An old woman. A young girl. A life lesson.
A Good Tree
I didn’t want to help Aunt Helga.
The thought of spending an entire week at a tumbledown farm in the middle of nowhere was bad enough, let alone having to spend it with my no-nonsense, German-to-the-core great aunt.
“Please, Jen,” my mom said, as though I had a choice. “I wish you’d give her a chance.”
I frowned, picturing the prickly old recluse who everyone said I resembled. Being the youngest branch on the family tree at fifteen, with no definite plans for the summer, it had fallen on my shoulders to help Aunt Helga with her housecleaning. That’s how I found myself waiting on the stoop that humid July morning, when her mud-brown Plymouth pulled to the curb.
After a long, hot drive (Aunt Helga thought air conditioning was frivolous) we arrived at her farm. I glanced longingly at the creek. How wonderful a quick dip would feel, I thought. Aunt Helga had other ideas. She bustled about, assembling corn starch, cleaning cloths, and a stack of old newspapers.
“We start with the windows, Okay?”
“Why me?” I grumbled, slapping my cloth against a streaky pane.
That evening, with the supper dishes drying in the rack, Aunt Helga brought out a battered deck of playing cards. Old Maid, I thought. How appropriate. After five hands, I dropped into the four-poster bed in Helga’s guest room and was lulled to sleep by the whir of crickets and the sound of the wind sighing in the trees.
The next morning Aunt Helga heaped my plate with raspberry pancakes. “Today, the floors,” she announced as she set my plate before me.
When we’d beaten the rugs, scoured the plank floors, and polished the mopboards, Aunt Helga declared that it was time to rest. I rubbed my aching shoulders and carried the dog-eared copy of Little Women I’d found in Helga’s bookcase to the shade of a weeping willow tree.
I sat for a moment, enjoying the mild summer breeze. Aunt Helga stood at the clothesline, the hem of her housedress swaying as she pegged up a load of wash. A low, cheerful sound drifted across the yard, blending with the twittering of robins and the rumble of a tractor in a far-off field. To my surprise, I realized Aunt Helga was singing.
I read all afternoon beneath sunshine and clear blue skies. Finally Helga appeared carrying a pitcher of lemonade and two frosty glasses. She eased herself to the ground beside me, chuckling as her old bones creaked.
“You must be thirsty, Jenny, yes?”
I sipped from my glass, savoring the cold, tangy liquid. Aunt Helga rested her head against the tree and closed her eyes.
“It is a good tree,” she said. “Strong and kind.” Aunt Helga had a way of saying things that left me stumped for a reply.
“I heard him call to me last night,” she said. “My Joe.”
A chill shivered down my back as I thought of the picture on her mantle of a thin, smiling boy in workingman’s clothes. A boy who’d worked too hard, I’d heard it said, who’d died too young.
“He is with me always,” she said, as if hearing my thoughts. “In the skies and in the wind. But mostly here, in the trees.”
I looked into her eyes, which were suddenly soft and moist. “What do you mean?” I asked, setting my book aside.
Running a gnarled hand along the tree trunk, she began her story. “I was teaching in the old brick schoolhouse when the railroad came to town. The year was 1929. All day long the immigrant men worked to lay the tracks. Such loud men, swinging hammers, filling the air with good German folk songs. Every morning when I walked to school, Joe would be standing at the fence.
“Guten morgen, schoolteacher. How are you today?” he’d say.
Such a handsome boy. But girls were not so bold then as they are today. I walked past, my head held high, but my hands,” she made a gnarled fist. “I held my hands in my pockets so he wouldn’t see how they trembled.
“Then one day, snow came. Such excitement! I had to let the children go home early. I was walking from the school when I heard a voice call out beside the fence. ’Children, watch! I am going to throw a snowball at the teacher!’
“I walked proudly, but my knees, how they shook. SPLAT! I turned to see Joe, his eyes sparkling like the snow. Never was I so angry as then! I threw down my books and made a snowball. I chased him. Round and round the schoolyard I ran. When I caught him…splat! Ah, such pretty laughter he had. ’Now that we are acquainted,’ he told me, ’I shall come and court you.’”
Her hand caressed the trunk. “He planted this tree that spring. ’When this tree is old and strong,’ he told me, ’we will have loved each other for a very long time, you and I.’
Aunt Helga looked into my eyes. “He never saw it grow. That summer he died with scarlet fever.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said softly.
“You take what the good Lord gives you,” she said. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
I took a good, long look at Aunt Helga. For the first time I didn’t see a brittle old recluse. Beneath the lines that time had put on her face, I saw a girl, not so much older than myself. A girl who, having once known the joy of true love, had chosen to live alone with her memories rather than settle for anything less.
I don’t know what I would have said, if anything. From out of nowhere a fat raindrop splashed my cheek and Helga struggled to her feet. “My washings!” she cried. “They will be wet!”
I dashed across the yard, stopping when I lost my sandal. My aunt ran on ahead. She was halfway to the clothesline when the sky opened up, pelting us with shimmering beads. Aunt Helga stopped in her tracks. Laughing, she threw her arms wide and embraced the rain.
Story by Jean Pike
Photo by Elizabeth Pike