Sue Stephenson - Book


Phebe’s Passage

By Sue Stephenson

Chapter 1

Early November, 1882, Angola, Indiana

Phebe’s pale blue silk evening gown swooshes this way and that as she gracefully waltzes with Van, her husband of only a few months. The shadows at the edges of her mind focus as Van’s gaze is diverted to a red-lipsticked lady of the night who whisks him away. He cuts a swell with other ladies as Phebe stands alone in the middle of the dance floor.

Phebe Waller Singer bolts upright in her empty bed and shudders remnants of her dream away.


She wonders if other new wives sleep alone as often as she, are grass widows so soon in their marriages. Perhaps if she were with child. She shakes her head no. A child is not the solution for this poor marriage.

She forces herself out from under the warmth of her quilts into the cold, dark room and lights a candle. She performs her morning ablutions at the washbasin, letting her hair fall to her shoulders, just the way Van likes it. No. She carefully pins her hair up, just the way she likes it, neat and tidy and off her neck.

She sits on the chair by the back door of their one-room abode and pulls on her mud boots. Then she snatches her thick wool shawl from the wooden peg and wraps it around her shoulders. After a quick trip to the outhouse, she heads toward the shed to milk Bertha the cow, an extravagant wedding gift from her parents.

A light snowfall dusts the ground. As she nears the shed, she realizes Bertha is silent and the shed door ajar. She runs the last few steps.


Phebe distinctly remembers securing the latch last night after milking.

The shed is empty.

Angry, she returns to their room and puts the kettle on to boil. She measures a scoop of loose tea into the chipped teapot with a crack that threatens to render it inoperable, worrying the whole while how she’ll explain Van’s indiscretion to her parents.

In this moment, Phebe realizes she is destined to be a divorcée and all the cruel things the old church biddies had predicted about her marriage are about to come true.

She crawls back under her quilts and sobs.



Chapter 2

April 1883, Angola, Indiana

“No more black clothes?” Mama asked, coming into Phebe’s room. Two inches shorter than Phebe, Mama had the same voluptuous bosom, brown curly hair, and brown eyes.

 “I have a black ribbon in my hair. I’m a divorcée and I’ve worn black for almost as many months as I was married. That’s enough.” Phebe tried not to sound defensive. “He didn’t die. He left. I’m divorced. I need to get on with my life.”

Mama nodded, and Phebe thought she saw the corners of Mama’s mouth turn up ever so slightly.

Softening her voice, Phebe said, “Thank you, Mama, for letting me stay here with you and Papa while I figure out what to do next.”

“Of course, dear. This is your home. There will always be a place for you here. And your little sister Hannah couldn’t be happier.”

“I’m going to visit Eunice Sams.” Phebe retied the ribbon in her hair, though the original bow was fine.

“Today? I feel it’s going to rain.” Mama looked out the window at the few clouds scattered in the sky.

“What’s a little rain? Papa always says we can’t let the weather rule our lives.”

Mama raised an eyebrow at Phebe’s cavalier attitude. “Mother Nature rules our lives whether we want her to or not. And she can be harsh.”

“Oh, Mama. Stop worrying. I’m only going as far as Eunice Sams’ farm. You remember Eunice? Eldest daughter of the Hardenbrooks. She’s married now with her own daughter.”

“Jonathan Hardenbrook’s sister?”

“Yes. And sister to George, Faith and Mary.”

“Is her little girl walking by now?” Mama asked, and Phebe thought she saw a moment of longing in her mother’s eyes for a granddaughter of her own.

“I’m not sure.”

“Is Jonathan still unmarried? He is such a nice boy.”

“He is a nice man.” Phebe wondered how much her mother suspected of her real intentions. She wanted more than ever to head her buggy out of Angola, Indiana, and never come back. She wasn’t sure when. She simply knew she couldn’t live out her life here as a divorcée. She did not want to be a source for gossips’ tongue wagging. She wanted a kind man for a husband, a man with whom she could have a family in a community where she would be respected.

“Isn’t Jonathan a few years older than you?”

Was Mama reading her mind, Phebe wondered? “Three years, I believe.”

“Didn’t you two play together as children?” Mama continued her line of questioning, “I seem to recall him giving you piggyback rides around the barn.”

“Perhaps.” Phebe remembered well the games of a childhood that now seemed a lifetime ago. “Today I’m going to visit with his older sister, Eunice.” Phebe tried to change the subject. “Eunice said she’d teach me how to make a crazy patch quilt.”

“I thought you didn’t like that look.” Mama arched an eyebrow. “You’ve always been so precise with your piecing of quilt blocks, I thought—”

“I’ve changed.” Phebe cut off her mother’s comment. “I used to be a married woman. Now I’m not. Today I want to try something new, something different.”

“Crazy patches? Really?”

“I’ve admired the new-fangled quilt blocks Eunice is making and I can’t figure out where to begin. Last Sunday, I asked her if she’d show me how she does it.”

In truth, Mama was right. Eunice’s crazy quilt blocks seemed too ostentatious for Phebe’s taste. Phebe’s quilts were utilitarian, meant to warm one while sleeping. These crazy quilt sewing lessons were simply a means to an end. Phebe needed a husband. Nothing more. If she had to learn how to make a ridiculous quilt in the process, so be it. She could always give it to the church raffle for some worthy cause like the widows and orphans fund or veterans of the war between the states.

 “Do you think learning to make a crazy quilt is a bad idea?” Phebe asked, doubt seeping into her plan.

“No dear,” Mama cut her off. “Go. You need to get out and Eunice Sams is a very nice young woman. Spending an afternoon with that family will be good for you.”

I’d rather be spending an afternoon with her brother, Jonathan, Phebe thought. “How do I look?” She twirled in place so her mother could get the full effect of her plain white blouse and light blue wool skirt. Phebe feared her mother would disapprove. How long was long enough for a young divorcée to wear black? It had been four months after a five-month marriage. She was sick of black.

“You look fine dear.” The lightness in Mama’s voice reinforced her words and caught Phebe by surprise. “Yes, I think a visit with Eunice is a grand idea.”

They moved into the kitchen.

It most certainly is, Phebe thought. She didn’t dare tell Mama her true motivation. She feared her mother would be ashamed of her for being so brazen.

“Take this grape jelly with you. It’s from last fall’s crop.” Mama handed Phebe a pint jelly jar. “Your father is especially fond of it, but we have plenty to last until this year’s crop comes in and I can make more.”

“Thank you, Mama.”

“Rain’s a coming. Mark my words.”

Phebe looked at the mostly sunny sky, but knew better than to doubt her mother’s weather predictions. Phebe had lived most of her life on this farm, but she still couldn’t feel the weather like Mama.

“It won’t be a storm, but there will be rain. Best you take a buggy.” Mama turned back to the counter and began peeling potatoes for dinner.

Phebe stowed the jelly in her basket next to her sewing kit. She had padded the bottom with two yards of muslin, per Eunice’s instructions. She tucked scraps of fabric, left over from her Sunday-best dress, Papa’s dress shirt, and Mama’s fancy apron, around the jelly to keep it safe on the bumpy journey. She hitched up her favorite mare, Marigold, to the buggy and was on her way.

She could have ridden horseback, but she wanted to appear lady-like and not smell like a sweaty horse when she arrived. Also, if Mama’s prediction of rain was correct, she’d have more protection with the buggy. She hoped to catch Jonathan’s eye this afternoon and possibly engage him in a conversation. Somehow, she had to break through his shell of shyness. She wasn’t sure, how, but being in close proximity was a start. Sunday morning services, with the whole town watching, were not conducive to conversation. Too many judgmental gossips about, too much tittle tattle.

Many years ago, she had thought Jonathan was “the one.” Not only was he a very kind boy, he was also tall and handsome. She remembered the time when a small child had fallen and scraped his knee at a local barn raising and Jonathan swooped him up, cleaned his wound and managed to get the child laughing before his mother arrived.

Though they had known each other all their lives, Phebe and Jonathan’s interactions had been limited to church socials, community barn raisings, and the occasional dance.

Then the exciting and worldly Van Singer had arrived and pushed all thoughts of farm boy Jonathan from Phebe’s mind. Now Phebe realized, Jonathan might be “the one” after all and her most viable way out of Indiana, to a place where no one knew she had foolishly married a man so full of beans, a true son of a gun.

On the hour-long buggy ride, Phebe’s mind jumped about, trying to come up with a ruse to spend a few moments alone with Jonathan. She still had no idea how she’d do so when she arrived at the Hardenbrook family farm, three acres boasting three separate homes in the far corners of the property. How would she catch Jonathan’s eye across the fields? What would she do if Jonathan demonstrated absolutely no interest in her advances? She’d simply have to make sure he did.

The Wallers and the Hardenbrooks had belonged to the same church long before Jonathan or Phebe were born. When Jonathan was only three years old, his mother, Sarah, died while giving birth to his youngest sister Mary, leaving behind a grieving husband and five children under the age of seven. Amos Hardenbrook raised his children with help from his only sister, Ruth, who never married and passed away when Jonathan was twelve.

Jonathan and his younger sisters, Faith and Mary, still lived with their father in the main house located in the northeast corner closest to the road. The eldest son, George, and his wife, Eva, lived in the southeast corner. The eldest daughter, Eunice, and her husband, David, lived in the home located in the northwest corner with their only daughter, Effie. 

That left the southwest corner of the family compound for the second son, Jonathan, and his wife, if he could ever find the courage to speak with a woman long enough to court and marry her. If Phebe succeeded, Jonathan would have no need of the southwest corner of the family farm.

 As Phebe hitched Marigold to the railing in front of Eunice’s gingerbread-adorned front porch, she scanned the horizon, looking for Jonathan. She wondered if she could distinguish him from his brother George if they were working side by side in the fields. Probably not. The Hardenbrooks were all built the same with tall, thin, lanky bodies, so different from Phebe’s short, stout frame.

Eunice burst through the front screen door. “I thought I heard you arrive.” She embraced Phebe.

Phebe hugged her back. “Eunice, I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to teach me how to make a crazy patch quilt. I truly appreciate your kindness.”

“I’m delighted you want to learn this new technique,” Eunice said, making Phebe blush because she felt Eunice could see right through her ruse. “I didn’t think you cared for crazy patch blocks.”

“Oh, but I do,” Phebe protested. “They’re so,” she searched for the right word that would please, not insult Eunice, “unusual.”

“I really didn’t think they were your cup of tea. You always seem to gravitate towards the more traditional patchwork – log cabin, churn dash, shoo fly blocks.”

“A year ago, that was true enough.” Phebe felt the need to defend her new desire to make crazy patch blocks. “But recently my life has turned upside down, and I’ve felt the need to make something very different and very beautiful.” Phebe smiled her charmingly crooked smile. “Or maybe I’m now attracted to crazy patches because my life is so crazy.”

They both laughed as Eunice ushered Phebe into her dining room.

Phebe was impressed with Eunice’s skill as a teacher of crazy patches, but soon her thoughts drifted as she stitched. Occasionally she’d gaze out the window to the fields where the Hardenbrook men were planting the last of their crops.

A couple hours later, Phebe had added enough pieces to circle the five-sided centerpiece once. And she’d managed a few unusual embroidery stitches to embellish the seams. She was tired and ready to quit, but Eunice had mentioned that on Wednesday nights all the Hardenbrooks ate together at her home. I cannot work alongside my brothers in the field, so I invite them to my table every week.”

“It’s late. I should go.” Phebe tilted her head from side to side and front to back, breaking up the cricks in her neck that had formed while she bent over her crazy patches.

“Oh no. Join us for dinner.”

“I’ll only stay if I can help.” Then remembering her Mother’s gift she added “Mama sent a jar of grape jelly. Perhaps, I could make biscuits. Do you have a favorite recipe?”

“Of course. It’s the one I learned from Mother. Even though she’s has been deceased more than twenty-five years, the biscuit recipe will always be ‘Mother’s. It was the one thing I remember doing with her. Silly isn’t it?”

“Not at all. I’d be honored if you’d teach me her recipe.” Phebe packed up her sewing supplies and the new stash of elegant fabrics Eunice had bestowed on her. Then she followed Eunice’s directions for the second time today. She mixed together flour, baking powder, salt, shortening, and buttermilk. She rolled out the biscuits, cut them with a drinking glass, and placed them on a baking sheet, Hardenbrook style.

Just as Phebe scraped the bowl clean and placed the last biscuit round onto the cookie sheet, her apron came untied and Eunice commented, “Somebody’s thinking about you.”

Would that it be Jonathan, Phebe thought, but she said, “Eunice that’s just an old wives’ tale.” And they both laughed.

Then Phebe heard Jonathan’s voice, calling to his sister Faith from Eunice’s front porch, and her heart rate increased such that she found herself taking short, quick breaths.

Jonathan burst into the front door and stopped mid-sentence, mid-stride when he saw Phebe.