“She’s wearing it again today,” I said to my friend as the bus approached Aunt Martha’s house. She wasn’t really my aunt, but that is what we called that sweet lady who lived just down the road from family.
There she stood; rake in hand, briskly pulling autumn leaves into piles throughout her large country yard. “Must be so difficult losing a mate,” I thought as the bus moved past her, around the bend and on toward school that cool October morning.
In those days Aunt Martha and Uncle Bill were well-respected farmers in our community. Their only daughter, Elizabeth, had married an Air Force officer and moved far away several years before. With the delight of their lives now gone, Martha and Bill put all of their time and energy into the farm, raising fine cattle, sheep and hogs. Their home was a showplace, a perfectly groomed farmhouse with white fences surrounding green pastures, and a black barn delicately trimmed in red. Every spring Martha’s red tulips were a sight to behold as they raised their lovely heads around that barn, adding to the dimension of color as they spread on toward the luscious carpet of grass that led to the pond over the hill.
Each evening in warmer weather, passersby could see Martha and Bill sitting on their comfortable front porch, sipping iced tea after a long day of work. Bill never failed to throw up his hand and wave to anyone who drove down that road, always smiling ear to ear as if to say, “Come on in and visit with us.” And sometimes we did just that, joining them for a glass of Martha’s sweet tea or tart lemonade, just waiting for her to invite us in to show off her hand-stitched quilts.
“I don’t know how you find the time for all you do, Martha,” my mother said to her one evening as she rubbed her hands gently over Martha’s fine stitching. “My hands must stay occupied, my brain in gear, and my heart at peace,” she would always say.
And while Mother and I were with Martha, my dad would wander off into the pasture with Bill to see his large herd of cattle and those calves that were set to bring a “pretty penny” as Bill always predicted. We would sit with that sweet pair late into the evening, watching as the stars came out and the moon rose above the hill until finally Dad would move toward the truck, signaling us to join him for the ride back home.
And so it was on a cold winter’s night that Martha’s supper was cooling on the dinner table, causing her to grab her coat and summon her Bill to come in for the evening. The barn was aglow with light as she trod through the deep snow, calling out for her husband of 40 years. “Billy boy, my fried chicken is waiting for you.”
Shortly after that my dad took the phone call, hearing the screaming voice of Aunt Martha on the other end.
In the coming years Martha stitched dozens of quilts in the winter months, and in the spring she kept that farm going with the help of a young tenant who worked hard but never seemed to do it quite as well as Uncle Bill. The neighbors were kind, stopping in regularly to visit with Aunt Martha, noticing that some days she would be wearing that familiar blue shirt that we had seen her husband wear so often.
“I wear it on those difficult days,” she said once. “Sometimes I am fine, but on other days it is all too fresh, too hurtful, and it makes me feel closer to Bill when I wear that old shirt.”
And so, on my way to school that morning I had noticed Aunt Martha wearing that shirt, realizing it must be one of those sad days for her, prompting me to get off the bus at her house that afternoon. A cool wind was blowing as I stepped onto her porch and knocked gently on the front door. Through the curtain I could see her sitting beside the fire, stitching fiercely on another quilt. She was glad to see me, and when I inquired how she was doing, she gave her warmest smile along with her usual answer, “My hands must stay occupied, my brain in gear, and my heart at peace.”
A few years later Martha’s health began to deteriorate, her hands crippled with arthritis, her weakened body unable to maintain the farm any longer.
It was then that Elizabeth returned for her mother, convincing her it was time to sell, time to move on and live in the city where she could look after her. And for us, it was a sad day when we said goodbye to Aunt Martha and watched her lovely farm be auctioned off. She moved far from that little community, but not from our hearts, especially when we would drive by in the spring and see her tulips blooming once again. It was always a strong reminder of the sweet couple who once lived on that lovely farm.
Today Martha’s words have an even greater meaning, for here I sit tonight typing out my memories as I am keeping my hands occupied on this old keyboard, hopefully keeping my brain in gear, and doing the activity that brings an indescribable peace to my heart – sharing stories with you, my readers.