After a pause of introspection, Uncle James replied, “It’s a pity there’s naught set aside for the boys’ educations. Without inheritances, not to mention the matter of a dowry for Anna, you’ll scarce find anyone willing to take guardianship of four young ones.”
I leaned close to my brother. “What does he mean?”
He kept his voice just above a whisper. “Uncle William explained some of it to me this morning. By law, we’re orphans now. The court will appoint a guardian to decide about our futures until we’re grown. Likely it will be him.”
“But what about Mother?”
“Without a husband, a woman requires the help of a male guardian to make such decisions.”
In my anger, I forgot to whisper. “That’s nonsense.”
“Hush! It may be nonsense, but it’s the law.”
This new information was more than enough to cause me a sleepless night and my worry increased the following day as we harvested the stunted vegetables from our neglected kitchen garden. While scrabbling through the dirt for carrots and turnips, I wished there was more food left from the funeral.
We were inside for the midday meal when Mr. Mauzy, Mr. Northcutt, and Mr. Goff, who we knew from church, came to the house. They made a list of the dishes and crockery, counted our knives and spoons, and looked through the clothespress and trunk.
Mr. Mauzy dipped his quill into the ink bottle and asked Mother, “Did the slave girl also belong to your husband?”
“No, indeed, sir. She is my brother-in-law’s.”
Phillis kept her eyes cast down, giving no sign she was listening, but I felt a pang at the thought of her being included on a list of someone’s possessions. I regarded her as family.
When the men finished poking around in the house, Joseph walked out to the barn with them. They spent a long time inspecting our stock and looking over the beehives that had been my father’s pride. In the end, they made account of everything but the food in the larder. It felt shameful, somehow, to have them scrutinize each item for its value, rather than for its meaning.
Even Henry, usually oblivious to awkward situations, seemed uncomfortable. “Why must they go through our things?”
Mother explained, “It’s called an appraisal, ordered by the court. The list of your father’s possessions helps the court settle his estate by giving his things away—to pay debts or as gifts.”
“What about your things, Mother?” My indignation was still fresh.
Her lower lip trembled before she spoke. “I own nothing, save what I brought to the marriage as my dowry. I’ll keep the household items your father said I might have if he predeceased me and my widow’s third of what remains.”
Henry frowned. “What about us? Will we get to keep our clothes and shoes?”
“Yes, you’ll keep your clothes and shoes. But there may be little else after the court settles the estate.”
My heart pounded at the thought of saying goodbye to our aging mare out in the barn. “What about Daisy, the cow, and the pigs?”
Mother stood and crumpled her apron in her fists. “No more questions.” She hurried from the room, leaving me wondering why it was lawful to take things away from women and children left alone and adrift, with no means of support. And I wonder still.
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