Ode: Prophet with a cane

Aug 31, 2016

Credit Ally Karsyn

Wilma walked with an odd aluminum cane, a clear plastic handle grip like a tricycle’s and a four-pronged base for stability. She was old and had always been too heavy. To pull through our front door—left foot up, then the cane, then right foot—was a major undertaking.

Her visits sometimes lingered a half-hour or so beyond “long enough” because once she had to think about pulling herself up from the kitchen chair she threatened, leaving seemed like too much work. So she sat there as if just getting in through the door merited an audience.

Often enough she’d sit at her own kitchen table, playing solitaire and smoking. No one was supposed to know about the Winstons. Her kitchen window, hung with Dutch half-curtains, was no more than twenty feet from the window at the top of our stairs. At night, when I came down from putting kids to bed, I’d see her dealing out another hand, alone.

One Saturday, she lumbered through our front door and came to rest on a kitchen chair, one hand slumped over the cane’s handle grip. I don’t remember how she started talking, but a decade of solitaire makes you hair-trigger, I suppose.

I stood; I wanted her to know I was babysitting—reading the paper or doing something. That’s what started her story—babysitting.

Wilma said she was always afraid of kids and cars, for fifty years anyway, ever since the day she was babysitting little Nellie. “You know, Mrs. Swanson? She used to be your neighbor? Ever since little Nellie jerked her hand away from mine and tore into the street in front of the grocery, and Evelyn Brasser hit her with that old Chevy. Little Nellie, just three-and-a-half, and Evelyn just coming from high school. Bang! Right downtown.”

Already a half century old, Wilma’s story was new to me so I sat down.

She said Marv Gustafson picked little Nellie up right off the cement and carried her to Doc Manders’s house. “That the one that Fred and Alice live in now, just south of the new bank.” But the doctor was gone out to a farm where there was no phone.

“So some man drove out to get him right away, and when he came back he checked that little girl for broken bones and such and said it looked like she was going to be okay. But watch her close, he said to me, and I was just seventeen—what did I know? Little Nellie’s mother, that’s Alma, was in the hospital for gall bladder surgery—and that’s no picnic either. So later that evening little Nellie starts to vomit, and my mother says, ‘Vomiting is nothing at all,’ she told me—Ma did.”

“Doc Manders stopped in later, right before bed. When I told him what Nellie did, he said, ‘Wrap her up in a blanket. She’s going this minute to the hospital.’

“My lands! I was seventeen. And already I felt like all of it was my fault. Little thing just jerked her hand out of mine and ran straight into the street—what could I do? And Evelyn Brasser—the girl that hit her?—she felt awful and it wasn’t her fault either.

“Three days we waited to see if little Nellie would live or die. The doctors said she had a tiny fracture right over her nose, and if it was broken, she would likely die, but if it was only a crack she’d get over it. You know how fast things heal when you’re young.

“And all the time Nellie’s mother is recovering from gall bladder surgery. Doc Manders said Alma shouldn’t know about her only child hanging there between life and death, so Nellie’s father would visit his daughter for a while, and then his wife, being sure to pull his coat on before he came to his wife’s door to make it look as if he’d just come in from the cold.

“And you can imagine what it was for me, you know—the babysitter. Three long days waiting for death, and I was seventeen years old.”

Wilma’s eyes glistened in the searing memory of guilt a half century before. She turned away. I put my elbows up on the table. But little Nellie lived, I knew. Thirty years later I grew up with little Nellie’s oldest son. Her story, I thought, was over.

“Twenty-five years later, to the month, my son Eddie had that accident on the motorcycle,” she said. The images came back to me because that was a story I remembered. Three weeks, Wilma’s boy, just seventeen, hit by a drunk driver, was suspended between life and death like little Nellie. And there was a girl killed on Eddie’s motorcycle, the only daughter of Evelyn Brasser, Wilma says, the same Evelyn Brasser that hit little Nellie right there in front of the IGA 25 years before.

“I didn’t go to the funeral,” Wilma told me, “because it was life and death with my Eddie. So I never talked to Evelyn Brasser after that awful Sunday afternoon.”

“Five years later, after my husband died, I took a job at the shoe factory,” Wilma said. “The first day, Evelyn—she’d worked there for years, you know—Evelyn sees me walking up the sidewalk and marches to the boss. ‘I won’t have it,’ she says.

“He told her he couldn’t refuse me work for that reason. No way.

“So right then and there Evelyn quit rather than work with me. She quit right there on my first morning—because of me.

“My lands, I felt terribly. But what could I do? My kids had to eat. Should I quit because Evelyn Brasser won’t talk to me? I couldn’t.

“But she comes back to work a week later maybe. I don’t know why. And the supervisor puts us together—‘show Wilma how to sew these shanks,’ he says to Evelyn. ‘You know there’s a trick to it doing it right.’

“He made her talk to me. She had to.

“And there we sat at that sewing machine. ‘Evelyn,’ I says, ‘you can’t hold this against me anymore. It wasn’t me that did it. It wasn’t even my own son. It was that drunk driver—he was the one responsible. You can’t hold it against me anymore,’ I says.

‘But my daughter is gone,’ she says. ‘And you still have your Eddie.’

‘Evelyn,’ I says, “I don’t know why Eddie lived. I don’t know why your daughter died. But I know God has a plan in these things,’ I says, ‘and you can’t hold it against me anymore—you can’t.’

And that was what it took. We started talking. That was it. All of that story I still remember so well.”

Wilma pulled herself up on the odd-looking cane and opened the front door before taking a step. The story was over.

“Stop in again, Wilma,” I told her. I meant it. I really did.

“People without hope don’t write novels,” Flannery O’Connor once said, but I wonder if that assertion doesn’t hold for more of us: “People without hope don’t tell stories.” Wilma is gone, but her story lives in me, and tonight I’ve given it to you by telling it.

We tell stories to remember and not to forget. And we tell stories to affirm our lives, to remind us that being human really has meaning.

I hope you liked my story. It’s Wilma’s and it’s mine, but it really belongs to all of us.

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Jim Schaap spent 36 years teaching English at Dordt College He's the author of 24 books and several short stories. He writes almost daily at siouxlander.blogspot.com.

Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live outside at Koffie Knechtion, 419 Golf Road, in South Sioux City at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23. Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme "Just Work." Admission is $10.

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