TESTAMENT

Every few months when I was a child, my family escaped from the crowded streets of inner-city Minneapolis and drove 200 miles north to the small town of Spruce Park where my aunt and uncle lived. My grandparents’ cottage was in the wooded countryside nearby.

On this visit, Daddy drove our new car—a 1957 Chevrolet Impala—dark copper with a wave of corrugated aluminum trim on each of its stylish fins, and the whitest of gleaming white sidewalls. He said it was his last chance for pizzazz—at the rate we were going, the next car would be a station wagon.

The radio was tuned to comforting lyrics which included Mama’s favorite—Perry Como. Every once in a while, when she was preoccupied with Annie, my father turned the knob, then peeked back at us with a devilish grin. Before you knew it, there would be the thumping rhythms of Elvis. It usually took my mother a few minutes before she realized what he had done, and flipped back to her “wholesome” station with a remark about something being “inappropriate.”

Riding along in a brand-new car, I didn’t even mind the switch because I felt raised to some higher level of worth. Unless some other family made a surprise purchase, we had the premier automobile in our parish.

Grandma is divorced! She used to be married to somebody else—not Grandpa!” My brother’s words kept repeating in my mind.

Usually, I led our Saturday-morning treks through the woods because I was the oldest at 10 years. Mama instructed me to watch out for the others. After David’s sudden announcement, my stun landed me in the back of our procession, with Margaret, my six-year-old cousin.

My brother had forgotten those shocking words once he’d blurted them out. He and John, my eight-year-old cousin—David’s cohort in age as well as gender—readily took charge, forging down the path cut into tall evergreens. It wasn’t really a path, but tracks made by years of tires rolling from one spot to another through 40 acres of timber. The smaller Norway Pines, which we each scrutinized, bordered our trail. Grandpa had marked “the special one” with a red tag. At Christmastime, Daddy would chop that tree down and we’d bring it back to The Cities, tied atop our new car.

On these hikes, we journeyed single file into the wilderness, avoiding the middle hump where grasses were long and prickly and full of burrs. Margaret, because she was tiny, would squeeze into the track beside me.

Grandpa had told us to watch for the chosen tree, so stomping along, we played an “I Spy” game to see who’d first spot the red tag. The winner would get an, as yet, unrevealed reward!

I usually felt giddy being on my grandfather’s property. After months cooped up with two other children in a small house set on a city lot barely big enough for a beat-up swingset, the thrill of land ownership, no matter how detached, made me feel proud and free. On this day, after my brother’s revelation, my grandfather had suddenly become—not that. My grandmother had been married to someone else in the long-ago past. Someone I’d never known. A person my grandma, my aunt, and my mother whispered about, in addition to other forbidden topics, while sipping endless cups of coffee.

Stopping for a moment to help Margaret tie her shoe, I brooded over David’s words. “Oh, I hear lots of stuff that way,” he’d boasted, jamming his walking stick, which also served as a sword, into the tire track and making a pile of earth that messed its smoothness.

“What sort of stuff?” I’d questioned, still unable to believe what he’d already told me, and that he sat under the open window often, eavesdropping. I was certain he hadn’t committed any mortal sins—yet. Still, I wondered if he remembered to examine his conscience, then claim this nasty behavior, along with all his other venial acts, in order to make a good confession.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he’d crowed, giving John a shove, then zooming down the road, sword raised above his head, a make-believe shield in front of his chest.

I ran my fingers through the sides of my recently-cut straight brown hair, trying to make it wave into a perfect ducktail. “Are you coming along?” I asked Margaret, whose pale blue eyes barely showed through smudged corrective lenses. Her shoes were in order, but now she dawdled, attention captured by a hammering woodpecker. She placed grubby fingers in mine and we followed the boys.

Margaret was a little slow. For sure, John wasn’t watching out for her, always shadowing David. Countless times, Aunt Liz had said, “Margaret needs a bit of remedial work. That’s all.” Margaret told me she spent every school afternoon with Sister Mary Ignatius doing the alphabet and trying to put together more words than “cat” and “dog.” When our kidtalk headed into out-of-the-ordinary topics, Margaret floated off in the clouds like a balloon from the county fair accidentally set free.

“Do you know what divorce means?” I tried anyway, stopping once more, this time to push her stringy blonde bangs into a cockeyed barrette.

“No, not ‘zactly,” she said, and I decided not to pursue the topic. I wasn’t even that sure what it meant myself, except that Trudy Mueller’s parents were divorced, and the other girls at recess said Mrs. Mueller was going to Hell if she married her boss at the Red Owl where she worked as a cashier. She’d be excommunicated and never allowed the blessed sacraments again. When she died, the flames of Hell would swallow her up. I didn’t know if her boss was Catholic, so I wasn’t sure what would happen to him, but I knew it would be horrible. All the girls pitied Trudy. First, a father who’d disappeared to some faraway place—maybe St. Paul, but probably a lot farther than that. Maybe even Chicago. And now, here was her mother, who never came to Mass anymore, tempting eternal damnation in trade for a life of sin on earth. I wasn’t certain what this sin consisted of, but knew that the penalty would be never-ending pain.

Up until this time, the only pain I’d known was a broken ankle when I’d jumped off a swing on the playground and landed crookedly. For a while, I thought I’d die from that hurt, but I didn’t. The excruciating pain from unrepented sin had to make you want to die, even though you were already a goner—sizzling away, forever and ever.

I’d asked my mother about Trudy’s mother and her fate, but she’d shushed me up, saying, “This is Anne Mueller’s business, Teresa. Not ours.”

When I’d pestered, asking what exactly Mrs. Mueller had done, Mama had said, “You’ll know about that in good time.” The end.

“But what about Trudy? She’ll be alone in Heaven if her mother and father both burn in Hell.” Trudy Mueller had never been a favorite of mine. Her infrequent snaggle-toothed sneer, frizzy orange hair, and premature skin bumps put me off before I even heard about her parents. Still, I wouldn’t wish anyone, even my worst enemy, to be alone with all their family burnt to a crisp. Trudy was an only child, too. This was unheard of at Holy Rosary Elementary. She didn’t even have a spying, cheating little brother like David for companionship, let alone the baby who constantly clung onto Mama’s skirts.

As I trudged toward the two hooting boys with Margaret stopping every few yards to pick up a pinecone, give it a look, then toss it away, I watched David’s obnoxious behavior. He’d poked John in the backside with his sword at least three times, and now waved it, hollering something about “I shall conquer,” while they waited for us to catch up. His darker brown hair stuck out at every angle. With more cowlicks than even I had, he’d never achieve a ducktail. I licked my fingers and, once more, rubbed them over recalcitrant strands. Watching David’s antics, I knew his appalling words had been forgotten once they’d passed his lips. He wasn’t churning over the condemnation our grandparents faced. In an effort to find a way out for them, I desperately began sorting through family history as I knew it.

From somewhere, I recalled one of Mama’s many mysterious remarks. “After Mother left The Cities…” At some time Grandma had lived near us. She must have dwelt there with this other unknown grandfather. He must have run away like Mr. Mueller.

On our weekend trips to Spruce Park, we stayed with Aunt Liz and Uncle Rafe. They had a big old tan stucco-covered house in town. I slept on the extra bed next to Margaret’s. David slept in one of John’s bunkbeds. Mama and Daddy used the spare room surrounded by a sewing machine, an ironing board, and the baby.

Saturday, we spent with Grandma and Grandpa at their cottage. We ate lunch, always topped off with Grandma’s thick, sweet blueberry sauce in green glass service-station dishes. Grandpa’s jokes and stories kept us entertained when we weren’t roaming through the woods.

“I spy! I spy!” Margaret fell to her knees and groped into the lower branches of a perfectly-shaped pine. Grandpa had placed the red tag at a level where she would be the one most likely to find it.

“Here’s the tree,” I hollered. “Margaret wins.” The boys turned around, shook their heads in disgust, but conceded that Margaret, indeed, was the victor.

Continuing our trek, I began to think about the next day. On Sunday morning, we arose early, skipped breakfast, and headed off to Mass, stomachs rumbling. When we got home, Aunt Liz and Mama hurried into the kitchen, donning aprons as fast as they cast aside coats. Within minutes, bacon and eggs appeared on the dining room table. In the afternoon, we’d return from the swimming hole or sledding hill, depending upon the season, to a huge Sunday feast of potroast or fried chicken. My grandparents came to town for that meal.

Once I’d asked my mother, “Why don’t Grandma and Grandpa go to Mass with us?”

She’d quickly, now it seemed too quickly, answered, “They don’t want to drive this far for church.”

I’d assumed they fulfilled their obligation at some little chapel out in the country. All of a sudden, the truth dawned on me. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t go to church!

I slowed down again and looked at the blueberry bushes laden with dark pearls of fruit. Slipping from my grasp, Margaret knelt, this time picking juicy morsels and stuffing them in her mouth. From around a curve in the road, I heard the boys’ loud voices like banshees screeching at each other. Hidden among green leaves, the berries looked like rosary beads waiting for a recitation of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. If I prayed hard enough, could I save my grandparents? Later that day, I knew we would go for a walk with Grandma, buckets in hand, picking berries that she’d make into sauce.

Right then, I decided that each time I picked a berry I’d say “Our Father”—merely that, the beginning words. “Our Father.” “Our Father.” Then, back at the house sorting out the leaves and stems before the berries were washed, I’d send my petitions to Mary in the same way. “Hail Mary.” “Hail Mary.” With each pinched-fingered throwaway, I’d address her. When I returned home to the city, I would dedicate a whole Rosary every day for them. My plan was set. Surely all this effort would rescue my grandparents. Hadn’t the Rosary turned back the Turkish fleet? Didn’t Mary herself promise St. Dominic that the Rosary was powerful armor against the tortures of Hell?

“What’s the hold-up?” David had circled back and stood, one hand on his hip, the other resting on his sword.

“Yeah, we’re never going to get there,” John echoed, gesturing to hurry, t-shirt crawling up his jiggling belly.

I grabbed Margaret and yanked her on track. “C’mon, the boys are getting restless.”

Now that we’d found the tree, we were headed off to explore the recently-vacated Harrington house, despite my warnings of bad trouble if we got caught. David had said, “How are they going to find out? Unless one of us tells…”

The Harringtons had been Grandma and Grandpa’s neighbors forever. Sadly, Mr. Harrington had died the year before in mid-winter.

Pausing while re-reading Grandma’s letter conveying this news, Mama had said to Daddy, who was sitting next to her on the sofa, “Gruesome the way those people up north store bodies for burial in the spring.”

“What would you do, dynamite through solidly-frozen ground in order to get the remains planted expeditiously?”

“Stop making fun of me.” Mama had punched Daddy’s arm, but not hard enough to hurt.

All that winter, at peculiar times like doing arithmetic homework, I’d look out through white eyelet ruffles of kitchen curtains, and check the naked branches on our one big tree, an apple, hoping to see the first robin. Then I’d know that poor Mr. Harrington would soon be properly laid to rest.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Harrington had followed her husband in death early this particular summer. There’d been no delay for her send-off. Grandma’s letter said she rested next to Leo at the county cemetery.

The old couple had been kind to us when we hiked a half-mile through the trees to their house. Mr. Harrington would bustle, pushing extra chairs around the table, a huge smile on his face. His white teeth sparkled in a tanned, crumpled old face. Excited, he’d click them over and over again like castanets with a life of their own.

Mrs. Harrington would fix a plate of sugar cookies and pour milk. Then they’d sit there, asking about our plans and dreams. The last time we’d seen them together, I said I wanted to be a teacher—but not a nun! David wanted to be a soldier—big surprise! John supposed he’d be a soldier, too. And Margaret said, “Someday, I’m gonna be a reader!” The Harringtons nodded to each other as we ate—making us feel important.

One cold day, before either of the Harringtons had died, Grandma and Mama had huddled by the stove darning socks. I heard Mama say, “It’s a crying shame Edith and Leo never had any children of their own.”

Grandma said, “Well, of course, you know they were past all of that when they married. Edith had a child from her first…”

“Isn’t it wonderful how hospitable they are to our children?” Mama interrupted, glancing toward me. The burning wood crackled while I kept my eyes on one of Nancy Drew’s adventures.

Later, I’d wondered about Grandma’s unfinished statement, but decided that Edith Harrington must have had a stillbirth like Aunt Liz did that one time. We never talked about it, either. Not after the family Mass. The small white box was put in the ground with Father Colby’s prayers, and that was that. Aunt Liz’s fat stomach disappeared with nothing to show for it but a flat stone marker in the Littlest Angels section of the Catholic Cemetery.

Walking through the woods, coaxing Margaret to keep on the move, I recalled that reference to Mrs. Harrington’s long-ago child and decided maybe it wasn’t a stillbirth after all. Maybe Mrs. Harrington had been married before, too, with a living child and a runaway husband somewhere. That would mean she, too, was divorced. This whole road could be full of little houses tucked in the trees where people lived, made cookies and blueberry sauce, told jokes and stories, and—waited for their punishment.

As we approached the small white Harrington cottage, I really began questioning David’s idea to hike this way. My thoughts of burning forever had given me the jitters. On previous visits we’d heard conversational voices, or Lawrence Welk’s music from the record player, sifting through the screen door. When Mrs. Harrington lived here alone, we could hear that the weather report was on the radio. She’d been standing at the window by her sink. Seeing us, she threw both hands up, waving as if prayers were answered, then rushed into the yard for hugs.

This time, no sound came from the house, its heavy front door shut. David twisted and pulled on the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. At every window, the shade met its ledge. We couldn’t even find a crack to peer in. The back door, locked up tightly, too, made me want to run back to Grandma. And, the empty green-painted window boxes made me want to cry. Every spring, Mrs. Harrington filled them with pansies—little purple and gold faces that greeted our arrival, and saluted us as we went on our way. This year, the boxes were full of dry brown soil and a mess of old yellowed stems. Some of them still held smashed blossoms faded to the same dusty color.

On the side of the house, slanted double doors built into the ground hid the cellar. Despite my warnings to leave them alone, David pulled on a handle, creaking open the right door, and flopping it onto the lawn.

“We can get in here,” he said excitedly, inspecting a wooden stairway sinking into the murkiness. Both boys marched down the steps, their heads disappearing into the gloom.

Cautiously we followed, Margaret’s limp hand stuck to mine.

It was a cellar similar to the one at my grandparents’ cottage, with the same damp, musty smell that made my throat feel like I’d been eating clay. Solidly-packed dirt walls held a few shelves. Matches, lanterns, and sealed jugs of water—storm supplies—sat on them.

“Hey! Look what I found,” David yelled. It was a flashlight with a low, almost worn-out, beam. He aimed it into the corners, jerking tentative illuminations so rapidly that I could barely make out the shapes of covered piles.

Underneath the tarps must be snowshoes, maybe garden tools, I thought. Suddenly, I wondered about the Harringtons’ graves. What if these piles actually contained the old couple’s bodies?

“Teresa—Ohhhhhh Tereeeeeesa.” I turned toward the voice. My brother held the flashlight under his chin, face scrunched in a grimace of terror. By the reflected light, I could see John’s normally small eyes dominating his expression. He looked more terrified than I felt.

“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” I ordered, grabbing Margaret and nudging John, who startled as if returning from a trance.

“Yeah, let’s go,” he stammered, tripping over the first step.

“Yore yellowbellies,” David scoffed. “Fraidy cats—fraidy cats.” Then, “Oh my Gawd—lookit this.”

I grabbed John’s shirttail, making him fall, and slowly turned around, bracing myself for something horrible. On a workbench along one wall, sitting as if someone had just removed them, a set of false teeth leered at us.

Seconds passed before I said, “GO, right now!” This time, I pulled John’s arm, hoisting him off his knees.

Margaret moaned something about “My hand—squeezed—my hand,” while I hauled her up the stairs.

The flashlight thunked to the earthen floor, and the next thing I knew, David shoved into us, forging ahead. We raced to the edge of the lawn where lilac bushes made a hedge, and there collapsed in relieved laughter.

“Teeth! Can you believe it? Teeth!” David held his head, pondering this great puzzle.

John rolled around on the ground, clutching his stomach. “Jeez—I almost—barfed up—my waffles.” His round cheeks shone bright red as he struggled for a breath.

Margaret glared at me, accusation darkening her lens-covered eyes. “You hurt my hand!”

“I’m sorry, Sweetie. I didn’t mean to. I was afraid.”

“Welll—all right.”

I rubbed her narrow shoulders, glancing back at the house. A rectangular black hole gaped at me—the right cellar door still lay open, its mate neatly closed.

“David,” I said, “you gotta shut the door. If we leave it like that, somebody’ll know we were here.”

“No way. I’m not goin’ there again.”

“Oh David, c’mon. You’re the brave one.”

“Yeah, but you’re the oldest.” He started to whistle on a blade of grass between his fingers.

Fine time for him to notice, I thought, but said, “Everybody wait right here.” I knew David might bolt at any second.

Creeping toward the door, I quietly chanted, “It’ll only take a minute. It’s going to be fine. Please God…Holy Mary…”

The door proved much harder to close. I reached underneath with two hands and, after several tries, finally raised it perpendicular to the ground. Before it crashed shut, I dared to look into the cellar one last time. A ray of sunshine pierced the darkness, revealing those shining white teeth, clenched in a grin of farewell.

After that, we barreled back to our grandparents’ house. Margaret kept whimpering about her “aching side,” but I urged her on. I didn’t want to lose sight of the boys. They’d waited to make sure I didn’t get sucked into the hole, then took off running, their swords forgotten. In order to more easily drag Margaret along the path, I took the middle hump by her side, thorns attacking my bare legs.

Grandma and Mama and Aunt Liz milled around the kitchen, slicing bologna and Velveeta Cheese for sandwiches, and setting the table for lunch when we tumbled in the back door. They said their usual “Slow down” and “Go get washed up” and “We’ll eat soon.” Deep in their own conversation, they failed to notice our agitation. None of us uttered a word about our adventure. Not even Margaret. We knew the last place in the world that we belonged was the closed-up Harrington house.

After the blessing, as Grandma passed a platter of sandwiches to Grandpa, she did say, “Did you have fun on your hike?” We nodded our heads and waited for the food. She persisted, “Anything interesting happen?” We shook our heads, staring at our plates. Under the orange and yellow lattice-designed oilcloth, I stroked Margaret’s hand, which now smelled of Ivory Soap. Grandma said, “My, we are quiet today.” But, she forgot about it. The adults went on with the kind of conversation they had when Grandpa, Uncle Rafe, and Daddy ate with us, speaking about the price of gasoline and the lawnmower that needed repairs. By the time blueberry sauce showed up, they leaned back discussing whether we’d have an early winter. At meals with them, no womentalk full of intimations to secrets piqued my interest.

After lunch and cleanup, we prepared to go picking berries. Before we left, Grandma noticed my battered legs. “Teresa, you must be more careful in the woods,” she scolded, covering the scratches with iodine—blowing each time she dabbed to take the sting away. I gazed at her silver curls bowing over my wounds, and prayed she’d live forever.

Uncle Rafe and Daddy had already headed back to town to do their men business, when Margaret snuck up to Grandpa and whispered in his ear. He said, “Good, Margaret. That’s very good,” and tweaked her nose. Then, he announced, “Margaret here found the special tree.” David and John groaned, but we women gave her a cheer as Grandpa dug in his pocket and took out a quarter.

He stayed at the house, rocking in his chair, reading his newspaper, and smoking his pipe. Later, when we returned to the cottage, after the pickings were tended to, Grandpa would be full of jokes and a new story. Before we left for town, he’d bring out the Chinese Checkers.

Despite the excitement of our hike, I remembered my grandparents’ plight and conveyed petitions to the Father and Mary with each berry I picked, and later when I sorted my contribution. That night in bed, listening to Margaret’s sleeping snuffles, I folded my hands over the blanket’s ribbon edge to say full prayers—many times. I fell asleep, praying hard for the souls of my grandparents. I also sent postscripts for the well-being of the Harringtons, who I hoped waited in Purgatory due to someone’s, maybe the lost child’s, intercessions, instead of already sizzling in never-ending flames.

When I was back at home in Minneapolis, the memory of the cast-aside false teeth became less scary. Instead of a shudder, re-living that first jolt of surprise, I began to consider the teeth in a different way. I thought about the impermanence of the human body, and how people could be dead and buried, yet leave behind tokens of living that stayed hard and intact. Even something so personal as a set of smiling false teeth could rest in a closed-up cellar, never changing, waiting for inquisitive children to stumble upon them.

It wasn’t long before a new baby, Markie, joined our family. As he predicted, Daddy traded the Impala for a Ford station wagon. A while after that, within days of each other, Grandma and Grandpa died. There was a joint service, held in mid-summer at Lofgren’s Funeral Parlor, and later that weekend, Mama and Aunt Liz sorted my grandparents’ belongings. All the way back to Minneapolis, I heard clinks from a box of green glass service-station dishes and blueberry sauce in jars.

Published by Cairn

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