Nineteen-year-old Raymond Snyder squirmed in the pew. The starched collar itched and the suit coat pinched against his underarms. The organist for the Milton Presbyterian Church played “Rock of Ages.” Folks still trickled into the sanctuary on this cold January evening just twelve years into the 20th century. Cold ruled in the Northeast Ohio village of Rittman, but a coal-burning furnace kept the room warm. Raymond slithered sideways, slipped off his suit coat, and draped it on his lap.
A frigid wind blew through the vestibule into the back of the sanctuary, prickling Raymond’s neck. He stiffened for a moment, then relaxed.
“Susan’s going to want a warm body to snuggle against when she walks home,” Bobby Gilman told Raymond, grinning.
Bobby counted himself lucky to be Susan Wright’s boyfriend. He always looked forward to walking her home after church. Her father, Henry Wright, owned one of Rittman’s more prosperous farms as well as homes for his farmworkers. Mr. Wright always shared a laugh with Raymond when the farmer bought bread and pastries at John Long’s bakery on Salt Street. “You bake these rolls, Raymond?” he’d say, and when Raymond nodded “yes,” Wright would add, “You’ll goin’ to be a hit in Rittman. You and your pa should open your own bakery.”
Raymond would chuckle and say, “Maybe.” Actually, Raymond and his father Fred were already saving their greenbacks, hoping to open a downtown bakery.
Envy bored into his innards as Raymond watched Bobby win his way into Susan’s heart. He didn’t have much time for romance, not with all the hours baking took up. It’d make him a comfortable living someday, but he wanted a woman to share it with; a maple roll would never say, “I love you.”
“Maybe I’ll walk a girl home after church,” Raymond spoke up. “Maybe one of those girls?”
His eyes focused on Bobby’s girlfriend as she led three new girls into the church. Raymond had heard a family of thirteen kids had just moved to Rittman. The dad worked for Henry Wright, so the girls must be from the new family… especially since they were with Susan.
“I’ve met them,” Bobby replied. “Kurtz sisters. Nellie, Hazel and Ethel. I bet all three turn you down.” He sniggered, prompting an annoyed look from an older, grandmotherly woman.
“Hush! You’re in church,” the woman censured.
Susan and the Kurtz sisters sat in the pew immediately in front of Raymond and Bobby. The large flowers pinned to Ethel’s hair blocked his view of the pulpit. He didn’t mind. He much preferred to look the back of her neck, at the pale skin just above her Sunday-best dress.
The boy to Raymond’s left, Tip Shook, whispered, “I think I’m going to ask their father if I can call on Nellie.”
Nellie turned and gave Tip a stern look. “His name is David Elmer. Goes by Elmer. But you better get my approval first. I won’t let any old boy see me.”
Raymond started to laugh, but the choir’s arrival made him decide otherwise. The Rev. Hobart settled in behind the pulpit. The pastor cleared his throat. “Cold but glorious night full of stars, a testament to how wonderful God made his creation. Please turn your hymnals to page seventy-two. ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’”
The baker-in-training fidgeted as he waited for the singing and sermonizing to end. He felt a twinge of guilt… he shouldn’t wish for a church service to end so he could ask a pretty girl for a chance to walk her home. But that’s what he was thinking. Forgive me, Lord, he thought, but please just this once, if it’s your will.
At the end of the service, even before the last notes of “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” faded, Raymond rose to his feet, his suit coat cradled in his arm, and headed for the coat room. He intended to be outside the church long before Tip Shook reached the coat room. Raymond intended to get first crack at Nellie.
Outside, those stars the pastor mentioned were shining, but the moon had yet to rise above the distant tree line and a smattering of houses, windows glowing. The interior light shining out through the stained-glass windows illuminated the buggies and horses tied to the hitching posts as well as the Model T’s and the Oldsmobiles parked under a sycamore.
Shivering, Raymond buttoned his overcoat and slipped on his gloves as he waited for Susan and the three Kurtz girls to emerge from the vestibule. They were slowpokes. Maybe he’d made the wrong decision. Maybe Tip and the others were seeking permission to walk them home while he stood alone on the gravel lot. Not alone, he reminded himself. Fans of Long’s bakery were patting him on the back and praising the taste of the rolls, cookies and cakes.
Finally, the girls emerged, alone except for Bobby. Susan had tucked her hand in the crook of his right arm. Raymond excused himself from a gray-haired lady who’d been his sixth-grade teacher and approached Bobby and the girls.
The Kurtz girls offered him run-of-the-mill smiles. He needed Bobby to talk him up. He’d be quite a catch for some girl. Raymond wondered if he might be looking at her right now. Off came his derby hair. He bowed to Nellie. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Miss Nellie Kurtz May I walk you home?”
Nellie peered past his shoulder to the church entrance. Tip Shook had just ambled out the front door. “I’ve another offer,” she said politely. “So no, not tonight. Tip! Remember your promise to walk me home?”
Tip offered his arm. “Of course, Nellie. I’ve been antsy since we met in the Fourth Street park and you said you’d let me walk you home from church.” She took his arm and they strolled south along Main Street.
Two girls still left, Raymond thought, then showered his charm on Hazel. “I do hope you’ve had the chance to try the goodies in Long’s bakery. I’m learning the baker’s trade there.”
“Not yet, but I plan a visit.” Hazel glanced at Ethel. “We Kurtz girls have a sweet tooth. Right, Ethel?”
Ethel nodded. “Especially chocolate drop cookies.” She looked shyly at Raymond. “You’re a good cook too?”
“I’m sure you’re a much better cook,” he told Ethel.
Hazel rolled her eyes. “You can tell he’s a baker, Ethel. He’s sweetening you up.”
Raymond groaned inwardly. “No ‘sweetening’ intended. Just looking for someone to walk home. Hazel?” Hazel looked so similar to Nellie it was uncanny. They both even sported buns in the back.
“No. I just met you.”
He wanted to shout: Not asking you to marry me! He didn’t. Raymond hadn’t lost his good sense. He just wanted to get to know the maddening girl. Just a darn walk. No more than four blocks. One Kurtz girl remained. Ethel… the one with the cute flower bows. She’d at least asked him a question. He’d long ago learned that you can’t bake a cake if you don’t light up the oven. “Ethel? Let me walk you home? I’d love to hear all about your family’s move to Rittman.”
“She’s fourteen.” Hazel frowned.
“I don’t care,” Ethel inserted, grabbing his arm.
She looked older, and it was just a short walk. “You can walk with us, if you like,” he told Hazel.
“I know you’ll be the perfect gentleman,” Hazel said pointedly, turning her gaze to another boy walking toward them – Carl Milford. “You’ve come to escort me home, Carl?”
“Yep, can’t let a pretty girl go home all alone. Carl offered Hazel the crook of his arm. “Not good for her dance card.”
How had the Kurtz girls met these boys so soon after moving to Rittman? Ethel must have been able to read his face. “Don’t be silly, Raymond,” she said. “You’ve had your face buried in pots and pans. Can’t meet girls when you’re cooped up in the kitchen. But I see you’ve learned your lesson.”
“You must live up near the Wright farm.” Raymond walked slowly. Ethel seemed satisfied with the pace. Hazel and Carl drew farther ahead.
“On Fourth Street. Right after the park.”
“Not many houses on that street. Yet. When I finish apprenticing, dad and I are going to open a bakery on Main Street. We’re eyeing the Realty Building; it’ll be finished soon. When I marry, I’m going to build a two-story house on Fourth Street just a few lots up from your place. At night before I fall asleep, I imagine what the house is going to look like. Apple trees in the backyard. A tiny fish pond with goldfish swimming in it. A wonderful place to raise—”
“Big dreams, Raymond.”
“Doable dreams. God gave us minds that dream so I’m filling my head with them.”
Ethel moved closer to him. He liked the closeness. It felt right. “You smell like a maple roll.”
“No I don’t! I washed long and hard before church.”
She laughed. “I’m kidding.”
“You had me going. Just like the route to your house. Main Street, Erie Street, Hill and then Diagonal. And a jaunt through the park. I’m dizzy.” He reached into his coat pocket and emerged with earmuffs that soon found their way over his ears. “Do you like Rittman?”
“We lived in Smithville. It was nice. Rittman’s nice too. Dad’s working for Mr. Wright. It’s good work and mom’s going to do laundress work. I’m going to help out. We’re going to have a better life, especially the younger ones – Mid and Kenny.”
The walk went far quicker than Raymond wanted. He almost wished for six inches of snow so they’d have to trudge through it. Soon they were in the park, sidling between the dangling swings of a swing set. He almost suggested they sit in the seats, but Ethel kept traipsing onward. They climbed the front porch steps. He could hear voices including Bobby’s just beyond the door.
“Can I come in to warm up?”
“I have to ask mama first.”
She pushed open the door and slammed it close. It didn’t take long. A more mature woman’s voice rang out, “You tell him to get!” Even the thick wood of the front door couldn’t smother the voice.
Ethel opened the door slightly and squeezed her way onto the porch. “You probably heard mama. She does have a robust voice. I’m sorry, Raymond. I enjoyed the walk.”
“I enjoyed it too, Ethel.”
She leaned closer and whispered, “I want to keep seeing you. Be patient. Next year. That’s when you can get papa’s permission. He’ll like your prospects. Heck, you’ll get to know him well. He’s got a sweet tooth too.” She backed away from him and pointed up Fourth Street. “I want to see that house of yours go up.”
“You will,” he assured her.
“Bye, Raymond.” She headed to the door. A little girl – no more than four or five – stood in the opening. “Mid! Get back in. You’ve no coat on. You’ll catch your death of cold.”
Sucking in a deep breath, Raymond bounced down the steps and headed for the “jungle,” a thickly wooded gully between the Snyder farm in Snydertown and the Wright farm. He’d wanted Bobby with him so he’d not have to navigate the jungle alone. It was bad enough in the day… at night it was darn right spooky.
He kept his mind off ghosts, bobcats and panthers that might be roaming the jungle and instead thought about how he’d romance Ethel come 1913. He’d conquer Elmer and Icie Belle Kurtz with blueberry muffins, chocolate fudge cupcakes and maple rolls. With their blessing, he’d be driving his father’s motorcar on Sunday afternoon excursions, Ethel snuggled beside him. On special occasions he’d take her into Akron for concerts or the theater. In the winter after big snowfalls, he’d take her on sleigh rides. He hummed “Jingle Bells.”
When he wasn’t with her, he’d stop in the hotel next to the bakery and buy a postcard, scribble something romantic and mail it to her. He’d address each card “Miss Ethel Snyder, City,” and end his scrawls with “I want to see you tomorrow if I can. R.” He’d like to be mushy, but others could read a postcard. For the mushy stuff, he’d send her letters that she could read during private moments.
Delighted with his plans, Raymond emerged from the jungle into a lane beneath a starry night perfect for lovers who want to share a kiss for every star they count.