There’s valor at home, too, the quiet valor of women like Aunt Em
I WATCHED the fields from the train window. Even the scrubby brush-dotted pastures looked good after Italy.
Across the aisle sat a little man, with horn-rim glasses, who had the look of somebody I’d known. He came over.
“Ain’t you Jim Webber’s kid, soldier? The one that used to hang around with Mark Poulsen?”
“That’s where you’re goin’ now, I bet. To see Aunt Em.”
I had to admit I wasn’t. My folks used to live next to Aunt Em out in Baker Township. But they’d moved to Middleton. I was just going through.
The man looked disappointed. “You heard about Mark, ain’t you?”
“He was in Holland the last . . .” “Killed in action. You really oughta go see Aunt Em, Jeff.”
I couldn’t quite take that. Not Mark. Not Aunt Em’s kid!
That’s why I stopped over and got a lift from the station out to Baker Township. You see I was almost as much Aunt Em’s kid as Mark was. She’d always wanted a flock of kids.And she couldn’t have ’em.
She’d married Gus Poulsen and settled down across the road from us. Everybody had big families because they needed ’em to follow plows.
Em was religious, deep down. She wasn’t one to preach or bawl anybody out—just a tall, thin woman with lots of chestnut hair and a look in her eyes that made you believe what she believed. And Baker folk came to believe that she had a power of predicting things. Not mouthy prophesying, like others did, about that brat of soand-so’s will come to no good. You almost had to drag what she believed in from her, she was so quietlike and minded her own business
But there was still that light of conviction in her thin face. Baker folk said it accounted for her unheard-of actions toward Gus Poulsen. Gus had taken her to dances and socials, but not as long as Baker considered proper for an engagement. Suddenly Em, it was said, told him she’d had a dream that they were supposed tg marry, and that if they did she’d give him a son.
That, of course, all cropped out later and in pieces. Baker was shocked, but had learned never to make light of what Em did. There was never a person in need but what she was Johnny-on-thespot. And certainly Gus Poulsen never regretted their teaming up. He worshipped her.
I guess I wasn’t much more than two or three when she began paying lots of attention to me. She seemed to like me. I’d swing on the barbed-wire fence and watch her feed the chicks across the road. She’d wait till the chicks were all pecking away at the troughs, then come toward me, with the old galvanized pan swinging.
I’d grin and swing the wire. “H’lo.”
“I got some cookies over to the house. Some I made with a new recipe. Would you like some?”
I’d go in their kitchen, being careful to wipe my feet, because, although Aunt Em was poor, she was awful clean. If it wasn’t cookies it was fruit cake, or something I thought Ma never made enough of. Once it was a whole package of gum. It was years before I caught on that it was just to have a kid around, and how starved she was.
It was Aunt Em who started me with music. I’d learned to rasp out “Red Wing” and “Casey Jones” on an old mouth organ. Aunt Em used it as an excuse to get me to come over and talk to her while Gus was busy in the field.
“Jeff, I’ll make you a batch of gingerbread if you’ll play something for me.” Or, “Would you swap ‘Nellie Gray’ for a piece of lemon pie this afternoon?”
I’d feel awful important, and blow for all I was worth. And once, after a struggle with “—be home early tonight, my dear boy,” Aunt Em wiped the tears from her eyes, and I hurried home, scared that I’d done something wrong . . . and the next week she came over from town with a brand-new genuine harmonicky for me, and Ma said she guessed she ought to give me to Aunt Em, ’cause I was more good to her than I was around home.
The musical die was cast. Grandpa Hawkins, on Ma’s s’de, heard about it, and gave me his old fiddle and floursack case, telling me how granddad had found it in some driftwood, where a wagon had lost it, fording the river, and the old label said somebody, he couldn’t pronounce without sneezing, had made it. It turned out to be the Amati, which I play today.
IWAS seven years old when Aunt Em got her son. One blizzardly February morning she drove a team and bobsleigh four miles through the drifts to tell her Ma about it. I heard Sadie Howard repeat the conversation that she’d got firsthand from withered old Gran’ma Williams.
“Ma,” Aunt Em said, eyes full and sort of reverent, “I’m going to get my son.”
“Lord help you, Em. You can’t have no son. You’re barren.”
“I seen it plain in a dream. I know.” At which Gran’ma Williams broke into tears, and creaked back and forth in her old rocker.
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The sceptical claim that it’s Baker’s all-time coincidence. I’m not one to say, either way. You see Aunt Em drove the sleigh over because Gus had to get a load of pigs to town and couldn’t take her. He came back with a letter from the orphanage, saying that at long last they had a five-year-old boy that the Poulsens might care to see.
That’s how it happened, and I couldn’t help thinking of Aunt Em’s eyes the times she used to feed me cookies and wander off talking about her belief in the goodness of God, and how there was a hereafter, and such things as a celestial kingdom, where each should have his reward, and how it could never be reached in its fullest glory unless one was good, and married, and had kids . . . and the blue of her eyes, when she’d add, “Some time I’m going to have a boy, Jeff. Like you.”
Mark wasn’t like me, though. He was as blond as a sheep, and overgrown, with a daring grin that seldom left his face. I was timid and dark. He had blue eyes that folks said was like Aunt Em’s, and he wasn’t only Aunt Em’s and Gus’ ideal, he was mine. He was everything big and bold and reckless that I wanted to be.
Aunt Em, of course, worshipped Mark right from the start. Her having that dream beforehand made it what she called “foreordained.” There was a new look in her thin face. Almost holy.
She kept saying she’d spend her whole life just making something of him. Ma used to tell her that there was no use slaving so for a big healthy kid. But Aunt Em didn’t seem to hear. Quiet old Gus, too, seemed like a new man. The first month, he repainted the mailbox, out on the dirt road in front of the poplars, to read: “Gus
Poulsen & Son.”
You can imagine the babying Mark got as he grew up—which he did in a hurry. Gus wore his patched overalls a little longer so Mark could have new suits. “Kids grow outa things fast,” Gus would say. And you should have
seen Aunt Em at socials. She’d fidget and fuss around when it was time to eat, and see that her boy got plenty. “You’re sure you’ve had enough, son? Sure you can’t hold this other piece of cake?”
Anything Mark wanted he got. Gus would sell their best cow to get him money for a motorcycle. Aunt Em would pinch on the egg money to get him $14 boots. She and Gus would walk so Mcirk could take the car to high-school parties and sport the girls at age 15.
The only times Aunt Em would put her foot down was when Mark started going with Heddy Parks. She was a frowsy redhead of Mark’s age. Her old man was a soak, and everybody predicted the worst for Heddy.
Mark was just a human mischievous kid, but you couldn’t have told Aunt Em the sun didn’t rise and set in him. She hung to her belief that “life on this earth is just a trial and preparation for the hereafter.” She’d say, “Grow up good, son. Then someday you’ll be a great honor to me and Gus.”
Mark did come to be a great honor to her. But not in a way Aunt Em foresaw.
The Ten Commandments was a good enough text for Aunt Em. I remember vividly how much better Mark was at repeating them in Sunday school than the rest of us. Thou Shalt Not Kill. Thou Shalt Not Covet. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness. But the rules he knew best were about not killing.
He was always into things, and never seemed to come out hurt much. Like the time we sneaked off and got a surcingle on Howard’s bull. Mark rode him, but he didn’t buck hard enough to suit him. “Set the dogs on ’im!” Mark yelled. I said, “Get ahold of ’im!” to Tige and Bounce, and the bull bellered and ran through the barbed-wire fence. Mark grabbed the wire to save his face, and it ripped his hand wide open.
I was scared stiff. “Gee whiz, Mark! Let’s get you home to Aunt Em!”
He jast grinned and plastered the flesh back in place. “Fraidy-cat. I’m goin’ ride that roan steer right now. Jast for luck.” He made me help him
I change the surcingle, and he rode the j steer.
It was always that way in things that took nerve. Just once more. For luck. You couldn’t scare him.
HE EVEN did it the night everybody said Aunt Em was on her deathbed. She’d had a bad heart attack, and I went over with Ma.
Aunt Em was lying stretched out on the bed, and I could see the weak throb of blood in her skinny throat. Ma and Sadie Howard and a half a dozen women were sitting there, not saying much, except, “Aw, Em, you’ll be all right.”
Aunt Em just smiled, and said, “Maybe I’m going. But what will that matter? I’ve lived out my life, I guess.”
Everybody knew what she meant. She’d filled her mission. Mark was growed up. He’d turned out good. But when she put it so plain that death didn’t faze her, the women all started sobbing. I went to the bed and reached for Aunt Em’s hand. It was all skin and bones and knuckles. The knuckles and calluses were on account of Mark, and I choked up. “Aunt—Aunt Em,
I . . .”
She said, “Jeff, there’s some cookies in the pantry. That crock by the pickles. Take some out to Mark.”
He was 18 then. He crammed a couple of cookies in his mouth and ; aid, “Let’s go skiing.”
I was glad to, because it was a way of getting something out of our systems.
Skiing, around Baker, meant one guy riding a horse on the run, with a rope knotted in its tail. The other guy held the rope and rode the skis over the drifts which the wind had piled up inside fences. These drifts would get high and awful straight up and down. It took a good skier to ride ’em. Mark was good.
“Get going!” he’d yell, when I was on the horse. “Get ’im in high!”
In front of Jacob’s place they’d dumped the ashes out front in the road. There was enough new snow to cover them and Mark didn’t spot the pile till his ski hit. He stopped short, snapped j the left ski in the middle and lit like a ton of brick.
His leg bent back the wrong way at the knee. He looked at the leg, grinned, and tried to stand upright. “Let’s take one more drift. Just for luck.”
I’ve thought of it a lot since. Especially the last day or so. At first I thought it was simply a case of the flier ! going up immediately following a j crash. To keep his nerve. But I don’t j think that was all, with Mark. I can’t ! help thinking his utter fearlessness had j j come from Aunt Em. Everything j would turn out all right. Nothing I could happen, unless you believed it could.
And Ma will say to her dying day that Mark breaking his leg that way was all that kept Aunt Em from dying that night. Ala likes to repeat it. “I can see Em yet. Lying there so peaceful, like she was sleeping her way into eternity, and us tearing our hearts out for her—and when Gus bad to break ' the news to her she just sat bolt ; upright. There wasn’t a speck of fear in her face, either. ‘Alark’s broke his leg?’ Em asked. ‘Then somebody’s got to look after him.’ ”
Next day she was up and around and ; taking Alark his meals. As long as her boy needed anything it was her duty to live.
I wasn’t around Alark much after that. High school was over, and I was scraping up enough to keep me in university and going to Professor Robertson—though occasionally he had to wait for his. You know’ how things go. I’d hear occasionally about Alark,
through the folks’ letters. He was huskier than ever. The war came along. I heard that Mark enlisted. I had too.
A letter from Ma last fall brought him sharply before me again. Ma got to it on the third page. “—I guess Mark turned out wrong after all. He’d been running around with that no-good Heddy Parks off and on for years, and it’s the one thing Em couldn’t stand. You know how she’s brung him up right, so’s he’d marry respectable and have kids like she couldn’t. Em’s doted on that, and you know once how she could have died in peace, thinking he’d turned out good. Now he’s went and married that flighty thing. The only excuse he can offer is that they were out on some party and somebody dared them to get married.”
There was more, about how Aunt Em was all broke up over it. How she was failing every day, and couldn’t last till spring. “—and to top it all off, Mark married her on the leave they gave him to spend at home before he went across. He went and brung her to live with Em and Gus. And him off, Lord knows where, and maybe getting killed with the Nazis, and them having to support her.”
It got under my skin. For months afterward I kept thinking what a dirty deal life had finally dealt Aunt Em. Heddy wasn’t Mark’s kind of girl. Certainly she wasn’t the kind of people Aunt Em and Gus were. It seemed fate was more than rubbing it in.
And now, Mark killed . . .
POULSEN’S farm looked much the same. The house had a more settled look, like it was comfortable. When I came through the gate Aunt Em was out in the yard, carrying a grain bucket, and she had a gardener’s big straw hat on. When 1 got closer I saw she wore glasses.
I can’t describe what came over me. It was like 1 was hers and she was mine. I was five years old and was swinging on the fence and knocking spit from a wheezy old mouth organ.
She turned and saw me. “Hello, Jeff.”
I gulped, and my throat was dry. She smiled. “Cat got your tongue?” “H’lo, Aunt Em.”
She came up and it was suddenly as though I’d never been away and we’d go on from where we’d left off. Then she had her arms about me, and she knew I was thinking what I couldn’t find words to tell her.
Gus was away with a truck of top hogs, to the Middleton pool, it being P’riday. Yes, he’d changed a little and was greyer. She talked of Mark and his interests, and, because it was awkward for me to find words, she acted as if I should be sympathized with, not her. I was too surprised, too dumbfounded to understand—then.
“Come on in, Jeff. I’ll wash up and get this old dress changed.”
I thought I smelled ether as we went in. Everything looked about the same, except there was a big enlargement of
Mark over the sofa. He was in uniform and grinning all over.
By the picture there was a letter, newly framed. Aunt Em nodded to the letter. “Gus just got it up this mornin’. They’re giving Mark some kind of medal.”
I’d seen courage before, in tight places. From men. I’d never seen the courage of Aunt Em, standing there in faded dress and wheat-dusty hands, eyes shining at Mark’s picture and the letter. She was saying simply that Mark wouldn’t tattle, but the doctors told. How he’d killed a total of 27 Nazis from his sniper’s nest. How he’d had the chance to back up when the local situation became impossible. But Mark, who’d been taught not to kill, stayed to bust just one more, for luck!
I don’t know the heartache it had cost Aunt Em to survive that. But her explanation was simple: “Even the
Lord had to take up the sword, Jeff.”
There was the sudden yowling of an infant. Aunt Em took my arm and opened the bedroom door. “Come see Alark’s baby.”
HEDDY was intlie same bed where Aunt Em had nearly died that night. Her red hair was loose about her face and she wore a white nightgown, and there were medicine bottles on the table. She wasn’t the Heddy I’d known. Something had come over her! There was a glow to her face when Aunt Em lifted the mewling infant from the wicker basket.
Aunt Em uncovered the red wrinkled face. “Who’s he look like, Jeff?”
Her eyes were so eager. Suddenly I understood Aunt Em! Mark—her Mark wasn’t dead. He was living again. That’s why she must live!
All newborn babies look like garden beets to me. But 1 said, “He looks just — just exactly like Mark.”
Aunt Em brightened. “See?” she asked Heddy. “Jeff noticed it too. He’s got Mark’s nose and eyes ... a little of the Parks chin.”
They fussed about whether he was a Parks or a Poulsen, and it came over me gradually that they lived in a world all their own, and I was an intruder. The best I could manage was, “Aunt Em, I never thought I’d find you looking so well and—and pert.”
There was tragedy and hope mixed in her thin face. She was still full of a faith beyond me. She looked absently for a moment out the window. “There’s too much to do now, Jeff, for folks to get old.”
She passed the hungry infant over to Heddy. Suddenly she smiled as she had years ago. “By the way, Jeff, there’re some cookies in the pantry. A new recipe Heddy here gave me, with hunks of chocolate in ’em . . .”
Over the cookies I noticed my fingers. Long slender fiddler’s fingers. Sensitive ends, with the faint astigmatic record of strings still across the skin. I thought of Aunt Em, and suddenly I wasn’t sorry that for a while I was practicing on a Lee-lí afield.