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February 19, 2024

Postcards from the Past 1: St. Valentine's Day

By Sand Pilarski

"Deborah, please put on a clean apron over your skirt. You have a stain on the front of it. I told you not to fry bacon without an apron this morning; now you have to wear one to cover up your dirt."

"Cover up?" Deborah asked, foregoing the potential quarrel with her aunt about whether or not stains produced from cooking constituted 'dirt.' Her dirt, at that, considering that Deborah had been cooking bacon for everyone in the house. "Why do I need to cover up? Is someone coming?"

"Mr. Lew's sister's boy is supposed to be visiting today, bringing him some pullets from their farm. Mary told me he was coming; that's why we did the windows yesterday." Her aunt handed her the teapot, a saucer, and a cup. "Now take this to your mother and make sure her face and hands are clean."

"Do you mean Ollie or Charley? I don't think I've seen either of them since we were little! Wait, I remember, it was when Viola and I were in third grade -- Charley didn't have teeth in the front and when he tried to say 'Thursday' he spit all over -- "

"Oh, don't go on like that. He's grown up, just as you should be. Will you please take that tea to your mother before it gets cold!"

"Yes, Aunt Grace, I'm sorry." Deborah turned and left the kitchen. Off the dining room was a tiny bedroom she shared with her mother. She knocked on the door before opening it. Her mother was awake, looking at a book of pictures of zoo animals that Aunt Grace had bought her the Christmas before. "Mother, Aunt Grace made you some tea. Will you drink some?"

Her mother turned dull eyes to her, nodded, then began to cough. The book fell from her fingers and she fumbled weakly for a handkerchief on the quilt. Deborah put the tea on the wall table beside the door, and put the hankie in her mother's hands, helping her sit up. "There you go, Mom, let your lungs get clear." She supported her mother until the coughing had subsided, then eased her back onto the pillows. Moving the wall table close to the bed, Deborah poured a cup half full of hot tea and helped her mother sip it.

After her mother had drunk the tea, and whispered that she wanted to sleep, Deborah went to the dresser by the window and pulled a clean apron from the bottom drawer. She smoothed the fold-creases from it, and left the room, allowing the door to stay open a crack to let the heat from the kitchen flow in.

Aunt Grace was waiting for her with a broom. "Go on, get out there and sweep the porch. It's about time you let the breeze blow the stink off you. Take advantage of the break in the weather."

Deborah draped a shawl across her shoulders and carried the broom out the front door. After looking at the sky, she began to sweep the porch, starting at the south side, as the breeze was out of the south that day. She let her annoyance fuel the energy with which she plied the broom. If her aunt was trying to get her to catch one of the Watts' boys' eye, she was fishing for roses, as they say. All of the Wattses were known for being short, and she was not going to marry a short man who wouldn't even be able to carry her across the threshold, let alone kiss her on the lips without a step-ladder.

The weather was warm for February, except that this was the second week, and there was always a spate of blessedly warm -- or accursedly warm -- weather at this time of year. Aunt Grace called it the "St. Valentine's Day Flood" when the snow all melted and everyone's basements leaked water and great lakes of puddles made the streets into mush, the ground still being frozen and the melt not having any place to go. This year, at least, had been scant of snowfall, so the street was only muddy, not a quagmire, and the dust and mud from people's shoes swept cleanly from Aunt Grace's porch.

She paused in her sweeping, hearing a cart turning at the top of the street. She applied herself to the brooming with renewed energy, making the remaining dust fly off the northern end of the porch, where, peeking over her shoulder with narrowed eyes, she could spy the driver of the cart as he drove down the street.

As the driver and cart drew nearer, then turned the corner to get to the alley behind the yards, Deborah was no clearer about the identity of the man with the reins in his hands. He had a heavy moustache, and sandy-brown hair; he was neatly dressed, with a collar on his shirt and a coat on the seat of the wagon beside him.

The wagon was out of sight around the edge of the porch. Deborah ran and peeked around the side of the house to look at the driver again. He had his arm across the back of the wagon seat and was turned, looking back at -- her! His lips lifted in a smile and she saw a flash of white teeth. Deborah gasped and flattened her back against the front of the house.

She bolted and ran inside the house.

As she passed through the kitchen on her way to put the broom away in the pantry, her aunt asked her, "Did you see him?"

"Who?" Deborah asked, trying for calm and only accomplishing shrill. "Someone pulled into the alley, but I don't know who it was."

Her aunt wiped her hands on a kitchen cloth, and stepped out onto the back porch. She waved at the driver of the cart, who was putting a halter on the horse and tying him to the post in front of the shed. "Hello, Charley, good to see you again!" she bellowed.

That's Charley? Deborah thought, trying to see him past her aunt's broad frame.

He'd been a toothless little joke the last time she'd seen him. But he was a man already! Well, she had become a woman since the summer he and his brother Ollie stayed with their aunt and uncle, hadn't she?

Charley put the coops he'd carried in the wagon into the chicken run by the shed. He waved, then went into Mr. Lew's house by the back door.

"Why's he coming instead of Ollie?" Deborah asked of her aunt.

"Ollie went off to marry some girl in Northumberland County. Her dad has a mine and needs a young man to take it over when he's done."

"Oh, that's interesting," Deborah said, thinking rapidly. That means that Charley is going to inherit his father's farm.

To be said for Deborah, there were a number of thoughts that blew through her head so rapidly that she could not be blamed for harboring them:

Charley is the heir to the Watts farm in Academia.
He can grow hair.
He's not bad-looking.
He can afford to give his Uncle Lew chickens.
He's not related to me.

She saw no more of him that evening, but put her disappointment aside while she helped her aunt with the chores and cooking, and assisted her mother, who was barely able to use the chamber pot before being tucked back into bed, her breath shallow, her lips pale.

In the morning, Deborah awoke from her trundle cot and automatically listened to hear her mother's breath. It was there, slow and shallow, but it was there.

What would become of her when her mother died? Would Aunt Grace continue to allow Deborah to live in their home? Deborah knew that her mother had only a short time to live; everyone knew that. Deborah also knew that Aunt Grace's daughter Jersey was the next mistress of the house, as Aunt Grace had never had any boy children survive past the age of two. She let the thoughts go; she had to rise, put on a dressing gown, and light the fire in the kitchen stove.

The pot on the back of the stove was still warm from last night's fire, so she dipped a couple tepid cups into her basin and returned to the bedroom to wash. Her white blouse was still clean, but she pulled on her dark blue skirt over her undergarments.

After breakfast (cooked with the apron in place as it had not been the morning before) Deborah went out the front door to look at the clouds moving in the sky, and decided that the stepstones leading from the porch to the street needed sweeping. She was attending half-heartedly to that task when she heard someone exit Mr. Lew's house next door. She looked up to see the moustached Watts boy -- man -- approaching her.

"Miss Deborah, do you remember me?" He said, smiling.

"Charley, of course! Aunt Grace said you would be in town!"

"Do you know what today is?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied, her heart fluttering a little.

He nodded. "It's Thursday," he said, spitting all over himself not at all, "the 14th of February. Valentine's Day."

Deborah began to laugh. "Charley, we were so mean to you. I'm sorry."

"There's no flowers to be had in town," Charley said, smiling behind his moustache. "So I just had to buy you a card."

The postcard had two sumptuous roses on the front of it, and on the address side, said simply, "Your old friend, Charley."

Deborah stepped down from the porch to accept the card and found that Charley was not so very short; his eyes were exactly on a level with hers.

"Thank you, Charley. Won't you come in and say hello to everyone?"

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-02-11
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