BY HAZEL ODDY
I. THE PLANTING
ying here in bed, my husband beside me, I see my beech tree - its silver leaves veiled in a dusky glow. The chenille curtains billow in the breeze, like a pulse.
For seventy-five years it has lain rooted in a good bed of sandy loam and stands as broad as it is high. Its smooth limbs are spread out straight and its shape is a giant parasol - no, there is no better tree for summer shade. I can't help but gaze lovingly on it - its silken leaves rustling in the evening breeze, their upper sides, dark bluish-green, their underneaths pale yellow. Simmering with burnt-orange, like a lady's hoop petticoat wearing a gown of shot silk.
With the irreverence of youth, I loved to strip the foliage off between the veins of each leaf, making 'fishbone' skeletons, and explore the soft, spiny burrs, finding the two three-cornered nuts housed there - as if I had discovered a treasure-trove. Their taste so sweet in my mouth as I crunched them up. I used to count the pairs of veins - some had twelve or fourteen, but most common was the number nine.
My sister, Ruth, and I grew up in this house my father built. When we were born, our parents planted two twin saplings in the ground, a hundred feet apart, one for Ruth and one for me, in celebration of our single births. Later on, to commemorate our thirteenth birthdays, our Papa carefully carved an 'M' and an 'R' in the woodcarver's angular style of those days past.
As we lie here together, sharing our bed, it is easy for my mind to wander back over the years and recall memories - both good and bad - we've shared in the fifty years we've been man and wife. Each night, my David falls into so sound a sleep, not even a slammed window would rouse him: but I lie awake uneasy, having to say a simple prayer before I can settle to sleep:
"Lord, life has been good to us, and we've done our best to be good to it, but I fear you'll call David first, then me; or me first, then him. But alone we would toss in our sleep, touching emptiness under the sheets. Alone, we would feel lovelessness - something foreign to us. So when the day comes, I'm praying you'll take both of us together, one on each side of your Breast, so we can sleep beside each other, just as we do now."
II. THE STORM
t was fifty years ago this very night, when the winds rose and a great storm swept up - starting at Moon's Bay, which was far and away the worst hit. Ruth and I watched through the rain-beaten windows as the skies suddenly blackened and a mighty gale surged up - savagely uprooting her legacy, but leaving mine still standing. We scarcely heard it fall for the roar of a thunderclap muffling the sound.
"It is God's wrath," Ruth said, still staring outside.
Then she whispered in a queer, melancholy tone:
"It is God's Penitence."
As if rooted, as many an hour went by, she remained staring outside. She closed her eyes, then opened them again. Even though I deliberately drew the drapes across to blank the view, there was nothing I could say or do to draw her away.
III. RUTH'S ILLNESS
rom the night of the storm when Ruth's beech was uprooted, she changed in a way that made no sense to me. I was puzzled. She canoed to Moon Bay - always alone, and joined the throng of the faithful, who met and prayed at the services there. For, after the great storm, the land surrounding this spot was thought of as hallowed, and deeded to the Island Community to be kept as a place of worship. The pulpit was a huge granite rock that had been found nearby and moved, revealing - so the locals believed - God's handiwork in nature. If Ruth wasn't at the Bay, she was attending missionary meetings in the town.
I knew it was her choice, but I'd become concerned by her long absences; yet was afraid to interfere or confront her because her temperament had always been so delicate, like spun glass flowers. I was obliged to tend the house and the animals and land alone at first, as best I could. Later, I found myself so tired and worried and not really coping. So I hired some spare-time help from two local lads, who were as glad of the work as I was glad of the company.
With time, Ruth became even more strange in her ways. Seldom saying a word - lost in her own secret world. Although she was there with me, in between her many time-consuming excursions - I was lonely. She seldom uttered more than the odd word or two. She smiled, when there seemed no reason to smile; and she whispered and talked out loud, as if to a real person - calling him Paul, but no one was there. She giggled between these conversations, chanting and praying. She refused to eat: though, Lord knows, I tried to tempt her making her favourite dishes. The old Ruth used to love poached eggs and warm buttered toast, pig hock stew with dumplings and apple pie - to name but a few. Many an afternoon I spent picking the Sassafras' blue berries and brewing them into tea; and making borage wine - which is said to cheer the heart. But all she ever said was:
The day she was taken away from our home to another home - where she'd be with others like herself - was the saddest day of my life. Her absence left an echo in my mind and being and the house felt strangely empty.
IV. THE VISIT
n certain arranged occasions, she'd come to visit. The last time was on a Sunday, the seventeenth of July. I sat under the beech in my wicker chair, shading myself from the scorching heat, as she pranced over and told me she was engaged to "a very nice man,", smiling her own faraway smile.
And I said:
"Oh, at college," she replied.
That day in July was the last time I saw her. She managed to elude her caretakers and took off one day. No one has seen or heard of her since. Like Ruth herself, her disappearance remains a mystery.
V. MAMA'S DIARIES
think after that happening, I felt truly lost, almost abandoned. Even though David was understanding and comforted me. One day, some feeling just led me to the attic and I found Mama's diaries I'd kept all these years. She had loved writing and I found myself reading them again. Throughout her life she kept these diaries up to date, as they were a story in themselves of our family.
She was born in Dursley, England, in the Costwold Hills, in a tiny hamlet, nestled in a dale. She enjoyed a simple country life. When twelve, her father, a weaver, died, and when she was sixteen, her own mother passed away. Alone, and already courting a young whom she referred to as 'my young, handsome Benjamin' - our Papa - they married.
In between the pages of the diaries, turned yellowy-brown with time, were many a pressed plant and glued-in recipe. Between the notes and sketches penned in ink, are the flowers she loved the best - foxgloves and sweet peas, creeping buttercups and field poppies. On other pages, she drew corn dollies of many different types - there is a picture of the fabled corn goddess hiding in the last sheaf of wheat in a field, as well as other pleasant scenes of Gloucestershire villages.
In a separate large, leatherbound book are coloured paintings of Toby Jugs and tablespoons made of sheeps' bone, ornately carved serving plates, candlesticks, elegant clocks and a rose-designed porcelein chamber-pot, Obviously, she had found great beauty in these luxuries. In the attic, too, I found the pretty piece of unfinished embroidery left on the hoop--red poppies and stalks of golden wheat that she left, marking her death. I could only suppose, that now and then, after they emigrated to Canada, she had moments of nostalgia for the roots of her homeland.
She described vividly the little cottage of plastered timber and thatch, in which she had lived as a young girl. It lay on the sheltered slope, set about with beehives and dovecots, barns and pigsties and a fenced-in garden patch. There were the orchards of cider apples and a small flock of sheep on the surrounding hills and a couple of cows. She wrote about the rabbits raiding the vegetable patch and trying different ways of keeping them out. She often gathered the tufts of wool caught on the brambles and hedgerows, and spun the wad to make mittens and socks. Her favourite time, it seemed, was watching the sheep being guided into the fold through a gap in the crumbling stone wall. Watching her father counting them one by one, reciting the lines of his own special tally-rhyme:
VI. THE VOYAGE
hy they decided to emigrate to Canada in 1832 isn't quite certain from Mama's diaries. Reading between the lines, I imagine her family had only been tenant farmers and longed for their very own land - the Canadian government offering acres of free land to anyone who made the journey there. So, with their infant son, Jonathan, they sailed on the Endymion from Shaffleman's Point. Apparantly, they'd been five weeks at sea when the ship sprang leaks in her hull--so bad, she was slowly worked back to Penzance, taking well nigh a month to repair.
Taking sail once again, and having been at sea some thirteen weeks, they reached Québec in Upper Canada on the first day of August that same year. They wasted no time pushing westward, for the cholera was so bad in Québec. They were afraid for their infant son. They decided to go on to Little York, and settle there, so they came by steamboat to Prescott. But in spite of all, Jonathan - who would have been our brother - took sick with the cholera and died. So our parents stayed put in Ganancock. Jonathan lies in a tiny grave near the old schoolhouse under an old sycamore in the town which is now known as Ganancoque.
"I wish I'd been the one to die and not our little son," Mama wrote. When reading these words, written so long ago, tears well up in my eyes, feeling her grief as a mother. Perhaps some of the tears merged with my sadness of not being able to have children of our own.
s Mama's diaries tell, Ganancock was different then. The forest came far into what is now the town - almost all dense wilderness - with trails blazed through the woods and dotted with soggy swamps. There was a small settlement of some dozen shanties and the streets were few and deep with mud. There were no drains and no sidewalks. At the very worst places for mud, such as Market Street, slabs from the sawmill were laid down, one on top of each other, often to the height of a foot or more.
First, Papa made them a place to live. Using his ox and sled to help, he hauled the timber from the woods and built a log hut hewn from white oak. Mama was soon painting the three-petalled white and crimson flowers that were so plentiful in the woods and the many brightly coloured birds - trilliums, tannagers and Baltimore orioles as we know them now. In the evenings, she lit the tallow candles and wrote after the sun had gone down, sometimes into the early hours of the morning.
She wrote engagingly, eagerly taking in the details of her new home and the town. "There is no stove", she said, "but an open fireplace built to take long sticks and logs. We used this for cooking and heating, and if the fire goes out - as it sometimes did in the night - it gets very cold indeed. Our nearest neighbour is twelve miles away". Much later, she said that when the fire went out in the night, "Papa rekindles it with fire borrowed from a neighbour." They had moved by then into the town.
But in the beginning she wrote, "There isn't a church in the town, but a small log schoolhouse, which stood near the corner of Slab and King, It is here that the footraces for the children are held each year. Sometimes, the runner could scarcely be seen when the races were held during the dry summer weather because their copper-tipped shoes kick up so much dust. It's often ankle-deep in the roads."
She wrote that the town grew bit by bit, until some thirty shanties popped up, one at a time like mushrooms in a field - "Bare and barren, they were, without even a daub of paint to brighten them up."
She was particularly sorry for the horses who were few and far between and overworked, poor things. Plodding their way several miles west for the grain to be ground - their bony backs loaded up with the weighty bags of grist. Later, a grist mill was started up by a Mr Lloyd in the town itself.
In a hand-to-mouth living they carried on. Later moving to a slab house on the waterfront point, near Wilson's lumberyard. When the rebellion occurred, Papa enrolled as a volunteer and, after it was over, left Mama in her new home and went alone to Kingston because wages were better there. Over a long period of time, they'd saved enough money to purchase an acre of land beside the old Fairground - for sixty dollars.
VIII. DAVID AND OUR COURTSHIP
avid was orphaned as a young lad, and, at seven, went to live with John Shield on his farm. He described himself as being a skinny little boy, pigeon-toed - extremely shy - afraid of his own shadow. The local people had been good to him when the accident happened and broke the news to him saying: "Your Mama and Papa are in Heaven with Jesus". Not soon after, a small church was built, and the minister suggested he went to Sunday School. Here he learned about Heaven and Hell and how Jesus died on the Cross. For a long time afterwards, he said that at night he would pray beside his bed that he, too, could die so he could see his parents again. But that John soon got him using his hands and working with wood and his pain gradually faded.
Later, many a time I'd go over there when we were courting. David would be busily filling barrels with fresh manure and planting cucumbers outside the bottoms of them, then pour water on to the top - and before you knew it, there grew such a plentiful supply of the long, shiny green fruits - such as I'd never seen. I well remember the day when he showed me how you could actually see them growing in front of your eyes, inch by inch, hour by hour, in the heat of the day. So we lay on our stomachs beside each other on the warm ground, and I watched in fascination, seeing them lengthening in front of my very eyes, just as he'd said.
IX. LIFE TOGETHER
fter we were wed, David moved into this, our family house, with me and Ruth. We had hens and pigs and horses, a few goats, several apple trees - plenty to keep us busy with our own projects. Early on, we knew we could never have any children. But strange as it may seem, having only each other, I think we were closer than most folks. Our family was the livestock and an abandoned calico cat we found. She was a straggly, long-legged creature, with a tapered head and the largest ears that ever a cat possessed. We called her 'Cuke'. Then there was 'Queenie,' our faithful mongrel, and the four collies for rounding up the sheep.
David dug a good cottage garden, as all good farmers did, and with his axe and his Rogers' single-blade pocket knife, there wasn't anything he couldn't fix.
X. WOOD OF THE BEECH
n Spring, just before the buds expand, the twigs of my beech have a very distinct appearance. The buds are long and slender, placed alternately along the twig, and the brown scales keep their shape long after they have been cast off. They expand into an oval, smooth-faced leaf, with slightly scooped edges, and a most delicate fringe of short gossamer, which falls off later. David told that these leaves are rich in potash - and as they readily decay, they produce the very best humus. So I chose a corner to rake and collect these as my own special compost pile. On one side of the tree where it is sheltered, the leaves there turn to a light ruddy-brown colour and stay on the lower branches until cast off when the new buds burst forth.
When Ruth's tree was uprooted and fell down, David sawed the wood into rounds and a few logs and many a bundle of faggots we had for the kitchen fire. He kept one or two logs inside, but didn't use them. He would just hold those logs one by one in his calloused hands, caressing and fondling their smoothness as if he were cradling an infant child - and muse and say:
"Ay," he paused, "'tis a sociable tree - there's something magic in its sap that stops them perishin' insects from attackin' it. And that's a fact," he would say in deadly earnest. "He was a good man, was John."
XI. ABRAHAM'S BOSOM
he Lord must have had his reason, or my prayers he didn't hear or else I whispered too softly, 'cos my David died a year ago last May in the warmth of an early spring - his favourite season. The oak coffin, Bob McAdam's son made and I did my part, handing him the tools he needed, as I watched him plane and polish it. I had permission from the minister to bury him on our land; I chose a spot near my beech so that in summer he lies in the shade.
I'd always felt that if he died first, I wouldn't want to live any more. I was terrified to live alone. It was the terror I felt that made me pray so fervently. But the strange thing was that, when it happened, he looked so quiet and peaceful I felt his spirit was still alive and surrounded me wherever I went.
I often go down to his grave and place flowers on it and chatter to him about this and that.
"I'm sad to think that we couldn't have children, Dave, 'cos soon, too, I'll be with you. I know that. But as I look around now I can see other children frolicking and singing and playing beneath the beech; and boys scrambling and climbing its branches. And as I look up into the sky, into the fluffy clouds, they seem like a whole host of winged angels watching over us. I think God does work in mysterious ways . . . You always called him, 'The Great Designer in the Sky' - now I understand why."
© Copyright Hazel Oddy, 1997
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