Courtship of Aunt Leila
By Maura McGoorty
My mother told me stories when I was a little girl about her family
and the generations who grew-up in Chicago during the winter and in White Lake, Michigan
during the summer. I heard about John, her grandfather who raised her, his sisters,
Aunts Margaret and Anne, Mary and Leila, the children and grandchildren. They were
the McGoorty clan, Irish-American, big, prosperous,proud, fun-loving, generous and
sometimes cruel and selfish. They would turn over in their graves, as my mother would
say, to hear words "cruel" or "selfish" attached to them. But
I remember the story of Aunt Leila and how she was courted year a year or two before
the First World War. The names have been slightly altered to protect the guilty..
Handsome Margaret, mother of the twins Jack and Tom, was the bread winner, making a fortune in real estate, while Leila, the older sister, cared for twins at home, doing the lighter housekeeping. She mended, gardened, cooked, baked, tended cuts and bruises and wiped tears.
Anne, the youngest sister, was considered the brilliant beauty of the family. She lobbied for Jane Adams' Hull House and instituting a juvenile justice system, separate from adults, and campaigned for the Women's Party and the vote.
Anne also relied upon Leila to care for her children when she hobnobbed with the humble and the great. Leila's sisters had made their own fortunes, professions, and the Social Register, leaving the hearth to the lonely tender.
Her ambitious sisters were aware that Leila's acceptance of her role was antithetical to their political philosophies. They didn't discuss the role of the "New Woman" too much at home because they couldn't imagine how they would cope without her. She was so necessary to their lives. Leila had a dream. A dream of a life beyond the confines of the maiden aunt role.
Leila met Ivar Schwabe one hot day in late May. She and her young nieces and nephews arrived on the ferry from Chicago. The ship steamed into the channel from Lake Michigan into the calmer waters of White Lake. Watching the green wooded shores with a little collar of white sand getting closer, the children at the railing bounced up and down with anticipation of summer delights. Their aunt, worried they could fall in the water, hovered like a sheep dog with a flock of geese. With one eye on the children, Leila thought with satisfaction of her arrangements. She never had what other people called a vacation but she, too, was looking forward to a long summer where she felt most at home.
Leila had telegraphed Mrs. and Mr. Potts, the local caretakers. Mr. Potts, according to unkind rumor, was the local moonshiner. But Mrs. Potts was a reliable worker. Every summer, she opened the house on the Lake to air, rough clean, and stock the house with a few days supplies. Mr. Potts put up the screens, primed the pump and pipes, filled the boilers and scythed the grass.
On the Montague dock, thronged with passengers, merchants and idle longshoremen and idle cranes, Leila found day a cab driver who sullenly agreed to drive around White Lake to the house. Trailing a plume of dust, they pulled up to the tall green house with white trim surrounded by darker green pines. To Leila's surprise, the house was silent and shuttered. The only sounds were the waves on the beach below, the humming of the katydids in the birch trees around the house, and the blue jays calling through the woods. Leila adjusted her big-brimmed hat, wishing she could loosen her corset.
She disengaged her long, stiff limbs from the motorcar and the three children, the twins, Tom and Jack, and their little cousin Elizabeth. Speaking softly, Leila requested the driver to unload the luggage. He glared at this summer-bird, this city woman in her fancy dove-grey linen traveling suit.
"Mrs. Potts, are you here?" she called out as she paid the driver. "Mrs. Potts!" Leila made the effort to raise her voice. Her words bounced off the closed house. The children, sensing a domestic disaster, got into fast gear.
"Aunty, I'm hot, tired and hungry. I want my tea!" eleven year old Jack complained tearfully but with a little honey in his demanding voice as he tugged Leila's gloved hand.
" Me, too!" echoed Tom and Betty.
"Not me, lady" chimed the cab driver in unison with the children. " I ain't no porter. I ain't taking work away from a union man."
Miss Leila McGoorty took one long look at his tense, freckled face and decided not to argue. " Very well, young man..." she wrestled a trunk out of the double back seat. "I'll keep the tip...", she huffed, "I've earned it." She grappled with another trunk. Working up a perspiration, she wished she could soak in a nice hot bath very soon.
She pulled out the valises and gave the driver the "Leila Look", a glare that has been known to melt the resistance of even little boys to soapy baths. The look moved the cab driver. He leaped out, cranked up the motor and torn up the dirt drive in a hurry, mumbling epithets about uppity summer people.
"Mrs. Potts?" Leila called out again, knowing no one was there as her voice echoed against the shuttered windows.
"Just a minute, dears," she said automatically to the children."Here, can you carry this reticula for me, Jack? And Tom, here's a little valise. Betty, bring your dolly...There you go." They stumbled up the stairs of the back porch. Leila tried the door. Locked. She fumbled in her handbag, fishing for the spare keys she knew she left on her bureau in Chicago.
"I've got to go tinkle, Aunty Leila," declared five year old Elizabeth, or Betty as her family called her.
"I'm hot...let's go swimming," contributed Tom, already taking off his jacket and tie.
"Just a minute, dears..." Leila continued to fumble for the keys, knowing they weren't there. What to do? "Oh, dear ,oh dear..." Where is that Potts woman.? How could she be so careless and forget the spare keys?
Of course, Mrs. Potts had been the welcoming committee for endless summers. What could have happened? Leila tried the front door. Locked. Long arms of light bounced from the surface of the lake below and were caught in iridescent cobwebs decorating the door jamb. No human had passed through this door for many months. "Mrs. Potts?" she called out hopelessly. No answer. Surrounded by luggage and three needful children Leila realized she had a real dilemma. Willing the tired tears away from her aching eyes, she forced herself to think which was hard as her body yearned for a decent hot bath after a long journey.
"Elizabeth, you will have to go tinkle outside behind the lilac hedge." The family was very proud of its state of the art in-door plumbing. The locals had thought it sinful to waste good money on such luxuries, let alone in a summer place but Leila had championed sanitary in-door facilities. The out-house was long gone, much to Leila's relief. Betty was not the only party to need facilities now. Leila realized she would have to practice what she preached.
"No!" shouted little Betty stomping her patent leather shoes and bouncing her ribboned ringlets. "Not with those boys around!"
"Sweetheart, your cousins will be perfect gentlemen. We will all take turns and go tinkle." Turning to her nephews, she said, "Lads, we are in a pickle. As you see, Mrs. Potts did not come. The house is locked. I'll look for the spare key one more time but I think I left it in town. I was in such a rush not to be late for the ferry. And she has never failed us in all these years. Until now. If I can't find the key, we'll have to hike out and get some help...some tools...", she tried to form a plan of action.
"But we're hungry and tired, Aunty! We've been on a ship for hours. Can't we stay here? We could pick berries!" the boys chorused. Sometimes even Leila had a hard time telling the boys faces and voices apart.
"No, I'll need your help. I think we should go over to Farmer Schwabe's place. The other lake households don't arrive until after Decoration Day. So he is our closest neighbor. We will borrow a crowbar or something to open a window. Then you can crawl through and unbolt the locks! And we'll buy food from him. We must hurry now and get back here before it gets dark." Planning as she spoke, Leila surprised herself to find she could cope with this kind of unexpected event. Never in her well-ordered life had she had this kind of debacle before.
The cool shadows of the forest were welcoming but lengthening as Leila in her long skirts led the way through the woods. She held Betty's hand as the boys trailed along looking for snakes, salamanders or frogs. She prayed they wouldn't find any. The late afternoon sun penetrated the forest as shafts of heat. Cicadas sang in the hot green.
Leila led the children up the shady path beside Birch Creek. They climbed the hill following the stream to its source, a pool craved out from a rock by the slowly bubbling spring water. They stopped at the spring for a drink of ice cold water. Leila couldn't remember when she had tasted anything so refreshing. She wanted to linger in the small, cool clearing . Above the pool on the red rock face was an Indian petroglyph showing two incised, white intertwined circles and several smaller circles to the left. The boys began to splash each other. "Come, children," commanded Leila. She had a flashing image of Sacajawea leading Lewis and Clark and realized she was enjoying this crisis!
Past the spring, the path became a deer trail, tangled and steep. Ferns, wild roses, blackberries, birch and pines crowded together. The land rose quickly above the forested bluffs of the lake towards the cleared fields of the farms.
Five year old Elizabeth's legs gave out. The child stumbled. Leila reached down and hoisted the little but sturdy girl on her hip. The child smelled as sweet and moist as the licorice ferns. Leila's hair pins fell out as her long coil of chestnut hair caught on birch branches. She paused to loosen her collar and tuck her skirts in her waistband.
The twins were either cramming unripe blackberries into their mouths or pushing each other into the poison ivy. "Boys, behave yourselves! Pretend you are brave explorers. I am your guide. We will go silently. Hostile hunters may be near." Leila led them on. The leafy greenness gave way to open, sun-drenched fields, looking from a distance smooth and groomed. They climbed a rail fence. Over a gold round ridge of growing grain, the roof peaks of a farmhouse were visible. They trudged up the rough, ploughed ground. Leila stopped to catch her breath and shifted the increasingly heavy child to her other hip. A dog barked, chickens fussed. Approaching the farmhouse the city woman became aware of her bedraggled state. She tried to tidy-up but it was no use. She was a mess. Her skirt was torn and stained, her hair was tumbling down, there were scratches on her hands and cheek. In a word, she was not presentable.
Hearing Blue, his border collie, bark a warning, Farmer Schwabe came out from the barn into the bright sunlight. Blue pranced under his booted feet. She yipped with excitement, her one blue eye bright.
Wiping his hands on his overalls, Ivar Schwabe blinked, dazed for a second by the hard light and the unexpected vision coming to him. A woman and children climbing the hill. She was a veritable Venus, tousled and flushed, with three rather large cupids clinging to her. As they approached he took off his straw hat. "Yes, Ma'am?" he inquired politely with a slight German accent in his deep voice.
Trying to catch her breath and composure, Leila put little Betty down and straightened up. She nodded shyly and said, "How do you do, Mr. Schwabe? I'm Miss McGoorty. And my niece Elizabeth and nephews, Tom and Jack," Leila's gesture introduced the children. "We met years ago at a Grange Fourth of July picnic. We have the place west of you, down on the Lake. We get eggs from Mrs. Schwabe. We are in a bit of a dilemma. I hope you can help us. You see, we are locked out of our house."
"Be glad to help thee in any way I can, Ma'am. Come on up to the house," Schwabe replied, intrigued by this matron-maiden. She was quite tall with a long, some would say classical, some would say horsey face, which was rosy with the hike. Her eyes were a bright, intelligent grey-blue and her hair chestnut with streaks of pure silver. Made him think of the agates, the copper and silver he saw when he was a young man working in Colorado as a miner. When he was young enough to think he could escape a farm, only to fall into the class war of miners union organizing.
As they sat at the worn, round oak table in the kitchen with glasses of cool water and a piece of corn bread each, Leila told her tale of woe. "Well, the children and I came up early to open up the house but Mrs. Potts was nowhere to be found. The house was locked tighter than a drum. She would always unlock the house, get things ready... I just don't know what happened. And I can't even find... my spare keys...think I left them in Chicago...don't know where they could be..."
Her voice trailed off in a confusion of embarrassment. Why should he be interested in all this?
"Which, Ma'am? The keys or the Potts?" the farmer asked amused, looking at Leila.
Leila looked back at him. He was compact, his nose a little big for his face. He looked like a red-bearded Silvanus in overalls, with his large hands, his serious yet friendly expression, the shock of not-too-red hair on his high forehead and his warm brown eyes. She felt rather then heard the burr of compassionate laughter in his voice. And Leila laughed. Not as she would in polite society but with her whole being. The children, now playing with Blue the dog on the bare pine floor, looked up and smiled. She felt oddly happy.
She thought, "No one has truly ever seen me before. He sees me." He laughed, too, an echo.
Then Leila remembered herself and the day became cool and cloudy. "How is Mrs. Schwabe?" she asked.
"She passed away last fall. Influenza. But I'm forgetting myself. I'll get the wagon and tools, Miss McGoorty. We'll get thee all home safe and sound, don't worry," replied the man, turning to the little girl.
Betty smiled, "May Blue come, too?"
"No, Elizabeth, Blue needs to watch the animals, keep the foxes away from the chickens," the farmer explained, his voice gentle yet firm. Leila could see a laugh in his eyes.
Leila felt the sun come out again. "God, forgive me," she prayed. "I'm glad he is no longer married. At least in this world."
By sundown, the summer house was unlocked, shutters down, pried open by Mr. Schwabe. The water pump was primed from its winter sleep, the hot water boiler fired and filling up. A squirrel was evicted, wood was laid in the kitchen stove and front room fireplace. There were a jug of milk in a pail of ice cold spring water, a loaf of corn bread, and eggs for breakfast on the table. Supplies were laid in the pantry. Farmer Schawbe had thought of everything.
The large house was quiet, furniture still swathed in sheets. The children were tucked into beds and blankets not aired. By the fire in the front room over-looking the lake, Leila and Mr. Schwabe sat in companionable silence.
The western sky showed a long lean line of fire on the watery horizon while night closed in the lake and farm and forest. Owls called back and forth.
"A mating pair by the sound of them," remarked the farmer, his face ruddy in the flickering light.
"I want to thank you again, Mr. Schwabe", said Leila, changing the subject. "I couldn't have managed without you. You are a true neighbor."
"My pleasure, Ma'am. I'll be glad to bring thee to Whitehall for provisions Monday morning. I have to pick up some seed myself. Time for my second planting."
"Thank you, Mr. Schwabe. I accept your kind offer." Leila noticed his quaint way of speech. Was it religious convictions or a custom of the Germans?
"Please, Ma'am, will thee call me Ivar?" the farmer chanced.
"Very well... Ivar... you may call me Leila." She tried not to whisper. Her throat was tight. She slowly put out her hand. He took it and a wave of warmth broke over her. Leila was startled out of exhaustion. His hand was raspy and hard, his eyes soft with tenderness. His face glowed in the firelight, as if the light was coming from within him like a candle.
She hesitated between propriety and a jolt of attraction. "Mr. Schwabe... I mean to say... Ivar...is not your Christian name Scandinavian?" She wanted to push him away and draw him to her arms at the same instant. And she wanted him to hold her. Leila could almost feel his arms around her. What was happening? She was not herself or maybe too much herself!
"I was named after my mother's grandfather," he said. "He lived in the north near the Danish border. My mother and father never saw their families again when they came here and homesteaded our farm.
"Leila, may I come and see thee again? Oh, I know I'm not thou usual sort, not a sophisticated city man," he laughed ironically. "I am pretty basic even by country ways. I am usually too tired to go to Chatacqua meetings, I haven't read a novel since school...I remember James Fennimore Cooper... Usually just read seed catalogs or farm journals. I'm a farmer...a widower...not much to show for all my work...but I want to get to know thee better, Leila. Thee is a real fine woman."
"Yes, Ivar," she could barely speak, "I'd like to know you, too."
That night in her narrow iron bedstead, Leila was cautiously happy. In spite of the fact she could only have a sponge bath, she felt renewed. Her lonely heart sang with hope. And worry. "Here I am in the prime of life with no future. Forever the maiden aunt. Somehow we all have assumed it is "too late for me", nothing will ever change. After all, when Mother died, who else could keep the house for the family and help the girls get established?
"And yet, somehow, my own life has become one of serving theirs. I love the children. I want to help Margaret, Anne, and John. And John's wife, May, dead - poor children! But can I go on like this! Must I? What if he wants ... to... marry?" Her mind like a cautious swimmer testing the water temperature, suddenly plunged in. "Part of me would say yes, with all my heart and dreams...part of me would say...thank you very much...I am just fine as I am." Her sleepless soliloquy kept her eyes open.
"Oh, Leila, you are being so ridiculous. You really are becoming a silly old maid." Yet the cruel term made her soul wince. " Yes, let one available, nice-looking, kind man bat an eye at you and you are all aflutter. Practicing your lines of fare-thee-well. 'I'm sorry, Margaret...I must think of my own life now. You can well afford a nanny and a housekeeper. Of course, I'll visit. And the children can come up on the train or ferry for holidays. Yes, I know I'm not a farm wife but I can learn.' Can't I? Oh, you stupid, dreaming woman...sleep...Sleep!" Leila scolded herself.
A silver sliver of moon rose. The trees sighed in the summer night. She fell asleep as the waves on the lake below lapped her mind. A loon haunting the sky and water cried a lonely lullaby.
Early Monday morning Leila was ready for town. She looked like a summer rose, full and blooming. She wore a mauve motoring dress and a straw picture hat. The children were dressed in "sailor suits" with white caps on wetted down hair. They were brushed and polished.
Ivar Schwabe came down the dirt drive, with a stiff chestnut mare dragging the farm wagon. He wore a fresh blue shirt, a red bandanna at his throat. His shirt collar was open to the sun. A western style straw hat perched on his red thatch of hair. He wore big workboots. He did not "dress for town" as the men in her circle did.
She also tried not to show her surprise that he had not a motor-car for town. She imagined saying to her sisters,"Yes, he is the real McCoy - a real farmer. Yes, Margaret that is easy for you to say as you ride to City Club luncheons in the chauffeured cars of your suffragist friends. I prefer the clean and simple country life. A wagon in the country is actually much more practical..."
"Good morning", Ivar called out, smiling at the tall city woman and waving to the children. The twins Tom and Jack and little Elizabeth thought the wagon a great novelty. They climbed up to the wagon bed joyfully. Ivar leaned down and put out a hand to Leila, mountain climber style. She gathered her skirts in one hand and hanging onto him, jumped up to the seat next to Ivar. She tried not to tense up as they rattled over deep ruts.
Coming into the small town of Whitehall, she straightened her back, which always made her think of her mother who had said a straight spine is an exercise of character as well as body. She realized she was glad to be seen next to this generous and gentle man. She felt his presence as one feels a fire in the hearth on a cold night. The thought made her blush. The wave of warmth went from her cheeks to her toes. They halted under a large oak tree that stood in the informal green of the town. There was a pump, a trough and a bench.
"I thank thee, Mr. Schwabe," she said, teasingly serious as he helped her down from the seat. "Where shall we meet?"
"Well, Ma'am, what about here under this tree in about an hour or so?" Ivar tipped his hat and began to pump water in the trough for his old mare.
"Yes, that will be fine, Mr. Schwabe, thank you. Come along children," Leila smiled. She sailed down the one cobbled Main Street as happy and proud as a three-masted schooner. The children bobbed around her like little tugs boats guiding the ship to the port of the general store, straight to the dock with jars of penny licorice on the counter.
Soon she was loaded with parcels of foods, supplies and seeds for the kitchen garden. Leila had a chance to catch up on the local gossip as Mary Hobbs tallied up her purchases. She heard about the schoolhouse fire - no one was hurt, thank God!. She listened as the old store regulars discussed the Great Lakes dock workers's labor strikes.
"God-damn reds gonna take over - and Wilson does nothing!" one old farmer muttered.
"Oh, hell, George - them mens near starving with 'at new lake loop railroad - whaddya want them to do - roll over and die?"
She asked Mary Hobbs, a pretty, petite woman who ran the Whitehall General Emporium about the Potts. Mary confided that Mr. and Mrs. Potts left town suddenly last week. Old Bob Bates died from some bad moonshine. Mr. Potts was wanted by the sheriff for questioning. Leila shook her head sympathetically.
Leila and the children stopped at the North Crystal ice-house and the Meadowlark Dairy to place her seasonal orders. The town merchants were happy to see one of the summer folk spending money so early this year and were inclined to chat. But Leila smiled like a sphinx and continued sailing through the town. She stopped at Peterson's Blue and White Pharmacy to place a long-distance phone call to Chicago. While she waited for the operator to hook-up and call back, she suggested to the children they order an ice-cream soda at the new soda fountain. Looking at them from the phone booth, Leila saw they were tired, smudged with red and black licorice and road dust. And happy. She surprised herself that she did not have the urge to wash or "fuss them"! She let them be as her call came through.
"Margaret? Leila here," she shouted. "Yes, dear everything is fine. The twins are happy as clams right now! Yes..yes...Listen, Mr. and Mrs. Potts never showed up. Long story... Anyway, could you arrange for Jeanie to come up on the train? Coach. I need her help to get the place ready for the family. Yes...fine, yes dear...I'll tell you all about it when you get here. Bye now. Our love to you all, too."
Leila leaned against the high wood partition, and felt the slight breeze of the ceiling fan as a pleasant physical sensation. In fact, many little things she had always taken for granted were becoming startlingly physical. Leila felt like a harp being played by the cool lake winds. "Mother always said I was tightly strung!" she laughed to herself. It came as a little let-down to realize she needed to visit the dreaded outhouse behind the store before she rejoined Ivar. "My famous kidneys", she laughed to herself.
As Leila and the children emerged from the civilized precincts of the pharmacy, she blinked at the sunny sky, enjoying the brash blaze of a new June noon. The summer sky was fuzzy with a rich blueness she never had noticed before. Like velvet she could touch. Voices rang like bells from a far and wondrous land. The world seemed sharper and sweeter.
"Come, children let's wait under the tree." Their young faces turned to her like sunflowers to the sun. "Dirty sunflowers," she noted to herself. Her heightened senses made Leila aware of every detail, the light playing a halo glow around her niece and nephews, the wagons and motor-cars thundering along, the dust, the birds calling, the voices of the townspeople. She knew. She just knew she was going to love this man Ivar. The world was being made anew.
It was a hot lazy afternoon. Leila rose from her nap. It was time to begin supper preparations The room was stuffy. She took off her linen underpants and put on a fresh pair, pinned on her pinofore, squeezed her swollen feet into her hightop heel shoes, washed her face and hands and recoiled her tight bun. She climbed down the back stairs to the kitchen. Going into the dark, cool pantry she found her nephew, Jack with his hands in the cookie jar,stealing treats for himself.
"Jack! Get your hands out of there! You have had too many cookies already! And I suspect you did not even wash your hands! Germs, Jack! Remember the germs!"
“Sorry, Aunt Leila. I just got hungry and couldn"t stop thinking about your cookies."
"Jack, here, have a piece of bread with jam. That will tide you over 'til supper. Say... I have a job for you. I'll pay you an extra piece of peach pie. I'll save it just for you." Leila decided to strike a bargin.
"What is the job, Aunty?"
"I want you to carry a note, an egg order to Farmer Schawbe. Could you do that? It is a long walk up to the meadow." Leila wondered if this was a wise idea but how else could she send word to Ivar on a regular basis? Should she ask Jack to keep it a secret or to not bring Tom? No... that would make her exploitation worse, maybe evil. Would God understand? She had to keep it light. But quiet...please, Lord...quiet. Her boldness left her breathless.
“Sure, Aunty! I"m going to be an Indian scout. Of course, I can go up to the farm! When are you going to make the pie?”
And so Leila brought Jack into her frail web.
"Aunty's got a sweetheart, Aunty's got a sweetheart!" little Betty chanted as Leila tried to capture her for her bath. Leila tried not to think that Ivar might get impatient and leave before she tamed her niece.
"I'll take over, Ms Leila. You go ahead. Not every day a gal's got a chance to go court'n." Jeanie stepped in, her tall, elegant ebony body blocking Betty. "Come, litl' Betty. You gonna be washed and rung out to dry!" Jeanie gently edged Leila out of the room.
Leila had often wondered about Jeanie's life. What had she given up for this job that was always more than a job? It seemed Jeanie was in a similar position to herself - faithful spinster servant - except Jeanie had the rougher work, the rougher room, and a little but real pay. Leila had family status but no pay for the years of endless labor.
Was that right? Weren't they both "New Women", too? Didn't the work of the home count for something, too? Grateful to Jeanie, Leila ran to her room. It was warm and dim under the eaves, scented with dried lavender. She peered in the oval mirror, grateful the twilight would be kind to her middle-aged face. She quickly took off her pinafore, washed her face and hands, changed her underwear, brushed and recoiled her hair, and dabbed a touch of Eau de Cologne behind her ears. Pinching her cheeks for a blush and good luck, Leila opened her cedar chest, took out her mother's rose colored Spanish shawl and threw it over her sharp shoulders. She ran out of the house and up the shady creek path to the spring.
This was the fourth time this month she had meet Ivar, still Mr.Schwabe to the family. Each day the teasing was accelerating, from the children to her beloved brother, John, now the patriarch since Father was gone. They meant it "good-naturedly" ("Don't be so sensitive, Leila, we're only teasing!") but the ceaseless joking was offensive to Leila.
Would anyone else's life be open to such derision? She wondered. Like Jeanie, the faithful factotum, her station in life also left her vulnerable to the prejudices of her time from which even her beloved family was not exempt. Why couldn't they understand that this informal but actual courtship was the most important thing in her life? And its course could determine the course of her life.
As she climbed the hill through the trees, Leila thought of many evenings in the past when she helped her younger sisters dress for dances and supper parties. She had never teased them about their beaus even if she found some of them lacking in one way or an other. She would find the perfect ribbon, make a corsage at the last moment to "finish" a dress.
Leila gave her most precious treasure to Margaret on her wedding day - the pearls Mother left to her. " Here, dear. Wear these in good health. You'll use them more than I would."
Too many an evening she would wait until the house was quiet and the iron cool before she allowed herself a "little weep". And now, after she had helped them get courted and married and raised their children and tended their homes, now at last, when her own courtship time had come, they all teased cruelly. They thought it a joke.
The family had arrived. A few mornings ago, while Leila was tending her garden, John, her beloved brother, up for the weekend, climbed the bluff stairs from the Lake, wet and mean as a badger after his daily swim. "Country living agrees with Leila, look at the bloom in her cheeks! Maybe she'll become the farmer's wife! You'll fatten him up, Leila, with that baking of yours!" John teased, shaking water off his head like a dog.
Around the table at lunch the teasing escalated.. "But, Leila, how can you marry a Lutheran...he must be Lutheran,"Anne joked. "Lutheran, hell, he must be a Republican!" John contributed. The brother and sisters passed the food Leila and Jeanie had cooked on the wood cook stove while they swam in the cool lake.
"Leila, how could you ever have a good laugh with that stuffed, shaggy little scarecrow. He's not Irish you know!" Margaret thought she had a real point there.
And "Germans are so precise - You will be in heaven!" Anne had to have the last word. Being the beauty of the family, it was her right.
"Leila won't love us any more when she marries Farmer Schwabe, will you dear?" Margaret crooned as they sat on the screened porch watching the sunset, Leila mending Tom's knee pants in the uncertain light while her sister Mar laid out a solitaire game with a well groomed hand. No chipped nails, no oven burns, no dish-water wrinkled skin.
"Mar, please, let's not talk about Mr.Schwabe," she replied. "I don't know what may happen but you know I'll always help you as much as I can," Leila pleaded in soft tones. Pushing away the bruises of the teasing, Leila had resolved not to allow her family to interfere with her ...dare she call it...her romance? Yes, she was no longer young and fresh but didn't she have the right to her own sweetheart? Even a middle-aged spinster has a right to be happy! How dare they be so cruel! First it was endless teasing about her fastidousness with undergarments, then being "the old maid" of the family, now this!
Ivar was waiting. He stood up when she stepped into the spring glen. He looked so contained and whole. He was, Leila searched for a word, yes, beautiful. His brown eyes flecked with gold warmed her. She could lose herself in them. Look away, she told herself.
"Good evening, Leila. I'm glad thee could come." He spoke slowly and softly. "I've been thinking about our meeting all day."
Ivar took her hand and drew her close. His body was as welcoming as his words. Leila shivered and drew back, pulling the shawl tighter around her shoulders.
"I've brought you some cookies, Ivar." She took a wrapped pack out of her pocket. "We had the oven going today, baking bread, so the children helped me make some cookies, too..." her voice faded. What could Ivar find interesting about cookie baking? How silly she was... This man wrestled a living from the earth, coaxing sandy soil to fertility, coping with blistering summers and brutal winters, nursing bummer lambs and calves... how could he find the doings of a spinster aunt interesting?
"I thank thee, Leila. Thee must have known we need a special treat tonight...it's the night of the summer solstice. My mother used to tell me stories of the great solstice celebrations in the old country. They called it The Day the Sun Stands Still. Great bonfires were lighted on all the hilltops. There was dancing and singing." He still held her hand. "And the men and women would go to the forest."
She looked puzzled and wary. "And dance," he added kindly, "like this." And Ivar drew Leila to his side, carefully embracing her for a few sweeps of a waltz.
She laughed nervously and pulled away. He smelled of old leather, sweet fresh sweat and something else. Leila was repelled and attracted. They sat down on a large rock above the bubbling spring pool under the ancient petroglyphs. She had her hand to herself again. Mosquitoes buzzed and bit. The sun hung low and long. Green-gold light filled the glen. Ivar solemnly opened the pack of linen wrapped ginger snap cookies. He offered the cookies to Leila and ate one.
"Thee sure can bake. Thee knows, sometimes, it's the little things a man misses the most. The things a loving woman can do." Suddenly, Leila was alert.
"Baking ginger cookies, making scented soaps, putting sun flowers in a blue vases, smelling fresh hot coffee on a cold morning... a friend who knows thee like no other ...I miss these kinds of things..."
He is missing his dead wife, Leila sternly told herself. Now don't go reading meanings when there is just loneliness talking.
"A man needs a good woman, don't thee think, Leila? Keeps him right. In fact, a good woman may have to give up some things if she be willing... make changes...new ways..." Ivar said everything he could at the moment. He ran out of steam. He smiled and shrugged.
What was he saying! Ye old world ways, indeed, the dear gander! Was he popping "the question" or just speculating about men and women in general? Don't be self-deluded, Leila warned herself. She closed her eyes. She heard the water running over the stones, the birds singing the last song of the long day. Her heart contracted with such force it pained her.
Without thinking her mouth spurted out, "Why yes, just like it says in the Bible, Book of Ruth, 'Entreat me not to leave thee, your gods will be my gods, your ways my ways' and so on "...
There! She said it - would he understand ? If he was asking she was saying yes... If he was just being conversational, she was being a conversationalist, too.
"Ah, the Good Book," he answered, "Thee knows, I've never been much of a bible student 'till after Bertha passed over...I found some comfort in the Psalms of David."
Then he doesn't know my real answer yet, Leila thought. Will he remember? The two awkward sweethearts fell silent while the quiet balm of the evening soothed them. A doe leading twin fawns came to drink at the spring pool. Leila could hear their tongues lapping the water. They watched. Then the wind shifted, bringing the scent of the late June corn fields and the humans. The doe raised her head to look and saw the gazing people. She bolted with a leap, the babies followed. The shy lovers looked at each other and laughed.
"Well, Ivar, I had best be getting back... its getting dark... the family will be worried." She rose, dusting off her skirts.
"Let me walk thee home, Leila." He was close. She smelled his scent of sweet and sour sweat and soap. His lips brushed her cheek. Her cheek tingled, tiny nerve endings exploding. Shyly acknowledging their first kiss, she pressed his hand then gently pulled away.
"No, thank you, I'll be fine." She did not want to seem flustered. "I enjoy a little time alone, after being around the children all day." Oops! That sounded as if she didn't like children... what if he wants a child? O, crazy, lonely woman, get yourself moving. Go home and stop mooning! "Good night, Ivar." She turned and strode down the darkening path. The woods held the growing night while overhead the sky still held a green glow of light.
"Good night and sweet dreams!" Ivar called after her. He stood there a long while before he turned homeward up the hill. He began to whistle a melody...an old folk song his mother taught him long ago. He tried to remember the words without knowing exactly why.
The first verse was something like: "All' mein Gedanken die ich hab, die sind bei dir, du auser waehl ter ein'ger Trost, bleib mir! Du, du du sollt an mich geden ken. Haett ich aller Wuensch Gewalt, von dir wollt ich nicht wanken". (My thoughts and all my memories belong to thee, My chosen love and solace thou, Oh, stay with me! Thou, thou, oh ever shalt thou think of me. Had I fullest magic power, I ne'er would stray from thee.)
Yes! that was it..." Ivar whistled and found himself grinning in the gloom of green.
"Our old virgin! Our Lady of Perpetual Virtue! Our beloved Miss Leaky Kidneys! The only woman in Chicago to still wear below ankle skirts. The most fastidious lady in the Mid-West! Don't be ridiculous! Why would she give up two comfortable homes, the children she loves for a poor dirt farmer? She is just indulging in some harmless flirtation - she would never leave us."
Leila came in quietly through the back kitchen door and heard her sister Anne's voice raised.
"I would not be so sure, Anne," Leila heard Margaret reply. "She has helped me for many years, even before the twins were born. I could not have separated from Thomas if it were not for her support. She runs my house and White Lake for all of us. She takes John's little Betty in the summers, she nursed your Mary Louise when she had scarlet fever - she has given us years of help ... maybe she wants a life of her own now."
"But we are her life!" Anne argued.
"Exactly my point," Margaret replied. There was a pause. Was she rubbing out a secret cigarette? "But I would be lost if she did leave. How could I trust a paid stranger with my children and home? If Leila left, I would have to be home much more and the business would suffer. The real estate business is extremely volatile and demanding. I don't know how I'd manage." The sisters, Margaret and Anne must be sitting on the garden side of the wrap-around screened porch for their voices to carry like that. Leila could see them in her mind, lounging in the wicker arm chairs, dressed in their layered, silk tea gowns and sipping Spanish sherry.
"I still think it is a question of temperament," Anne stated. "Leila is forty-five. She is set in her ways. She'll die an old maid. Can you imagine her changing her undies three times a day and taking daily hot baths in a farm house? All that hand-hauled water heating endlessly on an iron wood stove! She'd have time for nothing else! Besides, he is a Protestant, that Prussian pipsqueak! Seriously, I don't think they could be married in the Church unless he converted. And I don't know how many more eggs we can eat!" Anne chuckled maliciously.
Mar laughed in spite of herself. "I can just see them going up the aisle - the beanpole and the scarecrow!" In a moment, the two sisters were roaring with laughter. Leila stole up the back stairs to her room. She undressed in the dark, slipping into the icy sheets. A lone loon cried over the lake.
The summer days gathered momentum as the earth heated up like an boiler of creation. Each night the cricket chorus grew louder and louder as the moon waxed fuller. Ivar sat at his kitchen table and lit the kerosene lamp. Insects beat against the screen door, the fireflies signaling to Ivar's lamp.
He mused as he scratched old Blue's ears, "Well, what do thee think Blue, do we have a chance? She sure set thoses Grange ladies on their ears with that chocolate cake at the Fourth of July picnic! She is a fine woman but... she is used to a different world... can thee see her killing and plucking the Sunday chicken? Helping in the planting and harvest, canning, sorting and storing seeds? Pumping water in a freeze? Doing the rough housework and laundry by herself? Using an outhouse in winter? Having the stoves our only heat? She is used to grander ways. Can't offer her much except us and a bare, hard living...Well, Blue, let us see what the Good Book says...we'll figure that lady out yet..."
He walked to the little parlor with the one good walnut table on which rested the family treasures, the old German bible, the one good lamp with hand painted globes of flowers which stood on a doilie of real Belgian lace. There were also a small horsehair sofa, and the rocking chair he made for his dead wife, Bertha. She had brought the little organ with her when they married. He always tripped on the raised edge of the braided rug she had made the year she died. It was a cozy room but not an elegant salon.
He brought back the bible, his mother's only bequeath to him. Ivar opened the stiff old book, thumbing the yellowed pages. The German words tickled his memory. "Hmm, Book of Ruth...let us see which chapter..."
A scream cut the night like a knife. For a split second Ivar couldn't tell if the sound was human or animal. Again the scream sounded and resolved in his ear as a "Moo-ooo!" of distress. It must be Old Sissy, once his prize dairy cow. O Lord! The late coming calf must be coming now and by the sound of it Old Sissy was in trouble. He slammed shut the bible, grabbed his lamp and ran to the barn.
The sun was rising when the farmer stumbled out of the barn and violently kicked open the kitchen screen door. Old Blue followed closely, her tail between her rear legs. Ivar slumped to the chair, pushing the book on the table away. The bible fell to the pine floor boards. "Damn! Damn! She was the best old cow in the world. And losing the little one, too. My own damn fault, letting her breed - it just ain't fair!" Ivar put his hands to his face and wept for the second time in his adult life. He had almost as many tears for his dead cow as he had had for his dead wife.
Something awakened Leila before the dawn. The moon's light was flooding her room. A soul-catching sound. Loons sailing over the water. Would she hear them at the farm? She smiled and allowed her self to dream of life with Ivar. She slept.
"Yep, Schwabe sezs she's just too damn old," gossiped the milkman Nels Nygrenson at the kitchen door early the next morning.
"Is that so? " politely commented Jeanie, taking the milk bottles. She was a true cosmopolitan. She didn't encourage the gossipy man. She had already heard enough about old man Potts that summer to last a lifetime.
"Oh, beg pardon, Ma'am," said the milkman as he saw Leila come in. She may have heard his 'damn'."Brought you that heavy whipping cream special like you asked. Good Day." The milkman tipped his hat and banged the screen door as he exited.
"'Just too damn old'. Wonder what he was talking about? " thought Leila. "Ivar would never gossip or be cruel about me, would he? No, never. It must be something else." She took a deep breath, poured a cup of tea, and smiled at Jeanie. "Good Morning! Sausage smells wonderful. Now that we have the cream, it looks like a fine day to make that strawberry shortcake we've been planning. I'll take the children berry picking after breakfast. Before it gets too hot."
She headed out to her kitchen garden, watering can in hand. She bent over to pull a few offending weeds or wildflowers as little Betty called them. A pain pinched her back. "Just too damn old!"
Leila focused on the sunny colored invaders. They really were wildflowers. But just not wanted. "Like me... before Ivar. If dandelions were as temperamental as roses they would be cherished plants."
She yanked out the dandelions. "Hmm... just too damn old? O Please God!" she prayed as she watered the marigolds and cabbage. A white cabbage moth flew out.
Leila felt the warmth of the sun coming over the tree tops. Time to get the children up and feed. The girls, as she thought of her younger sisters, needed their rest. It was their vacation. Time to get her mind on her duties, not dreams.
The wild strawberries were picked. They lay red and ready in a big blue bowl on the white tile counter. Jeanie and Little Betty were still napping. Margaret and Anne went to a Yatch Club luncheon, driving off gaily in the model -T, silk scarves, fluttering. Leila took the twins, Tom and Jack, down to the lake for a swim. She sat on the little pier with her feet in the water. You have such large feet, my dear, she remembered her mother saying, never show them in public if you want to catch a man.
She held a sun parasol. Jack and Tom splashed in the cool water. Millions of hot mirrors of sun bounced off the water. She longed to shed these cumbersome garments and join them, swimming like a fish. She had not swam since she was a little girl. Was she "just too darn old"? Her mind already amended the crude refrain plaguing her - the 'damn'- to an acceptable 'darn'.
Leila missed Ivar. They hadn't seen each other for days. Should she wait to hear from him? Had Ivar been hinting about a life together or just feeling a little sorry for himself? Would he remember to look up the Book of Ruth? Should she wait to hear from him? Should she send him a note - her egg order? What would she say?
A boy's howl brought Leila back to the moment. The boys' splashing and rough-housing in the water suddenly turned fierce. Tom had a determined grimace on his face. He was pushing Jack's matching head under the water and holding it there. "Stop it, Tom, let go!" Leila barked. "Let go, I say! Stop it!" Tom did not let go of his brother who was flailing his arms and legs, trying to shake off his treacherous twin.
Without further argument, Leila jumped in the lake, half wading and half swimming to the struggling boys. She got a good grip on Tom and pulled him off his brother. Jack came up sputtering, a little blue and very furious. "He tried to drown me! He tried to drown me!" Jack rasped out.
"No, I didn't.He is a liar. He been going up to the farm and not telling me where he is. Not asking me to go. We are Indian scouts together! You damn liar!" Tom shot back.
"Out! Out of the water right now! March up to the house, young man, and ask Jeanie to build a fire! Then go to your room and change. And you will stay in your room until I come and talk to you. Now march!" Leila did not know she had that much righteous anger in her body. She felt like an Amazon. She helped the trembling Jack up the long flight of stairs up the bluff to the house.
Jack soaked up the attention as much as he had soaked up the water. "Now, now," Leila comforted the little sodden citizen. "Tom doesn't know when to end a joke. You'll be fine." But she could not admit to Jack how much she feared she would lose him for a second. The thought of Jack drowning made her weak with the shock of an adverted disaster. Maybe God was telling her not to take the child for granted and exploit him as she had, carrying her “egg order” notes to Ivar. God was warning her to stop her secret games.
Jack was now resting on the sofa by the fire wrapped in her comforter like a caterpillar in its cocoon, sipping cocoa like a pasha. Tom, dried and dressed, was restricted to his room. Finally, Leila had the time to change her wet clothes. She gratefully pealed off the sticky, leaden skirts and slipped into her flannel and lace pantaloons, brought for chilly mornings. She sat at her dressing table staring at herself in the oval mirror cloudy with age. Bare-breasted, Leila began to brush her untamed damp chestnut and silver mane. She brushed and brushed. She closed her eyes.
In her mind, she saw herself back on the pier. A moon was rising. There were no children. She was swimming. The water was cool. She was cleaving the surface brittle with moon light. The water streamed over her sleek body. Her hair trailed like a floating veil. She was unencumbered, smooth as a seal. Then she rose out of the water, flying on a soft warm wind. She turned her head to see her wings. The vision faded. Leila rubbed her arms, she could still feel her wings.
Slowly, as if waking from a dream, she put on a wrapper and left her hair loose to dry. She went downstairs to put on the kettle for a cup of tea. There was a knock on the back door. Hesitating for a moment because of her informal dress, she opened the door to a red faced boy or sixteen or seventeen. A bicycle leaned against the house. He was the Whitehall telegram delivery boy. The envelop was addressed to her. Her fingers knew and were trembling. "Children very ill. Scarlet fever. Please come as soon as possible. John," she read.
Leila was on the evening train. By the next morning, stiff from a night on a coach seat, she was nursing John's four motherless children through a long, hot, miserable Chicago summer.
Thank goodness little Betty and the twins were up at the Lake and spared, she thought. She had no help. John's house was quarantined. A visiting nurse came once a week. The grocer left packages of the food she ordered by phone on the back steps. She could not go to the post office to buy stamps even if she had the energy or nerve to write Ivar. She dreamed of Ivar and the Lake at night and boiled linen and bathed sick children by day.
Jeanie assumed care of the children at White Lake. When the crisis passed, Leila thought of returning to White Lake but it was getting too late in the season. Next week would be September. The nights at the Lake were getting cold and Jeanie would closed the house. Leila thought of writing Ivar but was afraid of making a total fool of herself. After all, he never sent word. She waited.
It was a cold, rainy afternoon in November. Jeanie and Leila were sitting in the Chicago townhouse kitchen having a cup of tea when Jeanie remembered the note from Ivar on that strange summer afternoon. It now seemed a lifetime ago. Maybe it was the wistful look on Leila's tired face that brought the Michigan farmer to mind. The day of the wild strawberry picking, Jack's near drowning and Leila's telegram suddenly summoning her back to the city.
"You know, Miz. Leila, there something I clean forgot about. I feel bad I didn't mention it before. You remember that farmer who was sweet on you? Well, that very day you went back to Chicago, a note came from Mr.Schwabe. I tuck it in my apron, thinking I'll send it to you by and by... then I laundered the apron and the note didn't come through the wash. Hardly ta'll. Must have been in pencil. Could just make out a few, faint words. And then I got so busy taking care of everybody up there, and closing the house and all, I plumb forgot. I'm mighty sorry, Miz. Leila."
"That's alright, Jeanie. What were the words? Do you remember?" Leila tried not to hold her breath.
"Somethin' like... ruth, four, verse, thirteen.' Or was it fourteen?"
Leila felt a little dizzy. Ivar had sent word! "Thank you for remembering, Jeanie. Excuse me. I've got to tend to some mending."
Alone in her room, Leila sat straight-backed on her bed, dazed. She opened her bedside bible to the Book of Ruth, chapter four, verse thirteen. Leila read, "So Boaz took Ruth and she was his wife."
She felt herself a survivor from a terrible, distant storm now hearing news of the homeland. Had she missed her moment? Had she lost her one love forever? Her delay, through circumstance, pride and fear of ridicule, may have cost her the race. Who could say? Had too much time elapsed? Leila didn't know.
She sat at her writing table, filled her mother of pearl pen in the black india ink and began to write. Pausing for inspiration, she turned through the Psalms of David that Ivar liked to read and a verse caught her eye. 'If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uppermost parts of the sea'. Yes! Leila remembered her vision and understood. She wrote, using the ancient words of the shepherd-king to speak for her. She now possessed her visions, knowledge of the shape of her soul.
At the kitchen table he made, Ivar lit the kerosene lamp. He took his paper and pencil and began to write. Blue, the border collie, slept near the fire snapping in the wood stove. A raw wet snow beat against the window. Ivar wrote passionately, read what he wrote, then tore up the letter. He turned to the Psalms. He wrote.
"Well, Blue, we'll just have to wait and see," Ivar spoke out loud as people living alone do. He walked over to the stove, opened the hot iron door, threw in a couple more chunks of firewood and stared a long time into the flames.
A week later, a letter arrived from Whitehall, Michigan for "Miss Leila McGoorty". Leila put the envelop in her pinafore pocket and ran upstairs to her room. Sitting by her hearth, she opened the cheap yellow envelop. There was a note from Ivar.In pencil. It read, "Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me". The next line of the psalm! The note enclosed a one-way coach ticket on the train to Muskegan, Michigan.
Leila sat for a long time staring at the fire, the letter held loosely in her left hand. Slowly she rose and began packing a small trunk. She sat down at her desk and wrote a short note to the family. The she put on her winter coat and hat, picked up her bags and went quietly down the front stairs. The house was quiet. Soon the clan would gather for supper. Maybe they would miss her. She took a last look at her home which was not her home and went out the door.
©2000 by Maura McGoorty