Sometimes, memories are all we have.
by Bertie Williams
Martha stood on her porch wiping her hands with her apron. She had finished the bread, started the roast and was thankful that the pies were all done yesterday. She brushed back a lock of hair with the back of her hand and brought it away covered in sweat. Martha lifted her apron to her face and wiped it down.
"Want everything perfect when Ben comes home."
She looked out across the meadow that bordered the front of her house. A small river ran beyond it and a band of trees behind that.
She heard a car coming along the highway to her left and shaded her eyes hoping it was Ben, but . . . the car passed along.
Martha was stick thin. Her face was lined and drawn, her once deep auburn hair now streaked with gray. Her hands were worn and chapped, red from washing clothes and cleaning the small, weathered house. She had three dresses which she wore, washed, changed and washed to wear again. One pair of black shoes was all that she owned; when asked about it she said it was all she needed.
Martha took a seat on the unpainted bench on the porch. She looked at the apron, stained and patched, "even this has seen better days," she said aloud.
It was June 15, 1917 and Martha's world was turned upside down the day that Ben went off to war. War . . . as if he had anything to do with all those screaming politicians on their soap boxes in town. He was gone now, two years. Martha had received two letters from him in all that time, "you'd think a boy would write his mother more . . ." she mumbled.
She stood up and walked inside. The room was sparse. A battered table, a couple of wooden chairs, a cabinet that held three plates, two cups and a sugar bowl and little else.
Through the door to the left she could see her bedroom, with it's tired looking bedstead and mattress. The all too thin cover pulled over a limp pillow. Martha scrubbed and polished everything, every other day. She was particular about her floors, always on her hands and knees, always toiling away. She had raised four children in this house. Their room was always kept closed. She didn't go in there except to dust it down and turn the mattress as if they still caroused there. Martha couldn't bear the memories that room held.
She placed her hands on her hips and crossed the room to straightened the only picture in the house. It was constantly being knocked off kilter by the door being closed. It was an etching of George Washington that her mother had brought from Boston when they had left to come here to western Kansas.
She liked Kansas when she was a young girl, it was not crowded and stuffy like Boston. Wide open fields and waving, golden crops; she thought that the woods and river were "romantic". Her mother was not as enthusiastic, complaining about her father's bravado at trying something neither one of them knew anything about. Martha thought her father was brave.
Martha stepped out to the porch again. She looked toward the road but no car passed. She stood for a few more moments then went inside. Lighting her kerosene lamp she began to read Scripture. It was Sunday after all and just because there wasn't any church nearby didn't mean she couldn't be righteous and observe the Sabbath.
She remembered her daughter, Pamela. How sweet she looked in the starched crinoline and white pantaloons dressed for Sunday service. Martha thought Pamela looked like her grandmother. She had the dimples like her, the habit of cocking her head to the right when listening; "very much like her grandmother," she said to no one.
Now Pamela was grown with two babes of her own. She never liked Kansas, always wanting the Big City as if there was anything of value there. Well, Martha had to admit that Pamela found a good man in Chicago. He was a true husband and fine father to their two boys.
"She's so far away . . ." Martha said, and heightened the lamp.
"Must be gettin' old, need more and more light every day."
Martha checked the roast in the oven. Another half an hour or so and it would be done. "Just in time for Ben," she said, laying the Bible aside.
Martha went to the cabinet and opened the doors. Inside was a flat square box. She kept photos in there, memories of her earlier life when the house was filled with more than recollections of times past.
Opening it she pulled out a picture of her husband Elroy.
"Lord, but you were handsome, El . . ." she expected him to place his arms around her waist at any moment. He couldn't of course, Elroy was dead these past eleven summers.
She longed for him fiercely during the first two years. Sometimes she would call to him and wonder why there was no answer until she remembered that he was dead. Dead and gone from her; in a place where she could not follow.
She pressed the photo to her heart and lay it reverently on the table.
"Oh, look, there's grandma with Kathleen. Ahh, my Kath, my dearest one."
A pretty little four year old peeked out from beneath a bonnet. Held in her grandmother's arms she smiled with delight while the picture was taken. The very next year, Kathleen would be dead along with her grandmother and many others in their town. A Cholera epidemic tore through, wiping away whole families. The Pastor of the church lost four of his six children to the disease. The Reverend and his family packed up and moved on, too torn with grief to stay with the memories. Tears coursed down Martha's cheeks and she quickly wiped them away with her apron.
"Can't let Ben see me like this, all sad and everything. He'll say, 'ma, why do you suffer yourself so? Come on, let's go see that new show at the theater in town.'"
"Yes, I mustn't let Ben see me like this."
Martha went to her bedroom and took down a clean dress off the back of the door. She put water onto the stove to heat and took the brown soap out of its packet. She washed up, combed her hair and dressed. It was the best frock she had, lavender, printed with small pink and white roses.
She heard a car pulling in out front and she perked. Crossing to the door, she threw it open expectation clear on her face.
"Oh, Bartholomew . . ." she said, a tone of disappointment edging her voice. "it's you."
Bartholomew, the town sheriff brought her newspapers every couple of days.
"You're expecting someone Martha?
"Why . . . yes, of course. Ben is coming home today."
Bartholomew studied her for a moment then held up the newspaper.
"Brought you something to read," he said, turning toward the stove where he hoped hot coffee waited.
"Oh, I 've been so busy preparing for my boy's return, I forgot to put on the coffee this morning. Ben will be wanting some. Sit down. I've got some pies, I could cut you a slice of apple . . ."
"Uh, yeah, that'd be fine Martha."
The sheriff smiled at her, watched her as she went about the preparations.
"You know, Martha, I'd feel a lot better about your situation if you moved closer to town. Bill Cummings place is up for sale. Said he just got too old to handle it. It's a real nice place, and you'd be near Annabelle."
"Why? Why would I want Bill Cummings place, Bartholomew? I've got a perfectly good place of my own, right here. And besides, when Ben comes home, he's going to help me spiff it up. He said so when he left."
"But . . . you're so isolated out here. What if something happens?
"Bartholomew Wickerson, you sound like an old lady. That's my job!"
Bartholomew smiled, "I mean, you could be more comfortable. This old shack ain't warm enough and look how beat up it is."
"There ain't one thing wrong with this house. It's been through twisters, blizzards, floods and it still stands, one board attached to the other. Soundest roof in the county. Why would I want Bill Cummings place?
"Okay, okay. I just suggested. I, uh, gotta run into town for a minute. Keep that coffee hot, will you?
"I sure will. If you see Ben's car on the road, tell him to hurry. Everything's done and waiting.
Bartholomew smiled and left.
Martha stood for a few moments on the porch looking longingly at the highway. The twilight was fast fading into dark and still Ben was not home.
She sat down on the bench and turned the wedding band on her finger while she thought. She recalled that day twenty-five years ago when she had given birth to Annabelle, her youngest child. The day had been a cold one and El was out in the pasture bringing in their cows. The labor pains started, just a belly ache at first, but Martha knew what it was and hurried to finish scrubbing her floors. She finished, went to the bed and birthed Annabelle. She cleaned up, checked the dinner on the stove and was laying in bed with the babe to her breast when El returned hours later. He lit the lamp and brought it to their bedroom to see his new born daughter, amazed at Martha's fortitude. That had been so long ago. She made a mental note to visit Annabelle in town soon.
A car's headlights weaving across her kitchen wall broke her reverie. Martha hurried to the window and pulling back the gingham curtain she saw Bartholomew and Annabelle emerging from the sheriff's car.
"Why, Annabelle . . . what brings you out this way?"
"Me," Martha said with a laugh, "I didn't call you to come."
"You didn't have to Mama, Bart came and asked me to come out."
Martha placed her hands on her hips and threw an accusing glance at the sheriff.
"What did he tell you?"
"You've cooked quite a meal, here, Martha." Bartholomew said.
"Yes, I have. All of Ben's favorites for when he comes home today."
The sheriff and Annabelle exchanged glances.
Annabelle took her mother's hand, "sit down with me Mama."
Bartholomew turned his back to them and poured a cup of coffee. He stood by the stove sipping the strong, dark brew.
Martha sat opposite her daughter. She folded her hands in her lap and studied Annabelle for a moment then said, "tell me what this is all about, daughter."
"Mama . . . you know that Ben is dead."
Martha shot to her feet.
"What are you talking about? My boy is not dead! He's coming home. He's coming home today!"
"Mama . . . Ben is buried somewhere in a French cemetery. You know that too."
"I got two letters from him just a month ago . . ."
"You got those two letters over a year ago, Mama. Ben was killed in Argonne Forest."
"Shut your lying mouth! Why did you come here with these lies? I'll tell your father about this! He don't care much for liars you know?"
Once again, Annabelle and Bartholomew looked at each other.
Martha rose and went into the bedroom. She was busy looking beneath the mattress for something.
"We've got to take her out of here, Annabelle. If we don't . . ."
Martha returned with a worn and dog eared photo.
"Look!" she said tossing it down on the table, there's your proof. Ben. Looking all proud and handsome in his uniform. He sent me that for Christmas last year."
"Why do you keep this one under your mattress, Mama? All the other pictures are in the box in the cupboard."
"I . . . I keep it there to . . . to be closer to Ben. I know it's silly, but it does make me feel better that I have a picture of him close by . . ."
Annabelle looked at her, Bartholomew looked at her. Martha wrung her hands and went to the door. She pitched it open to the blackness of night.
"Ben . . . Ben where are you? El doesn't like it when you're late. He's probably off somewhere catching lightening bugs. He always likes that. He'll steal any canning jar I have to put them in. Ruining the top with little holes so the bugs can breath. El's gonna tan his hide when he comes down from the pasture."
"Mama, uh, you know? I almost forgot and I bet you did too."
"Forgot what?" Martha said a wondering look on her tired face.
"Remember? You and Papa and Ben were supposed to bring the food to my house and have dinner there. Remember?"
"Oh, yes! So that's why Ben didn't come and that's where El is. I must be gettin' really old, Annabelle, to forget something like that. "
Bartholomew settled his coffee cup on the table and said, "hey, we can load the food into the rumble seat of the car and we can all drive in together."
They loaded the food into the car and Annabelle ushered Martha into the back seat.
Bartholomew got into the driver's seat and started the vehicle.
"Wait!" Martha exclaimed.
She darted out of the car before Annabelle could stop her and back into the house.
She emerged with the photograph of Ben in her hand.
"I have to show him this. He'll be so happy that I kept this picture. He looks so handsome, doesn't he, Annabelle?
Martha sat down in the car's rear seat and looked out of the window. She looked at the house. The windows looked like vacant eyes staring back at her. She felt a strange separation. A suspicion that she would not be back.
"I can't wait to see Ben." she stated, holding the photo close to her chest.
Annabelle forced back tears, put her arm around her mother and said, "I love you Mama."
"Are you sure they'll all be coming to your house Annabelle?"
"Yes, Mama. They'll all be there . . . and you will too."
Word Count 2430