The Caretakers

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The Killien Mansion during the Lauzon family ownership, circa 1935.

“The council agreed to send a letter of condolence to Mr. F. Killien, though no one knows what he was to be consoled for. Someone in his family must have died,” Gail of the historic society said, reading from the Lowell city council meeting dating from the 1930’s. “They don’t send out letters like that unless there was a death.” That would make a third, I thought, looking around the old home which had been built by Mr. F. Killien for his family in 1924. I hadn’t anticipated a death in his family.

I knew the Smiths (the home’s third owners) had lost a daughter, the Bevers (the fourth owners) had lost a grandmother but now a Killien had died, quiet probably in my old home. I felt the secret twisting under my rib cage as I said goodbye to Gail, the crowned queen of Lowell, the local town historian who has dedicated her life to preserving the memory of the old logging town and its people, three of which had been mourned in the very rooms I now occupy. Funny old house. I pat it like a friendly dog I hope won’t turn and bite. I haven’t told my son about the grandmother who died in the sun room or the young miss who died in the southwest bedroom and I won’t tell him about this unknown Killien either, this condolence that has yet to have a face or a name.

When we first bought the house, it was a tear-down. The roof was caving in, ferns grew from rotten soffits, and the gutters hung from falling fascia boards, no longer catching or moving water. Water is a constant in Western Washington, the rains fall for months without stopping. It undermines foundations, peels away paint, rots wood, and erodes mortar from brick. But the house was beautiful, it was stately. Even in its disrepair it was instantly our home. Set over three lots on a shy half acre it was priced at only a little over its land’s value. We’d have been fools not to buy it, fools not to invest in a growing urban area, fools not to restore the massive home known as the Killien Mansion. But the deaths hung on the home like a cold blanket that would never feel warmth. The home was unhappy and it need to be cleansed.

I lit a candle for the grandmother and a second for the young Miss. I stirred charcoal into the wax and left them to burn out. I said prayers for the dead and salted the windows and doors. I set holy water in a crystal bowl and prayed over it in the sunshine before blessing every window and door in the names of all who are holy. I lit sage and walked through every room, every closet, every hallway, letting the smoke and my prayers cleanse away the past. People have died under my roof and people have been born under it. Infants have grown into children, and children have grown up and grown old, having laughed, loved, and been mourned in their passing. I too plan to spend my life in this home. To live in it until I live no more and this knew condolence, this new passing will require a new candle. Who was she or he? What happened?

I know the grandmother made stew. I used to smell it when she came into a room. Sitting all alone the room would fill with the scent of beef stew and I would know that Mrs. (as we came to call her) was paying me a visit. Mrs. also liked the thermostat kept at 64 degrees. I like the house warmed to 68, yet every morning the thermostat was turned down to 64. My husband swears he never touched it.

Now that the house is cleansed it is lighter, happier, free in a way it didn’t feel before. The beef stew scent is gone and the cold blanket feeling has lifted.  I’ve done everything I can for the ones who passed here. I’ve cared for their home and I’ve cared for them, even if from the other side of where they now rest. And even without knowing who Mr. F. Killien received condolence for, I will light a candle for him or for her and pray they have found peace.

Mr. F. Killien standing outside the sun room of the Killien Mansion, Circa 1930.

frank killien by sun room2

A Tuscaloosa Morning

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Where were you when I called last night? Where were you when I had to go out in the chilly darkness cause the wood box was empty again. Right now I’d like to flick your red pick-up truck off the landscape like some miserable bloodsucking insect. Fat and shiny, it winds its way over the bumps and dips of our Tuscaloosa farm land, its old motor ripping up the morning like sheet lightning in August.

“Y’all sit down and be still now.” Four pairs of eyes look up, questioning. “Go on now. Jemima, put Pudding in her high chair. Cecilia, Rose, get to your places. You’re Daddy on the drive.” I stoke the fire with fresh logs still cold from the wood shed; iced sap sizzles to steam as the fire licks the wood alight.

The stove is warming up quick but not quick enough to warm the room or fill it with the soothing scent of oven hot bread and fresh coffee.

“Y’all be quiet when Daddy comes in. Be respectful.” Cecilia and Rose nod but Jemima looks away. Only Pudding makes a sound, a high sweet baby sound all happy innocence.

Feet walk on porch boards; old wood creaks under a heavy weight. The screen door squeaks to life, calling on the front door hinges to answer it in low grinding tones.

“What y’all doing up so early?” My husband casts long shadows. His shoulders fill the doorway.

“We’re up on time. It’s not us that’s early, it’s others that be running late.”

“No Ma’am! Not late but right on time, on time for breakfast anyhow. Isn’t that right Pudding?”

My baby smiles real big. Her sweet brown eyes flash all kind of sunshine into the shadowy kitchen. I smell the bread begin to warm in the oven, see the butter melt in the fry pan. A touch of a finger to hot tin tells me the coffee pot is part way to percolating.

“The truck running smooth?”

“Smooth as ever,” my husband smiles.

Jemima flashes me a worried look from where she sits at the table. Ignoring her, I crack six eggs into the hot butter, scrambling the yokes into the whites. Better some kind of man than no man at all, my grandma whispers in memory, bidding me to tread careful. Yah…but if it weren’t for me our little ones would’ve been as cold as corpses in a snow drift last night.

“Any trouble on the road?”

“Not one bit.”

“Well that’s fine!”

I bite my lip, scrap the eggs onto six different plates, tear chunks of bread off the loaf and listen for the coffee pot to sing. The room smells all full of breakfast, the scent hangs heavy over the stink of cigar smoke, bourbon and cheap Woolworths’ perfume. Jemima takes two plates to the table, the first for her Daddy the second for Cecilia. My girl knows her manners but watching her wait on him makes me sad. When she comes back to the stove we take the last four plates to the table together.

“You see any of them Carlson boys last night?” I place a bit of cooled egg on Puddings tongue and watch her chew.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What’s it to you Lizbeth?”

“Only that they’re mama was poorly. I was only asking on account of her. Seems a shame a fine woman like that working so hard all her life only to raise up six of the worst men that ever walked God’s earth.” I shake my head. “And that Meme Carlson…they say she’s turned out worse than the lot of them! Mrs. Haylee says she’s nothing but a two penny wh…”

“And how would you know how she’s turned out?” My man interrupts. “Not like you look her way at church or any other place. All you do is listen to gossip and slander and that just ain’t Christian. If you want to know how she does you should go on over and see for yourself.”

“Now why would I do that when I’ve got others to do it for me?” I take another piece of egg off Pudding’s plate and place it on her tongue. Looking around the table I see she’s the only one eating. Behind me the coffee percolates, its slow whine building into a scream. Rising, I take a mug out of the cupboard, fill it with coffee and walk to my husband. His shadow falls at my feet, cast by the sunlight pouring in from the living room window. It’s a big shadow that grows bigger when he rises to his feet.

“I’m tired.” Looking me up and down he turns to go.

“No sir, I’m tired.” I set my foot onto his shadow, pinning him to where he stands. “I’m tired of chopping and hauling my own firewood. I’m tired of milking cows you don’t make time to feed. I’m tired of tending and mending and cleaning for a man who can’t be bothered to come home when he’s needed. Jesus knows I’ve done my chores.”

Out of instinct my body tenses, my muscles contract, hardening in preparation for a strike. Looking hard into my husband’s eyes I see a mean light shine but Pudding giggles and the meanness goes out of him. With a defeated sigh he slumps back down into his chair. Jemima hushes my baby, pushing clumpy eggs into her open mouth.

“No Jemima, you let that baby girl laugh.” My husband looks down the table at his littlest girl. “You let her feel happy for as long as she can. It’s a sad damn dirty thing to stop a body from feeling glad.” Picking up his coffee he looks at me like I’m the last nail in his coffin, “and by the by Lizbeth…Meme Carlson had the good manners to ask after you. She says she hopes you’re doing fine.”

Hefelton Farm: Part 11 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Mommy and Daddy are going. My sister cries a little, her tears turning to a forlorn silence. They are not going in a bad or permanent way but rather on a three day marriage retreat to “work” on how to be married. I don’t understand this. Their marriage is as permanent to me as the Wasatch Mountains. Mountains don’t need work so why should a marriage? I keep asking questions but no one offers answers. Granma says the time will fly by and before we know it they’ll be back.

This is the first fracture I have seen in my family, the first fault line to run a jagged line through the comfortable security of my childhood. I see it like a dark edge cutting us until my stomach hurts and I’m gnawed by worry. They’re not all right. We’re not all right. Our marriage needs work means our world is not all right.

“I miss mommy.” I stand beside my sister on Granma’s front porch, looking at the road that took our parents away.

“I miss Daddy.” My sister whispers, her small hand slipping into mine.

We hear the trot of tiny feet as four poodles run passed us. Granma walks behind them.

“Do you miss your Daddy?” my sister looks up at our tall strong grandmother who is so wise and brave that I can’t imagine her ever needing or missing anyone.

“I miss him,” she says, her lips forming as sad, wistful smile.

“He was called Frank William,” I offer up his name as conformation that I listen, that Granma’s stories matter. “He was a farmer, a carpenter, an undertaker, and a black smith.”

“…and a sheep herder,” my sister looks up at me, scowling because I forgot.

“A shepherd.” Granma corrects her gently, “Yes we kept hundreds of sheep on Hefelton Farm. There were sheep and pigs, cows and geese, ducks and chickens. I had my pony Topsy and we had our giant Sire horses.”

“And the bull!”

“The big mean bull!” My sister adds.

“The biggest meanest bull that ever grazed on Dorset grass.” Granma settles down on the porch bench her eyes fixed on the garden, her words conjuring up a huge red bull in our imaginations.

“I had a penny farthing bicycle,” she begins, “the kind with one huge front wheel and one tiny back wheel. It was impossibly heavy, old and hard to ride. I was peddling home in a hurry on the day it happened. I’d done something terrible and was trying to make it home before anyone knew I’d even gone. Hefelton farm was so big that it was easy to lose track of people. I rode my bicycle up the lane and left it in the shrubbery to the right of the drive.”penny farthing

“Because of the geese.”

“Yes, the geese hated my bicycle. They would honk and bite at it and me, making so much noise that the men would come out of the hay fields and barns just for a laugh. Those geese gave me terrible bruises. My plan was to sneak up through the front pasture to the house and pretend I’d been in the garden all morning. I ducked through the wooden fence and ran as fast as I could for the house. The geese were in the lane grazing but they hadn’t seen me. It was then that I heard a great bellow of noise. Turning, I saw my father’s massive bull emerge from the shade, his nostrils flaring. He was coming towards me at a steady gallop, his horns lowered. I know he hadn’t been in that pasture when I snuck out. The ground shook as he ran at me, coming faster and faster. He was almost on me when I jumped through the fence, landing in a heap on the other side. The geese saw everything. They came running and honking into the lower garden, their long necks outstretched, their wings flapping. I ran for a nearby oak tree and swung up into the lower branches. All I had to do then was catch my breath and wait for the geese to go away. But then it happened. Theresa? My mother called. Looking through the branches I saw her standing by the farm house with the constable I had thought I’d outrun.”

“What had you done?”

“I had pinned a lit string of firecrackers to the constable’s coat tail. You should have seen that man jump.”

“What did they do to you?”

“I was caned and sentenced to a week of weeding the vegetable garden.”

“That evening when the men came in from the fields I was still on my knees in that garden, my arms and bottom whipped red with welts. My father laughed when he saw me there. Theresa Phillis, he said, you spend more time in that vegetable garden than you do out of it. When are you going to behave yourself? ”

“Never! I said, glaring up at him.”

“Well if you are going to be wicked I suppose it’s a good thing you’re also fast. That’s when I knew he knew about the constable and the bull. Everyone knew. I was the talk of the village and somehow that made it all worth it. I loved my father and he loved me. I loved my mother too but she made loving her hard.”

“Did your parents’ marriage ever need work?” I ask, still missing my parents.

“In those days there was no such thing as working on a marriage. You were married and that was the end of it. Marriages didn’t break, they endured.”

I think about what it would be like to live when Granma did. I like the farm, her pony and all the adventures but I don’t like the caning or the never ending hard work.

“Is it terrible to be a grownup Granma?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer for a bit. I watch her think, her face reflects her father’s death, the war, her exile from the village for having a war time child that wasn’t her husbands. Then there was the divorce that took my mother from her father and the immigration that made England only just a memory. All the starving and death, work and sacrifice for a life of instability and uncertainty.

“Is it awful?” my sister asks, her eyes big and sad.

“No,” Granma shakes her head, “it’s the biggest adventure you will ever have. No regrets. Not ever.”

“No regrets,” we repeat the words like a promise to her to be as tough as leather as strong as iron, as enduring as Granma? But how can we know this is a promise we can keep? After all, what is there yet to regret?
garDen veg patch