Diana Edwards is a writer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. This creative non-fiction piece is a portrait of her grandmother.
Nellie balanced herself with two canes and snailed along the corridor as morning poured through the windows of the worn farmhouse. The sunlit runner warmed her bare feet as she shuffled forward. Her once svelte frame had thickened round the middle, and like a flower nipped by frost, her head tipped slightly forward and her limbs were stiff and angular. Her still keen eyes scanned the old familiar runner that covered the hardwoods in the upstairs hall; she had hooked the floral pattern and the runner held strong after all these years. Deep violets and varying shades of peony wool were still full-bodied and the nap solid. Soft gray hair fell below now-hunched shoulders, caressed the stretch of worn, floor-length lawn, and was corralled by a soft pink ribbon. Fresh undergarments flopped from her wrist and jerked with each step of the cane, and three hairpins were pinched between her lips. Wood smoke wafting up from the kitchen said that her husband Whitty had stoked the stove and set the kettle on to boil.
The house shuttered softly when the door slammed and the old man left the kitchen, and Nellie heard the crunch of gravel as he crossed the drive toward the barn and chores. She smiled and turned into the bathroom. Beyond the claw foot tub and the flutter of organdy, she could see acres of new-mown hay waiting for teddering and bailing.
Just inside the door she hooked one cane on the brass rack that held the toilet paper, and supporting herself with the broad lip of the marble sink-surround, she shuffled a few steps across the cool linoleum and hooked the other cane on the right-hand side of the sink before setting her under garments on a chair that was still within reach. She released the hairpins to a silver dish on the edge of the sink.
Soaking a cloth with warm water she took little notice of the lines of life and laughter reflected in the oak-framed mirror, and with eyes closed against the warm cloth, she counted her blessings. Warm water – fresh out of the tap – was always right up there with all that she treasured. Whitty, of course, was always at the top of her list! Again, she dipped and squeezed the cloth. Turning gingerly, she hitched up her nightgown before settling onto the solid wooden chair to the right of the sink.
Nellie draped her nightgown over the edge of the tub and pulled her slip on over her head and down to her hips. Then, one leg at a time, she eased her box-like panties over the stiffened ankles and knees, and supporting herself with the edge of the sink, she stood and pulled them to her waist.
“There, that’s that.” She spoke softly to no one and looked out over the meadow as she settled back on the chair.
It hadn’t always been this difficult – this business of getting dressed. There was nothing to it in the early years – before age and arthritis.
Newly-wedded energy had transformed chores to fun during the early years on the farm. There’d been a pump near the wood shed – a bowl and pitcher, and a copper tub for a full washing. A porcelain slop-jar sat in the corner. The floor was wooden then – Whitty hadn’t yet laid the linoleum.
Again, the house shuttered softly – interrupting her thoughts.
She wrapped the pink hair ribbon around the faucet on the tub so it wouldn’t slip away as she brushed the tangles from her hair. With one proficient twist and twirl Nellie pinned the silken tresses to the nape of her neck. Straining against age she stood to hang her nightgown in the narrow closet that was tucked in the corner. Then, standing behind the chair, she waited and remembered.
For seven seasons Whitty did the work of two and saved enough money to buy their farm. With deed in hand and on bended knee, he’d asked Nellie to be his bride. She and Albert – her Whitty – arrived in the spring of 1899 to begin married life on the hilltop of the small Massachusetts town.
She remembered now when they ran the indoor plumbing for the bathroom and Whitty had scared her half to death the first morning after the pipes were run. With the lid-iron from the wood stove, Whitty had tapped out “I Love You” in Morse code on the hot-water pipe leading from the kitchen stove to the bathroom. She thought the pipes were breaking apart! For years he’d doubled-up laughing about it, and she’d reminded him that it wasn’t she who’d worked as a telegrapher, and would have had no way of “deciphering anything from that racket!”
Decades later Nellie stood near the pipe that snaked up the wall to connect to the tub. It was silent, but she waited in the corner, hairbrush in hand, for she’d learned to respond with the same sweet song.
Clank! The first note came from the old man in the kitchen.
Again, Clank! Clank! The lines on Nellie’s gentle face beamed upward and she nodded in tune to the poetry of some sixty years. Her blue eyes sparkled!
Clank! Her heart kept time!
Whitty had sent this message nearly every morning since the plumbing went in, and Nellie had been responding in kind for just about as long.
She knew nothing about Morse code, but she was sure she knew enough about music to translate Whitty’s dots and dashes into notes. A few days after that first hair-raising message was sent, Nellie stood ready, pencil poised for the transcription. The next morning she compared his message against the notes she’d made. She knew she had it right! And wasn’t Whitty startled when she tapped out a response! He’d run up the stairs and taken her in his arms, laughing all the while!
And then Nellie heard a clatter in the distance. For a moment she didn’t move. Then – in a split second –she dropped her hairbrush, reached for the chair with one hand and unhooked the cane from the sink with the other. Floundering past the toilet she reached her other cane, and headed – stiff joints straining -toward the stairs. A solid banister met Nellie’s iron-clad grip.
“Oh Dear God!” she prayed aloud, “Help me!”
“Whitty! I’m coming! I’m coming!” she hollered down the stairwell.
With one cane hooked over the arm that gripped the rail, and using the other cane for balance, she began her descent.
“I’m half-way down!” she shouted.
“Whitty! I’m off the stairs!”
Nellie turned the corner towards the kitchen, calling for her husband as she went. She kept her eyes on the floor as she negotiated the route, but nearing the kitchen she paused to look up. Only then did she see the coffee spilling slowly from the cup on the floor and Whitty’s arm. At the threshold, she let fall one cane, and clinging to door and knob, lowered herself to the floor and struggled towards her beloved.
With silver hair breaking free of its pins, and draped in her silk-soft slip, she wailed, “Oh, Whitty, don’t leave without saying good-by!”©