I am the only child of a woman who remained single. While that is far more accepted these days, back in the 1930s, it was scandalous. Grandmother told me that when I was born, and my mother kept me, there was all sorts of disapproval. But she said in a gentle whisper, “Your mother and I could not bear the thought of adopting you out. We wanted you.”
Those three little words felt holy like when we went to church at Christmas, and the preacher said the name of Jesus. And they carried me through when the kids at school were all kinds of mean and their mothers were worse because grown-ups should have known better.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe it’ not their fault. They’d been taught different was less and similar was more, but no matter what, it was prejudice plain and simple.
Anyway, after eighty-some years of being seen and not heard, because that was how you raised children, I want to be heard. Loud and clear. Because doggone it all, at my age, it’s time. I write the way I talk, which means I flit around a bit but I hope you’ll bear with me. If you’ve ever listened to a group of women talking over coffee, you’ll understand. We go here and there, and it sounds like we’re off track, but we’re not. We know what we’re going to say, and we’ll say it when we get good and ready.
I guess it’s time for an introduction. My name is Eleanor Rose. Folks call me Ellie. Sometimes they call me El and out of some people, it sounds like Al, and I always think of the grumpy old man with the dog named Killer who owns the junkyard. It’s not my favorite moniker, but I’m too old to care. Much.
Before I get too far along, I have to tell you about Killer. He’s not so mean if you give him a dog biscuit when you are wandering around looking for a used spare tire for your pickup. When I stopped by, he wagged his tail and waited for his treat. He was a little on the mangy side, but I liked him and took the time to give him a scratch behind the ears. And yes, in my day, I was quite capable of changing my tires and the oil in whatever old truck I drove.
My mother admired Mrs. Roosevelt, so when I came along late in 1934, I became one of her namesakes. Mother always said that with a tinge of pride in her voice. Here’s the funny part about that. My independent mother and grandmother were both Republicans on the far conservative side of the voting aisle. When I asked Mother what she thought Mrs. Roosevelt would think about that, she smiled and declared, “She’d applaud my right as a woman to decide on the political party that best suits me.”
I live in the house I grew up in. It sits on two acres on what used to be the outskirts of town, and some distant relative built it well over one hundred years ago. It’s a little on the breezy side. Even with the windows locked down, the air has always slipped in and moved our sheer curtains. Sometimes the yellowed and brittle pull-shades rattled in the occasional gust.
For as long as I can remember, folks in town have told stories about our house. A few said the ghost of a child wandered our hallways, and others repeated a rumor that Jesse James once hid out in the cellar. Since we’re not that far from Northfield, MN, that one is possible. I tell you, as a kid, those curtains moving in the moonlight conjured up all kinds of nightmarish thoughts before I fell asleep.
Sometimes, I whispered nice things to the breeze that danced around my room, just in case it was more than the Northwind. I prayed that a warrior ghost couldn’t resist a friendly kid. In case it was a child, I left out my books and toys thinking maybe he or she just wanted to play.
I never believed in Santa, the tooth fairy, or the Easter bunny, but I believed in the wind and seriously considered the possibility of ghosts.
Grandmother assured me there was no such thing as ghosts except the Holy Ghost in the Bible. The guy who delivered feed for our cattle said that if it was a ghost, it was a good-natured spirit who would do us no harm.
My uncle scared the stuffing out of me when he told me what I heard was the restless soul of a Sioux warrior. In our vegetable garden, arrowheads kept showing up when we planted or harvested our vegetables. I collected them in a Mason jar until someone said they belonged to the tribes that once wandered the prairie. I felt guilty and worried there might be an angry warrior wandering the hallway or couldn’t rest in peace. So, I buried them where we wouldn’t be doing any digging. I stood beside the tiny mound and said, “I’m sorry.” I also marked the grave so I could find them if I changed my mind about such things.
The curtains still danced in the moonlight, but my conscience was clear.
Back then, the house had two heat grates. They were painted dark brown and set into the floors. The big one was on the main level where hot air poured upward from the furnace toward the smaller in the upstairs bathroom. I once told Mother I was afraid that the warmth came from an opening in hell. She had the preacher come over and pray for me. He took me down to the cellar, and I was sure he was taking me straight to the gates of eternal damnation. Instead, he showed me the furnace that sent the heat upward. When the furnace kicked in, I nearly jumped out of my skin. The preacher asked God to bless me and to use my imagination for His glory.
A short time later, I believed in Jesus. Because I knew somewhere, there was a fiery place, and a heavenly place and the later sounded way better than the first.
In the cold of winter, I spent hours reading library books sitting on that cookie-sheet-sized grate wrapped in a wool blanket while the heat raised to the top of the house cooled by more than a few degrees when it got to me. Sometimes I fell asleep there only to be awakened when someone needed to use the facilities.
My mother loved sayings. She cut them out of magazines and newspapers and taped them in an old gray and red ledger. From time to time, she read them to me, one after another, while I snapped the beans or shelled peas for supper or canning. I didn’t daydream because when she finished, she’d ask me which was one my favorite. She expected me to know the saying and the say-er. She quoted Eleanor and the be-speckled Ben Franklin far more than she did Jesus.
Every time she put the kettle on, she quoted Mrs. Roosevelt, “A woman is like a teabag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
Many times I heard Mother say, “If walls could talk.” Grandma always shook her head and said she was thankful they couldn’t. I wondered what walls covered in gray wallpaper with yellow roses the size of cabbages would say and pictured them leaning in to hear what people said.
While we hoed the garden rows, Grandma read to me from the Bible. I loved the God-sized testimonies of David against Goliath, Noah, Moses, and the Red Sea, and my favorite – the courageous Esther. If I could be like her, I might believe in God too.
Grandma made her way to the spare the rod and spoil the child part regularly. She said she was blessed our rod was a willow branch she’d never had to use on me. And every day, without fail, she said, “I love you, Eleanor.” I always felt her heart in those words.
I had a father once because that’s the way humans except Jesus come to be, but no one said much about him. I assumed he was dead and made up great stories about him being a war hero. In the place my heart held its secrets, I wished he would show up on the porch one day, thin from being lost on an island in the South Pacific. He’d have medals and stories, and presidents who were proud of him. And I’d have a father. Mostly the adults around me whispered about him. All I knew was that his name was Jim and that he never showed up.
To support us, Mother worked nights cleaning up the kitchen in the diner and Grandma sold eggs, butter, vegetables, and baked goods from her stand at the end of our driveway. There were also words whispered between them about the money Grandpa left them. I thought that was nice of him.
I’d watch Mother from the couch at the kitchen table working over our finances in her ledger. She always bowed her head to the Almighty and said, “Thank You for all we need and a little more.”
One day a week, a group of women from the neighborhood came over to help Mother and Grandma make quilts for the new babies in town. They called it a bee. I thought it was because while they stitched, their voices buzzed.
When the ladies came over, it was important that I was rarely seen and never heard. In nice weather, I was dispatched outside to the apple orchard with my books and a picnic lunch. It was in the farthest part of the yard which gave them the privacy they demanded and the solitude I craved. I guess they call that a win-win.
In the winter, I was sent upstairs to the attic where I played dress-up in the dusty old clothes Grandma wore in her hay day. I loved the hats, shoes, scarves, and there was even a cape (with some kind of animal fur at the collar I loved to rub on my cheeks) that was itchy and elegant. There was a matching fur muff, but when I discovered what Grandmother called mouse manure in it, I could not put my hands inside a rodent bathroom.
It was always cold up there, so after playing, I put on my grandfather’s old coat, hat, and gloves and snuggled under a pile of old quilts and napped. Sometimes I heard mice in the walls at night, in the daytime, they didn’t scurry, which I counted as a blessing.
One very hot day, the ladies arrived when I was recovering from a stomach ailment that left me dizzy and weak. Worried about me, Mother gave me a bottle of pop and sent me to the porch. On the squeaky old swing, she placed a pillow and on the floor in a discreet location, a banged-up metal milk bucket just in case I had to throw up again. The best part was the box full of attic clothes I hadn’t seen before waiting for me out on the wide wooden-floored front porch.
I put on a small round, black hat with a veil that tickled my nose when I arranged it over my face. There were some black gloves that went past my elbows, a black lace hankie, and Mother’s brand-new red cat-eyed sunglasses rested on top. Their elegance and her trust took my breath away, and they matched the red anklets I was wearing. When I slipped on a pair of shiny black high heeled shoes, I no longer felt the nag of nausea. These accessories transformed me into someone bold and beautiful — a woman like Ava Gardner, Vivian Leigh, or Judy Garland. Walking across the wood floor in all my new found glory, I wished for a tube of red lipstick.
To keep the living room cooler, Mother had pulled the heavy drapes shut which turned the big picture window into a large mirror of sorts. Something inside me switched on, and the desire to sing came over me real sudden. I belted out Everything’s Coming Up Roses in a loud, passionate high-pitched vibrato. My voice bounced off the glass and around the porch. I marched on the wooden floor to the beat of the song beating in my chest; the heels gave off a satisfying staccato sound. In my glamorous garb, I thought I sounded a little like Ethel Merman, and I was great in the same grand way she was, or better. Those record people had never seen or heard the likes of me.
I took a bow in front of my imaginary audience, who gave me a standing ovation, shouted “Bravo!” and tossed roses onto the stage. For the briefest of moments, in my imagination, I was a star.
A sound to my right drew me back from my red velvet curtained stage to our faded porch. Mother, grandma, and the ladies stood there. I heard a chuckle or two, and then Mother took my arm and drew me close. I can still feel her hot breath in my ear and smell her face powder and hear the words, “Go to your room.”
Instead of obeying, I headed for the bathroom. I curled up beside the register, to listen in.
Mother said, “She’s just like her father.”
Grandma huffed. “What did you expect? She’s the spitting image of him.”
There were murmurs of agreement.
The ladies switched gears and talked about Martha, although not the one in the Bible.
Grandma sounded the way she did when we looked at a full moon all wistful. “She wears men’s trousers and wing-tipped shoes. When she walks, she takes big, manly steps.”
Martha sounded like an interesting woman. A couple of the quilter’s voices dripped with disgust, but I heard a little admiration in my mother’s when she said, “The men in town don’t seem to mind.” I wondered if she wished they’d notice her.
The others tsked, and I could see them in my mind shaking their heads in disapproval while they pushed their needles in and out.
Since I always wore dresses, trousers sounded wild and free and bold. And being like my mystery father made me a little fluttery in my gut.
When I was around ten, Grandma passed. With all the talk of death, I decided to ask about my father. My mother was an expert at evasion, and I soon found myself in the barn, still in my funeral clothes, searching for the new litter of kittens she was sure were out there. I looked in every nook and cranny but never found them. Ginger, our sweet old calico stretched in a sunbeam skinny as always, and when I scratched her tummy, she showed no signs of feeding any babies.
Even though the kittens didn’t exist, I knew in my heart a secret did.
In the night, as the curtains swayed in the breeze, I wished the old walls around me could talk. In my imagination, they whispered my family’s secrets in voices too quiet for me to hear.
When I was sixteen, the boy I’d had a crush on since first grade took notice, and by the time we were nineteen, I married Henry, who was tall, dark, and handsome in a farmer kind of way. The way his hand felt when he held mine always sent a delicious thrill through me. He was kind and loved me back and was willing to live with Mother and help me care for her. She died our first spring as man and wife from pneumonia. I grieved something awful.
Henry worried about me catching my death of cold in the house and ordered a new furnace and insulation for the attic. We cleaned out the small space, and I had to burn the old clothes I’d played with because too many mouse mothers had raised their babies in those soft folds. The only survivor was a small black hat with a veil. I got a good chuckle out of that one and hung it on the mirror in our bedroom.
Before he installed the new insulation, Henry pulled layers of old newspapers from between the rafters. It was my job to pull them off the walls. On a yellowed piece of newsprint to the left of the small window in the pointy end of the attic was a story about a young singer named Jim Kline, who came to sing at our county fair in 1933. I was surprised to find that the walls were full of clippings about him. I guessed Mother and grandmother liked that skinny singer an awful lot.
Henry called out from the other side of the attic. “Ellie Rose, come here, honey.”
I couldn’t see him but followed his voice to a walk-in-closet like space I’d never seen before. My heart pounded loud in my ears.
“I bumped into this wall, and the door popped open.”
Every available inch of wall was papered in canceled checks written out to Mother from Jim Kline. There were more pictures of the tall, skinny man who wore a cowboy hat and boots and held a guitar. In his fancy stitched shirts, he looked a little like Hank Williams and a whole lot like me.
I felt empty of words for the first time in my life. On the darkest far wall were the unopened letters from Jim Kline to me, each one carefully thumb-tacked to the wood. Why the mice hadn’t destroyed them, I’ll never fully understand. I guess God wanted me to have them.
Henry took down each clipping and envelope with care, and then read them all to me while I sipped tea brewed strong, wrapped in the quilt Mother and grandma gave us for our wedding. And I let my father’s words assure me I was more than the consequence of a one-night stand. I was wanted and remembered and loved. Grandma said so. Mother whispered it to me when she thought I was asleep, and Jim Kline wrote about it.
I’m not one who talks to the dead because Grandma made it plain before passing from here to Heaven that she preferred that I talk to God. So that night, under the moon she loved so much I thanked God for my grandmother’s wisdom, that my mother kept me, a county singer I’d never met but who loved me, and for times when walls talk.
I hope you enjoyed this short story. I intend to write and post more of these for you. Please share the story with others using the link at the top of this page. And please feel free to leave your comments.
Until Next Time,
P. S. The photos used as illustrations in this story are not mine. They are generously provided by Pixabay at no cost to me.