Emma, 2007 Publisher’s Choice
By Les Tanner
Lying securely in a safe deposit box at the D.L.Evans Bank in Kamiah are, among other things, a baptismal certificate belonging to Emmaline Annabelle Martina Stromberg, and a birth certificate which tells those few who have seen it that at 3:17 P.M. on December 22, 1942, a baby girl weighing five pounds, three ounces was born to Annabelle (Smith) Stromberg and Martin Vincent Stromberg.
At twenty, Martin was the oldest of the thirteen grandchildren of Oliver and Mathilde Stromberg. The Strombergs had been part of the community since 1898, when Oliver, a master sawyer, moved his family to Kamiah from Minnesota in search of work.
Martin had followed his grandfather, his father, and three uncles into the lumber business, working at the mill weekends and summers when he was in school, and full time after he’d graduated.
One cold and windy Saturday in the fall of 1941, Martin was walking toward the Post Office when the bus from Lewiston pulled up in front of the drug store. The lone passenger who disembarked was a slender girl wearing a thin brown coat and a red woolen scarf that fluttered in the breeze.
She stood shivering as the driver opened the baggage compartment beneath the bus, withdrew a cloth valise and an old cardboard suitcase tied up with twine, and set them on the sidewalk.
Martin heard the girl ask, “Could you please tell me where the nearest boarding house might be?”
The driver shrugged. “‘Fraid not, Miss,” he apologized. “I’m new to this route.”
Seeing Martin, he added, “Maybe this fellow can help.”
Martin did much more than help. That afternoon, he drove Annie—he’d shyly asked her name, and she’d shyly responded, “Annie Smith”—to Mrs. O’Hara’s house up by the high school, where she found a room. The next day, he introduced Annie to Irene down at the diner, where she got a job waiting tables. Wednesday night, Martin took Annie to the movies to see “Gone With The Wind.”.
Annie formally met Martin’s family on Thanksgiving, agreed to his proposal of marriage that evening, and became Mrs. Martin Stromberg in a simple ceremony at the Presbyterian church on Saturday, December 6, 1941.
Annie was eight months pregnant when word came that Martin had perished in battle on a tiny Pacific island a million miles from Kamiah. The shock was too much for her, and she died in the small back room of Doc Hubbard’s office down on Main Street, giving birth to Emma.
The tiny orphaned baby didn’t lack for home or love. Martin’s parents, Gladys and Carl Stromberg, assumed the duties of mother and father at first. Two years later, when Martin’s younger brother Howard married, he and his wife, Caroline, volunteered to be “instant parents.” And so it was that Howard and Caroline Stromberg were “Mom” and “Dad” to Emma for the rest of her life.
She knew of her true relationship to the Strombergs, though. From the earliest moment that she could understand such things, her family had gently and kindly brought her to realize how special she was and what a wonderful gift she had been to them all.
When Annie Smith had arrived in Kamiah, all of her worldly possessions had been in the valise and the suitcase. Besides clothes and a few toiletries, there was a small box of odds and ends, an old rag doll which had been her favorite toy, and a quilt, a beautiful hand-sewn quilt that had belonged to Annie’s grandmother.
But that was it. There were no pictures, no letters, no family keepsakes, nothing else to indicate who Annie was or where she came from. Annie had never talked about such matters, either, or how she came to be in Kamiah.
As a consequence, Emma knew nothing at all about her mother or her mother’s family. She didn’t even know how old her mother had been when she died. Emma’s only link to that part of her past was her great-grandmother’s quilt.
In the summer of 1961, Emma married Albert Wilson, her childhood sweetheart.
The first little Wilson, Amanda, arrived the proverbial nine-months-and-fifteen-minutes later, and three others, Robert, Jeremy, and Callie, followed in the next few years.
As soon as he was eligible for Civil Service, Albert applied for, and won, a job as a rural mail carrier. Six years later, he became the youngest postmaster in Idaho.
Babies kept Emma busy, but she still made the time to take some correspondence courses. Eventually, she began making thrice-weekly trips down the narrow and twisty Highway 12 to Lewiston to attend evening and Saturday classes at L-C State, and by the time she was thirty, she’d earned a nursing degree. At first, she worked in the Kamiah clinic, but after her youngest began school, Emma took on the larger job of Idaho County Nurse. In practice, it turned out to be much more than that, though, and no one was inclined to complain about it. Folks in Lewis, Clearwater, and NezPerce counties could break bones and contract the measles as easily as those in Idaho County.
On August 11, 2001, the “View of the Valley” section of the Clearwater Tribune included two brief announcements. Albert and Emma Wilson of Kamiah had celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary the previous Saturday. And Mrs. Emmaline Wilson, R.N., would end thirty years’ service as Idaho County Nurse when she retired on August 31.
Two days after the paper hit the newsstands, a letter arrived at the Kamiah clinic containing a crumpled one-dollar bill and an unsigned, crudely lettered note.
“We sure hate to see the nurse lady retire please by her a flower.”
That gave Emma’s friends at the clinic an idea, and soon the word was
At the retirement party that they sprung on Emma, they presented her with a single red rose—and a brand new computer, along with a host of other trappings that nearly $3,000 of donations was able to buy.
“Oh, my!” was all that Emma could say, completely at a loss for words for the first time that anyone could remember.
“You are a great cook, Dear,” Emma said the following Sunday evening as she put away the last of the supper dishes. “That was the best meal I’ve had in a long time. But aren’t you worn out from all the effort?”
“I am a little tuckered,” admitted Albert. “The two-mile drive down the hill to town can wear a fellow out. That basket of take-out food the folks at the Long Camp Inn fixed up wasn’t the lightest thing in the world, either. But nothing is too good for my best girl and Kamiah’s most recent retiree.”
Later, as they were sitting on the couch watching the Lawrence Welk show, Albert took Emma’s hand in his and asked, “When you were young, did you ever dream that you’d meet the handsomest and most romantic man in the world, let alone be married to him for forty years?”
“Every girl has dreams like that,” she said softly. “But then you came along and…”
It was a good five minutes before they could stop laughing.
As soon as Albert left for work the next morning, Emma hooked up her new computer and got out the manuals. Within a week she was playing games, sending emails, and surfing the Web with the enthusiasm of a teenager.
She was hoping the computer would help her learn something about her mother’s family, but it was not to be. She found a wealth of information about the Strombergs, and even some about the Wilsons, but there were just too many Smiths. One site she checked listed 5,347 “Annabelle Smiths.”
Not one to let disappointment get her down, Emma directed her enthusiasm toward indoor gardening, wildlife photography, and watercolor painting.
Albert retired the following spring, and the next few years were happy, busy ones for the Wilsons. They served breakfast during Lumberjack Days, drove the Meals-on-Wheels mini-van every Wednesday, and sold popcorn at high school games. They rediscovered fishing, took bird-watching strolls along the river, and made extended motor trips, to visit kids and grandkids or to just play tourist.
They found plenty to keep themselves occupied at home, too. They painted the garage, rearranged the spices in the pantry, made hummingbird feeders from empty soft drink bottles, deer-proofed the garden, and spent evenings sorting through tons of family photos.
If that weren’t enough, Emma and Albert spent cold winter evenings working with their “indoor” hobbies. Both had been life-long collectors—a more accurate word is gatherers—she of dolls and quilts, and he of stamps and old hunting gear. It was a rare weekend that didn’t find them listening to an auctioneer, cruising stores that sold “antiques and junque”, or rummaging through the goodies at countless garage, yard, and attic sales. Their “collection rooms”—two of the kids’ long-vacant bedrooms—began to fill with treasures they’d discovered.
“One of these days,” Albert said one Sunday afternoon as they were unloading their latest finds, “we’ll have to have a rummage sale of our own. I wouldn’t be surprised if we made enough to move to Florida.”
“That’s fine with me,” replied Emma. “But only if they have rummage sales down there, too.”
Emma was watering her African violets when she saw the headlights coming up the hill. Albert had been in Moscow all day being fitted for new glasses, and it was about time he was getting home. She’d been keeping supper warm for nearly an hour.
The garage door was still closing when Albert rushed in.
“Em!” he exclaimed. “Come see what I’ve got. I really hit the jackpot
today. Man, oh, man, did I ever!”
Albert cleared a space on the workbench, opened the trunk of the car and extracted a large, dilapidated cardboard carton, which he set on the bench.
“There was an ‘Auction Today’ sign near Genessee, and I just had to stop. They were finishing up when I got there, and everything was going for a song. I bid a dollar for the box, and won it. Can you believe it?”
“It is without a doubt the most wonderful box I’ve ever seen,” laughed Emma.
“Just wait until you see what’s inside, Sweetie Pie,” protested Albert. He opened the lid, stirring up a cloud of dust in the process, and reached in to retrieve two bundles of old letters.
“Look at the stamps on these,” he crowed. “They’re from the late 1800s, and some are worth real money. There are a lot more, too. I’ll bet I’ve got a couple of thousand dollars’ worth, at least.”
“I guess you didn’t do too badly after all,” confessed Emma. “Is the box completely full of letters?”
That stopped Albert for a moment. “I don’t know. I didn’t look past the top layer.”
He tipped the box on its side, and its contents, and a lot more dust, spilled onto the bench. At least a dozen more packets of letters appeared, along with several books, two pairs of high-topped shoes, a fancy feathered hat, a number of scarves, handkerchiefs and other items of women’s clothing, and two tin boxes, one small and one large.
“I’ll be darned,” said Albert.
“Me, too,” said Emma.
As anxious as they were to examine everything, Emma insisted that they eat supper first. After she’d cleared her latest sewing project off the dining room table, she helped Albert bring in the things—but only after he’d dusted them thoroughly.
While Albert busied himself with the bundles of letters, Emma began looking through the other items. They were in better shape than she expected them to be. Among the books was an old family bible which looked interesting, but she set it aside in favor of opening the two tin boxes.
The smaller of the two contained jewelry. Some pieces were clearly costume trinkets, but some, including two cameo brooches, looked to be much more than that. The larger box was packed full of photographs.
By this time, Albert had joined her, and they had just begun going through the pictures when Albert held one, a family portrait, closer to the light.
“You know,” he remarked after a moment, “if this picture was taken thirty years ago instead of a hundred or so, I’d swear that was Amanda.”
He showed the photograph to Emma, who looked where he was pointing—and her stomach did a little flip. The likeness of the girl to Amanda, their first-born, was indeed striking. There were things about the child’s chin and nose which differed from her daughter’s, but still…
“What if they’re related?” asked Albert jokingly.
“Things like that just don’t happen in real life,” replied Emma.
“Actually, there’s something else. A lot of those envelopes are
addressed to people named Smith.”
“Please don’t tease me, Dear,” said Emma, handing the picture back to Albert.
He took it and turned it over. At the bottom was the name of a Spokane photographer, and a date: July 4, 1896. There were also some nearly illegible handwritten words. He picked up the magnifying glass he’d been using to examine the stamps. When he could see the words better, he realized they were a key to the dozen or so people in the portrait.
He wasn’t too surprised that they were Smiths, because of the letters, but one name gave him goosebumps. He turned the photo face up to see which person it was referring to—and his goosebumps got goosebumps.
Albert could hardly speak. “This is absolutely unbelievable,” he croaked.
“What is?” asked Emma, looking over to see an odd expression on his face.
“This girl, the one who looks like Amanda? Her name was Amanda, too!”
Emma’s hands were shaking as she took the photograph and magnifying glass from Albert.
She peered through the glass to examine the girl more closely. She surely did look a lot like their Amanda. How strange—and thrilling, too.
The girl was standing near an old woman in a rocker, and Emma’s gaze shifted to the woman. She had studied her for just a few seconds when she let out a gasp.
“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed. “It isn’t possible!” Emma jumped up from the table, tipping her chair over backwards, and hurried from the room.
Albert followed her, fearful that she was ill, and found her digging frantically through her cedar chest. She snatched up something and rushed with it back to the dining room, Albert at her heels.
“What is it, Em?” he asked, worry in his voice.
She jabbed the photo and the magnifying glass at him.
“Look!” she cried, nearly hysterical now. “Look at the quilt on the old
woman’s lap. It’s my quilt. This quilt.” She held up the object she’d taken from the cedar chest to show him. “It’s Annie’s grandmother’s quilt!”
Emma flung her arms around her startled husband.
“Albert, oh, my dear, sweet Albert,” she said, laughing through a flood of tears. “You’ve found my mother’s family for me.”