On the whispered wings of golden silence, I left my vigil at Ema Mims bedside. Ever so tenderly, I closed the door to her familiar, warm bedroom leaving behind the scent of talcom and liniment.
Somewhere from the depths of this gracious old home of my childhood memories, the willing ancient boiler could be heard gently purring whilst sending a swirling brew of warmth through the flooring grates. As I moved forward, at once deeply entrenched in my reveries, I gingerly sidestepped the scattered long loved ancient rugs that lay upon the wooded floor. Their weave unmistakably bore the intricately worn and woven footsteps of Emas' life well loved and lived.
Here too, within this room sheltered from the dark of the night beyond, there was no escaping the sounds of a howling winter storm breathing heavily unto Gettysburg, with a fervor worthy of the horses of the apocalypse. I acutely feared the Gettysburg roads leading both inward and outward to town were closed, most certainly by now. Gettysburg was isolated and on her own.
I lingered a moment beside the small upright blonde piano before pressing onward to the kitchen beyond. There, propped stalwart upon a tediously and delicately embroided runner and amidst dried rose petals, lying haphazardly upon the piano, were the faces of my past and Emas' yesterdays' singing out to me. My eyes alighted, in particular, upon a fading to white sepia picture of Ema and her young sister, Claire. Ema, her back to the cameras' eye was poised, pulling Claire through mountains and mounds of snow in a gay rustic child's sleigh. Ema was dressed in a high collared, fine woolen coat and gloves and a durable knitted and bobbed hat. The household budget would only strain so far for utility and rarely ever vanity and fashion, I had recalled Ema remarking in the past.
Absently, moved by unbidden and powerful emotion, with a slow sweeping movement, I reached forward to caress the unyielding glass frame picture of these sisters engaged in the serious business of play.
Emas' words, echoed to me from another treasured day and cherished moments spent together. While she harvested a summer gardens bounty,I ...as ever, watched on in undying devotion and love. It was a brilliantly white sunny day then, as we sat near the smoke bushes in the rear yard. The ever industrious bees could be heard buzzing monotonously amidst the old fashioned cabbage roses. The cloying scents of Bee Balm and Lavender intermingled with the curious, but familiar sound of the occasional whish snap of freshly laundered crisp cotton sheets drying where they hang swirling in the ocassional breeze. This grandeur of setting altogether painted a beautiful memory for me.
"Jolene", Ema had recalled then, in a much stronger voice that summers' day, "Claire was very much the young woman of the 20th century back then". She was nine, mind you, Jolene, nine years old when she last approached my Toddie and his mother on the square at the old Dougherty and Hartley fabric store, of all places. Mind you Jolene, I can't precisely remember if the store was indeed Dougherty and Hartley then, but we'd called it that for ages. And old lessons and memories don't fade.
Ema mused onward shifting her thoughts momentarily, "Have you ever paused a moment Jolene, to wonder why anyone would call the Gettysburg circle the Square? Always has seemed so silly to me, nevertheless dear.... "
Emas' hands gradually ceased their methodical preciseness snipping the last of summers' beans, she'd held coveted safely in the folds her aproned lap. Unconsciously, and dramatically, she pointed in mid air whilst waving the bean, from her uplifted hand. In that moment, her gesture had reminded me, for all the world, of a choir master intent on leading his willing musicians in song.
"Jolene, the year we met Toddie "on the square" was 1943, I'm sure of it. Toddie had his WWII uniform on that day and he looked smart. Seems that uniform fit him like a glove and strained at his shoulders. My, oh my".
As I was saying now,... I believe Toddie had come home on a hardship furlough and was scheduled back to those wretched theaters of war that following morning, or near about.
That day, whilst he browsed at his mothers' side at Doughertys, I can remember his lithe figure moving gracefully and competently beside her . Didn't pass my notice.. Toddie, had also eventually managed to maneuver closer toward the spot where mother, Claire and I had stood searching for fabrics, most likely for the ladies Church Guild at Trinity. Now mind you Jolene" Ema pointedly said, "I held no more feelings for Toddie than respect and gratitude, but he had other ideas".
That day, as beads of perspiration formed upon my brow and sent rivulets coursing down my back, had marked the exact moment I came face to face with the fact that Ema Mims was actually not always my great-grandmother but a young woman once too. I had watched in revelation, silently and respectfully both fascinated and awestruck thereafter, observing her in a new way and a bit more closely, from beneath my long black lashes and slash of dark hair. I found myself intrigued as a blush began to form at the rounded collar of Emas' smocked dress and gently course its way upwards pinking her weathered cheeks to a demure glow.
Toddie had loved me with the eagerness and earnestness of puppy love infatuation or maybe it was real to him, we'll never know now, so very sad isn't it? In return and making up for my lack of sincere affection for Toddie, Claire adored him with childish adoration. To her, the sun had risen and set in him. I can't be sure how it began or when, but there you have it, the circle of life and love. That last time he'd seen us, he'd smile and playfully tousel her hair and she'd cuff high back into the air missing her mark by volumes.
That fateful day and unbeknownst to us, Claire was filled to the brim with a strange mix of ebullience, dare and playful empowerment. Darling Claire had last minute, but nevertheless, pre-meditated plans for Toddie! As he prepared to take his leave of the shop with his mother, right then and there, quick as you please, Claire, had the temerity to stand on her skinny knobby kneed legs, tip toed, bugged eyed and piping up as loud as her voice could muster..." Toddie, I'm gonna kiss you hard and long and you're going to like it someday!" Then she'd flung a paper ruler towards him (heavens knows where she had gotten that) and, it being paper and with no force of propulsion other than the hands of a young girl, naturally fluttered to the floor mid-way between us and him. Toddie laughed gallantly and stooped to pick up the ruler. His military jacket puckered at the breast as he leaned downward and I saw his tie shift slightly then, Jolene. I'm not sure why that picture sticks with me, to this particular day, but it does" Ema had said that day. "I suppose it's the vulnerability of the whole picture that still impresses me. Well, nodding and still laughing, Toddie tucked that paper ruler in the pocket of his uniform, saluted us and led his mother onward and outward." Mother cuffed Claire then, right then, and I nearly melted to the ground in puddles of embarrassment at both Claire and mother.
Oh yes, WWII was on full tilt and right there in Gettysburg we were doing our fair share of contributing to the war effort that day. But this display was not the patriotic display I believe Mr. Roosevelt had called for". I could see Ema was chagrined, and struggling to continue speaking through a turmoil of memories. She was, if I'm guessing correctly, and still to that day, stinging at the loss of and for the moxy of Claire. Finally, Ema continued...
"So, right here, in Gettysburg Jolene and to sum it up", she had announced on that magnificent day that comes along once in a lifetime, "where history ran amok once and violated the course of so many lives... we continue onward yet today don't we? There is so much more we can speak of Jolene and so much more I want you to remember besides this story I'm telling you know. Looking back, I recognized those times were unique and shaped who we are today, oh they must never be forgotten, for they'll form much of how your young generation will someday deal with America's future tomorrow"....
I looked askance as her voice had become somewhat more reticent as she continued, "As I was saying now, Toddie had come home on a hardship furlough and was headed back to the theaters of war that following morning, or near about".
"And then he was gone forever and a day".
"Toddie died somewhere in the European Theater, some said. Still too, some say he went down hard in the dreadfully frozen grounds of Slovakia. His body had borne the fatigue of war, his life the cost of war. Our American hometown boy, my American hometown boy and now, looking back, the first true love of Claire and her hometown boy"...
..."gone were the days of our youth, gone were his days". They mailed his dog tags and scant belongings home. In his pocket they'd found, the paper ruler, worn, crackled and curled at the edges. To this day Jolene, I want to cry at the loss of his life and so many others".
Ema made busy of readjusting her apron, even though it hadn't needed adjusting. Her mouth drew into a fine line and for just a moment, I saw those fragile shoulders bear the weight of the world upon them. I can't be sure, but I think way back then that day, she sobbed a quick inhalation of a whole world of hurt.
Sighing myself, I withdrew my hand from the picture that held a thousand memories...and as in doing so, the dried rose petals atop the piano caught my cuff and swayed left to right as they drifted silently to the floor.
In the darkness, whilst the winds assaulted the house with the familiar accountability of the roiling oceans waves tearing at the craggy northern shores, I moved toward the kitchen to set a teapot to brew. Meanwhile Ema Mims slept the dreams of a thousand nights of innocence.
Dedicated to my first and third loves of my childish youth.