#10 in the I-Alice series.
I-Alice’s YesterYears – 10
The pump organ in the small country church squealed off-key. In unison fourteen neighbours stood and sang the traditional funeral hymn. The young preacher looked from left to right. His face revealed a bewildered expression, perhaps because of the unusually small attendance. Once again he looked down at the man in the coffin.
A strange, uneasy feeling enveloped me as I, too, looked at Red Tom. He appeared so peaceful now that someone had cut his wild mop of red hair. Without all that facial hair, his freckled face looked different, even handsome, something that had remained hidden all these years. Now, where did the old fellow get that well-tailored black suit, I mused to myself. Had he kept it in a box somewhere in his one-room shack and saved it for a special occasion?
He had lived his lifetime in seclusion. Therefore in the three years I lived in the area, I had rarely heard of him. I came to the funeral out of respect and my husband’s request to accompany him to the elderly neighbour’s funeral. I had only seen the man once before. It was a frightful experience.
The pump organ came to an abrupt stop. In a wavering deep-throated voice the young preacher cried out, “Dearly Beloved.” Goose bumps ran up my arms and neck. He continued, “We have gathered here today to say farewell to a beloved friend, neighbour, a loved one who has lived amongst us.”
As far back as I could remember, no one really was a “beloved” to Red Tom. No one really seemed to know him. To the right of us a young bride wiped a tear from her cheek. No relative, just someone new to this isolated area and overcome with emotion being homesick for her family who lived far away.
The preacher’s voice droned on and on. His message was boring and so unlike the deceased man, therefore my memories of Red Tom began to crowd out the compassionate voice. Again my gaze floated out the low window, across the road, and to the grain field that was now ready to be harvested. The soft wind rippled through the tall golden grain. Slowly everything faded as my mind wandered into the past and my first encounter with Red Tom.
He had staggered unexpectedly into our farmyard, a bearded, red-headed stranger. I caught a glimpse of him as he was climbing over the fence. Quickly I pinned the last of the snow white diapers onto the wash-line, grabbed my wicker laundry basket and ran up the four creaky wood planks to the kitchen door. My heart pounding with fear; I paused and looked back to take a closer look at the approaching stranger. Edwin had taken a load of rye to Schuler, which left me alone on the farm with our two small girls.
Shaking badly, I pulled on the hook of the screen door so I could get it into the eye, the only security between me and the staggering intruder. My baby sat on the worn linoleum kitchen floor. I swooped Brenda into my arms and held her close to my wildly beating heart. My voice came out high-pitched as I called her three-year-old sister to come to me.
Bang! Bang, rattle, rattle! His pounding on our door was met with silence. “Go away,” I whispered. “Leave us alone!” I mustered enough courage to step into the small entrance to peep out of one of the four-paned glass windows. I saw the tousled, dirty, and unshaven red-headed stranger lying on the porch I had scrubbed moments earlier with my laundry water. All became quiet.
Suddenly a loud impatient bang once again assaulted our flimsy screen door. I jumped in fear, frightening my baby as she sucked on her bottle. Brenda let loose a robust scream. Cursing with impatience, the man clobbered the door repeatedly. My girls clung to me for security. I in turn could only offer them my loving arms. Why did he come to our farm?
I was relieved to know he was still on the other side of the screen door. All was quiet again. The spring-wound kitchen clock ticked in rhythm with my quaking heart. Maybe he got the message that he was not welcome.
Screech! Without a warning he yanked on the screen door latch and ripped the hook and eye completely out of the dried-out wood. The unwelcome stranger lurched into my small farm kitchen. With him entered the pungent smell of beer and body odour. Bending over, he backed up and plunked himself down on my clean blue chrome chair.
“Get out!” I shrieked, but he paid no attention to my request.
Brenda whimpered and hid her face beneath my long wavy red hair. Mildred was fearless. She rushed to her bedroom and came back clinging to her small Testament and Sunday School lesson. Bravely she stood before “Old Red”.
“I go to Sunday School,” she said very defiantly.
The stranger grunted, “Yeah, yah do what?”
“Do you want to hear the verse I memorized?”
“Yeah.” he belched rudely.
Just then I heard something and looked out the kitchen window. My heart unashamedly leaped with joy and relief to see a roll of dust. It was our three-ton truck. The brakes squealed as it came to a stop at our doorstep. Dust curled over the vehicle and from it stepped my caring husband.
I glanced at the stranger who appeared bored by my small daughter’s chatter. Eyes closed, he was slumped in the chair and holding his head between his worn hands, looking as if he hoped this kid would leave him alone with his self-inflicted misery.
Edwin walked in. He looked surprised as it was rare that visitors would come during the week. There was no horse tethered to the post, nor a vehicle in the drive. The stranger looked up and slowly rose to his unsteady feet. He lifted his arms and grabbed my husband by the shoulders and gave him a loving, gentle shake.
“Kid,” he said as tears filled his eyes. “I haven’t seen or heard of you since you enlisted in the infantry. You made it safely back, didn’t yah,” he said in a slurred voice. “Man, you’ve been busy. Two kids and a wife. She sure isn’t a very sociable woman. Be darned if she’d let me come in.” A loud belch again escaped from the inebriated intruder.
Edwin turned from his friend and gave me a wink, which assured me that everything was alright. This explained that he understood my hesitation and his old friend’s unrealistic remark. The laughter and happy camaraderie between the two soon put me at ease as I placed the dishes on the table for an early supper with Edwin’s lost friend. After supper Edwin offered to drive him home, even though Tom only lived a mile from our farm. The WWI veteran and newly discharged WWII veteran had so much to share.
The moment the men had left the farmyard, Mildred looked up at me with a deep concerned look on her childish face. “Mama,” she inquired. “Was that the devil we learn about in church?”
Organ music swelled, bringing me back to the present. I felt my young husband’s fingers clasp over my own idle hand and give it a loving squeeze. An intimate surge of happiness and strength ran up my arm. I moved a little closer to him, wondering if he had noticed that my thoughts were far away recalling another time.
I heard the minister speak of the love of God and his mercy and praised the deceased man’s love for his fellow man and country. I shuddered as I looked at the other mourners, wondering if I, too, must die so that I will be lovingly remembered.
The elderly man was taken from the church for his last ride to be buried in a lonely country cemetery. Sadly, no one seemed to mourn his passing; everyone there had attended out of duty. No one had been close enough to Old Red to know anything about his private life, so any secrets he may have locked in his heart were buried with him.
A month after the funeral, one of my milk cows took off for the hills in search of a mate. I searched hills and valley, stumbled over rose bushes and rock piles, but I couldn’t find her. Unknowingly, I had wandered onto Red’s land and stumbled upon a small hollow on the wide open prairie. It was so well hidden that I would have missed it if I hadn’t seen the sun glint of something as shiny as a mirror in the weed-choked rose bushes.
Curiously I investigated. Amongst the empty cans and bottles lay a rusty old stove. The oven door was framed with smooth-mirrored chrome. Something urged me to pull on the oven door handle. The door opened with a loud squeak and from the dark rusty oven spilled letters, cards and pictures addressed to Red Tom. They were handwritten with a dip pen and a cancelled stamp was on the top right hand corner. WWI souvenirs were there, wrinkled and unrecognizable. The pictures were of a handsome happy young soldier and a lovely smiling young Swedish girl, their arms entwined. Their written promises and dreams were never realized and now they lay scattered against my knees.
Unashamed tears fell as I thumbed through several cards, pictures and letters. The writings were laced with intimate words, some written in Swedish. The endearments and hope surfaced instantly. I soon realized that the two lovers had the same hopes and dreams that Edwin and I had. I hung my head in shame as I recalled my harsh opinion of Red Tom.
His collie dog came slowly and hesitantly to where I knelt in the grass. His soft tongue licked the salty teardrops from the back of my hand. I reached out and stroked his head. “Come here to me,” I said and my words echoed in the stillness of the lonely prairie. “Are you the one that I have heard cry in the distant stillness of the night?” He gently laid his starved body close to my feet, whimpering a lonesome cry. He looked at me and pleaded for me to be merciful. Taking him was the least I could do for a neighbour and a soldier.
All alone, the dog and I sat in the stillness. Memories came back to haunt me, and the harsh opinion I harboured of this man. My voice cracked with emotion as I talked to the only living creature nearby in this forsaken countryside.
“Come home with me, Fido. I’ll take care of you.” Slowly I pushed all the treasures back into the old oven where Tom had safely hidden them. Guilt gnawed at my soul knowing that his secret love-life was now revealed to me.
The faithful animal followed closely as I slowly sauntered away from the private dump. But a warmth enveloped me, feeling the presence of the dog’s master and knowing I could give his best friend a home. We cared for this faithful animal for many years and he in turn gave us his affection. He guarded our home and our children.
The day came when old Fido didn’t greet us with a thump of his bushy tail. We found him on the prairie, heading back to his master’s home. Understanding Fido’s unspoken dying wish, we buried him beside the rusting stove that kept Tom’s secrets from view of passers-by.
There, amidst the wild rose bushes and weeds, memories of Red Tom floated back to me. I remembered his laughter, how pleased he was to see that Edwin had returned safely from the war. Somehow I felt Red Tom was now reunited with his one and only friend and companion in this forsaken countryside that only gave him a meagre living.
In that moment I realized that Red Tom had given me a precious gift. Compassion. Compassion for those less fortunate than myself. And eyes to see beyond the surface and into the soul of a lonely man. I felt so humble. In my heart I thanked Red Tom and God for that blessing.