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Susan Reeves Whalen


Old Songs
Dignity and Death

                Looking deeply into the fire, she said softly, “I won’t say it again. My heart, my life is in this farmhouse.”
                The veins on her hands stood out like limbs on a tree, the joints bent and swollen. Gnarled, yes they would call them gnarled. A tiny figure, she dressed as her mother had. They were farm people. Laced black shoes with a square, block heal. A cotton dress, hose, and her hair streaked with grey, tied in a knot. The dresses always bore a flower design, faded and vaguely suggested a housecoat.
                She married a lumberjack at age seventeen and lived a predictable life: two girls, a boy, and the very same house for sixty plus years. Weathered, with lace curtains, her carefully tended wild flowers sold in bunches at the farmer’s market. In the spring, her Hampshires dotted the Berkshire farmland. Folks said she never lost her lambs at birth.
                If she loved her lumberjack, no one will ever know. If the geraniums in her winter window warmed her heart, who would know? A simple gold band was the only jewelry she wore. Or was it the sum of any she did not have?
                Her time seemed spent. Often alone in the old house, she fell, left lights on, and sat down for the six o’clock news at seven o’clock. On the coldest days, she bundled up and fed the birds. She baked brownies for the mailman and washed her clothes by hand. The pattern of a sunset watched alone.
                A boy up the road shoveled for four quarters and the trash man, in twenty years, never sent a bill. Neatly on the garbage can, an envelope was taped the second Tuesday of every month. The rate always remained the same.
                “I will not leave this place,” she said staring into her son’s dark set eyes. Having driven eight hours to transition his mother, he shuddered to think he might cry.
                “I will not go. I birthed my children, cut my husband’s hair, and baked him raspberry pie here. Berries I picked myself up and over the ridge. He died right upstairs in the front room. His ashes are there on the bureau. Someday, your sister will blend them, and I’ll be gone along with him.”
                Rising to stoke the fire, softly she said, “I will not say it again.”
                Crows cried on the old back porch and a long abandoned clothesline swung in the wind. The driveway was full of ruts where the earth thawed, only to rise up and freeze again. Tire tracks frozen into big mounds of dirt in an otherwise breathing spring.
                “I’ll be here,” she said, “until I am called. I’ll be ready, and I’ll turn out the lights before I go.”
                                                                                                                Susan Whalen