closed the door behind him, the silence of the house weighed heavily on Jeremiah. Once again he felt acutely aware of Priscilla’s absence, just as he knew that tomorrow’s wedding would be an occasion for the men in the Morning Star church district to tease him about when he planned to court and marry somebody. As the bishop, he was expected to follow the pattern of the families in his congregation—to find another wife and to raise children.
For reasons only God knew, He hadn’t granted Jeremiah and Priscilla any kids during their eighteen years of marriage, and Jeremiah secretly wondered if he could find it in his heart to marry a widow who already had a family. He knew of a few Amish women around Morning Star and Cedar Creek who fit that description—as well as a few who’d remained maidels because no man had felt compelled to court them. When Jeremiah saw their earnest faces in his mind, he still didn’t feel ready to replace his dear Priscilla. Who would ever measure up to the love of his life?
“I’ll say this for you, Leah,” he murmured, “you have guts enough—faith enough—to take on Jude’s three kids, even if I suspect you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. ”
Jeremiah shook his head when he realized he was talking to himself again. Living alone in so much silence did funny things to a man’s mind.
Without lighting a lamp, he made his way upstairs to his bedroom, thinking about what positive points he might make during his sermon before he led Jude and Leah in their vows. He hoped God would whisper encouraging words in his ear—words that would support the newlyweds and also persuade folks in the congregation to believe the best about them.
I’m asking for a lot, Lord, Jeremiah thought as he climbed into bed. But I believe You have a plan and You’re working it out even as we disillusioned humans doubt You.