Spring 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. VI, No. 1


Poetry    Interview    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

James Stark


The Celebration

“This road is about as bad as anything I saw with Patton’s army.” Earl Schulz was aiming his green ’48 Packard more than driving it down the mile stretch from the blacktopped county road they had left twenty minutes ago. He tried with little luck to dodge the crusted ruts and deep potholes as the small caravan consisting of his Packard, a Ford and a Chevy, all loaded with families in their after-church finery headed for Sunday dinner. They were going to his wife’s sister’s place; to Fred and Rose’s. The April rains had given way to an unseasonable dry, hot May this year in rural Iowa.
“It looks like Fred hasn’t done anything to this road since last fall. Which is kinda typical, I guess, for someone like him.”
Earl’s wife, Beth clutched the door handle to ease herself over the hard places in the road as she nodded. She hated it when Earl was negative about her sister’s husband. But she didn’t want another argument today. This was supposed to be a happy time. After all, her sister Rose had just retired from many long years of teaching and it was time for family to come together.
The ride was bone-jarring and the dust stirred up by the heavy vehicles clung to everything. The early mosquitoes sought out all the bare skin on the women and children in the group.
“You know, it’s strange that Rose and Fred weren’t in church today. Especially Rose.”
Beth voiced what had been on everyone’s mind. Telephones had not yet made their way to every household in rural Iowa, so communication was not always possible between visits. There was a twinge of concern in her voice, since Beth and her sisters usually avoided any direct criticism of their older sister, or brother-in-law.
All the men in the family tried to like and respect their sickly, often moody brother-in-law. But Fred was different than the others. He wasn’t really a farmer. Banking and farming really didn’t mix. Everyone knew that. But how do you like a person in a rural setting who seldom got his hands dirty. They had seen him ride a tractor only once when he pulled his car out of a snow bank with a borrowed John Deere. He had worn a suit and oxfords at the time.
When Mr. Roosevelt began drafting men to put out the fires in Europe, Earl and other of the local men stepped up to the call, but looked askance when they heard that Fred got a pass. But as time away from their farms and families dragged on, they realized it wasn’t all bad to have a man at home even one like Fred, especially when the weather got bad. It was only much later that they discovered Fred’s fight with his own personal enemy; that a bad heart threatened his life. And he had no weapons to fight back. But still, Fred never was one of them.
These were the early l950s and it hadn’t been that long since the men of this county had exchanged rifles, tanks and jeeps for shovels, hoes and tractors. For the most part, their transition back to their lives had been as smooth as slipping into well-worn Oshkosh bib overalls. They had saved the people of the world, now their farmer skills would feed them. But today’s mission was to be fed at Sunday dinner at Fred and Rose’s.
As soon as they rounded the last bend in the willow and birch-lined track, Beth noticed that things were not as they should be. “You know, Earl, there should be smoke coming out of the kitchen chimney by now. I don’t smell it and I don’t see it.” Oh, the air was full of the sweet honeysuckle and its blossoms drew a large crowd of bees. But just like the white smoke in the Vatican signals what’s to come: habemus papam, we have a pope, a country woman knew that smoke from an alder wood cook stove carries the signal from a woman’s kitchen on a spring breeze: we have food and all is right with the world.
Beth and her sisters all rolled down their car windows at the same time, and through a practiced exchange of head shrugs and arm and hand movements back and forth, all the women began their version of the signal dance of bees when nectar sources are discovered, much to the humor of their husbands and children.
“Why, that’s strange, she hasn’t even started the fixin’s for dinner. She must be waitin’ for us.” Beth thought it more than strange, but didn’t want to allow for alarm yet. “Yep” was all Earl could muster, as he fought for control of the wheel over the rutted road and his temper. It had been a long church service and now was the time for the pleasant Sunday ritual of the women toiling in the kitchen while the men held forth on farming and markets in the shade outside, far from the heat of the cook stove.
Earl aimed the Packard into an overgrown expanse of yard in front of the two-story, wood frame house whose siding was blistered and peeling. There were several fruit trees, a garden plot, a small barn and a shed. The three brothers- in- law routinely scouted the best locations for their automobiles in the shade of the apple and cherry trees. A well-placed article of clothing would stake a claim to sites for afternoon snoozes.
It was the former marksman, Earl, who first sighted the bushel baskets placed under cherry trees still laden with their dark red bounty. His farmer radar also picked out the large colorful ceramic bowls placed at the row ends of the strawberry patch. At least two push mowers leaned lazily against the trees in the four inch high grass lawn. “Damn that Fred,” he muttered under his breath.
“Hello, girls, hello children.” As the family’s matriarch, Rose greeted her sisters and their children with a slight nod of the head from the wide covered porch. Rose had always said a house without a porch was a mother without arms. When the sisters were young, hugging the porch pillars had served to quiet a pounding heart while talking to a first beau. The pillars’ strength offered a place to weep against on a fall night after a heart had been broken.
Two weeks had passed since they had last seen her, and there were new lines around her mouth and on her forehead. Her eyes were swollen and red.. Rose had always been a spare, even austere woman. She was known to be self-confident and in control of every situation. But today, there was a stoop in her otherwise regal bearing. Graying hair was drawn back into a bun. A dark summer dress and black shoes with dark stockings didn’t fit the day’s festivities. Beth was the first to notice the absence of makeup on Rose’s normally smooth porcelain face which was now drawn and gray. Rose moved her smooth, tapered hands in a wringing motion and shifted ever so slightly from one foot to another.
A chorus of “hello, Aunt Rose” by the nephews and nieces completed the exchange. The men doffed their hats while hanging back, removing suit jackets, loosening ties and rolling up their sleeves. Their faces were smooth and smelled of after-shave. The high, white collars of their starched shirts set off tanned, healthy, rosy-cheeked faces. The shine of their shoes would not have passed General Patton’s inspection, but their trousers were well creased and held up with fancy tooled leather belts and suspenders. Since returning from the war, they had given their belts a few notches of relief. But on this day, as hungry as they were after the long church service, they knew somehow it would be a while before they would be sitting down and bowing their heads for grace.
Childless Rose had recently retired as the primary school teacher, principal, and superintendent of the local one-room, first to sixth grade school in the Prineville farm community. Since then, she often filled in as janitor when the former Sergeant, Mr. Crawford, was laid up or not sober. As a teacher, she was known as a scold who possessed an extensive collection of “enforcers”, such as after-school chores, to bend the wills of her charges to fit the task at hand. Some likened her methods to those of her brother-in-law, Delbert Olsen, who bent metal to forge and repair farm equipment. Both had a pretty good record of success with their end products. Rose, with her charges’ learning and Delbert with referrals. But today, something was missing in Rose’s usual efficiency.
“Rose, has the fire gone out? Why are all these chickens running around out here? Is something wrong?”
Susan Olsen, the youngest of the Hansch sisters, was the least intimidated by the older Rose. She had lately taken on the role of speaker for the three younger sisters at family gatherings. Rose didn’t respond immediately. Her vacant eyes were moist and she seemed to gather herself before she spoke.
“You are very perceptive, Susan. But, you know, we can all contribute a little elbow grease and have our dinner in no time. If we all pull together, as we must, we will fill our souls as well as our stomachs with sustenance.”
“If you had told us you weren’t able to make all the preparations as you always have, we…”
“…would not have come.” Rose finished her sister’s sentence.
Rose resumed her best school marm’s voice and began to coordinate the activities of the sisters and nieces.
“We’ll need at least three chickens. Here are the knives. We’ll light the stove, and heat the water. There’s a sack of potatoes in the cellar to be washed and boiled. Bread is in the pantry. When the men bring in the cherries we can start a cobbler. We’ll need to grind some beans for coffee.”
While the women started their tasks in the kitchen, the men turned to their chores outside. There was grumbling at the absent Fred to match the rumblings of their empty stomachs, as they reached for the ladders and baskets. With a quick step to the side, as if choreographed, they intercepted their sons, who were heading for the nearby creek. No one would rest or play until the work was done.
Rose was the oldest of four daughters of a German immigrant teacher-turned farmer. The late Papa Emile Hansch had been known as the Latin farmer, who plowed with one hand while reading his Latin texts with the other. Mother Doris had been a local Iowa farm girl, one of the prettiest in the county, of mostly Irish and French extraction. She had disappointed many a local boy when she accepted the foreign-born Emile’s suit. There had been a lot of bad feelings about Germans because of the Kaiser’s saber rattling which had forced American involvement in WWI. And in Prineville, certainly in jest, it was said that this union of Emile and Doris had brought together the finest elements of Irish order and structure and German frivolity.
While the men were away in the next war in Europe, the elder Rose, as the childless one, took it on herself to organize the family gatherings. She provided an emotional core for her sisters and their small children especially during the holidays. She was always in control of every situation. Until today.
“Where’s Uncle Fred? I haven’t seen Uncle Fred since we came. Is he home?” Six year old Rose was Susan’s daughter and the youngest of all the cousins. She was named for her aunt and already possessed many of her qualities.
“Your Uncle Fred can’t be here now. Why don’t you go and help your mother with the chickens so we can fry them up for dinner.”
“But I want to see Uncle Fred. Is he sick? Has he gone someplace?”
It was whispered that plain Rose got the only man left in town. Fred Bronson was getting on his feet at the bank just as the country was recovering from the great Depression. Fred had not been called for war service like the other men because of a congenital heart problem. Since he looked healthy enough, he became morose, sometimes reclusive; burdened by not doing his part in the war effort like the other men. This became especially acute when the local casualty numbers were announced. Rose had to be strong for both of them.
Little Rose persisted, but her mother took her hand and led her outside while whispering something in her ear. When the mother-daughter teams got into their rhythms of cutting and grinding and setting the table, Jo, the middle sister after Beth voiced everyone’s curiosity.
“Rose, where is Fred? Shouldn’t he be helping with the chores outside? After all, it is his house.”
The response from her sister was a stony glare. As Rose turned away, they all glimpsed a tear forming at the edge of her eye.
“It’s best we get to work so that we can feed all these hungry people,” was the measured reply.
The hum of activity in the kitchen was spiced with exchanges of gossip about the ingredients and textures of their own lives. One of the women turned on the radio to a dance band station and they all hummed to the familiar tunes and recalled memories they evoked. The kitchen soon filled with smells of herbs and spices and freshness and life.
The time flew and it was when Susan pulled the browned chickens off the stove that Beth asked where Rose was.
“She’s been going regularly upstairs”, Susan noted. “I thought she was bringing something to Fred. It’s odd that she has avoided any mention of him. Are they having trouble? Does anybody know?”
A pale and shaking Rose re-entered the large kitchen and went to the sink to wash her hands and retie her apron. She dropped her head over the sink and her shoulders shook with an uncontrollable sobbing. Without a word, Beth took the stairs two at a time and covered her mouth as soon as she entered the room and saw Fred’s lifeless form on the bed. She gasped when she noticed the indentation of Rose’s head on the pillow next to her husband’s.
Rose’s voice between sobs spiraled up to Beth from the kitchen as she reached for a sheet to cover Fred. Her sisters and nieces surrounded Rose, forming a barrier to fend off any more of life’s adversity just as she had done for them for so many years. Rose’s shoulders straightened and her skin seemed to lose its dullness as she shed her burden.
“Your men went to war and they all came back whole. My Fred stayed and has never been whole. And now he has left me, just as your men have returned.”
As if on signal, the men filed into the kitchen from their labors, setting baskets and bowls on counters and tables. Was it their tiredness and hunger that subdued them as they unburdened themselves, or was it the grief and sorrow mingling with the aromas of fresh coffee and fried chicken lying heavily in the air. They knew too well how to read the signs of pain and sadness on faces and bodies. Without asking they knew that one of theirs had fallen. His white shirt stained with sweat, Earl took an awkward first step, as one by one, these strong, quiet farm men embraced Rose, and wordlessly took her in. A burden fell away from Rose in the knowledge that her sisters’ men would celebrate Fred’s passing with the honor and respect he had seldom received. When Rose embraced each of her brothers-in-law, she knew that finally in death he would have a new life in the hearts of his kin.


© James Stark



Poetry    Interview    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

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