The story of a hidden treasure
The Stash of Gold
Alfred parked his car and stood leaning against it for a minute, looking at his old house. His grandson Jim was struggling to get past the screen door, loaded down with two big packing boxes.
“Here, let me help you with those,” Alfred called, striding across the small yard as nimbly as possible.
Jim looked up and smiled. “Hi Gramps. It’s okay. I’ve got it now.” He carried the full cartons to the U-Haul in the driveway and stacked them inside. “Say, I need a break. I’ve been doing this all morning. Would you like a cup of coffee? We haven’t packed that yet.”
“If you’ve got some made, I wouldn’t turn it down.”
“No problem. I’ll make a fresh pot.”
Alfred followed him into the nearly bare kitchen. “I see the coffee maker, but how about the cups?”
“Good point. Take a look in that box on the counter. I think that’s where I put the mugs and the mug tree. Yeah,” he said, seeing Alfred had found them, “get out a couple of those.” Jim filled the coffee machine and started it up. “I wondered if you’d come over here to say goodbye to the house.”
“I thought I’d better come before the people move in. It sounds like they’re in a hurry.”
Jim nodded. “Yes, the buyer starts his new job Monday, and they want to get some painting and papering done before they move in. I guess it’s always a rush like this. Like a line of dominoes, each person pushing the next one out of the way.”
Alfred wandered out to the next room, the “parlor,” and on through the house. As he looked around, he saw in his memory the way the rooms had looked sixty years before.
“You aren’t mad at us for selling it, are you Gramps?” Jim called. His voice sounded easy, but there was a hint of worry on his face.
Alfred drifted back to the kitchen, and back to the present. “No, I’m not mad at all. I know you need more space, with the baby coming. It’s a very small house.”
“We’ve loved this house. It was the best wedding present anybody ever had. I don’t think we could have made it those first years without it. I never wanted to live in an apartment, and we couldn’t have afforded a house.”
“I was glad we could do it for you. It made us feel proud, that you didn’t mind living in our old place. Bella was so worried that you wouldn’t like it.”
“Grandma worried about everything, didn’t she?” Jim asked, pouring a cup of coffee and handing it to Alfred.
Alfred took a sip then held it, warming his hands on the mugs’ sides. He looked thoughtful. “Yes, I suppose she did. More than my mother did, certainly, or at least so I could tell. That’s one thing I came over for this morning, besides seeing the house.”
“What’s that?” Jim asked.
“I have a story to tell you, that I want you to hear. It won’t take too long. You know some of it already.” Alfred moved a box to make a place on the window seat, and made himself comfortable.
“When I was a very young boy, my father disappeared. My mother wouldn’t talk about him, except to say she loved him and she hoped that she would one day see him again.”
“I always thought he’d died young or something,” Jim said.
“A lot of people thought that, and Mother didn’t ever contradict them. He went west, with the railroad; and whether he just left her, or whether he died, I never knew. ‘Alfred,’ she said to me that day, ‘our lives are going to change. Your papa has moved away, and we will have to make our own way in life from now on.’
“Perhaps you can tell by that quaint old phrase, ‘to make one’s own way in life,’ that this happened many years ago. Indeed it did. I am old, about to become a great-grandfather, aren’t I?“ Jim nodded patiently.
“Papa left us with this old house, which we lived in from then on-- not the grand house we had once had, not by any means. That was sold to pay his bills. This little cottage had belonged to his sister before she died. It had just the one bedroom, and a pantry, which Mother made into a room for me, first a pallet on the floor, and eventually a real bed of sorts, more like a cot, I’d call it now.
“The shelves that once had held rows of Ball jars filled with peaches, tomatoes, and green beans—the summer’s produce stored away—were where I put my clothes and small belongings. There was no room for any other furniture, even if we’d had it. This tiny area was tucked between the kitchen, the bedroom, and the back door; and even the ceiling was lower there, slanting down beneath the eaves. “
“You’ve done a lot to it, Gramps. It’s been a good house for us, and we appreciate it. It’s just that, even with the additions, it’s too small….”
“I know, I know,” Alfred said, as he patted Jim on the hand. “Let me keep telling my story.” He fell back into his reverie.
“Mother gave me a quilt that was stuffed with wool, a lumpy old thing but very comforting. Between it and the wood stove on the other side of the wall, I stayed cozy and warm. We were beginning an adventure, she told me; and I believed her.
“Before I was old enough for school, my mother took in laundry to earn money. We had an old wringer washer that barely fit in our small kitchen, but it saw a lot of use. Propping the washboard in the sink, she scrubbed the dirtiest clothes along its crinkled spine with a bar of brown Fels Naptha soap, then put them with the less soiled things, the linens, into the tub. She pumped water in, then warmed it with a kettleful that had been heating on the wood stove. The enamel tub had an agitator, which we cranked by hand. It spread the soap around and shook the dirt out, Mother said. It shook the floor too, and it was hard work for me, but I helped and it was fun.
“We drained the tub into buckets, which we took to the garden to water the squash and potatoes we had planted. Then we filled it up again, this time to rinse. The wringer was the part I liked the best, but it was scary too. You had to feed the wash into the great rollers slowly, and they really pinched your fingers if you didn‘t let go of a shirt or a sheet in time.
“The very best thing that I owned was a Red Flyer wagon, and wash days put it to good use. It hauled the water buckets to the garden. Then we’d load it up with baskets of clean clothes to pull out to the clothesline. I couldn’t reach that high, but I could hand the clothes pins up to Mother as she stretched the wet and flapping garments out across the line.
“The next day would be ironing day, and there was very little I could do to help her then. So I’d stay in the corner, out of the way where I wouldn’t muss the freshly ironed clothes, and we would play games. Mother would say, ‘So, Mr. Penrose, what will you be doing today?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, Mrs. McGurk, I think I’ll take a stroll down to the duck pond, and then go to the miller’s for some flour.’ ‘While you’re there, Mr. Penrose,’ she would say, ‘would you mind picking up some string for me? I have a wee boy who needs to learn to play Cats in the Cradle to keep him occupied while I do up the ironing.’
“You taught me to play that too,” Jim said.
Alfred smiled and nodded.
“Everything we did was work, but it was play as well. As we dragged the water buckets back and forth, Mother would sing, ‘Tote that barge, lift that bale…’ or any other song that came to her mind.
“When I think of those first few years, I remember the heat of the wood stove that enveloped us, and the steamy water, the strong smell of the soap, the tight twist she’d make of the sheets to keep them off the floor as she’d pull them out of the wringer. I can picture her flushed face as she brushed the drops of sweat or a strand of hair off her face with the back of her hand. I can feel her arms around me and hear her voice as we’d kneel to pray at bedtime. ‘We’ve had a good day today, Alfred. Let’s thank God for it.’
“One hot summer’s night, when I lay restless on my bed, I heard my mother crying. I rushed to the kitchen to find her with her head down on her arms across the table. ‘Oh, Alfred,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you. Something bad has happened. Someone has stolen your wagon. I went to get some firewood, and the wagon was not anywhere to be found.’
“Of course I was upset, but only when she went on did the true implication of this theft become real to me. Without the wagon, how would we tote the water buckets? How would we get the wet clothes to the line? How would we deliver the laundry to the owners so that we could be paid?
“‘It will be all right,’ she said, smoothing my hair. ‘We always have the gold that’s hidden away for an emergency, but we must not use it unless there is no other choice.’
“She had gold hidden away?” Jim asked, amazed. Alfred nodded, and put his finger to his lips to signify that he would explain eventually.
“I was relieved to know we had a stash of gold, and thought our problems were solved. Just as I began to suggest we get it out and use it to buy a new, bigger wagon, Mother hushed me. ‘Not yet,’ she said. ‘We still have other choices.’
“Two days later, a Mr. Withers came to stay with us. It was only on Monday nights, when he had need of a bed in our town because he was a traveling salesman. ‘He is Mrs. Hanson’s daughter’s husband,’ Mother told me. Mrs. Hanson had a house even smaller than our own, and her daughter had moved to Tennessee. ‘It will just be one night a week,’ she said, reassuring me. ‘I will make a little bed on the floor next to you. It will be fine. You’ll see.’
“It was very crowded, sharing a room with my mother, and by then I was seven years old and wanted a little more privacy. ‘Can’t we just use our gold?’ I asked.
“‘No, Albert, that’s our courage. We can’t give it away.’
“I had no idea what she meant, but I pressed on. ‘How long will it take for us to buy a new wagon?’ I asked.
“‘Not too long,’ she said.
“I don’t know exactly how she did without it. I was in school by then, and she did the job alone. At the end of the day, there was only the gathering up of the wash to do, and folding it and delivering it. We used a bushel basket that the grocer gave us with his laundry in it. We could keep it till we got something else.
“It seemed forever, but probably within a month, my mother had a new and bigger wagon for me, and I thought that all was well. We could send Mr. Hanson packing, but it wasn’t to be. First the roof began to leak. Then after we had fixed that, a stovepipe rusted out and left a pile of soot beneath it. It needed mending too.
“Every Monday night, Mr. Hanson would arrive in time for dinner. When the dishes were done, Mother and I would go to my little room, leaving Mr. Hanson to spend the evening however he chose. Mother brought an extra lantern and placed it on the shelf, and by its light she sat and did the mending. I’d read to her, and so each Monday passed.
“The line of constant unforeseen expenses never went away. The cow dried up. The heavy rains that lasted all that winter ruined our potatoes. A storm knocked down a tree, and its biggest branch broke through our window. Each time a need came up, I’d ask my mother, ‘Why not use our gold?’
“‘No, Alfred. We don’t need it yet. We have our strength and our imagination. We won’t use our hope until we need it.’
“In time, Mr. Hanson left our area to take up another trade, and our Monday nights were free again. But Mr. Allen came on Thursdays. They were both kind men, nice enough to me, and seemed to keep their distance from my mother. My eagle eyes were out to check for that.
“Throughout the years the pattern never altered much. When we had need, we found a way to meet it. I always wondered, though, about the gold.
“Just before she died, I asked my mother where it was. ‘It’s buried in the yard,’ she said, ‘three feet exactly from the pump, but please don’t dig it up if you don’t need it.’
“And did you ever dig it up?” Jim asked.
“I did, I’m ashamed to say. But I buried it again, and that’s where it remained, until yesterday. That’s why I thought you needed to hear this story, before someone else moves into this house.”
“You buried it again, and dug it up?” Jim was incredulous. “Don’t you think we should go get it? We could invest it, make it grow.”
“I’m going to bury it again, at your new house, if you’ll let me.”
“Gramps.” He was at a loss for words. “That doesn’t make any sense. How much gold are we talking about?”
“It isn’t the amount that matters. What matters is that it’s your courage, your hope. You’ll always have it, if you need it.”
Jim stared at him a moment, drained his coffee cup and stood up. Hefting the box on the window seat to his shoulder, he carried it outside to the truck. When he came in for the next one, he just shook his head. “I don’t know what to say. You’ll tell me where you bury it, won’t you?”
Alfred thought about it as he stood up, his fingers toying with the gold wedding band in his pocket. “Maybe,” he said. “Sometime.”