The camera was still in her pocket.There would be no pictures today after all.Everything looked too desolate and lonely,too incredibly empty. Mom would rather remember it the way it was.
It was autumn and there were still apples on the trees. Ghosts of their former selves. She picked one and tasted it, but it didn’t taste the same. The trees had not been cared for in years.
She closed her eyes. What lovely orchards they once were with the Canadian workers laughing and joking with one another in their familiar patios.
Aunt Eloise would have been busy in the barn with the cider press and the heavenly smell of crushed apples. Eyes still closed, mom could see the trees in spring, garlanded with blossoms and stretching down the valley as far as the eye could see. Scents of May would come to her even on this cold November day. That wich was in the mind’s eye was far better than the reality that was before her now. How ironic it seemed now with the trees uprooted and the names of streets like Blossom Hill Road and Cider Press Lane.
There was no doubt it was prime land. Hopefully people would be as happy there as my mother was in her day. The homes would have a lovely view of the valley but would never see it as Aunt Eloise had. She would be the first to say, ”Share the wealth”. The farm and fields had always been open to picnickers and hikers as well as the “pick your own” section. The prime crop, though, was what was shipped and ‘Apples from Eloise’ was known everywhere.
I never knew Aunt Eloise. I do not remember her face. But mother told me she was not a handsome woman. She was my grandmother’s younger sister and dressed plainly as a busy woman would in those days. Neat as a pin with her auburn hair gathered in a severe bun. There was a charm that one could only see late at night from the glow of a soft lamp as she let the bun fall to her waist. Her inner beauty came from her smile, the sparkle from her eyes, her voice and laugh that would chase all demons away.
Mom was ten years old when she came to live at Burneley Farm in Massachusetts, not far from Worcester. It was thirteen years after World War I. Grandma and Grandpa had been killed in a train accident and it was to Aunt Eloise’ arms that my mother arrived.
If it weren’t for the summers spent there it might have been hard for this sad girl. Memories of her grandparents and her own parents and the love they shared at the farm helped her adjust.
Then, there was Aunt Maude
.Into everyone’s life rain must fall and Aunt Maude fell into hers. Eloise practiced restraint and patience with Maude. Whenever my mother was exasperated with Maude Aunt Eloise would say that such people should be pitied because they were unhappy, but it was beyond the comprehension of a little girl.
Now Maude was a handsome woman. She wore the latest fashions and drove the newest of Model-T's. Her critisizing started the minute her shoes hit the threshold; well heeled shoes they were. She prided herself in her home, her social position at the Ladie's Auxilliary and her two children always "away" at school. My mother never liked her cousins. That was all she would ever say about them.
Of course,Maude gladly accepted her share of the profits and always showed up after the harvest. Within a day Maude was pulling the register handle and accounting every penny. Eloise would sigh at tax time, Maude was never to be found then.
"You never think of your future,do you Eloise?Always the apples!"
Aunt Eloise always stood firm and would just let Maude go on. But, to my mother, the thought of nothing but apples was illogical. After all, where would Maude's share come from?
"You never go to town, a man will never settle out here. Just look at you! Dressed like a farm hand!"
My mother would look up and see Aunt Eloise shadowed by the fireplace glow. Hair let down but still tied. A stong woman from outdoor work. Besides there were always men at the farm.
Mother would conjure up the image of Maude's husband, Warren, who died from alcoholism and if that was what "going into town" resulted in then Eloise was better off on the farm. Years later she learned that Maude was as unloved as a wife could be and that Warren kept a mistress in another town. That was why she was to be pitied.
Aunt Maude would always say that my mother was a good girl.
"Ill give you that, Joanie, you are a good and obedient girl." She would say in a tone as if there was nothing else she could be.The day soon came though when Maude tried to persuade Eloise to send my mother to school. The thought left her numb with terror.
"You must do something about the girl!" She demanded.
Eloise realized that one uprooting was enough and at the farm my mother would stay."When you are ready for college you can leave."She told her."Always know you have a home here at the farm." Those words comforted my mother and nothing more was said of that.
The farm was the example of happiness. Every spring the workers returned and with them came Mr. Shipley. My mother would talk about how she remembered the first time he appeared at the door. He was a hobo, not a bum. He would laughingly say he was "An entrepreneur of the road." There were many like him during the depression and as long as there was work on the farm to be done there was always a hot meal for all who came.
Mr..Shipley was different than the other workers. He could speak French and Eloise needed an overseer. In addition he knew apples, wich was no small thing in those days; pruning, spraying, grafting, orders, etc,etc. Besides he was a mechanic during the war and could fix all the equipment.
Like Aunt Eloise, he also was not a handsome man but rather chiseled and rugged from life and what it handed him. Tall,sunburnt and broad shouldered. His crinkled brow and knarled hands were an obvious feature but it was his humor that would make Eloise come to life. There was a gentleness about him that one would miss from his stature.
Evenings were spent on the screened porch with Mr.Shipley and his guitar. The duets that he and Eloise would sing were a balm to my mother's soul. My grandparents would play piano and sing and it was comforting to her. The farm hands would gather on the lawn and light their pipes. The hired girl, Hannah,would meet her beau.
More often than not the men would borrow a truck and go into town, but they all knew although Aunt Eloise didn't object to bootleg beer, where it could be found, she would not tolerate drunkenness. They had come from a "wet" country to a "dry" one and their steady return each year should be rewarded.
Of course Aunt Maude drove up during one of their splendid evenings. Like cold water on a campfire the warmth of their festivities evaporated.
They were drinking lemonade and eating Hannah's delicious ginger cookies and Maude's eyes were full of eager curiousity as to who this Mr.Shipley was. He had excused himself and retired to his loft in the barn.
"A hired hand, a common hired hand!" Aunt Maude was stiff with her shocked sense of propriety. Hannah was also insulted. "And entertaining him for all to see!"
"No Maude, he was entertaining us." Eloise smiled.
"Do you have no shame? What will people think?"
Eloise was angry now. Something that was seldom seen.
"People will say nothing unless you spread your gossip all over town. He is not a suitor. He is a good man, a hard working man whose talents I need and I will not hear anymore of it."
Maude was not to be silenced.
"He is out to worm his way in here! I've seen his type before, he knows a good thing when he sees it. You be carefull or you'll lose everything! What did the agency tell you about him?"
Eloise hesitated far to long.
"You hired him off the road didn't you?" This was fuel to Maude's fire but Eloise had had enough.
"Now you listen to me Maude! I have looked after this farm my whole life and I am guite able to decide who is worthy to work here. Besides, its not like you have lost anything from my decisions!"
"Not until now, I haven't! We'll see about this. Think about that child, you are not setting a good example for her!"As if Aunt Maude had ever given a thought to my mother other than sending her away to school; this was quite amusing.
Now, to give Maude her due; she never spoke of this to anyone. Hannah did; and before you judge Hannah let it be pointed out that the gossip that followed was directed at Maude. Apples from Eloise was a cornerstone of the town and everyone knew the love and compassion that grew there just as the apples did. If anyone was to blame it was Maude for her being judgmental. In a contest where public opinion was concerned, Aunt Eloise won hands down.
However, some of the magic was gone. Mr. Shipley no longer came to the porch in the evenings. Eloise was quiet and sad. My mother missed the warmth that eminated from the two; whether it was close friendship or a blossoming romance it was beyond her at that age. Whatever Mr. Shipley and Eloise shared she was part of it as if she was the child they would never have. If it was play acting between them she would let the stage be set.
Then, one day, Eloise took the bull by the horns. Mother was in the shed folding corrugated boxes for shipping. Looking out the streaked window she saw her aunt walk towards the barn where Mr. Shipley was repairing the tractor. Mother stood at the door and could see Eloise walk with steadfastness, her face flushed yet determined.
"Mr. Shipley? I request the honor of your presence on the porch this evening. We have--missed you.A-a-and your music."
"Do you think it is wise, Eloise?" He replied. Mother was stunned at his use of her name. Eloise straightened herself.
"Is it wise to deny oneself friendship at the spite of an unhappy woman? Where is it written that the Maudes of our world shall govern our actions?"
Mr.Shipley laughed softly and looked downward. Removing his hat and wiping his brow he answered.
"Why Miss. Eloise Burneley I would be delighted to accept your gracious invitation and shall attend this evening's soiree."
Aunt Eloise noddd and excused herself with proper décor. My mother had listened in without shame. Her cup was running over and her knight in shining armor was to return.
As it was,the gods were good. Maude was going on a trip to Europe for several weeks. Still, she had to show up one more time to prophesy doom and ruin.
"I could never make you see the light, Ellie!" She started."You wouldn't sell the farm when Papa died. We both could have moved into town and set up a proper business fit for a woman. But no! You had to stay here with the damned apples with no other interests. Now you have fallen prey to the first man who looks at you!"
Eloise was forbearing this time. "In the first place he has not 'looked' at me." A slight womanly smile appeared on her face. "Besides,if he does,I shall look back."
"Well, God knows I have tried my best to steer you straight and do my duty as the older sister. But you choose not to listen!"
From what I have been told, Maude truly believed this. That her duty was to be the suffering wife, mother and sister and to clutch this to her bosom with relish. Had she been born at a later, modern time she would have divorced Warren and sent him penniless to his paramour. Her energy was boundless, but only for mischief and meddling.
Eloise and my mother often regarded Warren's girlfriend like a poor unfortunate caught up in the middle of a trap. Neither she, Warren, or Maude could ever spring from their situation no matter how hard they tried. Mother had told me she saw her only once many years later. She was a dim figure behind a tree at Warren's burial. Her face was lined with tears.
Maude was stiff as a ramrod, no emotion whatsoever, only bitterness on her face. I was told that; not to grieve was worse than actual grieving. To be sorrowfull meant that you had once been happy and it is that loss wich you mourn. It was apparent to my mother that Warren's little lady had the larger share of the loaf.
But, for now, the summer was at it's zenith. Maude was blessedly off to Europe. There was plenty of hard work to do and well earned pleasures. Picknics were spent at the river on the lower end of the valley. Mother, Hannah, her love and the workers all swam there on the hottest days. Mr.Shipley had built a dock and set up a rope swing. The canoes that were my Great Granfather's had been unearthed from the barn. The workers sanded and painted them.
The water was clear and sparkling then, the vegetation full and rich. No one canoes there anymore. Strange colors appear in the water now and is full of mud and sedge grass. Instead of the bubbling river that once was there is a sluggishness as it winds away to it's destination.
No one could have forseen this during those lovely days. The fall came and with it the last shipment of apples. Mr.Shipley packed his rucksack. Eloise remained quiet and did not ask if he was to return.
Aunt Maude returned from Europe and gloated.
"Well I could have told you this would happen and now you have made a fool of yourself. Now,there is someone I want you to meet."
That 'someone' was Floyd Ackerman. He wasn't a bad sort but Eloise never hesitated for a moment and quickly refused his proposal. The only good thing that came of that was Maude washing her hands of Eloise, and us, for good.
Refusing Mr.Ackerman's proposal was considered foolhardy by many in town. Afterall Eloise was thirty-three and at that time was considered a spinster. As her sister was quick to remind her she was plain and could not hope for better.
Christmas came and with it the roses from family down south. Those roses filled the house and sustained Eloise all winter long. All of them had quietly hoped that the spring would bring the happiness they remembered.
When the first crocuses appeared in the snow Eloise cleared it away so they could catch the sun. Her eyes drifted to the orchard to see if any buds had formed and the promised blossoms to come. The workers returned, but not Mr. Shipley. Eloise faltered and lost her hopefull look yet roused herself to the task at hand of getting the farm ready.
My mother was the first to see him. That familiar figure on the road greeting the workers as he passed by the trees. She shouted towards the house to Eloise who rushed to the door. Her face lit up and she shamelessly raced down the path. All the workers stopped at their tasks.
Eloise stopped just short of him. Mr. Shipley freed himself from his burden and opened his arms to her. She was soon folded into them and everyone looked on entranced at what they saw.
"I have been such a fool."He said."Leaving with no word. Please tell me you are still mine. God, I could have lost you."
Not a chance, thought my mother, not a chance.
It was a simple story of a simple life. In this farewell my mother now turned and walked the crest of the hill to look down the valley. She could still see the remains of Mr.Freedman's peach farm that abutted the orchard. What lovely peaches they were and the jam he made. Nothing since could match it.
But the orchards were now gone. The house was gone. A new Interstate glistened in the distance and the drone of trucks and cars filled the valley. A computer plant occupied the property of Mr.Freedman's orchard. It wasn't a completely unlovely sight. Well landscaped and modern bearing nothing of Blake's 'dark satanic mills'. Somehow, though,it all seemed wrong and there was nothing my mother could do about it.
The orchard had not been worked for years and would have taken thousands of dollars to rebuild. The land was now leased to a farmer who grazed his cows there. He too was to sell the following year. But Eloise had left her share of the orchard to my mother and, strangely enough, so did Maude.
"I am leaving my share to you Joanie." Maude said from her bed."You are the only one who comes to visit me now."
Later I was told that mother felt guilty about this because it was not love that made her visit Maude in the nursing home. When Eloise died she told my mother to be kind to Maude. Both sisters had asked for their beds to be moved to the window that looked out at the May blossoms.
"What a nice memory to take with me." Eloise spoke."I shall tell Bill." She quietly stopped breathing, cradled in my mother's arms.
The November wind was blowing now and my mother was reminded that she too was no longer young. The cold in her heart was worse though. Eloise would not approve of her pessimism. She would have said to remember how lucky they were. That they had each other, the farm and those wonderfull memories. She would have said this despite all the ups and downs with running a farm what with the apples, labor shortages, the war and finally losing her beloved Bill.
The money gained from the sale of the farm would be in trust to us. We were always reminded of the love that grew there alongside the apples and that was the legacy I have bestowed on my children.
My mother climbed into the car, thankful of it's modern heat. As she turned toward the empty lot that once was the house she saw them all. Eloise, Bill, Hannah, her beau and all the workers standing and waving from the porch as they did that day when she went off to college. If there was a time train where one could get off at any point and remain for eternity she knew where she would get off.
It was there amongst the May blossoms, on the hill. Selling Apples from Eloise.