Remembering Aunt Bertha

 Dean, Bertha Mae (Larson) by Cheryl DeanBertha Dean

One of the most respected teachers in Torrance Co. passed away February 27, 2016.

Bertha was born November 24, 1914 in Moorhead, Iowa the daughter of Frank and Effie (Montgomery) Larson. Bertha, her parents and brothers Voyle and Merrill settled in the Estancia Valley in 1932. Bertha began her teaching career when she was eighteen in a one-room school house in Gran Quivera, NM with thirty students, grades one through eight.  She also taught in East View and Pedernal. Bertha taught fourth and sixth grades in Moriarty, retiring in 1976 after thirty-two years in education.  As a dedicated educator she served on the PTA book review and selection committee, participated on a committee for government aid for handicapped children and served as officer in the NM Education Association. She was honored in 1970 as one of the Outstanding Educators of America for her exceptional service and leadership in education, as Teacher of Today three times and  represented Moriarty for State Teacher of the Year in 1975. Bertha received her degree in Elementary Education from UNM in 1959.  Her students remember her as always there to help and inspire them to be the best they could be.

Bertha was a devoted Christian and always tried to teach good Christian values by her example to those around her.  She was one of the founding members of the Moriarty Baptist Church serving in many capacities through the years. Bertha served at the state level for six years on the Board of Directors of the NM Baptist Children’s Home and six years on the NM Baptist Mission Board and was honored by the NM Boys and Girls Ranch for her many years of support. One of her favorite quotes was I have seen yesterday, I love today and I am not afraid of tomorrow.

She enjoyed playing the piano, her flower and vegetable gardens, oil painting, needlepoint and many crafts. Bertha and her husband Bruce traveled in their RV to thirty-five states. In 2003 she took a cruise to Alaska with her daughter Peggy. Her family has many wonderful memories of her “Grandma cookies”, waiting for her Christmas boxes filled with their favorite holiday cookies and candies and special times on the Dean ranch. She will be greatly missed by her family and her many friends.

She is survived by son Dr. Allen Dean and wife Cheryl of Albuquerque, daughters Peggy Dean and Judy Spangler and husband Randall of Dallas, grandchildren Jimmy Thompson, Debbie and Kevin Dean, Larry and Jack Saiz, Rhonda Orr, Brett and Scott Spangler,  8 great grandchildren and 11 great great grandchildren, sister- in- law Zelda Dean and many nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her husband of 62 years Bruce, brothers Voyle and Merrill Larson, sisters-in-law Lois and Frances Larson, Ellis (Dean) Neel, brothers-in-law Crile Dean and Bud Neel and grand-daughter Lisa Spangler.

The family would like to thank Montebello Skilled Nursing for their kindness and care these last years. Also thank you to Ambercare for their support to Bertha and her family these last weeks.

In lieu of flowers you may make donations in her memory to The Ranches, 6209 Hendrix Rd, NE, Albuquerque, NM 87110 or NM Baptist Children’s Home, P.O. Box 629, Portales, NM 88130.

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Cornbread

cornbread in iron skillet

google images:simplyrecipes.com

How hard can it be to make a pan of cornbread?

We grew up eating cornbread with a big pot of pinto beans.  Two or three times a month.  Maybe more.

I must have seen Mother make cornbread back then.   Plus, I’ve watched her make it many times since moving back into the house when Daddy got sick.

She does it from memory in no time at all.  In fact, the day she collapsed with heart failure, she’d made a pan of cornbread just a few hours earlier.  That’s kind of amazing.

I find a recipe and start pulling the ingredients together.

“This summer,” Mother lifts a hot pot of brewed tea leaves and pours it into the gallon pitcher, “I’ll teach you two how to cook,” her cheeks are red from the heat of the boiled water. They match the red polka dots on her sleeveless white blouse.

I’m sixteen and intent on making a new dress.  I lean over the kitchen table fitting a McCall’s pattern onto three yards of soft gray cotton.

“Uh,” my fingers dig out a straight pin from the pin box and I pin the sleeve pattern to the fabric, “I need to make my dress, Mother.”  The dress will have a double row of buttons down the front and decorative white plackets.  I saw a photo of Audrey Hepburn in a dress similar.  I have visions of how classy this dress will look.

Mother turns back to the counter, opens the sugar canister, scoops sugar and dumps it into the hot tea.  She’s looks slim and healthy with tanned arms and legs from days spent digging in her flower and vegetable garden in the back yard.  I wish I were that slim.

“I can’t, Momma,” Winzona, thirteen, blond hair flying, breezes through the kitchen on her way to the back door, “I’m playing ball with the kids on the street.”

Mother hasn’t made cornbread in months.  She hasn’t cooked anything in months.  “Mother, how much oil do I heat up in the iron skillet before putting in the batter?”

Getting food on the table is up to me these days.  She may be losing weight because I’ve been cooking high protein/low carb stuff.  Which is how I eat and how I feel best.  Might not be how she’d feel best.

So, how hard can it be to give her some bread that she can slather up with butter?  Low fat butter that is.  Mustn’t aggravate her acid reflux.

“What?”

Talking to her has woken her up in her chair in front of the TV.  She mutes the TV and I repeat my question.

“Just enough to cover the bottom,” she answers and turns the TV sound up again.

I get the eggs, milk and salt mixed in with the corn meal and flour and slide the skillet into the hot oven.

Whew.  That wasn’t hard.  I’m rather proud of myself as I clean off the butcher board island and put stuff back.  Corn meal goes on the counter by the sink; Lite Salt goes on the counter by the stove; recipe goes in the pantry in the recipe box.  As I reach for the recipe box, my eyes catch the ingredients list.

Uh oh.  Forgot the cup of oil.  Quick, get the pan out of the oven and stir in the oil.  The hot air hits me in the face and flutters my hair back.  I squint to keep my contact lenses from drying out.

Oops, the skillet was hot going in so the batter is all ready getting crusty.  Oh well, can’t be helped.  And anyway, at least it now has more liquid.  It should be ok.  Maybe.

“How will you survive and take care of your own family,” she pours hot tea from the pitcher into a tall glass filled with ice, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“Mother, look at this pattern piece,” I hold up the collar pattern.  Maybe she’ll get off the cooking kick if I distract her, “do I put this on the bias of the fabric?”

The cornbread smells great.  Looks golden brown when the timer goes off.  The hamburger-tomato-squash stew is hot, the fresh vegetables are sliced; the table is set.  We’re just about ready.

“Sweetened Iced tea, Mother?”

“Lots of ice, please.”

I pull the cornbread out of the oven using two hot pads and two hands.  The skillet is heavy.  Which is part of the reason Mother isn’t cooking these days.  Too much pain in her twisted fingers.  Not enough energy or strength.

I look critically at the cornbread.  Ok, Mother’s cornbread normally has a nice rounded top that rises above the skillet.  This one is pretty flat and doesn’t look much thicker than when I put it in the skillet.

Was I supposed to add baking soda?  Pull out the recipe and check.  Yep.  There it is.  How did I miss that?

“Hope it’s edible,” I set it on the table and cut Mother a slice.

She butters her slice and takes a bite.

“I forgot the oil and had to add it after it was in the oven.”

“Did you put in baking soda?”

“I confess.  I did not.”

Mother takes another bite, “it tastes ok.”

“Just pretty dense and flat,” I salt my stew.

We eat and watch TV.

The last couple of months have been rough for Mother but she’s feeling better and again gets dressed every day; she takes care of her hair, walks to the front drapes to close them as it gets dark in the evenings, moves around the house again.  My cooking just might be the incentive she needs to decide she can find the stamina to get back to the kitchen.  I’ve seen her push herself to do other things she wants to do.  Like get out again on Sundays to go to church.

“How will you take care of yourself,” Mother washes the strawberries we bought at a roadside stand, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“The same way I took care of myself and ate just fine since I left home forty years ago, Mother.”

She mutes the TV at the commercial and says carefully, so as not to offend, “I find it works best to get all my ingredients together before I start so that I don’t forget anything.”

“You say that like I intend to do this again,” I ladle another serving of stew into my bowl.  “Cornbread is up to you, Mother.”

Family Moves

I am twelve years old when Daddy calls a family meeting. We come together in the living room, the doors, windows and curtains closed against the deepening dusk. Outside it’s rapidly cooling down after a seventy degree, sunny, Southern California, winter day. I’m in the middle of family. Safe in the familiar routines. Cozy. We six against the world.

Little island of light and warmth
hold me tight, keep me safe,
here no dark dreams creep.

I sit in the middle of the sofa, excited and a little anxious to know what’s coming. Changes are not rare. Family meetings are rare.

Quiet, fervored wish.
Calm, budding hope.
Past anticipation’s dashed dreams.
Restraint. Restrain.
Be quiet, good little girl.

Mother looks relieved to settle back on the threadbare sofa after her day washing, cleaning and cooking, her stamina as faded as the design on her worn housedress.  Winzona, nine, dirty and grass stained from sliding across the front yard in a game of dodge ball, sucks her thumb and leans up against Daddy’s left side at the opposite end of the sofa from Mother.  Daddy, white T-shirt tucked into heavy cotton work pants, sort of perches on the edge of the sofa with his in-charge-alertness that he has on Sundays at church when he’s praying or at the front, speaking to the people.  Larry, thirteen, sits on the floor, Indian style, knees bent, legs crossed with bare feet pulled behind his knees; his white T-shirt neatly tucked into jeans, one knee poking through loose jean threads; his hands busy coaxing the purrs out of Buddy The Cat, whose contented hum deepens as he settles into the deep cavern between Larry’s crossed legs.  Trevie, fifteen, blond, wavy hair Brylcreemed into place, pulls over one of the metal, Formica kitchen chairs and sits. He’s alert.  Trevie always has a plan; is always on the move.

“How would you like to learn about our new home?”  Daddy opens the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, to the section on Nevada, “I’m being transferred to the Nevada desert where I’ll be testing rocket fuels.”

It’s 1962. The space race is heating up.

Caution fades, joy leaks.
Adventure! Off to new places.
No worries. This safe world is just
moving house, right?

Over the next weeks, as Mother packs up everything we own, we read and reread everything the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, has to say about the topography, the weather statistics and the historical information of Reno and Sparks, Nevada.

I know the decision to move was made between Daddy and Mother before we kids even knew a thing about it.  And before that, it was made by Daddy’s bosses at North American Rockwell, or Rocketdyne as we know it.  But this one somehow feels like a family decision where we all have a part. All the moves in the past just happened as a normal course of everyday life.  This one holds the portent of great adventure.

~

google images:Sears, 1960s

google images:Sears, 1960s

And we’re off!  We’re shopping at Sears for coats on our way out of California to Nevada.  We’re headed to serious cold weather, where winter means freezing nights and possibility for snow!  Some man is taking random pictures, trying to get shoppers to commit to visiting the Sears Photography Studio.

My picture shows me shy, barely smiling for the camera, arms crossed over my flat chest; my short sleeved, white blouse with Peter Pan collar, buttoned down the front and tucked into a pleated, plaid skirt.  The photo is in black and white, the colors in that plaid skirt lost with the past.  My chin length, dark brown hair has Shirley Temple rows of curls across the top; the sides sort of fluffy, like tight curls brushed out.  I’m standing in front of a stack of jeans in the boys department.  This is so rare.  Shopping together as a family.  Shopping at a store for something ready-made instead of watching clothing take shape on Mother’s sewing machine.  Having our pictures taken.  How did Daddy afford to pay for these pictures?  I feel the newness, the strangeness, the adventure.  Just don’t look for it on my face.

All reserve and shyness.
Eyes betray no excitement.
I’m long practiced.  Hold it all in.
But don’t pinch me to test for life.
I can strike back.  Ask my sister.

~

I did just fine at six different grades schools from kindergarten through sixth grade and starting a new school is just one of the things that happens. No big deal.  So, why does starting seventh grade at Dilworth Junior High in Sparks, Nevada, make my stomach hurt?

There’re the six different classrooms a day with six different teachers.  That’s new.  There’re the over one hundred kids in the seventh grade.  That’s different.  That’s more kids than I’ve ever been with in one grade.  There’s the fact that the seventh grade class all seem to know each other.  They started kindergarten together.

Expand little island of safety,
carry me through the halls.
Resilience take hold in the lunchroom.
At least don’t embarrass me in the locker room.

For the moment I can forget school.  The Truckee River is at flood stage in Reno, so school is let out early and Larry and I walk the mile or so of blocks at the edge of downtown Sparks from the school to our motel room.

“You’re off early, too?” Mother says as Daddy sweeps into our motel room, grinning and pulling off his heavy work jacket.  She’s wiping down the tiny counter space of the kitchenette portion of the large room where we’ve lived for a few weeks.  The room holds two double beds, a sofa, a roll away bed, a small bathroom and an even smaller closet.  Close to the kitchenette wall there’s a kitchen table, metal legged and Formica topped with six unmatched chairs crowded around it.

Winzona doesn’t have to go to school yet.  Until we know what part of town we will live in, Mother and Daddy have decided she could wait.  Hardly seems fair, but then, it feels like the baby usually gets special treatment.  If I were nine again, my stomach might not hurt.

“Get your coats, we’re going to watch the flood,” Daddy bounds across the room to the closet to get a change of clothes, then shuts himself in the bathroom.

“What?” Mother fusses, “watch the flood? That’s dangerous.”

Trevie, just arrived from his walk from Sparks High School, tosses his school books on the sofa, “What’s dangerous? Where are we going?”

Mother’s looking frazzled.  I wonder if living in one large room in a motel makes her stomach hurt?  Or, if it’s Daddy’s fearlessness?

The six of us pack the car tightly, warming up the interior and fogging up the windows.  Safe.  Together in a small space.  The motel is miles from the flooding river.  School may be new, but family is still family.

~

The wind whips up the collar on my coat and keeps flipping my hair in my eyes.  It stings my cheeks with each lash of my hair against my face.  The rain has stopped for the moment.  We’re standing on a bridge in downtown Reno, looking at the rising water.  Torrential rains for days have dumped so much water, there’s no place for it to go.  It just keeps getting higher, reaching its fingers up.  Reaching for the heavy, gray and black sky.

google images - Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

google images – Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

Rush, water rush.
Blow, wind, blow.
Crash, mighty power,
overwhelm petty fears, small
jealousies, school hall woes.
Eternity, huge
versus
 puny, momentary upset.

“Let’s go, honey,” Mother looks anxiously at the river and then back towards the car parked on the street.

I’ve never seen a flood.  Not in sunny, Southern California.  I’ve never seen so much out of control water.  It’s like the world is alive.  It’s like the leaden, heavy skies are breathing life into the high desert.  I like it.  I like the purple peaks that tower over the valley, their tips covered in white.  I like the cold nights and the thunder and lightning.  It’s the flip-side of never ending sun.  I feel exhilarated and free.  I breathe deeply and tight muscles relax.  The only thing my stomach tells me now is that its dinner time.

“Will the water come up over the bridge, Daddy?” Winzona tucks herself under his arm.

Embrace the storm.
Fly on the rain,
breathe in the wind,
relax in its grip,
float above the clouds;
up where blue skies and sun live on,
undaunted.

“Yes, it probably will, sweetheart,” Daddy hugs Winzona, then turns towards Mother, “Ok everyone, back to the car.”

Daddy’s Desk

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

In the top drawer is Daddy’s inexpensive silver wristwatch with its flexible, stretch band.  Without his warm flesh and steady heartbeat, it stopped.  I tried wearing it when I noticed, but it was too late.  So it lays here, the date feature, Mon 20, the time, 5:05 p.m. and ten seconds.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Funny that, since Daddy died on Monday the 20th.  I wonder now, did it stop the day he died, or did it run longer?  I can’t remember, which is strange, because at the time, I thought I’d never forget.

I’ve kept the yellow post-it notes he wrote and stuck on the side of the filing cabinet by the desk.  Doctor’s number, appointment reminders, police and newspaper phone numbers.  I like looking at his handwriting.  Printing, really.  The only time he used cursive was to write his distinctive and legible signature.

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

I was an adult before he confessed his handwriting was terrible, so he printed.  I’d always thought his familiar script was his preferred writing; neat, precise letters in a straight line, the “a” like a typewriter “a” with the tail curving across the top.  Not like the round “ɑ” they taught me in grade school.

I want to remember him in his strength; when it was easy to open drawers, when his watch ticked efficiently; when it was nothing for him to write a note to me, or to write in the checkbook.  I don’t want to think about those days he wasted away to a potbelly on a skeleton frame, the minutes and hours and days of caregiving roaring loud in my ears as we inched across the horizon toward his setting sun.

His abdomen filled with fluid as his body failed from liver cancer.  I was clueless.  He hardly ate, yet his pants were too tight to button?  I cringe now to think of things I could have done to make his days easier.

I don’t want to remember the last time he wrote.  The first time we went to the lab to have 2 liters of fluid drawn off his belly, he signed and dated the forms with ease.  The last time we went, his consent signature looked like the illegible scribbles of a two-year old.  His precise, neat printing and his one concession to cursive writing were gone.  It wasn’t long before he was gone.

Crile R. Dean

Crile R. Dean

I come often to this place that was Daddy’s domain.  I sit at the big metal desk that’s marred by years of use and run my hands over the scratched and scarred surface.  I can see how he grasped the handle of each drawer, the black paint worn away to gun-metal gray where his thumb extended to press for leverage to pull them open.  In memory I see him here.  He calls me honey.  He sings, smiles, talks ethics, politics, religion and sports.  He remains in my heart.  Until I join him, I’ll hold on to the simple reminders.  I won’t forget.

i am subject

I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project http://www.iamsubject.com/the-iamsubject-project/. Here is my #iamsubject story:

It felt good to know who I was.  My job paid enough that I could live in Beverly Hills adjacent.  Just a one bedroom apartment but fine for a single, career woman.  I was ten minutes from work and in Southern California’s one to two-hour commutes, I was living easy.  My circle of friends from church and I went to movies, ate out and were there for each other.  I was loving it.

When I moved back to California, Mother wanted me to live and work near her and Daddy but my skills meant LA’s financial center and living near them in Pomona would have been a two-hour commute.  Still, weekend trips were doable.  I knew I had the best of both worlds.

I had lost weight, had a new wardrobe, learned which colors and hairstyles looked good on me, was taking voice lessons and singing regularly at church.  The new pianist and I were getting to know each other.  He had a red sports car.  Life was good, fun, exciting.

Mother was working on family genealogy when I got to the house that Friday night.  The dining room table held picture albums and family tree info.  She jumped up, piled things together and fretted and fussed about how she meant to have the table cleared for dinner.  In the study, Daddy was at his desk.  He gave me a warm smile, a kiss and a hug.

Mother made Daddy’s favorite meal of steak and baked potatoes.  As we ate, I asked Daddy about his work driving all over Southern California meeting with churches that wanted financing for new buildings.  The talk turned to genealogy and the history Mother was compiling.

I was content.  The old, Spanish house with craftsman hardwood trim was cluttered with pictures of my brothers and sister and all their kids, Mother’s plants and knick-knacks covered every space, her various projects were stacked around.  The book shelves were overflowing.  Cozy and lived in.

Daddy pushed his chair back, took off his glasses and cleaned them with his napkin.  Mother was still eating tiny bites.

“I found pictures of the house we lived in when you were born,” she said.  “I had two babies and a toddler, all in diapers.  Your father was out working all day.  We propped you up in the corner of the couch with your bottle,” she sipped her iced tea.

“Mama” she went on, “came out for the weekend and said, ‘That baby is failing; if you don’t want her, I’ll take her.’”

A knife-like pain hit my gut.  I couldn’t breathe.  I flushed hot.

“Well, it scared us to death, of course.  We never did that again.  We held you for every bottle,” Mother went on cutting and chewing.

Daddy smiled at me and stood and carried his plate to the kitchen sink.  My head was spinning.  I don’t remember the rest of the evening, but in the spare room, the twin bed tight against storage boxes, my sleep was flooded with old thoughts and feelings.  I didn’t fit in at school, was too afraid to take an art class or join in sport or school clubs.  I could never make Mother happy.  She never approved of my hair, what I wore, what I wanted to do.  I never felt pretty or useful.  I was worthless.  I jerked awake as bile rose and threatened suffocation.  The pain in my gut told me I finally understood.

The next day I limped back to Beverly Hills adjacent, wounded and scarred.  One part of me weighed the facts: she was a young mother, busy, overwhelmed, and tired.  Daddy was out working; they did the best they could.  The other part of me felt pain in my gut; ache in my heart; the need to know I was loved and valuable to Mother.  Life with Mother had always been about her, not me.  I felt weighted, drugged, my nose barely above the surface of heavy water, the swirling mists taking the shape of Mother.

I opened the door to my apartment and knew I had to choose.  I could drown in the nightmare of old memories, old programmed responses or I could embrace who I had become, be the new person I had learned to like.  There was only one way out.  It would take time, but I couldn’t go back.  I would have to forgive.  I pushed through the heavy funk that swirled around me, opened the drapes and let in the light.  The specter of Mother in the murk faded away.

Home for Thanksgiving

image source:whatscookingamerica

image source:whatscookingamerica

“Why are you picking on your Mother?” my friend picks up her keys and walks out the door.

“Picking on her?” I follow her and lock the office door, “Am I? It’s just that she says things that make me feel five years old,” I unlock my car, “I guess she pushes my buttons.”

I thread through the side streets and on the freeway, merging with the headlights that fill the five lanes headed up the hill.

Picking on her?  What about picking on me?  Telling me how to do laundry, how to clean, when to clean, when to vacuum, telling me I’m late, arguing the opposite view of any thing I say, telling me to wash the windows, water the garden, clean the bird bath, bring in the hummingbird feeder and refill it.  Always giving instructions.  Telling me what to do.

Refusing to be helped when I give suggestions for things to do that will make her feel better.

“Am I picking on her, God?”  I’m embarrassed my friend thinks so.  Does Mother think so?  I hit the top of the hill and join in the flow of tail lights and headlights streaming in all directions, but what I see is Mother.  Unable to do any household chores or drive or shop.  I’m struck by a new thought.  Just what is so wrong with her verbalizing all the things she’s done in her eighty-six years of dealing with life?

I see me.  That five-year old, the pre-teen, that teenager who was told how to clean and when to go to bed and when to get up and how to live.  But I’m not that kid anymore.  So why am I acting like one?

And just like that, the kid is gone and in her place is an adult doing the job of making sure her Mother can stay in her home.  Through the windshield, off in the western horizon, a small sliver of sundown colors the night sky and as it fades to black, the irritation, the anger, the frustration, the futility of arguing with Mother, the impossibility of changing her, they fade along with it.  I’ve been trying to fix her.  To make her happy.

Not.  My.  Job.

The relief is bright and free.  I exhale.

As the days continue, it feels fragile, this new sense of happiness and joy.  I move about the tasks, testing how I feel.  I open the hot oven door and stand back.  The first blast from the oven is expended into the kitchen and I heft the roaster pan off the counter, move in front of the oven and lean over to put the 18 lb, stuffed turkey sitting in a bath of chicken broth into the oven.

“Wow,” my knees bent, I half straddle the oven door, “how did Daddy lift this thing every year?”

“Don’t burn yourself,” Mother adds water to the boiling pot on the stove top, then adds the turkey neck, liver and gizzard.

“The roaster pan is cold, Mother,” I take inventory of my internal temperature, “so it’s not too likely I will burn myself,” all is calm.  No rising ire.

My lower back creaks in protest, “That could put the back out of whack,” I straighten up and close the oven door.

“I’m sorry it’s so heavy,” Mother adjusts the stove top temperature on the pan that is boiling giblets for her gravy.

I whistle a Christmas carol, collect dirty dishes, pick up a spoon, and head for the sink.  Still no rising ire.  Just joy and happiness.  I feel free.

The phone rings several times and Mother speaks with all her kids on Thanksgiving Day.  She’s pleased.  She and I work in tandem putting the finishing touches on the turkey, the dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce.  The dining room table is covered with food and we’re ready to eat.  Just the two of us.

Not lonely but surrounded by the wisps of all the yesteryear Thanksgivings.  Wisps of when we kids were small.  Wisps of  the expanding family.  Wisps of those who once celebrated with us but are no more.  They are here in this joy, and in this warm feeling of being at home, cocooned against the cold, outside world.  And the wisps of old feelings, old burdens, old habits float higher until they pass through the ceiling and are gone.  I’m left with joy.  I’m home for Thanksgiving.  Thank you, God.

Escaping From Hell to Heaven

image source:findingdulcinea

image source:findingdulcinea

She blew in a day early, just before the fifteen-story-high, rolling black dirt clouds hit.  I’d seen a dress as pretty as hers once.  The Mayor’s wife brought one back from a Kansas City trip.  The beauty of this purple fabric with tiny blue roses that crawled over it as if on a trellis was more than I could absorb.

Mama had a trellis.  She loved those red blooms, watered them and put cow manure at the roots.  To make them strong, she said.  Nothing was strong enough to stand against the rolling black dirt clouds.  Not the roses, not the trellis, not even Daddy and Mama and Baby Henry.  They were gone.  Lucille and I were left.

It seemed strange to find color in this black and drab world.  The dirt was everywhere.  Aunt Gert wiped, cleaned and washed, but nothing kept it away.  Her once blue cotton dress was so faded it was a pale gray against the dust covered walls.  I fingered my thin, faded dress and tried to remember what it looked like the day Mama finished the last stitch on the hem.

“Carrie,” Aunt Gert said to the woman in color, “close the door.  The dirt storm’s almost here.”

“Shirley,” Aunt Gert said to me, “wet the cloths for the girls.”

I got up from the floor where I sat with my arm around Lucille.  She was only seven and cried when the black hit.  I could almost remember her laughter from before Mama and Daddy and Baby Henry were buried trying to walk in a dirt storm back to the farm from town.

At ten, I was the oldest and Aunt Gert needed my help with my younger cousins, Nellie, Janie and Bertha.  Usually Walter too, but he and Uncle Henry were at the barn trying to keep the animals calm.

I took pieces of stiff cloth to the washstand, wet them, rung each tightly so that no water was wasted and took them to the girls.  I folded them in half and tied them around their faces, covering their noses and mouths.  I tied mine and sat down next to Lucille.  The rolling dirt cloud was nearly on us.

“Everyone hold hands now,” Aunt Gert yelled over the roar.  “Close your eyes.”

As the swirling, biting, deafening, choking, suffocating dirt blew in around windows, door frames, down the chimney, up through floor boards and made cracks in the wall chinking, I held hands with Lucille and Bertha.  I took one last look at the women at the table; Aunt Gert had her eyes closed, my godmother Carrie’s eyes were wide and frightened.

The total blackness, so alien four years ago when the dirt storms began, were now nearly a rest time.  I didn’t have to worry if a storm was coming or make sure the animals were in the barn, or watch the girls to keep them safe, or see the pain in Lucille’s eyes, or the lines grow deeper in Uncle Henry’s face and how thin cousin Walter had gotten.  All I had to do was sit and try to breathe through the wet cloth as it dried.  And pray I wouldn’t start coughing.

I couldn’t imagine a world with no black storms or swirled up dirt mounds against fences, barns and houses.  Was it possible Lucille and I could escape?  Mama had talked of her bosom friend, Carrie, but we’d never met her.  Was there really a world not covered in grime?  There must be, if a pretty woman in a purple dress with blue roses had come to this place where we fought to live.  Would it be fair to the others if we were freed?  Fair to Mama and to Daddy and to Baby Henry to go away from the place they died?  It would be like being Snow White woken up by Prince Charming’s kiss, or like the thief on the cross being told by Jesus that today that thief would be with him in paradise.  It would be like escaping from hell to heaven.

The black went on and on.  Lucille coughed and coughed.  Had I dreamed a pretty lady in a purple dress with blue roses?  As the storm  lightened, I saw Carrie’s closed eyes, her face cloth nearly black, dust all over her, but the purple with tiny blue flowers was still there.  In that instant I knew what to do.  I put my arm around my sister’s shoulder and pulled her close.  “Hold on, Lucille,” I whispered, “hold on, we’re leaving here.  We’re going to live.”